A Spy in the House of Love Summary
by Anaïs Nin

Start Your Free Trial

A Spy in the House of Love Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Download A Spy in the House of Love Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Spy in the House of Love is the fourth installment in Nin’s “continuous novel” titled Cities of the Interior. The latter unites six shorter individual works and focuses on three women—Djuna, Lillian, and Sabina—and the men in their lives. The novels are not necessarily sequential but are connected by a network of characters, settings, imagery, and language. Thus, they do not need to be read in any particular order and, though certain information and echoes may be missed, each volume stands as a complete work independent of the others.

A Spy in the House of Love focuses on Sabina, a fiery actress who is only partially content in her marriage to an attentive but dull husband, Alan, and yearns for erotic and spiritual stimulation. While performing in an amateurish production of Cinderella in Provincetown, on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod, she is seduced by a romantically visualized Austrian singer named Philip. At a jazz club in New York, she indulges in an affair with Mambo, an exotic and sensuous drummer. In a Long Island beach town, a grounded British pilot named John captivates her imagination with his dark, angry intensity. She becomes a nurturing mother figure for Donald, a lively young jester. She also encounters Jay, a perceptive artist and her former lover in Paris. During and between these “multiple peregrinations of love,” she returns to the comfort of her marital home and Alan’s trusting paternal love.

A controlling image for the novel is taken from Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), which presents a fractured image of a woman’s multiple outlines. Nin’s portrait of Sabina is equally fractured, for each of the selves that she becomes or discovers with her different lovers is a valid though incomplete expression of her identity. As an actress skilled with vocal, physical, cosmetic, and behavioral transformations, her various identities are accentuated. Nin’s portrait is not one of perversity or psychosis, however; Sabina illustrates the multiplicity of personality that Nin perceived in herself and in all individuals who actively respond to their environments.

Sabina’s journey through the novel tracks the continuous manifestation and aggravation of the inner tension she feels between her need for peace, stability, and intimacy and her desire for freedom, motion, and anonymity. Such is the mutability of her nature that each interaction or encounter stimulates a pronounced and often opposite response. Sabina is a restless soul; her congress with Philip or John fulfills her fantasies while simultaneously heightening her need to return to Alan. Yet Sabina is repeatedly unable to take the meaningful essence from each encounter; her longing and dissatisfaction are not relieved by passionate, imaginative sexual liaisons. Even as she pursues adventure, she is haunted by guilt and tantalized by the possibility of discovery. As her struggle approaches climactic proportions, it is only in a final chance encounter with her wise and sensitive friend Djuna that Sabina directly confronts the essential turmoil of her life and begins to find remedy and rescue.

Nin gives Sabina’s inner turmoil concrete expression through the device of the “lie detector”—a mysterious man who appears to Sabina in the opening paragraph, follows her through her adventures, and ultimately receives her confession and pronounces psychic judgment upon her. The lie detector is not a real or imagined character so much as another manifestation of Sabina’s personality, the one which holds the key to achieving a harmonious sense of identity.

A Spy in the House of Love exhibits Nin’s characteristic use of imagery to depict psychological reality, including imagery of voyages, excavations, labyrinths, prisons, fire, and bodies of water. In addition, specific objects take on metaphorical significance, such as the black cape that symbolizes Sabina’s distrust and hostility. A recurrent motif involving modes...

(The entire section is 1,455 words.)