Death and the Maiden

by

Ariel Dorfman

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Death and the Maiden: Act 3, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Just before evening, Paulina and Gerardo sit on the terrace facing the sea. Gerardo has the cassette recorder on his lap. He asks Paulina to tell him what exactly what happened to her, because he needs to hear it from her lips.
The audience here knows that Gerardo’s real intention, rather than offering Paulina the catharsis of opening up about her suffering, is to get details that he can then pass on to Roberto.
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Paulina says she’s already told Gerardo about what happened. He replies that she had started to, fifteen years ago (in reference to the night they were reunited after her release). Annoyed, Paulina says that he can’t have expected her to go on talking when, on the night that she was released, he was sleeping with another woman. He protests that she “already forgave” him for that.
A small but significant part of Paulina’s trauma is that Gerardo had an affair while she was in captivity. This fact further paints Gerardo as weak and self-serving.
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Gerardo says, “we’ll die from so much past, so much pain and resentment,” and wants them to finish “that conversation from years ago.” Paulina makes him tell her how many times he slept with the other woman. He admits it was on more than one occasion, telling her that “people can die from an excessive dose of the truth.”
Gerardo’s quote about truth is in direct contradiction with the proposed purpose of his commission. His role will be to facilitate the drawing out of the truth—and, following that logically, the more truth uncovered the better. His statement to Paulina, though, contradicts this, suggesting that his values shift depending on whether he is thinking about his career or his wife.
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Gerardo, increasingly exasperated, say to Paulina that he is her hands: “like a baby, I’ve got no defenses, I’m naked in front of you like the day I was born.” Paulina says she wants him: “I want you inside me, alive. I want you making love to me without ghosts in bed and I want you on the Commission defending the truth and I want you in the air I breathe and I want you in my Schubert that I can start listening to again.”
Both characters show an outpouring of emotion here. Gerardo’s reference to himself as “a baby” mirrors the earlier infantilization of Roberto (when Gerardo had to spoon-feed him). Both instances suggest a loss of “masculine” dominance. Paulina’s outburst is about her longing to be free from the suffocating memory of her trauma. Her mention of ghosts ties in with Gerardo’s earlier mention of her “phantoms” and also hints at the play’s ending.
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Gerardo asks Paulina never to mention “that bitch of a night again.” If they keep talking about it, he says, it will kill him. Paulina agrees to tell Gerardo “everything” about what happened to her. He turns on the cassette recorder and asks her to speak “just as if you were sitting in front of the Commission.”
Both Gerardo and Roberto use “bitch” as a derogatory term even when not referring to a woman, again suggesting an entrenched misogyny.
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On Gerardo’s instruction, Paulina states her name and the date of her kidnapping. She explains how, on that day, three men got out of a car and forced her to come with them at gunpoint. She remembers the “smell of garlic” on the breath of one of her kidnappers. She is annoyed at herself for being to “obedient” and not screaming for help.
Paulina begins her account in an official manner, similar to the way witnesses to the proposed commission will begin their statements. The reference to the “smell of garlic” highlights once more the link between the senses, memory, and trauma. 
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The lights go down as Paulina explains how, when she first met “Doctor Miranda” three days later she thought “he would save me.” At first, he was “soft” and “nice.” She recounts how he put on Schubert’s quartet and what effect that had in the darkness after “three days” without food.
Ironically, Paulina’s starvation would probably, for a moment or two, have heightened her experience of Schubert. She is in the darkness because she is blindfolded.
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Roberto’s voice takes over from Paulina, continuing with her discussion. The second movement from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” plays. Roberto explains that he would put on music to make the prisoners think he was a “good guy” and thought it would be a way of ‘alleviating their suffering.” The Schubert fades away; as the lights come up, Roberto continues his speech, talking into the cassette recorder.
This shift from Paulina to Roberto’s voice is on the one hand a time-saving device, allowing what’s being said to shift from victim’s account to perpetrators confession without the audience having to hear the same speech twice. But it also links Paulina and Roberto together, reminding the audience of the gruesome intimacy they have allegedly shared. On the other hand, it also foregrounds the possibility that Roberto is fabricating his testimony directly from Paulina’s.
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Roberto explains that he was brought in by the regime to help prevent the regime’s torturers from accidentally killing the prisoners. His brother was in the military secret service and told Roberto that he could help “pay the communists back for what they did to Dad” (who had a heart attack when peasants attacked his land). He says the “real real truth” is that he accepted his role for “humanitarian reasons,” believing that even his enemies deserved medical attention.
Roberto’s speech tells an all-too-familiar tale of one person’s gradual passage into violence and depravity. It may have been true that he accepted his role for “humanitarian reasons,” but that empathetic impulse was quickly eroded by peer pressure and sexual temptation. It also speaks to a cycle of violence, one which only a collective responsibility can successfully disrupt.
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Roberto continues that his responsibility was to oversee the amount of electric current administered to prisoners to ensure they did not die. But over time “the mask of virtue” fell away and he began to feel “excitement.” Paulina Salas, he says, came to him when it was already too late.
Virtue is a “mask,” not a deeply held set of ideals. The idea of virtue as a mask adds a ceremonial aspect to it that aligns with the symbolism involved in the artistic trope of “death and the maiden,” which is a figure of death seizing a young woman.
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Roberto says a “brutalization” came over his life. His “curiosity was partly morbid, partly scientific. How much can this woman take? [...] Does her sex dry up when you put the current through her? Can she have an orgasm under those circumstances?” His power allowed him to carry out his fantasies, he adds.
“Brutalization” is an accurate diagnosis by Roberto, emphasizing the detachment required to inflict this kind of suffering on another human being. His questions show a twisted mindset in which he allows himself to think previously unthinkable scientific questions. His power corrupted his ethics. His questions also show an intense objectification of the female sex.
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A beam of moonlight shines on the cassette recorder. Roberto continues, talking about how the other torturers tempted him not to “refuse free meat.” One of them was called “Stud,” he says, and Stud would say “all these bitches like it and if you put on that sweet little music of yours, they’ll get even cosier.” Finally, says Roberto, he gave into temptation—but he adds that “not one ever died on me.”
The beam of moonlight focuses the audience’s attention on the confession. The contrast between women as “free meat” and the “sweet little music” of Schubert is harrowing and deeply uncomfortable for the audience, yoking together mankind’s most civilized side with its least. Roberto’s comment that no one ever died on his watch shows how far his ethical standards have (allegedly) slipped. “Stud” is an important part of Paulina’s evidence against Roberto that allows her to self-convict him. 
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Dawn arrives. Roberto is now untied, transcribing his words from the cassette record onto a sheet of paper. In front of him lie more sheets with his writing on them. Roberto’s recorded voice says that he took part in the “interrogation of ninety-four prisoners, including Paulina Salas”—all he asks for now is “forgiveness.” Gerardo pauses the cassette so Roberto can copy out the words. The tape concludes with Roberto’s hope that his confession will prove his “real repentance” and help the country to find peace. It claims that “there can be no worse punishment than that which is imposed upon me by the voice of my conscience.”
The amount of time that has passed and the number of pages the confession has taken indicate that Roberto’s speech has gone into many details that they audience are not privy to. Roberto slyly links forgiveness for him to the country’s ability to move on, making one seem dependent on the other. His comment that the worst punishment is his own conscience is conveniently suggestive that Paulina ought to free him. Of course, if he is innocent this would be an understandable line of thought.
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With the confession finished, Roberto asks Paulina if he wants him to sign it. She tells him first to write down that he has made it of his own free will, without “any sort of pressure.” He says that’s not true, but writes it down anyway, showing it Gerardo. Gerardo nods.
Paulina wishes to differentiate Roberto’s confession from the kind made under the dictatorship by officially stamping it as Roberto’s free will. Of course, this is inherently contradictory considering she’s been holding a gun the entire time. Roberto can pretend it’s true—though it’s not the “real real truth,” further contributing to the slipperiness of truth throughout the play.
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Paulina picks up the paper before putting the confession on again from the beginning. Gerardo tells Paulina “it’s over.” She looks out to sea and sighs deeply. She suddenly turns to Gerardo, and says she’d thought, once Roberto had confessed, she’d have to stop Gerardo shooting him. He says he wouldn’t “stain my soul with someone like him.”
Looking out to sea gives Paulina perspective and reconnects her with her trauma. In holding up the paper, she is subconsciously comparing Roberto’s account to her lived experience—and is evidently dissatisfied. Her dig at Gerardo is similar to Roberto’s—though not framed as an accusation that Gerardo is not a “real man,” that’s probably how it is heard.
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Paulina throws Roberto’s car keys to Gerardo and tells him to get his car. Gerardo goes out. Roberto asks to go the bathroom unsupervised, but Paulina says there is one more “matter” to take care of. She looks outside and predicts a “beautiful day.” The only thing missing, she says to Roberto, is to kill him.
This is a sudden twist for the audience. All along Paulina has professed that she will free Roberto if he confesses to his crimes.
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Paulina points the gun at Roberto, telling him he has a minute to pray. He stands up, once more claiming to be innocent and that his confession was false.
This has the atmosphere of an extra-judicial killing, the kind prevalent under the military dictatorship. Roberto is genuinely surprised that he isn’t being released.
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Roberto claims not to understand why Paulina now wants to kill him: after all, she gave Gerardo her word that she would let him go if he confessed. She explains that, whereas earlier she still had a slight doubt if he was the same doctor who abused her, she figured out a way to check. She planted small errors in the story of her rape and torture when she told it to Gerardo earlier, and Roberto has accidentally corrected those errors in his confession.
Paulina, then, knew all along that Gerardo would try to help Roberto. She has put him on trial through testing his confession, without either man being aware. This is another example of the way in which she maintains authority throughout the play.
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Paulina tells Roberto that, when she had told everything to Gerardo earlier, she deliberately switched the name of one of Roberto’s fellow torturers from “Stud” to “Bud.” Roberto said “Stud” in his confession, proving to Paulina that she has the right man. She says she isn’t going to kill Roberto because he’s guilty, but because he hasn’t repented at all.
The way that Dorfman flattened the sense of time between Paulina’s “victim’s account” and Roberto’s “confession” means that the audience doesn’t get to see how Gerardo presented Paulina’s details to Roberto. Ultimately, this leaves open the possibility that Gerardo himself said “Stud.” The likelihood, though, is that Roberto is the man Paulina thinks he is, and he subconsciously corrected her deliberated errors in his story. The audience has to confront the question of whether this evidence is substantial enough to prove that Roberto is Paulina’s rapist and torturer.
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Roberto pleads with Paulina: “What more do you want?” She insists she wants the truth; if he gives her that she’ll let him go. She starts counting to ten. Roberto stands up, defiant. He says even if he confesses she’ll kill him, and he won’t let “any sick woman treat me like this.” She’ll be killing an innocent man, he says. He mentions his three children.
What was once a trial now resembles an execution. Roberto’s comment is odd—rather than plead his innocence more desperately, he protests the pointlessness of him making a genuine confession. He returns to the idea of Paulina as “sick,” adding further evidence of his misogyny for good measure.
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Paulina asks why it is always people like her “who have to sacrifice, why are we always the ones who have to make concessions?” She says she always has to “bite her tongue”—but not this time. This time, she says, she will “do justice” in one case, at least. “What do we lose by killing one of them?” she asks.
By “people like her,” Paulina means victims on the one hand, but is also implying “women” more generally. She is asking why she has no say in the way justice is administered, questioning why she is expected to accept the status quo. Her question at the end is one of the central ethical dilemmas of the play—whether it’s legitimate to kill someone who has committed terrible acts, or if that erodes society’s moral standards yet further.
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Roberto and Paulina freeze as music by Mozart drifts in. Here, the stage directions give instructions for a giant mirror to descend from the ceiling of the theatre, forcing the “members of the audience to look at themselves.” Spotlights pick out individual members of the audience as the music plays on.
This is a highly disruptive moment in which the audience’s experience of the play is completely changed. The giant mirror is an expressionistic device with deliberately obvious connotations—Dorfman wants the literal reflection to force audience members to personally reflect on what they’ve seen and, more importantly, where they stand on the problems posed in the play. It also leaves the play itself on a cliff-hanger, making it unclear whether Paulina shoots Roberto or not.
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