Death and the Maiden

by Ariel Dorfman

Start Free Trial

Death and the Maiden Themes

The main themes in Death and the Maiden are justice, forgiveness, and trauma.

  • Justice: Paulina and her husband present two different visions of justice: Gerardo is idealistic and trusts in the system, whereas Paulina is jaded and takes matters into her own hands.
  • Forgiveness: Paulina initially states that she could forgive Miranda if he confessed and apologized. However, she changes her mind after hearing Miranda's statement, suggesting that some things cannot be forgiven.
  • Trauma: The central trauma of the play is Paulina's kidnapping. However, the crimes committed by the recently overthrown dictatorship represent a national trauma, from which the country is still healing.

Death and the Maiden Study Tools

Ask a question Start an essay

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 time of her torture, even as she was being coerced to speak, Paulina desires to speak now, freely and openly, but is denied a voice because of the commission’s mandate. Gerardo speaks grandly and abstractly of “the whole country’s need to put into words what happened to us,” even as he denies that need (and that right) to his own wife and others like her. Death and the Maiden is a play (and representative of a country) in which “the real truth” is frequently invoked but rarely spoken and in which uncertainty is pervasive and the masks characters wear have become indistinguishable from their real selves. As such, it raises questions that probe and provoke rather than offer any answers that comfort. It asks how a country’s collective amnesia about its recent past can be addressed without jeopardizing freedom and democracy and without turning victims into victimizers, bent upon revenge rather than justice because, mired in the personal past, they are unable to imagine a collective future. Thus the dramatic conflicts between the three characters of the play give rise to the less tangible but nonetheless real conflict between past and future and between political idealism and political pragmatism.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Atonement and Forgiveness
While there exists no acceptable rationale for the violence of the military regime, Paulina implies that she can forgive the individual for being fallible: she promises to release Miranda if he will confess to torturing and raping her. Miranda does not genuinely appear to ask for forgiveness; he does so only in the context of a confession which may be falsified. Paulina, although she ultimately chooses not to kill Miranda, does not forgive him, either. The play suggests that despite the lingering pam of political oppression, there is no concrete act that can atone for past wrongs.

Death and the Maiden
The title of Dorfman's play comes from the quartet by Schubert which Paulina associates with her abduction and torture. She finds a cassette of this music in Miranda's car. The piece, String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (D. 810), takes the name "Death and the Maiden'' from a Schubert song that is quoted in it. The theme is...

(This entire section contains 1047 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

common in folk music such as the English song "Death and the Lady," in which a rich lady who has failed to bribe Death into granting her a few more years of life sings of having been betrayed by him. The theme of the song (hence the dramatic context for Schubert's quartet) is reflected in the characters themselves, with the shadowy doctor who raped and tortured Paulina existing as a kind of Death figure in her memory. However, Dorfman's play presents a reversal on the theme—if the audience agrees that Paulina has found the right doctor, that is—for in the present circumstance it is the Maiden (Paulina) who holds the power of life over Death (Miranda).

Doubt and Ambiguity
Paulina does not doubt that Roberto Miranda is the doctor who tortured and raped her years before or that he deserves to be tried and punished for these crimes. She is also convinced that she is the only person who can administer a punishment to fit the crime. One of the related themes of Death and the Maiden, however, is the lingering ambiguity which troubles a society attempting to rectify wrongs from a turbulent era in its past. Nagging questions remain: who can be sure the correct people are being tried, and what constitutes just punishment? The play examines the consequences of such justice, provoking questions as to the effects such a process will have not only on the accused but on the accuser.

The play contrasts the present era to the repressive military regime which has recently ended. At the same time, it makes the complex point that in this fragile period of political transition, the legacy of the past still haunts people, preventing them from being truly free. Paulina mockingly questions the value of freedom in a society which has only provisionally returned to democracy: "Isn't that what this transition is all about? The Commission can investigate crimes but nobody is punished for them? ... There's freedom to say anything you want as long as you don't say everything you want?" While political freedom is one major issue in the play, there is also the theme of emotional freedom. "You're still a prisoner," Gerardo tells Paulina, "you stayed behind with them, locked in that basement." Gerardo encourages her to "free yourself from them'' in order to put her mind at rest. Paulina, however, is insulted by the implication that her only option is to forget her pain. Yet her solution is no less absolute: she feels she can only put her mind at rest by seeking punishment for her tormentors. In the end, however, she stops short of administering the ultimate punishment of death. It has been speculated that while this action does not liberate her from the pain of her torture and rape, it does grant her freedom from the savagery that afflicted her tormentors.

Justice and InjusticeDeath and the Maiden contrasts ideal and practical concepts of justice. Both Paulina and Gerardo perceive the considerable injustices exerted by the former military regime, but they differ in their ideas of how justice can best be served under present circumstances. Gerardo believes in the efficacy of the commission to which he has been appointed, feeling that justice will be served by faithfully investigating human rights abuses and then turning the findings over to the country's courts. Paulina, however, is suspicious of the loyalties of those "same judges who never intervened to save one life in seventeen years of dictatorship." To her mind, justice cannot possibly be served through the channels which presently exist, so she resolutely takes the law into her own hands. The brutality of her past experience is undoubtedly at the root of her position; when Gerardo pleads with her at one point to be "reasonable," she bitterly responds: "You be reasonable. They never did anything to you."

Memory and Reminiscence
Dorfman commented in an interview with Carlos Reyes on the Amnesty International homepage: "Memory is a constant obsession for me," observing that a memory of the past is a counter against those, like the military rulers, "who would obliterate others, who would forget them, ignore them, neglect them, erase them from the earth.'' Dorfman's "obsession'' shows in his characterization of Paulina, whose strong memories of being raped and tortured still haunt her and provide a challenge to the historical revisionists who would claim that such events did not take place. Establishing a history of the victims will be an important step towards national reconciliation, but the question of just how satisfying such a process can be to Paulina and others like her is one of the more difficult issues presented in the play.

Morality and Ethics
The immorality of the past military regime is not debated in Death and the Maiden; the discussion of Paulina's torment and the mention of other cases of extra-judicial abduction, torture, and murder are enough to establish the context. The central ethical issue of the play is whether Paulina, by choosing to try—and punish—Miranda herself, is merely replicating the same injustices of the military regime. "We can't use their methods," Gerardo comments. Paulina agrees in concept but feels that the circumstances are different. She also argues that she is giving Miranda the opportunity to defend himself, a privilege she was not granted.