The House of Bernarda Alba: Motif Tracking – Dreams and Madness






The motif dreams and madness is used by Lorca to reveal the unhappiness that has subconsciously been building up in Adela. The dreams of marrying Pepe and the ‘madness’ created by his engagement to Angustias creates a cycle, because we end the play with another death in the family suggesting that the inhabitants of the town will never escape from the vicious cycle of gossip and oppression that they have helped establish. Throughout the play Bernarda's mother, Maria Josefa, is considered mad but her speech seems sane and coherent enough which suggest that it was the frankness of her thoughts and the unacceptability that led the world around her to call her mad. As in many plays the ‘mad’ character, with their alternative perspective, is able to see truths that other characters cannot.








‘My head is bursting with those tolling bells!’

Although obviously a metaphor this could suggest how, in a figurative sense, the church bells and the strict moral code they represent are driving people mad.



‘I would like to have what they have’

Here the wistfulness in the maid’s voice, clearly shows her dreams and that her only wish is to be rich. This reveals the clear divisions of wealth that run through Spanish society at this time.



Maid: “... Of those who served you, I loved you the most [she is tearing her hair]”

This quotation shows how the maid has to pretend to have been driven insane by the death of her former master. This display of expected behaviour is in sharp contrast to her wish earlier in the scene that he would ‘rot away’ in his grave and her apparent gladness that now he would no longer be able to take sexual advantage of here. The contrast reveals how the strictly repressive society of the time does not allow the characters to speak their thoughts.



Maid: “She took her rings and the amethyst earrings out of her trunk. She put them on and told me she wants to get married”


‘Several times during the funeral I had to cover her mouth with an empty sack because she wanted to call out to you…’

The maid is talking about Bernada’s mother, who is insane. Although her desire to marry is implausible give her age, it does reveal how much the women in the play are fixated on marriage and the only form of freedom that any of the women in the house can hope for is escape through the agency of a man. The fact that she speaks a truth which is not supposed to be acknowledged is perhaps suggested by the fact that constant attempts are made to prevent her from being heard.


In addition, Bernarda’s desire to keep her mother hidden from sight ‘It’s not that – out there, the neighbours can see her from their window’ suggests how important maintaining appearances is in this society. Scandal must be avoided at all costs.



Magdalena: “...she has dreams”

Magdalena says that Adela has dreams, which suggests that the other daughters no longer have dreams – they are resigned to their fate to stay in this house forever. Adela in contrast is the passionate and lively character who has not yet surrendered her individuality.



Adela: “I had such dreams about this dress”

This quotation echoes the previous revelation that Adela has dreams suggesting she is freer than the other sisters and less likely to accept the restrictive rules that Bernarda is trying to impose upon her. Lorca uses this to establish her early as a heroic figure, a role model for the audience.


Magdalena says that “The best thing she could do is present it to Angustias to wear when she marries Pepe el Romano…!” implying that Adela can only dream about marrying Pepe in the same way she can only dream about wearing the dress.


Adela’s conversation with the chickens, although a joke, reflects how restless and spirited Adela is.



Bernada: “My mother may have gone mad, but I am in control of myself. I know exactly what I’m doing”

Bernada admits that her mother is mad, the disgrace this implies is evident in Bernarda’s assertion of control. In some ways madness is the greatest form of freedom possible – even the mental rules that apply to other people do not apply to the mad - and Bernarda’s clear statement of sanity possibly reinforces how, equally strictly, she is bent on following the rules.



Maria Josefa: “I escaped because I want to get married”


“I want to get away from here! Bernada! To get married at the edge of the sea, at the edge of the sea!”


Maria Josefa, Bernada’s mother had to escape her imprisonment and subsequent escape can be linked with freedom in the play, the only way to keep her confined is to lock her up.


The shouting suggests madness, and the repetition accentuates this idea or implies desperation. Maria Josefa wants to escape and be free, hence the reference to the sea, the wide expansiveness of which represents freedom.



Angustias: “I see it in her eyes. She’s beginning to look a little mad...”

This refers to Adela who represents freedom in the play. Although this may be interpreted as simply implying how extremely passionate Adela is, it could also be a comment again on how following the established set of social rules is deemed as sanity (sane people are people who see the world a certain way) while any deviation from this would be madness. Adela’s madness may simply be a different perspective on what counts as a reasonable degree of freedom.



‘I’d like to be a harvester, so I could come and go, Then I could forget what’s eating away at us’

This quotation clearly suggests Adela’s desire to be free and not trapped in a house with her siblings. The outside represents freedom throughout the play while the house represents the stifling restriction of the social code imposed on the members of the town at that time.



Bernada: “... I will haunt your dreams”

This suggests that Bernada has such power that she can even infiltrate her daughters’ dreams, which are supposed to represent freedom. This is not only meant to suggest how despotic Bernarda is but additionally how hubristic. She cannot haunt her daughter’s dreams and is unable to stop, or even really fully understand the extent of, Adela’s relationship with Pepe. Her self aggrandisement here suggests something tragic about Bernarda’s character. So desperate is she to keep her name white that she will refuse to see the truth (surely an indication of insanity) but that she also threatens things which are clearly not possible. The pathetic emptiness of this threat almost echoes King Lear and, like Lear, she too is responsible for her own sufferings. Lorca wants us to realise that we have imposed these social rules and this suffering upon ourselves and, in some ways, Bernarda (forced to abandon any real relationship with her daughters) has suffered the most



Bernada: “... You go out of your way to give me bad dreams”

This quotation in fact suggests that is the daughters haunt Bernarda’s dreams, perhaps revealing how ultimately powerless she really is.



Maria Josefa is singing a song about an Ovejita, which she thinks is her baby.

Here again we see Maria Josefa’s madness (couple with the singing) suggesting her insanity. Ultimately, however, her desire for a child and for a caring, loving, motherly relationship with it reveals what is tragically missing from the House of Bernarda Alba.


She later compares all the children she will have to the sea, again suggesting freedom and unlimited potential.



Adela: “I can’t stand the horror of this house anymore”

This quotation, although hyperbole, suggests that Adela is being driven mad by the imprisonment that she endures in the house (and the rural Spanish town which the house represents). This foreshadows her suicide and ultimately reveals how there is no place for a free individual like Adela in Spanish society of the time.




Key Moment:

Maria Josefa is the most significant character in conveying the theme of madness in the play, as she is the main representative of this motif throughout. Although she is mad, her speeches reveal the innermost desires of the women in the play – to find love, either through marriage or childbirth. As a ‘mad’ character she is the only one who has the freedom to utter this truth which appears to be burning away at all of the daughters of Bernarda Alba. To deconstruct the text Maria Josefa’s madness perhaps reveals how one societies set of rules is just one perspective and those deemed sane in one era could just as easily be condemned as insane the next. Perhaps the modern audience would feel something similar about Bernarda.