Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Spy in the House of Love is Nin’s fourth novel in a loosely connected series of impressionistic studies treating varieties of woman’s temperament in the twentieth century Western world. The series, published from 1946 to 1961, comprises Ladders to Fire (1946), Children of the Albatross (1947), The Four-chambered Heart (1950), A Spy in the House of Love (1954), and Seduction of the Minotaur, (1961; expanded from Solar Barque, 1958). Taken as a whole, the books were intended to resemble, in complexity and semi-autobiographical reconstruction of memory, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). In Nin’s series, three women as artists predominate: Lillian, a pianist; Sabina, an actress; and Djuna, a dancer. Lillian is primary in Ladders to Fire and Seduction of the Minotaur, Djuna in The Four-chambered Heart and Children of the Albatross, Sabina in A Spy in the House of Love, but the three women—all fragmented types of Nin’s personality—appear in the works as personifications of the multiple nature of composite womanhood.

In A Spy in the House of Love, Nin concentrates on several major aspects of this complex nature, chief among them woman’s need for passionate arousal. Sabina is compared to a fire. When the “lie detector” first looks at her, he reacts: “Everything will burn!” Yet her fire of sexuality burns inwardly. Although she can inflame men’s passion, she cannot long sustain her own arousal. Along with the theme of deficient passion, the novel treats the modern woman’s need for artifice, for cunning, to conceal her true nature. Looking at a mirror, Sabina sees “a flushed, clear-eyed face, smiling, smooth, beautiful.” Yet the mirror lies: “The multiple acts of composure and artifice had merely dissolved her anxieties.” Her true image, contrasted to the mirror image of external composure, is one of complexity, ambivalence, and anxiety. In this image, she takes her place among other existential protagonists of the twentieth century novel: a woman defining her role in society according to her own moral standards, true to the impulses of her authentic being.