Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden Summary and Analysis of Act 1, Scene 4


A few hours later, Roberto wakes up, tied to a chair and gagged. He struggles to free himself and flies into a panic when he notices that Paulina is pointing a gun at him. She begins a monologue in which she muses about her time in school; she had been studying to be a doctor but was never able to complete her degree. She sarcastically apologizes to Roberto for not making him breakfast and for keeping him gagged while she talks. She reveals a cassette tape of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" that she pulled out of his car earlier that morning. She explains that these days, she is unable to listen to Schubert without becoming ill, which she describes as "strange," given that he used to be her favorite composer. She excitedly remarks that the time may have come for her to be able to listen to Schubert again. 

Gerardo enters, shocked to see the violence unfolding before him. He demands an explanation from Paulina, who tells Gerardo that Roberto is "the doctor who played Schubert." Gerardo attempts to persuade Paulina to untie Roberto, insisting that she's "sick," but Paulina refuses. She is convinced that Roberto's words, laugh, and phraseology confirm his identity as the man who tortured her so many years before. 

Gerardo does not believe his wife and instead, tries to convince Paulina to put down her gun. She refuses, insisting that as soon as she does, Gerardo will use his strength to overpower her and untie Roberto. Gerardo finally apologizes to the tied and gagged Roberto and moves to untie him anyway, but Paulina, much to everyone's surprise (including her own), fires the gun as a warning. Although the bullet doesn't hit anyone, Gerardo is forced to leave Roberto as he is. 

Paulina explains to Gerardo that she hid Roberto's car early that morning. She also used a public phone to call a tow truck that will take Gerardo to his broken down car. She instructs Gerardo to prepare to go because the truck will be at their house soon. As Gerardo pleads with Paulina to release Roberto, the tow truck arrives, forcing Gerardo to leave. Paulina promises that if Gerardo goes to the police while he is out, she will kill Roberto and then herself. Before Gerardo leaves, Paulina finally reveals why she has imprisoned Roberto: she wants Gerardo to help her put him on trial for the crimes she is convinced he committed so many years before. 


Act 1, Scene 4 is the first time in the play that Paulina becomes the dominant character. She begins the scene with a long monologue that hints at some of the horrors of her past, delivered with a calmness that belies the rage and fear she still feels. 

This is also the first scene where a character references the play's title. "Death and the Maiden" is the name of the Schubert quartet that the doctor who kept Paulina captive used to play while he was torturing her. Schubert named the piece after an old European myth in which Death demands a pre-nuptial night with a young bride-to-be. If she declines, Death vows to take her betrothed on their wedding day. Dorfman's use of this particular piece of music introduces themes of romance, dominance, and terror. Furthermore, the mythical tale of violence and corruption (both sexual and otherwise) has many parallels in the plot of Death and the Maiden

Gerardo's entrance forces Paulina to reveal her motivation behind tying up Roberto - and she loses control for the first time (by firing the gun) when Gerardo threatens to untie Roberto and derail his wife's plans. Paulina is determined not to let Roberto leave, and understands that unless Gerardo believes she is capable of shooting Roberto, Gerardo will try to overpower her. Physically, Paulina's only advantage over Gerardo is the gun, which she brandishes for the rest of the play. 

Furthermore, Paulina has already called the tow truck to pick up Gerardo, which forces him to acquiesce to her plan. With the two truck's arrival, Gerardo doesn't have time to persuade Paulina to untie Roberto. Instead, he has to rush away from the scene, and Paulina intends to begin Roberto's trial as soon as he returns. The scene (and Act 1) ends with Paulina finally revealing her plan: she and Gerardo are going to put Roberto on trial. "Right here," she says, "Today. Or is your famous Investigating Commission going to do it?"

Paulina's reference to Gerardo's Investigating Commission reveals not only her doubt, but also the skepticism of so many others about the ability of the Investigating Commission to fairly serve its country. She poses her question threateningly to Gerardo, and the scene ends without his response. Instead, Paulina's question hangs in the air, alluding to the larger question that the entire play is venturing to answer: can any Investigating Commission carry out justice in a way that truly gives the victims any form of closure?