Portrait in Sepia Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Isabel Allende is a controversial and outspoken writer, whose stories blend history and fiction in a breathless rushing narrative of Chilean life. Her true forte is the depiction of women in male regimes who often try invisibly to change the course of events, and whose power is very different in nature from men’s power. Born in Peru, Isabel Allende is the niece of Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in a bloody coup in 1973. Not long after that, the novelist began to publish essays, memoirs, stories, and plays. “I think I have divided my life [into] before that day and after that day,” she once told an interviewer. Many of her novels and stories introduce women of privilege who are sheltered from life by the patriarchal structure, but then circumstances destroy the shelter and force the women to take part in a violent culture and do their best to change it.

Allende’s work has been subject to critical attention for its Magical Realism, and also for the use she makes of history. Herself part of Chilean history and witness to much of the bloody revolutionary activity, she gives the political history human faces. Her style is always polyvocal, polyvalent. Allende is famous for the epic family history which connects generations with formative historical events. The families are in some way always matriarchal despite the fact that men rule the outside world with iron fist. The lineage she traces is matriarchal, mystical, intuitive power passing from grandmother to mother to daughter. There is a particular brand of feminism in much of her work, as men and women are definitely opposites, and the women are almost always morally superior. Yet Allende’s contexts make it clear that the gender roles are written for the main characters by the society they inhabit and they do not choose their destinies.

Magical Realism, usually associated with South American writers, introduces fantastic elements into a realistic narrative as though they were just part of the landscape; often there is a combination of fairy-tale elements and Catholicism. In Allende’s stories, the fantastic takes the form of clairvoyance and paranormal events; she might claim that she is not using Magical Realism at all but only describing the often overlooked or misunderstood qualities that women, especially women in extreme circumstances, actually possess.

Because her stories are rooted in Chilean history—even when they take place far from Chile—they tend to be violent, bloody, and passionate. The political events themselves, massacres and coups d’état and assassinations, tend to follow lengthy, leisurely explorations of the lives of those they affect, and to come as a surprise, bringing to the reader the reminder that this is myth interwoven with history, and that there is a randomness that is always at play in human events.

Like Allende’s other stories, Portrait in Sepia is expansive narrative that covers generations and gives a vivid sense of woman’s place in a male society which has little understanding for the things of women. This story takes up the characters of her 1999 novel Daughter of Fortune. The main character of Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers, here is a secondary personage as the grandmother of Aurora del Valle, whom she raises until the age of five and then parts from completely, leaving her in the care of Paulina del Valle. The women portrayed in this narrative are also related to the female characters in The House of the Spirits, which extends later in time and takes place in Chile; Aurora is a contemporary of and related to Clara del Valle, one of the main characters in The House of the Spirits. Allende has referred to the three novels as a trilogy, but they are so only in the sense of having some overlapping characters and sharing as theme the exploration of women’s roles and potential within a society officially run by men and inimical to women’s values of stability, family, and love. The novels are separate; they were not written in chronological sequence and do not depend on each other.

Aurora del Valle, the narrator and protagonist of Portrait in Sepia, begins by telling of her birth in San Francisco, “a man’s city,” in 1880. She is now at a kind of plateau in her life, her lover having betrayed her and she herself not knowing where to go next. Unable to remember anything about the first five years of her life, she decides to investigate her own past, knowing that she...

(The entire section is 1835 words.)