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Abby Broadhurst

IB English 11 – Pd. 6
Mr. Jameson
March 21, 2013

Human Vulnerability (No. 1)

There are certain inherent traits that compose the essence of the human race: compassion, love,

and most importantly, vulnerability. Vulnerability is a mixed blessing. It gives humans the power to feel

love and have compassion, and yet the world has a tragic history of its cruel manipulation. Too often, it

seems that individuals exploit human vulnerability to distort one’s values and morals. This is evident in

Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s play “The Visit,” which highlights a woman’s quest for so-called “justice.”

Despite seemingly good intentions to uphold justice while also improving a dying town, Claire

Zachanassian plays upon the townspeople’s desperation for purpose and security. Ultimately, this

cultivates a culture of corrupt justice. Duerrenmatt’s development of the tragic nature of human

vulnerability parallels the global situation evident in World War II, shortly before this play was written.

In the war, Adolf Hitler, a German Nazi, was famous for his ability to convince people of his inhuman

cause – the dehumanization and extermination of millions of innocent people of Jewish faith.

Duerrenmatt cleverly crafts his work to explore the evident vulnerability of human nature through his

insight on the human need for purpose and security, two ideals that can too easily condone corrupt justice.

In life, many people pursue a sense of purpose and will rally around any leader promising to

provide that sense of value and importance in their lives. Typically, it is the wealthy and powerful who

have the most capability to influence others as people tend to follow those they most aspire to be. In “The

Visit,” Claire Zachanassian is clearly the commander of the town’s aspirations. This idea is first

introduced when the townspeople of Gullen, a “shabby and ruined” town, are meticulously preparing for

her visit, hoping that the wealthy Claire will discern the town’s innate value and thus invest in its revival

(“The Visit” 5). The stark contrast between the lifestyles of the townspeople and Claire is important as it

conveys the poverty of the town and clarifies the town’s desperation to please Claire. Upon the

“distinguished guests” arrival, Claire immediately asserts her power as evident in her scathing remark of
how the town is “a miserable blot on the map” (14-15). Despite her domineering entrance, the

townspeople desperately try to please her, employing all means possible to impress. The town’s distress

is conveyed through a chaotic scene in which the characters scurry about, attempting to ensure that all of

their carefully made plans are put into effect. For instance, while the pastor calls for bells, the teacher

fixates on the school choir. The manner in which Duerrenmatt opens the play demonstrates how a figure

of wealth can transform a people. It seems that Claire’s arrival enlightens the townspeople of new

possibilities and her success inspires them to create their own. Duerrenmatt highlights the townspeople’s

vulnerability as they are desperate to please Claire and thus follow in her shadow. This is crucial to the

development of both the play and Duerrenmatt’s underlying message. Cautioning his audience of the

need to be aware of this vulnerability, Duerrenmatt forms a parallel between the relationship of Claire and

the townspeople to Hitler and the Nazis. Just as Hitler convinced the public of his ability to transform

Germany for the better, so Claire promises the people of Gullen. As the play continues, it becomes

evident that this desperation for a valuable life can often spiral out of control.

Duerrenmatt then emphasizes human vulnerability to the promise of wealth and power – security

-through his clever inclusion and development of various characters. The climax of the play is a

resounding ultimatum delivered by a merciless Claire: the death of Anton Schill, a man who betrayed her

in their youth, in return for a billion marks, a chance of renewed vitality for the town. Initially, the

various characters assure Schill that he need not fear, agreeing that their support is “as firm as a rock”

(43). However, despite the claim that the townspeople are not “heathens,” Schill’s interactions with those

who would typically be considered the most likely to support him, upholding justice and morals, slowly

allude to the town’s coming betrayal (43). Executors of the rule of law and religion are often held in a

respected position by the society they serve. This is evident by Schill’s decision to first appeal to

Policeman Schultz for protection from Claire and her horrid retribution. When Schill enters the police

station, desperately appealing for the arrest of Madame Zachanassian, Schultz responds with negligent

ambivalence, treating Schill’s proposal as a paranoid delirium. As the conversation between the two

continues, Schill begins to notice that Schultz, like so many others in town, is sporting new shoes and
even “a brand new, shining, gold tooth” (51). Shocked by the policeman’s newfound irresponsibility,

Schill comes to the slow realization that even this man who swore to uphold the law is vulnerable to the

temptation of money and additional commodities. After failing to appeal to the policeman’s compassion,

Schill then seeks the aide of the Pastor. However, despite the typical integrity associated with religious

leaders, it is apparent that even the Pastor, a man of God, has been swayed by Claire’s proposal as he has

recently acquired a new church bell. The Pastor acknowledges human vulnerability when he seems to

appeal to Schill’s forgiveness, stating “Oh God, God forgive me. We are poor and weak things, all of us”

(57). Once again, this inherent human search for higher standing reflects the situation in World War II in

which many people abandoned their values for promise of a better future. The manner in which

Duerrenmatt highlights the pandemic vulnerability of the human race, emphasizes the idea that all people,

no matter their position or faith have the potential to conform and thus condone corrupt justice.

The theme of corrupt justice permeates the novel as Duerrenmatt seeks to warn against human

vulnerability and typical human downfalls. As mentioned, people often follow charismatic leaders who

provide promises of success and prosperity as evidenced in the play as well as world history. Ultimately,

human vulnerability to such prospects condones corrupt justice as peoples’ guilt causes them to transform

the truth to better serve their own purposes and justify their actions. As the play concludes, it is clear that

Gullen has made its decision, the townspeople having decided that Schill’s death would ensure justice, an

idea they quickly rejected earlier. In one scene, several townspeople are conversing about the situation

between Claire and Schill. In contrast to the earlier attitude of defiance on behalf of Anton Schill, the

townspeople now refer to how he has “[ruined] a young girl,” their sympathies obviously lying with

Claire (71). Schill’s wife surprisingly agrees saying that she too “[feels] very badly about it” (71). Later

on, some people even approach Schill, the Burgomaster encouraging Schill to kill himself and “take the

path of honor” (77). The inclusion of the word “honor” demonstrates the extent to which the town’s

morals have been skewed by Claire’s arrival and monetary proposal. While no one would have initially

considered a suicide honorable, the selfishness of the townspeople prompts them to encourage Schill to

take his own life, thus making the ordeal even easier for them. The play concludes with a “trial” in the
name of “justice” in which the townspeople vote to have Schill murdered for their own benefit. The

cruelty of their decision is reinforced by the final scene in which the renewed town has eerily returned to

normal, no indication of Schill’s life or murder. Duerrenmatt’s evolution of justice through the

townspeople’s perspective clarifies human vulnerability. The town’s acceptance of sacrifice as a means

of justice parallels that of the Nazi’s acceptance of the Holocaust in return for augmented self-worth.

Corruption is everywhere and Duerrenmatt encourages the understanding of various inherent human

values so that such tragedies may be later avoided.

The human race is, was, and perhaps will always be vulnerable. It seems always to be vulnerable

to some idea or prospect as evidenced many times throughout world history. Duerrenmatt clearly

recognizes this as he shapes the play to reflect the horrid situation during World War II in which the

massacre of millions was justified as being a necessary purge of evil for the betterment of the world.

Through Duerrenmatt’s development of Anton Schill, a man initially introduced as a well-respected and

honorable man, to a man whom the town can so easily sacrifice, Duerrenmatt highlights the injustice that

can occur when people succumb to their vulnerabilities and dismiss their morality as unrelated or

unassociated with a current situation. As demonstrated by Claire’s influence on the town of Gullen, the

human race tends to be vulnerable to promises of an ideal life, thus promises of self-worth and prosperity.

Although these values may tempt many, Duerrenmatt cautions against the acceptance of these values as

inherent to a successful and happy life through the denouement of the play and Schill’s position as a

tragic hero. To be human is to be vulnerable, but to be humane is to recognize these vulnerabilities and

respect them.

Word Count: 1, 499