A State for Women: Sexual Politics and Radical Liberation in Kleist's Penthesilea

Summer 2019

Iris Morrell : Comparative Literature

Donor: Anselm A&H Fund
Mentor: Niklaus Largier

My research project will combine literary and historical analysis with feminist theory in order to engage with Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea (1804.) One of his lesser-known works, Penthesilea retells the classical story of the queen of the Amazons in her battle with Achilles during the Trojan War. Simultaneously depicting grotesque sexuality and gendered battle between nation states, Penthesilea reveals the complicated understanding of women’s power and liberation held by German writers in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution. In my research, I intend to ask the following questions: What would define a state run by women? How does lust configure relationships between the sexes? What does the symbolism of classical mythology tell us about our societal constructions of gendered power? Uniting a close reading of Penthesilea with a robust theoretical understanding of mythology and feminist critical theory, I intend to interpret Penthesilea in light of theories of sexual politics.

SURF was a transformative experience in my knowledge of my research field, and also my personal relationship to academia. I entered the summer unsure of my future plans, but I found the experience of self-directed research to be so engaging that I became very committed to my research. By choosing my own path in this project, I was able to encounter ideas and theorists, and explore interests of mine that would not have ever come up in a classroom setting. Having a dedicated time, and financial resources to allow this kind of exploration, feels like an essential experience that very few college students are privileged to receive. I'm very grateful to SURF and the Anselm Fund for funding this endeavor!