Places: The Hive

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La colmena, 1951 (English translation, 1953)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: December, 1943

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Madrid

*Madrid. Hive, TheSpain’s capital city, in which a person’s fate is determined by economic status and simple chance. In one passage, Camilo José Cela writes of a Madrid street as assuming, at nightfall, a “half-hungry, half-mysterious air, while a little wind, prowling like a wolf, whistles between the houses.” He then describes with the precision of an anthropologist who stays out late the rich seeking diversion, the homeless, those who wander from bar to bar.

In another scene, a poor man finds himself sitting next to a policeman in a bar and offers the policeman an opinion about the city’s law enforcement policies. “‘It doesn’t seem fair to me to arrest the black-market women in the underground. People have got to eat. . . . I think if a few poor women sell cigarettes it’s wrong for you of the police to be after them.’” The policeman answers that he does as he is told. The policeman’s life story, revealed in a few stark paragraphs before this reply, helps make his short statement resonate throughout the book. For many in the novel, the best odds for survival lie in doing as one is told.

Café La Delicia

Café La Delicia (ka-FAY lah day-LEE-see-uh). Madrid café which, despite its name, offers less delight than tedium. Most of its patrons are impoverished, having barely enough to pay for the cups of coffee they buy so they will be allowed to spend their hours there. The café is owned and operated by the tyrannical Doña Rosa, who owns apartment buildings as well. A ruthless landlord who does not hesitate to express reactionary opinions, she is treated with obsequiousness by her employees and customers.

Doña Rosa represents the type of person who succeeds in Madrid’s brutal social structure. She treats others with varying degrees of rudeness according to their economic standing. Nearly all of these others, including would-be writers, gypsies, and women grasping at the last straws of gentility, are neither as fortunate nor as able as she is with money. Doña Rosa screams at her waiters, orders them to run down and rough up a nonpaying customer, and enjoys causing pain. Some of those who suffer her outbursts resent them, but frequently her staff and customers, in keeping with their oppressed and defeated state, rationalize their situation and even identify with her.

Apartment building

Apartment building. Madrid building in which an old woman, Doña Margot, is murdered. Its residents hold a meeting at which they discuss the crime and what they should do. For some, it is an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to speak and appear wise and capable. In truth, the residents are helpless. The police scarcely seem interested in the murder, and there is nothing the residents can do to remedy the social rupture of the crime. However, they waste no time in finding a scapegoat in the person of the victim’s son, a homosexual man who is not present to defend himself against their insinuations.

The apartment building also represents a hive within the hive. Many of the novel’s events either take place in, or are discussed in, the building’s many rooms. In its various apartments, characters plan and tell lies to one another about what they hope to accomplish outside the building’s walls. Readers can, to some extent, piece together how the various conversations relate to one another and how they accord with what actually occurs. In general, however, there is little honey to show for the considerable buzzing.

BibliographyFoster, David W. Forms of the Novel in the Work of Camilo José Cela. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1967. Contains a helpful chapter analyzing the unique “slice of life” structure and imbricated patterning of The Hive in contrast to the widely varying compositional designs of the rest of the author’s novelistic oeuvre.Henn, David. C. J. Cela: “La Colmena.” London: Grant & Cutler, 1974. The most comprehensive study of Cela’s novel. Provides a concise biographical sketch of the author and a useful historical backdrop to the action of the work. Includes extended sections on theme, style, and structure, as well as a detailed chapter on the symbolic importance of the figure of Martín Marco.Ilie, Paul. Literature and Inner Exile: Authoritarian Spain, 1939-1975. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Considers a definition of inner exile as the deep-seated alienation from the dominant values of a society in which one is constrained to remain a participating member. Though not a study of Cela or his works, this in-depth critical analysis of the sociopolitical consequences of Franco’s unforgiving rule captures the estrangement of protagonists such as Martín Marco.McPheeters, D. W. Camilo José Cela. New York: Twayne, 1969. An excellent starting place for any investigation into Cela’s life and work. The author’s literary output is considered within the historical and aesthetic context of his day. The chapter dedicated to The Hive is an excellent introduction to the novel.Roy, Joaquín, ed. Camilo José Cela: Homage to a Nobel Prize. Coral Gables, Fla: University of Miami Press, 1991. Specialized essays commemorating Cela’s 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature. Contains three pieces on The Hive: Thomas Deveny’s “Cela on Screen: La colmena”; Bernardo Antonio González’s “Reading La colmena Through the Lens: From Mario Camus to Camilo José Cela”; and William M. Sherzer’s “The Role of Urban Icons in Cela’s La colmena.” Also includes essays on two other influential Cela works: The Family of Pascual Duarte and San Camilo, 1936.
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