By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘House Taken Over’ is a 1946 short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914-84). In the story, a brother and sister living in a large house in Buenos Aires feel that their house is gradually being taken over by some mysterious intruders. Eventually, they decide they must leave the house.
You can read ‘House Taken Over’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Cortázar’s story below.
‘House Taken Over’: plot summary
The narrator of the story is a man who lives with his sister Irene in their big old house they inherited from their parents, who in turn inherited it from their grandparents. The house is large enough for eight people to have lived comfortably with enough space. The brother and sister are in their forties and have never married anyone, so they have settled into an unmarried life together in the house.
After they have spent the morning cleaning the house, they spend the rest of the time indulging in their hobbies: Irene spends her time knitting, while the narrator reads books, especially French literature. They earn money from the surrounding farms so have no financial worries.
The narrator tells us that he and his sister live in only part of the large house, and hardly ever venture into the rest of it except to clean it.
One evening, when he is going into the kitchen to make some tea, the narrator hears a noise coming from one of the other rooms. He goes back to his sister and tells her that ‘they’ have ‘taken over’ the back part of the house, and the two of them will have to live in the other part of the house to remain separate from these mysterious new inhabitants.
They find the first few days difficult because some of their possessions (including the narrator’s books) are in the other part of the house. On the plus side, cleaning is much easier with less of the house to clean.
After the day’s cleaning and cooking is completed, Irene can spend her time knitting, although the narrator regrets the loss of his books. He passed some of the time by rearranging their father’s stamp collection.
In the end, the narrator states that they both stopped thinking, but ‘you can live without thinking’. They both sleep in the same bed, with Irene disturbing her brother by talking in her sleep, and the narrator disturbing her by waving his arms about as he sleeps, shaking the blankets off the bed.
However, one night the noises elsewhere in the house become more pronounced, and brother and sister flee through the door and out into the vestibule of the house. ‘They’, the mysterious intruders, have now taken over the final section of the house. Irene’s knitting has got caught in the door, so she drops it, giving it up as lost.
All they have are the clothes they are wearing, with the narrator’s money back in the wardrobe in their bedroom.
They head out into the street together, the narrator locking the front door behind them and throwing the key down the drain, so somebody cannot get hold of it and attempt to rob the house. With the house taken over, that would not be advisable.
‘House Taken Over’: analysis
Cortázar’s story invites a number of different interpretations. It is worth bearing in mind the original context for the story: Cortázar wrote ‘House Taken Over’ in the mid-1940s, when his home country of Argentina was ruled by Juan and Eva Perón (she whose live was turned into the musical Evita).
As Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo observe in their prefatory note to the story in The Argentina Reader, the story can be analysed as a metaphor for Argentina at the time, with the ‘house’ being a symbol of the middle-class Argentinian home at this time.
This ‘house’ or ‘home’, then, is being ‘taken over’ by some unseen and indefinable presence, which, the editors note, can be interpreted as any ‘other’ which is feared by the comfortable bourgeoisie: the poor, the masses, those who are of mixed race, and so on.
The Peróns enjoyed huge popularity among the working classes of Argentina, and middle-class citizens like the narrator of ‘House Taken Over’ and his sister must have felt under threat in ways that were difficult to explain or pin down – much like the mysterious forces which appear to take over their house.
But the story ranges farther than its narrow political context. It can also be analysed as an example of ‘the uncanny’, that mood, or mode, theorised by Sigmund Freud in which the familiar and the unfamiliar sit uneasily alongside each other.
In ‘House Taken Over’, the unspecified ‘they’ who the narrator believes has ‘taken over’ part of the house (and will eventually take over all of it) are familiar enough to be referred to between brother and sister by a mere pronoun (‘they’ implies both of them have already identified their unwanted intruders), and yet strangely unfamiliar: if they have already identified the nature of their guests, they never reveal this information in the story itself.
‘They’, then, becomes at once a familiar and unfamiliar marker to describe those who have supposedly moved into the house. ‘They’ both requires no further definition and can command none, because, one suspects, the narrator and his sister do not know the precise identity of their interlopers.
Of course, it’s more than possible that there is no ‘they’ at all: the noises they hear elsewhere in the house, as anyone who has spent some time in a big house will attest, could well be the creaking of old floorboards, mice scuttling in the wainscot, or any number of other noises.
The narrator and his sister have little to occupy themselves, and largely spend their time indoors, so it’s even possible that Cortázar’s story is told by an unreliable narrator who is mentally unstable, having spent so long among the house’s four walls with increasingly few sources of intellectual nourishment (note that even before he lost access to his own books, he was bemoaning the lack of contemporary French literature in the local bookshop).
‘House Taken Over’ was the story which helped to make Cortázar famous throughout the Argentinian literary world. The story was published by Jorge Luis Borges, who was already established as one of the leading Argentine fiction writers of the age. Borges published Cortázar’s story in the journal he was editing at the time.