The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende’s first novel, established the Chilean writer’s international reputation and remains her best-known work. Drawing on the Latin American literary style known as Magical Realism, the book tells the story of the Trueba family over several generations. Set in an unidentified South American country that resembles Allende’s homeland, the novel chronicles the social and political forces that affect the family’s fate.
The story begins with Esteban Trueba and his marriage to Clara del Valle, a young woman who possesses clairvoyant gifts and communicates easily with the spirit world. Their marriage produces a daughter, Blanca, and twin sons. Esteban also fathers a son by one of the peasant women on his family estate; years later his illegitimate grandson, a member of the secret police, will torture his legitimate granddaughter, Alba, a political prisoner. Esteban’s political ambitions take him to the country’s senate, where he opposes left-wing reform efforts, while Blanca’s affair with an idealistic peasant boy results in Alba’s birth. The boy becomes a populist songwriter and a leading figure in the Socialist movement. A subsequent leftist victory is short-lived, however, and the elected government is deposed in a military coup. Alba, who has married one of the leftist leaders, is arrested and tortured before her grandfather can secure her release. In an effort to come to terms with all that has happened to her and to her family, she sets about writing the book that will become The House of the Spirits.
Allende’s novel has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970) in style and structure and in the use of Magical Realism, a technique that combines ordinary events with the fantastic and miraculous, giving rise to startling and vivid imagery. Allende herself maintains that much that seems incredible in the book is drawn from memories of her childhood. The characters of Esteban and Clara Trueba are based on her own maternal grandparents, and she began the book not as a novel but as a letter to her aging grandfather meant to reassure him that the family stories would live on through her. The book’s political themes are also taken in part from Allende’s family history; her uncle was Salvador Allende, the Socialist president slain in Chile’s 1973 military coup.
The House of the Spirits brings a strong female voice to the forefront of Latin American literature and offers a collection of vital female characters who embody the book’s spirit of endurance, resilience, and courage.
The eccentric family of a feminist named Nívea and an ambitious politician named Severo del Valle have a prominent place in society. The beauty of their green-haired daughter Rosa and the supernatural powers of her clairvoyant younger sister Clara are legendary. Their Uncle Marcos is a carefree explorer. Rosa the Beautiful is engaged to Esteban Trueba, who goes to work in the mines hoping to strike gold; she dies after accidentally sipping poisoned brandy.
After Rosa’s death, Esteban moves to his family’s ruined country estate, Tres Marías; he rebuilds it with the money he saved to marry Rosa and becomes a rich man. Esteban abuses young peasant girls in the area. He refuses to acknowledge Esteban García, his first child, born to his servant Pancha García, and he fathers many other illegitimate children. He returns to the city when his mother, Ester Trueba, is dying; her inheritance was squandered by her husband, and she lives in poverty, overwhelming her children with her fears and her illnesses.
Clara remained silent for nine years after Rosa’s death. When she speaks again, it is to predict that she will marry Esteban at the age of nineteen. When he marries her, his efforts to please her prove to be disastrous when he gives her a rug made out of the hide of her beloved dead dog, Barrabas. Esteban builds an extravagant house...
(The entire section is 1,350 words.)