Claire sits alone—completely motionless and wearing her wedding garb—in the Petersen’s barn on the outskirts of Güllen. The barn is strewn with enormous spiderwebs, and apparently is so dark that the Doctor and Teacher, who have come to visit Claire, struggle to find her. She tells the men that she retired to the barn seeking “peace and quiet” after the strain of her wedding, which she is already in the process of annulling.
The act opens on Claire looking every bit the part of a master manipulator: she sits literally and metaphorically at the dark center of a web, waiting for prey (i.e. the townspeople of Güllen) to fall into her trap. Her calculated lack of regard for others is only emphasized by the apparent ease with which she discards her new husband.
The Teacher and Doctor announce that they have come to Claire to discuss her offer: they explain that the townspeople have recently drawn up exorbitant debts and now need her help more than ever, but they still refuse to kill Ill on account of their “Western principles.” They plead with Claire to revise her offer—to buy up and invest in Güllen’s industries, which would not only reintroduce paying jobs to the town and lower its debts, but also produce returns for the billionairess. It would be a win-win situation.
As the Teacher and Doctor indicate, the Gülleners drew up debts in anticipation of Claire’s donation without taking her terms seriously. Now, they assume that they can negotiate with Claire—that, in the end, she will help them even if they don’t kill Ill, if not out of good-will, then for the profits she could make by buying up the town’s factories.
But to the horror of the Teacher and Doctor, Claire informs them that she already owns Güllen’s industrial sites—and that it was she who orchestrated their collapse in the first place. She wanted to make Güllen desperate, just as she had been after the town had abandoned her and labeled her a whore. Now, she reminds the men, she is in control and she wants Ill dead. The Teacher protests, invoking human kindness as a reason for Claire to abandon her decades-old vendetta, but the billionairess scoffs at him: “Human kindness […] is made for the purses of millionaires.”
The revelation that Claire has no vested interest in helping Güllen—that she intentionally ruined the town so that she could force the townspeople to kill Ill—makes the Teacher and Doctor recognize the folly of ever believing they could negotiate with a woman who already has everything. The helplessness of the Gülleners’ situation sets the play on a course to its tragic and inevitable conclusion.
Claire takes leave of the disheartened Teacher and Doctor and we cut to Ill’s general store. The once dingy and dated shop is now immaculate and it has updated its stock, sign, and counter. Ill’s wife runs the store and gossips with her customers, who continue to buy luxury items on credit. Mrs. Ill comments that she is happy Claire’s wedding went well; “Clairie deserves some happiness after all that misery” in her youth, she says. Mrs. Ill’s positive outlook sours when she sees Miss Louise cross the stage wearing fashionable clothing; Ill’s wife condemns the woman’s extravagance.
Back at Ill’s store, we see that the tide of public opinion has changed in Claire’s favor. The billionairess’ extravagances now provoke compassion rather than derision, as they did in Act II when Claire smoked her fancy cigar. Miss Louise, however, remains an object of contempt; the townspeople scapegoat her, hypocritically calling her imprudent, even as they themselves indulge in things they can’t afford.
We learn from Mrs. Ill that her husband has cloistered himself above his shop, and has been nervously pacing the floor for several days. The customers in the shop suggest that Ill’s own conscience is the root of his anxiety; they expect he must feel terrible for having tricked “poor Mrs. Zachanassian.” The customers also discourage anyone from mentioning Ill’s situation to the newly-arrived journalists covering Claire’s wedding and visit.
Just as the Gülleners have started painting Claire in a favorable light, they now look to the once-beloved Ill with disdain. This shows just how deeply justice can be bought. Not only are the townspeople ultimately willing to kill Ill for money, but they are also willing to assume a moral posture that justifies their act and vindicates Claire for her cruel directive.
The Teacher enters the shop and begins to drink heavily. The other customers in the shop decline to join him—or to drink at all—until the journalists have left town. They continue to make purchases and strategize avoiding the press, briefly pausing only to condemn the extravagance of the chocolate-eating women from Act II when they walk by in expensive clothing.
The townspeople of Güllen, continue to deny that they would kill Ill, and they deride others for indulging in luxury in anticipation of Claire’s donation. In an interesting reversal, they disparage the women who themselves criticized Miss Louise in Act II.
Two journalists arrive at the general store and abruptly begin interviewing the gossiping Gülleners, hoping to gauge their reactions to Claire’s visit. The villagers respond with calculated enthusiasm, being sure not to say anything negative about Claire. But they are thrown off when the journalists begin to ask Mrs. Ill about the love triangle involving her, Ill, and Claire forty-five years ago. Hoping the journalists don’t know the story behind Ill’s separation from Claire, Mrs. Ill nervously asks the journalists what they’ve heard about Ill and Claire’s romance. She is relieved to find that the journalists think Ill left Claire not because she was poor and pregnant, but because he fell in love with someone else (i.e. his current wife). Mrs. Ill confirms the story, reiterating that she and Ill married for love, and that her husband does not regret leaving Claire, despite her relatively newfound wealth: “Money alone makes no one happy,” says Mrs. Ill. The journalists copy the maxim into their notes.
Even Ill’s family won’t publicize the terms of Claire’s offer (and thereby lose their chance to claim her donation). Her claims that she and Ill married for love rather than for money are not true: the audience knows that Ill married her as a means of insuring his own financial stability, and that Mrs. Ill now plans to betray her husband for Claire’s money. However, the fact that Mrs. Ill insists to the journalists that they married for love shows how important it is to Gülleners to maintain a humanist veneer (rather than reveal the actual capitalist depravity that is underway). Just as the Gülleners pervert their notion of justice to pretend that killing Ill isn’t about money, Mrs. Ill frames her relationship as based on love in order not to admit that it was a financial decision. Thus, just as Ill betrayed Claire for money, the town is about to betray Ill for money a financial decision. Thus, just as Ill betrayed Claire for money, the town is about to betray Ill for money.
Up to this point, the Teacher has been not only drinking heavily, but also growing increasingly perturbed by the Gülleners’ dishonesty with the journalists. Now drunk and uninhibited, he rouses himself to expose their scheming and lying, launching into a lofty speech about the true nature of Claire’s visit. The other Gülleners attempt to silence him before he can lay bare their betrayals and Claire’s blood-thirst, but all are interrupted by Ill’s entrance. The Gülleners worry that Ill might tell the journalists about the price on his head, thereby destroying the town’s chances of securing Claire’s endowment. The Teacher takes advantage of their shocked silence and attempts once more to tell the press the truth about Claire’s visit, but Ill inexplicably discourages him.
The Teacher is at this point the only Güllener fighting to defend his town’s so-called “humanist” values (and, by extension, Ill’s life). The other townspeople are quick to turn against him, as their desperation and desire for money are now guiding their actions. This moment articulates the great irony of the play: Ill’s desertion of Claire for small material gain is now mirrored in the Gülleners’ unanimous rejection of Ill (and anyone else that threatens their new, luxurious lifestyle).
When a photographer passing by the general store announces that Claire has found a ninth husband only a few hours after marrying (then divorcing) her eighth, the journalists rush out of the shop. Not long after, Ill’s wife and her customers also take off, leaving Ill and the Teacher alone. The Teacher tells Ill that he was trying to help him, to tell the press how Claire’s “disgraceful billion” is ruining Güllen, but Ill once again resigns himself to the town’s judgment and discourages the Teacher from advocating for him. “After all,” he says, Güllen’s downfall and Claire’s anger are “my fault.”
Ill’s newfound accountability for his mistreatment of Claire forty-five years ago marks a major turning point in the play. With no other recourse, he has stopped trying to justify his actions, and has started to acknowledge the pain he caused Claire for what it is. This change heralds the start of Ill’s transformation from “a grimy, petty shopkeeper” into a hero truly more committed to justice (as accountability) than to his own self-interest.
Ill’s resignation sobers the Teacher, who recognizes that, in a way, Ill is to blame for Güllen’s dire current situation. He goes on to confirm Ill’s suspicions that the townspeople will kill him—though Gülleners continue to claim otherwise, it was inevitable that the promise of a better life would coax them (the Teacher included) into contemplating murder. Any amount of “faith in humanity is powerless” to stop the murder, says the Teacher before charging another bottle of liquor to credit and leaving the shop.
Among the people of Güllen (Ill excepted), the Teacher alone acknowledges the moral decline of his community for what it is. Nevertheless, he is unable to resist the draw of Claire’s billion—he admits that he is too poor to privilege his abstract ideals over his desire for financial stability.
Mrs. Ill and Il''s son and daughter return to the shop. Ill observes that his daughter now takes tennis lessons, his son drives a new car, and his wife wears a new fur coat. The trio tells him that he need not worry about the purchases (which were made on credit), assuring him that Claire is too “good-hearted” to actually want him dead, and she will help the town out even if he stays alive. Ill seems unconvinced, but nevertheless he tells the trio that he would like to take a ride with them in the new car, “just once.”
This scene echoes the Ill family conversation that opened Act II; now, however, Ill’s children spend their days engaged in leisure activities rather than searching for work. Before, Ill would have feared their indulgence in luxury items, but now he resignedly embraces the family’s growing prosperity, even if it signals their readiness to betray him.
The three scatter to prepare for the trip just before the Mayor enters the shop to speak to Ill. He has apparently come to offer Ill a gun ahead of a public meeting scheduled for that evening, during which Güllen will discuss Claire’s offer. When the Mayor asks Ill if he will submit to the town’s judgment, Ill indicates that he will; but when the Mayor suggests that Ill spare the town the burden of making a difficult decision by turning the gun on himself, Ill refuses. He declares that he has taken responsibility for his crimes and will submit to punishment for them. He expects the town to demonstrate the same accountability: “your action is yours,” he tells the Mayor, “and I can’t relieve you of it.” The Mayor takes back the gun, insults Ill, and leaves.
Ill has finally accepted his own fate, but he will not make it easy for the town to go ahead with their reprehensible choice. Ill’s speech here shows that while he accepts that “justice” is in the hands of the town and he must accept their decision, he also realizes that their decision is immoral. The Mayor wants Claire’s money, but would rather not dirty his hands; Ill refuses to grant him any such privilege, requiring the town to fully commit to their choice.
Ill’s family returns wearing their fineries and they pile into their new car with Ill. As they drive through Güllen, they point out various improvements the town has undergone: new eateries, housing developments, and industrial sites line its formerly ramshackle and empty streets. Distracted, Ill’s son takes a wrong turn; the family decides to return to town through the woods of Konradsweil (again indicated by the four men posing as trees). Ill’s wife, daughter, and son decide that they would like to go see a movie before the public assembly, but Ill remarks that he would rather take a walk in the woods. He disembarks from the car, makes his way over to a bench, and watches his family drive off.
The Ills’ whirlwind tour of Güllen and its surrounding parts reveals the extent to which the town’s standard of living—and debt—have grown. Even Ill’s own family has betrayed him by going into debt, and here he seems to reject their new lifestyle by refusing to go to the movies (a commercial activity) and instead walking in the woods, which he associates with a simpler time in his life.
Coincidentally, Claire is also in the woods, together with her new (ninth) husband and entourage (minus Koby and Loby, whom she shipped off to Hong Kong when they started to bother her). She dismisses her retinue when she discovers Ill, hoping to spend some time with him. Despite everything that has happened, the two share a warm and tragic conversation, full of nostalgia for things they only fleetingly had. Claire reveals that their newborn was taken away by a welfare organization and died a year later, and Ill recalls how deeply he once loved Claire. The two then turn their thoughts away from the past and toward the future. Ill tells Claire that he accepts his death, and she tells him that she will entomb him in a mausoleum on her estate in Italy so that he remains close to her. She adds that she still loves Ill, in a way. By “destroying” him, she hopes to “change the past,” and even realize her dream of having a life with him. The two part amicably, and Ill heads to the Golden Apostle for his “trial.”
This meeting between Claire and Ill mirrors their meeting in Act I, which also took place in the woods. This time around, Ill no longer plays the part of a salesman; he demonstrates a genuine interest in reconciling with Claire ahead of his trial and likely execution. Claire’s unrequited love for Ill has warped, over the years, into something else—a desire to possess him completely, to manufacture his demise and control his dead body. Already she has chosen a plot for his corpse: a mausoleum on her estate. There, he will remain eternally close to her. This proximity allows Claire to finally control the terms of her relationship with Ill.
Güllen’s community meeting begins. The entire town is there, as are swarms of reporters that are anticipating an announcement the Mayor will make in Claire’s name. The Mayor welcomes everyone, then announces that Claire intends to donate one billion dollars to Güllen. The townspeople are dead silent, a response which the reporters interpret as shock.
Here, we encounter another instance in which appearance and reality diverge. The Gülleners’ silence does not indicate shock, as the journalists believe, but rather their solemn anticipation of Ill’s murder.
The Teacher takes the stage and cryptically reminds the town that the donation will not come cheaply. The purpose of the billion is not to “make us happy,” he says, but to make Güllen “a just community.” When he urges his fellow townspeople to accept Claire’s offer and the conditions attached, they cheer him on. The press, blithely unaware of what these conditions stipulate, celebrate the Gülleners’ moral excellence and Claire’s generosity.
The speech is rhetorically similar to the Mayor’s refusal of Claire’s offer in Act I; it celebrates “Western” ideals, renounces material gain, and calls for justice. Here, however, “justice” is sentencing Ill to die, whereas before it was the opposite.
The Mayor once again takes the floor and he asks Ill if he will respect the town’s decision to accept Claire’s offer. Ill responds in the affirmative. No one protests when the Mayor invites objections—not the Pastor or the Doctor or the Policeman—and the matter of accepting Claire’s offer moves to a final vote. “All those who sincerely want justice done,” the Mayor says, “raise your hands.” All the Gülleners (besides Ill) accept The Claire Zachanassian Endowment—“not for the sake of money…but for the sake of justice,” they repeat almost religiously, as if trying to allay their conscience.
The Güllenian institutions responsible for fashioning and upholding an idea of “justice” ultimately do nothing to stop the town from committing a heinous act. Furthermore, there’s a chilling groupthink at work in this scene, in which the townspeople repeat the mayor’s lofty words verbatim—words which are so clearly at odds with the violence and cruelty of the moment. This shows how thoroughly the town’s morals have been corrupted by money.
A disheartened Ill pleads with God, which the journalists’ interpret as a cry of joy. The press asks the townspeople to restage their vote for the cameras, and they do, but Ill refuses to cry out to God again.
Ill loses faith when his prayers to God are parodically answered by a journalist asking the townspeople to restage their vote. This indirectly reaffirms their commitment to killing Ill.
Following the staged vote, the Mayor invites the pressmen to a reception in the restaurant of the Golden Apostle. The Gülleners stay behind in the auditorium, and descend upon Ill once all the journalists have left. They offer Ill a cigarette and their prayers, but Ill hopes that they will pray for themselves. With that, the townspeople kill him. When the journalists return to the auditorium, the Gülleners alert them that Ill has “died of joy”—that all the excitement about Claire’s donation made his heart give out. The journalists accept the story without question.
The Gülleners moment of reckoning finally comes, and they follow through with Ill’s murder. It seems they have fully convinced themselves of Ill’s culpability and the justness of his punishment, but we, the audience, know that their criminalization of Ill is a form of self-justification—a righteous cover under which they hope to hide their own moral lapse into murder and greed.
Claire enters and collects the body. When she examines Ill’s corpse, she sees the boy she loved forty-five years ago—her dear “black panther.” She has the body put in her coffin and, true to her word, she grants Güllen the billion dollars she promised.
Now dead and without a will of his own, Ill is putty in the hands of Claire. He finally belongs to her, and she can mold him into whatever she’d like.
The billionairess leaves Güllen for the railway station. In her wake, the town undergoes a rapid transformation: its once oppressively drab atmosphere now gleams and glitters, its townspeople now wear evening gowns and tuxedos rather than rags. In the style of a Greek tragedy, the Gülleners form two choruses and celebrate their newfound prosperity. They watch Claire as she boards her express train accompanied by her “noble entourage”—her husband, her attendants, and now the body of Alfred Ill.
This final scene reverses the play’s opening: the Gülleners are no longer poor and awaiting Claire’s arrival, but rich and seeing her off. Yet, in a way, nothing in Güllen has changed; just as its inhabitants were once enslaved by poverty, now they are indentured to wealth. They were so desperate for luxury that they betrayed their values and killed their friend.