Death and the Maiden Themes

  • Death and the Maiden is a play about one woman's quest for justice. Paulina Escobar was kidnapped, raped, and tortured by Doctor Roberto Miranda, whose actions were sanctioned by a dictatorial regime. Paulina seeks justice for the crime in the form of a confession from Miranda. In the end, it's unclear if this form of justice satisfies her.
  • For Paulina, justice and forgiveness are linked. Forgiveness first emerges as a theme when Paulina admits that she would settle for a confession and apology from Miranda. After he confesses, she changes her mind and seems poised to kill him. Dorfman leaves the question of whether or not Paulina killed Miranda open to interpretation.
  • Trauma fuels the conflict in Death and the Maiden. On a personal level, the central trauma of the play is Paulina's kidnapping. There is, however, a larger national trauma: that of the crimes committed by the recently overthrown dictatorship, from which the country is still healing. Paulina must confront both traumas in order to heal from her wounds.

Themes and Meanings

Death and the Maiden is Ariel Dorfman’s response to the brutal fifteen-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Pinochet came to power in a 1973 coup that toppled the democratically elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende and forced Dorfman, who held a cultural post in that government, to flee the country. A 1988 plebiscite led to free elections in 1990 and to Dorfman’s return to Chile. Yet the pleasure he took in returning was offset by his dismay over the unwillingness of many Chileans to confront their recent history: a “sickness” which, if left untreated, would fester in the body politic and a toxin that would “corrode” the nation’s future. If the country was in some ways like Gerardo’s tire (and his marriage), in need of repair, it was also like a violated woman. Dorfman, however, turns this familiar, arguably sexist, metaphor on its head in order to examine the predicament of real women in a hyperpatriarchal society such as that of Chile, where abortion and divorce remain illegal and insidious paternalism is compounded by the machismo mystique—the effort to appear very masculine and in control. Such machismo is readily apparent in the play, especially so in the well-meaning but nonetheless sexist Gerardo, who fears appearing soft and whose protection of the hysterical Paulina perpetuates a sexual status quo belied by Paulina’s heroic resistance fifteen years earlier.

Voiceless during the...

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Themes

Atonement and Forgiveness
While there exists no acceptable rationale for the violence of the military regime, Paulina implies...

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