Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
Anaïs Nin’s 1954 novel, A Spy in the House of Love, follows the sexual liaisons and emotional tribulations of a woman named Sabina. She is a thirty-year-old actress married to a man five years her senior named Alan. Despite their relatively insubstantial age difference, Alan treats Sabina almost as a father would a child. He calls her "little one," and it seems that a large part of her sense of self hangs on his approval and comforting presence. Though Sabina loves Alan and values his calming influence, she nonetheless engages in many secret affairs. Every day, she lies to him, telling him of her work as an actress when, in reality, she spent her business trip not on the stage but in a local motel with another man. Her liaisons are frequent but short, and she seems to depend on the fact that she will always return to her husband. Their relationship—and Sabina's dependency on Alan—is a major part of her self-identity. For his part, Alan doesn't realize that there are other parts to his wife, hidden, secretive parts that demand affairs with other men.
Readers first witness Sabina's propensity for such affairs when she encounters a European opera singer named Philip. With Philip, Sabina wants to appear seductive, empowered, and without weakness. He is exceedingly handsome, and she knows that other women envy their relationship; this sense of superiority and sensuality gives her the validation she desires from men and briefly allays her insecurities. She also has an affair with a black musician named Mambo, even though he acknowledges that Sabina is only attracted to his physicality, to the skin color she fetishizes. He wishes she would commit fully to him, but she cannot.
Sabina is constantly afraid of being found out by Alan, being seen at the movies with Mambo, and so on. She has another affair with a former fighter pilot called John. She seems to genuinely want to help him assuage his guilt for the things he saw and did in the war, but when he sees her with Alan one night, she feels suddenly and horrifyingly guilty that he now thinks of her as "bad" when he'd once seen her as "good." He avoids her after that. Finally, Sabina has a relationship with Donald, a gay who looks up to her as something pure, almost akin to a maternal figure. She even begins to appreciate how their relationship has brought out qualities that her mother possessed; Sabina feels that her role in Donald's life has earned her a sense of redemption and, somehow, allowed her to regain her lost innocence.
Over and over, however, the idea of Sabina's fragmented sense of self is discussed. It's as though each of her relationships is an expression of some facet of herself, but it is troubling that she never seems to feel a real sense of completion or fulfillment in any of them—there's always a sense that she is unsatisfied. She becomes more aware of her fragmentation and lack of satisfaction in each new context. Eventually, she finds she cannot return to Alan, as she knows even he cannot make her feel better this time.
She cannot remain with Alan without having the other affairs, but having them only further fragments her sense of self and causes her such guilt and distress. Are her liaisons with other men the result of her fragmentation or the cause of it? It is never fully explicit. Perhaps her feelings are a commentary on societal double standards regarding men's and women's sexuality, or maybe they are a comment on her failure to understand her self and look for answers to personal questions in others. Perhaps it is both.
As Sabina cries at her friend Djuna's apartment at the novel's end, the narrator says, "There was a complete dissolution of the eyes, features, as if she were losing her essence." While a twenty-first-century reader may want Sabina to find satisfaction by exploring her sexuality, it is hard to feel that she does so when the text ends with a comment on the loss of her essence.