The Relationship Between Character Symbolism and Chilean Society in Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden
In the play, Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman employs symbolism through the characters and their actions to reflect aspects of the corrupt Chilean society that Dorfman himself lived through. Act II, scene i illustrates the symbols quite well, with the troubled, unjust Paulina, the professionalism and tranquility displayed by Gerardo, and the unfortunate situation that Roberto finds himself in. All of these represent different elements of the Chilean society that had long been a dictatorship.
Dorfman uses the character of Paulina to represent relentless power and inexorable control. Dorfman does this by having Paulina play the role of judge or dictator that rules over society. The character of Paulina coincides with the concept that all the power and control rests in the hands of the corrupt government. Dorfman does this by having Paulina perform certain inappropriate or harsh actions to have her way and garner complete control. Paulina is not always exactly unfair, but she always maintains control. For example, she tells Gerardo that she will “give [him] all the time [he] need[s] to speak to [Roberto], in private” (Dorfman 31). Dorfman displays here that Paulina is seemingly being reasonable, but in actuality, her motives might be nothing more than merely trying to seem sane to Gerardo after having been harsh with her words and physically brutal to Roberto. Later, as to display the dominance she has, largely in part due to the possession of her gun, she “puts the gun to [Roberto’s] temple” and asks “who are you threatening?” (32). Because Paulina suffered torture and abuse, she feels the need to “put [Roberto] on trial” (34). The “trial” is quite unfair as she constantly treats Roberto with roughness and will only accept a confession – even though it may not be true – but with all the power and decision making capability, no one can oppose her. She even has command over her husband, Gerardo, ordering him to take “the gag off Roberto” and not letting Gerardo release Roberto (31). Like a judge, Paulina has complete control over the decisions being made. Like a dictator, Paulina does not see it necessary to abide by the law, telling Gerardo that if Roberto is genuinely innocent, “then he’s really screwed” (42). Dorfman symbolizes the corruption that had resonated in the Chilean government and Chilean society that he had lived in through the harsh and overbearing actions and dialogue of Paulina. Paulina symbolizes power and control over her weaker subjects directly reflecting the imbalance of power in Chilean society.
Dorfman further utilizes character symbolism through the character of Gerardo to represent an element of Chilean government and society of a Chile he lived in for some time in his own life: equity (or at least the longing for it). Dorfman displays the concept of equity in society in the character of Gerardo as the lawyer to represent the people, the man that should be depended on to be fair and unbiased. For the most part, Dorfman makes Gerardo out to be a just lawyer who defends the accused and serves on the Commission designed to investigate criminal acts, especially those ending in death. Gerardo treats Roberto the same way, as if he is a regular client, declaring that “even if [Roberto] committed genocide on a daily basis, he has the right to defend himself” (31). This displays a great sense of professionalism and faith that he has for the victims and wrongly accused in the nation. Also, when Paulina begins to use vulgar language with Roberto, Gerardo interjects, saying “My God!” and “she has never spoken like this in her life” (33). Dorfman writes this to show that the character of Gerardo is professional and respectful, and Gerardo tries to maintain the trust or respect that Roberto may have for him. At the end of the scene when Gerardo suggests that they should release Roberto even if he is guilty, Dorfman illustrates that Gerardo realizes his own wife is in the wrong by the way she treats Roberto and should put a stop to the behavior. Nevertheless, this also shows that Gerardo is a little backwards in that he would let Roberto go if he confessed that he tortured Paulina and was truly guilty. Even in Dorfman’s most proper character, however, there is some corruption, but for good reason: to attempt to forget the memories that haunt Paulina. In the best of society, there can still be misconduct, and Dorfman demonstrates that with Gerardo. Overall, Gerardo has his faults and is wishfully thinking, just as the idea of equality and justice for the people is wishful thinking in this society.
Dorfman uses Roberto to represent the concept of impotence. Impotence is recognized in society in all the people that are oppressed and do not have voices. The general population of a corrupt nation like Chile at the time is a prime example of this impotence. Paulina treats Roberto very unfairly throughout the play, just as the government would treat its people as it pleases, and often time quite poorly. For example, Paulina ties him up and allows him to drink water and use the bathroom on her terms only (32-33). Also, like the people living under a hostile government, Roberto has no genuine voice in the “trial” that Paulina puts him on (34). Paulina says she will give “him all the guarantees” he never gave her, but in reality, Paulina mistreats him and Roberto constantly feels threatened (34). In a dictatorship, there is a very real fear of what might happen next. Roberto, quite understandably, feels the same way throughout the play, as he is in the hands of the unstable Paulina who can harm Roberto in any fashion she pleases.
Through the use of the symbolism represented by the characters, Ariel Dorfman personally reflects his view on a corrupt country like Chile. Paulina represents undeniable power that would be seen in a dictator. Gerardo represents justice and impartiality, concepts that would be deeply rooted in a lawyer or some other professional defender of rights. Roberto symbolizes helplessness, which characterizes the people that suffer through a dictatorship on a regular basis. Together, the three characters’ symbols allow for the creation of tension and chaos that ultimately advances the plot in the play. The extreme control and power that Paulina represents is placed in the story so that the fairness that Gerardo represents can attempt to balance it out. Of course, the struggle between the two concepts is about the subservience that Roberto represents. When Dorfman writes that the play takes place in a country like Chile that has recently “given itself a democratic government,” but is still suffering from the problems left behind from the old order. Dorfman uses the symbolism of the characters to illustrate this struggle. All in all, Ariel Dorfman uses the characters in Death and the Maiden to symbolize different components of Chilean society and government that Dorfman himself witnessed. Paulina represents the unfair, all-powerful ruler over society. Gerardo represents the dwindling integrity left in society in the form of a lawyer that works with the people. Roberto represents the people of the nation that suffers through the dictatorship, forced to submit to the rule of those in charge. Death and the Maiden as a whole reflects the strife that Ariel Dorfman experienced in real life Chile.
An Analysis of Gerardo’s Role in Death and the Maiden
In Death and the Maiden, Gerardo constantly opposes Paulina’s ideas and plans, providing a more rational and less emotionally-charged solution. Gerardo acts as the voice of reason to emphasize Paulina’s irrational and crazed tendencies in the play. Throughout his drama, Dorfman uses Gerardo as a representation of Paulina’s conscience and as the voice of reason to display Paulina’s state of distress.
Starting in the beginning of the play, Dorfman illustrates how calm Gerardo is in nature by comparing him to Paulina, who is undeniably nervous. Upon entering the house, Gerardo “sees Paulina hidden behind the curtains” (Dorfman 3). As Paulina interrogates Gerardo regarding his whereabouts, he answers her in a composed manner, attempting to calm her down. Gerardo constantly tries to reason with Paulina and show her a different perspective on certain situations. When Paulina questions whether or not her husband’s Commission only investigates cases that end in death, Gerardo responds with this, “The idea is that if we can throw light on the worst crimes, other abuses will also come to light” (Dorfman 9), attempting to explain to her that their legal processes are just, however patience is required to see that. This speaks to Gerardo’s unbiased tendencies and shows how he is peacefully trying to get justice for victims of all crimes. These traits of moral rectitude exemplify the actions of a moral compass or human conscience personified.
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that Dorfman wrote Gerardo as a lawyer. This profession is a humble one that entails fighting for what is just and protecting the righteousness of their client’s cause. In fact, Dorfman employs Gerardo as a lawyer to reinforce his persona of fairness. Even Roberto recognizes this fact when he tries to convince Gerardo let him go, “You’re a lawyer, a defender of human rights… you are responsible for what you do and what you must do is untie me immediately” (Dorfman 32). At this point Gerardo is unsure about whether or not Roberto is guilty and attempts to do what is morally right. After Paulina insists on killing Roberto, Gerardo scolds her, “Paulina, this is intolerable.” (Dorfman 33), acting as the voice of reason in order to present a side of the story to Paulina that she has not yet considered. Gerardo’s rational steps to subdue the situation work to show the reader the sharp contrast in thought processes and overall sanity between Paulina and Gerardo. Gerardo, being a lawyer, remains calm and makes the right choice to try and uncover all of the evidence before condemning Roberto.
Paulina’s crazy actions and tendencies are only exaggerated by the ways in which Gerardo handles these actions. Again, Paulina mentions killing Gerardo as a part of her idea to “put him on trial” (Dorfman 34). Gerardo questions this and asserts that they can’t “use their methods. To seek vengeance in this fashion is not-” (Dorfman 34). Gerardo is directly acting as Paulina’s conscience now and employs the idea that it is not moral to commit an immoral act solely because it was committed against the individual. Trying to make Paulina see how blind she was, Gerardo asks, “Are you going to kidnap them and bring them her and tie them up…” (Dorfman 34), however Paulina only replies as if the question was asked in a serious manner. Paulina’s mind is so set on getting revenge that she cannot even think straight, which prompts Dorfman to write an outside source (Gerardo) to be her conscience and try to talk some sense into her. Gerardo reiterates the idea of not reciprocating the violent actions, “If he’s guilty, more reason to set him free.” (Dorfman 38). He believes that there would be no reason to commit an unethical act, but to instead let Roberto live with the guilt, knowing that he had commit a heinous crime. When making the deal with Gerardo regarding what to do with Roberto, Paulina’s assertion that Roberto “is screwed” (Dorfman 42) if he is innocent plays to her confidence that he is guilty, but also makes her seem irrational, as she has no evidence to go on aside from the circumstantial evidence she had. Paulina’s negotiation with Gerardo regarding her plan to free Roberto if they can prove he is guilty speaks to Gerardo being her conscience. When making questionable moral decisions, it is not uncommon for people to go back and forth with themselves, debating the decision they should or should not make.
When Gerardo gets upset at Roberto and begins threatening to kill him, it is because he feels that he has enough evidence to say that Roberto is guilty. Although Gerardo acts as Paulina’s conscience, this desire to murder Roberto is considered to be immoral. However, the idea that he wants to kill Roberto is not surprising given that in times of anger and stress, it is possible for people’s’ judgements to be cloudy. Gerardo is simply consumed with anger and making rash decisions. However, even after Gerardo believes that he is guilty after hearing the recordings, he says “I wouldn’t stain my soul with someone like him” (Dorfman 62). This shows that after getting back to his senses and calming down from his emotional outburst, he is still the morally sound man he was prior to discovering the damning evidence.
Even when Paulina is interrogating Gerardo about when he had an affair with another woman, he is calm and always reasonable despite Paulina’s hostile nature when going about the situation. Dorfman uses concise sentences for Gerardo’s dialogue to show that he is in an eased state of mind. Gerardo’s dialogue here speaks to him being the voice of reason because of unbiased advice he gives Paulina. “Forgive, yes, forget, no. But forgive so we can start again.” (Dorfman 54). He gives this advice to Paulina to help her cope with the fact that he cheated on her, which was very mature given that he is the culprit in the situation. Although Gerardo is in the wrong, his placidity could make the opinion that the audience has of him favorable. The combination of this and Paulina’s hostility play to her unreasonable nature. In the beginning of the play, Gerardo says, “He’s a friend. So don’t be scared. Tomorrow you can make us a nice breakfast.” This short sentence plays to Gerardo’s calmness as it reads very slowly and calmly. Also, the stage direction immediately after the dialogue further displays the calm and gentle nature that Gerardo has about him, “Only the sound of the sea in the semi-darkness.” This quote paints the setting as being very peaceful and safe.
Ariel Dorfman wrote Gerardo as a sort of conscience to Paulina and as a voice of reason, overall. He shows this by contrasting the different natures of the two and how they handle situations. While Gerardo was the more calm and reasonable character, Paulina was a bit more tense, rash, irrational, and impatient. Dorfman uses Gerardo to counter Paulina’s personality and show how crazy she really is. Gerardo’s tendency to be a decent being and more patient often rubbed off on Paulina; although it never really changed her mind, his personality perhaps made her consider her situation in a somewhat less extreme manner.
Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1992. Print.
Marriage in Death and the Maiden
Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden” revolves around a husband and wife, Gerardo and Paulina, living under an unstable democracy after a long chapter of oppressive dictatorship. In this moral thriller, Paulina accuses a man named Roberto of being the physician who tortured and raped her in the times of her abduction during the dictatorship. Gerardo meets Roberto in the road after getting a flat tire and Paulina claims to recognize his voice as her supposed torturer’s. She then justifies holding Roberto captive when he visits Gerardo in the middle of the night, and then asks for an impartial trial under Gerardo’s examination. With this probationary, not only does Paulina challenge the existence of her past brutal relationship with Roberto, but also threatens her relationship with Gerardo. While the images of Paulina’s abduction flashback through her mind, she digs up the buried skeleton of Gerardo’s betrayal as well. Ariel Dorfman reveals instability within Paulina and Gerardo’s marriage through his use of sarcasm, repetition and flashback.
Gerardo and Paulina use sarcasm as a means to communicate with each other. It generally requires a great deal of familiarity with an individual to decipher if he or she is being sarcastic. Since Gerardo and Paulina detect each others’ tones so easily, it shows the close connection between them. However, sarcasm also can reveal internal bitterness and contempt. For example, Dorfman foreshadows Gerardo’s infidelity from the very beginning of the play when Paulina is quick to assume that it was a woman who helped Gerardo fix his flat tire. She says, “Was she pretty at least? Sexy?” [pg 6]. This rhetorical question, which is also sarcastic, personally attacks Gerardo because Paulina is digging at his mistakes from the past. This question ignites a set of arguments that are saturated in sarcasm when the couple discusses Gerardo being named the Commissioner by the President. They argue about vulnerability, certain limitations of the job and the compromises they will have to make. Paulina is hesitant in giving Gerardo her blessing to accept his new profession because she feels it would open up old wounds. At first she gives Gerardo a submissive yes, but Gerardo is not satisfied with the lack of enthusiasm and says, “that’s not the yes I need”[pg 8]. Responding to Gerardo’s insensitivity, Paulina sarcastically retorts, “it’s the only yes I’ve got”. This interchange of refusals to compromise builds the tension between the couple. In addition, Paulina resents the fact that the Commission is limited to handling cases that “ended in death or the presumption of death” [pg 9], and she sarcastically refers to these cases as being “irreparable” [pg. 9]. Paulina’s use of the word “irreparable” is loaded, as she invokes the emotional damage caused by her abduction, which is ultimately irrevocable despite her survival. Moreover, she emphasizes her resentment when she, in another moment of tension, spits out another series of rhetorical questions undermining the so-called “judges” [pg 10] that will be handling the crimes. She ends her tirade a sarcastic soft laugh that evolves into “increasing hysteria”[pg 10]. Her demeanor in these conversations show that the couple’s traumatic past destabilizes the foundation of their matrimony.
Gerardo’s constant fluctuations between being deceitful and being a heroic savior makes him an enigma that confounds the reader and Paulina herself. When Gerardo is accused of lying, he always has a safe resort to redeem himself. For instance, when Paulina assumed that it was a woman that helped Gerardo fix his flat tire, initiating the topic of his disloyalty, he digresses the conversation about Paulina’s mistake of lending the jack to her mother. By doing this, he gains back the power over the conversation by making his wife feel guilty. Subsequently, when Paulina finds out that Gerardo has lied about ‘thinking’ over the Commissioner’s position, when in fact he’s accepted it without her consent, he justifies his actions by telling her that he “didn’t want to hurt her” [pg 11]. Lastly, there are many instances when Gerardo embraces Paulina not only to comfort her, but also to use it as a mechanism of self-preservation. For example, this stage direction occurs when Gerardo manipulates Paulina into accepting his career as Commissioner. He takes her in his arms then confesses his love for her and how “it still hurts” him when he’s reminded of her pain. This gesture completely overwhelms Paulina resulting in her “fiercely holding on to him” and reciting “Yes. Yes. Yes” [pg 10] in surrender. On another occasion, Gerardo placates Paulina when she gets hysterical about the judges of the Commission, and averts the conversation into downward spiral and an emotional breakdown. These implications allude to the gender roles of the society in which the play takes place. Gerardo is competent enough to be aware of his power over Paulina, and it is obvious that he engages this knowledge often to get him out of difficult situations.
The flashbacks that Paulina experiences change her vulnerable personality and this threatens Gerardo’s power over her, as well as his perception of her sanity. When Gerardo first sees Roberto tied to a chair, he is shocked and tells Paulina that she is “sick”. However, with a newfound power and motivation to finally achieve vengeance, Paulina disagrees with him even though he repeats the line “you’re sick” [pg 23] over and over again. Paulina’s imitation of Roberto’s (also known as Dr. Miranda) idiolect, including the use of profanity and diction such as “teensy-weensy” and “the real real truth”, strengthens the memory of her assault and feeds her courage to continue her pursuit of a trial despite Gerardo’s refusal. In fact, Paulina admits her vulnerability when she says, “as soon as I stop pointing it (the gun) at you, all dialogue will automatically terminate. If I put it down you’ll use your strength to win the argument” [pg 24]. In this instance, she is referring to Gerardo’s strength over her, both emotional and physical. In actuality, Paulina uses the gun as a symbol of strength that not only creates a concrete barrier between her and Gerardo, but also it acts as a mask to conceal her fears and uncertainty. When she is using the gun, Paulina reveals her vulnerability by being “as surprised as both men, recoiling from the shot”. However, when Gerardo comments, “you can’t do this”, she pulls herself back to her gladiator state. Again, she uses imitation to strengthen herself and her point by quoting Gerardo, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t do this.” She ends her rant with an unapologetic “I did it”. Neither Gerardo nor Paulina have control over themselves. Their lack of judgment combined with the return of painful memories definitely pushes the couple’s instability over the edge.
In conclusion, Ariel Dorfman successfully portrays the deterioration in Paulina and Gerardo’s marriage through his use of sarcasm, repetition and flashback. Although they are under the extraordinary circumstance of encountering an old traumatic memory, it seems as though their marriage exist within the generalized gender roles of man and wife. They show that even the strongest of adoration for each other can be weakened by terrible memories, memories that the couple must get over before they can move on with their lives. Dorfman, creates a depth within his characters that deeply affects the reader and the audience alike.
The Development of Justice in Death and the Maiden
Composed by Ariel Dorfman, Death of the Maiden is regarded as a compelling play where a woman, Paulina, sought justice for actions that happened to her fifteen years ago. She blames a man named Roberto Miranda, a doctor that had visited her and her husband’s household at night, because she recognizes his voice and the music that was played. The twist of the play is that the audience does not know if a certain individual, Roberto Miranda, was responsible for the actions. Justice is an important topic to discuss for the actions people inflict on others. It could also be a basis for discussing the oppression of women in society. However, this paper will be discussing Paulina’s change of definition of justice in the play while applying the theme of justice. Development of justice applies to the Death and the Maiden when Gerardo talks with Paulina, Paulina ties up Roberto at gunpoint, Roberto’s confession, and when Paulina describes what happened to her. The literary tools being discussed are the motif of lights, repetition of pauses, motif of the gun, symbol of truth with the cassette player, and the theme of injustice. The development of justice will be investigated through these literary lenses and with the scenes previously mentioned.
To begin with, the development of justice is first shown in the Death and the Maiden when Gerardo speaks with Paulina in Act One Scene One:
GERARDO: Paulie? Paulina? (He sees Paulina hidden behind the curtains. He switches on a light. She slowly comes out from the curtains.) GERARDO (cont’d.): Is that…? What’re you doing there like that? Sorry I took this long to… I…. (Dürrenmatt 2)
The motif of lights applies to this situation. An example shown is when Gerardo turns on the lamp nearby where Paulina was standing. When the lights turn on, it represented the truth coming out such as Gerardo telling Paulina who Roberto Miranda was and about the promotion he will gain from the president. Paulina sees this as justice, knowing the truth that was told to her. Also, the repetition of pauses seen throughout the scene is significant to the theme of justice. Some pauses that occur when Paulina and Gerardo are speaking shows the strange relationship between the two. Ironically as Gerardo will soon be the ‘minister of justice,’ he tends to hide the truth from Paulina. These pauses further emphasize the untruthful relationship between the two. When the two talk, the meaning of justice seems to shift.
The development of justice applies to the Death and the Maiden when Paulina ties Roberto up and points a gun at him in Act One Scene Four:
PAULINA (very calm): Good morning, Doctor… Miranda, isn’t it? Doctor Miranda. (She shows him the gun and points it playfully in his direction.) (Dürrenmatt 16)
The motif of the gun Paulina carries throughout the play to keep Roberto as hostage challenges the Paulina’s definition of justice. When Paulina carries the gun, she seems to be in power. We can see that the power of the household shifts to Paulina as she bears the weapon. This change in authority puts Paulina with the right to do what she pleases. She wishes to earn a confession from Roberto proving that he was responsible for raping her fifteen years ago. This is justice that Paulina wanted. But we question if this is the correct way to find justice—by threatening death if the person didn’t do as told. If it was not Roberto who committed the crimes against her, then she would not be delivering justice. Therefore, the definition of justice changes in this part of the play.
Considering Paulina’s decision, the meaning of justice changes in the Death and the Maiden when Paulina describes in detail what the secret police did to her. The surprisingly amount of specific details Paulina remembered from the day fifteen years ago shows how keen she was to receive justice since then. She was able to remember the words the men said to her, almost word for word. Her connection with the music from Schubert was used to describe Roberto:
At first, I thought he would save me. He was so soft, so—nice, after what the others had done to me. And then, all of a sudden, I heard a Schubert quartet. There is no way of describing what it means to hear that wonderful music in the darkness, when you haven’t eaten in three days, when your body is falling apart, when… (Dürrenmatt 41)
This helps the audience determine if Paulina’s actions on Gerardo were justified. Her words have a pathos effect on the audience which can cloud our judgment in deciding so. However, this supports the theme of injustice. These terrible experiences that she witnessed is not just or acceptable. Instead of letting Roberto go, she changes her definition of justice. After earning the confession from Roberto Miranda she begins to believe that he was indeed the person from years ago. But if she killed Roberto (this is not confirmed by the play unfortunately), she thought killing was justice for what he did to her. Therefore, the change in the meaning of justice is shown when Paulina describes in detail the events from fifteen years.
To end with, the definition of justice alters in the Death and the Maiden when Roberto confesses the events that happened to Paulina fifteen years ago. Ariel Dorfman’s use of the cassette player in Act Three Scene Three in order to record Roberto’s confession represented the truth:
(Just before evening. Paulina and Gerardo are outside, on the terrace, facing the sea. Roberto inside, still tied up. Gerardo has the cassette recorder on his lap.) (Dürrenmatt 37)
Although the audience still does not know if Roberto was the same person from the past, the symbol remains of as truth. The overlap of his words with Paulina’s question if he is indeed telling the truth. Paulina claims that the music was used to falsely reassure the prisoners and Roberto confirms what she said in the next line. These specific actions that Roberto claim is strange for him to admit. The question of whether his words were actually true challenges the theme of justice. The need for Paulina to kill Roberto for his confession soon after changes the meaning of justice. She now sought justice by killing him. She now uses the confession on the cassette player as her justification for wanting to kill him. This confession was now on record, similar to how the court would use this as evidence to deliver justice against crimes. The way Roberto’s words coaligned with Paulina’s words expresses the change and theme of justice as the truth is finally exposed.
A change in the definition of justice can be traced throughout the entire play. First when Gerardo speaks with Paulina at the beginning of the play, the theme and definition of justice was not as significant. Justice to Paulina at this point was knowing the truth from Gerardo. The use of the motif of lights helps reiterate how the truth was being explained to Paulina. When Paulina ties up Roberto Miranda in Act One Scene Three, her definition of justice seems to change. She becomes convinced that the man was the one who raped her fifteen years ago. This contradicts justice since there is no hard evidence that he committed the actions. Therefore, this was illegal and was considered kidnapping or keeping someone as hostage. When Paulina describes the events that occurred, she uses great details to outline the experience. The theme of injustice was plainly represented with the terrible experiences she went through. This was not enough to verify her actions. When Roberto ‘confesses’ what he has done in the cassette player, the symbol of truth. Although we are not sure if he actually has done these actions to Paulina, it can still be the symbol of truth. In all, Paulina was not justified in her actions against Roberto Miranda even with the supposed confession of her perpetrator. Justice relies on truth, hard evidence, and proper execution of what happens to person who committed the crime. Paulina does not hold the authority to decide this.