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Last Reviewed on September 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

The speaker begins by recounting her own birth, being "ejected" from the womb out of a "paradise of soundlessness," and she likens nighttime to that paradisiacal place. Being in the womb was easy and effortless, as she was borne up by water and carried along by it. There was no...

(The entire section contains 1274 words.)

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The speaker begins by recounting her own birth, being "ejected" from the womb out of a "paradise of soundlessness," and she likens nighttime to that paradisiacal place. Being in the womb was easy and effortless, as she was borne up by water and carried along by it. There was no pain or discomfort there, never too hot or too cold, no hunger or weeping.

Next, the narrator describes being drawn to and aroused by the face of her lover, Sabina. Sabina is associated with soft images like black capes that fall like hair and violent images like a steel necklace that makes sounds like clashing swords. The speaker describes their sexual relationship in incredibly erotic terms. However, she says that Sabina is a liar and that each deception pains the narrator deeply. But she soon recognizes that Sabina lies to "destroy reality" and create a better world of illusion and fantasy. The narrator reveals that she and Sabina are twin halves of one whole.

Soon, however, the speaker imagines parting from each being that she loves. This is terribly painful, and she feels full of acid rather than blood. She describes being on a ship, seeing images that dissolve her soul into her body. The speaker describes herself as a liar, too—someone who cannot tell the truth any longer. She introduces Jeanne, a beautiful woman with a disfigured leg that makes her limp like a shackled prisoner. She also says that Jeanne loves her own brother in a way that both compels and repels her. In fact, it was hard for Jeanne to get married because of this love she feels for her brother. Jeanne leads the speaker into the house of incest, the speaker says, and she describes what it is like there: the "unquenchable desire" felt between father and daughter, brother and sister, mother and son. Everyone seems to become two-faced because of the desires they feel and must deny. Jeanne asks everyone in the house to hang something out of their window so that she can try to find the room where her brother is hiding from her. Jeanne seems to long for the absence of pain, claiming now to love only it. The speaker realizes that lies create solitude.

She begins to describe a man, a "paralytic" and drug-addled "modern Christ" who bows to her, to Sabina, and to Jeanne and will be "crucified by his own nerves" due to all the "neurotic sins" committed by this group. This Christ describes being skinned in a dream and how his skinlessness made him more open and vulnerable to the nature around him, how much more he could feel life. He wishes he could save these women from the house of incest where "we only love ourselves in the other" and not the other for themselves.

Finally, the speaker describes a woman who dances as though she is deaf, because her movements are so detached from the music. This woman dances in such a way that she permits everything to "flow away and beyond her." It pains the narrator to watch everything passing away from her.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

House of Incest was Nin’s first published work of fiction. Though she was thirty-three years old when it was published and had been writing continuously for two decades, it exhibits the youthfulness of a first work in both its indulgence and its freedom. Nin called House of Incest a “prose poem” rather than a novel and, referring to a work by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, “a woman’s Season in Hell.” She also took inspiration from Octave Mirbeau’s 1898 painting Le Jardin des supplices (The Garden of Tortures). The seven sections of House of Incest, each headed with a figure or glyph of distantly suggested astrological or mythological significance, can be seen as the seven days of creation, seven heavens, or seven hells. Rather than a story, this prose poem is a series of images and parables united by thematic patterns.

Written in the first-person voice in a highly poetic and imagistic idiom, House of Incest relates the inner experiences and sensations of a woman, or perhaps several women, in the House of Incest. Given Nin’s views of the multiplicity of personality, resolving the single or multiple nature of the protagonist is less relevant than the nature of the various interactions described. The narrative begins with the protagonist’s description of her birth, experienced as an emergence from a primordial sea.

It goes on to depict two dramatic situations: an obsessive lesbian relationship involving the dependent narrator, Jeanne, and her dismissive lover, named Sabina, and Jeanne’s guilt-ridden incestuous pursuit of and flight from her brother. The narrator then encounters cryptic figures and herself becomes a dancer deprived of her arms even as she achieves, in the closing paragraphs, harmony with her world and hope for freedom.

The house of incest itself is a metaphor for the human body and psyche as they are trapped in self-obsession. In the section dealing with Jeanne and incest, the house is described as worn, static, and rotting. Nin is portraying the meaninglessness of a life without a true regard for or appreciation of others. Just as the lesbian relationship becomes compulsive, draining, and destructive, so the incestuous passion is not a true love of other but a love of self as perceived or manifested in the blood relation. Though the situations portrayed are unconventional, Nin is not making moral judgments on them as such; rather, she uses the homosexual and incestuous passions to express the emptiness of love derived from narcissistic impulses.

The language of House of Incest is characterized by unrestrained lyricism and emotional exuberance. The images Nin employs combine natural, material, and corporal elements to striking effect, such as “[f]ishes made of velvet, of organdie with lace fangs.” Evocations of violence—acid, scissors, serpents, and storms—are set against those of vitality—the sea, eggs, and orgasms. The text is richly filled with allusions drawn from the fields of metallurgy, alchemy, astronomy, geography, and biology. Nin utilized poetic techniques of sound—alliteration, rhythm, and repetition—to create musical values in the piece:The steel necklace on her throat flashed like summer lightning and the sound of steel was like the clashing of swords. . . . Le pas d’acier. . . . The steel of New York’s skeleton buried in granite, buried standing up. Le pas d’acier . . . notes hammered on the steel-stringed guitars of the gypsies, on the steel arms of chairs dulled with her breath; steel mail curtains falling like the flail of hail, steel bars and steel barrage cracking. Her necklace thrown around the world’s neck, unmeltable.

The suggestion of real contexts, places, and languages; the juxtaposition of mineral reality with breath and emotion; and the nervelike tautness of a guitar string all exemplify the many elements that recur and undergo transformations of meaning through the course of the prose poem.

In the preface to the piece and at various points throughout are references to the book itself. Often set apart or emphasized with block letters, these references become an object of meaning within the narrative. The book in the reader’s hands is alternately the truth as the narrator can tell it and the narrator’s place of refuge from the weight of truth. How the book reflects the characters and how they are reflections of one another become central to the issue of telling the simple truth or evading oneself and others with lies. Thus, when the armless dancer turns “towards daylight” at the end, House of Incest concludes with a suggestion that truth is emerging from the darkness within.

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