Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Paulina states that she and Gerardo lied to each other out of "love" (64). Discuss the ways in which they lie to each other throughout the play, and if this is a demonstration of love at all. 

    The play begins with Gerardo lying to Paulina. He pretends that he wants to get her approval before accepting a role on the President's commission even though he has already agreed to the position. Later, Gerardo lies to Paulina about his motivation to get her to recount her experience of being tortured; he claims it will help them move on, but she (and the audience) knows that Gerardo wants details to feed to Roberto for his confession. For her part, Paulina lies to Gerardo to get him out of the house so she can kill Roberto. She claims it is for "his own good" - she knows that if she tries to kill Roberto in front of him, he will attempt to intervene and one of them might get hurt. 

    Gerardo's lies are motivated in some part by his desire to spare Paulina's feelings and to protect her. He wants her to feel that she is a part of his decision to accept the commission, and he wants to satisfy her need for vengeance while saving Roberto's life. At the same time, these lies are also motivated by Gerardo's self interest. He wants to be able to immediately accept the President's commission, and he is afraid that if Paulina kills Roberto it could hurt his career. 

    In her own way, Paulina's lies are also motivated by love. She respects Gerardo's desire to save people, and doesn't want him to have to suffer because of her desire to kill Roberto. However, more than anything she wants to kill Roberto, and having Gerardo in the room could complicate her ability to do so. 

  2. 2

    Is Paulina acting out of a desire for justice or vengeance? 

    Initially, Paulina appears to be acting out of a desire for justice. Her insistence that Roberto get a fair "trial" where he has the right to speak and defend himself seem to indicate she wants justice delivered. Later in the play, she mentions that she did not kill Roberto right away because she still harbored a small bit of doubt that he was the doctor who tortured her, which indicates that part of her saw Roberto as innocent until proven guilty. 

    However, throughout the play, Paulina taunts and teases Roberto in a way that seems more focused on vengeance than justice. She whispers upsetting phrases in his ear and speaks of her desire to torment him. She states that her decision to kill him at the end of the play comes from the fact that she doesn't believe that he has truly repented, which is at best a very skewed, personal form of justice, and more likely a desire for vengeance motivated by her intense rage. 

  3. 3

    Why does Dorfman never choose to name Chile as the setting for the play? What does he gain by keeping the setting nonspecific? 

    Although the play is clearly inspired by the events in Chile between 1973 and 1990, Dorfman deliberately does not name the country in which Death and the Maiden is set. This decision helps the Dorfman to achieve universality, which is critical to the play's message. Chile is not the only country that has human rights violations in its past - any country is at risk when democracy is threatened. Viewers of this play from all different countries are able to watch it and put themselves in the characters' positions and consider what these events might mean if they did or could transpire in their own countries. By making the setting open-ended, Dorfman forces the audience to consider the myriad places it could take place. In this way, the play only becomes more powerful, its message more potent. Furthermore, it allows Dorfman to reach viewers who might be biased in the case of a specific conflict, thus giving him access to a wider audience. 


  4. 4

    How does Gerardo convince Roberto to confess to Paulina's accusations? Describe the methods he employs - which are the most successful? 

    Initially, Gerardo attempts to convince Roberto to confess using reason and logic. He respectfully addresses Roberto and tries to reason with him by explaining that since Paulina is unstable, the two of them, as rational individuals, had best adhere to her demands and appease her - not "rock the boat" as it were. When Roberto keeps insisting that he is innocent, Gerardo changes his approach, screaming angrily at Roberto to demonstrate to him the precariousness of his situation and the importance of keeping Gerardo as an ally. Gerardo threatens and bullies Roberto, essentially scaring him into acquiescence. This proves to be the most effective strategy, for it is only after being yelled at by Gerardo that Roberto agrees to confess. 

  5. 5

    How does Dorfman use music and lighting to enhance the tension and impact of Death and the Maiden

    The use of lighting and music is especially effective at heightening the tension of the play. Much of the play takes place in darkness, which adds to the mystery and fear in many of the scenes. The darkness also serves to emphasize and focus the audience's attention on the horror of particularly upsetting monologues, such as Roberto's confession, which we hear in almost complete darkness. The eerie moonlight that accompanies the nighttime also helps to add to the haunting quality of the play. 

    The use of classical music provides an equally intense impact. Paulina discusses the horror she feels listening to Schubert. The audience is able to hear the same music and feel its unsettling impact for themselves, especially after hearing about the context in which Paulina heard the music. 


  6. 6

    Why does Dorfman choose to have a mirror descend in front of the characters at the moment of the play's climax? How does this device affect the audience's experience of the play? 

    Dorfman deliberately deprives the audience of the "satisfaction" of a climax by interrupting the play at the moment of greatest tension and instead forcing the audience members to look at themselves and each other. This device, though highly unusual, makes the experience of Death and the Maiden much more participatory. Rather than being passive observers of the play's final moments, viewers are instead directly confronted by their own images, and are forced into an artificial moment of self-reflection immediately after grappling with the themes of the play. The mirror encourages the audience to consider critical issues of complicity and personal responsibility when it comes to issues of justice, equality, and violations of human rights. 

  7. 7

    Why is it so important to Paulina to have Roberto write out an official "confession"? What does this represent for her? 

    Not only will an official "confession" ensure that Roberto can never prosecute Paulina and Gerardo for their actions (they would immediately retaliate by releasing the confession which names Roberto as a human rights violator), it also validates for Paulina the suffering that she endured so many years before. As Paulina says, she has been voiceless for over a decade (57), but now that she's found her voice, she intends to demand a complete confession from her torturer. She believes that getting this truth out in the open, from Roberto's mouth, will free her from the bonds in which her silence has imprisoned her for so many years. 

    Additionally, Paulina is eager to see Roberto repent for his actions - to be truly sorry for what he did to her. She believes that the written confession will force him to confront his actions and achieve a state of repentance. 

  8. 8

    Discuss the play's title - what does Death and the Maiden mean to the characters? Why is Schubert so important to Paulina? 

    "Death and the Maiden" is the title of the Schubert quartet that the doctor played for Paulina while he was torturing her. For her, it represents the beauty in society that was stripped from her by the cruelty of her torturers. Paulina longs to be able to listen to Schubert again - it would mean that she has somehow moved beyond the scarring impact of her torture and is once again able to appreciate the human experience. She believes that the only way for her to 'get Schubert back' is by putting the doctor who tortured her on trial for his crimes. 

  9. 9

    Gerardo says "people can die from an excessive dose of the truth, you know" (55). What does he mean by this? How does Roberto feel about the truth of Paulina's past? 

    Roberto is loathe to confront the truth - he believes in the protective power of lies. The irony of this given his position on the Investigating Commission (established to determine the ugly truth of what happened to thousands of his missing countrymen) is significant. For Gerardo, confronting the truth of what happened to Paulina, and of his affair, mean living in the past. He instead wants to look only towards the future and move forward. Eventually, by the end of the play, he is forced to confront the truth of Paulina's past, a difficult challenge given his reticence, but a potential marker of his growth as a character. 

  10. 10

    The play deliberately does not show how Act 3, Scene 1 ends. Why doesn't it "tell us" whether Paulina kills Roberto? What does keeping this part of the narrative unknown do to the audience's experience of watching the play? 

    The play asks many questions about justice and cycles of violence, but it does not provide many answers. Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden as a way to articulate many of the real-life questions he had about Chile's ability to recover from the dictatorial rule of Pinochet. He did not have answers to most of his questions, so he did not "write" any into the play. Instead, he leaves the end of the narrative open-ended to encourage viewers to consider their own reactions to the story. If Paulina kills Roberto, is she justified? If she lets him go, is that the "right thing to do"? By not showing us how the story ends, Dorfman makes the audience's experience watching the play much more participatory and cerebral - we are forced to decide for ourselves what has happened, as well as address what we may have wanted to happen.