Understanding Paulina’s Mentality: A Close Reading of Death and the Maiden, Act 2 Scene 1 Onwards

Significant dialogue from Act 2 of Death and the Maiden reveals how Paulina’s torture in the Chile’s past totalitarian regime has affected her life in the democratic present day. The ambiguity in the meaning of justice is a key theme that is significantly developed because the audience is exposed to two contradicting views from Paulina and Gerardo as they confront Roberto being tied up in a chair. Whether her abusive treatment is simply revenge for Roberto’s rape or an act of justice lies unknown as there is no definite answer for justice. Moreover, there is a sudden shift in Paulina’s behavior from being a belittled housewife to an aggressive abuser. Her growing animalistic behavior and her restlessness develop a mistrust with her relationship with Gerardo.

Paulina possesses abusive power over Roberto which seems to be cathartic but at the same time makes her more animalistic. At the start of Act 2, Paulina retells her memory to him as if he was her ‘confessor’, she hasn’t even told it to Gerado, her sister and ‘certainly not my mother’ because the truth (of her rape) will only hurt others. This reveals that Paulina has lived in repression and isolation because she cannot repair herself through sharing. It is implied through the stage craft that the confrontation is therapeutic. For example, she looks outward to the ‘window’ and the ‘sea’, rocking ‘gently’. The ‘window’ implies the openness, the revelation to her past. The expanse of the ‘sea’ could show her power or her mental instability as there are no boundaries. Nature is used to give a serene ambiance just as finally confessing her memory stabilizes her to a certain extent.

However, her confession grows from being cathartic to aggressive which links to the historical context that the totalitarian regime leaves unrepairable, psychological scars on its victims. The memory still lives vividly within her when she ‘imitates a man’s voice’. Although this gives a sense of Paulina ridiculing Roberto, it also shows that the details of the traumatic event still haunt her and that she is unable to escape the past. Her animalistic behaviour builds up as she uses vile language and the way she dehumanizes Roberto. At the end of the extract, we can hear the ‘sounds of urination and then flushing’, this provokes the audience to imagine the graphic scene of a woman showing no mercy to a tortured man even when he is at his weakest. Dorfman successfully achieves naturalistic effects to portray to the audience the reality of Chile. The reality that the victims of the totalitarian regime were psychologically scarred so severely and the desperate plea for justice in form of vengeance.

The deteriorating relationship between Gerardo and Paulina is shown through the fact that Gerardo doesn’t understand his wife that well. This is shown throughout the extract when Gerardo insists Paulina ‘really listen’ to him, and she ‘must talk to him’ before he even lets her explain. This shows that he doesn’t have the understanding to sympathize over why his wife is suddenly behaving so abusively. It is also ironic because it is he who should listen to Paulina for she is the victim of a rape. He even defends Roberto ‘taking the gag off’, ‘untying his legs’ and uses the law, a symbol of justice and intellect, to bring Paulina down- ‘even if this man committed genocide on a daily basis, he has the right to defend himself.’ Again there is an irony because it is Paulina who should be insisting on what is justice. Gerardo is the representation of the male misunderstanding of rape because he keeps telling Paulina that her act is ‘intolerable’ meanwhile her rape history is far worse than Roberto’s pain. It is as if Gerardo is trying to wake her out of her savagery while she is also trying to make him understand the price of rape.

The irony and misunderstanding tear the couple apart as one doesn’t understand another. The interpretation of justice through Roberto’s treatment differs between Paulina and Gerardo. Paulina is putting him on ‘trial’ while Gerardo sees this as ‘vengeance.’ The term ‘trial’ has positive connotations because it is linked to justice and approved by the law. While ‘vengeance’ has negative connotations because it seeks violence for equality- Gerardo suggests that Paulina wants Roberto to pay for his abuse 15 years ago. Both terms share the fact that it wants equality but it puts Paulina into two different lights. Dorfman intends to use this juxtaposition to convey ambiguity in the theme of justice because the concept was what questioned Chile when it moved from totalitarian to democracy. How can the law treat those who have mistreated others?

This scene is very powerful in developing the ambiguity in justice because the audience witnesses the reaction of different characters on what is meant by justice for the first time. Gerardo has no pre-knowledge about what Paulina is capable of or has a mere understanding of what she has been through therefore he is shocked to see Roberto abused by his wife. This reveals to the audience that Gerardo is a representation of the men who are understate the horror of rape as he cannot put himself in Paulina’s perspective to feel her sufferings. Because if he could sympathize how humiliating a woman becomes after rape, he would allow her to fight for her justice- to dehumanize Roberto. This reflects to the context of Chile in the 1990s when the meaning of justice was questioned by the victims of abuse- how could the law treat fairly to the dead but not the living dead (Paulina)?

Dorfman intends to make the audience feel disturbed by Paulina’s action to amplify the how psychologically wrecked she is. How disturbed the audience feels reflect on how disgusted they feel about rape. If they can bear the violence that Paulina puts on Roberto, then the audience understand that rape is debilitating. However, if they find her abuse out of control, and she is driven by lunacy, then they may not fully capture the horrors of rape.

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