The Struggle for Space: Feminism and Freedom

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[(essay date 1 March 1991) In the following essay, which originally appeared as a chapter of a senior honors thesis presented at Harvard College on March 1, 1991, García-Johnson examines Allende's representation of the struggle for dominance between men and women.]

The temporal setting of the action in The House of the Spirits spans fifty years--from the early twenties to about 1974. Historically, and fictionally, within the novel, these were the years in which the women's movement began to gather strength, and then gain progress. While it is apparent that Allende has traced the development of women's struggle for freedom in her novel, some critics have suggested that Nivea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba are allegorical characters which epitomize women at various phases of Chilean social and political history. Michael Handelsman has proposed that Nivea symbolized the early suffragist movement, Clara, more personal statements of liberty, Blanca, the movement towards free and healthy passion, and Alba, the consolidation of these distinct forms of protest and their most recent successes. Marjorie Agosín asserts that the novel is "feminocéntrica." Patricia Hart argues that Clara and Blanca "indulge in passive behavior." Gabriela Mora has insisted that, while both male and female characters broke some stereotypes, Allende's female characters were not feminists. While the insightful arguments of Handelsman, Hart, Agosín and Mora lead to various conclusions, a spatial interpretation of the novel contributes to the idea that the Trueba women were proponents of their own independence.

A thorough and complex understanding of The House of the Spirits demands spatial interpretation, and thus a spatial examination of the treatment of women in the novel is imperative as well. There are treasures hidden in the spaces and rooms of Allende's novel, where the idea that bodies and structures are both houses, and that they are inseparable and essential, is fundamental. Careful examination reveals that, besides the bloody political battle between the military and the liberals, there is another war in the work. The battle of the sexes is cleverly manifested in the continuous struggle for space in the house; the main house in The House of the Spirits is a divided one. Allende's magnificent representation of the fight for dominance between men and women, the discordant coexistence of the male and female, is a prime example of the author's perception and presentation of a universal theme.

Allende utilized spatial symbolism to emphasize and parallel the actions of female characters as they sought to overcome the tyranny of patriarchy. In her novel, structures, and the spaces they contain, serve as metaphors for or symbols of social and political barriers. Rather than allowing these metaphorical or symbolic obstacles to determine their lives, the women of the Trueba family overcame them. Clara, Blanca, and Alba managed to defeat Esteban Trueba, who, with traditional notions of honor, of a woman's "place," and of sexuality, attempted to possess and confine these women. The Trueba women confronted Esteban in his own space, usurped his control of that area, expanded their lives into alternative...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000032