Friedrich Durrenmatt Usage of Symbolism in The Visit to Portray European Society in the 20th Century

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

This essay will discuss how Friedrich Durrenmatt uses symbols such as the colors yellow and gold, and the effect of money on Guellen and its Justice System to exemplify its corruption and dehumanization. In the play, corruption is shown as more of a gradual change to the city; this is in conjunction with the dehumanization of Guellen.

The main character Alfred Ill, responds to this with a sense of apprehension, while society, represented by a corrupt justice system decides to accept Claire’s offer to pay for Ill’s death. This idea will be analysed in the essay by discussing how these symbols are referenced throughout the play, juxtaposed with literary conventions that are used to epitomize how European society in the 20th century could be controlled from being enticed with the prospect of wealth.

The depiction of Guellen as being a debt-filled town coincides with the state of European countries after World War Two, where Man One, Two, Three, and Four describe Guellen as “… the lousiest-most poverty stricken- desolate dump on the Venice-Stockholm line!” (Durrenmatt 17). As a result of the condition of Guellen, the town will go to great lengths to accept Claire’s offer of a million pounds as compensation. ‘The Visit’ raises the question of the corruptibility of justice by asking whether it can be bought in return for material wealth. When Ill was young he bought “justice” by bribing witnesses to deny paternity of his child which ended up causing Claire to live the terrible life that she did not choose to live where she “became a prostitute” and now afterwards sought revenge. (Durrenmatt 34).

When Claire is sixty-three years of age, she visits Guellen and offers a large sum of money but on the condition that the town pay for its past as well as her past by killing Ill – ”I will tell you on what condition. I’m giving you a million, and I’m buying myself justice” (Durrenmatt 36-38). Claire believes that Ill’s death is the equivalent of justice and that “everything can be bought” (Durrenmatt 36). Her assertion that justice can be bought is then proven from the events that are unfolded throughout the play. There are many examples of when Claire purchases the justice system of Guellen: For instance, Boby, who states that he was originally the “… Lord Chief Justice of Guellen. I was later called to the Kaffigen Court of Appeal until, twenty-five years ago it is now, madam Zachanassian offered me the post of Butler in her service. ” The salary, he explains to the town, was so high that he couldn’t refuse her where he states that “the salary was really quite fantastic…” (Durrenmatt 36). This proposes the use the use of the literary convention of foreshadowing, where it displays how Guelleners are willing to do anything as reimbursement for Claire’s offer, even killing Ill.

Further justification of the foreshadowing of his death occurs when Man Two claims that “It’s dead certain” with the addition of the two women saying “Dead certain, Mr. Ill, dead certain” that he will become the new mayor of the city (Durrenmatt 44). Another example of the foreshadowing of Ill’s death is when Claire states that she has to put “the coffin in the Golden Apostle” (Durrenmatt 24). Claire once again displays her power over the justice system through her wealth when she bails out Roby and Toby, “Two gangsters. From Manhattan. They were on their way to Sing Sing. The the electric chair. I (Claire) petitioned for them to be freed as sedan-bearers. Cost me a million dollars per petition” (Durrenmatt 24). With many examples given about how Claire is essentially able to control society by literally buying out the justice system proves Durrenmatt’s depiction of it as a weak institution that serves no purpose other than being a thin political veneer to represent a civilized society.

The corruption of the justice system coincides with the emblematic use of Yellow Shoes throughout the play, where Durrenmatt shows the how weak human nature can become when in dire need of money by structuring the play with opposing viewpoints of Guelleners at the beginning and end of the play. He signifies the gradual shift away from humanistic views by using the symbol of Yellow Shoes. Ill first starts to notice the appearance of Yellow Shoes in Guellen on Men One and Two, where he states “You’re wearing new shoes. New yellow shoes. ” to Man One and “You too, Hofbauer. You’re wearing new shoes too. ” to Man Two. He then exclaims “How are you going to pay? How are you going to pay? How? How?” (Durrenmatt 46). Since Ill is questioning the men about how the men are wearing yellow shoes, it is acceptable to infer that he is growing a feeling of insecurity, where he is not only concerned about how they are going to pay, but also why they got them.

The shoes allude to the increasing acceptance of Claire’s offer of a million pounds, where citizens are starting to buy more expensive things with no worries about an increase in debt because they are guaranteed a million pounds on the condition to kill Ill. Another example is when he “demand[s] the arrest of Claire Zachanassian” to the Policeman (Durrenmatt 47). During his conversation with him, the Policeman states “Whatever can you have against new shoes? I’ve got a new pair on myself, ” and Ill responds with “You too. ” (Durrenmatt 49). It is evident here that as he beginning to become more nervous and more aware about the appearance of yellow shoes in Guellen, where he starts to understand that people are turning against him. Further on in the conversation, Ill questions “. . . how do you explain that gold tooth in your mouth, Inspector. . . It’s me you’re hunting down, me” (Durrenmatt 51). This serves as another way Claire has bought the justice system, as she has won the mind of the Policeman, a man who should be morally right, but instead gives into her offer for personal gain. It is evident that the color yellow and gold symbolize money and wealth within “The Visit. ” It serves its purpose as different objects for Claire’s intent of bribery.

As her offer becomes more popular, Guelleners start to turn their backs against their humanist traditions and Ill, where they eventually become more willing to do things for Claire such as murdering Ill, which therefore yields the dehumanization of society. The humanistic views of Guelleners are shown at the beginning and middle of the play, where the people reject Claire’s offer due to the unwarranted actions that will occur against Ill. This is shown when the mayor states that “. . . we are not savages. In the name of all citizens of Guellen, I reject your offer; and I reject it in the name of humanity. We would rather have poverty than blood on our hands” (Durrenmatt 39). Near the middle of the play, the Schoolmaster supported Ill and the humanist traditions of Guellen, defending his claims about the people turning against him by exclaiming “I protest! I wish to make a public appeal to world opinion! Guellen is planning a monstrous deed. . . I’m a humanist, a lover of the ancient Greeks, an admirer of Plato” (Durrenmatt 73).

However, towards the end of the play, it is evident that his views have changed, where he tries to justify the malicious act of executing Ill by declaring in his speech that “we are not moved by the money: we are not moved by the ambitious thoughts of prosperity and good living, and luxury: we are moved by this matter of justice…” (Durrenmatt 91). The entire town enacts the same deception to itself, proclaiming that killing him is “Not for money, but for justice” (Durrenmatt 93-94). In conclusion, Durrenmatt’s use of symbols such as the color yellow and effect of money Guellen and its justice system portray post World War Two European Society in the 20th century, where a poor country such as Germany would do almost anything in return for a large sum of money because of its desperation to be a successful country once again.

Durrenmatt accurately depicts the greediness of human nature, where money can have a substantial impact on the attitudes of people, such as how the humanist ideals of Guelleners vanished when they executed Ill for material gain. The same idea is expressed when Guellen’s justice system is overtaken by the prospect of wealth, which signifies the corruption that occurred within the reforming government of Germany after the War.


Read more