Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The House of the Spirits is the story of a South American country much like the author’s own Chile, shown by tracing a family through four generations and covering eight decades. Although in this society men control the church, the state, and the family, the major characters in Isabel Allende’s work are the strong-willed women who refuse to be dominated or destroyed.

Appropriately, the story begins with a public confrontation between ten-year-old Clara del Valle and the fanatical priest Father Restrepo. After Clara makes a loud skeptical comment in church, the priest proclaims that she is possessed by the devil. Although Clara shows no signs of being evil, she does commune with spirits. Therefore, when after nine years of silence Clara announces that she is going to marry her dead sister’s former fiancé, Esteban Trueba, it is understood that Clara is not merely mentioning a possibility, but foretelling the future.

Clara’s spirits evidently have not told her how stormy the marriage will be. At first, everything goes well. Esteban stops appropriating peasant girls for his sexual needs and concentrates on pleasing his beautiful and willing bride, and before long, he is the father of a daughter and twin sons. Clara, however, not only is given to retreating in to the spirit world but also makes it evident that she cannot agree with her husband’s political views. As a landowner, Esteban sees socialism and land reform as threats to his way of life. Clara, on the other hand, is an idealist who believes that Esteban’s Conservative Party stands for oppression and injustice.

As his children become older, Esteban finds that he cannot govern them any more than he can his wife. In part because...

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House of the Spirits Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Isabele Allende dedicated The House of the Spirits “to my mother, my grandmother, and all the other extraordinary women of this story.” As feminist critics have hastened to point out, her novel describes an inflexible patriarchal society which depends on traditional values and brute force to subjugate its poor, its powerless, and, therefore, its women. That so many women defy this society is evidence of their strength and their determination, and perhaps of the power of righteousness as well.

Clara, Blanca, and Alba, who Esteban Trueba says suffer from the inherited disease of idealism, are not the only “extraordinary women” who take part in the struggle against repression. There is Nivea del Valle, the mother of ten other living children besides Clara, who, though she has not yet discarded her corsets, is a “suffragette” in principle. There is Tránsito Soto, who by starting a cooperative of male and female prostitutes becomes, in effect, a union leader, but who is wily enough to maintain her power even under the Dictator. There is the once-beautiful Amanda, who, though debilitated by drugs, would rather die under torture than betray her brother Miguel. Then there are the heroic women in the prison camp, whose songs move even the men who guard them.

In her later novels, notably De amor y de sombra (1984; Of Love and Shadows, 1987) and Eva Luna (1987; English translation, 1988), Allende continues...

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House of the Spirits Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Tres Marías

Tres Marías. Hacienda of the Trueba family, which the family patriarch, Esteban Trueba, rebuilds from ruin several times. After growing up poor and working several years in a diamond mine to earn money, Esteban puts his money and energy into rebuilding the ruined country estate, making it one of the most successful in the country and enhancing his wealth considerably. He rebuilds it again after the house is destroyed by an earthquake and yet again after the land is turned over to the peasants for two years during the socialist administration and then returned to him following the military coup.

Esteban’s work on his hacienda confirms for him his political views. As the local patrón, Esteban opposes rights and freedoms for his tenants. Tenants caught passing out political tracts or discussing rights for the tenants are punished and banished from the hacienda. While Esteban takes pride in providing his tenants with the only brick houses on any hacienda in the area, he also feels justified in raping the women at will and taking no responsibility for the many children who result. Esteban’s wealth and political conviction eventually lead him to become a senator.

Ironically, it is at Tres Marías that Esteban’s daughter Blanca falls in love with one of the tenants, her childhood friend Pedro Tercero García. Pedro Tercero becomes a popular singer and political figure who helps the socialist president win his election and who fights against the military coup. Alba, Blanca and...

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House of the Spirits Historical Context

Chile and the Turmoil of the 1970s
Although the setting of House of the Spirits is never explicitly named, there are...

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House of the Spirits Literary Style

Narration/Point of View
While much of House of the Spirits seems to have very straightforward third-person ("he/she")...

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House of the Spirits Literary Techniques

While much of The House of the Spirits seems to have very straightforward third person ("he/she") narrative style, there are, in fact,...

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House of the Spirits Ideas for Group Discussions

Isabel Allende writes about three generations of women who try to establish their independence from the domineering family patriarch, Esteban...

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House of the Spirits Social Concerns

Until the publication of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, few female writers had emerged from the "Boom" of Latin American...

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House of the Spirits Compare and Contrast

Chile: The country of Chile occupies 748,800 square kilometers of land—roughly twice the size of Montana—and in the late 1990s had...

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House of the Spirits Literary Precedents

Because of the author's family background and the political subject matter of The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's best-selling...

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House of the Spirits Related Titles

Allende's second novel, Of Love and Shadows (1984), is an even more overtly political work than her first. Journalist Irene Beltran...

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House of the Spirits Adaptations

Danish director Bille August made a film version of The House of the Spirits in 1994, starring Jeremy Irons as Esteban, Meryl Streep...

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House of the Spirits Media Adaptations

Danish director Bille August made a film version of The House of the Spirits starring Jeremy Irons as Esteban, Meryl Streep as Clara,...

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House of the Spirits What Do I Read Next?

Allende's second novel, Of Love and Shadows (1984), is an even more overtly political work than her first. Journalist Irene Beltrán...

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House of the Spirits Bibliography and Further Reading

Bruce Allen, "A Magical Vision of Society in Revolt," Chicago Tribune Book World, May 19, 1985, pp. 37-38.

Isabel Allende,...

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