The House of Bernarda Alba: Motif Tracking – Water












Water is significant because it represents freedom and change. Water that is flowing is constantly moving, and it is free to do so, therefore any references to water such as rivers and the sea or ocean are using images of freedom and change. It is also cooling, against the heat of the summer.


However, wells are quite different. The water within a well is still, confined and unchanging, and can therefore be seen to be representing oppression and the inability to break free. Also wells can be poisoned, but in doing so, the poisoner is likely to poison themselves. This is parallel to the gossiping that goes on in the town. In gossiping about someone, the person is poisoning them, yet gossiping leads to more gossiping, and the favour is likely to be returned, thus the person who gossiped originally will be poisoned by their own hand.








Bernarda: “That’s the way you must talk in this damned town without a river, this town of wells! Where you always drink the water fearing that it’s poisoned!”

The river represents change, as rivers are constantly flowing; therefore the presence of the well and the absence of moving water symbolise a lack of change. The well being poisoned relates to the gossip of the townspeople, as their gossiping affects everyone negatively, though including themselves, which is what would happen if one were to poison a well. People are expecting to be betrayed by one another because they know that they will betray their neighbours in the same way. Perhaps Lorca is commenting on how we have created this situation ourselves.



"be sure she doesn't go near the well… out there the neighbours can see her."

The well is a central symbol - a community area, where everything can be seen. The idea of watching is important, as it is one of the factors that restricts the freedom of the characters in the play. Since they are constantly being watched by others, they never have the freedom to act the way they want. They have no freedom to express themselves, as everything they do will be scrutinized and made a subject of gossip by the rest of the community. Bernarda doesn't want her mother near the well as others will be able to see her - if they see her, they will gossip about Bernarda and her family.



Adela: “…the day we were going…down by the water wheel”

Adela is the most free of the women in the house, and this is shown by the water-wheel, which is constantly moving. However, water-wheels don’t actually go anywhere, which represents how Adela, no matter how free she is, is still trapped within the house.


Additionally, the water wheel, like the well and the river, is a community symbol and again, like the well, it is an area where people are scrutinized. Everything is done for show in such areas (e.g. Adela wearing the vibrant green dress), because everyone is aware of the fact that when they are around the water wheel or the well, they are being watched closely by the rest of the community.



Maria Josefa: “…I want to get married to a beautiful man at the edge of the sea”

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

The old woman is considered “mad” because she differs from the norm and she expresses it. She differs because she wants freedom, which is represented by the sea as the water is constantly moving and changing. Also “get away from here” shows that the house represents entrapment, as she must get away from it to be truly free.


In addition, the sea is natural, and uncontrollable. It represents the freedom that many characters in the book.



"there was a black storm cloud and even a few drops of rain."

This foreshadows that the rest of the family discovering Adela's affair with Pepe el Romano. The black storm cloud represents the sisters in the family - they all have built up tensions within themselves. Each one is a storm waiting to happen. The anger is building up within each woman, and eventually they will all give in to their anger and unleash the shrew.


The few rain drops may represent the small events that will lead on to large arguments between different members of the family.



"I wish November would come - the rainy days, the frost"

In contrast to the oppressive heat of the Summer that we see throughout the play water with it’s coolness and water suggests the freedom that characters secretly long for. Perhaps it is significant that, unable to voice their desire for freedom directly, the characters resort (perhaps unconsciously) to descriptions of the weather.



"I saw the storm coming, but I didn't think it would burst so soon"

Bernarda claims that she was already aware of the problems between the sisters, although we so no real evidence that she knew that Adela and Matirio were attracted to Pepe el Romano.


This representation of the girls as "storms" relates back to the theme of internal tensions within people. The girls all have something that they want to do, but are not allowed to (for example, Adela wants to be with Pepe el Romano). This leads to the destruction of the individual.



Poncia: “The blood wouldn’t get as far as the river”

Shows the extent of the oppression, that even if she were to die, she would not be able to escape, through the water which symbolises freedom.



"I just let the water flow"

In this quotation, water seems to represent life. Water is used to represent life, as it is a natural substance, and a bare necessity in order for a person to keep living. The idea of ‘letting it flow’ suggests a letting go, an abandonment, a freedom in contrast to the idea of constantly having to follow rules.



Adela: “For a drink of water”

Bernarda [calling out]: “Bring a pitcher of cool water!”

Water is what allows the characters to escape the stifling heat, which they cannot get away from otherwise. It is Adela who wants the water, showing that she is trying to attempt the constraints of society, which the others are seemingly resigned to.


"In my day, pearls meant tears."

This is ironic as marriage is supposed to be a happy part of life, but the gems on Angusitias' ring symbolise tears. This may foreshadow that Angustias and Pepe will not have a happy marriage or it may be a comment on the institution of marriage in general which, as we have seen earlier, just represents another form of entrapment for women.



Poncia: “There is a storm brewing in every room … The day it bursts, we’ll all be swept away.”

Once again the storm is a reference to the anger and tensions built up within each daughter representing the main theme of internal tensions, and the destruction of the individual. Since the girls are trying so desperately to smother their desires, they are destroying themselves.


Here water in this situation may also suggest the effect that the concealed information within the house would have when it is disclosed.



Poncia: “I’d like to cross the ocean and get away from this house of turmoil.”

To be free from the oppression of the house, Poncia must “cross the ocean”, which represents freedom as it is ever-changing and cannot be controlled. It is also the only thing that allows her to be free of the house, as it is so powerful.



Poncia: “She’s the worst! She’s a well of poison!”

The image of the well is significant, as wells are used for water every day, and are generally trusted, but this well is poisoned. Poncia is talking about Adela, and the quote shows that Adela is filled with deception and cannot be trusted.



Maria Josefa: “…Come with me to the edge of the sea.”

Again, the “mad” woman appears to be the most free, as she constantly refers to the sea, representing freedom from oppression, and change.



Maria Josefa: “…all of us with hair like snow will be like the waves, one after another after another. Then we’ll all settle down, and we’ll all have white hair, and we’ll be foam on the sea.”


Could be saying that when people get older, they have more freedom - “we’ll all have white hair”. The references between this and water (“waves” and “sea”) show how it represents freedom, as water is a symbol of this, especially the sea.


Adela: “If one of us has to drown, let her drown! Pepe el Romano is mine! He takes me into the reeds at the edge of the river!”

Throughout the play the river has represented freedom, so when Pepe brings Adela to the reeds by the river, this suggests they have the freedom to do as they please, without being seen and judged by the rest of the community.


The drowning reference may suggest the stifling power of social, cultural and religious rules but also foreshadows Adela’s eventual death. Perhaps the combination of freedom and death within this symbol of water suggests how the only way of truly being free in this society is by dying.



Bernarda: “We will all drown ourselves in a sea of mourning. The youngest daughter of Bernarda Alba has died…”

The mourning is engulfing, all-encompassing and so the drowning could represent the suffocating nature of the social rules: they are so strict and oppressive, that they give the impression of drowning to those that are forced to conform to them.


Although the audience is aware that this is just a façade though, as Adela rebelled against Bernarda; Bernarda could just be trying to keep up appearances.




Key Moment:

P136 - Maria Josefa: “…I want to get married to a beautiful man at the edge of the sea”

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


This scene is important as Bernarda’s mother, the mad old woman, is exclaiming how she wishes to leave the house and “get married at the edge of the sea”. There are many symbols of freedom in the section. Maria Josefa, who is ‘mad’ is seemingly the most free, as she is not constrained by the power of social expectations. This is significant as her mention of the sea enhances the images of freedom, as the sea is constantly moving and changing, and cannot be controlled. She also wants to leave the house, which symbolises oppression, so this section is the ultimate symbol of freedom.