An Exploration of Mob Mentality in The Visit

March 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

The actions involved in ‘mob mentality’ are a prominent and recurring trend in history, dating back to the beginning of human interaction. Complete social unity was once necessary for the survival and comfort of a group of people. Mob mentality is not solely “social unity” or the way in which people are influenced by their peers or a leader to behave and think a certain way; it usually includes an element of violence. People in a mob tend to forget their individual inhibitions and follow the impulses of the group, therefore making violent acts ‘easier’ to commit (due to the perceived lack of individual consequences). In the play The Visit, a town of impoverished people becomes the center of attention when a wealthy native comes back to exact long awaited revenge. She offers them a bargain that could save them and the future of their town for the price of one man’s head, sending the entire group into a tailspin centered on the decision of whether to go through with the terms of the bargain or not. Friederich Dürrenmatt showcases the evolution of groupthink and the violence of mob mentality through the people of Güllen as they contemplate how to go about handling their portion of the bargain and begin to act in response to the deal presented to them.

The Visit starts out with a group of people sitting by the town train station awaiting the arrival of the famous and immensely wealthy Claire Zachanassian, an event in which everyone in the town has taken part in. They hope to receive a sizeable donation from the heiress to save their wretched home. Upon Claire’s appearance, the expected gift is offered through a Faustian bargain that Zachanassian has waited years to present. At the town dinner party she calmly states, “One billion for Güllen, if someone kills Alfred Ill” (Dürrenmatt 35). Following a brief moment of shocked silence, the Mayor of Güllen stands up and retorts, “In the name of the town of Güllen, I reject your offer… We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands.” This proclamation is met with tremendous applause (35). The ‘tremendous applause’ that the group immediately responds with is a signal of the townspeople’s affirmation of the Mayor’s response to Claire’s offer, and serves as a primitive indication of the groupthink that is developed throughout the play. It is important to note that, often, mobs that commit acts of violence usually first come together as a group for a benign reason or commonality (such as this non-malicious agreement). While agreeing with the mayor’s decision provided the immediate consequence of getting no money and keeping a clean conscience, this agreement also biased the thoughts of each townsperson from the outset due to the influence of whatever the group and its leaders were also thinking. The expansion of groupthink and the behavior changes of the townspeople are further probed as Zachanassian awaits her justice.

The actions of the Gülleners develop steadily throughout Act II, going from subtle behavior changes to actual physical intimidation (the closest they get to violence until that point). This change showcases the complexity of mob mentality and the evolution of group behavior. Dürrenmatt also incorporates significant foreshadowing that greatly adds to the suspense of the inevitable mob killing of Ill. It is very important to note that there is not a single, defined leader who directly interacts with the townspeople to influence these changes (as the Mayor did in Act I). There is also a direct contrast between the changes being experienced by the townspeople and Claire, as she is static during this act, continuing to order people around while sitting on her balcony and watching the townspeople below. She is not the “official” leader of group, but it is easy to argue that her unchanging presence and expectation of the completion of her bargain puts her in a position to (indirectly) influence the evolution of the townspeople’s behavior. These changes are also not shown through the entire group at once, but through smaller groups and then through the town leaders. At the beginning of the act, the audience sees Ill’s insecurity within his own family situation, as he tells his children that their mother could be there for them even if he was not. Customers then come into his store, wearing new, expensive clothing and proceeding to charge even more expensive items to their accounts. Ill notices and points out the fact that the day before, they could not afford any of those things. One of the customers responds, “It’s because we stand by you. We stick by our Ill. Firm as a rock” (41). These people are not charging such expensive things to their accounts because they have the money to pay for them or because they are in support of Ill; they are anticipating getting the money that they need to buy things such as these. Interactions with the Police Officer, Mayor, and Pastor all add suspicion and evidence for Ill’s insecurity, as they too have new shoes, a gold tooth, and advice for ‘following the way of repentance’. The townspeople continue to deny that they are changing because of the money, but it is obvious to the audience that each of them has decided that someone else is going to complete the town’s end of the bargain.

While this dominant groupthink is an important aspect of mob mentality, the real violence usually associated with mob action is inched towards at the end of Act II at the train station, when the townspeople come together to intimidate Ill into staying in town. While no one touches him, the crowd encircles him, making him feel as if he cannot leave. He misses his train because he thinks that one of them will hold him back if he tries to step off of the platform. The entire group coming together and acting the same way at this point shows that the “mob has made up its mind” and that the bargain is being accepted. Each individual townsperson came to the same conclusion, and even though such a conclusion is the opposite of what the town originally planned, the loss of individual consequence that a member of a mob experiences allows violence to come easier to everyone. The inescapable ending to the bargain is brought about by an act of true violence, under the direction of the Mayor as the distinct leader in Act III.

Inevitably, the agreement is completed and the townspeople of Güllen get the check to save their town. The true emergence of Claire Zachanassian’s role as the indirect orchestrator for the formation of the mob is shown in Act III, when she is conversing with the Teacher and the Doctor. As they are detailing the devastation of their town, she calmly states an unexpected truth about their situation: “I own [the factories]…I had my agents buy the whole mess and shut every business down…..I decided I would come back one day. Now I set the conditions, I drive the bargain” (71-72). She decided to force the town to betray one of their most respected members, after causing their economic downfall, for her long awaited vengeance. Her exclamation also points out the idea that she is the true, although somewhat indirect, leader, as she is the one setting the conditions of their agreement. Later, there is a town gathering in the Golden Apostle Hotel where a vote is taken, unanimously in favor of killing Ill. The violence of murder is obviously going to occur, marking the final development in the escalation of the mob violence in Güllen. The Mayor leads the Gülleners by directly speaking about the crime that Ill has committed and saying that it is time for the town to exact justice upon the man who caused them their poverty. The Teacher reiterated this justification prior to the gathering when he told Ill, “The temptation is too great and our poverty is too wretched” (85). The townspeople huddle around Ill, and when they step back, he is dead. The completion of the escalation of violence ends with this group murder, an act committed by the entire mob, not just one person, and the bargain that they once fervently refused has been completed.

Friederich Dürrenmatt showed the evolution of groupthink and the violence of a mob through Güllen as its people contemplated how to handle their portion of the bargain and began to act in response to the deal, which eventually resulted in the death of one of their most respected friends. In the final lines of the play, the consequences of the murder are already evident, as everyone prays together for the “preservation of peace and freedom”. Already being worried about losing their “good fortune” shows the effect that the murder had on them, even if they did it as a group. Each person will have to spend the rest of his or her life with the death of Alfred Ill on his or her conscience, as individual consequences come back when the mob dissolves.

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