Julio Cortazar’s ‘‘House Taken Over’’ is a brief but carefully constructed tale. It is particularly noteworthy for what it does and does not reveal. The narrator’s attention to mundane detail is astounding, particularly when seen as a contrast to the details that remain unaddressed. This lack of seemingly important description lends the story an ambiguity that allows for numerous interpretations. In this sense, the story itself becomes as spacious as the house in which it is set. Certainly, despite its brevity, the plethora of critical interpretations of ‘‘House Taken Over’’ illustrates that it is a story potentially filled with ideas. For instance, Neophilologus contributor Amanda Holmes notes in her explication that ‘‘some of the most prominent analyses of this story by literary scholars see the experience of Cortazar’s characters as similar to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden … a baby in the mother’s womb … excrement in the intestines of the body … or the bourgeois elite in Peronist Argentina.’’
The more allegorical interpretations, such as those listed above, tend to focus on the final act of expulsion as it occurs in the story. More involved readings, though, focus on the conditions that bring the expulsion about. Namely, those conditions are the siblings’ malaise and isolation. The siblings repeat the same day over and over: waking at the same time, cleaning the house, eating lunch at noon, and then spending their respective leisure times reading old books or pointlessly knitting. Even the siblings’ chaste marriage is a fruitless endeavor. To most, it would seem that Irene and the narrator are living in a self-constructed purgatory, yet they are perfectly content. As Malva E. Filer states in Books Abroad: ‘‘In Cortazar’s fictional world this kind of routine life is the great scandal against which every individual must rebel with all his strength. And if he is not able or willing to do so, extraordinary elements are usually summoned to force him out of this despicable and abject comfort.’’ Certainly, this is the case in ‘‘House Taken Over,’’ as the mysterious ‘‘they’’ drive the siblings away.
Marta Morello-Frosch, also writing in Books Abroad, discusses the adept use of understatement that pervades the story. For example, she finds that ‘‘there is no editorial comment on the events narrated … no matter how bizarre they may be.’’ While this remarkable reticence leaves the reader to speculation, it is also a hallmark of the magical realist style. Still, the narrator’s and Irene’s reticence is germane. Not only do they avoid commenting on their situation, they also avoid acting on it. Morello-Frosch adds that ‘‘there is often a great effort on the part of the characters toward trivializing the extraordinary or bestial events they are called upon to endure.’’ In addition, Irene and the narrator continue their lives as if nothing has happened. Certainly, as Morello-Frosch comments, ‘‘they insist on trying to keep up an appearance of routine in the presence of ‘the beast’ which may lie within them or haunt them without even making itself visible.’’ Even the narrator seems to indicate as much when he declares, ‘‘We were fine, and little by little we stopped thinking. You can live without thinking.’’ The siblings begin to have trouble sleeping. This small detail seems to indicate that things are not quite as normal as the characters pretend.
Yet another interpretation describes ‘‘House Taken Over’’ as a work of metafiction, that is, a fictional story about fiction. Holmes finds this to be the case given the mysterious elusiveness of the invasive ‘‘they.’’ For instance, she states: ‘‘These unidentified subjects represent Cortazar’s perception of fiction as a language that reaches beyond conventional communication.’’ She adds, ‘‘Without a specific referent, the ‘they’ or the ‘he/it’ remain in the realm of the language of fiction for the reader. Cortazar creates a sense of the unnamed entities for the reader, ushering in an uneasy aura surrounding them. The reader empathizes with the characters who obviously fear…these beings without stable referents.’’ A metafictional interpretation here is entirely apt given the work’s literary/historical context. Cortazar’s literary benefactor, Jorge Luis Borges, was a metafictional writer. In addition, aspects of magical realism owe their heritage to the style.
Returning to the idea of the narrator’s and Irene’s self-constructed purgatory, Holmes finds that the siblings’ expulsion can be traced in terms of the clash between the colonial and postcolonial world. For instance, the siblings insist on living in a colonial world despite the fact that Argentina is a postcolonial country. The house itself is a strong indicator of this. It is European in construction: a large sprawling manor with numerous wings. However, it is also antiquated. Too big for its purpose, it stands mainly to oversee the final days of the family line. As the narrator points out, the home is such an antique that the parts are worth more than the whole. Most of the other buildings like it have been broken apart and sold piece by piece for their architectural embellishments. In Holmes’s interpretation, then, the narrator’s abundant descriptions of the house (and the work conducted to maintain it) seem far more significant than they initially seem. Holmes remarks: ‘‘As the vehicle for nostalgia, the architectural styles of the fictional buildings come to represent divisions between past and present, as well as between private and public space. The imposition … of some inexplicable Other on the individual residence probes the concept of home … underscoring the inescapability of the city’s impact on the lives of its inhabitants and questioning the nature of the walls, both architectural and linguistic, that separate Self from Other.’’
In other words, the house (representing the past) separates the siblings from the city (representing the present). Holmes goes on to state exactly that, finding that ‘‘although at home in this limited space, the siblings seclude themselves from the contemporary experience of the city. As a result, they live as outsiders surrounded by a city that understands a modern reality very different from theirs.’’ Thus, ‘‘it is this city that finally expels them from their home.’’ This thematic interpretation is one of the more salient, particularly when one examines key textual clues, such as the architectural style of the home, its location, and the direction from which the mysterious ‘‘they’’ overtake the house. For instance, ‘‘the connection between the fictional architecture of the home and that of the real Buenos Aires of the time-period, as well as the location of the home in the city create a caricature of the contemporary urban political scene,’’ Holmes finds. She also states that ‘‘the authority that controls the siblings supernaturally haunts their private space, scaring away the unproductive urban elite. As this scenario parodies a Peronist Buenos Aires, it also underscores Latin American debates concerning the role of Europe in post-colonial space.’’ Put simply, the siblings’ leisurely lives, financed by the labors of tenant farmers on their land holdings, are part of a colonial lifestyle that has since grown antiquated. Like the house, the siblings’ very lives are relics. Modernity and progress will ultimately overtake them. This, then, is another aspect of the mysterious voices that force the siblings from their home.
As previously mentioned, the actual location of the house is also important. The narrator notes that the library abuts the Rodrı´guez Pen˜a, an actual street in Buenos Aires. Holmes writes that ‘‘the named street runs behind the house, as if the building sought to conceal its actual location, for the reader never discovers the name of the street that would give the house its official address.’’ The detail does place the house in a fairly concrete geographical location. More importantly, it also places the house’s location in a historical context that adds further meaning to the story’s events. The street’s namesake was a soldier who fought for Argentina’s independence from Britain. This detail further underscores the postcolonial implications in ‘‘House Taken Over.’’ The street’s location at the back of the house is also remarkable given that, as Holmes points out, ‘‘the invading Other moves from the back to the front of the house, or from the section that locates the story in the ‘real’ Buenos Aires outside the text to the part that remains anonymous and must be imagined without any ‘real’ referent.’’ ‘‘Buenos Aires intrudes into the siblings’ Europeanized [not to mention fictionalized] haven.’’
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Julio Cartazar – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘House Taken Over,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.