Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden. Who is the victim?
Death and the Maiden is set in the country that is probably Chile but could be any country after a long term of dictatorship. Ariel Dorfman wrote his play right after his homeland Chile restored democracy in 1990. Before, the country was under dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Death and the Maiden is a very powerful play about injustice, torture, rape during the time of dictatorship. I want to find out: who is the victim in this play? Is there a victimizer? In my opinion there is no victimizer. Paulina Salas is a victim who was raped and tortured, but I also think that doctor Roberto Miranda, who is accused by Paulina being a torturer, is also a victim. Paulina, Gerardo and Roberto are social metaphors. Each of them represents the whole country. Paulina represents all victims who suffered during dictatorship as well as Roberto represents all torturers. In the face of Gerardo we see a representative of a new government. These people are the victims of the society they live in.
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Fifteen years ago Paulina Salas became a victim of a terrible crime. She remembers the music by Schubert Death and the Maiden being played every time she was tortured and raped. The title of the play comes from the Franz Schubert's art song Death and the Maiden. “The lyrics, which are German, are derived from a poem written by Matthias Claudius.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_and_the_Maiden) Schubert is Paulina's favorite composer, but she couldn't listen to this quartet because it would remind her about her past and make her ill every time she hears it.
Paulina lived in silence with all her grief for fifteen years and now the democracy is restored in the country and she seeks justice. Paulina's husband, Gerardo Escobar, is a lawyer and he has just been named in the Investigating Commission, by a president of a new democratic country. This Commission is supposed to investigate murders happened during the dictatorship. Doctor Roberto Miranda is a stranger who gave a lift to Paulina's husband, after his tire blows. Roberto's voice reminded Paulina the torturer. Moreover she is sure that this doctor is the same man who tortured her fifteen years ago and she wants him to confess everything he did.
She wants to do justice by herself; she doesn't listen to her husband who tells her that now there is a commission to solve all these problems. Paulina points out that: ”…The Commission can investigate the crimes but nobody is punished for them? There's a freedom to say anything you want as long as you don't say everything you want?” (Dorfman 39) From Paulina's words it is clear that there is an Investigating Commission and it is going to investigate and maybe find the people who were in charge of the events happened during dictatorship. What this Commission is not going to do is telling the names or punishing those people. The Commission is “deals with dead” and only made up in the new democratic government to show that the government is doing something. The new government can't tell the truth because the dictatorship is not over yet. The members of the old government are still in power: “Compromise, an agreement, a negotiation. Everything in this country is done by consensus, isn't it? Isn't that what transition is all about? They let us have democracy, but they keep control of the economy and of the armed forces?” (Dorfman, 39) Furthermore even if there was a real democracy, it is not appropriate to publish the names of the people who tortured and did bad things to innocent people. The reason is that people were forced to do things; if Roberto was a torturer he had somebody above him to make him do his job. I found an interesting quote of a torturer, who said: “I am a victim too. I know that those I tortured. They hate me, but I also hate the officers, my superiors, those who got me into this. They made me do it.” (http://www.centerstage.org/upload/guide_PDF/07.NS.Maiden.pdf)
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Even though I think that Roberto was a victim I don't give him any credit for what he did. In some point I even think that Paulina is right thinking that the doctor was a victimizer, when she makes Roberto confess in front of the camera all the crimes he did. He says: “A kind of - brutalization took over my life, I began to really truly like what I was doing. It became a game. My curiosity was partly morbid, partly scientific.” (Dorfman, 59) Roberto, when started working with those people-victims, didn't want to harm them at first but then his curiosity took over him and he started doing experiments on his victims. This shows us that even decent people can become monsters under the right circumstances. Even the doctor who took oath to help people, to heal their wounds can become brutal in order to try everything he was forbidden:: “Everything they have forbidden you since ever, whatever your mother ever urgently whispered you were never to do. You begin to dream with her, with all those women.” (Dorfman, 60).
That's why Paulina tries to do her own justice and punish Roberto. Her husband, Gerardo, acts like Roberto's lawyer. He doesn't want his wife to be involved in crime. Here the main reason is if his wife kills Roberto this will affect his career. It is interesting that when Paulina reminds Gerardo that he promised her to put the people who tortured her on trial: “Some day, my love, we're going to put these bustards on trial. Your eyes will be able to rove over each one of their faces while they listen to your story. We'll do it, you'll see that we will.” (Dorfman, 35) Gerardo says that this was a long time ago, fifteen years ago, to be exact. He tells her to forget about it and live her life, so that he can live his live and be a “justice maker” in the Commission: “You're still a prisoner, you stayed there behind with them, locked in that basement. For fifteen years you've done nothing with your life.” (Dorfman, 38) I can understand Gerardo in some point. He knows what his wife went through and at least tries to understand. At the same time he asks her what killing of this man will give her. It will just make things worse: “I'm going to get screwed along with you. Let him go, Paulina. For the good of the country, for our own good.” (Dorfman, 38) What an interesting comment! First he thinks about “the good of the country”. Gerardo, as I said earlier, is a representative of a government, a Commission. This means if Commission will publish somebody's name and punish him, there can be another coup and the old regime can return.
Paulina gives her word not to kill Roberto if he repents, she promises to set him free. She thinks if he tells her all the truth she will be healed. The author's point here is showing the reader in Paulina's face, the face of the country which was a victim under Pinochet regime. That if the truth was to be revealed the country will be healed, the past will be forgotten.
As I finished reading the play I asked myself: Is justice achieved at the end of the play? Has Paulina killed Roberto? The author leaves this to the reader to decide. The play is open ended. I personally think that Paulina doesn't kill Roberto. She, as promised, sets him free after his confession in front of the camera and in written form. I think she understands that even if this man the same torturer, it won't give her anything. She wanted to know the truth and he gave her one. We don't know for sure who is right here. We don't know whether Paulina's accusations are real or not. Her actions make us believe that Roberto is the torturer. She tells her husband that she remembers not only his voice; she also remembers his smell and his skin. The doctor is only one who knows the real truth. The truth he can't reveal. Like Commission which won't tell the real truth.
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This play drew me to a conclusion that in the country where was a long term of dictatorship everybody became a victim. People like Paulina were victims of torturers like Roberto. At the same time Robertos and Gerardos were victims of the regime, the society. They had people above them, “their torturers” who forced them, who decided for them. There was no choice for them.
- Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden.1994. Penguin Books, 1994