Death and the Maiden

by

Ariel Dorfman

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Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Symbol Analysis

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Symbol Icon

Classical composer Franz Schubert is mentioned throughout the play. In particular, his quartet “Death and the Maiden” crop up frequently. In general terms, classical music is supposed to be evidence of mankind’s refinement and elevation above the cruelty of the animal kingdom. It conjures thoughts of education, skill and sensitivity. This, of course, is markedly contrasted with the horrific violence described in the play. Furthermore, the way in which Paulina’s rapist would play this string quartet during the attacks represents a gruesome depravity, in which something that is supposed to bring sensory enjoyment becomes a marker of extreme terror. That’s why, since her rape, Schubert’s music has made Paulina physically ill—even though he was once her favorite composer. Paulina plays Schubert once she has Roberto tied up, in an attempt to reclaim his music—and, accordingly, a part of herself—from her attacker.

The actual content of the quartet itself also carries specific symbolism. “Death and the Maiden” is recurring motif in Renaissance art, usually depicting a young woman being seized by a personification of death (this can also be traced back to medieval images of the “dance of death”). These images have a subtext of eroticism, and the presence of Schubert’s quartet thus gestures to the macabre intimacy of Paulina’s rape. Her doctor, then, represents a kind of death figure—though he has not killed her, he has certainly killed a part of her character.

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quotes in Death and the Maiden

The Death and the Maiden quotes below all refer to the symbol of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of Death and the Maiden published in 1991.
Act 1, Scene 4 Quotes

PAULINA: D’you know how long it’s been since I last listened to this quartet? If it’s on the radio, I turn it off, I even try not to go out much, though Gerardo has all these social events he’s got to attend and if they ever name him minister we’re going to live running around shaking hands and smiling at perfect strangers, but I always pray they won’t put on Schubert. One night we were dining with— they were extremely important people, and our hostess happened to put Schubert on, a piano sonata, and I thought, do I switch it off or do I leave, but my body decided for me, I felt extremely ill right then and there and Gerardo had to take me home, so we left them there listening to Schubert and nobody knew what had made me ill, so I pray they won’t play that anywhere I go, any Schubert at all, strange isn’t it, when he used to be, and I would say, yes I really would say, he’s still my favorite composer, such a sad, noble sense of life. But I always promised myself a time would come to recover him, bring him back from the grave so to speak, and just sitting here listening to him with you I know that I was right, that I’m—so many things that are going to change from now on, right? To think I was on the verge of throwing my whole Schubert collection out, crazy!

(raising her voice, to Gerardo)

Isn’t this quartet marvellous, my love?

[…]

The real real truth is that you look slightly bored.

Related Characters: Paulina Salas (speaker), Gerardo Escobar, Roberto Miranda
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Death and the Maiden LitChart as a printable PDF.
Death and the Maiden PDF

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Symbol Timeline in Death and the Maiden

The timeline below shows where the symbol Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” appears in Death and the Maiden. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, Scene 4
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
Female Empowerment Theme Icon
Paulina takes out a cassette of Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden,” which she found in Roberto’s car. She puts it... (full context)
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
Female Empowerment Theme Icon
...marvelous, my love?” She says to Roberto that now she’ll be able to listen to Schubert again, perhaps even attend a concert. She asks if he knows that Schubert was a... (full context)
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
Female Empowerment Theme Icon
Civilization and Violence Theme Icon
...she threatens him with the gun. Paulina tells Gerardo that “it’s him”—“the doctor who played Schubert.” She recognizes his voice, she says. Gerardo says that she’s “sick,” reminding her that she... (full context)
Act 2, Scene 1
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
Authority, Society, and the Public Theme Icon
Female Empowerment Theme Icon
...the worst of her torturers; the other were “so vulgar” but the doctor “would play Schubert, he would talk about science” and quote Nietzsche. Gerardo is evidently shocked to hear that... (full context)
Act 3, Scene 1
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
Female Empowerment Theme Icon
...and I want you in the air I breathe and I want you in my Schubert that I can start listening to again.” (full context)
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
Civilization and Violence Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Authority, Society, and the Public Theme Icon
Female Empowerment Theme Icon
Civilization and Violence Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Act 3, Scene 2
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses Theme Icon
Authority, Society, and the Public Theme Icon
Civilization and Violence Theme Icon
...recommence. Gerardo and Paulina sit down. Roberto takes another seat, eyes fixated on Paulina. As Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” plays, she turns to look at Roberto. Soon after, she swiftly... (full context)