Death and the Maiden Analysis

  • Without ever directly saying so, playwright Ariel Dorfman makes it clear that Death and the Maiden is set either in Chile after the end of Augusto Pinochet's reign or in a country like Chile. The heroine, Paulina Escobar, was abducted by Pinochet's regime, making her one of the "desaparecidos" or "disappeared." She was released and allowed to live a safe, if not happy, life.
  • Death and the Maiden can be described as a psychological study of one woman's struggle with post-traumatic stress. At the beginning of the play, Paulina is startled by the sound of a strange car in her driveway, signaling her fragile emotional state. Throughout the play, she becomes increasingly agitated, and her husband even calls her crazy. Ultimately, however, her behavior is justified.
  • Dorfman employs a clever device at the end of the play: instead of showing Paulina killing Miranda, he ends the scene, lowering a mirror so that the audience members can see themselves and reflect on what they would do in Paulina's situation. 

Analysis

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The effectiveness of Death and the Maiden derives from Dorfman’s combining elements from a wide range of dramatic forms to create a wholly successful and typically (if unobtrusively) postmodern form of political theater. Critical of those who have extolled Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Marquez and others as consummate metafictionists and Magical Realists while downplaying, even eliding, South American political realities, Dorfman here (and elsewhere in his writing) uses postmodern techniques to political advantage in a play in which parodic recycling underscores rather than undermines the work’s dramatic intensity and political urgency. Thus in this play (and elsewhere in his writing) Dorfman uses postmodern techniques to political advantage, parodying his contemporaries to underscore, rather than undermine, the work’s dramatic intensity and political urgency.

Death and the Maiden is at once a whodunit and a psychological thriller. It is a problem play in the Henrik Ibsen tradition but just as clearly a revenge drama in the Elizabethan mold, with a touch of the film Fatal Attraction (1987). The three-act structure creates a momentum and sense of inevitability worthy of classical tragedy but lacks any anagnorisis (recognition) or catharsis. Instead of purging the emotions and restoring order, Death and the Maiden raises questions and introduces uncertainty at every level, probing such issues as honesty in...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Ariel Dorfman carefully specifies in his stage directions that Death and the Maiden is set in "a country that is probably Chile but...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Death and the Maiden is highly realistic in form and structure, with a plot that rapidly unfolds in linear progression, characters...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1992: Augusto Pinochet, who handed over the Chilean presidency in 1990 to democratically-elected Patricio Aylwin Azocar, remains...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Summarize the evidence presented that Roberto Miranda is the doctor who raped and tortured Paulina. Does the play offer convincing evidence...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Death and the Maiden was adapted as a film in 1994, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Sigourney Weaver as Paulina, Ben Kingsley...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Widows, a 1981 novel by Dorfman, later adapted into a play of the same name. Widows focuses on a group of thirty-seven women...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

SOURCES
Butt, John. "Guilty Conscience?" in the Times Literary Supplement, February 28, 1992, p. 22.

Disch,...

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Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barsky, Robert F. “Outsider Law in Literature: Construction and Representation in Death and the Maiden.” SubStance 26 (1997): 66-89.

Dorfman, Ariel. Afterword from Death and the Maiden. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Gregory, Stephen. “Ariel Dorfman and Harold Pinter: Politics of the Periphery and Theater of the Metropolis.” Comparative Drama 30 (Fall, 1996): 325-345.

Morace, Robert A. “The Life and Times of Death and the Maiden.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42 (Summer, 2000):...

(The entire section is 94 words.)