Analysis of Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune

Like all other novels by Isabel Allende (1942– ), Daughter of Fortune was first written and published in Spanish. In some ways, this story represents a return to the motifs and themes of the author’s earlier works, including her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1982). In Daughter of Fortune, Allende again creates an engaging female protagonist, Eliza Sommers, who struggles with both emotional attachments and social restrictions in a journey of self-discovery and self-realization.

Allende’s Daughter of Fortune is positioned as the first part of a trilogy of novels that includes Portrait in Sepia and The House of the Spirits as the second and third books, respectively. The novels were not written in the sequence of their narrative action. Eliza Sommers, the central heroine in Daughter of Fortune, is the maternal grandmother of Aurora del Valle, the central figure of Portrait in Sepia. Published in 2000 and the middle book of the trilogy, Portrait in Sepia is the story of Aurora del Valle and her extraordinary, even epic, family struggles. Despite similarities in the characters of Eliza Sommers—the central protagonist of Daughter of Fortune—and Alba of The House of the Spirits, Daughter of Fortune is not a simple retelling of Allende’s earlier story. The work stands on its own as the story of a young woman’s difficult rite of passage into finding her own place in the world.

Daughter of Fortune also marks the development of Allende’s individual style and movement away from the derivative qualities of her early work. In particular, the work does not contain as many overt examples of magic realism as The House of the Spirits, although elements of the book may still be categorized under that label. Magic realism is a mixture of realistic details and magical elements. Most notably, the characterization of Eliza Sommers, whose special talents include exceptional olfactory abilities and an excellent memory, steps only slightly into the magically real. Eliza’s most “magical ability,” her sense of smell, which inspires her fateful attraction to Joaquín Andieta, exhibits more of the sensual nature of Allende’s writing than a tie to the magical realists of her heritage. Indeed, Allende directly links Eliza’s sense of smell to her romantic adventures: She is drawn to the men she loves first by their enticing scents. For example, Eliza identifies Tao Chi’en, her second and truest love, by his faint, clean smell, like that of the sea.

Daughter of Fortune therefore partakes of a more immediately realistic style than Allende’s early ventures into magic realism, but the novel maintains her interest and emphasis in social and feminist issues. The book does not explore social injustice as overtly as Allende’s early novels, including The House of Spirits and Of Love and Shadows, but it nevertheless deals with social status and class struggle. In Daughter of Fortune, Allende examines a multiethnic cast of characters living in the mid-1800s and based in several countries: The story moves from the Sommers family, originating in England and settling in Chile, to the impoverished plight of the Chilean Joaquín Andieta, to Tao’s Chinese background, and to the wild liberties available to all comers in gold-crazed California.

Allende constructs a society driven and governed by class consciousness in Chile, where Eliza grows up and where the first part of the book takes place. Eliza, though an orphan and a foundling, is reared as a young lady; her adoptive mother, Rose Sommers, trains her with the hope of an advantageous marriage for the young girl. But the seemingly rigid class structure proves extremely impermeable and hypocritical. Jacob Todd, who eventually becomes a journalist in California, infiltrates the highest reaches of social gatherings as a false missionary until he is eventually revealed as a con artist. Feliciano Rodríguez de Santa Cruz, an upstart without a pedigree, succeeds in marrying Paulina del Valle, despite the intervention and anger of her long-pedigreed father. Even the cultured perfection of Rose Sommers and her brother John is revealed to be little more than a façade. John is really Eliza’s father, though this fact is not revealed until Eliza has fl ed to California, and Eliza herself is never told. Rose, appearing as a proper woman, has her own scandalous love affair hidden in her past—and she writes pornographic books. Most significant, Eliza, despite Rose’s best efforts, falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, a poor, illegitimate young man with political passion and no real opportunities to improve his social standing.

In contrast, Allende paints California as a land of possibilities, both real and imagined. The gold fever, the cause of the massive rush to California beginning in the middle of the 1800s, causes more loss and poverty than wealth, but in this new world there are, nonetheless, plentiful opportunities for financial success. Tao’s healing knowledge is welcomed; Eliza, dressed as a boy, finds work in several unlikely places; and prostitution as well as legally acceptable trades offer immigrants opportunities for both financial gain and tragedy. California’s gold rush draws prospectors from Chile as well as from the rest of the world, including Eliza’s love, Joaquín. Though he is forced to steal from his employer to finance his voyage, and his leaving breaks the hearts of both his mother and his lover, Joaquín is resolute in his decision. California is his only chance for prosperity; if he remains in Chile, he will always be destitute. Pregnant and abandoned by Joaquín, Eliza drafts a drastic plan: She decides to follow her lover to California.

Tao Chi’en, who has been a victim of social injustice and poverty during his early childhood in China, proves instrumental to the dubious success of Eliza’s plans. Not only does Tao smuggle Eliza on board a ship and save her life during her miscarriage, but he also protects and provides for her in California—at least initially. For much of her life, Eliza’s actions and behavior have been scripted by social and familial standards. She has always felt both the literal and figurative threat of being cast out. At one point, Rose threatens to exile Eliza to an orphanage, and Eliza’s unpardonable sin of being pregnant and unmarried has confirmed that early threat, forever casting Eliza out from the polite society of her adoptive family. In California, though Eliza depends upon Tao while she regains her strength and adjusts to the new world, she soon discovers that she must answer to no one except herself.

She finds that she must make adjustments to live in her new environment. Dressed as a boy, Eliza enters the dangerous, raucous, and lawless world of California, where the legal system equates with mob justice, and kindness originates in unlikely hearts, including that of the aptly named Babalú the Bad. Wearing men’s clothes, Eliza also undergoes a metamorphosis. She travels as she pleases, though she still searches for her lover. As Eliza matures, she comes to know herself—and she loses her obsession with Joaquín, whom she never really knew. Instead, she gains a sense of individuality and an understanding of true friendship and love. In her friend Tao, she finds the steadfast affection of a lover; in turn, in Eliza, Tao finds strength and love.

As some critics have complained, the book ends with uncertainty. Tao and Eliza do not significantly explore their relationship; there are only hints throughout the book to suggest that they do, indeed, come to any mutual understanding of their love for each other. Significantly, too, Allende never reveals whether or not Eliza actually finds Joaquín Andieta in the decapitated head of Joaquín Murieta. Eliza herself does not state that the two are the same person, but she also decides, perhaps, that it does not matter.

In announcing “I am free” and holding tightly to Tao’s hand, Eliza has abandoned her grasp on a restrictive, barren past and is taking hold of the possibilities inherent in herself and in her future. Eliza also aggressively reclaims her femininity, exploring the sight, feel, and smell of her naked body in lieu of an expected love scene with Tao. Eliza appreciates her body and her own identity, and she again adopts female dress— though without the imprisoning corset. Eliza has come to terms with herself as a woman, and she has seized both freedom and love, concurrent possibilities in the undefined world of California, but not in her socially restricted Chilean birthplace. In a disparate world characterized equally by crime and salvation, Allende’s Eliza in Daughter of Fortune has integrated her femininity with her desire for liberty and love.

Feal, Rosemary G., and Yvette E. Miller, eds. Isabel Allende Today: An Anthology of Essays. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Latin American Literary Review, 2002.
Novella, Cecilia. “Review of Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende.” Américas 51, no. 5 (September 1999): 61, 63.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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