Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden Literary Elements





Setting and Context

The play is set in the present, in a country that "is probably Chile" but could be any country that is adjusting to a newly established democracy after decades of a dictatorship. Ariel Dorfman wrote the play in 1990, and many of the cultural references, such as tape recorders, fit into that time frame.

Narrator and Point of View

There is no narrator for the play, and thus, there is no particular point of view. The play allows all three of its characters the opportunity to express their points of view as each fights for the opportunity to tell his or her story.

Tone and Mood

The play's tone is gritty, dramatic, and dark. Much of the play takes place at night; many scenes unfold in literal darkness. In addition, there is a symbolic darkness that permeates the play as well. Death and the Maiden is also highly realistic until its final scenes, when theatrical elements like the giant mirror and Paulina and Gerardo sitting in the audience add a layer of symbolism that forces the audience into a more active style of viewership.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Paulina is the main protagonist of the play, and Roberto its main antagonist. Depending on how the audience views and judges Paulina's actions, it is also possible for the audience to favor and root for Gerardo (or even Roberto), however Paulina is established as the main protagonist because of her prominence in the play and her actions, which drive the rest of the characters' behaviors.

Major Conflict

The major conflict is between Paulina and the team of Roberto and Gerardo. Paulina wants to try (and ultimately kill) Roberto for his crimes, whereas Roberto and Gerardo both want her to free Roberto.


The climax of the play occurs in Act 3, Scene 1 when Paulina has gotten Gerardo to leave the house and prepares to kill Roberto. As she raises her gun to his head and he pleads for his life, the audience expects to see the climax occur with his death (or perhaps Paulina's decision to free him). Instead, the descent of a giant mirror interrupts the action onstage and forces the audience into an artificial moment of self-reflection.


In the opening moments of the play, Paulina reaches for the gun in the sideboard when she hears her husband coming home with a stranger, an image that clearly foreshadows her decision to kidnap Roberto and use the gun to exercise power over both men.

Later, in scene 2, Paulina catches Gerardo in a lie when she gets him to admit that he's already accepted the position on the commission, even though he initially told her he hadn't decided yet. This foreshadows the lies that Paulina and Gerardo will tell each other later on in their efforts to achieve their opposing goals - Gerardo will lie to Paulina in his attempt to free Roberto, and Paulina will lie to Gerardo so that she will be able to kill Roberto.


Throughout the play, Dorfman uses understatement to emphasize Paulina's power in the situation. When she first ties up Roberto, she jokes, "I hope you don't mind that this must remain, for the moment, a monologue" (20) - which is an understatement because Roberto is gagged and therefore unable to respond. She later remarks, "No one can say that I'm not a good cook, can they?" (45) when of course neither Gerardo nor Roberto cares whether or not Paulina is a good cook - they just want her to free Roberto. These moments of understatement add a lightness to Paulina's words which further amplify the danger she represents; she comes across as casual, but of course the fact that she is holding a gun and could kill Roberto, Gerardo or herself at any moment belies this cheekiness and gives her statements a sinister overtone.


The entire play is an allusion to Chile's recovery from the dictatorial rule of General Augusto Pinochet and the subsequent Rettig Commission that was established to investigate his crimes. Gerardo's Investigating Commission is meant to represent the Rettig Commission, and Paulina's kidnapping is meant to represent the many kidnappings that Pinochet's secret police engaged in throughout the decades of his rule. Although Dorfman never names the past dictator or the current President in Death and the Maiden, the audience can assume that they are stand-ins for Pinochet and his successor, Patricio Aylwin, Chile's first democratically elected president.


Some recurring images that Dorfman uses throughout the play are moonlight, which represents the haunting power of the past; the tape recorder, which acts as a sort of silent witness to all the characters' testimonies, a literal representation of the commission's goal to establish an official documented history of the violence that has occurred. Meanwhile, the image of Roberto being tied to a chair evokes the thousands of kidnappings and abductions perpetrated by the secret police during the tyrannical dictatorship.


A major paradox in the play is Roberto's challenge. He insists on his innocence, and demands that he should be freed because of it. However the only way Paulina will consent to freeing him is if he confesses his guilt. This is a paradox because Roberto's innocence is exactly why he believes he deserves freedom - should he confess his guilt, it would mean accepting vigilante justice as an appropriate form of punishment.


There is a major parallel in the between Paulina and the former dictator. In both cases, an individual is wrenching control over others. Even though the persecuted parties believe that the individual in power is crazy, they submit to his or her demands because he or she threatens violence and possesses a means to dominate them. Paulina's abduction of Roberto is a direct parallel to the former dictator's abduction of Paulina, thus representing the cycle of violence her vengeance will perpetrate.


Gerardo is, in a certain way, the personification of reason and logic in the play. Although Paulina is consumed by her need for vengeance and justice, Gerardo encourages her to be reasonable and let Roberto go. For much the play, Gerardo is able to keep his cool and acts rationally towards both Paulina and Roberto. By the play's end, however, Gerardo loses some of this calmness, eventually succumbing to the frustration and anguish that Paulina's actions have stirred up within him.

Similarly, Paulina is something of the personification of vengeance. She is motivated entirely by her desire to see Roberto suffer for what she believes he did to her, and fully ascribes to the "eye for an eye" mindset. She is unswayed by Gerardo's logic or by Roberto's pleas for clemency; instead, it is blind vengeance that propels her forward.

Use of Dramatic Devices

A major dramatic device in Death and the Maiden is Dorfman's use of the mirror in Act 3, Scene 1. At the moment of the play's climax, the stage directions indicate that a giant mirror descends in front of Paulina and Roberto, forcing the audience to study themselves and each other while a spotlight roams around, illuminating various audience members in turn. This highly alienating device entirely takes the viewers out of the "story," encouraging them to instead reflect (literally) on their own feelings about the narrative - their complicity in violations of human rights, their belief in whether or not Paulina's actions are justified, and their own opinions about personal or societal justice.

In the play's final scene, the stage directions indicate that Paulina and Roberto are watching a concert from within the audience itself, which further serves to implicate the audience in the issues of the play - Dorfman literally "casts" the viewers as citizens of Paulina and Roberto's country, and forces them to consider how they might behave when put in the same situations as his fictional characters.

The use of music in the play - specifically, Schubert's Death and the Maiden and the Mozart piece that accompanies the climax - helps to intensify the emotional impact of the play by exposing the audience to the same auditory cues that torment Paulina.

Finally, the play's lighting cues as written in the stage directions also help to amp up the intensity. For example, the darkness that surrounds the tape recorder as we hear Roberto's confession focuses the audience's attention on the content of his confession, and the moonlight that illuminates Roberto at the end of the play underlines the haunting quality of his presence.