An Analysis Of Situational Irony In Death And The Maiden By Ariel Dorfman

Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman, concentrates on injustices of the Chilean Revolution and visualizes the corrupt actions through three main characters – Paulina Salas, Gerardo Escobar, and Roberto Miranda – that undergo a situation that can easily be a retelling of a real event in the world. To support this, Dorfman leaves the setting open to interpretation so that people of any background or country can relate to the message he is trying to convey due to the impact of regime he saw from beginning to end. In context, Dorfman through careful manipulation of plot, characters, and dialogue, creates a sense of situational irony to further strengthen the theme of ambiguity, justice, and forgiveness in his play as well as put into question if Roberto is Paulina’s abuser or not.

In the opening moments of Death and the Maiden, Dorfman plays with the recurring motif of “Expectations Vs. Reality” as he opens up the first scene; “...takes out a gun…” this action by our protagonist, Paulina Salas, sets the tone very early for the rest of the novel and foreshadows the following action and suspense that occurs later on in the play. When analyzing the purpose and use of the gun in the play, it is apparent that Dorfman uses it to aid in the development of Paulina; this is shown when the gun seamlessly portrays her personality, and her initial transition from weak and broken to strong and intent. Once in the possession of the gun, Paulina’s actions become more determined and she gains a sense of security with it although evidently not having any real experience with firearms, “...It’s clear that she does not know how to fire the weapon,“. While in possession of the gun, Paulina manipulates the situation entirely, and the tone of the play completely shifts.

In Act 1 scene 4, Paulina has successfully ties up Roberto. “…what if we listen to some Schubert while I make breakfast, a nice breakfast, Doctor?” she says. The words “we” and “nice” brings up the verbal irony in this case as the word “nice” implies that she is about to do continue torturing him as she currently has him tied up. The “schubert” song in itself also resemble the idea of situational irony as schubert generally is a song that evokes a beautiful, tranquil piece of music. However, for Paulina’s case, listening to the song reminds her of the time she was abused and assaulted; remembering all the violence and suffering she had to endure. Although listening to the song reminds her of the atrocious past, she believes that in order to listen to the song again without being irritated by it, she must do harm/ kill Roberto which brings out the situational irony in this case - where she need violence in order to achieve peace.

“I’ll be able to listen to my Schubert again, even go to a concert like we used to.”

In saying so, in order to forget about her past aggressions, she suggests to her husband that she would bring on the same level of torture onto Roberto. Dorfman conveys the idea that Paulina is unable to move on from her past and uses the irony behind Paulina and Schubert to further emphasize her incapability of letting the past go. Overall Dorfman explores the theme of forgiveness. Here Dorfman employs that forgiveness is an ideal thing in most cases where we need to forget the past and move on with our lives, however in this example, what is being suggested by the author is that some acts are too horrendous to ever forgive and will never be possible to forgive others for.

While Paulina clearly has superiority over Roberto, she uses this time to torture a confession out of Roberto. In doing so, Gerardo steps onto plate and tries to convince Roberto into appeasing Paulina and encouraging him to confess whether he is innocent or not. 'When crazy people have power, you've got to indulge them,' he says. This is another representation of situational irony as where we see Roberto spent his entire career, entire life, resisting and opposing a ruthless and “crazy person” (Alluding to August Pinochet’s dictatorship) in order to find liberation and individual freedom. However, in this scenario, we see that Gerardo has no intention to oppose Paulina but rather please and indulge her instead of trying to free Roberto from this situation which contradicts with what he’s fought for in the past. With regards to the text, Dorfman illustrates Gerardo as a character whom is very indecisive and weak minded person. In advocating so, Dorfman’s implication further explores the theme of justice and ambiguity. The question being raised here is whether or not Roberto is abuser of Paulina as it seems Roberto appears to be innocent in this case but being forced to admit something he may or may not have done. Furthermore, justice here is being illustrated as Gerarado tries to resolve the conflict under the law books and government system while Paulina opposes that idea and sees her own ideas as a fitting punishment for the atrocities committed by Roberto - is Paulina’s punishment just in this scenario. Her actions however in this case contradicts the ideas of justice while making it seem as if Roberto is the innocent one while making it seem as if Paulina is the villain.

Another representation of Situational Irony is seen in the final scenes during the confessions of Roberto, and recount of Paulina. As if two pieces of the puzzle, both their stories seem to completely align with what the audience knows and what the characters believe. While Paulina was trapped in the past, they are both trapped in the present; this alludes to the thematic concept of confinement and is a recurring symbol seen from beginning to end in the play. Further irony is developed as shortly after finishing both their “confessions”, Paulina decides that she will not be just in her actions, and instead decides to hold Roberto accountable. Accountable for the rape of many during this time of revolution, and repeats, “What do we lose?” while pointing the gun directly at Roberto, and this moment further pushes the message that Dorfman is trying to convey through these characters. Through Paulina, Dorfman argues the inconsequential loss that would come from getting rid of all the criminals, instead of pardoning their actions. The repetition of loss becomes a motif of its own as Dorfman focuses heavily on the many losses that the characters have experienced and alluding it to the Chilean Revolution. The theme of justice is being further explored here as Dorman questions whether or not the criminals received a suitable punishment for their crimes.

All in all, the overall impact of situational irony occurs in many has contributed to the development of the overall plot and story of the play. While the situational irony also challenges the theme of ambiguity, justice and forgiveness. Moreover, the use of these illustrations further developed the conflict between the characters of Paulina and Roberto as it inclusively puts into question whether or not Paulina’s lack of forgiveness and desire for justice is just in the overall play. However, one thing still remains uncertain is if Roberto is Paulina’s assaulter or not.

Works Cited

  1. Ariel Dorfman. Death and the Maiden. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Group, 1991.
09 March 2021
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