Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Carmen Laforet’s Nada and the Emptiness of Experience
Despite the significant developments in science during the 19th century, the two devastating wars of the following century dismantled human faith in scientific and rational thinking. This negative outlook on society was first observed in Philosophy by authors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Twentieth-century literature is deeply influenced by existentialism that focuses on the character’s consciousness rather than following the traditional unfolding of the plot. In this way, contemporary literature makes the psychology of the individual its nucleus, yielding to the exploration of topics, such as absurdity, mortality or freedom. Therefore, this 101 series will analyse some of the most important existentialist works of literature from the 20th century to explore how the authors have intertwined their motivations with the widespread pessimism of the time.
This 101 series is divided into the following sections:
Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Existentialism in Twentieth-Century Literature
Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Thomas Mann and the Journey of Knowledge
Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: The Steppenwolf: A Modern Ethical Tale
Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Albert Camus and the Alienation of the Stranger
Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Carmen Laforet’s Nada and the Emptiness of Experience
Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles' Eastern Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky
Carmen Laforet’s Nada and the Emptiness of Experience
Carmen Laforet’s Nada (Nothing) is one of the first existentialist novels in Spanish literature. The novel is both a romance and a coming-of-age story focusing on a young girl named Andrea. Apparently, it has nothing to do with previous Spanish Civil War novels, because it features intimate, lyrical and bittersweet qualities. However, the story's nucleus is the scenario left by the Spanish Civil War, which prevents all characters from living in the present. In this way, Laforet creates a world in which people have no other option than to be stuck in the terrible past and renounce reality.
Like much of twentieth-century literature in general, Nada centres “on the challenge of forging one's being in the modern world” (Collins, 1984). In Spain, the decade of 1940 was deeply determined by the prior Civil War between 1936 and 1939. This meant that the population experienced harsh socioeconomic realities and the repressive nature of an extremely conservative government. The maturation of the young Andrea offers the paradigm of the agonised coming-of-age of the less wealthy Spaniards of the time. The novel describes the first adult experiences of Laura, who moves to Barcelona to study. The text is divided into three parts: firstly, Andrea’s arrival at Barcelona in Aribau Street and subsequent disappointment; secondly, the period of freedom with her friend; and, the resolution of the conflict with Andrea heading toward a more independent life in Madrid.
Laforet’s protagonist has nothing to do with typical Spanish postwar characters, because of the Gothic atmosphere the author creates. With the dark and neglected image of the house, Laforet approaches the English literature of the 19th century, which was mainly set in old mansions (Ryan, 2017). The protagonist’s coming-of-age consists of her learning her selfhood despite several factors that try to dismantle her persona. Laforet has two different problems: on the one hand, identity and, on the other hand, the definition of the Other. The reader follows the narrative through the comments of the old Andrea, who makes the audience “acutely aware of the temporal distance between the two” (Collins, 1984, p. 299). When the protagonist first arrives in Barcelona, she must find her own identity, since her family values are oppressing her. In addition, she is an utterly innocent character, making failed expectations a truly devastating issue.
Nada is an ambiguous text, and the paradoxical nature of the title is often the object of discussion. The novel narrates a pivotal year in the narrator's life, who learns lifelong lessons. In sexual terms, Andrea seems heterosexual, since she is deeply interested in her uncle, Román. However, her heterosexual tendencies soon turn into fear and horror when her dream image is dismantled by reality. Given that Andrea’s relationships with men are mildly cold, her affection towards women seems more relevant. For instance, she develops a genuinely affectionate relationship with her friend Ena, which should indicate that her sexual preferences are not as straightforward as they may seem at the beginning (Amago, 2002).
Andrea is a distant character that never completely opens with the reader. The author underlines “Andrea’s excessive passivity and the ambiguous distance between Andrea-narrator and Andrea-protagonist” (Amago, 2002, p. 68). The narration only depicts the events, but the interpretation is usually open, which raises many doubts from the reader’s perspective. This is why one cannot understand her real wishes or desires in life, from her sexual orientation to her career-wise expectations. Therefore, narrator Andrea seems to want to dismantle the narrative act and run away from protagonist Andrea. Thus, the reader must make a conscious effort to draw conclusions from the events and discover Andrea’s true personality that lies beneath them (Amago, 2002).
Andrea was educated at a religious boarding school during the Civil War years. Afterwards, she lived with her cousin Isabel in a town before studying in Barcelona. Andrea was an introverted girl who enjoyed books and would spend the entire afternoon working at her father’s bookshop. Therefore, she studied Greek and Latin in the big city (Anderson, 2010). At first, she is completely happy to start her university studies, but later, that happiness becomes despair and frustration:
I went down the stairs slowly. I felt a strong emotion. I remembered the terrible expectation, the longing for life when I had climbed them for the first time. I was leaving now without having known any of the things I had confusedly hoped for: life in its plenitude, deep interests, love. I was taking nothing from the house on Calle Aribau (Laforet, 2007, p. 244).
When arriving in Barcelona, Andrea has really high expectations because of her memories of visiting relatives in the city as a child. She remembers her grandparents’ house as beautiful and the city as a big, enchanting place. Nevertheless, her vision of the past begins to blur when she first enters her relatives’ house, which is gloomy and depressing. This drastic change has taken place, “the house and its inhabitants had fallen into decay: they are virtually living in the past, ignoring the present and the forever-forward movement of time” (Bergeson, 2010, p. 212). Andrea’s family in Barcelona are characterised as dreamers, because they remain in the past and cannot act in the present time. Laforet underlines the terrible toll the Spanish Civil War took on the people. Not only was the conflict violent and raw, but it also separated families and loved ones because of the different ideological tendencies that participated, such as communists, socialists, fascists and liberals.
Andrea is also stuck in the past, like most of her family. However, she tries to escape, and her friend Ena is the one that frees her from that oppressive world. Of course, Andrea is never able to run away from the past, which will always be part of her present. As literary scholar Craig Bergeson (2010, p. 215) remarks, this coexistence "of past and present is in part represented by Ena, who seems to straddle, and perhaps balance, the actual and the virtual”. For Andrea, Ena is the example of the present world, but she is also fascinated by her uncle Román, a man deeply stuck in the past. Román represents a kind of person truly different from her boring bourgeois life: “I like people from that touch of madness that keeps life from being monotonous even though they’re miserable and are always in the clouds, like you…” (Laforet, 2007, p. 244). Given Andrea’s life in her hometown, she is deeply invested in literature, such as Don Quixote and Madame Bovary which feature deeply romantic and dreamy characters. She is also a dreamer, and that is how she perceives reality: “the expectations she nurses and the conclusions she draws, are mediated through a literary lens that establishes a set of preexisting frames of reference” (Anderson, 2010, p. 18).
She feels utterly impressed by her uncle Román, who embodies traditional male energy in the novel. When they first meet, he is cleaning a pistol, symbolising his dominating and menacing nature. However, Román is not the stereotypical alpha-male character, since he is passionate about sensible and heartfelt activities, such as music. When listening to Román’s playing the piano for the first time, Andrea feels truly moved but unable to express it: “Nothing, I don’t know, I just like it…” (Laforet, 2007, p. 28). However, her feelings turn into fear and disgust when she discovers his real violent nature (Amago, 2002). From that moment, she starts identifying her uncle by using diabolic imagery: “Román’s laughter reached me, like the bony hand of a devil snatching at the hem of my skirt…” (Laforet, 2007, p. 71). Contrary to most existentialist works, Nada is not categorised as an atheist novel, since it does not refuse the idea of divinity. This is why the idea of the devil is present for Román throughout the novel. It is influenced by Spanish Catholicism, but to a lesser extent since, after all, religiosity is irrelevant for most of the plot (Varea Olea, 2021).
The false climax of the novel is caused by Andrea’s misinterpretation of her uncle’s intentions toward Ena. She and Román develop a sexual affair in which the girl ends up abandoning Román, who, in turn, suicides. Andrea believes that Román is going to sexually assault her friend when they are alone in his room. However, Ena “has reversed the power relation” and unmans Román by getting rid of his pistol, which embodies the idea of castration (Amago, 2002, p. 69). In the end, Román’s evilness comes from his bitterness, as a man who is unable to live in the postwar world. He has “locked himself up in the virtual world of the past” and lives miserably (Bergeson, 2010, p. 215).
The true climax of the story is Pons’ name day celebration to which Andrea is invited. Pons is one of Andrea’s university mates and has a romantic interest in her. Therefore, he wants her to come to his celebration and to spend the summer holidays with his family on the Costa Brava. Andrea dreams of Pons’ ball because of her endless readings: “for me, the word dance evoked an exciting dream of evening clothes and gleaming floors, the effect of my first reading of the story of Cinderella” (Laforet, 2007, p. 166). Andrea identifies with the ugly-duckling story and thinks that this will be her fairy-tale happy ending as a princess such as Cinderella. Nevertheless, all her expectations start to decay when meeting Pons’ mother at the ball for the first time. Her worn-out dress and shoes are easily noticed by his mother and everyone else at the party, and Andrea “feels agonisingly out of place and painfully cognisant of the huge gap between the reality of the party and how she had imagined it would be” (Anderson, 2010, p. 21). Pons leaves her alone, and she feels unable to make acquaintance with any of the other guests. Time passes by until she decides to leave and say goodbye to Pons. By the time they bid each other farewell, both know that any chance of developing a romantic affair has disappeared.
By the end of the night, she feels alone and uses a rather colourful image to describe her failed expectations:
I felt a wretched, useless sadness there by myself. The truth is I didn’t know anyone and felt out of touch. It seemed as if a pile of illustrations that I'd arranged in the shape of a castle to pass the time had fallen at a single gust, as if it were a children’s game. Illustrations of Pons buying carnations for me, Pons promising me ideal summer vacations, Pons leading me by the hand, out of my house and toward happiness (Laforet, 2007, p. 180).
Andrea has an utterly disappointing experience in Barcelona, but nothing makes the reader think that her departure to Madrid one year later will be better. For Andrea, it is “idiotic” to feel “the same eager expectation that a year later” she had when moving to Barcelona (Laforet, 2007, p. 244). Nevertheless, she cannot help but feel a “liberation” (Laforet, 2007, p. 44). After all, the reader does not know if Andrea has maintained her friendship with her Catalan friends, or even with her family, after leaving Barcelona. In hindsight, Andrea’s first year of college is a complete disappointment for her since, apparently, she does not carry any memorable stories or moments with her. Thus, it is the reader who must shape the events that Andrea lived in Barcelona, and it is up to them to determine if they really had a meaningful impact on her life.
In conclusion, Nada is one of the first Spanish existentialist novels, and its framework is deeply determined by the Spanish Civil War. The postwar situation was a marvellous scenario to develop a young girl’s identity quest. Contrary to French existentialism, Laforet looks for a younger and female character who wants to look for her place and settle in the world. Nevertheless, the memories of the past seem an insurmountable burden for Andrea who is unable to enjoy and live her reality.
Amago, S. (2002). Lesbian desire and related matters in Carmen Laforet’s Nada. Neophilologus, 86(1), 65–86. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1012947422263
Anderson, A. A. (2010). Andrea's baggage: Reading (in) Laforet's Nada. Romance Quarterly, 57(1), 16-27. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/andreas-baggage-reading-laforets-nada/docview/747516466/se-2
Bergeson, C. (2010). Dealing with time in Carmen Laforet’s “Nada.” Romance Notes, 50(2), 211–218. https://doi.org/10.1353/rmc.2010.0018
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Ryan, L. (2017). Writing the ineffable: Postwar female employment and domestic violence in Carmen Laforet’s Nada. Forum for Modern Language Studies, 53(4), 463–482. https://doi.org/10.1093/fmls/cqx035
Varela Olea, M. A. (2021). El existencialismo personalista de Carmen Laforet: La mujer nueva surgida de la trilogía iniciada en Nada. Revista De Literatura, 83(165), 193–218. https://doi.org/10.3989/revliteratura.2021.01.009
Cover image. Hopper, E. (1952). Morning Sun [Painting]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2012/08/20/157104327/hoppers-pensive-lady-in-pink-travels-the-world
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