Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551
In 1981, several years after Isabel Allende had fled her native Chile to settle in Caracas, Venezuela, her grandfather, with whom she had lived as a child, told her that he was nearing one hundred years old and was going to die. He reminded her of his belief that as long as people live in memories, they do not really die. To keep alive all the people and places she had to leave when exiled from Chile, Allende began a letter to him that recalled the past.
The letter was never sent, but instead became the manuscript for Allende’s first and best-known novel, The House of the Spirits. In it, she re-creates her own past by interweaving the stories of three generations of the fictional Trueba family. Throughout the book, but especially in the early chapters, she uses the literary technique of Magical Realism, a blending of realistic and fantastic detail, which adds an emotionally resonant dimension to the characterizations and to the theme of self-discovery through love.
The story is told by Alba, granddaughter of the central character Esteban Trueba, as a way of coming to terms with the horrors of her life. Though many other characters appear, the plot focuses upon Esteban Trueba, who, as a young peasant, sees the young and beautiful Rosa, daughter of a senator, in the street one day and vows he will marry her. Rosa possesses special spiritual qualities. Like her grandmother, she is able to make objects move, see into the future, and recall the dead. Nine years later Esteban has become rich, but because Rosa is dead, he marries her sister Clara and builds the magnificent house that becomes the house of the spirits and the setting for much of the novel.
Clara is the link with the spirit world and is the opposite of her domineering, possessive, willful husband. As he moves further and further into worldly events and pleasures, she retreats into a world of silence and spiritual insight. Their children grow in this weird atmosphere of the abstracted silent mother and the possessed father who alternates between intense love and intense wrath. His rages reach their peak when he finds out that his daughter Blanca is pregnant.
It is through Alba, Blanca’s daughter, that he finally gains some humanity. Alba’s affair with a rebel leader results in her being taken prisoner and tortured and raped by the military government that her grandfather supports. In jail she records her family history from her grandmother’s diaries. These memories enable her to transcend her suffering and to love Esteban, who has lived by exploiting others. When she is released and reconciled with her grandfather, he realizes the power of love and looks for a chance of fulfillment with her child, whose uncertain parentage (he is either the child of her lover, the rebel leader, or of brutality—the rapes she suffered in prison), represents a culmination of the family’s history.
The plot structure of the book is circular. At the end, another generation of Truebas is to be born. It too will be tied to the past by memories, while facing a present full of violent social and political struggles. Throughout the many tragedies, the power of love will enable them, as it has their ancestors, to survive.