One of the major themes in Death and the Maiden isthe question of what justice entails. Specifically, the characters in the play are struggling navigate the conflict between personal justice and national peace.
Dorfman highlights the limitations of government when it comes to transitional justice. The new government that employs Gerardo is the first democracy to emerge after years of authoritarianism. The President and his colleagues are facing the paradoxical challenge of how to deliver justice to the thousands of victims of the dictatorship without angering or exposing the perpetrators of the violence who still happen to hold major positions in both government and society. The proposed solution is the Investigating Commission to which Gerardo has been appointed. This new group will have limited authority; it can only investigate only those crimes that ended in death or its presumption, and it cannot actually persecute any criminals who have been proven guilty.
Paulina is disenchanted with the structure of the new commission, understanding that since she did not die in captivity, Gerardo and his colleagues cannot pursue justice on her behalf. As a result, she takes matters into her own hands and attempts to punish Roberto for his alleged wrongs herself. On one hand, the fact that Paulina feels that she has to take these measures speaks to the failure of her government to satisfy her needs; however, whether Paulina can or should expect that sort of satisfaction from her government is one of the major quandaries in Death and the Maiden. Dorfman forces his audiences and readers to consider whether or not Paulina's decision to enact vigilante justice is appropriate. Should she defer to her government, which has elected to pursue a much weaker, less aggressive "justice" on her behalf? Should physical punishment be sought to punish those who perpetrate crimes as great as the ones that Paulina has suffered, and most importantly, will the pursuit of such extreme justice actually deliver to Paulina the peace she so desperately desires?
Civilization vs. Depravity
In Death and the Maiden, the tention between civilization and depraved behavior lurks just beneath the surface. For all of the play’s implied violence and past horrors, the characters maintain a level a civility throughout, which threatens to give way at any moment. Although Paulina is holding a gun for almost the entire duration of teh hplay, she actually only fires it once and that, too, is a warning shot. Despite the threats that the characters hurl at each other, at no point does anyone descend into actual violence.
This superficial civility serves to emphasize the violence that has marked all of their pasts. Paulina’s recollection of her torture and captivity shows that she has learned the hard way that human beings are capable of heartless savagery, and that knowledge has cast a permanent shadow on her ability to function within the accepted decorum of civilized society. This disparity is exemplified by Paulina's relationship to Schubert. His music represents human civilization's great acheivements which has became intolerable to her after the doctor who tortured her played it before subjecting her to unspeakable pain and humiliation. She longs to be able to listen to Schubert again without anxiety – in essence, she longs to reclaim this marker of civilization from the monsters who crushed her faith in mankind. By the play’s end, though, Paulina is able to listen to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” suggesting that her own act of violence may have indeed restored an uneasy sense of balance to her world.
Past vs. Future
A major theme in Death and the Maiden is the conflict between the power of the past and the potential of the future. For example, Paulina is mired in the past. She is haunted by her time in captivity, which has rendered her unable to consider the future for the past fifteen years. Before Paulina encounters Roberto Miranda, she has no ambition beyond basic survival - she does not work and she rarely goes out or socializes. Gerardo, meanwhile, is fixated on the future. He has recently been appointed to a powerful position in government and has high hopes for his career and for the success of democracy in his country. In fact, Gerardo is barely able to address the past at the beginning of the play; he has difficulty acknowledging what happened to Paulina and own up to the ways in which he has failed her.
It becomes clear early on that Paulina and Gerardo need to find a balance between the past and the future if they are to sustain a healthy relationship. Paulina needs to find a way to live her life without being completely obsessed with her past, and Gerardo needs to accept the truth of what happened in his country and to his wife if he wants to succeed in his new position and in his marriage. Although Gerardo seems to have made significant strides towards acceptance (by the end of the play he is at least able to discuss what Paulina has gone through), it is not clear whether or not Paulina has been freed from the ghosts of her traumatic past.
Cycle of Violence
Paulina is just one of the thousands of implied victims in Death and the Maiden. The now fallen authoritarian government and its secret police were responsible for the torturing and killing many of its citizens. There is now a democracy in place, and the new regime is facing the challenge of appeasing both the victims and their torturers who still hold important positions. Gerardo's commission represents the new government's attempt to pay tribute to the dead and to end the cycle of violence at the same time; the commission will be acknowledging the crimes of the past but it will not enact punishments.
As the only victim represented in the microcosmic world of Dorfman's play, Paulina finds the commission's charter to be ineffective; she can only achieve inner peace when she believes that true justice has been carried out. For her, this means the death of Roberto Miranda, whom she believes to be one of her torturers. In the moments before Paulina is about to shoot him, Roberto begs for his life by appealing to her to stop the cycle of violence, implying that his death will only prompt his own children to seek justice on his behalf.
Dorfman deliberately refrains from revealing whether or not Paulina puts a stop to this cycle, but in the final moments of this scene she seems unwilling to forgo the chance to seek physical justice for her suffering. “This time I am going to think about myself…if only to do justice in one case,” she says. The implication is that she will go through with killing Roberto, but the question of how to stop this cycle of violence remains unanswered.
Lies vs. Truth
All of the characters in Death and the Maiden lie to each other; the pursuit of truth is at once elusive, coveted, and feared. “People can die from an excessive dose of the truth” (55) Gerardo warns Paulina. He is driven by his desire to keep the past buried, to hide the truth of his affair from Paulina, and to convince her to free Roberto before she ruins his career. For Gerardo, the truth is dangerous, and lies offer protection and comfort. Ultimately, Gerardo and Paulina’s relationship is built on a foundation of protective lies: Gerardo lies to Paulina about why he wants her to testify about her captivity (to save Roberto), and Paulina lies to Gerardo about her intention to kill Roberto. "We lied to each other out of love" (64) Paulina says when describing how she and Gerardo have tried to manipulate each other - Gerardo to free Roberto, and Paulina to determine Roberto's guilt.
Throughout the play, Paulina is driven by the all-consuming desire to prove the truth of Roberto's identity; she believes that he is the man who tortured and raped her while she was in captivity many years before. She sets up tests and challenges to prove her suspicions, and once she feels confident that she is correct, she believes that she is justified in killing Roberto. Although she also lies throughout the play, Paulina is doing so in order to claim power in a situation where she has none. However, Dorfman deliberately conceals the the truth of whether or not Roberto is Paulina’s torturer. By refusing to reveal this fact, Dorfman asks the audience to consider whether or not knowing the truth of Roberto’s actions would justify Paulina’s decision to kill him.
Forgiveness is a major theme in Death and the Maiden. Dorfman asks his audience to consider whether or not forgiveness is necessary and/or possible after extreme acts of violence or betrayal. Not only is Paulina unable to forgive Roberto Miranda for the torture she believes he inflicted on her, she has also struggled for a decade and a half to forgive Gerardo for cheating on her while she was in captivity.
At the end of the play, Paulina claims that she can’t spare Roberto’s life because she cannot forgive someone who doesn’t feel true remorse. Gerardo, however, feels extreme remorse about his betrayal, and Paulina still cannot seem to forgive him for his betrayal. Gerardo argues that unless Paulina can truly forgive him, their relationship has no future. Ultimately, Dorfman chooses not to reconcile this quandary; the audience never learns if Paulina has truly forgiven Roberto and/or Gerardo. In doing so, Death and the Maiden seems to suggest that there are some acts so horrible that they render forgiveness impossible.
Guilt vs. Innocence
Much of the dramatic tension in Death and the Maiden surrounds the guilt or innocence of the characters. Roberto is the most extreme example, as Paulina is literally putting him on trial to determine his complicity in her abduction and torture, but Gerardo and Paulina also struggle with this concept.
At the beginning of the play, Gerardo is burdened by the guilt of his previous betrayal. Later, Roberto casts more blame on Gerardo for going along with Paulina’s outrageous display by accusing him of losing control of his home and his wife – even after Paulina reminds both men that she will shoot Roberto if Gerardo tries to free him. It becomes clear that Gerardo's guilt is, in part, preventing him from taking action against Paulina; he has long been bearing the burden of knowing that Paulina was tortured because she refused to give up Gerardo's name and that when Paulina was finally freed, she caught him with another woman. Gerardo longs to be exonerated from this guilt and begs Paulina to forgive him, but as the characters in the play come to understand, forgiveness does not beget innocence. The play seems to ask whether guilt, once forgiven, can ever truly be released – or is Gerardo doomed to feel this paralyzing guilt for the rest of his life?
Although Paulina initially appears to be the play’s most innocent character, within the first three scenes she is immediately engaging in behavior that renders her guilty of the same crimes as her captors. She does not physically abuse Roberto in the way he allegedly violated her, but she acknowledges that holding him hostage and depriving him of food and water is reprehensible. Unlike Roberto and Gerardo, however, Paulina does not care if she is guilty – for her, her guilt and innocence are irrelevant in the pursuit of justice.
Death and the Maiden Questions and Answers
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