The life of Claire Zachanassian of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit is an endless pursuit of liberation – she offers the people of her depression-stricken hometown one million dollars in return for the death of her high school sweetheart, protagonist Alfred Ill. Claire believes that Ill’s death will justify the wrong she was done so many years ago when Ill testified against her in court and claimed to not be the father of her child, tacitly sentencing her to many a year spent in brothels.
No matter how Claire tries to liberate herself from the past, however, the means she uses in order to liberate herself end up hurting her as well as those who initially suppressed her. Because society has for so long imprisoned Claire, Claire must ultimately imprison society in order to liberate herself. The Guellen townspeople are initially appalled at Claire’s offer, the mayor proudly telling Claire that “in the name of all citizens of Guellen, I reject your offer; and I reject it in the name of humanity. We would rather have poverty than blood on our hands”(Durrenmatt 39).
Claire, however, has a different plan in mind. When Guellen’s doctor and schoolmaster try to talk Claire out of demanding the bloody price of Ill’s death in return for her one million dollar offer, Claire politely but firmly assures them that “the world turned me into a whore, I shall turn the world into a brothel” (67). This is exactly what Claire does. Despite how repulsed the town is by the unethical terms of the offer, the town members ultimately cave in to the point that when they gather in order to vote on whether or not to accept Claire’s offer, all but Ill vote in favor of accepting it.
Claire also convinces the town’s gymnast to strangle Ill, the doctor to diagnose this cause of death as a heart attack, and the policeman into “[winking] a blind eye” (22) so that her unethical deed of paying one million dollars for the murder will go unreported. It is only by forcefully isolating the Guelleners from their morals that Claire is able to find freedom from the imprisoning past society thrust upon her so many years ago. This freedom, however, comes at a bargaining price. In order to obtain liberation, Claire imprisons herself by pursuing a lifestyle which causes her to have “grown into hell itself”(29).
She spends her life working as a prostitute, despite her belief that “you should always fulfill your childhood dreams” (33). Claire’s over-brimming level of resentment towards Ill forcing her into becoming a prostitute makes it highly unlikely that, as a child, Claire dreamt of becoming a whore. Without becoming a prostitute, however, Claire wouldn’t have been in the Hamburg brothel where her first husband, “old Zachanassian” (29), met her, married her, and endowed her with the millions that now allows her the luxury of affording the liberation she so desires later on in life.
While freedom is naturally perceived as a positive attainment, the means Claire uses in order to liberate herself imprison her in a number of ways that make the audience question if the means taken in order to obtain this freedom outweigh the relief of being liberated. Claire’s ultimate portal to liberation – the death of Alfred Ill – can only be obtained through imprisoning herself as well as the other Guelleners. Claire explicitly tells Guellen, “I’m buying myself justice” (36) as she pays them off in order to kill Ill and free herself from her past. Bribery, forcing someone to do something in return for money, is by all means imprisoning.
The Guelleners become willing to sacrifice their morals and aid in the process of liberating Claire only at the point at which Claire offers them financial compensation. The town, facing abject destitution, has no choice but to go along with Claire’s proposal – and Claire knows this. She intentionally imprisons the Guelleners as well as Alfred Ill –terminating a life perhaps being the most imprisoning condition a human can inflict upon another living organism – in order to obtain the liberation she has so long desired. The means she takes in order to free herself, however, also imprison her own well being.
With blood on her hands, Claire’s soul is now anything but a clean slate and she is instead subject to a lifetime of a past coming back to haunt her. Claire is not able to create a scenario in which she liberates herself without somehow imprisoning herself or someone else. While Claire ultimately and praiseworthily frees herself from the unjust done to her so many years ago, the means it took for her to do so comes at the high expense of abandoning her childhood dreams to spending her young adult life in brothels, living with a murder on her hands as well as ending the life of Alfred Ill, and forcing the Guelleners to partake in this fatal case of bribery. Why Claire chooses to stay in Guellen and lead the imprisoning life of a prostitute is left unknown. She claims that “the judgment of that court made [her] one” (38) but she never elaborates so as to explain why she couldn’t have found liberation by leaving Guellen and starting somewhere else with a clean record.
She seems to accept her so-called imprisoning fate with exceptional ease, indulge in playing the role of the martyr, and use these as justification for killing Ill. Her decision to stay in Guellen makes it seem as if some measure of imprisonment truly is necessary in order to obtain any measure of liberation – being able to grasp it without some level of sacrifice would not result in genuine liberation but rather an attainment of an illusion of freedom and justice.
The audience comes to extol Claire’s quest for freedom and eventual self-liberation but simultaneously scorn the means she undertakes to achieve these ends. Durrenmatt does not try to answer whether or not it is possible for an end to justify the means it takes in order to achieve this end, but rather wants the audience to consider the high costs of liberation and whether or not freedom can be considered truly free.