The House of the Spirits

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Themes for Students: War and Peace
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Work overview; Brief biography
Pages: 14
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: August 02, 1942 in Lima, Peru
Nationality: Chilean
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Allende Llona, Isabel
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The House of the Spirits


The House of the Spirits, the first novel by Isabel Allende, was published in Spanish in 1982; an English translation appeared in 1985. The novel is set in Chile and tells the saga of the Trueba family through three generations in the twentieth century. The narrative starts in the early 1900s and ends a year after the 1973 coup d'état that ended the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, Isabel Allende's uncle, and installed a military dictatorship that lasted through 1989.

Allende approaches the theme of war and peace in relation to the political divisiveness that gripped the country in the years following World War II. These divisions originated in the economic gap between the landowning elite and the working classes, and were aggravated by the violent military coup d'état. The coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet, deposed the democratically elected Socialist government and initiated a war against the Chilean population. Allende places fictional characters in the midst of these events, basing her descriptions on documented facts.

In an interview with Magdalena García Pinto entitled "Espejo de Escritores" (Mirror of Writers), Allende notes that the novel began as a letter to her dying grandfather. Allende was living in Venezuela at the time and was unable to return to Chile for political reasons. She started to write down in a letter all the memories she had Page 287  |  Top of Articleof her grandfather and the rest of her family. In the introduction to the online photo album on her website, she says:

My family has been very important in my life and my work, mainly because some of my relatives are very extravagant people. With relatives like mine I don't need to use my imagination…. Their stories are like an ongoing soap opera.

The letter to her grandfather grew very long and, following her husband's suggestion, Allende turned it into the novel The House of the Spirits. The book brings together diverse elements that made it an almost instant success: historical events, romance, humor, fantasy, class conflicts, and political realism. It follows the model of magical realism, a literary style that came to characterize the Latin American "Boom" of the 1950s and 1960s. This phrase describes a group of Latin American fiction writers, among them Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez, whose novels combine elements of Western culture easily explained by rational thought with elements that defy such thinking, such as the supernatural and non-Western religions.

Other factors may have contributed to the success of The House of the Spirits as well. Allende, then living in exile, was the niece of deposed president Salvador Allende, and the political situation in Chile had become quite volatile, where the abuses of the military regime had started to attract international attention and protests.

The House of the Spirits starts with the beginnings of the Trueba family. The narrative focuses at first on the Del Valle family, whose youngest daughter Clara marries Esteban Trueba. Esteban, a self-made man, symbolizes the Chilean Conservative forces. His refusal to yield to a changing political reality represents the oligarchy (a government run by the few) and also the patriarchy (a system governed by men). He controls the destinies of peasant women who live on his land and women of his own class, including those in his family. His rape of a peasant woman illustrates his position of ownership and control.

The novel's female protagonists, Clara, her mother Nívea, Clara's daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba, stand in opposition to Esteban and everything he embodies. Clara, Blanca, and Alba are able to partially escape Esteban's control by ignoring or disobeying him. Each of these women creates a parallel world in her house, where she offers shelter to those who live at the margins of the prevailing system. At different times Clara houses the spirits with which she communicates, students of esoteric sciences, practitioners of spiritualism, artists, poets, and the poor. For each new guest she has a new room built in the house, transforming it into a labyrinth. After the coup, Blanca uses those rooms to hide Pedro Tercero, and Alba shelters fugitives from the regime while they wait to be taken to a friendly embassy. The house thus acquires two sides: the exterior, representing Esteban's political and social power, and the internal underground where members of Esteban's own family work to undermine the dominant power.

Nívea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba can also be interpreted as representing change in Chilean women's social status throughout the twentieth century. Nívea, for example, is a suffragist, fighting for women's political rights, and Alba is the first woman in her family to attend college. The changes in women's social status parallel the country's changing political profile with respect to the rights of the working classes. Unsurprisingly, political repression is accompanied by a regression in social customs and values after the military coup.

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The novel is mostly narrated in the third person by Alba, but the narrative perspective occasionally shifts to the first person, when Esteban narrates events from his point of view. In spite of his violent temperament and conservative ideology, Esteban is portrayed as a sympathetic character, rather than as a villain. Nevertheless, the women are strong and remarkable characters. Besides the four female protagonists, the book portrays other strong women, like Nana, the gypsy woman who cares for the Del Valle and Trueba children; Ana Díaz, a university student and political activist who is tortured by the military; and the anonymous woman who gives shelter to Alba at the end of the novel. All of these women represent the strong core of Chilean society; the people who are capable creating real change. In this way, The House of the Spirits ends on a note of hope, when Alba reveals that she is pregnant and refers to the unborn child as her daughter. She carries in her womb another woman who, like her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and other women before her, will work to build a better society.


Chapter One: Rosa the Beautiful

Severo del Valle, an atheist and aMason, attends mass every Sunday with his wife and children because he believes it may help his political ambitions. His wife Nívea has similar feelings regarding religion and the church, but hopes Severo will secure a seat in Congress so that he can help women attain the right to vote. Father Restrepo, the pastor of St. Sebastián's Parish, is full of religious zeal. In his weekly sermons he talks about sin, hell, and punishment, evoking terrifying images that nonetheless do not scare young Clara Del Valle. She is a precocious and curious girl with uncommon mental powers that allow her to move things around the house without touching them, and later to communicate with spirits and see the future. As soon as she is old enough to write, Clara gets into the habit of writing down everything that happens, recording events in her notebooks.

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Isabel Allende

Isabel Angélica Allende was born on August 2, 1942, in Lima, Peru, where her father Tomás Allende was a diplomat. In 1945 her mother filed for divorce and returned to Chile with her three children, where their maternal grandparents helped to raise them. In 1953 Allende's mother married Ramón Huidobro, also a diplomat, and between 1953 and 1958 the family lived abroad. When Allende returned to Chile she met Miguel Frías, whom she married in 1962. They have two children: Paula, born in 1963, and Nicolás, born in 1966. Between 1964 and 1974, Allende worked as a journalist for various magazines and newspapers, and also wrote for theater and television.

Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970, but on September 11, 1973, a military coup ended his democratic government. During the siege of the Presidential Palace, Salvador Allende died. It is not known whether he was killed or committed suicide. Fearing for their safety as relatives of the late president, Allende and her family left Chile in 1975 and moved to Venezuela, where they lived until 1988. In 1987 she divorced Frías and the following year married Willie Gordon. As of 2005, Allende and Gordon live in San Rafael, California.

Rosa, the oldest of Nívea's living daughters, possesses a strange and disturbing beauty that attracts everyone's attention. Since Rosa's birth Nívea has recognized a different quality in her, one that is not quite human. Rosa nonetheless leads a fairly normal life. She is engaged to Esteban Trueba, son of Doña Esther Trueba, a woman of aristocratic descent whose alcoholic husband, Esteban's father, has squandered the family's wealth. Constantly humiliated by his extreme poverty, Esteban promises he will one day make a fortune for himself. The first time he sees Rosa he falls in love with her, and he is introduced to the Del Valle family through his sister Férula. In time, Esteban is engaged to Rosa. Thanks to the prestige of his mother's name, Esteban acquires a concession to work the silver and gold mines in the northern part Page 289  |  Top of Article
Isabelle Allende

Isabelle Allende © Touhig Sion/Corbis Sygma
of the country, where he hopes to strike it rich so that he can return and marry Rosa.

Esteban has spent two years working hard in the mines when news of Rosa's death reaches him. She dies after drinking poisoned liquor sent to her father as a gift from an anonymous political enemy. The family physician Dr. Cuevas does an autopsy of the body in the kitchen, for lack of a better place, and Clara watches. Clara is traumatized by this gruesome scene and refuses to speak for many years.

Chapter Two: The Three Marías

Angry about Rosa's death and the time he has spent in the mines, Esteban announces to Férula that he is not going back. They argue, and Esteban decides to move to Tres Marías, the family's old hacienda, now in ruins. He promises Férula that he will always provide for her and their mother. Esteban takes charge of the peasants living on the property, leading them in the thorough reconstruction of the house and the land, with Pedro Segundo García as his foreman.

Tres Marías becomes a model of prosperity and Esteban becomes a wealthy man. To satisfy a sexual urge, Esteban rapes fifteen-year-old Pancha García, Pedro Segundo's sister. She becomes his mistress, but after she is pregnant with his child he sends her back to her family's hut. The peasants' lives have improved somewhat since Esteban's arrival, but he refuses to pay them a decent salary or treat them with dignity. His reputation as an angry and cruel man spreads. World War I has ended by this time, and new ideas about workers' rights and social equality reach the country. Esteban meets Tránsito Soto, a young, intelligent prostitute; he lends her money so she can move to the capital.

Chapter Three: Clara the Clairvoyant

Since Clara has stopped talking, her parents, her doctor, and Nana have tried all sorts of remedies and tricks to make her talk, but to no avail. She communicates with others using a slate. She spends her childhood and adolescence happily at home, reading and writing in her notebook, completely protected from the outside world. On her nineteenth birthday she suddenly begins to Page 290  |  Top of Articletalk again, predicting that she will soon be married to Esteban. Around the same time, Esteban returns to the city upon receiving the news that his mother is dying. Despite her terrible physical condition, Doña Esther dies happy after seeing her son, having urged him to get married as soon as possible.

Esteban and Clara marry despite a fifteen-year age difference and move to the grandiose house Esteban has had built for them. Férula goes to live with the couple and takes charge of the household. Esteban is deeply in love with Clara but she remains distant and distracted, paying more attention to the spirits than to him. Clara becomes pregnant, and Férula takes care of her as if she were a child. Férula's love for her sister-in-law grows, and she starts having sensual dreams about Clara. Clara gives birth to Blanca.

Chapter Four: The Time of the Spirits

When Blanca is a toddler, the family goes to Tres Marías for the summer, where she meets a little boy, Pedro Tercero, son of Pedro Segundo, and they become inseparable friends. At the hacienda Clara comes to understand the peasants' resentment and fear of Esteban, and busily helps with the daily chores. Clara becomes pregnant again and the family returns to the city. She stops talking again until her pregnancy is almost over and then speaks again to announce that she is expecting twin boys. This makes Esteban extremely happy, as he desires to have a child named after him, but Clara declares they will be named Jaime and Nicolás. Furious, Esteban goes to the brothel where Tránsito Soto is now working. The three Mora sisters appear at the Trueba residence. They share Clara's interests in spiritualism and her supernatural powers, and the four begin to meet regularly.

Just before the twins' birth, Clara dreams that her parents have been killed in a car accident and her mother decapitated. In Clara's dream, nobody can find Nívea's head and Clara resorts to her special powers to find it. After the twins are born, Nana moves to the Trueba residence to look after the children. Férula's love for Clara grows into a possessive jealousy, and she does everything she can to keep Esteban away from his wife. Esteban and Férula have a confrontation and he expels her from the house. Férula sets a curse upon him: that he will be always lonely and will shrink until he dies.

Chapter Five: The Lovers

Blanca's childhood progresses uneventfully except for the summers spent at Tres Marías, where her friendship with Pedro Tercero turns into love as both enter adolescence. Férula's spirit appears to the family at dinnertime and Clara announces that Férula has died. As the years go by, Blanca and Pedro Tercero exchange love letters during the school year and in the summer they meet secretly by the river after everyone is asleep. One summer Clara starts having nightmares and foresees a major earthquake in the animal's strange behaviors. The earthquake destroys everything in Tres Marías and buries Esteban in the rubble. He is pulled out alive, and Pedro García uses his healing powers to repair Esteban's broken bones. Nana dies of fright. Esteban must stay in bed for many months, and Clara and Pedro Segundo take charge of rebuilding the farm. Working together, they develop a mutual appreciation; while sick, Esteban becomes increasingly demanding, making Clara despise him.

Pedro Tercero, aware of the social inequalities around him, tries to raise the peasants' social consciousness. Esteban fires him and forbids him to return to Tres Marías. At the same time, Blanca gets sick and Clara has to remove her from convent school and take her back to the farm. Once there, they find Esteban enraged, fuming over Pedro Tercero, who is now a Socialist presidential candidate, and the communist ideas circulating around the farm. Pedro Tercero becomes a hero for the peasants. Blanca learns how to make clay figurines to keep busy in the time between her sporadic encounters with Pedro Tercero.

Chapter Six: Revenge

Esteban feels lonelier as his relationships with Clara and Blanca deteriorate. He meets Count Jean de Satigny, a con artist, and invites him to be his guest at Tres Marías. The count has an eye on Esteban's wealth and sees Blanca as a means to it. He asks Esteban for her hand in marriage, but is rejected by Blanca. Blanca and Pedro Tercero's encounters continue. One night, the count sees her jumping from her bedroom window, follows her, and sees her with Pedro Tercero. He warns Esteban, who gets on his horse, finds Blanca, and beats her furiously as she makes her way back to the house. In a rage, Esteban blames Clara and hits her, throwing her to the ground. Clara never speaks to Esteban Page 291  |  Top of Articleagain and she and Blanca return to the capital. After that Pedro Segundo resigns as Esteban's foreman and leaves Tres Marías.

Esteban's hatred for Pedro Tercero increases and he offers a reward to anyone who knows where he can be found. A boy named Esteban García comes to see him with information about Pedro Tercero. García is the bastard grandson of Esteban Trueba and Pancha García, but Esteban Trueba does not realize this yet. The boy takes Esteban Trueba to the sawmill where Pedro Tercero has been hiding. Esteban Trueba attacks Pedro Tercero with an axe and cuts three of his fingers off, but Pedro Tercero manages to escape. Esteban Trueba is enraged and refuses to pay Esteban García the promised reward.

Chapter Seven: The Brothers

Clara and Blanca set their house in the capital back in order. The twins, Jaime and Nicolás, now students at the university, live there. They have grown to be quite different from each other. Jaime has a deep sense of social justice, works for the poor, and studies medicine; Nicolás is constantly in search of himself and experimenting with new ideas or lifestyles—poetry writing, teaching flamenco, and practicing Eastern religions. Nicolás's girlfriend Amanda is several years older than the twins. She is independent, dresses in the manner of the existentialists, and takes care of her five-year-old brother Miguel. Nicolás tries hashish for the first time with Amanda. Later, she starts using other drugs.

Blanca is pregnant, and soon it becomes obvious to others. Esteban finds out and arranges for Blanca to be married to Jean de Satigny against her will, a course of action which promises Esteban a considerable monthly income. The abundance and extravagance of the wedding party contrasts sharply with the scene in the center of town—unemployed workers hungry and homeless. New presidential elections take place, and this time the Conservative party wins by a narrow margin, followed closely by the Socialist candidate. Amanda gets pregnant, and Nicolás asks Jaime to perform an abortion.

Chapter Eight: The Count

After their wedding, Blanca and the count go to a hotel where the count reveals, to Blanca's relief, that he has "no … inclination" to consummate the marriage. Following Esteban's determinations, they settle in the farthest province in the North, where the count occupies himself decorating their mansion, buying fancy clothes and pursuing photography. Blanca grows bigger finds her pregnancy more exhausting; at the same time she finds out about the count's strange erotic preferences. Shocked and afraid for the baby, she runs from the house and takes a train back to the capital.

Chapter Nine: Little Alba

Blanca arrives at her parents' house, exhausted and about to give birth. Alba is born amid omens of good luck, according to Clara. The baby is delivered with the help of Jaime and Amanda, who have been staying at the house with Miguel since Amanda's abortion. Alba grows up thinking she is Jean de Satigny's daughter and is happy being raised by her mother, grandmother, and uncles among the house's many eccentric guests. She also becomes close to Esteban, who has softened since the girl's birth. Like her mother and grandmother, Alba grows up sheltered from the outside world.

Blanca continues her encounters with Pedro Tercero, now a popular singer whose songs play continually on the radio. She takes Alba to meet him. When Alba is six years old she sees Esteban García for the first time. He is waiting to talk to Esteban Trueba in the Tres Marías library. Esteban García's hatred for Esteban Trueba and his social class has increased over the years, and Alba "embodied everything he would never have." With mixed feelings of hatred and desire, he makes her sit on his lap and put her hand on his genitals. Clara dies on Alba's seventh birthday.

Chapter Ten: The Epoch of Decline

After Clara's death, the Trueba house goes into decline: the guests are gone, the happy mood disappears, the plants die, and the cats leave the house. Esteban's finances also suffer, and eventually Tres Marías becomes a financial burden. Esteban feels reconciled with his wife and has a mausoleum built so he will be buried between Rosa and Clara after he dies. With that in mind, he steals Rosa's body to have it reburied in the mausoleum. Jaime works as a medical doctor at a hospital for the poor "with the vocation of a true apostle," while Nicolás teaches Eastern philosophy and meditation. Aggravated by Nicolás's activities, Esteban has a heart attack.

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Alba is sent to a British school for girls. Like Clara, she starts to write down everything that happens in her life. Esteban continues to resist social change, rejecting ideas about worker's rights and charity as "Socialist nonsense." Despite his age, he stays active in politics, obsessed with the "Marxist cancer" threatening his country. Pedro Tercero's popularity keeps growing. In Pedro Tercero's regular encounters with Alba, he talks to her about the poor and social justice. Esteban meets Tránsito Soto again.

Chapter Eleven: The Awakening

Alba enters the university and meets Miguel, now a student leader and political activist. They fall in love. Miguel preaches revolution as the only means for social change. In support of a worker's strike, the students occupy a building in the university and Alba joins them. The police surround the building in which the students have barricaded themselves. Alba has her menstrual period and is bleeding heavily. Miguel asks for a truce and Alba is taken outside. The police commander is Esteban García. Alba remembers another disturbing encounter with Esteban García years before, when he forcibly kissed her.

Alba and Miguel continue dating. He has finished law school and talks about joining the guerrillas. Changes are happening around the country as people become more aware of their situation and their own political power. Jaime, who has become friends with the Socialist candidate, argues against political extremism. He believes the Socialists will win the upcoming elections. Esteban and his allies stage a campaign to terrorize the population, turning them against the perceived communist threat. Jaime moves out of the house. Alba and Miguel ask him to help Miguel's sister. Jaime thus reencounters Amanda, who is now a drug addict living in dire poverty.

Chapter Twelve: The Conspiracy

The Socialists win the presidential election. The poor, workers, students, intellectuals, and other supporters celebrate in the streets, while the upper classes hide in their homes. Esteban and other members of the Conservative party meet secretly with members of the military and some "gringos sent by their intelligence service." Together they devise a strategy to destabilize and discredit the new government: they stir strikes, cause a shortage of goods, and create social unrest. Pedro Tercero is offered a job with the government, and he and Blanca stop seeing each other. Esteban buys a large cache of weapons that he hides in his house, but Jaime and Alba find out. They steal part of the cache and bury it. As part of the new agrarian reform, Tres Marías is expropriated. Furious, Esteban goes to the farm in an attempt to reclaim it and is taken hostage by the peasants. Blanca asks Pedro Tercero to intervene. The country's situation worsens. One of the Mora sisters shows up at Esteban's house with a message from the long-dead Clara for Alba to be careful in the "[t]errible times [that] lie ahead."

Chapter Thirteen: The Terror

Jaime is called early in the morning to the Presidential Palace. The navy has rebelled, and the president is trying to assess the situation and come to an agreement with some military commanders. When the talks fail, the building is evacuated except for the president, Jaime, other close associates, and the private guard. The building is heavily bombed. Everyone is ordered out and beaten as they exit the building. The president remains inside and later the military claims that he has committed suicide, but many believe he has been killed. Jaime, along with many others, is taken prisoner, savagely tortured and then assassinated. Much later, a soldier who witnessed his murder—and whose mother Jaime had cured—informs the Trueba family.

Terror reigns as many lose their jobs and cannot feed their families. Poverty increases while the upper classes experience a period of abundance and apparent order. A policy of censorship is established that affects even Pablo Neruda, the Chile's national poet and Nobel Prize winner. He dies, and his funeral becomes a small demonstration of resistance against the dictatorship.

Unbeknownst to Esteban, Alba begins to help fugitives from the regime, sheltering them in the house and later taking them to friendly embassies where they find asylum. Pedro Tercero, who is wanted by the military, hides in the house. Blanca asks Esteban to help him, and Esteban takes Pedro Tercero in the trunk of his car to the Papal Nuncio's residence, where he is given asylum. Later, Pedro Tercero and Blanca move to Canada as political exiles. Miguel appears at the house, and Alba leads him to the buried weapons. Plainclothes policemen invade Page 293  |  Top of ArticleEsteban's house during the night and take Alba at gunpoint. She is blindfolded, beaten, and taken to Esteban García, now a colonel.

Chapter Fourteen: The Hour of Truth

Still blindfolded, Alba can hear others being tortured from the cell where she has been taken. She is taken several times to Colonel García, who asks her about Miguel. She is repeatedly beaten, tortured, and raped. After a torture session during which she passes out, she is taken to a cell with other women prisoners. Ana Díaz is there. She is pregnant, but has been tortured and loses the baby. The two become friends and mutual supporters. Alba is once more taken to García and begins to realize that he resents her for reasons other than her connection to Miguel. She is his "private prisoner." He sends Alba to the "doghouse," a small and dark tomb-like cell where she stays for days, dying. Meanwhile, Esteban has tried everything to discover Alba's whereabouts. In a final effort, he consults to Tránsito Soto, now the owner of a fancy brothel attended by military officers and other powerful men. Tránsito repays her old debt to Esteban with information.


Alba is freed in the middle of the night, in a shantytown. The residents help her and take her home. Reunited with Esteban, she tells him all that happened to her. He proposes that they leave the country, but Alba refuses. He realizes she wants to stay because of Miguel, and he tells her Miguel came to see him and the two men together tried to find her. Esteban and Alba clean and restore order to the house. Following her grandfather's suggestion, she starts to write down the story that readers are now reading. Esteban dies peacefully in Alba's arms.


Class Differences

The war between the military dictatorship and the civilian population in Chile followed a longstanding split between the wealthy and the poor in that country. Interspersed with the Trueba family story, Allende describes scenes that are representative of the social changes happening in Chile, especially after World War II. As the narrative progresses, the family's story and national history become more closely linked. Members of the Trueba family, despite their own social standing, become politically conscious and begin to side with the poor. As a result they become targets of violent political repression: Jaime is arrested, tortured, and assassinated; Blanca and Pedro Tercero must flee the country; and Alba is kidnapped and tortured by the police.

Throughout the novel Allende calls the reader's attention to the social division and injustice affecting the poor and the working classes. As lower-class people become more aware of the extreme differences in wealth, their discontent increases. Socialism—a form of government in which production and distribution is controlled by the state, not individuals or corporations—seems to offer some solutions, but the elite class fears Socialist ideas and begins to defend itself against a possible uprising. When the Socialist candidate wins the presidency, it is a cue for the upper class to do something drastic. Allende alludes to American involvement in the coup. The Chilean right wing and military were with "gringos" and "imperialism," which ultimately sustained the entire repressive regime. The seeds of war could nonetheless be found in the disparities that had separated the rich and the poor for a long time.

Censorship, Violence, and Torture

In its effort to eradicate Socialism from Chile, the military persecuted and killed thousands of people and implemented censorship. The media censored, and social behavior was censored as well. The military also used other forms of repression and violence. Allende employs a narrative tone that conveys the sense of urgency experienced by the whole population, both the persecutors and the persecuted. The rapid succession of events in the novel suggests the generalbewilderment, fear, and despair that spread through the population. The country is literally and metaphorically bombarded, with increasing frequency. This contrasts with the eerie quiet of curfew, when people become shadows in the dark, always mindful of possible attacks, as they are when Alba is released by the military at the end of the novel.

Political repression also serves as a cover for personal hatred, as it does in the case of Esteban García. As a colonel he has the power to torture Alba for no other reason than his own malice. Allende portrays other expressions of personal Page 294  |  Top of Articlehatred and vengeance. For example, after the coup, people are fired "at will" and "thrown in jail for the slightest protest." Soldiers and policemen take it upon themselves to impose "order, morality, and decency," stopping longhaired men on the street and tearing women's pants as a way of warning them to wear skirts. Censorship is initially imposed on the mass media and later on textbooks, movies, and television. Eventually it reaches absurd proportions: "even [a] private conversation" was subject to it, and words such as freedom and justice, deemed subversive, were prohibited. The author describes this sort of incident in a manner that shows how daily life can become ridiculous, chaotic, and dangerous under a repressive regime.

Hope and Resistance

Allende's depiction of the war in Chile is graphic, but it is not as gruesome as actual victim testimony or the investigative reports of what happened in the country during those years. However, Allende does show that the civilian population was woefully unprepared to face the military's strength. In addition, she uses different characters to represent various reactions to the new state of affairs. For example, Miguel joins the guerrillas while Jaime, a pacifist, trusts democratic elections as a means to achieve change. Others who have fewer opportunities to resist find their own twisted form of justice against the cruelty of the regime. In one case, a mob of people kills a young soldier "doing his military service," and hangs him "from a post with his guts wrapped around his neck, the people's revenge for him having carried out the orders of his superiors." In addition, there are others, like Alba, who resist the cruelty by doing good acts and helping people escape the terror, one individual at a time.

In the novel, the possibilities for resistance, peace, and hope are embodied in small but meaningful acts: young people scribble verses by the censured poet Neruda on walls in the center of town; groups of civilians guard public buildings; people shout Salvador Allende's name during Neruda's funeral; women, despite having been beaten and tortured, sing out loud in their cells to give each other courage and to challenge the guards to silence them. Allende suggests that peace lies in these small acts of resistance and solidarity, and she repeatedly depicts women as agents of such acts. For Allende, the possibility of peace depends crucially on women. Allende
A still smoking presidential palace seen through a bullet-ridden window, during the aftermath of the coup detat in which Army General Augusto Pinochet toppled Chilean President Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973

A still smoking presidential palace seen through a bullet-ridden window, during the aftermath of the coup d'etat in which Army General Augusto Pinochet toppled Chilean President Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973 © Horacio Villalobos/Corbis
gives poetry, and literature in general, significant role in building a peaceful and just future. This hope for change is the real purpose of Alba's narrative and Allende's own writing.


Chile: 1900–1950

In 1810, Chile became independent from Spain; two major parties and ideologies split political power: Conservatives and Liberals. Both represented the elite's political and economic interests, with one major difference: the Liberals favored a parliamentary and secular government, while the Conservatives were more traditional and had a closer connection with the Page 295  |  Top of ArticleChurch. These two parties took turns running the country's government for the first half of the twentieth century.

During the first three decades of that century, the country saw its first wave of industrial development. However, the Great Depression in the United States affected Chile's economy, and the country suffered strikes and political tensions. After a period of transition, years of political calm and economic growth followed. World War I and World War II brought new waves of European immigrants to Chile and neighboring South American countries. The immigrants brought new political ideas to the country, most notably Marxism, a form of Socialism. Unions and other political organizations slowly began to take shape. Factory workers and an emerging middle class became the newest political influence in Chile. In 1920, Arturo Alessandri Palma—the son of an Italian immigrant—was elected president, supported by a coalition of working and middle classes.

Chile joined World War II in 1944 on the side of the Allies. The end of this war brought inflation and workers' strikes while a new impulse toward industrialization deepened the economic gap among the social classes. Internal migration became a regular phenomenon; rural workers frequently moved to the cities in search of a better life, but often found unemployment instead. The cost of living increased considerably, which also affected the middle class.

Political Upheaval

By 1958, there was general discontent among Chileans, and they expressed it through their votes: the Conservative candidate, Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, son of Arturo Alessandri Palma, won the presidential election by a narrow margin, followed by Salvador Allende, who had 40 percent of the vote. Popular pressure forced Alessandri to begin implementing some economic reforms, which were to include land reform. However, these reforms were interrupted in 1960 by a violent earthquake and a destructive tidal wave, which killed thousands and caused a great deal of damage. As the country's economic situation worsened, the public's demanded social change.

Moderate president Eduardo Frei Montalva, elected in 1964, enacted some educational and economic reforms, but economic growth was slow and inflation continued to increase, as did social unrest. Leftist Salvador Allende became president in 1970, winning 36.5 percent of the vote and beating Alessandri by just 1.5 percent. The first year of Allende's presidency saw economic growth, an increase in the employment rate and a general improvement in living standards. However, the United States had tried to interfere in the presidential elections to prevent Allende's victory; it used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to promote strikes and other disturbances that caused shortages and other social problems. The CIA's involvement in Chile is well documented in investigations carried by independent organizations and the United States Congress; this action followed a precedent set by American actions on behalf of other dictatorships in South American.

Pinochet's Dictatorship

On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte led a military coup against Salvador Allende's democratically elected government. This coup was supported by the United States; it put an end to Allende's rule and initiated a dictatorship that lasted through 1989. Pinochet's government was responsible for the murder or disappearance of thousands of people, a group made up mostly of Chileans but which also included American citizens and other foreign nationals.

Isabel Allende stays close to the facts in her fictionalized account of Salvador Allende's fall from power, as well as the events that followed: the bombing of the Presidential Palace, tanks on the streets, arrests of thousands of civilians, kidnappings by the police and military forces, torture, killings, suspension of civil rights, censorship, and other brutal forms of political repression. Allende depicts a nation fighting a war against itself, one in which the aggressors are those who should protect the population: the Chilean military.

One of Allende's primary goals in The House of the Spirits is bearing witness to these dark moments in Chilean history. In the novel, Clara's spirit appears to Alba after she has been repeatedly tortured and calls upon her to:

write a testimony that might one day call attention to the terrible secret she was living through, so that the world would know about this horror that was taking place parallel to the peaceful existence of those who did not want to know.

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Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet

Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet © Reuters/Corbis

The coup détat was supported by the country's Conservative elite, who wanted to see Salvador Allende's political forces smothered. However, the military declared war on people, not on Socialism and Communism. As the narrative points out, there was not one family—not even among the elite—that was unaffected by the coup and the ensuing violence.

It is believed that at least three thousand Chileans were executed during and following the coup, while another two thousand were "disappeared," a common Latin American term for people who are presumed dead even though their bodies have never been recovered. In "The Victors" Noam Chomsky talks about the biased ways that history is presented and recorded by those in power. In this article he objects to the "famous success story" of Pinochet's Chile, suggesting it was quite the opposite. Quoting formerly exiled Christian Democratic Party leader Senator Anselmo Sule, Chomsky points out that "economic growth that benefit[ed] [only] 10 percent of the population ha[d] been achieved (Pinochet's official institutions agree), but [economic] development has not [been achieved]."

Reportedly, the number of poor Chileans increased from "1 million after Allende to 7 million" by the end of Pinochet's regime, without any change in the overall population. A plebiscite, or public referendum, voted against Pinochet's continued rule and he left the presidency on March, 11, 1990, amid open challenges to his regime and calls for an account of missing Chileans. As Pinochet's power and influence continued to decrease during the 1990s, Chilean authorities became embroiled in legal battles with the aging ex-dictator, in an effort to hold him responsible for some of the abuses that took place during his administration.


The House of the Spirits was first published in Spain by Plaza & Janéss because Allende was initially unable to find a Latin American Page 297  |  Top of Articlepublisher. This may have been due, in part, to the fact that in the early 1980s it was still difficult for a woman writer to break into the male-dominated Latin American literary scene.

The book received mixed reviews when it first appeared. Many Latin American critics claimed the novel was an imitation of Gabriel Garciáa Márquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (1968) and that Allende's use of magical realism was merely a formulaic repetition. Others criticized Allende's narrative for being too linear and too accessible when compared to the more experimental fiction of other Latin American Boom writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Garciáa Márquez himself, or even to the work of contemporary writers such as Chilean Diamela Eltit.

Critics in the United States also noted thematic and methodological similarities between The House of the Spirits had with Garciáa Márquez's popular novel. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in "Books of the Times" for the New York Times, says Allende "seems guilty of that extravagant and whimsical fabulousness so dear to the imagination of many South and Central American fictionalists." Although Jonathan Yardley, in "Desire and Destiny in Latin America," agrees that Márquez's influence is obvious, he believes Allende "is scarcely an imitator." In fact, U.S. critics did not generally hold this influence against her. In many cases, as in "Reconciliation Among the Ruins" by Alexander Coleman, they credit Allende with going beyond Garciáa Márquez's seemingly "[fatalistic resignation] to the phenomenon of violence in Latin America." In "Powerful Chilean Saga Blends Fact and Fiction," Marjorie Agosin writes that "Allende's style is very much her own."

Other observations focus on what Yardley calls the novel's sometimes "predictable politics." Lehmann-Haupt points out that it is "full of one-dimensional characters of excessive good or evil … there are simply no good right-wingers and no bad revolutionaries." Yet these critics agree that the main characters—Esteban Trueba, Clara, Blanca, and Alba—all exceed these limited dimensions.

Allende's ability to maintain obvious loyalties to the Latin American literary tradition while adding to and expanding it has earned her the most praise. New York University Latin American literature professor Coleman notes:

[Allende turns] practically every major Latin American novel on its head. Rarely has a new novel from Latin America consciously or unconsciously owed more to its predecessors; equally rare is the original utterance coming out of what is now a collective literary inheritance.

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The film adaptation of The House of the Spirits (1993) was directed by Bille August and stars Jeremy Irons as Esteban Trueba and Meryl Streep as Clara. The cast also includes Vanessa Redgrave, Glen Close, Winona Ryder, and Antonio Banderas. Although it condenses the long narrative, the movie is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, focusing on Esteban and Clara's relationship and on the political events surrounding the military coup. It is available on DVD and VHS from LIVE/Artisan.

Another of Allende's novels about life under Pinochet was adapted into film by director Betty Kaplan. Of Love and Shadows (1994) stars Antonio Banderas as Francisco and Jennifer Connelly as Irene. These two lovers become involved in the underground rebellion against Pinochet. It is available on VHS and DVD from Miramax.

Missing (1982) is based on the true story of American activist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the violent aftermath of Chile's 1973 coup d'état. Directed by Costa-Gravas and starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, the movie is an adaptation of a book by Thomas Houser. It is available on VHS and DVD from MCA Home Video.

Coleman also notes a feminine sensibility emerging in the male-dominated arena of literary production. Allende, after all, "becomes the first woman to join what has heretofore been an exclusive male club of Latin American Page 298  |  Top of Articlenovelists." Finally, critics praise Allende's novel for moving beyond the specific circumstances of Chilean social and political history and, through the Trueba family story, offering insight into universal human concerns.


Deborah Cohn

In the excerpt, Cohn discusses the problem of representation of reality in Allende's novel, arguing that, for Allende, realistic modes of representation serve the patriarchal and political status quo, and thus Allende uses a form of "magical realism" to present an alternative view of three main themes.

La Casa de Los Espíritus suggests that prevailing discourses for constructing and depicting reality are handmaidens of the patriarchal system. Its pseudo-objective voice claims to stand for the past but, in truth, reproduces only that which affirms and perpetuates its own norms.

Accordingly, magic realism is refigured here from a feminist perspective to describe women's experience and strengths within a male-dominated system. The novel attempts to provide a corrective to the official view of history by emphasizing its feminine protagonists' "second sight": Clara's clairvoyance, of course, but also the peripheral vision—the vision of and from the periphery—shared by the women of the Trueba family.

The power dynamics behind the competing visions of reality in the novel are concretized in the structure and remodelling of the family home. Potentially as disruptive to society and its institutions as Nívea's activism, Clara's magic is circumscribed to the house, first by her father and, subsequently, by her husband. However, she sets a precedent for the women of her family by marking off a space for herself—both literally and figuratively—within Esteban Trueba's domain. The notebooks in which she compensates for her silence, and which later become her excuse for wresting the privilege of naming children from the patriarch, are ultimately the sole remaining testimony of the magical realm that she inhabited. Written and ethereal space together place Clara beyond her husband's desire to possess her in body and soul, since he cannot control or even enter them. "Traté inclusive de compartir esos aspectos de su existencia," he confesses, "pero a ella no le gustaba que leyeran sus cuadernos y mi presencia le cortaba la inspiración cuando conversaba con sus espíritus." The metaphysical territory of the spirit world is reified in the sections of the house that Clara takes over, and which are actually partitioned off during Trueba's terms in office. In the same manner that her notebooks defy historical convention, narrating events in terms of their importance rather than in chronological order, she turns the house, constructed in a uniform, classical style as the public image of the senator and his family, into a twisted aberration. It gradually becomes an enchanted labyrinth whose architecture breaks municipal laws made on earth, while the activities it shelters defy the laws of physics and logic-ordained in the heavens. In the magic universe of her own devise, she holds court with her friends and carries on conversations with the other world; here, "el tiempo no se marcaba con relojes ni calendariosy … los objetos tenían vida propia."

In her testimony, Alba repeatedly refers to Clara's heyday as "los tiempos de los espíritus," part of "un mundo mágico que se acabó." Critics have seized on these and other references to the departure of the spirits to postulate a gradual transition in the novel from one order of reality to another, and, concomitantly, from magical realism to a politically realistic style. As the Trueba family becomes more involved in events outside the house, and as these become more appalling, they claim that Clara's magic recedes from Alba's experience. While I agree that the world invoked by the former does not survive her death intact, I would argue that it was not a hermetically sealed refuge even during her lifetime, nor had it ever been. "'El mundo … ha cambiado,'" Clara remarks, when she returns to the house in the city and finds it devoid of spirits and eccentricities alike. Both magic and tragic historical realities are present in the narrative from the very beginning. Rosa's death officially announces the violence—at first anonymous, but, later, engendered by Trueba himself—which is to mark the family's destiny. The relationship between the two orders of being is not progressive, but instead has enchanted periods punctuating starker moments. The spirits might abandon the house, but they do not go far away. The narrative owes its very existence, in fact, to their actions. First Clara, herself a Page 299  |  Top of Articleghost, visits her granddaughter and bids her to write to surmount her circumstances. And finally, Clara's notebooks, repositories of the past and sources for Alba's text, escape the pyre which destroys the other family papers only because they are "escamoteados por algunos espíritus cómplices."

The novel's political history, conversely, is not itself lacking in "unreality"—and not, simply, because the evil that it engenders is too horrifying (diabolical, as it were) to be believed. The dictatorship seemingly renders the benevolent spirits impotent only to appropriate their powers for its own purposes. It actively exploits the public's need for something to worship, for "el lado mágico de las cosas" that had not been satisfied by the atheist, pragmatic Marxist doctrine of the deposed regime. It uses magic to support its illusions of order and prosperity: overnight, gardens appear "por encantamiento," promoting the "fantasía" of a peaceful spring. And it is successful in creating a sector of reality which is able to lead a fairy tale existence: the upper class returns to the bounty of the era preceding the socialist government, and the city had never appeared more beautiful. On the other hand, this prestidigitation makes the lives of some surreal. Reality becomes "una pesadilla" when Jaime sees the pistol in his doctor's life-giving hands, and later, when Alba is taken captive. Additionally, Trueba, unable to trace the latter's whereabouts, cannot explain her disappearance except "por obra de magia." It is under these circumstances that Clara's warning that "[l]os espíritus protectores son ineficaces en los cataclismos mayores" proves true, and twice they fail to rescue Alba when she calls upon them.

And yet, even though the women's self-authored roles and alternative spaces are largely overpowered by male-dominated forces—and it is extremely important to keep in mind Allende's repeated conflation of patriarchy and military—they channel their subversive strategies in other directions. In addition to an unbridled imagination, each woman also passes on a strong sense of social justice to her children, a compulsion to confront forces of victimization that does not allow them to remain enclosed in a fantasy world. Consequently, there is throughout La casa de los espíritus a continuous dialectic between the women's metaphysical undertakings and their earthly missions.

Source: Deborah Cohn, "To see or not to see: Invisibility, Clairvoyance, and Re-Visions of History in Invisible Man and La Casa de Los Espíritus," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1996, pp. 372-95.


Agosin, Marjorie, "Powerful Chilean Saga Blends Fact and Fiction," in Christian Science Monitor, June 7, 1985, p. B5.

Allende, Isabel, The House of the Spirits, translated by Magda Bogin, Bantam, 1993.

Chomsky, Noam, "The Victors," Part 1, Z Magazine, (November 1990).

Coleman, Alexander, "Reconciliation Among the Ruins: The House of the Spirits," in the New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1985, section 7, p. 1.

García Pinto, Magdalena, "Espejo de Escritores," a video interview with Isabel Allende, Ediciones del Norte, 1988.

Isabel Allende's Official Homepage, (September 26, 2005).

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, "Books of the Times," in the New York Times, May 9, 1985, section C, p. 29.

Yardley, Jonathan, "Desire and Destiny in Latin America," in the Washington Post, May 12, 1985, Book World section, p. 3.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3451000033