Isabel Allende’s work is at the forefront of the Magical Realism movement. Magical Realism is, in essence, the putting together of realistic events with fantastic details in a narrative that is written as if it were factual. Although it is practiced by authors worldwide, Magical Realism is associated mostly with Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, whose novel Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970) is perhaps the prototypical Magical Realist novel. Magical Realism equates intuitive knowledge with factual knowledge, so that readers’ definitions of reality are challenged and they are able to understand the importance of all types of knowledge. Allende adds another dimension to Magical Realism, because she often uses it to examine women’s issues and problems in Latin American society. Critic Patricia Hart has asked, “Has [Allende] by her politics, her commitment to women’s issues, her liberal, liberated female characters, and even her gender forged a new category that we might call magical feminism?” It seems clear from her works that she is not merely another Magical Realist writer. Her magical elements tend to define a concept of the feminine that equates it with fruition, generation, and the spiritual and allows hope for the future through womankind. Thus the green hair of Clara in The House of the Spirits may be seen as a complicated symbol suggesting intuition, passion, feminine nature, and growth.
Allende’s novels are many-layered, which may account for their tremendous popularity worldwide and their translation into so many languages. Each contains a striking narrative, often with elements of the surreal woven into the story so flawlessly that readers are forced to accept the fantastic premises (such as women being born with green hair, levitating, or reading minds) as though these were ordinary physical facts. (Allende’s later works, however, excluding the children’s trilogy, have less recognizable Magical Realism in them.) The narratives build up lively suspense, and the intriguing plots and unusual, yet somehow believable, characters contribute to the appeal. Allende uses startling symbolism to define the male and female realms of power and influence and to show how women manage to achieve power for good even in societies that greatly repress them. Allende also makes use of the political narrative, which may not be fully understandable to readers unfamiliar with Latin American history. However, the representation of history is also woven into the narrative fabric, so readers do not feel their lack of knowledge; rather, they learn without effort. Allende is that rarity, a popular novelist whose work has literary complexity and merits rereading.
The House of the Spirits
The House of the Spirits, Allende’s first novel, remains her most widely read book. It is based on the events of her childhood and on the Chilean political situation that resulted in the death of her cousin Salvador Allende. It tells the story of three generations of women, from the traditionally feminine Clara, based in part on Allende’s own grandmother, to Blanca, her daughter, who appears to conform to the family’s expectations, to Alba, Clara’s grandchild and the revolutionary who barely holds on to her life. Despite their differences, the three women—whose names mean “clear” (Clara) or “white” (Blanca and Alba)—have deep unconscious bonds that help them survive overwhelming odds. These bonds include the inheritance of extrasensory perception, which, most vivid in the child Clara and in her beautiful doomed sister Rosa, begins the story. The women could be seen as simply swept along in the masculine-dominated course of events, but they are not: Although their actions and motivations are markedly different from the men’s, and although their actions are circumscribed by custom, the women play an important role. Theclimax of the story, a bloody confrontation between the aristocrats and the socialist government of Chile, is an account of the actual military coup that resulted in Salvador Allende’s death and Isabel Allende’s exile from Chile.
The novel traces the lives of the women and their men, three generations of masculine pride and feminine intuition, of bloodshed and love. The frame story involves the healing of wounds between the granddaughter Alba and her dying grandfather, Esteban Trueba, whose unyielding pride has caused much grief for many. This healing is facilitated by the reading of grandmother Clara’s diaries, which help Alba to understand her grandfather and her family’s and country’s history.
Sex roles are clearly defined in the story: the men from the old tradition associated with conquering and controlling, the women left to a kitchen role and keeping their values and hopes alive through their intuitions and their spiritual communication. As the society becomes more modern, these gender definitions change somewhat, but they...
(The entire section is 2046 words.)