The House of Bernarda Alba

Summary and Analysis of ACT II (part two)

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Summary

After Adela, Magdalena, and La Poncia go to watch the departing reapers from Adela's room, Amelia and Martirio, who has her head between her hands, are left alone on stage. Amelia asks what ails Martirio, who answers that the "unending summertime" is draining. Martirio then confesses she's recently been hearing something out in the yard late at night, and Amelia jokes it might be a mule. Martirio cautions her not to say anything, and then, as Amelia starts to leave, calls her back. But they mostly remain silent until Angustias bursts in.

Angustias wants to know who stole the picture of Pepe that she keeps beneath her pillow. The others girls are summoned by her voice, and she demands it be turned over, even as Magdalena expresses offense at the accusation. Both Magdalena and La Poncia show they believe Adela took the picture in the argument that follows. Bernarda enters, called in by the ruckus and holding her cane. She is angry that they are potentially attracting attention from the neighbors and wants to know the cause. When she learns the cause and nobody owns up to stealing the photo, she sends La Poncia to search their rooms. After some silence, La Poncia returns, having found it in Martirio's bed. La Poncia is confused.

Bernarda begins to hit Martirio with her cane, though Angustias tries to hold her back. Martirio tries to explain she only stole the photo as a joke, but Adela attacks her verbally, claiming Martirio had "something else burning in her breast" that she wanted to "break out." Their fight infects all the girls, most of whom insult Angustias for only attracting a man through her money and inheritance. The situation escalates until Bernarda silences them and makes clear she will not allow this "avalanche" to prevail and that she has "five chains" that will keep them in line.

She sends all but La Poncia out, and then says that they must quickly marry Angustias to Pepe so the man will leave. But when La Poncia slightly insinuates he might not be so quick to leave, Bernarda grows quickly and intensely defensive. La Poncia merely suggests to Bernarda, "open your eyes," and Bernarda quickly defends Martirio, claiming the theft was a joke. La Poncia suggests Bernarda would be much quicker to judge were it a neighbor in this situation and that she is blind to what her girls are doing, and finally insists Bernarda has smothered her children. In the accusations, La Poncia reveals that Martirio's former fiancée, whom she believes left her behind, was actually kept away by Bernarda.

Bernarda grows cruel, diminishing La Poncia by reminding her of her place. She denies to the maid that any "very grave thing" is happening, believing the maid merely "wishes" it was. La Poncia finally reveals that Adela is Pepe's sweetheart. Bernarda indicates that she might believe it, but then insists her daughters would never disobey her. She says La Poncia must be lying. La Poncia calls as evidence that her sons saw Pepe still outside their house at 4am, right as Angustias enters to call the claim a lie. Martirio enters and corroborates the claim, saying she heard him leave at 4am. Adela arrives and suggests La Poncia is trying to stir up trouble from resentment. Bernarda takes control and says her family will not be accused falsely and that La Poncia needs to keep her place.

At that moment, a servant enters with news that something big is happening at the end of their street. The girls try to run out and see, but Bernarda insists they show propriety and merely watch from the patio. After everyone is gone for a moment, Martirio and Adela enter. The former suggests she could have ratted Adela out and that she will never let her have Pepe, that none of them will have him. Adela's pleas go unheeded.

Everyone reenters and La Poncia shares the news: a neighbor girl had a child out of wedlock, and out of shame killed it and tried to hide the body. Locals are dragging the girl out to a meadow to kill her. Bernarda insists wildly and excitedly that the death is deserved. The act ends with Bernarda chanting for the girl to pay for her sins, while Adela holds her belly and protests for mercy, and Martirio echoes Bernarda's sentiments while starting at Adela.

Analysis

The second half of Act II sees the drama more conventionally building, through three big confrontations: Martirio directly accuses Adela of her illicit passion; Angustias confronts all the girls over the missing photo; and Bernarda refuses to heed La Poncia's warning. To use Lorca's symbol, the storm is building.

The theme of overbearing sexuality is strongly present, especially in the depiction of Martirio. First, while she has thus far seemed depressed to the edge of existentialism, she here reveals in her attitude towards Adela a cruel, grounded resentment. She would rather nobody have Pepe than Adela be able to marry the man. This shift in character is explained by the second big revelation about Martirio: she is the one who stole the photo. It is telling that even the most outwardly unconcerned character is in fact falling under the sway of sexual fantasy. Though she has hidden it, she is in fact overcome by the heat, as Lorca communicates through Martirio's sickness at the "unending summertime."

In the closing moments of this act, all the sisters engage in a vicious argument, most vicious to Angustias, precisely because she is the one primed to be happy soon. As La Poncia says to Bernarda, the mother's smothering and repression will lead them to one day fly the coop without control, and indeed we see how little they can control the slightest chance to let those feelings come out.

While one could argue that sexuality is less of a motivation than conventional marriage, it's useful to note how, paralleling the way men are "forgiven" everything in this world, nobody ever really criticizes Pepe's rather childish and cruel double-timing. He's not the catch, but rather the catch is simply a man, someone who can provide them momentary relief from their smothering chastity. After all, La Poncia made clear earlier in the act that marriage does not satiate for long – but it will satiate in the present, and that's enough.

Bernarda's motivations also gain some depth in this section, which deepens Lorca's criticism of a world so repressive to women. The mother admits she has been afraid that an explosion of these repressed desires was coming, but reaffirms her commitment to keeping the girls locked away so that they might not give in to those desires. It's behavior we've come to expect, but when they leave, she privately chastises herself for her failure, revealing that she is motivated by more than cruelty. In fact, she believes it is her "duty" to force her girls into such constraints. Further, the way she defends the girls against La Poncia's claims shows her deep desire to have good girls and her inherent terror to have failed them by letting them become wicked like others she has criticized. The moral strictures that keep Bernarda so tyrannical have indeed made her blind; we realize here that her tyranny is based in fear. She does not hate her daughters, but rather hates women because their natural sexual desires in her world lead to pain. She excuses men their indiscretions, and in fact expects wickedness from them, but refuses to imagine that women could be forgiven for such behavior.

One could see La Poncia as a compassionate voice of reason to balance Bernarda were it not for what she said in private in the first act and Lorca's dialogue notes, which insist that La Poncia delivers her speeches "cruelly." Even though her advice has much truth in it, it is actually prompted by the deep class resentments that La Poncia revealed in the beginning the play. It is telling that Bernarda's final card in the argument – one that Amelia echoes when the girls reenter – is to evoke class distinctions, to negate La Poncia's argument by reminding her that she is poor.

Lorca again merges his themes of class and sex, so that the two inform each other and morph into a situation that comments on death. The act is at its climax and the argument is about to grow violent when the news of the young woman who killed her baby (presumably because she knows that the moral strictures of this town would have ostracized and ruined her once her out-of-wedlock child was uncovered) arrives. The women, especially Bernarda, grow suddenly cruel in their curiosity. In the act's final moments, Bernarda demands death for the girl not because of the infanticide, but because of the sexuality. Their hatreds – of class, of repression, of sex – all find an outlet in recognition and celebration of the death of another person.

While the closing of this act is heavy on action, there is still plenty of theatrical atmosphere that reminds us of the tragic nature of the story. For instance, the long silence between Martirio and Amelia, which is precisely notated by Lorca, creates in performance a rather haunting visceral feeling, even though the reason Martirio called Amelia back is not specified. And the final moment of the act is quite vicious in its intensity, as one woman – Adela, whose holding of her stomach tells us she is likely pregnant herself – suffers terribly while the others are engaged in perverse joy. The dramatic irony here as well as the extreme distinctions between the emotional states is chilling.