Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus: Between the Chronicle, the Testimonial, and the Love Story

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,709 words

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[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, Espadas traces the literary sources that influenced The House of the Spirits. She explains that Allende drew on chronicles of discovery, such as early Spanish texts in the Americas; women’s testimonial narratives, such as those by Clara and Alba; and the basic framework of a love story to present multiple views of a familial history, as well as Chilean social values.]

The extraordinary commercial success of Isabel Allende’s first novel and its subsequently rapid translation into English have made it one of the most widely discussed works of the past five years. In addition, the decline of the so-called “Boom” authors has left something of a vacuum from which new voices have been able to emerge. As a result, Allende’s first and second novels have not only had a forum, but one that has included a widely diverse number of critics, ranging from the newspaper reviews of Alexander Coleman in the New York Times and Tom Butler in the Wilmington News Journal, reviews and articles in popular magazines such as Vogue, Newsweek and the Saturday Review of Literature, a review in the Madrid-based literary newspaper Insula, as well as scholarly critical studies in many of the leading professional journals in Spanish or World Literature: Revista Iberoamericana, Texto Crítico, Contemporary Literature, Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinomericana, or Ideologies & Literature.

An examination of much of the extant bibliography brought to light some overwhelming trends. One is the rather striking division into “camps” of defenders and detractors. Very few critics seem to be unaffected by the novel, whether to praise or pan it. Secondly, many of the laudatory critics appeared to be unsure as to exactly how the novel should be evaluated in relation to other Latin American writers, particularly the male members of the Boom generation. Often the term “derivative” is used (or implied) to describe Allende’s work by those least favorable, while her originality and her blend of magical realism with social critique is praised by others.

In this paper, this latter specific issue will be considered, since it appears that part of the divergence in reacting to this novel does indeed rest on the novel’s similarity to, as well as difference from, the magical realist works of her male counterparts. In addition, the novel’s scope and blending of novelistic subgenre make it difficult to categorize neatly, again leading to a somewhat disconcerted reaction among the critics.

The first subgenre upon which Allende draws in the construction of her novelistic universe is the chronicle, which is a narration of events in chronological order, one usually concerned with the larger aspects of history, and often with a pronounced patriotic or nationalistic flavor. From this general concept are derived aspects of the chronicle of discovery and the family chronicle, both of which enjoy a long history in Latin American writing.

As Doris Sommer points out, chronicles of discovery, “those first Spanish texts in America are far from a coherent or self-identical canon,” but rather...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100116485