Working at a Discount: Class Consciousness in Merce Rodoreda's La Placa del Diamant
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Working at a Discount:
Class Consciousness in Mercè Rodoreda’s La plaça del Diamant

Because it was as if instead of selling it retail—since I was selling them my work—

I was selling it wholesale and everyone knows that when you sell wholesale there’s a discount.

Perquè era com si, en comptes de vendre a la menuda, perquè jo a ells els venia el meu treball, els el vengués a l’engròs i que ja se sap que la venda a l’engròs sempre es fa amb rebaixa.

These words are laced with irony. The person uttering them is Natàlia, the first-person narrator-protagonist of La plaça del Diamant (1962), who is seeking employment as a domestic servant in a well-to-do household in Barcelona just before the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. That a pastiche of Marx’s labor theory of value should be conveyed cynically to Natàlia in the home of a Catalan property owner coping with a changing economy by bringing down her wages is emblematic of the dramatic irony of the most celebrated novel by Catalan writer, Mercè Rodoreda (1908–1983). Indeed, as Rodoreda tells the story of a woman working “at a discount,” this property owner’s house of privilege, along with the other work spaces [End Page 297] of Natàlia’s narrative, stealthily make their way into the foreground of the novel and with them all the entanglements of the division of labor.

However, social class is not a critical focus that has informed much of the analysis (albeit penetrating) of this novel. 1 The lack of attention to this issue is not surprising since “class-consciousness” (one of Raymond Williams “keywords,” 57), is hardly perceptible in a direct way. It is not something the protagonist evinces, for unlike her boss who is well aware of his class, she knows little about the economic contradictions of work or about the consequences these conditions were having on Spanish politics—and on the world—in the midsection of the twentieth century. Her innocence as she sells her labor cheaply, inattentive to the differences between labor value and use value, or of the political-historical circumstances of those values, belies the author’s careful structuring of the narrative around those very circumstances, circumstances that seem more “personal” than “political.” Indeed it is this very tension between the private and the public, between domestic/family labor and public labor, that can serve as one of the focal points of the novel. An attempt to ponder this possibility as we consider the multifaceted dynamics of the representation of the private and public domensions of work is a timely enterprise at a moment of critical thought in which these very dynamics beg for a reconsideration. 2

In her recreation of Spanish reality, Rodoreda constructs the life of a single woman along with the tangible objects that form that reality [End Page 298] and that life. 3 Objects, the things of life as affirmed in the epigraph by the modernist precursor, George Meredith, that introduces the novel (“My dear, these things are life” 14), are the markers of an implied epistemology that leads to the possibility of collective understanding. The things that constitute quotidian reality in Rodoreda’s novel at first seem arbitrary in the modernist sense of the epigraph, yet their tangibility and the way they serve as perplexing signals to self-awareness have to do with the status of the protagonist as both a member of a class and as a woman. As the novel unfolds, these objects become the catalysts for the exploration of issues concerning class and female identity.

The novel opens in medias res: things such as a basket of fruit, candy, and coffeepots (15). We are in fact in the middle of objects, items raffled at a dance that will spark Natàlia’s telling of her life from the moment she meets Quimet and marries him to the upkeep of their modest apartment, the birth of her two children, her work as a domestic servant, the loss of...