Death and the Maiden


Ariel Dorfman

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Death and the Maiden Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman is the son of Fanny Dorfman and Adolf Dorfman, an Argentine professor of economics. The family moved from Argentina to the U.S. before then settling in Chile when Dorfman was around the age of twelve. Dorfman completed his schooling at the University of Santiago. In the early 1970s, Dorfman worked as a cultural adviser to Salvador Allende, Chile’s first socialist president. His 1971 book-length essay on American imperialism, How to Read Donald Duck, became a bestseller throughout Latin America and, eventually, the world. In 1973 Dorfman was forced to leave Chile for the U.S. when a military coup led by General Pinochet overthrew Allende’s government. The new dictator banned How to Read Donald Duck and ordered any copies of it burned. Dorfman continued to write while living in the U.S. and became a professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University in 1985. His best-known work, Death and the Maiden, was completed in 1990 and deals with Chile’s pained transition from dictatorship to democracy. More recently, Dorfman and his family have divided their time between Chile and the U.S., a way of living which serves as the subject for the 1998 memoir, Heading North, Looking South: A Bilingual Journey. Much of Dorfman’s work concerns issues of human rights, tyranny, and power.
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Historical Context of Death and the Maiden

Before the play’s text begins in earnest, Dorfman specifies that the action takes place in a country that is “probably Chile” and is certainly undergoing a painful transition from military dictatorship to democracy. The play is a response to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government by General Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship in 1973. The United States, who disproved of Allende’s government, is alleged to have supported and even aided Pinochet’s actions in the takeover. Not long after that coup, Argentina too underwent similar turmoil—both countries saw widespread civil repression, “disappearances,” torture, and murder. Death and the Maiden is less about life under an authoritarian dictatorship, however, and more fundamentally concerned with what happens after—that is, how a country both practically and emotionally recovers from pain, what its people need to do to properly move on, and whether a nation can ever truly put the past behind it.

Other Books Related to Death and the Maiden

Literary works specifically related to the subject matter of Death and the Maiden include Dorfman’s own Widows and Reader. Together, these three works form what Dorfman deems his “Resistance” trilogy. Books by Fernando Alegria and Isabel Allende (whose father was Salvador Allende’s first cousin) also deal with Chile’s difficult 20th century history. More widely, Dorfman has acknowledged the influence of the English playwright Harold Pinter and has also been compared to Irish author Samuel Beckett and Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco. Death and the Maiden, however, is for the most part a more realistic play than much of Beckett or Ionesco’s work—that is, until the final act’s expressionistic device of lowering a giant mirror in front of the audience. This gesture takes some influence, too, from dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation” effect, wherein theatre seeks to distance the audience from the events on stage and thereby cause deeper reflection on a dramatic work. Looking further back, Death and the Maiden also has much in common with Greek tragedy.
Key Facts about Death and the Maiden
  • Full Title: Death and the Maiden (translated from the Spanish: La muerte y la doncella)
  • When Written: 1990
  • Where Written: Chile
  • When Published: November, 1990
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: A beach house in a country undergoing transition from military dictatorship to democracy; “probably Chile”
  • Climax: Paulina Salas points a gun at Roberto Miranda’s head
  • Antagonist: Roberto Miranda
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for Death and the Maiden

Page to stage. Death and the Maiden was actually begun in the early 1980s, originally intended to be a novel. Dorfman, however, subsequently realized that he couldn’t write the work properly until Pinochet was no longer leader of Chile. It was in 1990 that he decided the subject would work better as play.

Silver screen. Death and the Maiden was made into a film by Roman Polanski in 1994, starring Sigourney Weaver.