Lorca. The House of Bernarda Alba. Bernarda.
The Alba household is made up entirely of women, nine in all. Bernarda, five daughters –Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio and Adela–, her deranged mother (MarÍa Josefa), and two servants, La Poncia and the other called simply Criada (i. e. Maid). In this page, we’ll look at the role of Bernarda, the unbending matriarch who rules the household with an iron hand. [For a summary of the play, see Act I, Acts II and III. For the role of the house, click here.]
Bernarda Alba is a strong-willed, sixty-year old matriarch belonging to a comfortably-off rural bourgeoisie. She has money to buy furniture for Angustias’s projected marriage, she owns productive land and has “the best flock in the region” (Act III, 179). But she is very tight-fisted, refusing to allow the Criada to give away any of her recently deceased husband’s old clothes: “Nothing. Not even a button” (Act I, 134).
Bernarda rules the household with an iron hand. She demands total obedience from the minute she first appears to the last moment in the play. Her first word is a command: “Silence!” It is also the last she utters as the curtain goes down to end the play.
Bernarda’s actions are determined by her obsession with family honour, the importance attached to appearances and to the status or esteem her family enjoys in the village. What her daughters think is immaterial, what she demands is a “plausible veneer and family harmony” (Act III, 182) and her daughters’ only “right” is that of obedience (Act II, 173).
Bernard’s attachment to the importance of honour and status is based on class consciousness, and she assumes a superior attitude where the men of the village are concerned. None of them is good enough for her daughters: “The men here don’t belong to their class. Do you want me to hand them over to any labourer?” she asks La Poncia (Act I, 134). Later, again talking to La Poncia, she is adamant that Enrique Humanas was not welcome to court Martirio: “My blood will not be mixed with that of the Humanas as long as I live. His father was a farmhand” (Act II, 170). She admits, in fact, to having actively intervened, sending Enrique a message not to turn up at the window, a place authorised by custom for safe conversations between a lady and her admirer (Act II, 169). But no man is allowed to enter the house, not even those who have attended her second husband’s funeral service (whereas several women mourners are present Act I, 125).
Bernarda’s demand of total obedience allows no room for forgiveness and no room for disagreement, as she make clear when she supports Prudencias’s husband’s refusal to forgive his daughter: “He’s done the right thing … A daughter who disobeys stops being a daughter and becomes an enemy” (Act II, 178).
Predictably, a breach of social norms is unacceptable to Bernarda whether within her family or beyond. For example, her reaction to La Librada’s daughter at the end of Act II leaves no room for doubt. The unmarried (and unnamed) daughter had killed her baby out of shame and, her transgression having been discovered, she was being dragged out of the village to be killed (Act II, 175). Adela feels sympathy, but Bernarda is in full agreement with the accepted punishment, and Act II ends with Bernarda shouting: “Kill her! Kill her!” (Act II, 176).
Impropriety committed by her daughters is regularly met with anger: e. g. she throws the green and red fan Adela gives her to the ground as inappropriate since she is in mourning (Act I, 128), and roughly removes Angustias’s make-up for a similar reason (Act I, 144). She even resorts to physical violence, accusing Angustias of lying and striking her (Act I, 131). Later (Act II, 165), she hits Martirio for having stolen Angustias’s picture of Pepe el Romano, and at the end of the play she grabs a shotgun and shoots at Pepe (she misses and he escapes!).
Her control over her daughters is rarely challenged. Martirio does react furiously when her mother strikes her and Angustias grabs her mother at the same time (Act II, 166), but this is an isolated moment. The most defiant challenge is that of Adela, her youngest daughter, when she seizes her mother’s cane (a symbol of Bernarda’s authority) and breaks it in two, saying at the same time “This is what I do with the cane of this domineering woman. Don’t take another step. No one but Pepe can tell me what to do.” (Act III, 197). Shortly after, Adela hangs herself, believing that her lover, Pepe el Romano (i. e. Angustias’s betrothed!), has been shot dead by her mother. Her suicide is perhaps her greatest act of rebellion, her most profound expression of independence.
Of course, Adela’s suicide is scandalous. Not only does it suggest something shameful, it also goes against the Catholic Church’s dictum that suicide is a mortal sin. It is ironic that Bernarda is now desperate to contain any suggestion that Adela has dishonoured the Alba household (which indeed is what Angustias has just accused her of, Act III, 197). Bernarda’s insistence –for public consumption! — that Adela “died a virgin” (Act III, 199) is much more important than grieving for her dead daughter: “I want no tears … Do you hear me. Silence, I said. Silence!”
Bernarda’s pride and aggressive personality ensure a profound dislike from all who know her. No one has a kind word to say about her, not even La Poncia who has served her for 30 years (Act I, 120). She is, according to La Poncia “Bossy! Domineering! … A tyrant to all around her” (Act I, 119). Her dead husband’s family “hate her” (Act I, 120). Two of the mourners at the wake, following the funeral service, mutter to each other: “She’s bad … worse than bad… She’s got a tongue like a knife” (Act I, 125).
However, Bernarda’s domineering character is at the same time her weakness. It leads her to be blindly sure of herself, of her control over her daughters and of her actions. “I know perfectly well what I’m doing,” she says, responding to La Poncia’s reproach immediately after violently removing Angustias’s make up (Act I, 144). “Open your eyes … you’re blind,” La Poncia advises Bernarda before surprising Bernarda with the news that Adela is Pepe el Romano’s real girlfriend (Act II, 169). Later, she tells Bernarda: “Don’t be so sure of yourself,” (Act III, 187) when Bernarda confidently declares that her vigilance controls everything. But La Poncia immediately responds: “No one can keep watch on what goes on inside a person” (Act III, 187). Bernarda is confident she knows her daughters and can control them, but in fact she knows them less well than does La Poncia. Her confidence is a blindness that eventually leads to fatal consequences: the suicide of Adela.
Although Bernarda’s daughters are victims of her obsessive obedience to the demands of the honour code and of protecting her status, Bernarda herself is also, ironically, a victim of those demands. Unfortunately, so determined is she to control her daughters’ lives that she does not see that she is blind to women’s lack of freedom, including her own. All the women in the play, to a greater or lesser degree, are prisoners of social pressures which define their role in life. For example, Pepe el Romano wants “a good, demure woman” (Act II, 150); disobedience leads to unhappiness or punishment.
Instead of channeling her iron will to rejecting society’s demands, Bernarda has been co-opted to imprison her daughters in her house until they are married. Honour, social status and appearance are her guiding principles; they are the “winners.”
García Lorca, Federico La Casa de Bernarda Alba eds. Josephs, Allen and Caballero, Juan Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra. (For those who read Spanish, numerals in the summary refer to page number in the Spanish text.)