Death and the Maiden Analysis
by Ariel Dorfman

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Death and the Maiden Analysis

  • Ariel Dorfman models the setting of Death and the Maiden after Chile in the wake of Augusto Pinochet's reign. Paulina was abducted by Pinochet's regime, and her experiences reflect the brutality of authoritarianism. 
  • At the beginning of the play, Paulina is startled by the sound of a strange car in her driveway. Throughout the play, she becomes increasingly agitated, and it becomes clear that she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 
  • Instead of showing Paulina killing Miranda, the play ends with the lowering of a mirror so that the audience members can see themselves and reflect on what choice they would make. 

Analysis

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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On April 6, 1975, Paulina Salas, then a university student, was abducted by agents of her country’s right-wing government. For more than two months, she became one of Latin America’s many “disappeared”; she was interrogated, tortured, and raped in order to elicit from her the name of a leader of the leftist opposition: Gerardo Escobar, then her lover, later her husband. The play takes place fifteen years later, just hours after Gerardo has been appointed head of the new, democratically elected government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission is charged with investigating those human rights abuses by the previous government that resulted in the death, or the presumption of death, of the victim. After waiting fifteen years for justice, and after years spent nursing the physical and psychological wounds that have left her pathologically apprehensive and unable to enjoy sex or bear children, Paulina views Gerardo’s appointment as a vindication of the pain she endured but also a mockery of her suffering: The commission’s mandate demands that victims’ pain remain private and the wrongs they suffered unheard and unredressed.

The fear with which Paulina responds to the sound of an unfamiliar car pulling up to the couple’s isolated beach house at the beginning of the play establishes the fragile nature of both her emotional state and the newly elected government. The fragility of her marriage is established as Gerardo blames her for the indignity, vulnerability, and loneliness of being stranded on the way home after his meeting with the president. He holds Paulina responsible not because of his punctured tire but because she had failed to have the spare repaired and had loaned their jack to her mother. Fortunately, a good Samaritan, the medical doctor Roberto Miranda, stopped and drove him home. The marital tension increases as Paulina in turn accuses him of lying to her, pretending to “need” her approval, her “yes,” before accepting the commission appointment that he has already accepted.

Late that night, Gerardo and Paulina are awakened by a knock at their door—just the kind of knock they feared during the earlier regime’s reign of terror, and continue to fear. However, the visitor is Miranda, who, having heard on the radio of Gerardo’s appointment, has come to return Gerardo’s flat tire and, in this “small way,” facilitate Gerardo’s important work. The two men talk rather freely about that work and engage in a bit of sexist banter before Gerardo invites Roberto to stay the night. However, the sound of Roberto’s voice, a particular line of Nietzsche he quotes, the tape of Austrian composer Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet she finds in his car, and later, the smell of his body convince a distraught Paulina that he is the man who presided over her torture fifteen years before. She knocks the sleeping doctor unconscious, ties him up, and puts him on trial. Appalled by what his “unrecognizable,” pistol-wielding wife has done yet powerless either to stop her or to convince her of the harm she is doing to herself and their cause (as well as his career), Gerardo reluctantly accepts the role she assigns him, defending Miranda.

Because Paulina will free the doctor only if he confesses to having committed wrongs of which he claims...

(The entire section is 4,266 words.)