The House of Bernarda Alba

The House of Bernarda Alba Summary and Analysis of ACT II (part one)


Like Act I, Act II is set in a white room in Bernarda's house. All the daughters, except Adela, are on stage sewing, with Magdalena embroidering. La Poncia is also there. They are sewing sheets for one another and Magdalena asks if she should put Pepe's initials on one of them. They wonder why Adela has seemed so scared lately, and Angustias vocally looks forward to being "out of this hell."

They open a door because of the oppressive heat and talk about how they couldn't sleep the night before because of the heat and a brewing storm. La Poncia says she noticed Angustias was up late talking with Pepe through her window, and there is some confusion about what time he left. Where Amelia believes she heard him leave at about one-thirty, La Poncia is certain she heard him leave around four.

After a silence, they ask Angustias for details about her conversations with Pepe. She tries to evade specificity, saying there is enough gossip, but finally acknowledges that he has not officially asked her to marry him, but rather just insinuated it. Amelia admits such talk embarrasses her, and Angustias says she feels the same, since she'd never been alone with a man at night before then. Magdalena admits he is a good-looking man.

La Poncia tells of her first husband, Evaristo the Shorttailed, and how on his first visit to her, they sat silent across a window for a half hour, both sweating profusely, until he asked to feel her through the window. They laugh at the story until Amelia suddenly fears Bernarda is coming and looks for her out the door. They laugh at her paranoia, even as Amelia tries to shush them.

La Poncia continues her story, about how her husband became very decent, so much that he gave up "the bed for the table, then the table for the tavern." She suggests this is the lot of married women, and that "the woman who doesn’t like it can just rot, weeping in a corner." Martirio asks about a rumor that La Poncia would hit him, and she admits to having once almost killed his beloved birds from anger. They all laugh, and Magdalena calls to Adela to join in their fun. When she gets no answer, she goes to check on her.

While Magdalena is gone, they talk about how she has been sick lately and barely sleeps. Angustias suggests she is tormented by envy and is "getting the look of a crazy woman," but Martirio shushes her as Magdalena and Adela enter. Adela says her body aches and Martirio asks, "with hidden meaning," whether she slept well the night before. Adela insults her and asks to be left alone.

A servant enters and calls them all to Bernarda. All but Adela and La Poncia leave, and on the way out, Martirio "looks fixedly" at Adela, who lashes out after her, insulting her hunchback and threatening to hurt her. La Poncia reprimands Adela for that attitude, but Adela complains that Martirio hounds her, constantly spying on her and reminding her that her beauty will fade. Adela refuses to accept such a philosophy and says her "body will be for whomever [she chooses]." It is here that La Poncia directly accuses her of coveting Pepe el Romano. Adela tries to deny it, but La Poncia quickly insists she has noticed irrefutable proof in the way Adela "sits almost naked" at the window when Pepe comes to meet Angustias. La Poncia insists she keep her passions to herself and not undermine her sister. As Adela weeps, La Poncia comforts her, reminding her that the sickly Angustias will probably die in her first childbirth and then Adela will be free to marry Pepe if she pleases – "live on that hope, forget him, anything; but don't go against God's law."

Adela then accuses La Poncia of being a snoop who is feigning affection for Angustias just to cause trouble; La Poncia denies it and says she will stick to Adela like a shadow. Adela says she doesn't care: "I'd leap over you, just a servant, [and also] over my mother to put out this fire I feel in my legs and my mouth." She dismisses La Poncia's threats and says, "no one can stop what has to happen." La Poncia is shocked to hear she feels so passionately, and Adela confirms that "looking in his eyes I seem to drink up his blood slowly."

Angustias enters and inquires about some perfume La Poncia was supposed to buy, and La Poncia tells her where it is. Angustias exits. Adela barely has time to ask the maid to be discreet before Martirio and Amelia enter. When Adela asks about the cloth Martirio is carrying, she says it is for a nightgown and Adela makes fun of her. Martirio says her nightgown will be for her alone, and La Poncia adds nobody ever sees "us in our nightgowns."

They hear bells outside, calling the men back to work, and the girls wonder whether it's miserable to work in such heat. La Poncia tells them that fifty "reapers" had arrived the day before to work and had taken a girl out to the cane fields. She says, "men need things like that." Adela laments that men are forgiven everything, and Amelia adds, "To be born a woman's the worst possible punishment."

They hear the song of the men approaching. Adela wishes aloud she could be a reaper and forget "what's eating us all," and she repeats some of their song as the men's voices fade. Adela suggests to Magdalena and La Poncia that they watch from her room, and as they exit, La Poncia warns them not to open the window too wide since the men would then fight over each other to see who is looking.


In this section of the play, not much happens in terms of story, but the tragic forces are clearly revealed. If Lorca's poetic atmosphere has not already alerted us that this is a tragedy, then the conversation between Adela and La Poncia makes it explicit.

First, it's useful to understand the way that Adela is set up here as tragic figure. We already know from Act I that she is willing to indulge her eccentricities, running around with the chickens. However, she is far more than just a weird girl – she is instead possessed of a passion, a "fire" that she will not ignore. The fire is more than just sexual passion; she wants to be free of the repression that all the women live in, not only under Bernarda but in their world overall. La Poncia flaunts her authority over Adela in their argument until Adela makes it clear that her pursuit of Pepe is about more than sex: "Bring four thousand yellow flares and set them about the walls of the yard. No one can stop what has to happen." La Poncia is confused – "You like him that much?" – because mere sexual fulfillment does not seem worth such risk to her.

This section makes clear how heavy Lorca considers the weight of being a woman in a hypocritically repressed world. The opening of the act has Magdalena embroidering, a rather sad irony considering the way she expressed her disillusion with a life of embroidering in the first act. She cannot stand such a dull and meaningless life, and yet it's all she has: this seems to be the message that resounds throughout the play.

The discussion of marriage in this section is amusing, but it contains damning messages about what a woman can expect. Angustias has to assume Pepe wants to marry her in order to be happy. Once women get the joy of a proposal and sexual fulfillment with a husband, the husband will soon turn from them. We see this in La Poncia's story of her first husband. There is a profound contradiction in Adela's attitude about being a woman – she seems to detest the way men are "forgiven" everything, even the pursuit and deflowering of a young woman, and yet she yearns to be a "reaper," to have that sort of freedom.

Such a conflicted worldview of both love and hate is reflected in this section's depiction of sexuality. La Poncia's story is a good microcosm of it: when her husband no longer paid attention to her, she turned to violence to get his attention. Her story also touches on the unnatural attempt to suppress sexuality. She and her first husband had nothing to say to one another when they first met, and stood there sweating until he finally could not control himself and demanded to touch her. The message seems to be that sex is about sweat and animal attraction, not about propriety that attempts to control it. Yet punishment for sexual feelings is always on the horizon.

The provincial attitudes of the characters are on display in this section. The tradition of women who talk to the men who court them through windows becomes a strong symbol for the natural separation between men and women. Where men are allowed any behavior they want, women must stay indoors, upholding a pretense of propriety lest they be ostracized. Part of the ugliness in this world comes from severe judgments the characters pass on others, even as they themselves are recipients of it. La Poncia is clearly as interested in stirring up trouble as saving anyone's feelings, and Amelia shows a quick desire to speak nastily about neighbors.

Lastly, death is a prominent theme in this section. Martirio remains the most existential voice in the group, able to express a lack of concern for a life sure to end in death. It makes sense that Adela, the sister of spirit and life, would be most hounded by Martirio; the nagging voice of death is loudest to she who is most possessed of life. La Poncia's pragmatism in comforting Adela as she cries, by reminding her that sickly Angustias will likely die with her first child, is notably cruel despite the likely truth.

It is no accident that the men who arrive in the midst of the hot summer are "reapers," a symbol associated with death. As they sing about wanting to take the women away for their enjoyment, all the sisters are aroused to various degrees by the idea. To embrace their sexuality is to court death and destruction, yet they are naturally drawn to it. Again, there is a contradiction of love and hatred in the idea.

Lorca continues to use symbols in deliberately intense ways. The heat of the summer stands to relate the passion that overwhelms these women, the dark storm of the night before conforms to the impending trouble that comes from Adela's passion for Pepe, and the nightgown that Martirio sews is meant to represent the secret part of each woman. Martirio and La Poncia remind us that a woman is never seen in her nightgown, which conforms to the way men are painted in the play – they will stop caring long before they ever know the individual within. Of course, Adela wants to wear her nightgown for all to see, just as she wore the green dress for the chickens in Act I.