The House of the Spirits (1982)
Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, published in 1982, tells the history of several generations of the Trueba family against the backdrop of Chile’s socialist government and the 1973 military coup that gave rise to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Clara, who regularly converses with the spirit world, marries Esteban Trueba, a wealthy landowner who regularly rapes peasant women working on his hacienda. Trueba becomes enraged when his daughter, Blanca, falls in love with one of the hacienda’s workers. Despite Trueba’s efforts, Blanca and her love are eventually united, but the circuitous path of their relationship is repeated in the lives and loves of other characters.Revenge parallels love. Trueba’s first illegitimate son, Esteban García, is directly responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and rape of Trueba’s granddaughter, Alba. At the end of the novel, Alba, uncertain as to whether the father of her unborn child is her true love, Miguel, or her archenemy, Esteban García, decides that she must break the violent cycle through forgiveness. Alba’s realization suggests that Latin America must break the trap of repetitive violence. Her name, which translates as “dawn,” implies that forgiveness is the necessary ingredient for a new era of Latin American history. Themes in the novel include love, oppression, heroism, death, violence, and hope.
Alba’s forgiveness and implicit hope contrast sharply with the pessimism of other late 20th-century Latin American novels and place Allende’s work in a new literary movement known as the post boom. Anne Massey Death in The House of the Spirits Death in The House of the Spirits is a battle between despair and hope. It can be a fearful unknown at the end of mortal existence or an extension of life that parallels the mortal realm. It appears as fear and reassurance, associated both with the destruction of society by political and social ills and with the comfort of eternal connection to beloved friends and family. In the beginning, death equals suffering. At Easter Mass, the statues are deathly pale and covered with funeral shrouds. Rosa, whose green hair symbolizes life, dies early in the novel after drinking poisoned brandy. Trueba, Rosa’s beau, feels angry that death has stolen her away and begins to shrink as a physical representation of his disappointment and ire. Tres Marías smells like a tomb when Trueba first moves in. Trueba’s mother, Ester, is described as a living corpse, and in her last days, the odor of her decomposing flesh permeates the house. Later, secular and religious elements overlap. The plague and unemployment appear to be divine punishment for which pleas to God for mercy are to no avail. Severely ill peasants who die in the hospital are buried next to the church. Barrabás, Clara’s oversized stray dog that arrived on Holy Thursday, dies the night of her engagement party. In contrast to the concept of death as brutal end is the perception that death is a welcome parallel to mortal existence. The Mora sisters have a photo proving that the souls of the deceased can take on a physical form. The appearance of Férula’s spirit, accepted matter-of-factly, forces Trueba and Clara to travel to her impoverished neighborhood in order to confirm her death. The Trueba family thinks nothing of eating at the table once used for wakes by Clara’s parents. After announcing her own death, Clara describes the process as similar to being born, feared only because people tend to be afraid of the unknown. Trueba sees Clara’s death as a natural transition and feels reconciled to her passing, realizing that she has completed her mission. He even makes plans to be with her in the hereafter, building a mausoleum to ensure this. Yet it is obvious that Clara, as her name meaning “clear” implies, was the window that allowed mortals a glimpse into the spirit world. After her death, the plants die and the cats run away. Only Clara’s room remains untouched by decay. And when Trueba opens Rosa’s casket as he transfers her to the mausoleum, her corpse, preserved in death as it had been in life, disintegrates into a fine powder. By contrast, life and death are viewed as parallel states but with a frightening, foreboding tone. As Pedro García lies dying, his grandson punches out the eyes of chickens and fantasizes about Trueba’s death. He would have punched out Pedro García’s eyes had Blanca not prevented it. Later, Blanca is disturbed by the artifacts her husband collects— mummies with necklaces of teeth. Blanca also worries that her daughter, Alba, does not play with dolls, but Alba sees the toys as miniature corpses.
Nicolás tries to teach Alba not to fear death, having her imagine her mother lying in a coffin. His efforts fail; tortured by the military, Alba cannot quell her fears using her uncle’s methods. During the coup, Blanca and Alba rescue Pedro Tercero García, concealing him in a car resembling a hearse. Luisa Mora predicts that this moment in history will be marked by pain and innumerable dead. From the great beyond, Clara tries to protect Alba, but she, like all spirits, is useless in the face of cataclysmic events. The last chapter of the novel describes the destruction and death wrought by the military, a reality symbolized by the passing of the Poet, whose death represents the fall of freedom. In the end, however, Trueba’s death offers renewed hope, a return to the supportive intertwining of life and death. Clara appears at his bedside, and as he dies, relinquishing his anger, her spirit glows brighter. It is with Trueba’s death that Alba realizes she must forgive her father’s son, Esteban García, who raped her and whose child she may now be carrying. Death, then, seen through Clara’s eyes, is a comfort to the living and offers spiritual healing. For those wielding the weapons of destruction, it is punishment, a bitter finality without salvation.
But, as the epilogue implies, the darkness of war cannot snuff out the light of hope. Anne Massey Heroism in The House of the Spirits The term heroism describes individuals who inspire others through physical, moral, or intellectual fortitude. In classical Greek and Roman literature, heroes not only possessed such strengths but also had a tragic flaw, some insurmountable internal element to remind them of their humanity and distinguish them from the omnipotent gods. The characters of The House of the Spirits are heroic in both the general and classical senses. Events in the opening chapter presage the heroic theme. Despite community disapproval, Clara speaks out against church oppression. Uncle Marcos’s behavior is reminiscent of Christ’s life. Marcos takes off in his flying contraption amid praise and the sprinkling of holy water, is forgotten after three days, and appears to die twice. Moreover, both he and Clara seem able to change fate. Esteban Trueba, Clara’s husband, sees himself as his family’s hero, lifting them out of poverty and rebuilding the family estate in what he declares to be a Herculean undertaking. Other characters demonstrate heroic traits. Clara’s mother is a suffragette. Férula, Trueba’s mother, caters to the poor and is described as sublimely heroic. The prostitute Tránsito Soto decides to overcome her fate as a streetwalker. The count de Satigny chivalrously rescues Blanca, who is pregnant with the child of her father’s enemy. Pedro Tercero García is a hero of the socialist movement. Jaime, Clara’s son, gives away his clothes to the poor, while his brother, Nicolás, studies alternative medicine, eventually helping more people than his physician brother. Finally, Alba, Trueba’s granddaughter, opposes the military coup and is tortured for her efforts. However, among these characters, only Alba seems immune from the challenge of a tragic flaw. Clara’s clairvoyance is both a blessing and a shame. Marcos’s apparent double death is a case of mistaken identity rather than a resurrection and negates his godlike image. Esteban suffers from hubris, the Greek notion of excessive pride, which eventually destroys his work at Tres Marías and his relationships with those he loves the most. Nívea, Clara’s mother, is hypocritical, enjoying the comforts of the tearoom after charitable visits to the poor. Nívea also enjoys modern conveniences, such as cars that fly at a suicidal pace. Eventually, Nívea and her husband are killed in a car crash, dying from their attraction to modernity and wealth. Férula, despite her goodwill, lives in fear of her sexual fantasies, while Tránsito Soto, rather than escaping prostitution, turns the sex trade into a booming enterprise. Sex is also the count’s downfall.
He loses everything when his wife discovers his pornographic photographs revealing his sexual obsession with his servants. Destruction arises out of other obsessions. Jaime’s charity is described as madness, a madness culminating in his death by a firing squad because of his socialist beliefs. More dramatic than Jaime’s death is his agreeing to perform an abortion on his brother’s girlfriend. He agrees out of his obsessive but unrequited love for the woman, even though the act contradicts his beliefs. In a separate series of events, Nicolás leaves home to find peace in Eastern spiritual practices, but he eventually sells his religion at the ironically named Institute for Union with Nothingness. The socialist fight is clearly a heroic effort, but Pedro Tercero García, despite his efforts, is plagued by human flaws. His love for Blanca outweighs his desire for justice. He allows her to hide him in the labyrinth of her home, even as he feels imprisoned there. Eventually, he allows his enemy, Trueba, to help him and Blanca flee into exile, away from the fight for human rights. Alba is the only character who manages to surmount her tragic nature. Raped and tortured for her part in the socialist rebellion, she survives because her grandfather intercedes on her behalf. She appears to reject her beliefs, succumbing to the temptation of wealth. But she is saved from tragic destruction by her decision to become an agent for change. Carrying a child whose father is either an extremist rebel or the man who tormented her in jail, Alba decides to break the chain of vengeance and to forgive her captor, ensuring a safe haven for her child no matter who the father is. As Alba observes, she is part of a grand design that determines her family’s fate. Because of fate, the heroes in The House of the Spirits are destined both to great and charitable acts and to their own destruction. Only Alba, whose name signifies dawn, is able to surmount her tragic flaw and offer hope.
Anne Massey Oppression in The House of the Spirits It is no surprise that oppression is a major theme in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Although no specific reference is made to the country or time frame in which the story is set, the reader can guess that the tale unfolds against the backdrop of Chile’s 1973 military coup, an event that established a regime known for torturing and eliminating those who opposed it. However, oppression in Allende’s work does not take place solely in the political realm; rather, it takes the form of religious, economic, sexual, and racial dominance. Political control is the novel’s most obvious form of oppression. In an effort to eradicate the socialist regime, the military tortures Alba. The Poet—a clear reference to Pablo Neruda, famous for both his political advocacy and his verses, many of which exemplified Marxist ideology—dies after political events, including the exile and assassination of his friends, exhaust his will to live. Jaime is interrogated before being killed by a firing squad. The novel opens with references to religious oppression. In church on Holy Thursday, the priest names the parishioners he believes to be sinners, and Clara and her family are ostracized after Clara, during Mass, critiques the church’s take on hell. Even Father Restrepo feels the oppression of the church, observing that his wages appear to have been established by the Inquisition. Férula perceives her humble suffering in caring for her mother as a pathway to heaven, yet she blames her torturous existence and failure to marry on her mother. Férula, in turn, uses guilt and religion to control her brother, Esteban Trueba. When Trueba arrives home soaking wet after spilling a cup of Viennese coffee proudly purchased with his first paycheck, Férula warns him that God is punishing him for wasting their mother’s medicine money. And as a child, Trueba wore a rope of Saint Francis around his waist to symbolize the promises tying him to his mother and sister. Having grown up poor, Trueba feels the burden of economic oppression, but he overcomes this through his mining enterprise. He then proceeds to use his newfound power to dominate, through violence, the servants at Tres Marías. When two peasants are found dead, the community is certain that Trueba, the patrón, is culpable. In Trueba’s eyes, his workers are children, and he ignores pleas to offer them wages instead of shelter and vouchers for purchases at the company store. Trueba’s life at Tres Marías exemplifies sexual oppression.
He rapes Pancha García and other women at both Tres Marías and neighboring haciendas. When Clara arrives at Tres Marías, she tries to spread her mother’s slogans of gender equality among the peasant women, but her ideas are met with laughter. The women tell Clara that men will always be in charge and that the men would beat them, and rightly so, for subscribing to Clara’s whims. The proof of the women’s words is seen in Trueba’s violence toward his wife. Angered, he attacks Clara. Ethnic dominance permeates life at Tres Marías. The servants and workers are perceived as children who would not survive without the landowner’s generosity. Pedro Segundo García, the hacienda’s foreman, knows that he will never confront the patrón, and Pancha García is merely seen as an instrument for Trueba’s physical relief at the end of the day. Blanca is forced to hide her relationship with Pedro Tercero García, a peasant, and is forced into an loveless marriage in order to hide her having become pregnant with the offspring of such an unworthy suitor. Blanca’s husband, the count, oppresses the servants in his employ, forcing them to pose in lewd sexual acts for his photography. Of all the characters, only Clara avoids oppression, taking refuge in her magic and her aloofness.
When her magical powers become the object of shame, she chooses not to speak. She endures her husband’s tirades and then responds with a ridiculous non sequitur that demonstrates her unflappable nature. When her husband hits her, she refuses to speak to him, an act that isolates her from his abuse. Finally, her labyrinth of a home and her ability to become part of the spirit world at will separates her from the oppressive reality surrounding her.
She, unlike any other character in Allende’s work, avoids the political, sexual, religious, and economic dominance faced by the other characters by living in her own world—the house of the spirits. Anne Massey