The House of Bernarda Alba : Motif Tracking – Cleaning & Household Activities





Cleaning in Bernarda’s house is linked with the idea that everything has to be pure and spotless so that they can maintain the appearance of conforming to the rules of their society. At the start of the play Bernarda is especially conscious of this as the community will be visiting her house after the funeral of her husband. Ordering people to clean is additionally one way in which Lorca demonstrates the power and control that Bernarda has over the members of her household, both as mother and a master.









“A very white inner room”

This stage direction implies cleanliness and the spotlessness makes the reader feel a bit uncomfortable possibly suggesting how uncomfortable the daughters feel in this house.


The whiteness of the room is significant because it is very difficult to keep something purely white, unless it is being cleaned repeatedly and very regularly. Thus, the fact that an inner room in Bernarda’s house is “very white” suggests that either they are very rich or find it important to keep the image of being rich by making sure that the walls continue to remain white, through cleaning. The fact that this is the first thing that is seen by the audience sets up one of the major themes of the book which is: to constantly keep up the image of being well off. It can also be said that the significance of the colour white to Bernarda is that it represents that there is no secrets hidden within the household and that there are no “blemishes” on the family name.



Poncia: The old lady. Is she locked up tight?

Maid: With two turns of the key.

Poncia: You should fasten the bolt, too. She has fingers like five skeleton keys!


This quotation represents yet another household activity which is present throughout the play. This is the activity of making sure that Bernarda’s mother is constantly being controlled by someone to ensure that she is not seen by the other members of society and embarrass the family. This is an example of how the truth is being “cleaned up” and hidden from society.



“Scrub everything clean. If Bernarda doesn’t see things shine, she’ll pull out the few hairs I have left!”

This shows how Bernarda is very conscious about how her house looks. It also demonstrates how Bernarda exerts her power over the maids by creating a sense of fear within them. This shows how everyday activities such as cleaning can be manipulated into providing a demonstration of Bernarda’s control.



“Scrub! Scrub those tiles!”

The exclamation marks stress the importance of cleanliness in Bernarda’s house. The repetition of the word ‘scrub’ highlights this further.


The fact that Poncia is telling the Maid to scrub the tiles helps to demonstrate the different levels of power hierarchy in society and sheds light on the ambiguous relationship between Poncia and the family. Poncia telling the maid to scrub the tiles suggests that she has more authority of the two. Authority which ultimately comes from her ability / willingness to provide Bernarda with gossip.



“My hands are bleeding from all the scouring”

Hyperbole is used here to show the arduous amount of cleaning the maids have to do. The word ‘scouring’ has a harsh effect, which represents the extent to which Bernarda exploits the people who work for her. It shows Bernarda as a person who wants to ensure that an image of immaculacy is constantly shown to the outsiders in order to improve/uphold her image in society, even if it leads to physical pain for the maid.



“Thirty years, washing her sheets.”

Shows the lengthy time span than Poncia has served Bernarda and a sense of annoyance as Poncia may feel that she isn't given more respect for the long time service.



Poncia: The crystal has some spots on it.

Maid: Neither soap nor flannel will get them off.

The characters of the Maid and Poncia in the play present stereotypical views of the role of women in society. It also represents what society allowed women to be during the time.


The fact that the spots or marks of dirt cannot be removed suggests or foreshadows that all is not as it appears in the house and that underneath the image of purity, something is amiss.



“Floors polished with oil, cupboards, pedestal steel beds.”

Listing is used here to emphasis the workload of the maid has done to keep the house clean to Bernarda’s high standards and the quotation further emphasizes the roles played by women with no economic power in society and the stereotypical role of women in society at the time.



Bernarda: Less screaming and more work! You should have seen to it everything was cleaner to receive the mourners.


This further demonstrates how Bernarda exerts control over the maids by telling them how to clean the house and what is expected of them. It also suggests Bernarda’s aggressive and dismissive attitude towards those of a lower socio-economic status and, finally, it reinforces the importance of keeping up appearances.



Second Woman: Have you begun to thresh your wheat?

This quotation not only reveals the type of household activities that occur in Bernarda’s house, but also shows the economic situation of the Alba family. The fact that they have wheat to thresh suggests that they are relatively wealthy landowners, even though Bernarda’s husband has just died.


Poncia: Look what they’ve done to the floor!


Bernarda: You would think a herd of goats had walked on it!

[PONCIA scrubs the floor.]

Poncia’s dialogue suggests that she is attempting to ingratiate herself with Bernarda, as she well knows that Bernarda will notice the floor. The stage directions show this further as Poncia cleans in front of Bernarda, thus making her pleased.


This quotation also represents the attitude that Bernarda has towards people in society, as well as further demonstrating Bernarda’s need to ensure that her house remains immaculate and clean to any outsider who looks in, as the guests have just left, but the house is already being cleaned.



Bernarda: …In the meantime you can begin to embroider your trousseaus. I have twenty bolts of linen in the chest from which you can cut sheets. Magdalena can embroider them.

The fact that Bernarda’s daughters have to embroider their own trousseaus suggests that though the family does have money, they do not have enough to be able to hire the help necessary to embroider trousseaus for the daughters. A trousseau is the outfit a bride wears, including her wedding dress or the things that she takes with her to her new home (bed sheets, towels, etc) the fact the girls have begun to work on these clothes even though none of them are engaged shows how marriage was such a vital aspect of women’s lives at the time. Women are constantly looking forward to and preparing for their wedding day – hence the frustration in the house when it seems that none of them is very close to getting married and the jealousy when, eventually, Angustias does become engaged.



Bernarda: A needle and a thread for females: a mule and a whip for males. That’s how it is for people born with means.

This quotation further emphasizes the expectations of society at the time in which the play was set. It is seen that the men and women are expected to fulfill stereotypical roles: women should be able to embroider while the men are to be the providers for the family.



Bernarda: What were they talking about?

In this play, gossip plays a significant role in the lives of all the characters. The entire book consists of characters talking about what is learned through gossip. It is seen that all members of the Alba house, ranging from Bernarda herself, down to the maids spend the day gossiping and spying on either other members of the house, or the neighbors. It is because of this significant role of gossip in the everyday lives of the members of this play, that it can be said that gossip is in fact a regular household activity.



“You start scrubbing the patio”

This is said after Poncia gossips to Bernarda about the men’s conversations in the patio. Bernarda is repulsed by it and thus uses an imperative, to order Poncia to symbolically get rid of the inappropriate conversation.



“And you start putting away all the clothes of the deceased in the big chest”

This is showing that apart from Bernarda being consciously aware of how presentable her house is, she is also trying to eliminate the thoughts of her late husband. Her unwillingness to give any of this away further reinforces the sense we have of Bernarda as bitter and ungenerous.



Bernarda: Have you dared to powder your face? Have you even dared to wash your face, on the day of your father’s death?

This quotation demonstrates the absurdity of society’s expectation and the traditions at the time. That the daughters cannot wash their face let alone powder it, represents ridiculously extreme nature of these rules. Also, Bernarda’s insistence on sticking to these rules even though no one will be seeing the daughters anymore as all the guests have left, represents how important these rules are in the everyday lives of the members of the society, as well as the important of keeping up appearances. It is also ironic that the house must appear clean and cared for, yet the people themselves are not allowed to wash their faces, representing the absurdity of society’s expectations.



[Furiously, she (Bernarda) removes the powder from ANGUSTIAS’ face with a handkerchief.]

This demonstrates Bernarda’s fear of being seen as transgressing society’s expectations. She is so angry at Angustias for powdering her face that she herself removes it. The word “furiously” suggests that she does it roughly, thus emphasizing Bernarda’s uncaring and unmotherly qualities.




“A white inner room”

This is used in the beginning of the Act 2 stage directions. Now we notice that from Act 1 the ‘very’ has gone. This shows that the strictness, freedom and purity may be disappearing from the Bernard household. The effect of supreme cleanliness has also vanished, and we are left with something more normal, perhaps tarnished.



BERNARDA’S DAUGHTERS except for ADELA are seated in low chairs, sewing, MAGDALENA is embroidering.

The image created by the stage directions represents the characters carrying out the stereotypical roles of women in society. The fact that Adela is not taking part in the activity suggests that she does not care for the expectations of society, thus setting her apart from the other characters and making her seem more rebellious.



Poncia: I have eyes in my head and in my hands when it comes to things like this. No matter how much I think about it, I can’t figure out what you’re up to. Why were you standing at the open window, half naked, with the light burning – the second time Pepe came to talk with your sister?


This quote demonstrates more than one household activity which is carried out daily by the members of Bernarda Alba’s house. Not only is gossiping about other members of society a regular occurrence, but keeping an eye out on members of the household and gossiping about members of your own family is also seen as a household activity.


“Instead of cleaning the house… you stick your nose into the affairs of men and women like an old sow”

Adela becomes furious with Poncia’s accusations. In her dialogue we can see that individuals of inferior class are expected to do all the menial chores like cleaning. Cleaning symbolises lower status. Adela reminds Poncia of her position in the household through the activities that she should be doing.



“Work and keep your mouth shut”

Bernarda says this to Poncia. As before it is now Bernarda’s turn to make sure Poncia doesn’t over step the bounds of expected behaviour for a servant. However, Poncia’s position is ambiguous and she frequently is allowed more say and influence than would be expected of a mere servant.



“Four white walls lightly bathed in blue.”

From ‘very white’, to ‘white’ and now ‘lightly blue’. This is stage direction in the beginning of Act 3 gives the readers a feeling of hope as the oppressive whiteness has gone. The cleanliness has also disappeared, as the walls are no longer white. The blue also suggests it is night time and the freedom that this brings.



“Augustias is clearing the table”

This quotation further emphasizes the stereotypical role of women at the time in which this play is set. The fact that Angustias is clearing the table even though the family has maid’s, suggests that she is practising the role of the woman that society expects her to be.



Bernarda: …Cut her down. My daughter has died a virgin. Carry her to her room and dress her in white. No one is to say a thing. She died a virgin.

The quotation demonstrates an activity which, though not a regular household activity, is still an activity which is carried out by members of the house. It can be argued that the quote not only shows how the mess created by Adela’s suicide has caused is cleaned, in terms of changing her clothes, but shows how the truth of Adela’s is being hidden. Adela kills herself when she thinks that her lover (and her sister’s fiancé), Pepe el Romano has been killed. The audience is also aware of the fact that Adela is no longer a virgin and Pepe el Romano is the cause of this. The fact that Bernarda tries to hide the truth by cleaning up the “mess” by dressing Adela in white after she has died demonstrates her need to keep up appearances in society by cleaning up the truth of Adela’s death.




Key moment:

The key moment for this motif in the play ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ is the final scene when the members of the house have just learned that Adela has committed suicide as she thinks that her lover - her sister’s fiancé, and possibly the father of her unborn child - Pepe el Romano has been shot. Bernarda tells the maids in the house to dress Adela in white, the symbol of purity and virginity in order to hide the truth, that Adela was in fact, going to be the mother of Pepe el Romano’s child. It is seen that Bernarda tries to “clean up” the facts and hide the truth about Adela’s death in order to ensure that society does not look down upon her because of Adela’s actions. It is in this scene that the importance of cleaning up the surface is most evident as it is seen that: to Bernarda, it is important to constantly maintain an image which will ensure that society does not look down upon them.


Another key moment is when Adela argues with Poncia and says, “Instead of cleaning the house… you stick your nose into the affairs of men and women like an old sow”. (Act 2, pg 142) Adela says this longer sentence after a battle of short sentences, as if to end this quarrel and get the last word. Adela tries to show Poncia her position in the house by reminding her of her duties which are cleaning and not gossiping. This is the first time that we see the quarrels between Poncia and one of the girls. The exclamation marks at the end of their dialogues suggest that a heated conversation is taking place. It shows the tensions building up in their household and it also shows how Adela is obstinate about her feelings towards Pepe being genuine and how Poncia is also persistent in her attempts to prevent Adela from doing anything scandalous that would besmirch the good name of the house.