Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379
The action opens in a "very white room in Bernarda Alba's house.'' Bells toll for the funeral of Bernarda's second husband. The housekeeper, La Poncia, speaks with a maid about Bernarda and her family. La Poncia reports that one of the daughters, Magdalena, fainted during the funeral service. Magdalena is the only one who loved her father, La Poncia explains. Maria Josefa, Bernarda's mother, calls from within, where apparently she has been locked-up against her will. La Poncia laments Bernarda's treatment of the servants, cursing her with the "pain of the piercing nail." After La Poncia exits, a beggar woman and a little girl appear, but the maid drives them away. The servant hears the bells tolling and curses Bernarda's dead husband: "You'll never again lift my skirts behind the corral door!" The mourning women begin entering until the room is full. The servants now wail, putting on a show of grief for Antonio's passing. Bernarda and the five daughters enter, and Bernarda says a prayer for her dead husband.
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The mourning women depart, and Bernarda curses what she sees as their hypocrisy: "Go back to your houses and criticize everything you've seen." Bernarda explains to her daughters that they will mourn for eight years, during which "not a breath of air will get in this house from the street." The grandmother calls again, and Bernarda orders a servant to let her out Bernarda strikes Angustias, the oldest daughter, upon learning that she has been looking out the cracks in the door at the men departing the funeral. La Poncia comforts Angustias as Bernarda orders everyone but her maid out of the room. Bernarda questions La Poncia about the men Angustias was watching. La Poncia then expresses concern about the daughters, who are growing older and not finding husbands. Bernarda feels she's being protective: "For a hundred miles around there's no one good enough to come near them." Bernarda leaves, ordering her servants to work.
Amelia and Martirio enter. They discuss Martirio's poor health, and the fact that their neighbor Adelaida did not attend the funeral (apparently because her boyfriend will not let her out in public). After speaking more about Adelaida's difficulties, Martirio concludes: "It's better never to look at a man." Magdalena enters, deep in mourning. The three sisters discuss the talk of the town, that Pepe el Romano intends to ask their sister Angustias to marry him. Martirio and Amelia are happy about this news, but Magdalena is more cynical, feeling that Pepe is only interested in Angustias for her money. Adela enters, and hearing the news of Angustias's suitor first grows depressed, then defiant and angry. "I'm thinking," she says, "that this mourning has caught me at the worst moment of my life for me to bear it." Everyone exits at the announcement of Pepe's arrival. Bernarda and La Poncia enter, discussing the division of the inheritance. When Angustias enters, she is chastised by Bernarda for having her face powdered. Bernarda violently removes the powder and sends Angustias out. The other sisters enter, arguing about the inheritance. The grandmother, Maria Josefa, enters after escaping from her room. Yelling at the daughters, "not a one of you is going to marry,'' Maria Josefa expresses a desire to return to her home town and be married herself. The act ends with everyone grabbing hold of Maria Josefa to subdue her again.
The daughters are seated with La Poncia, sewing. The betrothal of Angustias has brought out bitter jealousy between them. Angustias expresses a hope that she'll "soon be out of this hell." She explains to her sisters how Pepe asked her to marry him. La Poncia contributes stories about her courtship, and the mood grows lighter. Magdalena goes to fetch Adela, and when they return, everyone questions the youngest daughter about what she did the night before. Adela resents this curiosity, and when she and La Poncia are left alone, she resists the maid's insinuations that she has feelings for Pepe. The housekeeper forces the issue, however, and warns Adela, "if you like Pepe el Romano, keep it to yourself." Gradually the other daughters enter, showing off the lace that has just been delivered for Angustias's wedding sheets. A distant chorus is heard, the sound of men singing on their way to the wheat fields. La Poncia and some of the daughters go to watch the men from a window, leaving Amelia and Martirio alone. Martirio tells Amelia she thought she heard someone in the yard last night.
Angustias bursts in, furious that a picture of Pepe has been taken from beneath her pillow. The disturbance brings La Poncia and the other daughters, followed by Bemarda. She orders La Poncia to search the bedrooms. "This comes of not tying you up with shorter leashes," Bernarda fumes. La Poncia returns with the picture, which she found in Martirio's bed. While Martirio pleads that she only took the picture as a joke, Bernarda starts beating her. Further argument rages over Pepe. Bernarda, disgusted, sends the daughters away. La Poncia speaks her mind, warning her employer, "Something very grave is happening here." La Poncia insists that Bernarda has never given her daughters enough freedom. Martirio had at one time a suitor, whom Bernarda sent away because his father was a shepherd. To La Poncia this is an example of Bemarda putting on airs, and as a result, denying her daughter a chance to be married. La Poncia tries to convince Bernarda that Adela is Pepe's real sweetheart, the daughter he should be marrying. A servant enters announcing there is a big crowd gathering in the street. Adela and Martirio are left alone, each accusing the other of trying to steal Pepe away from Angustias. Bernarda, the other daughters, and the servants enter, announcing that the crowd outside is calling for the death of a young woman who gave birth to an illegitimate child, and then in her shame, killed and buried it. Bemarda and her daughters join the cry, but Adela, holding her belly, cries out, "No, No!"
The act opens at night, in a room in Bernarda's house adjacent to the corral. The family and a guest, Prudencia, are eating. Prudencia tells Bernarda that her family is feuding, that her husband has never forgiven their daughter for an indiscretion. "A daughter who's disobedient," Bernarda says, "stops being a daughter and becomes an enemy." Everyone discusses Angustias's impending betrothal, and Prudencia admires the pearl engagement ring, though she comments that in her day, "pearls signified tears." The church bells toll, and Prudencia leaves to attend the service. Angustias goes off to bed because Pepe is not coming to visit her tonight. The daughters wonder why, and Bernarda explains he is away on a trip; Martirio, however, looks suggestively at Adela and mutters, "Ah!''
The daughters exit; La Poncia and Bernarda continue their discussion about the "very grave thing" which Bernarda insists is not happening in her house. Bernarda goes to bed, and the servants leave to investigate the sound of dogs barking in the yard. Maria Josefa passes through with a lamb in her arms, singing a lullaby. Adela passes through on her way out to the corral. Martirio enters by another door and is confronted by her grandmother. Encouraging Maria Josefa to return to bed, Martirio calls out for Adela When she arnves, Martirio warns her, "Keep away from him." Adela is defiant: "You know better than I he doesn't love her." Martirio reluctantly admits this is the truth. Pepe whistles from the yard for Adela, who runs toward the door, but Martirio blocks her way. She calls for Bernarda, who enters quickly. Adela grabs Bernarda's cane and breaks it in two. La Poncia and some of the other daughters enter. Bernarda retrieves a gun and shoots at Pepe waiting in the yard. Adela runs off after her lover, believing he has been shot. A thud is heard a moment later, and when La Poncia breaks open the door, she discovers that Adela has hanged herself. Bernarda orders Adela's body cut down, insisting, "My daughter died a virgin." The play ends with Bernarda stubbornly maintaining her illusion, ordering her daughters to be silent and defiant in the face of death.