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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2018



“My Body Barren Forever!” - An Analysis of Yerma's Contradictory Condition (sterility in spite of fertility) in Federico Gracía Lorca's Yerma

Divya Thyagarajan, Independent Researcher and Former Assistant Professor English, SDNB Vaishnav College for Women, Chromepet, Chennai

The poet, painter and playwright, Federico Gracía Lorca occupies an important and indispensable position in the gamut of Spanish Literature. He was an iconic member of 'The Generation '27', an avant-garde group which popularised literary styles and aesthetic movements such as surrealism, cubism, futurism, symbolism etc., in Spanish literature. His works often exude the spirit of nationality, classical romanticism, visionary and revisionist ideals, symbolic exoticism etc., which has led to the terming of his works by scholars as 'the Cult of Lorca', a term which suggests the fact that his name has been deeply etched in the chronicles of Spanish theatre history. In order to heighten the symbolic essence of his plays, Lorca uses the dramatic elements of traditional theatre such as myth, folklore, puppet tradition and poetic verses. His plays are often classified into Farces (The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife, The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal), Comedies (The Butterfly's Evil Spell, The Love of Don Perlimplín and Belisa in the Garden), Tragedies (Blood Wedding, Yerma), Dramas (Doña Rosita, the Spinster, Mariana Pineda) and Experimental plays (Play without a Title, The Public).

The ‘tragic poem' Yerma (as Lorca himself calls it) was written and performed in the year 1934 and went on to become an austere and astounding classic that challenged the cultural norms and prejudices of the day by questioning the system of society from within through the voice of a childless woman who was deemed unfit for the society as she was incapable to celebrate womanhood because of her unconsummated motherhood. Lorca successfully uses the Spanish rural landscape to implement the elements of symbolism and naturalism to capture the existential angst of the young Yerma. Moreover, Yerma has an appropriately symbolic title, since the titular character represents the central theme of frustrated motherhood. The term 'yermo' in Spanish refers to an uninhabited/ non-productive/ sterile wasteland. Therefore, Lorca's eponymous protagonist is a tragic figure because she is 'Yerma' (sterile). Lorca's play revels in irony because it etches the fact that Yerma's 'barrenness' is a societal burden - Yerma's inability to bear a child has nothing to do with her biological capacity; on the contrary, it solely stems from her husband's impotency and consequent indifference towards fathering a progeny. Yet, Yerma is the one who is forced to wear the label of infertility. Ultimately, Lorca's play throws light on the double standards of a conventional society which denies equality because of a woman's inability to perform the traditional roles assigned to her.

Lorca explains, “Yerma has no plot. Yerma is a character who develops over the course of six scenes that comprise the drama. As befits a tragedy, I have included in Yerma a chorus that comments on the action, or the theme of a tragedy, which is its real substance” (Anderson 104). Ergo, Lorca refers to his protagonist as “Castigada a la esterilidad” (sterility punished) and as “(una) víctima de lo infecundo” (a victim of the barren)” (McDermid 144). As suggested, Yerma’s name, right from the beginning, indicates that her aspirations for motherhood will be annihilated, that her quest for the fulfilment of fertility is already rooted in failure. For this purpose, Lorca utilises the perspectives and circumstances of the other characters in the play in order to serendipitously escalate the pent up tensions that ultimately breaks out as a tragedy.

The opening scenes of the play immediately ushers the audience into the fundamental problem, as Yerma's desire for a child is in stark contrast to Julian's indifference and his fetish for the material possessions  and the farm that he owns on which, according to him, rests his good name. Yerma's desire increases in intensity due to the other characters around her who wallow in abundance thereby serving as a foil to Yerma. For instance, Maria, Yerma's neighbour, has conceived merely five months after her marriage. Yerma, nevertheless, is the one who is more interested in Maria's pregnancy and her interest in child-rearing is projected through her conversation with Maria:

MARIA. I am confused. I don't know anything.
YERMA. Don't walk very much, and when you breathe, breathe as softly as if you had a rose between your teeth. (I.I.103)  

At the same time, Yerma voices out her regret:

MARIA. But you know more about these than I do.
YERMA. And what good does it do to me?
MARIA. That's true! Why should it be like that? Of all the brides of your time, you are the only one who...
YERMA. If I keep on like this, I'll end up turning bad. (I.I.103-104)

Therefore, the only solution to Yerma's dilemma lies within her husband and he is both deaf and blind to her anguish.

In Act I scene ii the encounter between Yerma, the first girl and the second girl is also significant; they represent a stark contrast to Yerma's melancholy situation. The first girl has a child but she fails to fit into the part of a mother because she doesn't behave in a caring way and leaves her baby unattended in the house. The second girl doesn't consider marriage as a sacred institution and to Yerma's astonishment she rebuffs and disregards child bearing which she considers as something which would limit her scope and chain her to a specific role as a mother. She is critical and outspoken when she tells Yerma: “I'll tell you the only thing I have learnt form life: everyone is stuck inside their homes doing what they don't like to do. How much better it is here out in the streets!”(I.ii.111). By drawing parallels with other characters in the play, Lorca shows Yerma as a woman who strongly abides by the rules of the society. She fervently obeys the conventional rules of marriage and is focussed on her goal of creating a new life out of her socially ordained relationship. “For Yerma, the only thing that individual life can have consists in its very conformity to what she sees as the laws of nature and specifically in life's capacity to create more life, to reproduce, renew and perpetuate itself” (Anderson 111). Yerma's house and surroundings represents the inescapable reality of her domestic tasks and thus the traditional nature of her role. The doors of her house are always closed according to Juan's instructions, and it becomes a representative of Yerma's growing sense of imprisonment. Pitchers brimming with water at Yerma's house is a mocking reminder that though she is fertile she is destined to remain barren.

The sisters dressed in black mourning drabs hover in the background throughout the second act, intensifying the sense of Yerma's increasingly difficult and irritating situation. This is attested when she opens up her heart to Maria: “I am hurt, hurt and humiliated beyond endurance, seeing the wheat ripening, the fountains never ceasing to give water, the sheep bearing hundreds of lambs, the she-dogs; until it seems the whole countryside rises up to show me its tender, sleeping young ones, while I feel two hammer blows here instead of the mouth of my child” (II.ii.127). This shows Yerma's stark contrast to her surroundings and her alienation from nature itself, as Anderson observes, “(the play) is built around . . . encounters between Yerma and the other characters. Each one suggests by symbolic contrast or by allusion, a new way of seeing the theme of Yerma's childlessness that has been stated at the beginning of the act” (107). Therefore, the main conflict arises because of the opposite obsessions of the couple – both Yerma and Juan are people obsessed – Juan by land and profit, Yerma, by the need for a child. The concept of obsession and longing is fittingly bought in through contrasting and insistent metaphors such as water and thirst, growth and desiccation and so on.  

Just as the female characters serve as contrast to Yerma, Victor, Yerma's childhood friend, serves as a foil to Juan. Victor is described by Lorca as: “he is deep-looking and has a firm gravity about him” (I.i.105).” This shows that Yerma's interest in Victor is naturally because of his manliness and most importantly because of Juan's lack of interest in her. Victor becomes Yerma's ideal model of a virile person right from the beginning and she sees him as a perfect contrast to her own husband.

Primarily, Yerma has an innate desire and longing for Victor, who is ready to spend time with her as a friend in spite of his work. The dialogues between Victor and Yerma are of a more informal nature which suggests a healthy sense of rapport between them:
VICTOR. Well then, let's see if her (Maria's) example will encourage you. This house needs a child in it.

YERMA. (With anguish) Needs one!
VICTOR. Well, get along with it. Tell your husband to think less about his work. He wants to make money and he will, but who's he going to leave it to when he dies? (I.i.105)
On the other hand, the dialogues between Yerma and Juan are increasingly confrontational, suggesting frustration, annoyance and a famished sense of futility:
JUAN. Don't you know my way of thinking? The sheep in the fold and women at home. You go out too much. Haven't you always heard me say that?
YERMA. Justly. Women in their homes, when their homes aren't tombs . . . Men get other things out of life . . . but women have only their children. (II.ii.124-125)

The atmosphere between Yerma and Victor is charged with an inner conflict that cannot be categorized. For instance, the “voice of a small child crying” in Act I scene ii is symbolic of the sinking of her sexual passions for Victor, which is representative of her inability to have a child with him because of her conscious social honour. This defines the drowning of Yerma's dreams and desire for fertility, causing her sexual frustration for many years. The final meeting between Victor and Yerma is one filled with anguish and longing, covered with compromises:

YERMA. You always behave yourself. When you were a boy, you carried me in your arms, do you remember? One never knows what's going to happen.
VICTOR. Everything changes.
YERMA. Some things never change. There are things shut up behind walls that can't change because nobody hears them. (II.ii.30-131)

This shows that:
Victor's departure, that is, the departure of symbolic Eros, love and fertility, and the symbolic antithesis to Yerma's arid relationship with Juan, is signalled through “...the long and melancholy sound of the shepherd's conch-shell horns” (Act II scene ii. 131) and “the ringing of sheep bells along the road as darkness falls” (Act II scene ii. 131). (Anderson 114)

Though Yerma sees Victor in stark contrast to Juan in terms of sexual inclinations, she consciously thwarts any attempt to involve herself with him sexually or passionately; she seeks such a possibility only through her husband because of her social conditioning. This projects the fact that Yerma's loveless marriage has been arranged to provide economic security since it is clear that Juan is relatively well off, whereas Victor, to whom she has been attracted to since her adolescence doesn't seem capable of supporting a wife. Lorca, thereby brings in another aspect of social criticism through this.

Lorca also documents and criticizes another aspect of gender-role appropriation by switching the sexual equation of Yerma and Juan. The biological gender relationship between Yerma and Juan has been inverted in such a way that Yerma is portrayed as sexually aggressive while Juan is shy and effeminate, as McDermid points out, “Lorca employs the strategy of gender inversion in order to expose the artifice of their opposed identities” (149). Though the biological gender relationship between Yerma and Juan is inverted, it is not so, socially.

Juan too is conscious of his impotency (“I'm not strong enough for this sort of thing. Please forgive me!” (II.ii.126)). Nevertheless, it is Yerma who suffers the most; with her husband always on the move, her longing increases day by day, as she tells Maria : “Each time I have more desire and less hope” (II.ii.128). Moreover, she says: “I’ll end up being my own son. Many nights I go down to feed the oxen – which I never did before, because no women does it – and I pass through the darkness of the shed, my footsteps sound to me like the footsteps of a man” (II.ii.128). The above statement is a pointer to the fact that when Yerma internalises her obsession for a child, a blurred sense of psychological disposition is found wherein she begins to regard herself and her husband as her 'son.' Nevertheless, it is important to note that she feels alienated from perceiving her brother's children or Maria's child as her own. This sense of possession is marked right from the beginning, even before her marriage. She says: “I began to think of our children” (I.ii.109). Moreover she points out: “My father gave him to me and I took him” (I.ii.109). This indicates a sense of acquisition. Yerma 'takes' Juan into her custody and cares for him as a considerate adult wold for an indifferent child. But this aspect of caring stops at a particular level – she is unable to go beyond and have an upper hand over her husband. Though Yerma grows increasingly disillusioned towards her husband, it could be viewed as in a mother's attitude towards her child: “Even if I knew my son was going to torture me and hate me and drag me through the streets by the hair, I's still be happy . . . it’s much better to weep for a live man who stabs us than for this ghost sitting year after year in my heart” (iii.I.133). Nevertheless, it is Yerma who stabs the man eventually, unable to bear the ghost sitting year after year in her heart.

Yerma also criticizes Juan's hegemony in a public sphere; she asserts to Dolores (a woman who sells magic potions) that Juan doesn't suffer in the least, for their failure to conceive a child. She resents his peace: “He doesn't suffer. The trouble is he doesn't want children! . . . I can tell that in his glance, and since he doesn't want them he doesn't give them to me. I don't love him, and yet he's my only salvation. By honour and by blood. My only salvation” (III.ii.133). Yerma realises that her voice is the only thing left to her which cannot be constrained, oppressed or repressed. Her voice is the only metaphor for her freedom and is an analogue to the child that her body cannot create: “. . . at least let my voice go free, now that I'm entering the darkest part of the pit. (She raises) At least, at least, let this beautiful thing come out of my body and fill the air” (III.I.137). Yet Yerma accepts her resignation in terms of her silence: “It is written and I'm not going to raise my arms against the sea. That's it! Let my mouth be struck dumb!” (II.I.137). Through this, Lorca shows the ironical glitch that is present within the bounds of societal convention – a woman who has to remain barren in spite of her capacity to be fertile and a man who can have a woman in spite of his impotency.

Also, it should be noted that, Yerma is not sex-crazed but her sexual desire stems from fecundity; her pleasure in love-making arises only in direct proportion to the possibility for conception. Yerma has a troubled relationship with her own disquiet body and Lorca shows feminity is re-written as maturity in the female body. Yerma's internalization of the beliefs of a society which attests a woman's worth based on her procreation is obvious – she doesn't question society. For Yerma, the bearing of children is her life's purpose and her failure to do so threatens to invalidate her entire existence: “A woman from the country who doesn't bear children is as useless as a handful of thorns – even sinful” (II.ii.127). Lorca establishes Yerma's sexual nature during her interrogation of the first old woman when she confesses her physical response to the shepherd Victor in the past: “He took me by the waist and I couldn't say a word to him, because I couldn't talk. Another time, this same Victor, when I was fourteen years old – he was a husky boy – he took me in his arms to leap a ditch and I started shaking so hard, my teeth chattered” (I.ii.109). However, Yerma supresses her sexuality, admitting that sex, according to her, should not be for mere pleasure (which, according to her is a base instinct) but to satisfy the purpose of procreation. “For his sake, I gave myself to my husband” (I.I.109) – she says, referring To her unborn son, and adds: “I keep giving myself to make sure he's on the way – but never for my own pleasure” (I.ii.109). But Yerma's response to her husband's coldness is contradictory. She is repelled by sexual passion, yet she wishes that she might feel it if it would solve the dilemma of her childlessness: “When he covers me, he is doing his duty, but I feel a waist as cold as a corpse's and I who have always hated passionate women, would like to be at that instant, a mountain of fire! (III.I.133).

Yerma is also trapped by social conventions and attitudes wherein, a childless wife is an easy target for the mockery and scorn of village women for whom child bearing is the most natural thing in the world. For instance, the laundresses in Act II represents the general voice of the society and their gossip serves as the chorus:

FOURTH LAUNDERESS. The more the house shines, the more it seethes inside.
FIRST LAUNDERESS. It is all his fault, his. When a man doesn't give children he's got to take care of his wife.
FOURTH LAUNDERESS. It is all her fault because she's got a tongue as hard as flint.

FIRST LAUNDERESS. Alas for the barren wife! Alas for her whose breasts are sand! (II.I.118-119).

Though Yerma sees maternity as the consuming purpose of her life, she is irrevocably committed to her marriage as the only acceptable means to fulfilling it. The pagan old woman tries hard to delude Yerma but she is unmoved. She bursts out:

YERMA. Hush, hush, It’s not that. I'd never do it. I can't just go out looking for someone. Do you imagine I could know another man? Where would that leave my honour? Water can't run uphill nor does the full moon rise at noonday... do you really think I could submit to another man? That I could go asking for what's mine like a slave? . . .  I'm not looking for anyone.
OLD WOMAN. When one's thirsty, one's grateful for water.
YERMA. I'm like a dry field where a thousand pairs of oxen plough, and you offer me a little glass of well water. Mine is sorrow already beyond the flesh (III.ii.145).

This shows the concept of honour that has been ingrained into her very system which obstructs her ability to fulfil her desire by any other means – either by Victor or through the old woman's son and this attitude of Yerma increases her pain; she is caught between her moral conduct and her pining for a child which her impotent husband can't provide. This  becomes the pinnacle of Yerma's despair, in the words of professor Warner “Indeed, there is a certain grim social determinism in the spectacle of a woman destroyed because she is whole heartedly committed to sub-ordinate status, but denied the reproductive function which serves to compensate for it” (15). When finally Juan admits that he has neither wanted a child nor cared about her happiness, Yerma's suffering is heightened and the futility of her wish for a child strikes her on the face. She realises that neither ritual nor magic herbs from Dolores, nor a pilgrimage to a place which grants one’s desire for fertility, alleviate her agony. Therefore, Yerma kills Juan, embracing despair as an end to the torment of waiting and hoping. Ergo, Rupert. C. Allen remarks: “Yerma demonstrates an aversion to her own sexuality … the unexpectedly concupiscent Juan in the final scene is strangled by her because his lewdness symbolises (in the form of a projection) an impulse within herself which she has repressed throughout the drama” (qtd. Weimer 64-65).

The final act by Yerma (that of killing her husband) is a fatalistic reinstatement of her barrenness. Fatalism underlines Yerma's existential angst. Initially, the audience see Yerma as a relatively passive figure where external action is clearly the instigation of internal action, which could be described as a search for the solution to the puzzle of her continued failure to conceive a child.

Juan's spying and eavesdropping over Yerma's encounter with the pagan old woman in Act III scene ii has a significant role to play in Juan's murder by Yerma. Juan's cheap sexual advances towards Yerma might refer to a sort of 'reward' that Juan pays her for her fidelity to him. Yerma now fully realises the position in which Juan places her – almost that of a prostitute who would be contented with mere lust. Yerma's throttling of Juan is therefore apparently an offshoot of this realization which gives her immense irritation and she frustrates any more attempts to conceive a child through him. This again suggests Yerma's despair which she takes to a definitive plane after the murder of Juan: “Now I’ll sleep without startling myself awake anxious to see if I feel in my blood another new blood. My body barren forever” (III.iii.145). Though Lorca suggests the conventional stock element of the victimised woman who wishes to kill herself because of her increasing irritation, he steers the play away from the clichéd climax; in spite of developing the play along the traditional lines suggested by the central situation, it is not the suspect wife who lies dead on stage but the suspicious husband. Therefore, Lorca locates the sources of this tragic crisis of human relationship in the material and social circumstances of his character’s lives.

The play suggests the fact that traditional public morality has the power to wreck private lives. It represents “powerful, instinctive and potentially disruptive forces that the social order can hope to legitimize but never supress” (Warner 14). Unlike his other rural tragedies Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba which gives rise to problems because of social transgression, Yerma represents the problems in society by highlighting a situation within the society itself. It internalises a woman's problems by layering up the protagonist's sorrows until it reaches a breaking point. Yet, it is emphatically and poignantly proved in all the three plays that the individual could always be overpowered by the society and its patriarchal laws.


Works Cited

Primary source:

Lorca, Federico Gracía. Three Tragedies: Blood Wedding, Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba. James Graham-Lujan and Richars. L O'Connell (Trans.). Francisco Gracía Lorca (Intro.). Australia: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969. Print.

Secondary Sources:

Anderson, Reed. Federico Gracía Lorca. London: The Macmillan Press ltd., 1984. Print.

Lorca, Federico Gracía. Yerma. Ed. Robin Warner. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. Print.

McDermid, Paul. Love, Desire and Identity in the Theatre of Federico Gracía Lorca. NY: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. Print.

Weimer, Christopher Brian. “Journeys from Frustration to Empowerment: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and its Debt to Gracía Lorca's Yerma.” Modern Critical Interpretations on Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ed. Harold Bloom. USA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. Print. 63-72.