House of the Spirits

by Isabel Allende

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In House of the Spirits, what is the effect of having magical realist characters such as Clara (having psychic powers) and Rosa (possessing mermaid-like beauty)?

The effect of having magical realist characters in House of the Spirits is to expose the realities of women's lives in patriarchal South American society and to make the reader question the power dynamics at play. Clara and Rosa's magical realist qualities emphasize the power of women as well as the violence inflicted upon them.

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In 1925, a German art critic first used the term “magical realism” in an essay to describe an emerging form of visual art in which realism is still present but with a new emphasis. Franz Roh, the German critic, proposed that the truth is in fact mysterious. In magical realism, the emphasis is not on religion as it often was before, but rather on the truth hiding behind something normal. This artistic style was quickly adopted by writers, particularly those in South America, to express how the truly normal can be influenced by the magical.

In many of Isabel Allende’s works, she presents issues facing South American countries in a very straightforward manner. For example, in House of the Spirits, Allende addresses the haunting issues of rape and abuse as well as the exploitation of native peoples, both major issues in South America at this time. Allende does not hold back, expressing, in graphic detail, the truth faced by individuals in these situations. What makes this novel a true piece of magical realism are the characters embedded in the thick realistic plot who navigate this world in all of their mystery.

One such character is Rosa de Valle, whose unmatched beauty holds what is described as a “power” over those around her. Ultimately, it is this power that intertwines the de Valle family with Esteban. Esteban, one might argue, is the pinnacle of truth or normalcy among the novel’s characters. At the start of the novel, it is the juxtaposition of Rosa to Esteban that makes this magical realism so believable. Before Esteban returns to see Rosa’s body, a young Clara witnesses Rosa’s body being violated at the hands of their doctor’s assistant. Between two magical women there is a truth exposed, a sad truth that women in this society are violated by men behind closed doors all the time and then muted afterwards. Following Rosa’s death, it is Clara who continues on through the world, later marrying Esteban.

Clara is described as a character who essentially floats from chapter to chapter, seeing into the future as she silently experiences the present. It is this magical characteristic that leads readers to question the dynamics of society, such as male and female dynamics. The truth, Allende reveals through the plot, is that even women possessing “powers” such as Clara’s are subject to the same injustices and the same realities, such as domestic violence.

In the novel House of the Spirits, Allende uses characters such as Clara and Rosa to expose reality. Rosa, with a beauty not of this world, exposes the reality of sexual violence often inflicted on women. Clara, surrounded by spirits and able to see beyond, is used to shed light on physical and emotional violence.

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The House of the Spirits is a deliberate exercise in the application of magical realism to a female-centered universe. Isabel Allende created both an homage and a critical complement to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude. The universality of the characters and occurrences is emphasized by not naming the country, as García Márquez also avoided doing in that novel. She specifically wrote a multigenerational saga with female protagonists to counter the male-dominated narrative of that novel, but she offers a realistically patriarchal society, not a feminist utopia. Allende’s three generations of females have similar names—Clara, Blanca, and Alba—emphasizing that the women form as a “luminous chain.” The “clear” or “white” qualities they share, however, are not the scientific, masculinist “light” of the rational Enlightenment. Instead, the important insights of females are intuitive and spiritual—deliberate exaggerations of the qualities by which men often denigrate women. Similarly, female beauty is not simply a natural endowment but a supernatural quality that can empower women. In endowing the female characters with “magical” qualities, Allende is not only emphasizing female power within the confines of the novel; she demonstrates that magical realism belongs in the female literary line. Certain impossible occurrences, such as Esteban’s shrinking in size, both further emphasize the limits of male power in the patriarchal society and parody One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which it was the female matriarch, Doña Ursula, who in old age shrank to child size.

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Magical realist characters in The House of the Spirits gives the reader a sense of surrealistic unreality and helps them believe that the fantastic events taking place are possible; it also shows different types of power.

A character with naturally green hair and the beauty of a mermaid and her sister who can predict events to come aren't the most realistic characters, but they fit into Isabel Allende's novel perfectly because there is already a sense of unreality in the narrative. When Rosa dies drinking poison, it changes the course of Esteban's life more than almost anyone else's. He changes his trajectory, suffers, and creates suffering in those around him. Some of the things he does—for example, making his wife a rug from the fur of her dead dog—are beyond understanding. But they don't seem as out of place when the entire story seems surreal.

Magical realist elements in the novel show the struggle between those in power and those without power. Even powerless people without traditional power—like Clara, Rosa, Ferula, and Alba—are able to have some kind of power through those qualities. Others, like Esteban, have to obtain power in more traditional ways, like government work. Those without power—notably Ferula, who curses Esteban—can still get the better of those with it.

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Magic realism is presented in this text, as it is in the works of other key South American writers, to present supernatural events as being just as real as other, more mundane events. This can be seen in the presentation of Clara's family and how they swiftly accept their daughter's outlandish and incredible ability to predict the future:

They had also grown accustomed to the youngest daughter's prophecies. She would announce earthquakes in advance, which was quite useful in the country of catastrophes, for it gave them a chance to lock up the good dishes and place their slippers within reach in case they had to run out in the middle of the night.

There is an element of benign humour here: the del Valle become so accustomed to their daughter's abilities that they use them to save the china. Rather than be amazed and stunned at her ability to discern the future, it becomes a practical tool that they use to keep their humdrum existence normal and to prevent any problems from occurring. Throughout the novel therefore supernatural elements, such as the magical characteristics of Clara and Rosa, are juxtaposed alongside normal events, presenting these magical realist sections as being just as real as the political turmoils faced by the characters in this novel. Allende does this to highlight the horror of the political regime that seizes and maintains power with such horrific methods. The insertion of the magical alongside the everyday begs the question of which is more "real": the tortures of the regime that are the very stuff of nightmares or that one girl is able to tell the future.

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