Güllen sees itself as a humanist town—a place with a value system that rejects selfishness and emphasizes the human capacity for compassion, mutual understanding, and respect. Claire’s attempt to bribe the town into killing its most popular citizen for revenge, however, is anti-humanist: it is selfish, cruel, and it disregards the moral and legal imperatives that the town claims to value. As the townspeople struggle to balance greed with idealism and personal profit with their compassion for Ill, their humanist values are shown to be empty ideals that are easily discarded in favor of money and selfishness, even at the cost of murdering someone they love.
Dürrenmatt often uses references to humanist disciplines, such as music and literature, to invoke Güllen’s humanist ideals. For example, townspeople comment several times on the fact that the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the composer Johannes Brahms have visited Güllen. Dürrenmatt also explicitly aligns Güllen’s values with those of Europe and humanism, as the Mayor offers the following retort to Claire’s ultimatum: "We are still in Europe. We're not savages yet. In the name of the town of Güllen I reject your offer. In the name of humanity. We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands." These emphatic statements of the town’s humanist values, however, are quickly shown to be hollow as the townspeople fall under the influence of Claire.
Claire is the play’s embodiment of anti-humanism, since she easily disregards the integrity and personhood of others and believes that money, rather than humanist ideals, is most important. This is clear in her willingness to put a price on Ill’s head, and in the dehumanizing way that she treats her husbands and the members of her entourage. Claire’s primary source of power is financial; she buys her associates out of both legal trouble and respectable careers, for example, and then pays them handsomely enough to allow her to change their names to ridiculous rhyming nicknames. This emphasizes her disregard for their individuality, and also her ability to commodify people with ease. Claire turns Ill into a commodity by putting a price on his head, and the other characters turn themselves into commodities by putting prices on themselves. This is a direct subversion of humanist ideals, as Claire openly admits when she says, “Human kindness, gentlemen, is made for the purses of millionaires.”
The ease with which the humanist Gülleners fall into Claire’s anti-humanist influence is a commentary on the Second World War, which ended about a decade before The Visit was written. WWII was seen by many as the utter collapse of European humanism, as stable democracies fell to fascism and ideals of equality, tolerance, and justice failed to stop millions of Jewish citizens from being harassed, incarcerated, tortured, and murdered. Furthermore, The Visit was written (and presumably takes place) in Switzerland, which remained neutral in WWII, refusing to align itself with either the Axis or the Allies. While Switzerland tried to frame this as a humanist decision, Dürrenmatt was enraged by what he saw as Swiss cowardice and hypocrisy in the face of evil. Rather than standing up to the Nazis, Dürrenmatt believed that the Swiss used their neutrality as a veil for their subtle collaboration with the Nazis: the Swiss sold arms to Germany, refused Jewish refugees, and allowed Germans to store stolen wealth in their banks. In this context, the Mayor’s statement that the town would refuse Claire’s offer because “We are still in Europe. We’re not savages yet” is clearly ironic—for Dürrenmatt, European values were, at best, on shaky ground.
While the beginning of the play is littered with inspiring references to Goethe and Brahms, Dürrenmatt’s references at the end of the play—once Ill has accepted that the town will kill him—are notably darker. On a final car ride with his family, Ill and his family point out local landmarks: the “Bockmann chimneys” evoke the smokestacks of the concentration camps, and Ill’s son’s comment that everyone has a Messerschmidt car references a company that turned to automobiles after having manufactured Nazi airplanes. Most significantly, Ill points out the “cranes of the Wagner Works,” a reference to Richard Wagner, the German composer whose music Hitler held up as proof of German superiority. This reference complicates the notion that humanism is moral and uncorrupt: just as Hitler used Wagner to justify genocide, the town turns their ideal of “justice” into a rationale for murdering Ill. For Dürrenmatt, then, humanism is a set of empty values that fail to stand against evil, since they can so easily be twisted to justify heinous acts.
Humanism and Dehumanization ThemeTracker
Humanism and Dehumanization Quotes in The Visit
Two gangsters from Manhattan, sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Released at my request to carry my sedan chair. One million dollars per petition is what it cost me. The sedan chair comes from the Louvre, a gift from the French president. A nice gentleman. Looks just like he does in the papers. Carry me into town, Roby and Toby.
You have remained unforgettable. Truly. Your academic achievements are still held up as an example by our educators, especially the interest you showed in the most important subject, botany and zoology, thus expressing your sympathy with every living being, indeed with all creatures in need of protection. Even then, your love of justice and your charitable nature were widely admired.
CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I will tell you the condition. I will give you a billion, and with that billion I will buy myself justice.
MAYOR: What exactly do you mean by that, Madam?
CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I mean what I said.
MAYOR: But justice can’t be bought!
CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: Everything can be bought.
Correct. Chief Justice Hofer. Forty-five years ago I was Chief Justice of Güllen and then moved on to the Court of Appeal in Kaffigen, until twenty-five years ago Mrs. Zachanassian offered me the opportunity to enter her service as her butler. I accepted. A peculiar career for a man of learning, perhaps, but the salary was so fantastic—
Mrs. Zachanassian, we are still in Europe; we’re not savages yet. In the name of the town of Güllen I reject your offer. In the name of humanity. We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands.
Zachanassian’s favorite piece. He always wanted to hear it. Every morning. He had class, all right, that old tycoon with his tremendous fleet of oil tankers and his racing stables, and billions in the bank. A marriage like that was still worthwhile. A great teacher, a great dancer, a master of all sorts of devilry. I learned all his tricks.
ILL: You’ve got new shoes. New yellow shoes.
SECOND MAN: So?
ILL: You, too, Hofbauer. You, too, are wearing new shoes. (He looks at the women, walks over to them slowly, horrified.) You too. New yellow shoes. New yellow shoes.
ILL: The customers I’ve had this morning. Usually there’s no one for the longest time, and now, for the past few days, they’re coming in droves.
FIRST MAN: It’s because we stand by you. We stick by our Ill. Firm as a rock.
MAYOR: You forget that you’re in Güllen. A town with a humanist tradition. Goethe slept here. Brahms composed a quartet. These values impose an obligation.
A man enters, left, with a typewriter.
MAN: The new typewriter, Your Honor. A Remington.
Human kindness, gentlemen, is made for the purses of millionaires. With financial power like mine, you can afford yourself a new world order. The world made a whore of me, now I’ll make a whorehouse of the world. Pay up or get off the dance floor. You want to join the dance? Only paying customers merit respect. And believe me, I’ll pay. Güllen for a murder, boom times for a corpse.
If he tries to expose Clara by claiming she put a price on his head or something like that, when actually it was just an expression of unspeakable suffering, we’ll just have to take action.
The temptation is too great and our poverty is too wretched. But I know something else. I too will take part in it. I can feel myself slowly turning into a murderer. My faith in humanity is powerless. And because I know this, I have turned into a drunk. I am scared, Ill, just as you have been scared. I still know that some day an old lady will visit us too, and that then what is happening to you now will happen to us, but soon, maybe in a few hours, I will no longer know it.
Your Honor! I’ve been through hell. I saw you all going into debt, and with every sign of prosperity I felt death creeping closer. If you had spared me that anguish, that horrible fear, it would have all been different, we could speak on different terms, I would take the rifle. For all of your sake. But then I shut myself in, conquered my fear. Alone. It was hard; now it’s done. There is no turning back. Now you must be my judges. I will submit to your decision, whatever it turns out to be. For me it will be justice; I don’t know what it will be for you. May God help you live with your judgment. You can kill me, I won’t complain, I won’t protest, I won’t defend myself, but your action is yours, and I can’t relieve you of it.
ILL: The town’s holding a meeting this evening. They’ll sentence me to death and one of them will kill me. I don’t know who he will be or where it will happen, I only know that I’m ending a meaningless life.
CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I loved you. You betrayed me. But the dream of life, of love, of trust—this dream that was a reality once—I haven’t forgotten that. I want to rebuild it with my billions, I will change the past, by destroying you.
MAYOR: The Claire Zachanassian Endowment has been accepted. Unanimously. Not for the sake of the money—
THE COMMUNITY: Not for the sake of the money—
MAYOR: But for the sake of justice—
THE COMMUNITY: But for the sake of justice—
MAYOR: And to allay our conscience.
THE COMMUNITY: And to allay our conscience.
MAYOR: For we cannot live if we sanction a crime in our midst—
THE COMMUNITY: For we cannot live if we sanction a crime in our midst—