Paulina is a strong, intelligent woman who has suffered the double injustice of being raped and knowing that her attacker has in all likelihood escaped any possibility of punishment. And though her husband, Gerardo, appears to be supportive of her, his actions frequently suggest otherwise. The sudden appearance of Roberto, the man who she feels certain is her attacker, gives her an impromptu opportunity to empower herself by taking the issue into her own hands. Whether or not she is right do so, or successful, is another question, and one which ultimately the audience must answer. What is undoubtedly true, though, is that Dorfman shows his audience a temporary reversal of the power structure that facilitated Paulina’s attacker—for the duration of the play at least, Paulina has control. This implicitly highlights the gendered dynamics that structure Paulina’s world, in which men are presumed authorities and women denied full autonomy and respect.
It’s important to understand the way in which Paulina lives in a male-dominated world rife with misogynistic attitudes. Both Gerardo and Roberto speak about Paulina in demeaning terms. Gerardo frequently barks orders at her and Roberto at one point appeals to Gerardo, “man-to-man,” to save him: "She isn't the voice of civilization, you are." Paulina also recounts frequent sexually explicit references made about her by her torturers. Roberto often refers to Paulina as a “bitch,” and both men characterise her as “mad” or “insane,” denying her the right to seek justice. Gerardo, for his part, had an affair with another woman while Paulina was being tortured by the dictatorship. All of these details, then, accumulate over the course of the play to paint Paulina as an isolated woman in a world dominated by men, making her actions all the more understandable. Gerardo and Roberto’s attitude implies that Paulina’s suffering is, in part, her own fault—simply for being a woman.
Paulina’s specific experiences under the military regime demonstrate the devaluation of women taken to its horrific endpoint: Paulina’s rape was the ultimate violation of her identity as a woman. She was disenfranchised of her power and treated as a discardable sexual object by her male abusers. The character of her torture was directly linked to her inferior status as a woman, with her torturers frequently referring to her as a “bitch” and “fresh meat,” asking themselves macabre quasi-scientific questions on the effects of their torture on her “sex.”
Importantly, part of the reason Paulina was tortured was that her attackers wanted to know the identity of an anti-dictatorship activist that she knew—who, it turns out, was Gerardo. Despite her extreme suffering, Paulina never gave up Gerardo’s name, showing her in a small but vital way to be more powerful than her torturers. Accordingly, as the audience gradually learns more about what happened to Paulina, she stakes the claim to be the strongest of the three characters. She has been through far more than either of them and does not display the meekness of Gerardo or the likely immorality of Roberto. This suggests that power is not just about its physical manifestation; Dorfman seems to say that people can have power in different ways, and that Paulina’s resistance through mental toughness is a bold example of strength.
As part of her efforts to take control over her situation, Paulina uses characteristically male techniques of intimidation to try to address the injustices she has faced. But by having Paulina use these methods, Dorfman shines fresh light on how violent they are and, more importantly, reminds the audience that when these methods are employed it is usually by men. Paulina knows she doesn’t have the physical strength to overpower Roberto or, indeed, Gerardo, who does not approve of her plan to interrogate Roberto. Accordingly, she decides to retrieve a gun from a drawer and uses that to exert her dominance over the other two characters. The gun—a phallic symbol—allows Paulina to reverse the usual power dynamic and dictate the course of events. But it also mimics the tactics under which she was kidnapped and by which many people were made to suffer under the dictatorship. She further mimics her torturer by putting on a man’s voice and speaking to Roberto in derogatory terms.
Her treatment of Roberto generally echoes the way that she herself was treated (minus the actual torture and rape). He is held captive against his will, as she was. In a particularly important moment, Paulina gags Roberto by taking off her underwear and stuffing it into his mouth. This is a clear gesture of female empowerment, in which Paulina uses an item loaded with sexual suggestion as a way of enforcing her dominance over her captive. It is clear, then, that Paulina’s uses behaviour usually disassociated from her as a woman to take control of her situation.
However, that does not necessarily mean that the play advocates her decision to do so. The overall point that Dorfman seems to make is that there is no other real strategy available to her—either she has to take back control by mirroring the techniques of her male abusers, or she has to resign herself to never finding justice. The play, then, suggests not that her actions are “right” but that they are, given the circumstances of her life, entirely understandable.
Female Empowerment ThemeTracker
Female Empowerment Quotes in Death and the Maiden
GERARDO: If I were to accept, I must know I can count on you, that you don’t feel . . . if you were to have a relapse, it could leave me . . .
PAULINA: Vulnerable, yes, it could leave you vulnerable. Stripped. You’d have to take care of me all over again.
GERARDO: That’s unfair.
Are you criticizing me because I take care of you?
PAULINA: And that’s what you told the president, that your wife might have problems with . . .
GERARDO: He doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Not even your mother knows.
ROBERTO: No, I am telling you, and this is said straight from the heart, this Commission is going to help us close an exceptionally painful chapter in our history, and here I am, alone this weekend, we’ve all got to help out—it may be a teensy-weensy gesture but—
GERARDO: Tomorrow would have been fine.
ROBERTO: Tomorrow? You manage to get to your car—no spare. Then you have to set out and find me. No, my friend,— and then I thought I might as well offer to go fix it with you tomorrow with my jack—which reminds me— what happened to your jack, did you find out what—
GERARDO: My wife loaned it to her mother.
ROBERTO: To her mother?
GERARDO: You know women. . . .
ROBERTO (laughing): All too well. The last mystery. We are going to explore all the frontiers, my friend, and we will still have that unpredictable female soul. You know what Nietzsche once wrote—at least I think it was Nietzsche? That we can never entirely possess that female soul. Or maybe it wasn’t him. Though you can be sure that old Nietzsche would have if he’d found himself on a weekend road without a jack.
We see her dragging something in, which resembles a body but we can’t be sure. As the scene continues, it can be seen that it is a body. She moves a chair and hoists the body onto it, ties it to the chair. She goes into the spare room, returns with what seems to be Roberto’s jacket, takes a set of car keys
from it. She starts to leave the house. Stops. Turns back to look at the body which is now clearly that of Roberto. She takes off her panties, stuffs it into Roberto’s mouth.
PAULINA: But here I am chatting away when I’m supposed to make breakfast, aren’t I, a nice breakfast? Now you like—let’s see, ham sandwiches, wasn’t it? Ham sandwiches with mayonnaise. We haven’t got mayonnaise, but we do have ham. Gerardo also likes ham. I’ll get to know your other tastes. Sorry about the mayonnaise. I hope you don’t mind that this must remain, for the moment, a monologue. You’ll have your say, Doctor, you can be sure of that. I just don’t want to remove this— gag, you call it, don’t you?—at least not till Gerardo wakes up.
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.
GERARDO: Paulina, I’m asking you to please give me that gun.
GERARDO: While you point it at me, there is no possible dialogue.
PAULINA: On the contrary, as soon as I stop pointing it at you, all dialogue will automatically terminate. If I put it down you’ll use your strength to win the argument.
GERARDO: You can’t do this.
PAULINA: When are you going to stop telling me what I can and can’t do. “You can’t do this, you can do that, you can’t do this.” I did it.
PAULINA: You don’t know anything about Gerardo, do you?—I mean you never knew a thing. I never breathed his name. Your—your colleagues, they’d ask me, of course. “With that twat, little lady, don’t tell you haven’t got someone to fuck you, huh? Come on, just tell us who’s been fucking you, little lady.” But I never gave them Gerardo’s name. Strange how things turn out. If I had mentioned Gerardo, he wouldn’t have been named to any Investigating Commission, but would have been one of the names that some other lawyer was investigating. And I would be in front of that Commission to tell them how I met Gerardo—in fact I met him just after the military coup, helping people seek asylum in embassies—saving lives with Gerardo, smuggling people out of the country so they wouldn’t be killed. I was wild and fearless, willing to do anything, I can’t believe that I didn’t have an ounce of fear in my whole body at that time.
ROBERTO: (coughs, then in a rough, hoarse voice): Water.
PAULINA: He wants water, Gerardo.
Gerardo rushes to fill a glass with water and brings it to Roberto, giving it to him to drink. Roberto drinks it down noisily.
PAULINA: Nothing like good fresh water, eh, Doctor? Beats drinking your own piss.
ROBERTO: Escobar. This is inexcusable. I will never forgive you as long as I live.
PAULINA:I would imagine pushing their head into a bucket of their own shit, or electricity, or when we would be making love and I could feel the possibility of an orgasm building, the very idea of currents going through my body would remind me and then—and then I had to fake it, fake it so you wouldn’t know what I was thinking, so you wouldn’t feel that it was your failure—oh Gerardo.
GERARDO: Oh, my love, my love.
PAULINA: So when I heard his voice, I thought the only thing 1want is to have him raped, have someone fuck him, that’s what I thought, that he should know just once what it is to . . . And as I can’t rape—I thought that it was a sentence that you would have to carry out.
GERARDO: Don’t go on, Paulina.
GERARDO: Roberto, I want to be honest with you. There is only one way to save your life . . .
I think we have to—indulge her.
ROBERTO: Indulge her?
GERARDO: Humor her, placate her, so she feels that we—that you, are willing to cooperate . . .
ROBERTO: Playing roles, she’s bad, you’re good, to see if you can get me to confess that way. And once I’ve confessed, you’re the one, not her, you’re the one who’s going to kill me, it’s what any man would do, any real man, if they’d raped his wife, it’s what I would do if somebody had raped my wife. Cut your balls off. So tell me: you think I’m that fucking doctor, don’t you?
Pause. Gerardo stands up.
Where are you going?
GERARDO: I’m going to get the gun and blow your fucking brains out. (Brief pause. Angrier and angrier) But first you sonuvabitch I’m going to follow your advice and cut off your balls, you fascist. That’s what a real man does, doesn’t he. Real macho men blow people’s brains out and fuck women when they’re tied up on cots. Not like me. I’m a stupid, yellow, soft faggot because I defend the son of a bitch who screwed my wife and destroyed her life. How many times did you screw her? How many times, you bastard?