Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

To a certain extent, it is misleading to claim Martín Marco as the novel’s principal protagonist, for The Hive contains nearly three hundred fictional characters. Camilo José Cela’s unflattering, but clear-eyed, depiction of Madrid as a stagnant hive of listless, desperate, immoral activity in the years immediately following the victory of Franco’s Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) garnered him no end of trouble with the official censors. As a result, the book’s publication was delayed by five years (it was first published in Argentina). Four decades later, this work, along with such other important Cela novels as La familia de Pascual Duarte(1942; The Family of Pascual Duarte, 1946, 1964), Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo(1953; Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son, 1968), and Vísperas, festividad y octava de San Camilo del año 1936 en Madrid(1969; San Camilo, 1936, 1991), contributed to his selection as the 1989 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and his reputation as one of Spain’s most influential postwar authors.

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By turn vulgar and comic, somber and hopeful, The Hive exhibits little respect for conventional narrative sequence. Instead, it consists of more than two hundred short vignettes that leap from setting to setting and from character to character over a five- or six-day period. The nonchronological flow of the six chapters and short final section, as well as the considerable repetition and overlapping of episodes, reinforces the sense of inertia, both spiritual and economic, that plagues the residents of the city. With a cessation of the hostilities that so brutalized the soul of their nation only a few years earlier, they are hoping for a better life. Heat and food are, however, in short supply in the winter of 1943, and nearly all the major characters in the novel suffer from poverty, hunger, and cold.

These physical deprivations have their counterpart in the sluggish intellectual climate of the capital, where promising university graduates are reduced to scribbling fragments of poems during their hours of idleness or to working at unchallenging jobs. The onerous pressures of political conformity also weigh heavily on the watchful and wary citizenry, who dare not trespass against the Fascist policies or traditional Catholic sympathies of the state. The Hive is replete with moral guardians—night watchmen intent on keeping order and Fascist supporters such as the café owners Doña Rosa and Celestino Ortiz (the latter an adherent of Friedrich Nietzsche), who are ready to denounce their fellows on the slightest suspicion of complicity with the losing side in the war.

The merciless realities of Spain’s social, cultural, and economic isolation made day-to-day survival particularly difficult for women, many of whom had to turn to a life of prostitution to stay alive. The Hive depicts figures such as Doña Jesusa, who runs a thriving brothel; Doña Ramona Bragado, who supplements the income from her dairy by acting as a procurer who supplies destitute young women to gentlemen who are eager to pay for their services; and Doña Celia Vecino, a “respectable” widow who rents rooms in her home to couples seeking beds for illicit trysts. For every impoverished woman in need of quick money—like the selfless Victorita, who plans to use her gains to buy food for her tubercular boyfriend—there seems to be at least one financially secure man desirous of the pleasure of her company.

Martín Marco emerges as the thread linking the dispersed locales of the capital and many of its downtrodden survivors. He therefore provides an essential element of narrative continuity in what would otherwise be an extremely fragmented novel. Martín merits consideration as the work’s principal protagonist because he so completely embodies the suppressed spirit and lifeblood of the nation. He therefore comes to represent the unjustifiable squandering of Spanish potential under Franco’s punishing dictatorship. That a university-educated writer and intellectual should feel compelled to write such pandering articles as “Reasons for the Spiritual Permanence of Isabella the Catholic” is a telling indication of the extent to which the nation’s productive heart and soul were being suppressed in the name of an extreme right-wing vision of law and order. Martín’s apparent mental unbalance symbolizes the profound disorientation and alienation of his time, and it prefigures the harsh effects of the sustained repression that countless Spanish citizens suffered for almost four decades until Franco’s death in 1975. The last sentence of The Hive shows Martín laughing uncontrollably at the notion of the suburban sprawl surrounding Madrid (the city’s outer belt), as if liberation or escape from this stifling milieu were forever to remain unattainable for himself and those like him.

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