As the mourners leave the house, Bernarda yells after them spitefully that they should gossip about everything they saw in her house, and insists they're not welcome back. When La Poncia suggests that the townswomen showed sympathy, Bernarda insists it was only to gain fodder for their gossip. Her daughter Amelia tries to calm her down.
As La Poncia begins to clean the mess left by the guests, Adela, the youngest daughter, gives her mother a colorful fan that Bernarda throws down angrily, demanding she be given a black fan to indicate her period of mourning. Martirio offers her own fan to Bernarda, saying she isn't hot. Bernarda then tells them they will go through "eight years of mourning," wherein the house will be shut off from the world and they will be "embroidering [their] hope chest linens." When Magdalena reacts negatively to this news, Bernarda suggests that such patient removal is the lot of women, whereas men need "whiplash and mules."
Adela leaves the room and the women hear Maria Josefa screaming from offstage. Bernarda orders the servants to let her out, and one servant tells Bernarda how the old woman has been misbehaving, yelling and dressing in her nice clothing, insisting she wishes to be married. Bernarda asks that her mother be taken to the well, but hidden from the prying eyes of the neighbors.
Adela reenters and informs Bernarda that Angustias was watching the men depart through a crack in the wall. Bernarda criticizes Adela for having been there herself, but saves her real ire for Angustias, whom she hits with her cane as punishment for lusting after men on the day of her father's funeral. While Angustias cries, Bernarda sends everyone but La Poncia out.
La Poncia first tells Bernarda that she too was disgusted by the way Angustias had been eavesdropping on the men's talk outside, which is not meant for women. Bernarda agrees but is also curious what they were discussing. La Poncia shares that some men had kidnapped a local woman, Paca la Roseta, and had their way with her, which she enjoyed. Bernarda describes her as a "bad woman."
She is worried about what Angustias might have heard, and La Poncia insists that the daughters need to find husbands. Bernarda insists there is nobody in the vicinity good enough, and that she would not give them to a shepherd. La Poncia attempts to talk to Bernarda as a friend, insisting they share secrets, but Bernarda is insulted by being spoken to forthrightly by a maid and insults her. She then leaves to deal with the inheritance, since an attorney has arrived for that purpose. Before she leaves, she demands La Poncia not give any of her dead husband's clothing away.
Amelia and Martirio enter together, discussing a local girl who was not at the funeral, presumably because her new beau will not let her leave the house. Amelia shows a penchant for gossip and wonders aloud whether it's better to not have an overprotective man at all, while Martirio insists it's "all the same." Martirio tells how the girl, Adelaida, was born of incest and will likely end up in the same incestuous situation. It's a story Bernarda knows and uses cruelly to insult Adelaida's mother, but nothing can be done because a man cannot be arrested for sexual deviance. Martirio believes it's best to never even look at a man. Amelia reminds Martirio about how a man once coveted Martirio, but Martirio tells her how that man embarrassed her by leaving her before marriage for a woman with more money. She insists men care only about a woman's inheritance when it comes to marriage, and not beauty or sex.
Magdalena enters and tells them how she found some relics of the old days in their grandmother's room, and how it makes her think of the days when "evil tongues weren't in style," when gossip was not so toxic. She also tells them how Adela put on a green dress and went outside to play with the chickens, an act that will surely anger Bernarda.
Angustias walks across the stage, and her sisters discuss how the town is talking about how Pepe el Romano will soon propose to her. When Martirio and Amelia express pleasure at the news, Magdalena accuses them of lying, saying that they all know Pepe is only interested in her money since Angustias is old and sickly. Since Pepe is young, Magdalena believes he should be after one of the more attractive sisters, and accuses them of being hypocrites for not admitting they feel the same.
Adela enters and they make jokes about her dalliances with the chickens. When Magdalena returns to the topic of Pepe and Angustias, Adela seems confused and emotional and insists, in a short impassioned speech, that she will not be locked away to rot, but will go out into the world.
A servant enters and almost hears her talk. Adela quiets down quickly, and the servant tells them Pepe is coming down the street. All but Adela rush out to see him, and the servant mentions she can see him best from a different room. The servant leaves and after a moment, Adela walks out as well, presumably to take the servant's advice.
Bernarda and La Poncia enter, the former complaining about the issues of managing the inheritance, not much of which will go to any of the girls. La Poncia insists she wants to hear nothing of money. Angustias enters, her face "heavily made up." Bernarda scolds her for wearing this on the day of her father's death – Angustias's reminder that her father died long before and the dead man is her step-father falls on deaf ears – and Bernarda forcefully wipes the make up of the girl's face. Her angry shouts attract all the other girls into the house, where Magdalena and Angustias bicker over money for a moment.
Before the situation can further erupt, Maria Josefa enters with flowers in her hair. She tells Bernarda with passion that she wants to escape and marry by the sea, but Bernarda screams until the old woman is captured and forced back to her room.
Once the mourners have left and the family is alone, their suffering is made apparent. All of the girls suffer in their own ways, even though some of them could perhaps find happiness if they weren't so constrained, whether that be by their mother's tyranny, their own strict ideas about women or class, or by tragic and unfortunate circumstance.
The main cast of the play is large, but Lorca introduces the girls with great efficiency by the end of Act I, both through the suggestions their names make and through their behavior. They are listed here in order of age: Angustias, whose name in translation suggests "anguish," is the oldest, and quite sickly. Her desperation is apparent in this section as she secretly listens to the men and wears excessive make up in anticipation of Pepe's arrival. Magdalena, who was most affected by her father's death in the first half of the act, is an extremely spiteful and bitter person. In a way, this spite makes sense since Magdalena is the eldest child of the newly deceased man but will not receive any favors or grand inheritance. Amelia is the least colorfully depicted in this act, though she does reveal a tendency towards gossip and is the least critical of her mother. Martirio, whose name in translation suggests "suffering," is highly depressed. Her comments have an almost existential tenor, as she suggests that nothing matters much, since all things will turn out the same. There are indications in later acts that she is a hunchback. Adela is the youngest and most lively of the daughters. Everything she does speaks to her love of life and true individuality.
The plot in this section is simple: Angustias is likely to marry Pepe el Romano because of her money, and Adela is in love with him. However, the implicit truth is that all the girls are infatuated with him, which leads to the play's central theme again, that of repression. They are all so starved for a sexual outlet that the promise of a glimpse of Pepe is enough to send them running.
Mostly, this repression is sexual. Bernarda, now that she is the sole matriarch of the house, is insistent that her daughters be locked away in eight years of mourning. Bernarda has very specific ideas of gender roles: "Needle and thread for women. Whiplash and mules for men." Her conception – which she forces through the tyranny of her cane and violence – is that women are passive and restrained whereas men are expected to be lustful, ugly creatures. Of course, it's a fallacy – even Bernarda herself is excited by hearing of Paca La Roseta, the girl who was kidnapped by the nearby men, though she frames it as a delight in hearing of a "bad woman" punished. Lorca paints a picture of women whose sexuality manifests in ugliness and spite because it is prohibited from surfacing in its natural way.
However, Lorca's world is not entirely reliant on Bernarda to deliver the strictures on sexuality. There are many observations and comments on the limitations placed on women that come from society. One of the fascinating elements that surfaces from this play's investigation of women's role is that lust is presented as simultaneously important and natural, while also being destructive.
Magdalena tells her mother, "Cursed be all women," and the play gives good motivation for such an attitude. The women are not supposed to hear the men even talk about the depravity they practice; meanwhile, men are allowed to go unpunished for horrible crimes. Paca La Roseta is the one criticized for the incident, while the men are not criticized even though they kidnapped her and tied up her husband in order to have their way. Her only crime was to enjoy the sexuality, and yet she is singled out by Bernarda and La Poncia as the villain. Magdalena might seem cruel to us when she accuses Martirio and Amelia of hypocrisy, but we as the audience know she's right – after all, the latter two girls had only moments before been lamenting that Augustias was attractive to Pepe solely because of her money. Lust is something that can destroy a woman in this world, and yet because it is natural, the attempts to repress it force these women to respond to each other spitefully. Their suffering does not come from natural spite, but rather a spite born of unhappiness engendered by unnatural societal (and in this case, parental) strictures. The only outlet a woman seems to have in this village is marriage, and of course, that is not painted in positive terms, but rather terms of money and class.
The other quality of marriage is a suffocation of the individual spirit. Adelaida is unable to leave the house because of her boyfriend. It is as though a woman must trade the repression of a false purity for the repression of submission before a man. However, without a man, one runs the risk of ending up like Martirio, who is deeply depressed ever since she was ignored by her potential husband.
There are only two true individuals with significant longing in the play: Adela and Maria Josefa. Interestingly, they are the youngest and oldest characters. Where Adela has a lively, eccentric spirit because of her youth and naivete, Maria Josefa has a longing to find beauty because of her age, because she is near death and likely knows the futility of forcing repressive strictures on oneself. Adela's lively spirit is constantly dampened. Where Bernarda's conception of a woman's life involves suffering, Adela does not want to accept this. Maria Josefa wants to marry by the sea, an impossible idea but one that the girls could learn from if Bernarda were not so quick to squash that liveliness and spirit. The old woman then becomes like a prophet from a Greek tragedy: she warns Bernarda that the young girls are "longing for marriage, turning their hearts to dust," but her warnings go unheeded and she is locked away.
La Poncia makes clear that Bernarda's family is only well-off relative to others in this town, but this angers Bernarda and forces her to draw a line between herself and the maid, to accuse the latter of being lower. She admits openly she will not marry her daughters to a "shepherd" of low-class, which shows she will sacrifice their sexual and spiritual happiness for a good monetary match.
Lorca wrote this play during the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War, and embodies in Bernarda Alba his reflections on the ascendancy of the tyrant Franco and his fascists. When Adela makes her impassioned plea for freedom from the house and is almost overheard by a servant, the attitude of the time is reflected: individuals and artists would have been frightened of sharing too publicly their beliefs, lest it lead to punishment.