Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 710 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Historical Context

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Chile and the Turmoil of the 1970s
Although the setting of House of the Spirits is never explicitly named, there are...

(The entire section is 1242 words.)

Literary Style

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Narration/Point of View
While much of House of the Spirits seems to have very straightforward third-person ("he/she")...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While much of The House of the Spirits seems to have very straightforward third person ("he/she") narrative style, there are, in fact,...

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Isabel Allende writes about three generations of women who try to establish their independence from the domineering family patriarch, Esteban...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Until the publication of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, few female writers had emerged from the "Boom" of Latin American...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Chile: The country of Chile occupies 748,800 square kilometers of land—roughly twice the size of Montana—and in the late 1990s had...

(The entire section is 346 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Because of the author's family background and the political subject matter of The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's best-selling...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Allende's second novel, Of Love and Shadows (1984), is an even more overtly political work than her first. Journalist Irene Beltran...

(The entire section is 252 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Danish director Bille August made a film version of The House of the Spirits in 1994, starring Jeremy Irons as Esteban, Meryl Streep...

(The entire section is 72 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Danish director Bille August made a film version of The House of the Spirits starring Jeremy Irons as Esteban, Meryl Streep as Clara,...

(The entire section is 72 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Allende's second novel, Of Love and Shadows (1984), is an even more overtly political work than her first. Journalist Irene Beltrán...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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

Isabel Allende,...

(The entire section is 826 words.)