Friedrich Durrenmatt’s epic tragicomedy The Visit is a haunting commentary on the nature of mankind and morality. Bringing to the surface many questions about the difference between justice and revenge, the play is constructed in a way that leaves the reader at once perplexed and conflicted. The difference between right and wrong is often overlooked and even contorted in order to conform with convenience as the citizens of the town become more desperate. The Visit is both a philosophical masterpiece and a harrowing tale of conditional morality.
From the very first mention of the millionairess Claire Zachanassian, the reader is barraged with philosophical questions about the difference between right and wrong. Ill shares stories about Claire’s past which immediately foreshadow her perverted sense of morality and justice. For instance, he tells the mayor that:
”Clara loved justice. Most decidedly. Once when they took a beggar away she flung stones at the police. . .She stole potatoes once for an old widow (Durrenmatt 15).”
The town exalts her for her generosity and self-less behavior. Already, you begin to see the citizens of Guellen overlooking her immorality because it is convenient for them to do so, as she has the ability to help them recover from their state of financial distress.
Upon hearing the proposition made by Claire Zachanassian, a million dollars in exchange for the murder of Alfred Ill, the town immediately reacts with disgust. The Mayor argues:
”You forget, we are not savages. 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).”
The Mayor refuses to accept the offer made by Madame Zachanassian for being inhumane and unjust. Zachanassian, however, knowing the desperation of the town, simply replies,” I’ll wait (Durrenmatt 39).”
Despite the town’s initial reaction, it soon becomes quite apparent that the citizens of Guellen are anticipating the murder of Ill. Ill returns to work after the Claire Zachanassian proposition and is met by several citizens of Guellen who are suddenly spending money quite frivolously. Several customers enter the store and buy the more expensive alternatives to their usual brandy and tobacco, and two women enter in brand new yellow shoes. Alll claim that they have bought these luxurious items “on account.” Upon realizing that the town is spending money they don’t have in anticipation of the Zachanassian reward for Ill’s murder, Ill becomes terrified. He begins to throw his wares at his customers and screams, “How are you going to pay? How? How (Durrenmatt 46)?”
After Ill comes to this horrifying realization, he immediately demands the arrest of Claire. The Policeman, however, informs Ill that there is no grounds to arrest Claire. He tells Ill,” We would only have a case of incitement of murder if the proposal to murder you were meant seriously. (Durrenmatt 48).”