The House of Bernarda Alba

by Federico Garcia Lorca
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Act I Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2918

New Characters
Poncia: The personal servant of Bernarda Alba.

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Maid: The underling of Poncia.

Maria Josefa: Bernarda’s mother. She is kept in captivity and appears mad.

Angustias: Bernarda’s oldest daughter (from a previous marriage). She stands to inherit a good deal and will be courted by Pepe el Romano.

Magdalena: The second oldest daughter.

Amelia: The middle daughter.

Martirio: The second youngest daughter.

Adela: The youngest daughter. She does not wish to mourn, and feigns disinterest at news of Pepe el Romano.

Beggar Woman: Minor character who asks for and is refused leftovers.

Women Mourners: Give the audience an idea of what the other villagers think of Bernarda Alba.

Summary
Scene:
The act opens in, “A very white inner room in Bernarda’s house.” Although the action takes place in the summer, it occurs deep in the house. García Lorca stresses that the room contains “pictures of nymphs or legendary kings in improbable landscapes.” This is, perhaps, to contrast the austere, bleak and simple decor with a fantasy world that is out of the reach of the sisters. The scenery is white, as if to emphasize death. Church bells are tolling; The funeral mass for Bernarda’s husband, who has died, is ending.

Action:
Poncia, Bernarda’s main servant and the lower maid are discussing the funeral of Bernarda’s husband, Antonia María Benavides. Poncia is eating bread and a sausage, which is seemingly disrespectful of the dead. The two exchange gossip. During their conversation the following becomes clear:

-The deceased only loved his oldest natural daughter, Magdalena.
-Bernarda would not approve of Poncia eating sausages.
-Poncia considers Bernarda a “tyrant.”

The two are interrupted by a voice. The two servants are keeping an “old lady,” Bernarda’s mother, locked up at the orders of Bernarda. The two then continue their chatter:

-The maid complains that she is scouring too much. Her hands are raw.
-Poncia mentions that the deceased relatives dislike Bernarda and only came to see the dead.
-Poncia believes that she has been mistreated by Bernarda over the past thirty years. She despises her and curses her. Poncia, whose sons are also laborers for the owner, hates Bernarda.

Poncia then gives the audience crucial information: Angustias, the oldest daughter of Bernarda, is a child of an earlier marriage. She is the only daughter who will inherit substantial money. The other daughters will only receive, “ . . .bread and grapes. . .” In the patriarchal, male-dominated society in which they live, only Angustias will have the resources to find a husband.

A beggar woman then enters and asks for leftover food. She is rudely turned away by the maid with strong language: “Dogs are alone too, and they get by.” The maid then continues complaining about her own poverty. Then, in a jealous moment, the maid confesses that the deceased, who will rot in expensive clothing, met her behind the corral for romantic moments.

The maid’s sobbing is interrupted by the entrance of woman mourners, Bernarda and her daughters. Bernarda leans on a cane, which she will use to threaten and punish the daughters throughout the play. Her first word, typically enough, is a command: “Silence!” Not caring why the maid is upset, she simply orders, “Less screaming and more work!”

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Latest answer posted July 26, 2007, 11:05 am (UTC)

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Bernarda considers those beneath her– her maid and servants-- as animals who care for nothing but food. She maligns the poor and orders her daughters around.

The women sit down to drink lemonade. A girl mentions to Angustias that Pepe el Romano, the handsomest man in the village was with the men at the funeral (Throughout the play, the men are kept segregated from the women-- they are restricted to the patio by Bernarda and none makes an actual appearance in the play).

Bernarda then interrupts with a nasty allusion about a widower who may be “involved” with the girl’s aunt. Throughout the play, Bernarda gossips about the neighbors, and wants to protect her family from the gossip of others. Appearances are all-important to Bernarda.

Two mourners immediately whisper that Bernarda is evil with a, “tongue like a knife.” Bernarda then moralizes and speaks poorly of women who use going to church as a means of meeting men. This disrespect of religion is immediately countered when Bernarda bangs her cane and leads the mourners in a prayer.

After the prayer, as the guests leave, Bernarda bangs her cane again– she uses her cane as a means of attention and weapon throughout the play– and dares the neighbors to gossip and criticize. It is clear from her venomous lines that Bernarda hates the neighbors and believes that they are constantly speaking ill of her.

Poncia complains that the neighbors scruffed up the floor, and Bernarda compares them to a, “Herd of goats”; the servants are not the only ones who Bernarda compares to animals.

The action now shifts to dialogue between Bernarda and her daughters. Here, the personalities, rivalries and hidden motives that form the basis of the play slowly come to light. The audience learns:

-Adela, the youngest daughter, is in no mood for mourning. She gives a lavishly colored fan to her mother, who immediately points out how inappropriate it is.
-Bernarda plans to seal the house, as if it were a tomb, for a mourning period. During this time, the sisters are to embroider and sew.
-Bernarda considers this to be the fate of women, particularly women of means-- she constantly distinguishes people according to socio-economic class. Magdelena rebels against this fate of women. Magdelena and Adela are not going to cooperate with their mother.

The dialogue is interrupted by the voice of Bernarda’s mother, an eighty year-old woman who is kept prisoner at Bernarda’s orders. Bernarda learns that her mother believes that Bernarda abuses her. Maria Josefa, the mother, appears mad, and is under the delusion that she will soon marry. Bernarda allows her mother on the patio, but orders the maid to keep watch, not so her mother wont fall in the well, but so the neighbors wont see her. Bernarda is more concerned with what the neighbors think than the health and well-being of her mother.

Bernarda notices that Angustias is missing; she has been checking on the hens. However, Bernarda moralizes and claims that she is chasing men on the day of her father’s funeral mass. Bernarda always imagines a transgression with sexual overtones. She is quick to accuse her daughters of impropriety (not being proper). Angustias denies the accusation, to no avail, and Bernarda smacks her with her cane.

Poncia, then, explains that Angustias, without thinking, had eavesdropped on the men. Poncia relates what they were chatting about: The night before, some “strangers” had tied up the husband of a “loose” women. They then took her to an olive grove, and she reappeared the next morning with her hair all astray. The images of seduction are quite strong and beautiful. Bernarda, of course, moralizes, blames the act on the sons of a foreigner and castigates the woman for being promiscuous. Bernarda is scandalized that her daughter overheard such a conversation.

As the conversation continues, it becomes clear that Angustias is 39, rather old, and has never had a suitor. Bernarda thinks that the Alba sisters are too good for suitors. “No one can measure up to them.” She does not want her daughters to marry beneath them. Poncia offers solutions and is told to, “Hold her vicious tongue.” Bernarda cannot speak with Poncia as an equal. She accepts no criticism. Although Poncia has been in Bernarda’s employ for thirty years, she is considered a mere servant who should speak when spoken to.

Bernarda leaves to discuss the will with Don Arturo, whose arrival the maid announced. Amelia and Martirio enter.

Amelia, appearing to be solicitous and caring, asks whether Martiro has taken her medicine. They then begin speaking about Adelaida, a recently engaged woman whose fiancé wont let her out of the house. She was not allowed to the funeral mass. Amelia remarks that the fate of the engaged woman is not necessarily better than the single woman.

In their conversation, it becomes evident that Adelaida fears what Bernarda knows about her family. The story is summarized: Adelaida’s father married once for money, after killing his first wife’s husband, then deserted her and married two more times. He got away with this scandalous behavior because, according to Martirio, “Men cover up for each other. . .” Although Martiro sympathizes with Adelaida, she thinks that history repeats itself: Adelaida is doomed to a fate similar to her mother and grandmother. Martirio claims it is better to avoid men altogether, and is glad that she is “weak and ugly.”

Her sister counters that Enrique Humanas, a neighborhood man, had been interested in Martirio. However, for some reason he never appeared at her window at the expected occasion-- the preferred method of courtship throughout the play is for the man to appear at a woman’s window. The reason that Humanas never appeared, Bernarda’s meddling, will become apparent later. Humanas later married someone with more money. Martirio claims that all men care about is the wealth they get from a woman and the cooking that she does; Martirio is very bitter and, at least outwardly, does not think much of men.

Magdalena enters and reminisces about happier times. According to Magdalena, now all people care about is gossip. She longs for the past. Amelia, much like she was with Martirio, is solicitous and attentive of Magdalena. She remarks that a shoelace is untied. Like Martirio, Magdalena, dismisses her sister’s care. Magdalena then relates that Adela has put on a green dress and is playing with the chickens. Clearly, Adela is in no mood to mourn.

Angustias enters and exits quickly, giving her sisters occasion to exchange information. Magdalena informs her Martiro and Amelia that Pepe el Romano is planning to marry Angustius. The sisters feign delight and Magdalena tells the truth: Pepe el Romano only wants Angustias’ money. Angustias is too old; she has the least to offer of any of the sisters, except wealth. Amelia agrees with this assessment, but Martirio still disagrees. Magdalena backs up her statement. Why would the twenty-five year old Pepe el Romano be interested in the oldest sister?

Adela enters, dressed in green, and is admonished by the sisters. They joke and discuss the dress. Magdalena alludes to the impending engagement of Pepe el Romano and Angustias. Adela is shocked and claims that it is the mourning that has caught her off guard. She wants to wear her green dress and parade down the street.

The maid enters with the news that Pepe el Romano is walking down the street. The sisters, excepting Adela, hurry off to a window to watch. Adela feigns indifference, but, then, rushes off behind them.

Bernarda enters, complaining to Poncia about the will: Angustias is to receive the vast majority of the money from the estate. The complaining is interrupted by Angustias, who enters with her face heavily powdered (she is, evidently, expecting a visit). Bernarda is outraged that her daughter would use powder on the day of “her father’s death.” Angustias corrects her: Her natural father is long since dead. Nevertheless, as Bernarda points out, her step father has left his estate to her. Bernarda furiously wipes the powder from her daughter’s face and orders her out. The other daughters enter after hearing the commotion. Magdalena berates Angustias over the inheritance; Jealousy is in the air.

This petty squabbling is interrupted by Maria Josefa, who has managed to flee from the maid. Bernarda’s mother is dressed with flowers on her head and breast. The act ends suddenly (García Lorca specifies a, “FAST CURTAIN”) with the old woman pleading that she wants to get married at the edge of the sea. She Wants to get away from Alba’s house, where her grand-daughters are bound to become old maids. The abruptness of the end of the act leaves the audience wondering whether Maria Josefa is indeed mad, or whether her fantasy has an element of truth to it. What sane person would not want to escape the barren household of Bernarda Alba?

Analysis

What is Tragedy?:

“The House of Bernarda Alba” is considered a tragedy. Although the definition of”tragedy” has changed greatly over the centuries, there is one constant: a tragedy deals with the inevitability of decline. Characters, often of noble lineage, meet a sorry fate despite their efforts to escape it. As García Lorca’s play develops, a sense of inevitability envelops Bernarda Alba’s house; in fact, it is present from the opening moments when funeral bells are tolling– death is inevitable.

The opening conversation between Poncia and the maid includes a great deal of dissatisfaction with Bernarda Alba. In fact, the word “hate” is not too strong. However, we, the reader or audience must keep the judgements in perspective. Who exactly are Poncia and the Maid? What are their motives? The maid was having an affair with Bernarda’s husband. Furthermore, she is rude to a beggar woman (whose minor appearance only emphasizes the maid’s hard heart). Poncia complains throughout the whole act. Nevertheless, their criticisms of Bernarda seem justified after Bernarda makes her entrance.

Bernarda appears, wielding a cane and giving orders. Throughout the act, she engages in malicious gossip and badmouths the mourners. Her language is quite strong. She is a very bitter woman. Although one should not forget that it is the day of her husband’s funeral mass, Bernarda Alba is not supposed to evoke any sympathy from the audience. She is one of the most unpleasant characters in 20th century drama-- she locks her mother in a room so as not to be embarrassed in front of the mourners; No character in the play ever voices a kind sentiment or opinion of Bernarda, and critics constantly refer to her malevolence. Who is Bernarda Alba and how will her behavior bring about the tragic downfall of her “house”?

Bernarda can be viewed as a symbol of the upper-class. She belittles those beneath her and considers her daughters too good for all the men in the village. Her pride is dooming her daughters to a life of celibacy. Additionally, she is a frightful gossip who constantly maligns others with sexual innuendo. Ironically, she is always vigilant as to what the neighbors might be saying about her. All this considered, her piety is hypocritical and her control over her daughters is tyrannical.

It is important to pay careful attention to the daughters; their actions and motives are unique from each other. Bernarda is too old to be the tragic heroine; her fate is already largely complete. However, her daughters still have life. The play is largely about their attempts to extricate themselves from Bernarda’s tyrannical grasp. The most outwardly rebellious is Adela, who, in the prime of womanhood, is in no mood to mourn. Her behavior exasperates Bernarda and causes outbusts of violence.

While Amelia and Magdela, as has been pointed out by many critics, are minor characters, the fate of the other two is alluded to in their very names– Angustias and Martirio. These are not typical Andalusian (Southern Spanish) names. “Angustias” is derived from “anguish” and refers to a narrowing of the throat and heart when in a state of anguish. “Martirio” goes all the way to Greek and refers to “witness” and “testimony”; later in the play, Maria Josefa calls Martirio a “martyr.” Considering the final fate of these two women, the names are portentous– an omen of bad events to follow. Aungustias is destined to suffering and Martirio will witness an action about which she testifies.

Gender Roles:
García Lorca, through the dialogue, makes constant allusions to the fate of women. The audience learns of women’s plight through conversation, gossip and the esteem in which men are held in the Spanish society he is portraying; the title of the work emphasizes that the play is “A Drama of Women in the Villages of Spain.” Since the play is a tragedy, the fate of woman can be interpreted as, inevitably, bad.

There are no men in the play; they are conspicuous in their absence. Although the audience never sees a male character, they are never far away (on the patio, in the corral or, in the case of Pepe el Romano, “Circling the household”– like a vulture). The women constantly talk about men, courtship and sex. Everything that the audience learns about men is based on the attitudes and words of the women in the play. For this reason, the gossip and tales are very important: they emphasize the mores and expected behaviors of men and women. Based on the conversation and tales, the audience learns:

-Male labors are expected to seduce a loose woman.
-Men are expected to manipulate a situation by marrying wealthy women and later find other lovers.
-They cheat on their spouses.

These opinions, and differences between the genders will be more clearly illustrated as the play progresses.

Finally, the captive mother of Bernarda, who kept is locked up, Maria Josefa, presents the audience with a lasting image that reinforces the sense of impending tragedy. Maria Josefa’s desire to escape the barren household for a marriage by the sea, which may be viewed as a symbol for infinity and fertility, foretells that the daughters are doomed to infertility and mortality.

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Act II Summary and Analysis