The House of Bernarda Alba

The House of Bernarda Alba Themes


Bernarda's family is a landowning family and as such is wealthier than other families in the village. This explains much of both Bernarda's disdain for lower class people and her daughters' aloofness. La Poncia makes clear that the Alba family is only rich in the terms of a poor village, suggesting that they are not as wealthy as they believe. Lorca then is making a critical observation about the human need to keep others below, to find a way in which we can consider ourselves superior. The poor characters (the servants and La Poncia) are corrupted by these class distinctions and are made bitter in no small part because of their envy and their belief that the world has treated them unfairly by forcing poverty on them. Overall, Lorca's sympathy lies with the servants, in a tragic rather than political way: they are the underdogs, the ones whom fate has left with less freedom.


Lorca's play, set in the deep heat of a remarkably hot summer, drips with sexuality. To some extent, this theme is inseparable from that of repression, since it is the sexuality of the daughters that is most strictly repressed. But it deserves its own consideration since Lorca's insights on sexuality are many. He seems to suggest that sexuality is an entirely natural facet of humanity - something all of us, women included, face in severe ways, but that does not mean it lacks danger. On the contrary, sexuality seems to be the driving force that brings tragedy to the play, and some of the stories told highlight how lust and desire have led to terrible ends in the past. For certain, the play stresses the importance of acknowledging our sexual desires and not hiding them behind veils, whether of religion, morality, guilt, or fear. Love deserves a bit of its own consideration if only because it is almost never discussed outside of its sexual component. Whether that is a symptom of the repression that has corrupted love, or the natural state for all humans, is a subject worth discussion.


Because it is perhaps the most intense theme of the play, understanding repression is the key to understanding both the characters and the story. Bernarda seems to understand that her children are capable of sexual desire, but she makes it her explicit purpose to tyrannically keep them from expressing those desires. They are forced into an eight-year mourning period at the beginning of the play, and she is terrified they might give in to the demands of a man like Pepe if they are not kept from exploring their desires. Even when La Poncia tells her that the children will break free the second they are given an inch of freedom, she believes she is doing the right thing. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the play is a reflection of the steady bitterness and hatred that exists between these sisters because they are so repressed. Their animosity towards one another is easiest to understand when one considers how desperately they all need Pepe as an object of admiration in their repressive world. Lorca might be ambivalent about the powers of human sexuality, but he is clear about the cost of repression: it causes people to shrivel up into suffering, which ultimately makes us into worse, uglier people.


On the flip side of repression is the idea of individual freedom. Perhaps the most severe cost of repression is that it keeps a truly poetic soul, like Adela's, from flourishing. She shows time and time again that she is an eccentric with her own ideas of love and life. She ends the play willing to give up any security and safety just to be Pepe's mistress, arguably a decision more about freedom from Bernarda than about love for the selfish Pepe. Throughout the play, we see her attempt to flaunt her individuality, leading her to eventual suicide. As a poet in a conservative country, Lorca clearly sympathizes with this woman who is unable to realize her true personality and who dies for having tried to realize it.


The play begins and ends with death. While the characters do not discuss the topic at length, their awareness of impending doom hangs like a shroud over the whole play. Martirio's depression can easily be attributed to an attitude of just filling the time, a suffering hunchback, until she dies. Where Adela equates repression with death, La Poncia suggests that giving in to one's sexuality leads to death. Indeed, Adela's tragic end confirms La Poncia's perspective. It is as though you cannot escape the force, an idea which indeed falls in line with Lorca's common use of the theme. In a way, one can read the play as a question: considering we are all to die at some point, how is it we should live our lives? By subscribing to a set of moral codes that limit us, or by courting danger through unfettered individuality?


Bernarda herself exemplifies the provincial attitudes of the village where the play is set. Though she is criticized by the mourners in the funeral scene for gossiping too freely, it is clear that other neighbors are also interested in learning each other's dirty secrets. Fear of being seen as wicked by neighbors seems to motivate Bernarda's tyranny more than any particular moral code, in fact; her biggest concern when dealing with Adela's body at the end of the play is that the neighbors have woken up. Because of the harshness of gossip - and the physical danger that the group dynamic can cause, like with the young girl who murders her baby to avoid censure and then is herself killed - Bernarda seeks to have a squeaky clean house, unconcerned with the ironic darkness that bubbles up due to her demands.


Though not an explicit part of the story, religion permeates the world of the play. It can be understood in several ways. First, it is the primary cause of the strictures that lead to repression. The play opens immediately after a visit to the church for the funeral, and Bernarda expresses her belief that the church is the only place where women can look at men, suggesting that sexuality can only be hinted at in the confines of extreme respectability. Further, the church-related sacrament of marriage is understood to be the only outlet for a woman to show love for a man. Prudencia's visit in Act III poses the influence of religion as a larger duplicity that society uses to hide itself. Prudencia goes to church to deal with her sadness and shame over having banished her daughter, suggesting that it can be used as a salve for us to avoid action (in her case, opposing her husband's wishes to banish their daughter). Of course, as Prudencia is soon to leave her church ritual because she is being mocked there, Lorca again reminds us that as an institution of man, religion is subject to the pettiness of man.