Tea Rooms: Mujeres Obreras

AUTHOR: Luisa Carnés
PUBLISHER: Hoja de Lata
GENRE: Fiction Social Novel 
READER’S NAME: Natalia De La Rosa
DATE: April 17, 2017

The immersive Tea Rooms: Mujeres Obreras is a gem of social realism. With simple prose and the most detailed observations of the characters and their environment, Luisa Carnés transports the reader into the misery of working class women in 1930s Madrid.

For this, Carnés assigns the reader a local guide in young Matilde— a working class girl in the thick of it. Our guide does not hold our hand with feminine tenderness. Instead we dizzyingly follow Matilde down “a broad staircase, of rotten wood, that creaks with each step like it’s going to crumble,” into the dark, filthy, muddy, toilsome, chaotic world of proletarian misery.

Carnés has two goals with this novel: first, to expose the darkness; then, to light the path out of it. First she opens the readers’ eyes to the depths of depravity of society. Then she offers a glimmer of hope by way of revolution.

Exposing the darkness

The novel unfolds in the tea room where Matilde finds employment. There she is cold, quiet, and observant, giving Carnés the opportunity to do what she does best: to describe in vivid detail the contrasting experiences of the rich and the poor and to bring to life the mass of working women with memorable, empathy-eliciting characters. 

The “distinguished house” with its polished nickel, shiny floors, and an accommodating staff is the side the rich clientele sees. The tea room the poor workers experience is repulsive, top to bottom. It’s inhabited by an “ogre,” the boss, who descends from his top-floor office to loudly strike fear in his employees; it’s home to scurrilous cockroaches and scandal-provoking rats; it’s a place where temporary employment devolves into misspent lifetimes of unprofitable service.

The main characters are women we already know: Antonia is a plump, sweet, matronly woman in her forties with almost twenty years in service of the house. Juanita is a jovial, carefree youth who has filled her mind with too many romance novels. Marta is a starving girl from a large family, who seeks any opportunity for gainful employment.

Their choices they make, however, expose a central theme: The working classes’ harsh reality, to which they are condemned by the current selfish and rotten society, dooms them to lives of poverty and crime.

Antonia, fearing the loss of her own job, catalyzes the firing of Marta for stealing a peseta here and there (for such luxuries as taking the bus from work to the dilapidated neighborhood in the outskirts of town to work). Poor and hungry Marta, unable to garner a recommendation to be employed somewhere else, gives in to a life of prostitution. Juanita, seduced by the promise of an easier life alongside a richer man, becomes pregnant and brutally dies in a botched abortion.

Their choices are not condemned. (“It’s amazing how need atrophies, deforms moral judgment!” exclaims Matilde, in an early display of enlightenment.) But neither are they offered as examples to be emulated.

Lighting the path

Matilde rejects the bondage of her current condition. She is unwilling to accept the paths before her. She is physically hungry, yet hungry for more. “Not this” she says—a rejection of Antonia’s advice of settling for marriage. “And not Marta’s [path]” she says—a rejection of prostitution. “Not Juanita’s lack of conscience”—a rejection of hopeless romanticism.

Her prescription for working class women, the women of the future, is to be a woman “without a type.” Matilde—and through her, Carnés—offers a free mind as the key to female emancipation. She implores the modern woman to make her own path, freeing herself from social prejudices, to not adhere to any traditional archetype.

(Her prescription for society is destruction and reconstruction. The individual reader will have to make their own judgment on that one.)

With disarmingly simple prose and immersive description, Carnés invites women to be Matildes. At a time when we are all being called to be feminists, Tea Rooms would be well received by an American audience. It is a must-read for perspective on where we’ve come from and inspiration on taking the unbeaten path. 

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