The Role of Space in Relation to the Theme of Identity Formation in ‘La llamada’, ‘Entre visillos’ and ‘Ramona, adiós’

This essay will discuss the use of space in Carmen Lafortet’s La llamada, Carmen Martín Gaite’s Entre visillos and Monserrat Roig’s Ramona, adiós and how various spaces can either help or hinder identity formation. Through the depiction of the characters’ lives, the authors criticise the oppressive society in which they live. The ‘New Spain’ established during the Franco regime defined itself largely in terms of tradition: a desire to reverse the social and political developments of the Second Republic and return to the nation to what it considered its ‘true’ historical destiny. This oppressive society aimed to prescribe roles and identities, hence attempting to restrict any sense of individuality. The theme of space in these texts is important because it highlights how, due to the regime’s ideology, women are confined to the private sphere and are continually pushed back whenever they attempt to break into the public sphere. In many cases, setting may be the first element to present itself to the reader’s imagination and the last to leave their memory. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf points out how women, throughout history, have been excluded from places of learning and the public space of the literary world. She stresses the woman writer’s need to ‘have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ This concept of ‘a room of one’s own’ is prominent in all of the texts addressed in this essay, as personal space is an extremely important part of identity development. The women writers in question give a voice to women by ‘picking up the pen’ and writing women’s voices and struggles into history. As the theme of space is so vast, I have chosen to look at three types of spaces in the texts: physical interior spaces, physical exterior spaces, and abstract spaces. In terms of abstract space, I will focus specifically on marriage/love, and psychological space.

I will begin by addressing physical interior spaces within the texts. In Entre visillos, each short description of a setting is over determined by enclosure and crowding. Pablo Klein’s arrival at the school sets a bleak tone regarding the town’s environment, something continued throughout the novel. As he walks through the hallways, he arrives at ‘un patio grande y absolutamente desnudo, como el de una cárcel’. He uses words such as ‘gris’ to describe the school, further emphasising the hostile atmosphere. The fact that he compares the school to a prison is significant; it is perhaps symbolic of how females are not given the same level of freedom in education as their male peers, which means that they cannot explore their full intellectual potential and therefore cannot fully develop their personal identities. Arriving in the headmaster’s office, Pablo remarks that there is ‘un retrato de Franco en la pared.’ This is a powerful and intimidating image; the portrait of Franco symbolizes the watchful eye of patriarchy, whereby women’s development of an autonomous identity is prohibited.

In the opening scene of ‘Un noviazgo,’ Laforet paints a picture of Alicia in her office looking out of the window. Alicia’s office ‘respiraba paz y orden. Apenas llegaba una algarabía de pájaros desde detrás de los cristales de la ventana, en el jardín interior.’ The description of this space evokes a feeling of enclosure within an ordered and clinical interior space. Traditionally, birds have been a symbol of freedom, mirroring the desire of the protagonists to flee from social constraints. The juxtaposition of the birds’ freedom and Alicia’s confinement only serves to emphasise the restriction placed on women during this time. Furthermore, despite the fact that Alicia is looking out into the outside space, it is important to note that she is looking out into an interior garden. Alicia has no freedom, whether it is in her place of work, or her home. Alicia’s home is small and cramped; she has no private space there. This is made explicit by the fact that even at the age of fifty, she shares a bedroom with her mother, having rented the other out to a boarder. These small quarters reflect the narrowness of spirit to which Alicia has been reduced. She does not have ‘a room of her own’: a vital component in the development of identity. 

Laforet’s ‘El último verano’ begins in the same way. The opening is beautifully written in its description of space. There is an air of domestic quietness to it, which is perhaps an example of what has been termed the ‘female aesthetic’, that is, a distinct style in which women write differently to men. Doña Pepita is introduced as ‘mirando hacia el patio por la ventana de la cocina.’ She is the embodiment of the Spanish woman’s prescribed roles: she is a wife, a mother; she does not work, and instead stays within the confinement of the home. The literary trope of the woman looking out of the window, from the private sphere into the public sphere from which she is rejected, is a prominent theme in the texts discussed in this essay. It is also a concept that is addressed by Carmen Martín Gaite in her essay ‘Desde la ventana’; she says ‘la ventana…es el punto de referencia de que dispone (mujer) para soñar desde dentro el mundo que bulle fuera, es el punto tendido entre las orillas de lo conocido y lo desconocido, la única brecha por donde puede echar a volar sus ojos, en busca de otra luz y otros perfiles que no sean los de l interior, que contrasten con estos.’ In Ramona, adiós, the figure of the bourgeois woman is also “captured” not just in an ideological sense, but in a physical sense as well: the architecture of the city itself had increasingly trapped the women in the interior spaces of the home. The grandmother Mundeta, for example, also watches the outside world from the balcony of her home. The balcony acts in the same way as the window in the sense that it is the point of intersection between private and public space. I will now discuss this public space from which women are rejected.

Public space has historically been a space dominated and controlled by men, whilst women were confined to the enclosure of the private home. Women’s only experience of the city, if any, has generally been ‘mediated by men, whether husbands, fathers, or brothers.’ Therefore it is no surprise that some of the characters seek out the public space of the city, a site of potential liberation from the regime’s patriarchal notions of women’s place in society. In Entre visillos, Natalia takes her sister Julia up to the clock tower, in order to show her the panoramic view of the city of Barcelona. She opens up her vista, her ‘gaze’, whilst she exclaims to her sister at the top of the tower: “Qué gusto, qué airecito. ¿Verdad que se está muy bien tan alto?” The cathedral is one of the few spaces that Natalia uses to escape the restrictive atmosphere of the home. The internal change that is sparked within Natalia from the view allows her to transcend social constraints and experience a non-gendered self. Caragh Wells has described this scene in the novel as one in which an epiphany takes place, that is, a shift in perception which results in a moment of heightened self-awareness and reorientation of one’s entire being. This moment of realisation is essential to the pursuit of self-development and identity. It gives a sense of clarity and purpose, which allows the characters to pursue their own voice in society, and find meaning in a life other than that which is prescribed to them. Michel de Certeau noted how looking down onto cities from a great height produces a sense of elevation in individuals. He says that it ‘allows one…to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god’ This reminds us of the imposing gaze of the cathedral’s clock face, which is described as un ‘ojo gigantesco,’ and, similarly to the portrait of Franco in the school, acts as a watchful eye of patriarchy, and as a constant reminder to the women of the city to behave in a certain way, to stay in their ‘place’.

In Ramona, adiós, the city of Barcelona holds the three Mundeta’s experiences and secrets; experiences they do not, however, share with one another. The reason why the city is so irresistible for the women is because it gives them an opportunity to become ‘invisible’ in the city. The flâneur, a term coined by Walter Benjamin, is a moving observer, indeed more specifically a walking observer, whose movement has autonomy even if not direction. It is important to note that this observer has generally been regarded as an exclusively male figure. However, in the opening chapter of the novel, Mundeta Ventura temporarily occupies this role as she searches for her husband Joan amidst the chaos of a bombed Barcelona, a Barcelona that ‘era como si fuera otra ciudad.’ The bombing has not only broken down physical structures, it has also temporarily broken down social and patriarchal structures, allowing Mundeta to feel a sense of freedom as she wanders the streets, as she becomes the female version flâneuse. At the morgue, a conversation strikes between her an old man. In the midst of the devastation, compassion, friendship and, above all, communication is established. In this moment, the chaos of the bombed city allows class divisions to be transcended; this man is an anarchist, the kind of person the middle-class politically naïve woman would never have wanted or been allowed to talk to before the war. More importantly, he also becomes her interlocutor, someone for her to talk to. Martín Gaite has on many occasions spoken of the importance of an interlocutor; she says that ‘cuando vivimos, las cosas nos pasan; pero cuando contamos, las hacemos pasar.’Martín Gaite is expressing the importance of communication and story telling. Significantly, this ‘book stand’ of the novel, as Catherine Davies has called it, has an oral quality to it. Monserrat Roig herself has written that ‘we all hear voices. They are in the air. It is just a matter of listening to them.’ The oral quality to this section of the narrative does just that; it adds a sense of identification with Mundeta, as we hear her own voice in a society that attempts to restrict it.

In contrast to urban space, the characters also find a sense of self through their experience of the natural environment. A striking scene in ‘El último verano’ is that of Luis walking on his own ‘…hacia zonas más verdes y frescas de la ciudad,’ looking for ‘un sitio solitario.’ Like Mundeta, Luis is engaging in flânerie in an search for autonomy. In this chapter, Laforet makes use of extensive natural imagery: ‘Volaban pajarracos… Luis, sin formularse aquel deseo con palabras, hubiera querido en aquellos momentos ser un ave de rapiña de fuertes alas meciéndose en el azul. Vivir así… Sin casa, sin familia, sin mala conciencia, sin papeletas de exámenes…’ Luis feels an affinity with nature and he, like the birds, wishes to fly away and ‘escaparse’ from the constraints of his family and society.  Luis then proceeds to bathe in the river. In this moment, the expectations placed upon him disappear. It is almost as though the river is washing away the gender expectations imposed on him by a patriarchal society, which dictates how a man ‘should’ be. Afterwards, he is left feeling ‘como si fuera un hombre nuevo’. This scene evokes religious imagery, almost as though Luis were experiencing a baptism, a new-found sense of self. Luis is experiencing what Laski would describe as an ecstatic experience: she recalls that during these experiences, ‘people would mention aspects of outdoor nature: skies, winds, flowers and such.’ He then feels ‘unos deseos locos de golpearse el pecho y lanzar un grito.’ Laforet here switches to animal imagery, displaying a primal desire of Luis to be free. Laforet does this to imply that the desire to be free is innate; it is present in every one of us. It is not something that should be repressed by any individual or by any society. 

In ‘Un noviazgo,’ De Arco mentions that it has been years since Alicia has been to the countryside. She has spent these years trapped within the private sphere, and trapped within her own illusions of De Arco. It is no coincidence that Alicia’s self-affirmation through her rejection of De Arco occurs in a space surrounded by nature. She has become aware of her own delusion regarding De Arco, and realises that he has never truly cared about her. It has been years ‘que Alicia vivía así, lejana, metida como en un sueño interior… Y ahora que había llegado la realidad… pues seguía soñando.’ Alicia feels a sense of freedom and elation now that she has let go of her expectations as a woman; the expectation to be married, to be a dutiful wife and mother. Now that she has rejected De Arco, she can finally concentrate on developing her own personal identity and autonomy.

I will now discuss abstract spaces. Marriage can be seen as an abstract space in the novels as it is a space in which women seek refuge. They live in a world defined by love and marriage, and so seek freedom within that space. . However, the irony that lies in this is that in doing so, the woman is only further cementing her oppression and her subordinate role in a patriarchal society: ‘marriage, she deceives herself, is freedom.’ Yet in reality it mutilates her; it dooms her to repetition and routine. In Ramona, adiós, the oldest Mundeta questions her own reasons for getting married to a man she does not love. Simone de Beauvoir has noted that ‘for [love] to be genuine, authentic, it must first of all be free.’ Although Francisco does love her, his love is a possessive love, which restricts her personal growth and does not allow her to be free. Mundeta proceeds to answer her own question, stating that ‘una mujer necesita a un hombre a su lado, por miedo a encontrarse sola, de ser el hazmerreír de la gente.’ This statement clearly reflects the fact that in such an oppressive society, the worry of the ‘qué dirán’ dictates women’s choices; they were seen to only have value through the importance placed on them by men, which is why many of the women in the texts in question sought male company and/or marriage as an affirmation of worth. This idea is particularly visible in Laforet’s ‘Un noviazgo.’ The omniscient narrator says that ‘para el secretario… De Arco era una especie de dios’. The use of religious imagery here serves to accentuate her infatuation, and the way in which she elevates De Arco onto a pedestal. Alicia mistakes this infatuation with love; she is not in love with him, but rather with the image that she has painted of him in her imagination. Marghanita Laski has pointed out in her book Everyday Ectasy that when people are ‘in love’, they tend to use religious language, that is, phrases such as ‘I worship you’, ‘You are my saint’, ‘We were made for each other’. This language of obsessive infatuation, described in ecstatic terms, is clearly visible in Alicia’s view of De Arco as ‘un diós’. However, perhaps the best example of this observation made my Laski is the poetry that Francisco writes to his wife in Ramona, adiós. He writes:

Yo nací para amarte a ti sola,

Ramona de mis amores,

Y te amo más de lo posible,

Y es un amor el mío, tan sensible

Que quiero vivir eternamente

Al lado de tus encantos seductores.

Tu adorador, Francisco.

The words ‘amor’, ‘eternamente’, ‘enctantos’ and ‘adorador’ evoke images of fantasy and enchantment. This poetic language shows the way in which men used a ‘fairy-tale’ discourse to charm and entrap women. Francisco’s floral language is juxtaposed with the phrases she uses to describe him in return. She says that Francisco’s ‘amor, tan seguro, ordenado y minucioso, no me provocaría otra sensación sino el asco o la monotonía. Siempre me he sentido atraída por otros mundos.’ She also says in her diary that she has ‘pasado las horas muertas de mi vida mirando a la calle, procurando adivinar en ella un pedacito de cielo, una tira azul, con nubes que se ensanchan y se encogen.’ The use of the word ‘muertas’ only serves to emphasise her feelings towards her marriage: lifeless and dull. To Mundeta, the prospect of marriage means standing ‘with her life virtually finished forever,’ as she knows she will be subject to a mundane life as a wife and mother, and nothing more. It is not until Francisco’s death that she truly begins to find her own identity. 

Gertru in Entre visillos is the perfect example of a character who has completely submitted herself to her male counterpart, her boyfriend Angel. He wants her to leave school, and explains: “Lo hago por tu bien, para ensenarte a quedar siempre en el lugar que te corresponde.’ He is telling her to stay in her prescribed place, that is, the place of the woman, the ‘second sex’, who is considered inferior. Rather than growing up through the relationship and her impending marriage, Gertru experiences what Pratt calls “growing down,” as she complies to her fiancé’s demands of submission and dependence. Angel suffocates her and restricts her growth and identity. The resignation and the personal sacrifice her life will require become apparent. Pratt has come to the conclusion that marriage is a space of enclosure; that it is “one of the primary tools for dulling a hero’s initiative and restraining her maturation,” which effectively ends a woman’s search for authenticity. 

I will now discuss psychological space. As we can see, many of the men attempt to control women as a way of exerting their power and authority, but whilst these men may ‘own’ women physically, what will never have complete control over is these women’s minds; that is, their dreams, their hopes, their fantasies, and their aspirations. Simone de Beauvoir has noted that since woman is confined within the conjugal sphere, it is for her to change that prison into a realm. These women’s psychological space is the only space to which they can retreat; it is a space untainted by outside influence. In his book, Storr highlights the need for solitude, particularly in creative people, pointing out that their most significant moments are those in which they are alone. Moreover, such a person would be likely to feel ‘the need to protect the inner world.’This is particularly visible in Entre visillos, whereby Natalia’s thoughts and desires are manifested in her diary entries. We are introduced to the novel with the image of her writing under the covers, sheltering her private thoughts away. Natalia ‘tenía las piernas dobladas en pico, formando un montecito debajo de las ropas de la cama, y allí apoyaba el cuaderno donde escribía. Sintió un ruido en el picaporte y escondió el cuaderno debajo de la almohada; dejo caer las rodillas. Había voces en la calle, y una música de pitos y tamboril. Asomo una chica con uniforme de limpieza.’ Martín Gaite’s description paints a vivid image of enclosure. Natalia has her legs crossed; this distortion of her body is symbolic of the restriction and lack of space she feels, even in her own home. The fact that she is under the bed sheets further emphasises this feeling of claustrophobia. The maid comes in, shattering Natalia’s sense of peace in solitude. The maid says ‘¿no sale al balcón?’ which again introduces the literary trope of the balcony as space of intersection between the inside and outside world. The women in the texts generally hide ‘behind the curtains’ out of fear the public sphere, but Natalia hides ‘debajo de las ropas de cama’ in order to protect her inner and private world, the only place over which she has full control. However, the maid’s intrusion shows that even this space is not always her own. 

Before her moment of epiphany, Alicia’s psychological space is flooded with thoughts of De Arco and with her fantasy of a large fairy-tale wedding. She is a dreamer; this is visible from the very first chapter of the story, when she ‘…Cerró la novela que estaba leyendo y la guardó cuidadosamente en un cajón de su mesa.’ Not only do we once again witness the recurring motif of books and reading which is present in the texts, but Laforet also introduces Alicia as someone who lives in a fantasy world, whereby her interior space of her imagination is her sanctuary. The fact that she keeps it hidden away in her draw shows her protectiveness of this one space over which she has autonomy, mirroring Natalia who too hides her diary, and Luis who hides his poetry. In contrast to Alicia, Luis in ‘El ultimo verano’ often spends time alone, ‘en la soledad de su cuarto.’ He has a ‘room of his own,’ a place in which he can retreat in solitude and write poetry as a way of expressing himself. This is considered to contradict the masculinity which is supposed to be present in men at all times; Luis is not like this, he is considered ‘distinto’ from other men because he does not fit this ‘ideal man’ archetype prescribed by the Franco regime, and so is therefore also a victim of patriarchy. Because his poetry is the most intimate thing to him, Luis locks it away in his drawer. His brother Lucas is concerned about this private drawer, stating his belief that ‘Las cosas tienen que estar abiertas.’ Lucas sees Luis’ privacy as a threat, that what he is hiding is something bad or to be ashamed of, when in reality, Luis is hiding his inner most thoughts and feelings, because they are the only things he has agency of. Solitude is essential in identity formation, and so Luis cultivates the space of his imagination to find his own personal freedom and identity.

In conclusion, the theme of space has an important significance in the texts. It is used by the authors, albeit not explicitly due to censorship at the time, to highlight the sexual segregation into ‘private’ and ‘public’ spheres.  The aim is to make the reader aware of what space the characters are ‘supposed’ to occupy, and what spaces they actually do occupy, and why they do so: to seek freedom. They search for a voice in an oppressive society that tries to repress their individuality. As we can see, certain spaces – be they interior, exterior, or abstract – trigger different emotions in the protagonists. There is no universal code in terms of what spaces trigger what emotions. As we have seen, interior spaces can make some of the characters feel confined, yet can make others feel a sense of freedom in solitude. Similarly, some exterior spaces can help reinforce the sense of feeling out of place in a rigid society, whilst for others it can give them a sense of independence and autonomy. Whatever space it may be, for a brief moment these characters feel a non-gendered self which enables them transcend the social constraints placed on them by the Franco regime, which in turn allows them to realise their capacity for autonomy and personal identity. 

Works cited

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Palerm, Carmiña. ‘Recovering the Secret History of a City: Monserrat Roig’s Ramona, adéu’ in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 32 (2011) pp. 13-35

Parsons, Deborah. Streetwalking in the Metropolis: Women, the City and Modernity (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press: 2000)

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Showalter, Elaine. (ed.), The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (London: Virgao Press, 1986)

Storr, Anthony. Solitude: A Return to the Self (New York: Ballentine Books, 1989)

Talbot, Lynn. ‘Female Archetypes in Carmen Martín Gaite’s “Entre visillos” in Anales de la literatura española contemporánea, 12 (1987) pp. 79-94

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Wells, Caragh. ‘The City’s Renovating Virtue: Urban Epiphanies in the Novels of Carmen Laforet, Carmen Martín Gaite, Montserrat Roig and Rosa Montero’ in Journal of Romance Studies, 7 (2007), pp. 7-19

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