For Paulina, Schubert is a symbol of civilization - specifically, the civilized and idealistic vision of society that was shattered during her captivity. "There is no way of describing what it means to hear that wonderful music in the darkness" (58) she says, describing how it felt when the "doctor" played Schubert for her after torturing her for three days. This experience has poisoned Schubert for Paulina. Ever since she was freed, she has been unable to listen to the music without becoming violently ill. She repeatedly tells Roberto that she wants to get her Schubert back - symbolically, being able to listen to Schubert again represents for Paulina a restoration of her ability to enjoy the comforts of society.
Each of the characters in the play symbolizes a different group within the society the play evokes. Although the play never specifically names Chile as its setting, it is clear that Chile was the inspiration for Death and the Maiden, in which case Paulina is the symbol for all of the victims of Chile's past dictatorship. Although she is only one person, Dorfman implies that her story of abduction and torture is one of thousands.
Paulina's decision to seek out justice for past crimes, although not necessarily dangerous to society as an isolated incident, represents a major threat to the young country. If the nation cannot come up with a satisfactory way of pursuing justice for so many victims, what will happen if they all attempt to find their own justice, as Paulina does? The risk is great: the potential for widespread violence and civil disobedience could threaten to destroy the fledgling democracy that has been established. As a symbol of the thousands of other victims of the dictatorship, the message Paulina is sending is clear: the country's current solution to this crisis of justice is inadequate, and the new government must work harder to satisfy the needs of this particular group.
As a newly appointed member of the Investigating Commission, Gerardo is the voice of the new democratic government. His position between Paulina and Roberto symbolizes the new president's challenge in pursuing justice for the victims of the dictatorship without ostracizing the perpetrators, who are in many cases still prominent members of society. Gerardo's energy and optimism for the future speak to the hope of the new government; his frustration at being 'stuck in the middle' of Paulina and Roberto speaks to its transitional struggles.
Because Dorfman does not reveal whether or not Paulina kills Roberto in the end, Gerardo's success as a mediator remains uncertain. The fact that Paulina removes him from the scene by the end of the play implies that the government's ability to arbitrate between accused and accuser is limited, at best. However, Gerardo's positive attitude in the play's final scene suggests that the government has had some success in its initial efforts to pursue justice. Of course, it is possible that Gerardo is lying in order to safe face in public; Dorfman therefore leaves it up to his his viewers to determine the outcome.
Roberto, the third member of the trio, symbolizes all of the country's accused. Similar to Chile after the fall of Pinochet, the world of Death and the Maiden contains thousands of citizens who supported or participated in the injustices of the fallen dictatorship. Like Roberto, many of these guilty parties are upstanding and seemingly admirable contributors to society, making it difficult to identify them. Additionally, many of these alleged criminals also insist on their innocence. Although there are many victims like Paulina who would demand their deaths, the government is interested in stopping the cycle of violence and therefore will not be systematically eliminating these people in the name of justice. This is the main tension in Death and the Maiden - how and if the victims (Paulina) can live peacefully with their attackers (Roberto), even though their government no longer casts them in these roles.
The Trial (Motif)
Dorfman uses the recurring motif of a trial to emphasize the corrupt nature of vigilante justice within the context of an imbalanced society. For Paulina, the new government is not a rational or just because it allows her torturers to resume their civilian lives without taking any kind of responsibility for their cruelty. Her decision to kidnap Roberto and "try" him for his crimes is Paulina's way of making up for the lapses of the government and society that supposedly exist to protect her rights.
However, nothing about Paulina's trial is equitable - she keeps Roberto tied up and threatens to kill him if he doesn't confess. This is a farce of a trial, but still Paulina insists on describing it as such, using terms like "witness" and "client" and insisting that Roberto get his turn to speak. The "trial" motif serves to remind the audience that Paulina is expected to move on with her life without the option of legal retribution; Gerardo's Investigating Commission will not be trying any perpetrators of torture or violence, instead, the president has instructed them to simply "investigate" abuses of justice. A true "trial," therefore, seems entirely out of reach for both Paulina and Roberto; that Dorfman constantly refers the practice throughout the play only underlines its absence.
Death and the Maiden Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Death and the Maiden is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.