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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

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.

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

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...

(The entire section contains 1483 words.)

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