(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Spy in the House of Love is the fourth in a series of five works that Nin wrote as a continuous novel called Cities of the Interior. The novels can be read in any order, with the overall meaning preserved. The theme of the entire collection is female psychology: Each book examines a different aspect of female identity, and though a number of women are depicted in the series, the characters can ultimately be read as overlapping aspects of one persona. The series is a thorough reworking and expanding of the female ideal depicted in traditional literature, and it is most remembered for expressing previously unfashionable or forbidden subjects in a lyrical, accurate, and analytical manner.

Sabina is a recurring figure throughout Nin’s fiction, always appearing as a sensual, sexually assertive woman. Like all Nin’s female characters, Sabina is torn between her sense of responsibility and her desire to experience pleasure. Developed most fully in A Spy in the House of Love, Sabina enjoys sex but finds herself emotionally fragmented by attempting to satisfy and be satisfied by so many lovers. Sabina’s quest is to emulate Philip’s, or any man’s ability to enjoy sex with a stranger. She assumes that she will find emotional gratification this way, but she learns otherwise in her relationships with Philip, Mambo, and John. When she does make commitments, she limits her identity in order to please her partners. She tries to be the child she thinks Alan wants and the mother Donald needs, and in both cases she is physically unsatisfied.

Nin makes it clear that Sabina is at fault not for having affairs but for failing to confront her own subconscious, with its simmering confusion of passion and guilt. This is particularly true of Sabina’s affair with John, whose seed is described as poison. His own shame for surviving the war is taken out on Sabina: “He had mingled poison with every drop of pleasure, . . . every thrust of sensual pleasure the thrust of a knife killing what he desired, killing with guilt.” Sabina unconsciously soaks up John’s attitude: Because he thinks she is bad, she thinks so...

(The entire section is 879 words.)