House of the Spirits

by Isabel Allende

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The House of the Spirits is the story of a South American country much like the author’s own Chile, shown by tracing a family through four generations and covering eight decades. Although in this society men control the church, the state, and the family, the major characters in Isabel Allende’s work are the strong-willed women who refuse to be dominated or destroyed.

Appropriately, the story begins with a public confrontation between ten-year-old Clara del Valle and the fanatical priest Father Restrepo. After Clara makes a loud skeptical comment in church, the priest proclaims that she is possessed by the devil. Although Clara shows no signs of being evil, she does commune with spirits. Therefore, when after nine years of silence Clara announces that she is going to marry her dead sister’s former fiancé, Esteban Trueba, it is understood that Clara is not merely mentioning a possibility, but foretelling the future.

Clara’s spirits evidently have not told her how stormy the marriage will be. At first, everything goes well. Esteban stops appropriating peasant girls for his sexual needs and concentrates on pleasing his beautiful and willing bride, and before long, he is the father of a daughter and twin sons. Clara, however, not only is given to retreating in to the spirit world but also makes it evident that she cannot agree with her husband’s political views. As a landowner, Esteban sees socialism and land reform as threats to his way of life. Clara, on the other hand, is an idealist who believes that Esteban’s Conservative Party stands for oppression and injustice.

As his children become older, Esteban finds that he cannot govern them any more than he can his wife. In part because of her mother’s liberalism and in part because of their childhood friendship, their daughter, Blanca, falls in love with and becomes pregnant by the fiery young leftist Pedro Tercero García. Infuriated, Esteban whips his daughter and forces her to marry a sinister count, and he tries to kill the young man. As a result, Clara stops speaking to her husband. Esteban also loses his twin sons, one to Eastern mysticism and the other, a doctor, to the needs of the poor and eventually to martyrdom for the cause of social justice.

Alba de Satigny, or Alba Trueba, as she chooses to call herself, dominates the final segment of Allende’s novel. The daughter of Blanca and Pedro, Alba is born in her grandparents’ home and soon becomes the center of her grandfather’s world. Like her mother and her grandmother, however, Alba is idealistic. She is also strongly influenced by her father, whom she frequently sees in secret. At the university, Alba falls in love with Miguel, a revolutionary, and her involvement in the movement that he espouses results in her being imprisoned, raped, and tortured by the bitter and malevolent Colonel Esteban García, Esteban Trueba’s illegitimate grandson. Perceiving the evil nature of the fascists he once supported, Esteban Trueba joins with Pedro to effect Alba’s release and then arranges for Blanca and Pedro to leave the country together. In order to be near her own lover, Alba remains with her grandfather, and together they write The House of the Spirits, the story of their family and their country. At the end of the novel, Esteban Trueba dies, while Alba waits for the birth of her daughter, who may be the child of Miguel, but who is just as likely to be the child of her torturer.

The House of the Spirits is a complicated work, filled with dramatic incidents, crowded with characters, and characterized by dizzying leaps...

(This entire section contains 710 words.)

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into the past and the future. The story is told in various voices. The first six words of the novel, for example, are quoted from one of Clara del Valle Trueba’s notebooks, written fifty years before. Some segments of the work are written in the first person by Esteban, while the other first-person narrator is finally identified as Alba. Often, however, Allende adopts the voice of the omniscient author. It is a mark of her genius that this complexity of form and content in no way checks the progress of her novel or diminishes its powerful effect.

Context

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Isabele Allende dedicated The House of the Spirits “to my mother, my grandmother, and all the other extraordinary women of this story.” As feminist critics have hastened to point out, her novel describes an inflexible patriarchal society which depends on traditional values and brute force to subjugate its poor, its powerless, and, therefore, its women. That so many women defy this society is evidence of their strength and their determination, and perhaps of the power of righteousness as well.

Clara, Blanca, and Alba, who Esteban Trueba says suffer from the inherited disease of idealism, are not the only “extraordinary women” who take part in the struggle against repression. There is Nivea del Valle, the mother of ten other living children besides Clara, who, though she has not yet discarded her corsets, is a “suffragette” in principle. There is Tránsito Soto, who by starting a cooperative of male and female prostitutes becomes, in effect, a union leader, but who is wily enough to maintain her power even under the Dictator. There is the once-beautiful Amanda, who, though debilitated by drugs, would rather die under torture than betray her brother Miguel. Then there are the heroic women in the prison camp, whose songs move even the men who guard them.

In her later novels, notably De amor y de sombra (1984; Of Love and Shadows, 1987) and Eva Luna (1987; English translation, 1988), Allende continues to show how the male establishment attempts in every way to destroy the identities, even the humanity, of women. In a patriarchal society, infused with the macho image, men expect to have full control over the sexuality of their women. They rape at will, force their wives into almost incessant childbearing, decide when and whom their daughters will marry, and, if any of the women under their control become recalcitrant, beat them into sense or insensibility.

While Allende’s outrage about the wrongs done to women is always evident in her fiction, however, the sexual invasions that her heroines experience also symbolize a more general pattern of social injustice. When Pancha García is raped by Esteban, she represents all the peasants whom he considers little more than slaves; when Alba is raped by Colonel García, she symbolizes all the people, male and female, who lose their identities and their lives under a dictator’s reign of terror. Thus the cause of women becomes only one part of a battle against oppression. Allende’s fictional heroines stand for everyone, male or female, who has defied unjust authority for the greater good.

Places Discussed

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Tres Marías

Tres Marías. Hacienda of the Trueba family, which the family patriarch, Esteban Trueba, rebuilds from ruin several times. After growing up poor and working several years in a diamond mine to earn money, Esteban puts his money and energy into rebuilding the ruined country estate, making it one of the most successful in the country and enhancing his wealth considerably. He rebuilds it again after the house is destroyed by an earthquake and yet again after the land is turned over to the peasants for two years during the socialist administration and then returned to him following the military coup.

Esteban’s work on his hacienda confirms for him his political views. As the local patrón, Esteban opposes rights and freedoms for his tenants. Tenants caught passing out political tracts or discussing rights for the tenants are punished and banished from the hacienda. While Esteban takes pride in providing his tenants with the only brick houses on any hacienda in the area, he also feels justified in raping the women at will and taking no responsibility for the many children who result. Esteban’s wealth and political conviction eventually lead him to become a senator.

Ironically, it is at Tres Marías that Esteban’s daughter Blanca falls in love with one of the tenants, her childhood friend Pedro Tercero García. Pedro Tercero becomes a popular singer and political figure who helps the socialist president win his election and who fights against the military coup. Alba, Blanca and Pedro Tercero’s daughter, likewise falls in love with a left-wing activist. Esteban’s love for Alba encourages him to soften his political views after the military coup.

Big house on the corner

Big house on the corner. Home that Esteban Trueba builds in the capital city in preparation for his marriage to Clara. He erects the house in the city’s finest neighborhood, sparing no expense on either construction or furnishings. This house becomes a meeting place for Clara’s spiritualist and clairvoyant friends and thus becomes the “house of the spirits” of the novel’s title. The many spirits who visit Clara there suggest adding rooms or knocking down walls to look for treasure. While the front of the house remains unchanged, the back becomes a labyrinth of small rooms because of Clara’s constant remodeling. These rooms prove extremely useful during the nation’s coup. Esteban hides guns for the military in one of them; Alba and Blanca hide political dissidents wanted by the military police.

Capital city

Capital city. Unnamed capital of the country. As with the novel’s descriptions of the hacienda Tres Marías, its descriptions of the city accentuate its political themes. The earlier generations in the novel—Esteban Trueba, Clara, Esteban’s mother and sister, and Clara’s parents—remain in the aristocratic sections of the city. Later in the novel, younger generations visit the lower-class sections of the city.

Esteban and Clara’s son Nicolás seeks out his girlfriend Amanda in the capital after not seeing her for several weeks. He finds her in her boardinghouse, pregnant and miserable. Nicolás is shocked by her poverty. Looking around he realizes that until that moment he has known almost nothing about her. In fact, he has never visited the home of a poor person before and never considered what it would be like to live without money. Nicolás’s twin brother, Jaime, becomes a doctor devoted to helping the poor. He exhausts himself trying to cure the sick without adequate money, food, or medicine, spending most of his time in the poorest sections of the city. The powerful contrasts between the city’s wealthy neighborhoods and its slums show why many of the younger Truebas support political reform.

Historical Context

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Chile and the Turmoil of the 1970s
Although the setting of House of the Spirits is never explicitly named, there are several historical events—from the 1933 earthquake to the election and overthrow of Salvador Allende—that clearly place the action in Chile. Occupying most of the southeastern coast of South America, Chile was part of the territory conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s. The country formally declared independence in 1818, but the nineteenth century was marked by both internal and external conflicts. By the 1910s, when the novel opens, Chile had enjoyed several years of relative peace and prosperity. The country's deposits of nitrate—an essential component of gunpowder—proved profitable during World War I. The wealth did not spread to workers such as miners, farm laborers, and factory workers, and so in the 1920s the country entered a period of strikes and political conflict which saw an increase in the kinds of radical political movements which so disturb Esteban Trueba throughout the novel. Salvador Allende was the co-founder of one of these parties, the Socialist Party, and was elected to the Chilean national congress in 1937 and to the senate in 1945. It was as a Socialist that he ran for president in four consecutive elections: 1952,1958, 1964, and 1970. At the front of a Leftist coalition, Allende came in a close second in the 1958 election, but it was the 1970 election that finally brought him to power.

In a three-way race, Allende's Unidad Popular alliance won 36.3% of the popular vote—more than any other candidate, but not the majority required for election. Congress awarded him the presidency, but only after Allende signed a series of constitutional amendments that promised to protect the basic freedoms of political parties, labor unions, the media, and civic organizations. Allende's attempts to effect a peaceful transition to socialism—including the redistribution of land to peasants and the nationalization of businesses—were undercut by a broad array of forces, however. Radicals in his party led thousands of illegal land seizures and openly thwarted the President's efforts to compromise with the opposition in Congress. Wealthy Conservatives undermined the government by decreasing food production and encouraging trucking strikes that created food shortages. Several American business interests, worried about losing holdings to nationalization, encouraged the delay or cancellation of loans to Chile and even actively tried to subvert the government. The American Central Intelligence Agency, concerned about the spread of Communism, tried to bribe Chilean Congress members to prevent Allende from becoming president and unsuccessfully encouraged the Chilean military to overthrow the regime. By 1973, Allende's support had eroded: strikes were widespread, terrorism was waged by both Right and Left, and in June a tank regiment attacked the presidential palace. Hoping to restore order, Allende named the commanders of the armed forces to his cabinet that August. After congressional opposition called on the military to restore civil order, Allende's military ministers resigned, and conservative forces in the military gave the President an ultimatum to resign. When Allende refused, the military took control of the government on September 11. Allende died during an attack on the presidential palace, the victim of either a self-inflicted gunshot wound (as the military claimed) or a military execution (as his allies and family alleged).

The military established a new government, led by General Augusto Pinochet, and moved quickly to stifle dissent. An estimated five to fifteen thousand Chileans were killed or tortured, or "disappeared," during and immediately after the coup; thousands of others fled into exile. Political parties, the Congress, trade unions, and any other organizations that opposed Pinochet were soon outlawed, and as many as forty thousand Chileans were arrested. Under the military government, torture became an accepted practice during the interrogation of political prisoners. In 1980, Pinochet imposed a new constitution that included a weak Congress with many members chosen undemocratically by the regime. The constitution also allowed military vetoes of most congressional decisions and allowed the government to suspend civil rights to deal with threats to "national security." While the regime's strict control initially led to improvements in Chile's economy, the upturn only benefited a small portion of the population. By 1982, the year House of the Spirits was published, an international recession made it clear that the economic benefits of Pinochet's dictatorship were paltry, especially when compared to the loss of freedoms suffered by Chileans. Massive protests occurred, and in 1983 the military cracked down once again. Pinochet's 1980 constitution had allowed for a plebiscite in 1988, however, when the public would say "yes" or "no" to another term in office for the general. Pinochet was firmly convinced he would win, and allowed the vote to take place. A majority voted "no," and Pinochet agreed to step down. In presidential elections the following year, Pinochet's candidate lost to Patricio Aylwin. The return to democracy was peaceful, although Pinochet retained his position as leader of the military and opposed efforts to prosecute it for human rights abuses. World attention was focused on the brutality of Pinochet's regime in 1998, however, when he faced extradition from England to Spain to answer charges of assassination and torture.

"The Poet" and the Latin American "Boom"
Throughout House of the Spirits, Allende frequently makes reference to "the Poet," a man revered and respected for his work. Even the Count de Satigny, a European, says the Poet's work "was the best poetry ever written, and that even in French, the language of the arts, there was nothing to compare it to." By the time Jaime and Nicolás are adults, the Poet is "a world-renowned figure, as Clara had predicted the first time she heard him recite in his telluric voice at one of her literary soirées." While the Poet is never named in the novel, it is clear that Allende is referring to Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. Neruda was not Chile's first Nobel laureate—poet Gabriela Mistral won the accolade in 1945—but he is considered one of the most important Latin American poets of the twentieth century. His works included such classics as "Residencia en la tierra" ("Residence on Earth," 1933), "Alturas de Macchu-Picchu" ("The Heights of Macchu Picchu," 1948), and his epic "Canto general de Chile" ("General Song of Chile," 1943, revised 1950). Through these works and many others, Neruda became noted worldwide for his innovative techniques and explorations of love, death, and the human condition. Neruda was a dedicated Communist who was nominated for president in 1970, but ended his candidacy and threw his support to the eventual winner, Salvador Allende. Neruda died less than two weeks after the military overthrow of Allende's government, and in the novel his funeral becomes "the symbolic burial of freedom."

Neruda was not the only Latin American writer to receive international recognition, however. The 1960s saw the beginning of the "Boom" in Latin American literature that brought numerous translations of Spanish-language works to English-speaking readers and critics. Writers such as Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias (Nobel, 1967), Colombian Gabriel García Márquez (Nobel, 1982), Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, and Mexicans Octavio Paz (Nobel, 1990) and Carlos Fuentes became familiar names to readers and academics. By the 1980s, most of the works by these well-known writers were appearing in translation and some were even adapted as English-language films. Few women writers emerged from the Boom, however, and so when the translation of Allende's House of the Spirits was published 1985, it was justly hailed for bringing a fresh, feminine perspective to the portrayal of Latin American life.

Literary Style

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Narration/Point of View
While much of House of the Spirits seems to have very straightforward third-person ("he/she") narration, in fact there are three distinct narrative voices in the novel. The first voice is that of an unnamed first person ("I") narrator whom the reader does not discover is Alba until the epilogue. From this narrator's opening paragraph, the reader is made aware that this account has been reconstructed from Clara's notebooks. After this disclosure, however, the majority of reconstruction is told in the third person, with all characters referred to as "he" or "she." This second narrative voice is omniscient, or "all-knowing," able to relate what the various characters are thinking or feeling. This method of telling a story as a re-creation is not so unusual, except that it is interrupted at times by yet another narrative voice. This third voice belongs to Esteban Trueba, whose first person ("I") accounts serve to express either his intense passion or his acute suffering. (It is also interesting that all but the first of Esteban's encounters with Tránsito Soto are told in his voice.) Esteban's first-person accounts serve two purposes: first, they reinforce the idea that the novel has been reconstructed from the family histories, both written and oral. More important, however, is the way in which Esteban's words reveal the emotions he does not express in front of others. Without Esteban's narration, it would be easy to dismiss him as a cruel, heartless tyrant; including his heartfelt declarations, however, shows him to be a complex character struggling to battle his inner demons of passion and anger.

Setting
Although the setting of the novel is never explicitly named as Chile, the history of that country forms an important part of the plot. The political turmoil that engulfed Chile in the 1970s after the election of "the Candidate," Salvador Allende, is reflected in the increasing impact that political events have in the lives of the characters. The more specific settings of the novel, however, have their own significance as well. The Tres Marías hacienda provides a good setting for illustrating the class conflict that is an important theme in the novel. Pedro Tercero's ability to come and go as he pleases from the hacienda reflects his more direct challenges to Esteban Trueba's authority. Similarly, "the battle of the sexes is cleverly manifested in the continuous struggle for space in the house," as Ronie-Richelle García-Johnson notes in Revista Hispanica Moderna. Esteban has designed the "big house on the corner" to demonstrate his own wealth and power, but it more accurately reflects the personality of his wife, Clara. Even when he is turning the salon of the house into a political meeting place, Clara manages to continue her spiritualist meetings and charity work by adding rooms and staircases to the back of the house. The split between the couple caused by Esteban's violence also becomes evident in the house, as "an invisible border arose between the parts of the house occupied by Esteban Trueba and those occupied by his wife." Little Alba recognizes that "her grandmother was the soul of the big house on the corner," and the loss Esteban feels after her death is mirrored in a similar decline of the house.

Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is the technique of hinting at future events or setting up an explanation of later developments. Allende frequently uses foreshadowing in House of the Spirits to hint at the fate facing her characters. The foreshadowing occurs not only in Clara's prophecies, but also in direct comments by the narrator. As early as Chapter 1, the narrator remarks that Rosa's poisoning is just "the first of many acts of violence that marked the fate of the del Valle family." A more specific remark comes in Chapter 7, when after reuniting with her brother Miguel after his first day of school, Amanda impulsively tells him that she would sacrifice herself for him. When the narrator adds that "she did not know then that one day she would have to," this anticipates Amanda's end, when she dies in police custody during questioning about her brother. Another instance of foreshadowing occurs at the end of Chapter 12, when the last surviving Mora sister comes to warn Alba that she is in danger. Esteban dismisses her words as crazy, but, the narrator notes, "later he would recall Luisa Mora's prophetic words, when they took Alba away in the middle of the night, while the curfew was in force." The frequent use of foreshadowing throughout the novel helps create a sense of fate at work and reinforces the violence of the political system, as the reader is constantly reminded that despite magical or pleasant interludes, dire events are yet to come.

Magical Realism
Because of its mixture of realistic everyday events with supernatural occurrences, House of the Spirits fits within the literary genre known as magic realism or magical realism. A term first coined by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, magical realism is a style of writing which treats myth and magic with the same acceptance and objectivity as "truth." The abilities that allow Clara to play the piano with the cover closed and predict the future are just a few of the magical elements that appear in the novel. The Mora sisters possess a photograph containing "irrefutable proof that souls can take on physical form," and Férula's ghost appears to the entire family to announce her death. Every time Esteban comes to the big house, Blanca's rubber plant "lowered its leaves and began to exude a whitish fluid, like tears of milk, from its stem." House of the Spirits, however, is much more frankly realistic in its portrayal of political turmoil than many other works of magical realism. There are almost no magical incidents in the later portions of the novel, particularly after the coup that leads to political repression. While this wide difference in tone may seem out of place, it actually serves to heighten the horror of the military's regime. Which is really more unbelievable, the author seems to be asking, a woman with psychic abilities or a government that tortures and murders thousands of its citizens?

Literary Techniques

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While much of The House of the Spirits seems to have very straightforward third person ("he/she") narrative style, there are, in fact, three distinct narrative voices in the novel. The first voice is that of an unnamed first-person ("I") narrator—the reader does not discover that this is Alba until the epilogue. From this narrator's opening paragraph, the reader is made aware that this account has been reconstructed from Clara's notebooks. After this disclosure, however, the majority of reconstruction is told in the third person, with all characters referred to as "he" or "she." This second narrative voice is omniscient, or "all-knowing," able to relate what the various characters are thinking or feeling. This method of telling a story as a re-creation is not so unusual, except that it is interrupted at times by yet another narrative voice. This third voice belongs to Esteban Trueba, whose first person ("I") accounts serve two purposes: first, they reinforce the idea that the novel has been reconstructed from the family histories, both written and oral. Moreover, Esteban's words reveal the emotions he does not express in front of others. Without Esteban's narration, it would be easy to dismiss him as a cruel, heartless tyrant; his heartfelt declarations, however, show him to be a complex character struggling to battle his inner demons of passion and anger.

Although the setting of the novel is never explicitly named as Chile, the history of that country forms an important part of the plot. The political turmoil that engulfed Chile in the 1970s after the election of "the Candidate" Salvador Allende is reflected in the increasing impact that political events have in the lives of the characters. The more specific settings of the novel, however, have their own significance as well. The Tres Marias hacienda provides a good setting for illustrating the class conflict that is an important theme in the novel. Pedro Tercero's ability to come and go as he pleases from the hacienda reflects his more direct challenges to Esteban Trueba's authority. Similarly, "the battle of the sexes is cleverly manifested in the continuous struggle for space in the house," as Ronie-Richelle Garcia-Johnson noted in Revista Hispanica Moderna. Esteban has designed the "big house on the corner" to demonstrate his own wealth and power, but it more accurately reflects the personality of his wife, Clara. Even when he is turning the salon of the house into a political meeting place, Clara manages to continue her spiritualist meetings and charity work by adding rooms and staircases to the back of the house. The split between the couple caused by Esteban's violence also becomes evident in the house, as "an invisible border arose between the parts of the house occupied by Esteban Trueba and those occupied by his wife." Little Alba recognizes that "her grandmother was the soul of the big house on the corner," and the loss Esteban feels after her death is mirrored in a similar decline of the house.

Allende frequently uses foreshadowing, a technique of hinting at future events or setting up an explanation of later developments, in The House of the Spirits to hint at the fate facing her characters. The foreshadowing occurs not only in Clara's prophecies, but also in direct comments by the narrator. As early as chapter 1, the narrator remarks that Rosa's poisoning is just "the first of many acts of violence that marked the fate of the del Valle family." A more specific remark comes in chapter 7, when after reuniting with Miguel after his first day of school, his sister Amanda impulsively tells him that she would sacrifice herself for him. When the narrator adds that "she did not know then that one day she would have to," this anticipates Amanda's end, when she dies in police custody during questioning about her brother. Another instance of foreshadowing occurs at the end of chapter 12, when the last surviving Mora sister comes to warn Alba that she is in danger. Esteban dismisses her words as crazy, but, the narrator notes, "later he would recall Luisa Mora's prophetic words, when they took Alba away in the middle of the night, while the curfew was in force." The frequent use of foreshadowing throughout the novel helps create a sense of fate at work and reinforces the violence of the political system, as the reader is constantly reminded that despite magical or pleasant interludes, dire events are yet to come.

Because of its mixture of realistic, everyday events with supernatural occurrences, The House of the Spirits fits within the literary genre known as magic realism or magical realism. A term first coined by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, magical realism is a style of writing which treats myth and magic with the same acceptance and objectivity as "truth." The abilities that allow Clara to play the piano with the cover closed and predict the future are just a few of the magical elements that appear in the novel. The Mora sisters possess a photograph containing "irrefutable proof that souls can take on physical form," and Ferula's ghost appears to the entire family to announce her death. Every time Esteban comes to the big house, Blanca's rubber plant "lowered its leaves and began to exude a whitish fluid, like tears of milk, from its stem." The House of the Spirits, however, is much more frankly realistic in its portrayal of political turmoil than many other works of magical realism. There are almost no magical incidents in the later portions of the novel, particularly after the coup that leads to political repression. While this wide difference in tone may seem out of place, it actually serves to heighten the horror of the military's regime. Which is really more unbelievable, the author seems to be asking, a woman with psychic abilities or a government that tortures and murders thousands of its citizens?

Social Concerns

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Until the publication of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, few female writers had emerged from the "Boom" of Latin American literature that began in the 1960s. When the translation of La casa de los espiritus appeared in 1985, however, Allende received the kind of international attention that had previously been reserved for writers such as Colombian Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In fact, The House of the Spirits has frequently been compared with Garcia Marquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude because of Allende's mixture of magical and realistic elements and her multi-generational plot. While there are some similarities between the two works, The House of the Spirits is distinguished by its author's unique perspective as a woman and a Chilean.

Although the setting of The House of the Spirits is never explicitly named, there are several historical events—from the 1933 earthquake to the 1970 election and 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende (the author's uncle)—that clearly place the action in Chile. Occupying most of the southeastern coast of South America, Chile was part of the territory conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s. The country formally declared independence in 1818, but the nineteenth century was marked by both internal and external conflicts. By the 1910s, when the novel opens, Chile had enjoyed several years of relative peace and prosperity. The country's deposits of nitrate—an essential component of gunpowder—proved profitable during World War I. The wealth did not spread to workers such as miners, farm laborers, and factory workers. As a result, the country entered a period of strikes and political conflict in the 1920s, which saw an increase in the kinds of radical political movements that disturb the fictional character Esteban Trueba throughout the novel. Salvador Allende was the cofounder of one of these radical parties, the Socialist Party, and was elected to the Chilean National Congress in 1937 and to the Senate in 1945. It was as a Socialist that he ran for president in four consecutive elections: 1952, 1958,1964, and 1970. At the front of a leftist coalition, Allende came in a close second in the 1958 election, but it was the 1970 election that finally brought him to power.

In a three-way race, Allende's Unidad Popular alliance won 36.3 percent of the popular vote—more than any other candidate, but not the majority required for election. Congress awarded him the presidency, but only after Allende signed a series of constitutional amendments that promised to protect the basic freedoms of political parties, labor unions, the media, and civic organizations. Allende's attempts to effect a peaceful transition to socialism—including the redistribution of land to peasants and the nationalization of businesses—were undercut by a broad array of forces, however. Radicals in his party led thousands of illegal land seizures and openly thwarted the president's efforts to compromise with the opposition in Congress. Wealthy conservatives undermined the government by decreasing food production and encouraging trucking strikes that created food shortages. Several American business interests, worried about losing holdings to nationalization, encouraged the delay or cancellation of loans to Chile and even actively tried to subvert the government. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), concerned about the spread of communism, tried to bribe Chilean Congress members to prevent Allende from becoming president and unsuccessfully encouraged the Chilean military to overthrow the regime. By 1973, Allende's support had eroded: strikes were widespread, terrorism was waged by both right and left, and in June a tank regiment attacked the presidential palace. Hoping to restore order, Allende named the commanders of the armed forces to his cabinet that August. After congressional opposition called on the military to restore civil order, Allende's military ministers resigned and conservative forces in the military gave the president an ultimatum to resign. When Allende refused, the military took control of the government on September 11. Allende died during an attack on the presidential palace, the victim of either a self-inflicted gunshot wound (as the military claimed) or a military execution (as his allies and family alleged).

The military established a new government, led by General Augusto Pinochet, and moved quickly to stifle dissent. An estimated five to fifteen thousand Chileans were killed or tortured, or "disappeared," during and immediately after the coup; thousands of others fled into exile. Political parties, the Congress, trade unions, and any other organizations that opposed Pinochet were soon outlawed, and as many as forty thousand Chileans were arrested. Under the military government, torture became an accepted practice during the interrogation of political prisoners. In 1980, Pinochet imposed a new constitution that included a weak Congress with many members chosen undemocratically by the regime. The constitution also allowed military vetoes of most congressional decisions and allowed the government to suspend civil rights to deal with threats to "national security." While the regime's strict control initially led to improvements in Chile's economy, the upturn only benefited a small portion of the population.

By 1982, the year The House of the Spirits was published, an international recession made it clear that the economic benefits of Pinochet's dictatorship were paltry, especially when compared to the loss of freedoms suffered by Chileans. Massive protests occurred, and in 1983, the military cracked down once again. Pinochet's 1980 constitution had allowed for a plebiscite in 1988, however, when the public would say "yes" or "no" to another term in office for the general. Pinochet was firmly convinced he would win, and allowed the vote to take place. A majority voted "no," and Pinochet agreed to step down. In presidential elections the following year, Pinochet's candidate lost to Patricio Aylwin. The return to democracy was peaceful, although Pinochet retained his position as leader of the military and opposed efforts to prosecute it for human rights abuses. World attention was focused on the brutality of Pinochet's regime in 1998, however, when he faced extradition from England to Spain to answer charges of assassination and torture.

Compare and Contrast

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Chile: The country of Chile occupies 748,800 square kilometers of land—roughly twice the size of Montana—and in the late 1990s had an estimated population of just over 14.5 million people.

United States: The United States covers 9,158,960 square kilometers of land, and in the late 1990s had an estimated population of over 270 million people.

Chile: With a long history of political activism, modern-day Chile has over half a dozen different political parties; in order to form majority governments, however, these parties come together in two coalitions: the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (CPD) and the Union for the Progress of Chile (UPP).

United States: Politics in the United States are controlled by two political groups: the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. While there have been several third-party movements throughout the twentieth century, none has seriously influenced the outcome of national elections since Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party during the presidential election of 1912.

Chile: While the Chilean economy has opened up more to world trade since President Augusto Pinochet left office, the country's economy is still strongly dependent on natural resources—particularly copper mining, fishing, and forestry. In 1996, the estimated gross domestic product per person was $8,400.

United States: America enjoys one of the most powerful, diverse, and technologically advanced economies in the world. In 1997, the estimated gross domestic product per person was $30,200.

Chile: At the end of 1998, the most controversial issue facing Chile was the proposed extradition of former President Augusto Pinochet from England to face charges of human rights abuses. Supporters of the General considered the action a blow to Chile's sovereignty, while his opponents argued that dictators should be held legally responsible for atrocities committed during their regimes.

United States: At the end of 1998, the most controversial issue facing the American government was the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over his attempts to conceal an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern. Supporters of the president said the charges were trumped up by political opponents, while his opponents maintained that Clinton had obstructed justice and abused his power in trying to keep his actions secret.

Literary Precedents

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Because of the author's family background and the political subject matter of The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's best-selling first novel was bound to cause a stir in literary circles. Most initial reviews of the work made it clear, however, that it was the author's talent, not her political credentials, that made The House of the Spirits well worth the wide readership it attained. Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley explained that "The House of the Spirits does contain a certain amount of rather predictable politics, but the only cause it wholly embraces is that of humanity, and it does so with such passion, humor and wisdom that in the end it transcends politics; it is also a genuine rarity, a work of fiction that is both an impressive literary accomplishment and a mesmerizing story fully accessible to a general readership."

Because of its style and plot, many reviewers have made comparisons between Allende's novel and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. Village Voice contributor Enrique Fernandez, for instance, stated that "only the dullest reader can fail to be distracted by the shameless cloning from One Hundred Years of Solitude." While faulting the ending of the novel for using one of Garcia Marquez's "hoariest cliches"— the discovery of a manuscript—Time critic Patricia Blake noted that "Allende is not just an epigone [poor imitator] of Garcia Marquez. Writing in the tradition of Latin America's magic realists, she has a singular talent for producing full-scale representational portraits with comic surreal touches." Many other critics agreed that while Allende may have used One Hundred Years as a model, The House of the Spirits is her own unique achievement. A Publishers Weekly reviewer made the comparison with Garcia Marquez and declared that "Allende has her own distinctive voice; however, while her prose lacks the incandescent brilliance of the master's, it has a whimsical charm, besides being clearer, more accessible, and more explicit about the contemporary situation in South America."

New York Times Book Review contributor Alexander Coleman likewise remarked that Allende's work differs from the fatalism of Garcia Marquez's work in that it is "a novel of peace and reconciliation, in spite of the fact that it tells of bloody, tragic events. The author has accomplished this not only by plumbing her memory for the familial and political textures of the continent, but also by turning practically every major Latin American novel on its head." The critic added: "Rarely has a new novel from Latin America consciously or unconsciously owed more to its predecessors; equally rare is the original utterance coming out of what is now a collective literary inheritance." In a Latin American Literary Review article devoted to comparing the two works, Robert Antoni determined that there are significant differences, including the feminine, first-person voice; the presentation of Clara's manuscript as history, not prediction; and the interesting dialogue created by Esteban Trueba's voice in the narrative. In Allende's work "historical writing replaces magical writing, tragic sentiments replace comic sentiments," the critic concluded. "All this amounts to a novel which—more consciously than unconsciously—may begin as an attempt to rewrite One Hundred Years of Solitude, but which discovers itself as a unique statement."

Adaptations

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Danish director Bille August made a film version of The House of the Spirits in 1994, starring Jeremy Irons as Esteban, Meryl Streep as Clara, Glenn Close as Ferula, Antonio Banderas as Pedro Tercero, and Winona Ryder as Blanca. The film was not particularly successful, with many critics claiming the Anglo actors were hopelessly miscast. One critic even suggested that the only worth of the adaptation was as a "potential camp cult film."

Media Adaptations

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Danish director Bille August made a film version of The House of the Spirits starring Jeremy Irons as Esteban, Meryl Streep as Clara, Glenn Close as Férula, Antonio Banderas as Pedro Tercero, and Winona Ryder as Blanca. The film was not particularly successful, with many critics claiming the Anglo actors were hopelessly miscast. One critic even suggested that the only worth of the adaptation was as a "potential camp cult film."

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bruce Allen, "A Magical Vision of Society in Revolt," Chicago Tribune Book World, May 19, 1985, pp. 37-38.

Isabel Allende, "Sobre La casa de los espíritus" (Spanish language), Discurso Literario, Vol. 2, Autumn, 1984, pp. 67-73.

Robert Antoni, "Parody or Piracy: The Relationship of The House of the Spirits to One Hundred Years of Solitude," Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XVI, No. 32, July-December, 1988, pp. 16-28.

Patricia Blake, "From Chile with Magic," Time, Vol. 125, No. 20, May 20, 1985, p. 79.

Alexander Coleman, "Reconciliation among the Ruins," New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1985, pp. 1, 22-23.

Enrique Fernández, "Send in the Clone," Village Voice, Vol. XXX, No. 23, June 4, 1985, p. 51.

Ronie-Richelle García-Johnson, "The Struggle for Space: Feminism and Freedom," Revista Hispanica Moderna, Columbia University Hispanic Studies, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, June, 1994, pp. 184-93.

Review of The House of the Spirits, Publishers Weekly, Vol. 227, No. 9, March 1, 1985, p. 70.

D. A. N. Jones, "Magical Realism," London Review of Books, August 1, 1985, pp. 26-7.

Hermione Lee, "Chile Con Carnage," Observer, June 7, 1985, p. 21.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Review of The House of the Spirits, New York Times, May 9, 1985, p. 23.

Sara Maitland, "Courage and Convictions," New Statesman, Vol. 114, No. 2937, July 10, 1987, p. 27.

Suzanne Ruta, "Lovers and Storytellers," Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 9, June, 1991, p. 10.

Amanda Smith, "PW Interviews: Isabel Allende," Publishers Weekly, May 7, 1985.

Paul West, "Narrative Overdrive," Nation, Vol. 241, No. 2, July 20 & 27, 1985, pp. 52-4.

Jonathan Yardley, "Desire and Destiny in Latin America," Washington Post Book World, May 12, 1985, pp. 3-4.

Robert M. Adams, "The Story Isn't Over," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXII, No. 12, July 18, 1985, pp. 20-23.
Mixed review of the novel that praises Allende's use of magical elements and mood of reconciliation. The critic does fault the author for failing to take proper advantage of her eccentric but "entertaining" female characters.

Lori M. Carlson, review of The House of the Spirits, in Review, No. 34, January-June, 1985, pp. 77-78.
Praises Allende's "precise structuring of character development" and notes that the novel remains compelling even if very reminiscent of García Márquez' s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Susan de Carvalho, "Escrituras y Escritoras: The Artist-Protagonist of Isabel Allende," in Discurso Literario, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1992, pp. 59-67.
Examines the self-exploration of the narrators in Allende's Eva Luna and The House of the Spirits.

P. Gabrielle Foreman, "Past-On Stories: History and the Magically Real, Morrison and Allende on Call," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 369-88. Comparative study in which Foreman examines the "interrelation of history, ontology, and the magically real" in Allende's The House of the Spirits and Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Ambrose Gordon, "Isabel Allende on Love and Shadow," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 530-42.
A review of Allende's second novel, Of Love and Shadows, that includes a generally positive assessment of The House of the Spirits. Gordon notes that the novel's "bizarre detail" and "jumbled history" do not necessarily mean the work is not valuable. Concludes that the novel works as a skillful "weapon" of protest against the Pinochet government.

Patricia Hart, Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.
A book-length study of the magic realist elements of Allende's work.

Ruth Y. Jenkins, "Authorizing Female Voice and Experience: Ghosts and Spirits in Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Allende's The House of the Spirits," in Melus, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 61-73.
Examines the "connections between the supernatural and female voice" in Allende's The House of the Spirits and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, stating that "both authors narrate and preserve authentic female experience."

Claudia Marie Kovach, "Mask and Mirror: Isabel Allende's Mechanism for Justice in The House of the Spirits," in Post-colonial Literature and the Biblical Call for Justice, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 74-90.
Examines the ways in which Allende propagates a "prophetic vision of female integrity and justice" in The House of the Spirits, focusing on the role of memories in the book and Allende's narrative strategies.

Marilyn Berlin Snell, "The Shaman and the Infidel," in New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 54-58.
Interview in which Allende discusses Latin American literature, magic realism, and the major themes of her work.

Gail Tayko, "Teaching Isabel Allende's La casa de los espíritus," in College Literature, Vols. 19-20, Nos. 3-1, October, 1992-February, 1993, pp. 228-32.
Discusses how The House of the Spirits could be utilized in the classroom, concluding that the work "interweaves sexual, political, and economic oppression and affirms the national identity of Chile through its focus on the familial sphere. In doing so the novel powerfully raises the issues that are so important for students to confront."

Michael Toms, interview with Isabel Allende in Common Boundary, May/June, 1994, pp. 16-23.
An interview in which Allende discusses her writing technique, how personal experience has affected her works, her literary influences, and her career as a journalist.

Robert Wilson, "A Latin Epic of Marxism and Magic," in USA Today, June 7, 1985, p. 4D.
Mostly positive review of the novel that nevertheless faults the author's treatment of President Allende's rise and fall for leaving her characters behind.

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