Understanding Paulina’s Mentality: A Close Reading Of Death And The Maiden, Act 2 Scene 1 Onwards

Act 2’s dialogue reveals the effect of Paulina being tortured under the Chilean totalitarian past on her present life. This ambiguity is explored in Act 2 of Death and the Maiden, as Gerardo and Paulina express opposing opinions when confronting Roberto in a chair. The audience is not sure if her abusive treatment of Roberto is revenge or justice. Paulina’s behaviour has changed from a housewife who is belittled to one that is aggressive. Her restlessness and animalistic behavior are causing her to mistrust Gerardo.

Paulina abuses Roberto in a way that is cathartic yet also makes her animalistic. Paulina, at the beginning Act 2, retells the memory of her rape to him, as if Roberto were her confessor. She hasn’t told Gerado nor her sister. Paulina lived a life of repression in order to avoid sharing. Stagecraft suggests that confrontations are therapeutic. The’sea and window’ are portrayed as if she is rocking gently. The implication of the ‘window is that it represents her vulnerability, her willingness to reveal herself. As the sea is so vast, it could reflect her power and/or mental instability. Nature can be used to create a peaceful atmosphere, just like finally admitting her memory stabilizes the character to some extent.

Her confession, though initially cathartic, becomes aggressive. It is in this context that she explains the psychological scars left by the totalitarian state on its victims. When she “imitates the voice of a man”, it is as if her memory is still vivid. This gives the impression that Paulina is mocking Roberto but it also shows how the traumatizing event has not left her. She becomes more animalistic as she speaks in vile terms and dehumanizes Roberto. The audience is prompted to imagine a graphic scene where a woman shows no mercy towards a tortured victim, even at his most vulnerable. Dorfman has achieved naturalistic effects that successfully portray the Chilean reality to his audience. The victims were so psychologically scarred by the totalitarian system and their desperate pleas for justice.

Gerardo’s inability to understand Paulina shows the deterioration of their relationship. Gerardo shows this throughout the entire extract, when he insists that Paulina must’really hear’ him and ‘talk to him’ first before allowing her to give an explanation. This shows how he lacks the empathy to understand his wife’s sudden abusive behavior. Ironically, it’s he who needs to listen to Paulina because she was raped. He defends Roberto for ‘taking off the gag’, untying his leg’ and using the law as a symbol of intelligence and justice to bring Paulina to her knees. Gerardo represents male misunderstanding of rape. Because he constantly tells Paulina to’stop’, despite the fact that she has a history of rape far worse than Roberto. Gerardo appears to be trying his best to get Paulina to stop her brutality, but she also tries her best to make Gerardo understand how much rape hurts.

The irony of the situation and misunderstandings tear them apart. One doesn’t know what the other is saying. Paulina interpreted Roberto’s punishment differently than Gerardo. Paulina has him in a “trial”, while Gerardo calls it a “vengeance” because the term is related to justice. Gerardo says that Paulina’s’vengeance,’ which is violence to achieve equality, has a negative connotation. Both terms have the same meaning, which is equality. However, they cast Paulina under two different light. Dorfman uses this juxtaposition in order to show ambiguity when it comes to the justice theme, because Chile’s transition from totalitarian rule to democracy was based on the idea of justice. How should those who mistreat others be treated by the law?

The scene shows how different characters react to justice. It is the first time that the audience has seen the meaning of justice. Gerardo is not aware of Paulina’s capabilities or her past experiences. He is therefore shocked when he sees Roberto abused. Gerardo can be seen as a man who does not understand the pain of a rape. He cannot see the situation from Paulina’s point of view. Roberto would be dehumanized if Gerardo understood the humiliation of a woman after a rape. This mirrors the situation in Chile of the 1990s where victims of abuse questioned what justice meant.

Dorfman is trying to get the audience upset about Paulina and her actions in order to bring out how psychologically destroyed she really is. The audience’s reaction to Paulina’s actions will reflect their disgust for rape. The audience must be able to endure the violence Paulina imposes on Roberto in order to understand how debilitating rape can be. They may not understand the horrors if she abuses Roberto out of her control or is driven by a lunatic.


  • rosssaunders

    Ross Saunders is an educational blogger and professor, who has written extensively on topics such as education reform, online learning, and assessment. He has also spoken on the topic at various conferences and universities.

rosssaunders Written by:

Ross Saunders is an educational blogger and professor, who has written extensively on topics such as education reform, online learning, and assessment. He has also spoken on the topic at various conferences and universities.

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