Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

House of Incest (first published as The House of Incest in 1936) is a difficult work to categorize or summarize. In reality, it is a prose poem with a breathtaking series of images and themes. Its characters and plot—if there really is one—remain deeply veiled. Overall, the atmosphere is distinctly dreamlike.

The book is prefaced by a brief statement and a somewhat longer fable, both of which indicate the work’s deep psychological roots. The first section of the main text describes the narrator’s previous idealized existence in a world of water—Atlantide. It ends with the narrator cast ashore like the skeleton of a wrecked ship. The second section opens with the narrator gazing at Sabina as she approaches in the haunting twilight. The narrator describes Sabina’s appearance and personality, her compulsive lying and yet also her primitive vigor. “There is no mockery between women,” the narrator states. It is clear that she is in love with Sabina. She also points out the fact that the women share an identity, that they are each other’s missing halves: “YOU ARE THE WOMAN I AM,” states the narrator. She closes with a passage about her own tormented inner fragmentation into many selves. Obstinate images and cracked mirrors surround her as she searches unsuccessfully for Sabina’s face in a crowd. The brief third section presents more images, with the narrator “enmeshed” in her own lies.

The fourth section of the novella introduces the paradoxical Jeanne, who is oddly elegant yet also hampered by a withered leg. Jeanne is in love with her brother, married to a husband who does not understand her, and fixated on her own image in the mirror. In what appears to be a dialogue with the narrator, Jeanne describes her own fragmentation and concludes...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The impact of House of Incest has been felt in two waves. It was her diary rather than any of her fiction that firmly established Nin’s reputation as a writer, and only her volumes of erotica Delta Venus (1969) and Little Birds (1979) have achieved best-selling status. Yet House of Incest, which Nin essentially published herself in 1936, played a key role in her career by helping her to build a small but loyal following and laying the groundwork for her later fictional works and subsequent experiments by other authors, especially women writers. As such, the novella deserves credit for helping to inspire—along with works by authors such as Djuna Barnes—a proliferation of literature marked by striking candor, penetrating psychological realism experimental forms of narrative, and unorthodox styles. In short, even had Nin’s diary never been published, House of Incest would have made its mark on literature despite what would have been a tiny readership.

With the publication of the diary beginning in 1966, Nin’s readership and influence were greatly magnified. She became a major literary figure almost immediately. She also became a hot political property. Her liberated views toward female sexuality were seen as an effective antidote to the quickly unraveling double standard then current in society. Her work also fit in with the increasing desire to explore reverently the unique attributes of women, which for many promised liberation not only for women but for men as well. Finally, Nin’s willingness to pursue her unorthodox writing career and lifestyle rather than conform to accepted norms brought a kind of personal admiration or aura. Nin presented an example of a woman triumphing on her own terms in a male-dominated world. Along the way, as Kate Millett pointed out in Sexual Politics (1970), Nin had even elicited words of praise and awe from the dreaded Henry Miller, disdained by feminists for his reputed ruthlessness toward women.

House of Incest also had political and social implications for feminists. The structure and behavior of family life was being examined in unprecedentedly critical ways during the late 1960’s, with the incidence of incest being alleged to be far more common than anyone had been willing to admit previously. For this reason, the book has struck a particularly relevant chord, despite its resistance to any clear interpretation with regard to this issue.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Evans, Oliver. Anaïs Nin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. One of the earliest critical studies of Nin’s work. Evans, a Nin enthusiast since the mid-1940’s who was personally acquainted with the author, provides detailed analysis of each of her fictional works, including House of Incest.

Fitch, Noel Riley. Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. Fitch offers a thorough account of Nin’s life and writing, showing the complex way in which the two were entwined. Special attention is paid to the relationship between Nin and her father, which Fitch believes to have been incestuous. Well referenced, with an excellent bibliography and index.

Franklin, Benjamin V., and Duane Schneider. Anaïs Nin: An Introduction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979. Provides a basic biography and assessment of Nin’s work. Franklin and Schneider believe House of Incest to be Nin’s finest work of fiction.

Harms, Valerie, ed. Celebration! With Anaïs Nin. Riverside, Conn.: Magic Circle Press, 1973. Proceedings from an informal weekend conference involving Nin, various acquaintances, and a variety of fans, all of whom discuss her life and work.

Knapp, Bettina. Anaïs Nin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. Provides a sympathetic introduction to and chronology of Nin’s life and work. Knapp devotes a chapter to House of Incest, linking it to Nin’s experience with psychoanalysis.

Nin, Anaïs. Henry and June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. Drawn form Nin’s “unexpurgated” diary (earlier versions were edited severely for popular consumption out of consideration for Nin’s husband, among others), this volume chronicles Nin’s love affairs with Henry and June Miller and was written at about the same time as House of Incest. The prominent themes are those of incest, narcissism, psychoanalysis, and dreams.

Nin, Anaïs. Incest—from a Journal of Love: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1932-1934. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. As with Henry and June, this volume was extracted from Nin’s diary after having originally been heavily edited for publication. Details Nin’s relationship with her father when they were reunited just after her thirtieth birthday.

Spencer, Sharon. Collage of Dreams: The Writing of Anaïs Nin. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1977. Spencer treats the full range of Nin’s work available to her, likening it to the compositions of surrealistic art. Original and accessible.