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As a staunch believer in the absolute nature of human rights and justice, I never expected the struggle of a distraught, middle-aged Chilean woman to challenge me quite in the way that it did. From the moment I was first introduced to Ariel Dorfman’s play “La Muerte y la Doncella” in my IB Spanish literature class, I was gripped by the complexities of the character of Paulina, an innocent woman who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured during the rule of a ruthless dictator, and who finds herself face to face with her torturer 15 years later.
Throughout the duration of the play, Paulina agonizes over her dilemma of whether to kill the man who has caused her unfathomable suffering, or whether to let her husband, the head of the truth and reconciliation commission, press the man to publicly acknowledge his abuses, but ultimately let him free in an attempt to reunite the fractured nation. Dorfman leaves me desperate for an answer at the end of the play, as Paulina’s ultimate decision is enveloped in a shroud of mystery, yet through his masterfulness he forces me to consider daunting questions reaching far beyond the apparent ethical dilemma of when is it justified to kill.
After the curtains draw shut, I am left grappling with questions upon questions. Just how absolute are human rights? If Paulina were my sister or daughter or mother, could I blame her for desiring vengeance over justice? And yet if we cannot guarantee the human rights of even the most ruthless torturers, are we then nothing more than hypocrites?
I know that in the field of human rights, which I want to work in, I will meet countless Paulinas, all of whom have suffered abuses that no human should. And while I may not have the answers to Dorfman’s questions or to the suffering of the Paulinas of the world, I know that we cannot simply abandon our most steadfast principles in the face of complexity. I am certain that as long as we can find exceptions to human rights, we will be incapable of stopping the wrongs of humanity.
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