Analysis of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits

The first novel by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende (1942– ), The House of the Spirits remains the author’s best-known and most popular work, despite the subsequent success of her following novels, memoirs, and children’s books. Although the book received tremendous critical acclaim and acknowledgment soon after its publication in Spain as La casa de los espíritus in 1982, the road to publication was difficult. Unable to secure a positive response from a Latin American publisher, Allende turned to Plaza y Janés in Spain, and the book was soon translated into French, German, and, in 1985, English. As the first significant novel of its kind authored by a woman, The House of the Spirits has since had a tremendous impact on Latin American literature.

The House of the Spirits revolves around memories more than spirits. Even so, the book contains sufficient supernatural elements—including the character Clara’s fascination with spirits—to tie it strongly to the genre of magic realism. The novel portrays a generational story, a saga, examining not just the history of one family but also the contrasts between a younger and an older generation against a backdrop of political and social turmoil in modern Latin America.

Allende began the book as a retrospective look at her own family. She has famously stated that The House of the Spirits began as a letter to her grandfather, and the book does encapsulate elements of her own family. Allende’s writing quickly turned from an epistolary form to imaginative fiction. Indeed, though many of the characters are based on members of Allende’s family, they do not represent the reality of those people. Esteban Trueba, for example, bears little resemblance to Allende’s memories of her grandfather. The resemblance between Allende’s relatives and her fictional characters persists, however. At her mother’s urging, for example, Allende altered the name of Alba’s father, for the author had unconsciously given the character one of her own father’s surnames.

Isabel Allende / max&douglas/Camera Press/Photomovie

The book’s central character, Alba, eventually reveals that she, too, writes in order to preserve her family’s— and her country’s—past. Although Alba narrates most of the story, her grandfather, Esteban Trueba, forms the core of the novel. It is he who is first infatuated with Rosa, whose untimely death delays his union with her family. Later, Esteban returns and marries Rosa’s clairvoyant sister Clara, who, after years of silence, foretells their marriage with characteristic aplomb. Esteban occasionally speaks for himself in the novel, relating his own point of view and his sometimes twisted rationale for events and actions. The House of the Spirits thus combines several points of view: the first person adopted sporadically by Esteban throughout the novel and by Alba in the book’s explanatory epilogue, and the more general third person through which the narrative typically proceeds.

Alba and Esteban, linked by both familial bonds and by shared narrative roles, establish a set of opposites at the heart of the novel. Esteban is the product of both his generation and his class, the landed aristocracy; Alba, in contrast, entangles herself with progressive social upheavals and radical beliefs—many in direct opposition to her grandfather’s views. Yet these two individuals are united by love. Esteban has a dubious, sometimes violent relationship with the other women in his family, including his wife, Clara, who punishes physical abuse with punitive silence, and his daughter Blanca, who persists in a long-term, passionate relationship with a peasant, Pedro Tercero García, in the face of her father’s violent disapproval and anger. But the old man truly loves, respects, and perhaps understands his granddaughter.

Their platonic, familial love, however, is not the only passion portrayed in the novel; sexual, romantic love also abounds. The book proceeds through its several generations of women with reflective names, from Nívea to her daughters Rosa and Clara to Clara’s daughter Blanca and finally to Alba, with an examination of the rewards and difficulties of passion.

The women love their respective men in a practical manner. Although they enjoy the sexual pleasure that their relationships bring, Allende’s women do not give their spirits or their minds with the abandon that their lovers would wish. Esteban loses Rosa to death and shares with her only a kiss; likewise, he never manages to possess Clara completely. Their relationship is passionate but violent, and Clara withdraws into a spiritual world characterized by séances. Similarly, though Blanca’s relationship with Pedro Tercero persists for decades, she imbues and controls it with a sense of caution and restraint. Only Alba seems to love Miguel without reserve, choosing at the end of the novel to remain in a country dominated by a military dictatorship in the hope of eventually gaining a life together with her lover.

The emphasis on the lives and loves of several generations of women, an important element of Allende’s writing, blends particularly well with the novel’s magical and supernatural elements. The novel also determinedly portrays the sudden upheaval and personal damage caused by the victory of a military dictatorship. Using an unnamed country in the novel, but easily recognizable as Allende’s homeland of Chile, The House of the Spirits examines the social changes and governmental actions leading to the development of the country’s dictatorship. From the feminist changes advocated by Nívea to the communist government preceding the military takeover and vehemently despised by Esteban, the novel presents a segment of the history of the author’s country. The book’s primary vehicle for that historical progression is Esteban Trueba, who unifies the various generations of women presented. He marries Nívea’s daughter Clara, having first loved and lost her other daughter; he provides his daughter Blanca with somewhat dubious parenting; and he protects and loves his granddaughter, Alba.

More important, Esteban’s development—for he does not remain a static, misogynist, imperious aristocrat for the entirety of his life—mimics the country’s conservative attitude toward its own social change and sequential governments. At first glance, Esteban appears to be a typical landed aristocrat: He rules his peasants with unfl inching and sometimes brutal control and arrogance, to the point of raping the powerless women inhabiting his lands. This general abuse of the lower classes and more specific abuse of women are the result of generations of social strife and a cyclical pattern of hatred and violence. Esteban also fathers an illegitimate son, ironically named after him, and detests his daughter’s alliance with Pedro Tercero García, her lover and a singer of radical songs.

Indeed, at every turn Esteban advocates the continuation of the traditional social strata that have given him his power and authority. Marxism, or communism, the movement overthrown by the military dictatorship, threatens his unquestioned power and his continued oppression of the lower classes. But despite his initial support of the dictatorship, Esteban does not thrive under its rule. He is unable to protect Alba from “disappearing” into its prisons and unable to save her from the torture, rape, and abuse inflicted by Esteban García, the product of her grandfather’s rape of a young peasant girl. Although Esteban does eventually secure Alba’s release by calling in a favor owed to him by a prostitute, all of his power and authority are ultimately proven worthless. Like everyone else, he and his loved ones are subject to the unreasoning tyranny of the dictatorship.

Alba, however, breaks the cycle of hatred and revenge perpetuated by Esteban García. Though she contemplates the pleasures of “getting even” with her torturers, she finally concludes that any revenge would result in yet another generation of violent abuse, torture, and rape. Instead, Alba chooses to remember, rather than to repeat, the past. Having returned to her grandfather’s house, the eponymous house of the title, Alba explores the notebooks of her grandmother Clara and turns to her own writing. Recording the past, exploring the experiences of other women in her family and the ubiquitous connection between those women and their country, allows Alba to come to terms with both her immediate past—torture and abuse at the government’s hands—and her uncertain future. At the end of the novel, Alba finds herself pregnant with a child that could be Miguel’s but is just as likely to be the product of the rapes she endured as a prisoner. However, in recognizing her child as her daughter, who becomes another link in the novel’s progression of strong and mystical women, Alba acknowledges life and love, and not hatred, in her determined documentation of the past and her anticipation of the future.

Correas Zapata, Celia. Isabel Allende: Life and Spirits. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2002.
Frick, Susan R. “Memory and Retelling: The Role of Women in La Casa de los espíritus.” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies 7, no. 1 (2001): 27–41.
Gough, Elizabeth. “Vision and Division: Voyeurism in the Works of Isabel Allende.” Journal of Modern Literature 27, no. 4 (2004): 93–120.
Hart, Patricia. Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende. Rutherford, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1989.
Meyer, Doris. “ ‘Parenting the Text’: Female Creativity and Dialogic Relationships in Isabel Allende’s La Casa de los espíritus.” Hispania 73, no. 2 (1990): 360–365.

Categories: Chilean Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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