House of the Spirits

by Isabel Allende

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

At the beginning of The House of the Spirits, Alba Trueba says that she is writing “to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own.” Like Alba, Isabel Allende began writing in order to make pain bearable. After her uncle, the Chilean president Salvador Allende, was murdered during a right-wing military coup, Isabel Allende, her husband, and her children were forced to go into exile. One of those she most regretted leaving was her autocratic but much-loved grandfather, upon whom she modeled the character of Esteban Trueba. Fearing that she would never see him again, Allende began to write a letter to her grandfather, in which she expressed her love for him and assured him that even after his death, he would live on in her memory. The letter was never sent; instead, it evolved into The House of the Spirits. Thus Allende’s first novel was written to assuage her own pain and to call back into existence all that she had lost, her friends, her people, her country, her dream of social justice. While Allende insists that she is not Alba, she clearly shares with her narrator a faith in the power of the written word to defy repression and transcend time.

The House of the Spirits is built upon a number of contrasts and paradoxes. One of the latter can be seen in Allende’s description of the world, which she shows as being at one and the same time ordinary and magical. Like other Magical Realists, Allende moves easily from one vision to the other, as when, having lined up the large Trueba family in a church pew, she mentions the fact that Rosa has green hair. Like their creator, Allende’s characters have no problem with this dual view of reality. They incorporate Clara’s habit of levitating salt cellars and her unfailing powers of prophecy into their everyday world.

The two dominant political views represented in the novel, however, are not so easily reconciled. Allende’s own position is indicated by the fact that she chooses names associated with light, specifically “Clara,” “Blanca,” and “Alba,” for her liberal heroines. In contrast, it has been noted that Esteban Trueba’s Christian name means “crown,” which is certainly consistent with his belief in a conservative, patriarchal system. Interestingly, all that Trueba bequeathed to the sadistic Colonel García was his first name and, seemingly, his belief that might makes right.

Yet, while Esteban García is so committed to revenge that he will not permit himself to feel pity, Esteban Trueba, though often blind to the needs of others, is capable of love. He tolerates Clara’s peculiarities, even when she bars him from her bed; he welcomes the pregnant Blanca back into his home; and he feels such a strong attachment to Alba that he is determined to rescue her, no matter how radical the cause with which she is associated. One suspects that it is not only his disillusionment with the new regime but also the cumulative influence of these liberal women that causes Esteban Trueba to change his mind about politics. His literary collaboration with Alba, then, represents not only a personal and political reconciliation but also a fusion of age and youth, conservative ideas and liberal ones, and male and female viewpoints, which suggests that there is hope for the future.

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