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Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden” revolves around a husband and wife, Gerardo and Paulina, living under an unstable democracy after a long chapter of oppressive dictatorship. In this moral thriller, Paulina accuses a man named Roberto of being the physician who tortured and raped her in the times of her abduction during the dictatorship. Gerardo meets Roberto in the road after getting a flat tire and Paulina claims to recognize his voice as her supposed torturer’s. She then justifies holding Roberto captive when he visits Gerardo in the middle of the night, and then asks for an impartial trial under Gerardo’s examination. With this probationary, not only does Paulina challenge the existence of her past brutal relationship with Roberto, but also threatens her relationship with Gerardo. While the images of Paulina’s abduction flashback through her mind, she digs up the buried skeleton of Gerardo’s betrayal as well. Ariel Dorfman reveals instability within Paulina and Gerardo’s marriage through his use of sarcasm, repetition and flashback.
Gerardo and Paulina use sarcasm as a means to communicate with each other. It generally requires a great deal of familiarity with an individual to decipher if he or she is being sarcastic. Since Gerardo and Paulina detect each others’ tones so easily, it shows the close connection between them. However, sarcasm also can reveal internal bitterness and contempt. For example, Dorfman foreshadows Gerardo’s infidelity from the very beginning of the play when Paulina is quick to assume that it was a woman who helped Gerardo fix his flat tire. She says, “Was she pretty at least? Sexy?” [pg 6]. This rhetorical question, which is also sarcastic, personally attacks Gerardo because Paulina is digging at his mistakes from the past. This question ignites a set of arguments that are saturated in sarcasm when the couple discusses Gerardo being named the Commissioner by the President. They argue about vulnerability, certain limitations of the job and the compromises they will have to make. Paulina is hesitant in giving Gerardo her blessing to accept his new profession because she feels it would open up old wounds. At first she gives Gerardo a submissive yes, but Gerardo is not satisfied with the lack of enthusiasm and says, “that’s not the yes I need”[pg 8]. Responding to Gerardo’s insensitivity, Paulina sarcastically retorts, “it’s the only yes I’ve got”. This interchange of refusals to compromise builds the tension between the couple. In addition, Paulina resents the fact that the Commission is limited to handling cases that “ended in death or the presumption of death” [pg 9], and she sarcastically refers to these cases as being “irreparable” [pg. 9]. Paulina’s use of the word “irreparable” is loaded, as she invokes the emotional damage caused by her abduction, which is ultimately irrevocable despite her survival. Moreover, she emphasizes her resentment when she, in another moment of tension, spits out another series of rhetorical questions undermining the so-called “judges” [pg 10] that will be handling the crimes. She ends her tirade a sarcastic soft laugh that evolves into “increasing hysteria”[pg 10]. Her demeanor in these conversations show that the couple’s traumatic past destabilizes the foundation of their matrimony.
Gerardo’s constant fluctuations between being deceitful and being a heroic savior makes him an enigma that confounds the reader and Paulina herself. When Gerardo is accused of lying, he always has a safe resort to redeem himself. For instance, when Paulina assumed that it was a woman that helped Gerardo fix his flat tire, initiating the topic of his disloyalty, he digresses the conversation about Paulina’s mistake of lending the jack to her mother. By doing this, he gains back the power over the conversation by making his wife feel guilty. Subsequently, when Paulina finds out that Gerardo has lied about ‘thinking’ over the Commissioner’s position, when in fact he’s accepted it without her consent, he justifies his actions by telling her that he “didn’t want to hurt her” [pg 11]. Lastly, there are many instances when Gerardo embraces Paulina not only to comfort her, but also to use it as a mechanism of self-preservation. For example, this stage direction occurs when Gerardo manipulates Paulina into accepting his career as Commissioner. He takes her in his arms then confesses his love for her and how “it still hurts” him when he’s reminded of her pain. This gesture completely overwhelms Paulina resulting in her “fiercely holding on to him” and reciting “Yes. Yes. Yes” [pg 10] in surrender. On another occasion, Gerardo placates Paulina when she gets hysterical about the judges of the Commission, and averts the conversation into downward spiral and an emotional breakdown. These implications allude to the gender roles of the society in which the play takes place. Gerardo is competent enough to be aware of his power over Paulina, and it is obvious that he engages this knowledge often to get him out of difficult situations.
The flashbacks that Paulina experiences change her vulnerable personality and this threatens Gerardo’s power over her, as well as his perception of her sanity. When Gerardo first sees Roberto tied to a chair, he is shocked and tells Paulina that she is “sick”. However, with a newfound power and motivation to finally achieve vengeance, Paulina disagrees with him even though he repeats the line “you’re sick” [pg 23] over and over again. Paulina’s imitation of Roberto’s (also known as Dr. Miranda) idiolect, including the use of profanity and diction such as “teensy-weensy” and “the real real truth”, strengthens the memory of her assault and feeds her courage to continue her pursuit of a trial despite Gerardo’s refusal. In fact, Paulina admits her vulnerability when she says, “as soon as I stop pointing it (the gun) at you, all dialogue will automatically terminate. If I put it down you’ll use your strength to win the argument” [pg 24]. In this instance, she is referring to Gerardo’s strength over her, both emotional and physical. In actuality, Paulina uses the gun as a symbol of strength that not only creates a concrete barrier between her and Gerardo, but also it acts as a mask to conceal her fears and uncertainty. When she is using the gun, Paulina reveals her vulnerability by being “as surprised as both men, recoiling from the shot”. However, when Gerardo comments, “you can’t do this”, she pulls herself back to her gladiator state. Again, she uses imitation to strengthen herself and her point by quoting Gerardo, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t do this.” She ends her rant with an unapologetic “I did it”. Neither Gerardo nor Paulina have control over themselves. Their lack of judgment combined with the return of painful memories definitely pushes the couple’s instability over the edge.
In conclusion, Ariel Dorfman successfully portrays the deterioration in Paulina and Gerardo’s marriage through his use of sarcasm, repetition and flashback. Although they are under the extraordinary circumstance of encountering an old traumatic memory, it seems as though their marriage exist within the generalized gender roles of man and wife. They show that even the strongest of adoration for each other can be weakened by terrible memories, memories that the couple must get over before they can move on with their lives. Dorfman, creates a depth within his characters that deeply affects the reader and the audience alike.
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