It is no secret that many Classics imposed on us in English class are just not that enjoyable. Take Moby-dick, The Great Gatsby, and Scarlet Letter.
Sure, these works bring us heaps of historical and cultural knowledge through their societal mirroring, but Moby-dick is painfully descriptive, The Great Gatsby does not have one likeable character, and Scarlet Letter should win an award for making a book about sex so dull.
But whilst I’m not afraid to criticize the sweetheart books of the world, I’m the first to acknowledge works which sweep me off my feet.
Death and the Maid is one of those works
For those who have not read Ariel Dorfman’s legendary play, Death and the Maiden tells the story of Paulina Salas, a former political prisoner, who reunites with her abuser, Roberto Miranda, after her husband unknowingly makes friends with him. Disappointed by the lack of justice in her country’s legal system, she is determined to establish Roberto’s guilt and punishment through a mock trial. Written in 1990 after Pinochet abdicated power and Chile faced a delicate transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, the play begs the question of whether it is possible to penalize the past without destabilizing the future.
Although Death and the Maiden was Dorfman forcing reflection upon his home country of Chile, twenty years onwards this work still holds a haunting, global relevance — which is why I enjoy it so much. One place bearing this relevance is 2020 America with Trump, Biden, and the oppressed minorities curiously resembling the three main characters.
In this article, Paulina, a character representing those oppressed during Chile’s dictatorship, will represent those oppressed in America — specifically African-Americans, women, and immigrants.
After being verbally and physically abused during Pinochet’s regime, Paulina is meant to find peace in Chile’s new democratic order. Yet, she is agitated, paranoid, and bitter — grabbing her gun anytime she hears a strange noise and using a mocking tone when describing the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Committee’ — a committee which, only dealing with cases where the victim is killed, exonerates her abuser.
Essentially, Paulina felt marginalized because the new fairness and justice rested exclusively on superficial grounds, while the important systemic changes remained untouched.
A concept quite familiar to the black community
From slavery to the Jim Crow Laws, over four hundred years of American history are tainted with the brutality of the domestic slave trade, KKK violence, and 4,400 lynching victims. But that era is viewed as the horrible reality of the past. Meanwhile, a new era of colour-blindness has taken its place. With the percentage of African-Americans registered to vote in the South soaring between 1964-1969, Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Bill leveling the racial playing field, and a black man being elected president, the system of racial caste was declared dead and buried.
But, just like in Paulina’s case, the idea that African-Americans no longer stand on the sidelines of society is an illusion prompted by half-hearted concessions which silence the outcries of minorities without upsetting the status quo.
When the Jim Crow Laws were dismantled, a new caste system was born in its place: that of criminal justice and mass incarceration. As Republican politicians exploited racial fears to attract white working-class voters who felt threatened by the progression of African-Americans during the civil rights movement, a new ‘Law and Order’ rhetoric was carved — rhetoric which fuelled Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’. This war allowed Reagan to paint crack cocaine, a drug mostly used by black Americans, as the number one enemy, imposing harsher sentences for its possession, and finally targeting a previously defined racial enemy. Once incarcerated, African-Americans are downgraded to a second- class status, being denied rights such as the right to vote, to serve on juries, and to benefit from public housing.
Racial caste has ‘not ended but simply been redesigned’, leaving millions of African Americans feeling like Paulina — permanently unsafe and outcasted.
The play also makes an important distinction between legislative and social equality. Whilst the law has evolved, preventing Paulina from being legally abused, social norms are slow to follow. Her male counterparts patronize her, perpetrators hold positions of power (including Pinochet who remained as head of the army), and she cannot publicly discuss her assault.
The discrepancy between legislative and social reform is best seen in America’s gender equality fight. We clapped for Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which prevented insurance companies from charging higher prices on the basis of sex, praised the protection of women evidenced in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and bowed to our girls as they achieved impressive jobs.
The law seems to recognize gender progression — but do we?
Fox’s Roger Ailes had a ‘short-skirt’ policy for the women he demanded sexual favours from. Hollywood Mogul Harvey Weinstein masturbated in front of actresses and raped them. Donald Trump famously bragged about ‘grabbing women by their pussy’. What do these men have in common? They are huge power players.
As long as a power structure where men at the top can sexualize women who won’t fight back due to fear of unemployment holds, harassment will be normalized, and thousands of victims like Paulina will stand to see their abusers unscratched.
All of these problems, although very real and present, have bubbled under the American surface as minorities, similarly to Paulina, avoided causing disruption for fear of jeopardizing the benefits they do have.
Enter Roberto Miranda — or Trump, in 2016
Roberto — although maintaining his innocence throughout the play — is the doctor who most readers are convinced raped Paulina, and who one night, after helping Paulina’s husband fix his flat tire, joins him in their home for a drink. As Paulina sees her perpetrator after all those years, her worst fears are rekindled.
That night is the 2016 election night — and all the nights that followed.
The Trump Administration has spent the last four years deepening inequality and national disunity.
For immigrants, getting a green card is an impossible mission, as those relying on certain benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance for more than 12 months in a 36-month period are no longer eligible to apply. The 2017 ‘Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals’ executive order shut down the refugee program for 120 days and denied visas to anyone coming from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
One of Trump’s first acts as president was to halt American financial support for associations which provide women with safe abortions, and since he has attacked the Affordable Care Act and terminated the implementation of Obama’s pay data collection rule — a rule which prevents discrimination by spotting pay disparities.
Being a president, however, is not only about the laws you enact, but the moral character you set as an example. Actions hurt, but words can too.
And it’s when the President refers to African countries as ‘shitholes’, calls Mexicans drug dealers and rapists, and tells American senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to go ‘back to her country’ that sexists, racists, and ultra nationalists feel empowered. The alt-right has adopted Trump as their own, clinging to him to make their bigoted actions acceptable.
Tired and frustrated that her country does not vindicate her, Paulina takes matters into her own hands, violently trilling Roberto in her living room. The concept of seeking personal justice after being repeatedly failed by one’s government is one which, in 2020, hits too close to home in America.
The murder of George Floyd — working as a spark that reignited the BLM movement — was the tipping point in a long history of police brutality. The 7,750 grassroots BLM demonstrations across the 50 states and the destruction of historical statues are the exact definitions of citizens imposing their long-overdue justice; some peacefully and others, like Paulina’s justice, less so.
However, although the reader empathizes with Paulina’s need for justice, Dorfman does not exonerate her. In fact, by having her adopt Roberto’s mannerisms, and through the humiliating act of putting her panties in his mouth, he blurs the line between victim and aggressor. If we adopt violent protests, even if in the name of justice, are we not dangerously close to becoming exactly what we try to fight? Does our struggle not lose the righteousness?
Dorfman also hints at the counter-productiveness of Paulina’s actions, suggesting that she is perpetuating a cycle of violence. It’s important to remember that violent protests, which in the past have actually hurt democratic support groups and empowered Republican candidates like Nixon, can radicalize a movement unfairly, repelling its supporters.
In the middle of this infinite chaos, Gerardo swoops in — the democratic hope of the country?
Paulina’s husband and a praised lawyer, Gerardo is the ‘voice of reason’, always acting as a mediator between Paulina and Roberto. Embodying a rhetoric of reconciliation and justice, he personifies a compromise. Surely I don’t need to explain the resemblance to Joe Biden.
At first, I was quick to praise Gerardo for not being compliant in the brutality of the dictatorship — essentially, for not being Roberto. Similarly, I was ready to support Biden, because he was not Trump.
However, Gerardo is far from perfect. He cheats on Paulina, labels her ‘sick’, and, by being the head of the Committee of Truth and Reconciliation, accepts that his wife will be denied justice. Essentially, he doesn’t do enough to support her, and I’m worried that old-school Biden, being painfully equanimous and compromising, won’t do enough either. Biden’s health-care plan, whilst an improvement from Trump’s with its lower treatment costs and subsidized Medicare-based option, still leaves thousands without access to health care. His foreign policy promises to go back to ‘Obama’s Golden Days’, although the ‘Plan Colombia’ he championed as senator caused higher rates of crime and cocaine usage in Colombia, and seven million citizens to be displaced by their own army.
The changes Biden proposes seem to build on flawed systems, instead of changing the systemic problems in them. And although those policies, combined with the ‘I’m not Trump’ card and a long career as a politician might be enough to get him elected, what will happen when millions of Paulinas gain new hope, only to see it fall short of all expectations, leading a line of continuity instead of aggressive reform?
The ending of this play — just like all the dilemmas it poses — is inconclusive. It is not clear whether Paulina kills Roberto; several months later, whilst attending a concert, he appears in the gallery, with staging directions mentioning that ‘he could be real or he could be an illusion in Paulina’s head’. She decides to ignore him and listen instead to ‘Death and the Maiden’ — the quartet Roberto used to play while abusing her.
It is also full of ambiguity that we face the elections ahead — with an escalating pandemic, a supreme court spot needing filling, and Trump already suggesting that he won’t agree to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election adding to the confusion. His positive Covid-19 test adds another unsettling element to the already charged atmosphere.
As an optimist, though I believe that Trump’s legacy will cast a dark cloud over America (just like Roberto does in that concert hall over Paulina), yet I also believe that our minorities will learn to look past him. Just like our heroine, they will face their traumas because they must if they hope to reach a better future.