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A Case Study of Justice in “Death and the Maiden”

The play “Death and the Maiden” by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman centres upon a political and judicial struggle between three characters: Paulina Salas, Gerardo Escobar, and Doctor Roberto Miranda. The play begins with Doctor Miranda taking Gerardo home; Paulina, Gerardo’s wife, accuses the doctor of being the man who systematically raped and tortured her during the military regime. The conflict of the play takes place in a country that has suffered a long-drawn dictatorship and has recently become democratic. This particular scenario that the play describes is most similar to post-Pinochet’s Chile, a country that took a turn from emergent democracy to military dictatorship and suffered seventeen years of human rights violations from 1973 to 1990. Nonetheless, parallels to most Latin American post-dictatorial states of the twentieth century can be drawn. The situation arises when Gerardo, one of the three characters, is appointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, thus establishing justice as a major theme within the play. By confining Gerardo and Paulina to the claustrophobic setting of the Escobar beach house, the play explores their differing views of justice, allowing dramatic tension to escalate toward the play’s climax.

Early in the play, Gerardo has an idealist view of justice: he strives for harmony and for a solution through which the victims can be redeemed. Indeed, such was the aim of the Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose constitutive instrument enshrines the following guiding principles[1]:

(i) “That the country’s moral conscience requires elucidation of the truth of the grave human rights violations committed between 1973 and 1990”, and (ii) “[t]hat only the knowledge of the truth will rehabilitate the public concept of the victims’ dignity, honour affected family members, and repair the damage caused”.

Additionally, Gerardo’s view is congruent to “The Veil of Ignorance” presented in “A Theory of Justice”[2] [3]. At the play’s exposition, Gerardo reveals to his wife, Paulina, that he will head the Truth and Reconciliation commission; therefore, he will be in charge of investigating the crimes of the old regime. As a lawyer, Gerardo believes that he should show “moderation and equanimity and objectivity”[4]. The playwright’s use of polysyndeton and three successive complex words reminds us that the work of the commission will be slow and bureaucratic. Because Gerardo establishes his work on these terms, the audience can realise that he strives for ‘politics of truth’; namely, Gerardo embodies the discourse and rhetoric of reconciliation, which the new government hopes the country will believe[5]. In his view, his actions and the search for reconciliation instead of retribution and punishment will prevent having to “live through the excesses”[6] that they faced during the military regime. That is, the new government sees the bureaucracy of the Commission as a means to safeguard itself from accusations that they themselves may be committing “excesses”. Thus, Gerardo is representative of those who sought the progress of democracy but were not been victimised by the dictatorship’s cruelty. As such, although he tries to empathise with the victims, he is unable to feel their true angst, which explains why he dismisses his wife’s subversive actions. For the most part of Act I, he addresses his wife, Paulina, as “baby”[7], a simple word, presumably chosen over ‘darling’, which indicates his sense of superiority over her. At the beginning of the play, Gerardo’s patronising behaviour toward Paulina’s subversiveness adds to his moral higher ground and further establishes him as the ‘good’ character, playing the role of mediator between the dictatorial aggressors and their victims. His judicial brand of idealism thus becomes a necessary mechanism to modulate the play’s tension and tempo as its timeline progresses.

Nevertheless, there exists an ironic contrast between Gerardo’s ideas and his actions. Although his ideology fosters forgiveness and harmony, he is unable to put his words into practice, because he cannot connect with the victims. This is exemplified in his relationship with his wife. While Paulina was being tortured, he cheated on her with another woman, and his infidelity increases her anger at her sufferings rather than bringing the forgiveness and healing that she, as a victim, needs. Paulina’s anger is revealed when she asks him how many times did he “fuck her”[8]. What better way to undercut Gerardo’s view of justice and reconciliation than portraying him as an unfaithful man? Dorfman employs this technique and makes Gerardo an unsympathetic character, thus antagonising him in the audience’s view. To counter this notion, Gerardo attempts to defend himself by appealing to time, claiming that his affair happened “fifteen years ago”[9]. Because he frequently alludes to time, Gerardo comes across as a desperate and ineffective peace-keeper. It is even more ironic that he is unable to utter the word ‘rape’[10], because it shows that he cannot forget the past, and thus is unable to atone with the truth and reconcile with his wife. This single, monosyllabic word evokes all his repressed anguish and thus exposes his major weakness as a mediator: his inability to relate to the dictatorship’s victims. Therefore, the inconsistency between Gerardo’s view and his actions suggests that reconciliation may not be possible in a post-dictatorial setting.

Unlike Gerardo, Paulina seeks a ‘practical’ solution, one which is feasible within the play’s circumstances. In a first reading, her extremely emotional response to Doctor Miranda’s appearance, the man she believes facilitated her torture, may seem an unrealistic creation by Dorfman. Nonetheless, at a deeper level it is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The philosopher, economist, and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen[11] supports the idea that intense emotion does not necessarily conflict with the enactment of justice[12]. During the play’s exposition, Dorfman portrays Paulina as a repressed woman. She is frightened by Gerardo’s presence and the stage directions reveal that she is “hidden behind the curtains”[13]. Indeed, Gerardo’s arrival to the beach house can be construed as a transgression of Paulina’s safe haven, effectively an act of torture after the demise of the dictatorial regime.  Her body language, according to stage directions, is submissive and reveals that her primary goal is survival. Evidently, this is one of the scars left by the dictatorship. Her subordination marks a sharp contrast with her actions in Scene 3. The stage directions show a turning point in her behaviour. Her form is no longer restricted, and, through her adept actions, she overpowers Doctor Miranda. The “silence”[14] in the scene allows for the beginning of the role reversal. She is now oppressing Miranda and she has drained the manliness in him, effectively becoming a manly figure herself and emasculating Miranda. Her actions, such as tying Miranda “to the chair” and gagging Miranda with her “panties”[15], are a perfect parallel to the time she was tortured, except that she is now the torturer. According to Seidler[16], men use “language as an instrument to defend” themselves. As Paulina’s language becomes more vulgar and exploits sexual boldness, she is becoming more masculine. The inversion of gender roles adds to Paulina’s retributive justice, as she is now adopting a patriarchal role, much like the dictatorship had itself and exerted on Paulina[17].  This is Paulina’s instinctive reaction when seeing her alleged torturer; thus, her view of justice is ‘practical’ —or rather pragmatic— as it is guided by instinct and not reason or morality. She does not undergo a clear rational process; instead she exerts her power, by using language and by wielding the gun to get her way. For instance, when she uses the crude image of her captors in “a bucket of their own shit”[18], she not only shows a loss of femininity, but also shows the way in which she will attempt to handle the situation: seeking justice through physical punishment and personal revenge.

By contrasting Gerardo’s view of justice with Paulina’s, the play shows that a solution which is both ‘idealistic’ and ‘practical’ is not possible. The fact that Paulina is alive means that she is out of the Commission’s jurisdiction, because it investigates only “the most serious cases”[19], those which resulted in death. The development of the drama allows for the juxtaposition of the main characters’ opposing views. Progressively, Paulina begins to take the centre of the stage, thus allowing an interplay between the conflicting views of justice and reconciliation. It seems that the Commission is doomed from the start, because Paulina suggests that her husband will start his work at the commission “with a lie”[20], a reference to Gerardo’s dishonesty as he pretends to consult Paulina about the job, even though the lawyer has already accepted it. This irony manages to expose the aforementioned conflict between Gerardo’s views and actions. As Paulina takes control of the situation, we may affirm that the practical view of justice overpowers the idealistic one. Nevertheless, Dorfman plays with the audience until the end, leaving an mysterious and ambiguous closure to his play. Perhaps, his intent is to detract from the post-dictatorial notion that the search for the “real real truth”[21] was a naïve pursuit as it would not lead to recovery from the trauma. Or perhaps, he is just convincing us that real recovery is simply not a true possibility.

In the penultimate scene, we reach a climax sparked by the struggle between the differing views of justice and the audience finally receives a possible account of the events which occurred during Paulina’s torture. Her coerciveness has now allowed her to undertake the final decisions. Once Gerardo exits the room, all Paulina has left to do is to “kill”[22] Miranda. The only factor preventing her from doing so was Gerardo’s presence, the voice of reason and ‘idealist’ justice. There is no greater way to collapse the dramatic tension than Paulina’s final imposition and administration of her own brand of justice during her husband’s absence.

Although the audience can never be certain of the outcome of the play, as Dorfman constructs the dénoument in a way in which Paulina may or may not have killed Miranda, it is clear that the play’s ending is driven by the polarisation of Gerardo’s and Paulina’s views of justice. It is possible that Dorfman refuses to end the play in an unambiguous way because providing a closed ending would imply an active adherence to one of the two ideas of justice: the ideal or the practical. Instead, the play encourages the audience to reflect about the possibility of true justice and reconciliation in a nation recovering from a dictatorship. This unresolved ending ultimately prevents the endorsement of an unchallengeable and objective truth and instead allows a much more profound personal response from the audience to a situation within Chile’s post-dictatorial context.

End Notes:
[1] Ley Chile. 1992. “Ministerio del Interior. Decreto 355: Crea Comisión de Verdad y Reconciliación”. Retrieved from: https://www.leychile.cl/Navegar?idNorma=12618.
[2] The ‘veil of ignorance’ centres on fairness and equality. When giving a verdict, ideally the judge stands on the ‘original position’, where he has no preconceived notions or prejudices about the case at hand.
[3] Rawls, John. “The Veil of Ignorance.” In A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, 136-142. US: Belknap. 1971.
[4] Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. London: Penguin Books. 1994. 24.
[5] Aritzia, Pilar. “Alternative Political Discourses in Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the Maiden’.” Atlantis 453-460. 1996.
[6] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 6.
[7] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 18.
[8] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 36.
[9] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 24.
[10] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 23.
[11] Sen, Amartya. “Reason and Objectivity.” In The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen, 31-51. India: Allen Lane. 2009.
[12] In ‘Reason and Objectivity’, a section of ‘The Idea of Justice’, Sen proposes that reason and emotion play complementary roles and that conclusions may be drawn from the latter.
[13] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 1.
[14] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 13.
[15] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 13.
[16] Seidler, Victor J. Rediscovering Masculinity: Reason, Language and Sexuality. London: Routledge. 1989.
[17] Thomas, Gwynn. Contesting legitimacy in Chile: Familial ideals, citizenship, and political struggle, 1970-1990. Penn State Press, 2011. 200.
[18] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 27.
[19] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 5.
[20] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 7.
[21] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 10.
[22] Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, 44.

 

 

 

Bibliography
Aritzia, Pilar. “Alternative Political Discourses in Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the Maiden’.” Atlantis 453-460. 1996.
Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. London: Penguin Books. 1994.
Ley Chile.  “Ministerio del Interior. Decreto 355: Crea Comisión de Verdad y Reconciliación”. 1992. Last accessed: April 02, 2017. https://www.leychile.cl/Navegar?idNorma=12618.
Rawls, John. “The Veil of Ignorance.” In A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, 136-142. US: Belknap. 1971.
Seidler, Victor J. Rediscovering Masculinity: Reason, Language and Sexuality. London: Routledge. 1989.
Sen, Amartya. “Reason and Objectivity.” In The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen, 31-51. India: Allen Lane. 2009.
Thomas, Gwynn. Contesting legitimacy in Chile: Familial ideals, citizenship, and political struggle, 1970-1990. Penn State Press, 2011.