The Visit

The Visit Summary and Analysis of Act 3

The third act opens in Petersens' Barn, where Claire stands wearing her wedding gown and veil. The visual effect is of a spider lying in wait amidst her webs. The wedding has just concluded, and the Doctor and the Schoolmaster approach Claire. She announces that she has sent her new husband, "Hoby", away, and that her lawyers are already filing for divorce. The Doctor and the Schoolmaster tell her that they want to talk about Ill. She asks, "O, has he died?" and they reply that they are loyal to their values, but that the town has gone into debt. The Schoolmaster takes the initiative, telling her how much they have sacrificed in an effort to restore Guellen to its former glory: "Madam, we are not poor; we are merely forgotten. We need credit, confidence, contracts, then our economy and culture will boom" (255). Claire takes this opportunity to reveal to them that she already owns everything in the town, and that she is the one who has orchestrated Guellen's downfall to avenge the injustice committed against her. In other words, she is implying that Ill himself is the root cause of their misery. The Schoolmaster pleads with her to cast away her desire for revenge and implores her, "Let your feeling for humanity prevail!" (257). She responds coolly: "Feeling for humanity, gentlemen, is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine you can afford a new world order. The world turned me into a whore. I shall turn the world into a brothel" (257).

The scene then cuts to a view of Ill's store, which now boasts a new sign, a new counter, and new stock. The townspeople discuss Claire's wedding, and marvel about the journalists and film starlets who were present at the grand affair. Everyone is purchasing more expensive cigarettes - still on credit. Louisa passes across the stage wearing stylish clothing, and Mrs. Ill remarks, "She's got her head full of dreams dressing up like that. She must imagine we'd murder Ill" (258). Mrs. Ill tells the gathered company that Ill is upstairs, and has been there for days. The townspeople comment on his guilty conscience and - in a marked reversal from the previous act - express their sympathy for Claire for all that she has endured. They also express their hope that Ill won't say anything to the press. The painter arrives wearing colorful clothing and a black beret, and announces that "art's beginning to boom in Guellen" (260). He then presents Mrs. Ill with a portrait of her husband. Reporters begin to arrive at the store, asking the townspeople questions about Guellen's reaction to Claire's visit. Having gotten wind of the story of Claire and Ill from the blind eunuchs, they bombard Mrs. Ill with questions. Mrs. Ill lies, telling them that she and Ill married for love. She also declares that "money alone makes no one happy" (262), to which a reporter responds, "that's a truth we in this modern world ought to write up in the sky of our hearts" (262). The Schoolmaster arrives, drunk, and tries to tell the press the truth about what is transpiring in Guellen, but the painter stops him by hitting him over the head with Ill's portrait.

Ill comes downstairs, and the store is thrown into shocked silence. The Schoolmaster tries to explain that he is trying to tell the reporters the truth "because I'm a humanist, a lover of the ancient Greeks, an admirer of Plato" (263), but the reporters are distracted by Ill's arrival. Someone calls from outside, crying out that Claire already has a new husband, and that they are at this very moment walking through Konrad's Village Wood. The reporters rush off, and the townspeople scatter. The Schoolmaster tells Ill that he tried to help him: "That infamous million is burning up our hearts" (266), but Ill replies that he refuses to fight any longer, and that he recognizes that he is responsible for the town's downfall. The Schoolmaster says to Ill, "They will kill you. I've known it from the beginning, and you've known it too for a long time, even if no one else in Guellen wants to admit it. The temptation is too great and our poverty is too wretched. But I know something else. I shall take part in it. I can feel myself slowly becoming a murderer. My faith in humanity is powerless to stop it" (267). With that, the Schoolteacher exits.

Ill goes to speak with his family, only to find that his daughter now owns a tennis racket, his son has a new car, and Mrs. Ill has a new fur coat. Ill suggests that they all go for a drive together in the new car. As his family scatters to prepare for the trip, the Mayor arrives at the store. He enters carrying a rifle, and tells Ill that there is to be a public meeting that evening in the auditorium of the Golden Apostle to discuss his case and the pressure that Claire is placing on the town. He asks Ill whether he will submit to their judgment, and Ill says that he will. The Mayor then suggests that Ill would make it easier for everyone if he just turned the gun on himself, but Ill refuses, stating, "I have been through Hell. I've watched you all getting into debt, and I've felt death creeping towards me, nearer and nearer with every sign of prosperity...There is no turning back. You must judge me, now. I shall accept your judgment, whatever it may be. For me, it will be justice; what it will be for you, I do not know" (217). He goes on to add, "You may kill me, I will not complain and I will not protest, nor will I defend myself. But I cannot spare you the task of the trial" (271).

Ill then goes for a drive in the new car with his family. Karl, Ill's son, makes a wrong turn; to get back to town, they must drive through Konrad's Village Wood. In the forest, the four townsmen turn into trees, emphasizing the autumn season. Ill notes that "the leaves on the ground are like layers of gold" (274). The family decides to go see a film, but Ill says that he'll stay behind and walk back into town for the meeting.

On the way to the meeting, Ill runs into Claire and her new husband (Husband IX), a Nobel Prize-winner. She is now the owner of the wood, and tells Ill that she has sent the two eunuchs to Hong Kong to visit an opium den. Claire asks her new husband to leave them alone for a while, and Ill and Claire walk together, reminiscing about the times that they spent in the wood, smoking together, deeply in love. Ill asks Claire about the child that she had claimed was his, and Claire says that it was a black-haired girl, whom she named Genevieve. Claire tells Ill that the girl's eyes never opened, and that she died of meningitis a year after she was born. Claire then asks Ill to talk to her about how she was when she was seventeen, when he loved her. Instead, Ill tells her that he accepts whatever punishment she has in store for him: "I only know that my meaningless life will end" (278). Claire says that she will take him to Capri in the coffin that she brought with her, and place his body in a mausoleum overlooking the Mediterranean. He asks her to describe the location to him. She does, and then says: "You will remain there. A dead man beside a stone idol. Your love died many years ago. But my love could not die. Neither could it live. It grew into an evil thing, like me, like the pallid mushrooms in this wood, and the blind, twisted features of the roots, all overgrown by my golden millions. Their tentacles sought you out, to take your life, because your life belonged to me, forever. You are in their toils now, and you are lost. You will soon be no more than a dead love in my memory, a gentle ghost haunting the wreckage of a house" (278-9). When Claire finishes speaking, Ill leaves.

The scene then shifts to the town meeting in the auditorium of the Golden Apostle, where the press has gathered for the event. An awestruck radio commentator narrates the events that are transpiring. First, the Mayor announces that Claire has offered to donate one million pounds, half for the town and half to be shared by the families. The Schoolmaster then asks, "What is her aim? Is it her aim to make us happy with money?...Her aim is to have the spirit of this community transformed - transformed to the spirit of justice. We, staggered by this demand, ask: have we not always been a just community?" (281). The townspeople respond to this by stating that a crime has been committed - perjury - and that they plan to rectify the situation. The Mayor calls Ill forward, and declares that it is because of him that they are receiving such a generous gift. He asks Ill whether he will accept the gift or refuse it, and Ill answers that he will respect whatever decision is made. The Mayor asks the assembled people whether there are any questions. Representatives from the Church, the medical community, the police force, and the opposition party are all silent. There is a vote to accept Claire's gift - unanimous save for Ill. The Mayor then leads the citizens in an almost religious chant, stating that they accept the money not for the sake of wealth, but in the name of justice. Ill screams, "My God!"

The cameraman asks the assembled townspeople whether they can repeat everything that they have just done, because the news-reel is jammed. The town repeats the chant, but Ill does not repeat his "cry of joy" for the camera. The Mayor then urges the press to enjoy the refreshments in the restaurant. Ill is asked to remain, and the townspeople lock the doors of the auditorium and turn out the lights. The Priest crosses to Ill slowly, watching as he takes a last smoke. The Priest says, "I'll pray for you," to which Ill answers: "Pray for Guellen" (286). Ill turns to accept his judgment, and the townspeople kill him. A reporter appears just as the Doctor declares that Ill has died from a heart attack. The Mayor adds, "Died of joy," and the reporter declares that "Life writes the most beautiful stories" (287).

Claire arrives to examine the corpse, and sees in Ill's face the boy that she had known in her youth: a "black panther." She has Ill's corpse placed in the coffin to take with her to Capri, and hands the Mayor the check. As Claire exits, the town's wealth grows at a dazzling pace. Suddenly, everyone is wearing evening gowns and dress-suits. In the style of a Greek tragedy, the townspeople form into two choruses and begin chanting.

The play concludes at the railway station, where Claire waits. She is accompanied by Ill's coffin, which the townspeople refer to as a "precious charge" (291).


Act 3 brings the drama to its logical conclusion. When the Schoolteacher and the Doctor realize that Claire has been the one orchestrating Guellen's rapid decline, and that she is doing so in order to punish the town for Ill's mistreatment of her, the townspeople begin to rationalize murdering the man whom they had previously held in such high esteem. In other words, they figure out a way to justify his murder: slaughtering Ill, they decide, is the only proper punishment for a man who is guilty of a grave injustice against a woman, an injustice that has caused an untold amount of suffering. In the first act, the townspeople had viewed Claire's proposition in a negative light, believing that it was a simple exchange of a life for wealth and prosperity, but in this act the townspeople begin to believe that it is a matter of justice, not a matter of material wealth. The audience, however, realizes that the townspeople are simply fooling themselves: although they have declared Ill's death "just" in order to validate their actions, it is clear that they have decided that the material comfort of many justifies the sacrifice of a single life.

Act 3 reveals that Claire's power and wealth do indeed, as she has claimed, entitle her to alter the very foundation of the legal system. The audience has seen her "buying" justice several times throughout the play (such as when she pulls the emergency brake on the express train and escapes punishment), but it is only here that the true scope of her power is revealed. She is even able to sway officers of the law to abandon their posts: the Policeman flat-out refuses to arrest Claire on Ill's behalf, thereby directly contributing to his death. Even though the audience learned from the Priest that there is no death penalty in Switzerland, Claire's power is so all-encompassing that she is able to make her gift conditional upon a total overhaul of the legal system. The entire town becomes complicit in an extra-judicial proceeding; an extreme punishment that is meted out in blatant disregard of the established legal system.

Additionally, Claire's unique rule of law is driven by a "personal" sense of justice based on revenge; indeed, throughout the play Claire repeatedly appears to confuse "justice" with "revenge". She announces to the Schoolteacher and the Doctor that the world has turned her into a whore, and that she, in turn, intends to turn the world into a brothel. Motivated by the maxim of "an eye for an eye," Claire views justice as a kind of personal service that can be purchased as easily as a pair of shoes. The allusions to sexual services ("whore", "brothel") are direct references to Claire's personal history: she has suffered because the fact that she gave birth to a child out of wedlock and then became a prostitute has rendered her unsuitable for inclusion in "normal" society. Her clients, however, were free to satisfy their own desires - however "perverse" they might have been - because their wealth gave them the ability to do as they pleased. Even her first husband, from whom she inherited her wealth, was rich enough to purchase a beautiful young wife even though he was old and decrepit. Claire's real-world education proved to her that anything can be bought: marriage, justice (or revenge), personal services, and life itself. The only things that money cannot buy (and arguably the things that Claire wants most in the world) are a way to erase the past (although Claire certainly attempts to do this to the best of her abilities), and romantic love. Duerrenmatt appears to believe that it is romantic love that breeds true happiness; in a notable moment of irony, Ill's wife tells the reporters that "Money alone makes no one happy" - although she, along with the rest of the town, clearly equates wealth with happiness.

Since Claire is not powerful enough to literally turn back the hands of time or to restore herself and Ill to their previous state of youthful bliss, she finds solace in "justice", believing that revenge will sate the anger that has burned inside her for decades. By the end of the play, Claire has achieved the purpose of her visit, and the final moments of the play see Claire carrying away Ill's body to a mausoleum in the Mediterranean. The townspeople - including Ill's family - have also achieved their goals: they have all succeeded in finding happiness due to their improved economic status. While both Claire and the townspeople of Guellen might have preferred the love and wealth that they, respectively, enjoyed in the past to their present situation, they nevertheless prefer tainted happiness to no happiness at all. Claire cannot have Ill's love, but she can have his body, in the bleakest sense (yet another allusion to Claire's life as a prostitute). The town of Guellen cannot be restored to its former cultural and humanist glory, but it can enjoy a newfound - albeit ill-gotten - prosperity. Duerrenmatt appears to be arguing that it is market demand that generates culture and fine art; art is no more an expression of the soul than the justice system is an expression of the truth.

Interestingly, Act 3 casts Ill himself as the "victim" of Claire's "plot". He achieves an almost martyr-like status through his willingness to submit to the punishment that Claire has meted out for him. In this context, it is important to consider Ill's name (and particularly important given the emphasis that Duerrenmatt places on monikers throughout the play): the French pronoun "il" is a reference to the "everyman", and in the English language "ill" brings to mind an "illness" or "disease". Ill is thus a representation of the malaise that afflicts ordinary workingmen, who have little to no agency in the face of extraordinary wealth and power. The implication is that the "everyman" stands a better chance of living a "good" life and earning the respect of his neighbors, despite the hardships that accompany a lower social standing. However, Ill's very name is a reference to the slight that he committed against Claire, and the maladies - both private and public - that arose in the wake of his misdeed. Ill may be a victim, but he is also a criminal.

Claire's wedding brings the attention of the international community to the small town of Guellen. The townspeople's determination to keep the facts of Claire's gift a secret even though the town is swarming with journalists reveals the inevitability of Ill's death. Over the course of the third act, the townspeople's sympathy for Claire grows, although they continue to hypocritically criticize Louisa. Louisa represents who Claire was in her youth, and the fact that the townspeople overtly "sympathize" with Claire while rejecting her doppelganger reveals the disingenuous nature of their beliefs. Matilda, Ill's wife, declares that Louisa must expect them to actually kill Ill; ironically, however, Matilda herself has purchased an extravagant new fur coat in unconscious anticipation of her husband's death. The ease with which Matilda lies about the nature of her relationship with Ill stands as evidence of her solidarity with the townspeople: even Ill's own wife has fallen victim to the temptations of material wealth. The journalists symbolize the outside world, which turns a blind eye to the truth about what is transpiring in Guellen, preferring to believe that people are inherently "just" and "good". Duerrenmatt clearly believes that almost anyone, if placed in the same situation, would behave like the residents of Guellen, and by emphasizing the journalists' blindness, he reveals the hypocrisy inherent in modern society. The journalists are far more preoccupied with Claire's celebrity, wealth, and string of marriages than they are with exposing injustice.

In Act 3, the painter reappears: he is now a flourishing artist, and has painted a portrait of Ill for Ill's wife. The portrait - almost a memorial - ominously foreshadows Ill's imminent death. Moments later, the painter destroys his own work by breaking the portrait over the head of the Schoolteacher in an effort to prevent the Schoolteacher from telling the press about Claire's conditional gift. Not only does the destruction of the painting hint at the violence to come, but it reveals the painter's true attitude towards art: he is more concerned with maintaining his livelihood than he is with genuine artistic expression. The portrait, it seems, is no different from the welcoming sign that he was painting at the beginning of the first act: both works were created solely for financial gain. Even though the quality of his work has improved, his attitude is no different; he is simply being paid more.

The Schoolteacher is a key figure in the play, because, like Ill, he "sees" the reality of what is taking place in the town. However, even though the Schoolteacher has strong humanist ideals, he is incapable of acting on Ill's behalf or convincing the townspeople to reflect upon what is happening in Guellen. Though his attempt to alert the press is overtly noble, he nevertheless confides to Ill that he will also have a hand in his death. This pessimism is warranted: the Schoolteacher does, indeed, join the conspirators in the end, proving that ideals are no match for market forces and the power of wealth and prosperity. The Schoolteacher sacrifices his ideals as easily as he sacrifices Ill.

By the time the meeting begins, Ill has come to terms with his fate. The townspeople - including Ill's own family - have come to view Ill as a guilty man, and in the end even Ill himself arrives at the same conclusion. He recognizes that it was he who brought such misery to the town, and accepts his punishment. However, when the Mayor arrives with a rifle and suggests that Ill might make it easier on everyone if he would just turn the rifle on himself, Ill insists on a trial, believing that a public spectacle is the only way to reveal the truth about what is taking place. If he shot himself, the conspiracy could be easily covered up and denied. By forcing the townspeople to physically kill him, he cements his place in Guellen's collective conscience.

Ill also exhibits remarkable courage during his final moments, thus heightening the emotional and moral conflict at the center of the story. While Act 2 ended with Ill literally paralyzed by fear, unable to board the train because he was terrified of the possible repercussions, Act 3 ends with Ill to a certain extent orchestrating his own demise. He faces death unflinchingly; he arrives at the town meeting of his own free will, and smokes a cigarette, knowing full well that it will be his last. Ill ultimately dies fully cognizant of the seriousness of the wrong that he committed against Claire, but also aware that the townspeople are not actually achieving true "justice".

There are a number of clear parallels between Ill and Christ. Ill, like Christ, meets his death calmly, only crying out for a moment, "Oh, God!" (recalling Christ's cry of "Father, why hast thou forsaken me?"). Ill's cry, however, is mistaken for a cry of joy by the reporters, who use it as support for their contention that he suffered a heart attack because he was so overcome by happiness.

The ritualistic nature of Ill's murder is enhanced by the emphasis placed on the color gold: the townspeople wear yellow shoes; the policeman has a new gold tooth; layers of gold cover the floor of the forest; the name of Claire's hotel is the Golden Apostle. This excessive usage of the color gold is a clear allusion to the Biblical sacrifice to the golden idol: a calf. Here, Claire, the richest woman in the world, appears to represent the golden idol; the sacrifice that she requires, however, is a human one. In order to be "saved", the town must surrender one of its own, and by extension relinquish its very humanity.

By the conclusion of the drama, Ill has been transformed from a predator into a victim. At the very least, he has achieved redemption, and can even be viewed as a martyr. By acknowledging his guilt and bravely facing the punishment meted out to him by the town, he achieves an almost spiritual transcendence: the man that we see at the end of Act 3 is a very different person from the man who awaited Claire's arrival at the train station. The final scene appears to purge the guilt that has plagued Ill from the moment that he committed his unjust act. Ill is spiritually reborn at the very same moment that the town undergoes a spiritual death.

By the end of The Visit, Claire has successfully proven that money can, indeed, purchase "justice". While Claire can never recapture her youthful innocence, she has achieved her goal: total control over the man whose actions dictated the course of her entire life. For Claire, this is perhaps the only kind of happiness that she can ever know. She has truly become a monster, someone who can find peace only when inflicting pain upon others.