Claire’s quest to win justice for Ill’s betrayal propels the plot of The Visit, and she ultimately succeeds in taking Ill’s life and reputation as punishment for his wrongs. In many stories that depict a person avenging past wrongs, the ultimate verdict is seen to vindicate justice, truth, and morality. The Visit, however, uses Claire’s quest for justice—and the vapid and shifting definitions of justice to which the townspeople subscribe—to call into question whether “justice” is a concept with any meaning at all.
From the very beginning, justice means something different to each of the central characters in the play. To Claire, justice is the same as vengeance—it is her desire for disproportionate retribution against someone who wronged her forty-five years ago. This “justice” is not rooted in any external set of rules or guidelines, like religion or the law—rather, it is something to which Claire, who is driven by self-interest, feels personally entitled. Furthermore, Claire treats justice as a commodity to be bought or sold. When she offers the town a billion dollars in exchange for Ill’s death, the Mayor protests that “justice can’t be bought,” but Claire responds that “Everything can be bought.” Thus, as Claire herself admits, it’s wealth that allows her to seek the precise “justice” she desires by essentially bribing the entire town to provide it.
For Ill, however, justice requires accountability to one’s own actions. As the town turns against him, Ill retreats inward and, in time, accepts his inevitable death as punishment for his betrayal of Claire. “I turned Clara into what she is,” he says, “and myself into what I am, a grimy, petty shopkeeper.” With no recourse (since all of Güllen’s institutions have decided to kill him), Ill stops trying to justify his actions, and he simply acknowledges the pain he caused years ago. In the end, this sets him apart from his fellow Gülleners, who refuse to ever acknowledge their own moral failings. It also sets him apart from Claire, whose development as a character is static and stunted; she remains vengeful from beginning to end. Ill, meanwhile, undergoes a transformation from “a grimy, petty shopkeeper” into someone willing to hold himself and others to abstract ideals; when the Mayor suggests that Ill commit suicide and save the town the trouble of having to kill him, he refuses. The town, too, he argues, must assume responsibility for accepting Claire’s dubious bargain.
For the townspeople, “justice” is an empty word—one that carries connotations of “doing the right thing,” but is actually unconnected to any real principles and is therefore easily twisted to accommodate greed and self-interest. Upon hearing Claire’s offer, the people of Güllen proudly and defiantly refuse. “[W]e are still in Europe,” the Mayor reminds Claire. “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.” Despite the mayor’s stated commitment to principle, this speech is quickly revealed to be empty: it is not long before the people of Güllen begin living above their means, implicitly acknowledging their intent to comply with Claire’s bargain. At first, even with their most flagrant extravagances on full view, the townsfolk deny that their values have changed or that they intend to satisfy Claire’s demands. However, once they can no longer deny their intentions, they change their concept of justice in order to fit their actions, rather than holding their actions accountable to their concept of justice.
This is clearest in the contrast between the Mayor’s first speech refusing Claire’s offer and the Teacher’s speech at the trial in the third act. The Teacher’s speech mirrors the Mayor’s in its emphasis of principles (“The issue here is not money. […] It is not prosperity, a comfortable way of life, luxury; the issue is whether we want to make justice a reality, and not only justice but all the ideals…that constitute the true value of our Western world.”). However, while the Mayor had invoked these same principles to refuse Claire’s offer, the Teacher is invoking them to justify accepting it. In this context, “justice” becomes essentially meaningless—an empty commodity disguised as morality. Justice, Dürrenmatt suggests, can be bought and principles and ideals are only relevant insofar as they are convenient.
Justice, Morality, and Money ThemeTracker
Justice, Morality, and Money 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—
BUTLER: What happened to you?
CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I became a prostitute.
CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: The court’s verdict turned me into one.
Life has gone on, but I have forgotten nothing, Ill. Neither the woods of Konradsweil nor Petersen’s barn, neither Widow Boll’s bedroom nor your treachery. Now we have grown old, the two of us, you down at the heels and me cut to pieces by surgeons’ knives, and now I want us both to settle accounts: you chose your life and forced me into mine. You wanted time to be suspended, just a moment ago, in the woods of our youth, so full of impermanence. Now I have suspended it, and now I want justice, justice for a billion.
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.
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—