What is the importance of Boby the butler, both symbolically and as a plot device, in "The Visit" by Friedrich Durrenmatt?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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If, as the English playwright William Congreve wrote, “nothing is more ferocious than a woman who has been rejected in love . . . Hell hath no fury,” then the town of Gullen in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1956 play “The Visit” has certainly produced a classic example of Congreve’s adage.  Claire Zachanassian, having been forced to bring a paternity suit against the lover of her youth, Alfred Ill, and seeing her suit dismissed on account of fraudulent testimony by two individuals she has dubbed Koby and Loby, and having endured the death of her child, is on a mission of vengeance.  Claire’s mission becomes apparent in Act 1 of Durrenmatt’s play when she offers the town, the name of which translates as “feces,” a bribe to exact her vengeance on the now-respected town elder, Alfred.  Claire offers the town one million dollars, half for the town and half to be divided among the town’s remaining residents, if Alfred Ill is killed on her behalf.  That this returning one-time goddess – Alfred earlier described her as "red hair streaming out, slim and supple as a willow, and tender, ah, what a devilish beautiful little witch—has reappeared to the town after a long absence looking much worse for wear is testament to the trials she has endured. 

Boby the butler, as is pointed out in “The Visit,” is actually the former Lord Chief Justice of Guellen and member of the Kaffigen Court of Appeals.  Boby was the jurist who oversaw Claire’s paternity suit against Alfred Ill, and decided against her in the case.   After ascending the heights of the justice system, he was assured by Claire of a lifetime of wealth in exchange for becoming her manservant.  Boby’s significance to Durrenmatt’s play, then, lies in what he represents.  Claire’s offer of one million dollars for the murder of Alfred Ill may be her most blatant example yet of her ability and willingness to morally and legally corrupt all those around her, but it is Boby who best personifies Durrenmatt’s theme of corruptibility.  By bribing the very embodiment of impartial justice, Claire has corrupted society.  Early in the play, the town’s mayor proudly and defiantly announces that “justice can’t be bought.”  The mere presence of Boby, however, whose true identity does not become apparent for some time, is testament to the fallacy and naiveté of the mayor’s pronouncement.  Claire does succeed in buying “justice,” and Alfred Ill is set upon by the town’s people in the final act.  Boby’s significance as a symbol and as a plot device lies in his representation of the corruptibility of humans.  The town’s schoolmaster, who detects Boby’s real identity, proclaims himself a “humanist,” but his becomes a lonely existence when Claire succeeds in corrupting the entire town.

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