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Is Paulina a Reliable Character in Death and the Maiden?

            From the beginning of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, it is clear that Paulina is a character that has experienced some sort of a traumatic situation in her past that has permanently altered her personality. This is evident from the first mention of Paulina in the play. When she hears a car approaching her house, she instantly becomes worrisome, “She hurriedly stands up, goes to the other room, looks out the window… goes to the sideboard, takes out a gun, stops when the motor is turned off and she hears Gerardo’s voice” (2). Dorfman makes Paulina’s harrowing past even more prominent when she and Gerardo discuss his offer from the President, “Nobody in the new government knows. I’m talking about the fact that we never made it public, as you never—as we never denounced the things that they—what they…” (6).

            Paulina then goes on to capture Roberto (15), a man whom her husband trusted enough to not only willingly offer him solace in their guest room for the night- but insisted that he stay there, as he declares “I won’t hear of it. You’re staying. You’re what? You’re half an hour away… Not another word” (13). This action, in accordance with Paulina’s paranoia and distressed nature, seems to strongly imply that Paulina may suffer from some form of mental instability; which Roberto does suggest claiming, “I do not know you, madam. I have never seen you before in my life. But I can tell you this: you are extremely ill, almost prototypically schizoid” (23). At which point I found myself agreeing with him and generally believing that Paulina was just unstable and becoming unhinged; which very well may have been Dorfman’s intentions in making Paulina seem to be of such unsound mind.

            The point at which I found myself beginning to agree with and fully believe Paulina’s accusation against Roberto came when she tells Gerardo that she recognizes more than just Roberto’s voice, “It’s not only the voice I recognize, Gerardo. I also recognize the skin. And the smell. Gerardo. I recognize his skin” (27). In situations such as Paulina’s, victims are taught to memorize as many details of their captors and surroundings as possible; therefore, it is highly plausible that Paulina could not mistake these aspects because they have been engrained into her memory. Furthermore, Paulina inserted slight variations in her story to Gerardo knowing that he would use that for Roberto’s confession; thus, proving that Roberto was, in fact, guilty- as he corrected all of her discrepancies (45). Not only does this prove Roberto’s guilt, it also proves Paulina’s reliability as a character.

One thought on “Is Paulina a Reliable Character in Death and the Maiden?”

  1. You bring up a couple of super interesting textual moments here: first, Paulina’s actions even before she has any clue about Roberto; second, those sensory, physical details about Roberto that prove to her, at least, that this is her torturer and rapist. I don’t know that the play offers up any definitive proof that she’s right, but this is one of the most compelling details we’re given, for sure. It would be interesting to know more about what kind of information victims of trauma are most likely to recall with accuracy after the fact; sound and smell, to the best of my knowledge, are on that list (so, not just because victims “are told” to remember these things but because emotionally charged sensory information gets recorded differently by the parts of our brain responsible for memory).


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