Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766

Born in Peru, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende became the most widely read woman writer in Latin America after the publication of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, and foreign-language versions of the book established her international critical success and led to a major motion picture in 1994. After having worked as a journalist in Chile, Allende started writing fiction in Venezuela, where she lived in exile after the assassination of her uncle, President Salvador Allende of Chile. In 1988, she moved to the United States. Her first novel was followed by De amor y de sombra(1984; Of Love and Shadows, 1987), Eva Luna (1987; English translation, 1988), Cuentos de Eva Luna (1990; Stories of Eva Luna, 1991), El plan infinito(1991; The Infinite Plan, 1993), and Paula (1994; English translation, 1995).

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In The House of the Spirits, Allende traces the lives of the del Valle and the Trueba families, their relations with one another, and their participation in the history of their times. The half-century historical span encompasses four generations chronologically and includes flashbacks and foreshadowing. The past is reclaimed by the use of Clara’s notebooks “that bore witness to life,” Blanca’s letters, and the memories of the first-person narrators Alba and her grandfather, who reconstitute the saga together. Narrative circularity is achieved in the epilogue, written by Alba, and the novel ends, as it began, with Clara’s words, “Barrabás came to us by sea.”

The book, a testimonial text inscribing a period in the history of Chile and Allende’s family, started as a letter to the author’s dying grandfather in Chile, in which she declared that all memories would be saved through her writing. The country is unnamed and characters often function on a symbolic level, but they are manifestly Chilean: The candidate, later called the president, is Salvador Allende; the poet is the late Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda; and Allende’s eccentric relatives serve as models for a number of the other characters.

Allende dedicates the work to her mother, her grandmother, and “all the other extraordinary women of the story.” There is emphasis on the female characters, and the female perspective is evident in the presentation of the effects of political activity on family life and personal relationships. However, the perspective is not exclusively female, for Esteban collaborates with Alba in the writing of the story, and the author includes diverse points of view from a broad social spectrum.

Written in the tradition of Latin America’s Magical Realism, a synthesis of realism and the supernatural, the novel presents characters caught between fact and fantasy. Diaries and testimonies as well as dreams, the irrational, and the fantastic serve as sources for the narrative. Clara’s clairvoyance, her Uncle Marcos’s magic books, Pedro García’s special powers, Nicolás’s attempted clairvoyance, and ghostly happenings constitute a world in which imagination and reality merge.

Magical Realism blends with politics, giving the novel a romantic tone. When the Truebas are drawn into the violent confrontations between oligarchs and Socialists, magic subsides and realism takes over, with a grim depiction of political brutality and its power to disintegrate families. The terror after the military coup hits all the members of the Trueba family, regardless of the politics they represent. Victims such as Alba and her friend Ana Díaz in the concentration camp articulate the voice of the oppressed. Blanca, Alba, and other women are shown as they become involved politically in acts of solidarity and resistance against the powers that victimize.

The story moves the reader to reject dictatorship and abuses of power at all levels. Machismo, related to the abuse of power by men, is represented by Esteban. Blanca is entrapped in her father’s plot to hide Alba’s illegitimacy, although he himself procreates many children out of wedlock. Pancha’s grandson, Esteban García, a monster created by the tyrannical patriarchal system embodied in Esteban Trueba, revenges himself on Alba and, ironically, brings a kind of poetic justice when Esteban’s tyranny turns against him. Allende gives concrete forms to her belief that conflicts of race, class, gender, and ethnicity perpetuate hate and violence and turn victims into aggressors.

Alba’s unborn daughter embodies the hope for a future of reconciliation and love, just as writing is also an act of hope. Words and language have the power to recover what is lost and to re-create lives and stories, real or invented. Allende transcends national boundaries with her lyrical and imaginative story set against a turbulent political background. Her novel represents a complex but universal world of love, death, eternity, and time.

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