Isabel Allende Allende, Isabel (Vol. 170) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Isabel Allende 1942-

Chilean novelist, short story writer, memoirist, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Allende's career through 2001. See also Isabel Allende Criticism (Volume 97).

Respected today as one of the icons of contemporary Latin American literature, Allende documents the tumultuous social and political heritage of South America in her prose and memoirs, most notably in her first and best-known novel, La casa de los espíritus (1982; The House of the Spirits). Allende frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her relatives in Chile to examine the violence and repression that characterizes much of Latin American history. Adopting the hallmark style of the 1960s Spanish American literary “boom” era, Allende's writing style integrates conventional realism with elements of fantasy and hyperbole—also known as “magic realism.” After moving to the United States, Allende began incorporating the cultural aspects of California's diverse Hispanic population into her prose. Widely translated around the globe, Allende's fiction has enjoyed international popular and critical acclaim, particularly with feminist scholars.

Biographical Information

Allende was born in Lima, Peru, where her father was a Chilean diplomatic attaché. Although she eventually lost contact with her father after her parents divorced, Allende attended social events with his extended family during her childhood. This family network included Salvador Allende, her uncle and godfather, who served as president of Chile from 1970 to 1973. Raised in Santiago, Chile, Allende lived with her maternal grandparents, who later became models for the patriarch and matriarch of the family whose history is chronicled in The House of the Spirits. Traveling in South America, Europe, and the Middle East as an adolescent with her mother and diplomat stepfather, Allende eventually returned to Chile and took a job as a journalist, working on television programs and appearing on newsreels. From 1967 to 1974, Allende worked as an editor and staff writer for Paula magazine, writing a number of feminist articles as well as a recurring satirical column known as “Los impertinentes” (“The Impertinents”). In 1973 Allende's life abruptly changed when General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte led a military coup that resulted in the assassination of her uncle and the overthrow of his socialist government. Allende stayed in Chile for several months after the takeover, assisting the opposition to Pinochet's regime, until her own personal safety was jeopardized. In 1974 Allende escaped with her family to Caracas, Venezuela, where she wrote for the newspaper El Nacional. She eventually relocated to the United States and later held teaching positions at the University of Virginia, Montclair College, and the University of California, Berkeley. Allende's literary career grew out of a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, a nearly one-hundred-year-old man who had remained in Chile. Although Allende never sent the letter to her grandfather, her memories of her family and her country were later transformed into her first novel, The House of the Spirits. Throughout the 1980s, Allende published a variety of novels and short story collections, including De amor y de sombra (1984; Of Love and Shadows), Eva Luna (1987), and Cuentos de Eva Luna (1989; The Stories of Eva Luna). In late 1991, while preparing for the publication of her novel El Plan Infinito (The Infinite Plan), Allende was notified that her daughter Paula had suddenly developed medical complications due to porphyry, a genetic disorder. Paula lingered in a coma for a year, during which Allende rarely left her side, until Paula eventually died in 1992. Allende later documented this period in her memoir Paula (1994). Since Paula's death, Allende has published several works, including Afrodita: Cuentos, recetas y otros afrodisíacos (1997; Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses), a selection of essays, short stories, and recipes, as well as the novels Hija de la fortuna (1999; Daughter of Fortune) and Retrato en sepia (2000; Portrait in Sepia).

Major Works

The House of the Spirits is set in an unnamed South-American country that is recognizable as Allende's home country of Chile. The plot recounts the experiences of four generations of the del Valle/Trueba family, set against the backdrop of Chilean politics from the turn of the century up to and including the coup that brought the military regime to power in 1973. Although not overtly autobiographical, The House of the Spirits derives much of its inspiration from the experiences of Allende's family and from her own memories of the house in which she was raised. The novel's two central characters are Esteban, a passionate and violent landowner-politician, and his clairvoyant, kindhearted wife, Clara. Of Love and Shadows begins with a journalist, Irene Beltrán, who is accompanied by a freelance photographer, Francisco Leal, on assignment to write a story about a fifteen-year-old peasant girl alleged to possess miraculous powers. Unexpectedly the pair find themselves involved in a confrontation with the military police, whereupon Evangelina, the peasant girl, disappears. Irene insists on trying to find the girl, and in the process, she and Francisco uncover evidence of atrocities committed by military personnel. Set in a country that closely resembles Venezuela, Eva Luna tells the story of an illegitimate young girl named Eva whose mother dies when Eva is only six years old. The narrative focuses on Eva's survival throughout her difficult childhood and adolescence, progressing to her discovery of success and fulfillment as a scriptwriter for television. The story of Eva's maturation alternates with that of Rolf Carlé, an Austrian emigré who becomes a photojournalist; when the two meet and fall in love, their separate stories merge into one. The Stories of Eva Luna revisits the character of Eva, transforming several of the biographical sketches of individuals contributing to her development into short stories. The Infinite Plan follows Gregory Reeves, a young man raised in a poor Chicano neighborhood in Los Angeles. His father is an ex-preacher who subscribes to his own personal philosophy of salvation, called the “Infinite Plan.” The plot follows George's life as he works his way through law school, marries twice, and serves a brutal tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Paula was written as a family memoir that Allende planned to present as a gift to her daughter once Paula recovered from her coma. The work traces Allende's family history through several generations, recounting her own privileged upbringing and the terror of her uncle's assassination and the resulting military coup. Aphrodite is a collection of prose devoted to the sensuality of life and, more specifically, food. Allende presents essays and stories that discuss the effects and variations of several kinds of aphrodisiacs, and offers over one hundred recipes for rich and sumptuous meals. Daughter of Fortune, a multigenerational novel about characters at the fringes of “proper society,” traces the life of Eliza Sommers, an orphan at birth who was unknowingly raised by her real aunt in Chile. As Eliza chases her lover, Joaquin, to California during the 1849 Gold Rush, she eventually comes to doubt his existence. Vividly recreating the era of Chile's civil wars during the late nineteenth century, Portrait in Sepia draws on characters from both The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune. Due to a severe trauma, a woman named Aurora del Valle—the granddaughter of Eliza Sommers from Daughter of Fortune—is unable to remember her early childhood years. Aurora decides to piece together her fragmented past and begins exploring her family history. Written for a young adult audience, La ciudad de las bestias (2002; City of the Beasts) concerns an American teen's magical adventure among Stone Age Indians in the Amazon rainforest. In 2003 Allende published Mi Pais Inventado: Un Paseo Nostalgico Por Chile (My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile), a collection of memoirs and reminiscences of her native country.

Critical Reception

Often described as one of the first women to break into the male-dominated Latin American literary scene, Allende has also been widely credited with launching the so-called post-“boom” era in Spanish America with the publication of The House of the Spirits. Critics have often compared the narrative structure, themes, and style of The House of the Spirits to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. However, several reviewers have noted that The House of the Spirits introduces a more positive world view and spirit of reconciliation that distinguishes it from the works of other “boom” authors such as García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier. Although the critical reaction to The House of the Spirits has been largely positive, Allende's other works of fiction have received mixed reviews. While some commentators have regarded works such as Of Love and Shadows and Eva Luna as derivative and melodramatic, others have praised these novels for their lushly detailed prose, compelling images, and subtle moral and political themes. A number of scholars have commented on the political overtones in Allende's fiction, debating whether Allende successfully combines her social beliefs with the more fantastic elements in her prose. Much of the critical analysis of Allende's oeuvre has been devoted to her feminist perspective, with many reviewers applauding her depiction of patriarchal societies in Latin America. However, some critics have argued that Allende's portrayal of Hispanic men is stereotypical and relies too heavily on clichéd behavior.

Norma Helsper (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Helsper, Norma. “Binding the Wounds of the Body Politic: Nation as Family in La casa de los espíritus.” In Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels, edited by Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, pp. 49-58. New York: P. Lang, 1991.

[In the following essay, Helsper demonstrates the ways in which The House of the Spirits appropriates conventional Western symbols of the family in Allende's vision of Chilean society.]

This essay will deal with a specific instance of what Kenneth Burke called the “stealing back and forth of symbols”:

The divine right of kings was first invoked by secular...

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Edna Aguirre Rehbein (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rehbein, Edna Aguirre. “Isabel Allende's Eva Luna and the Act/Art of Narrating.” In Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels, edited by Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, pp. 179-90. New York: P. Lang, 1991.

[In the following essay, Rehbein examines the order and content of the narrative in Eva Luna, showing the power of a storyteller to shape time and reality to suit her own needs as well as the needs of her audience.]

Cuando escribí Eva Luna, por primera vez me senté a escribir una novela y quise escribir una novela en varios niveles. Una novela que fuera como contar un cuento y que fuera la...

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Philip Swanson (essay date April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Swanson, Philip. “Tyrants and Trash: Sex, Class and Culture in La casa de los espíritus.Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 71, no. 2 (April 1994): 217-37.

[In the following essay, Swanson examines traditional interpretations of feminism in The House of the Spirits, demonstrating the ways the female characters embrace popular rather than elite culture as a means of challenging political and social structures.]

In an article published in Ideologies and Literature, Gabriela Mora gives Isabel Allende a sound drubbing on the grounds that the Chilean author reproposes in her fiction traditional negative female stereotypes and fails to equip her...

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Mary-Garland Jackson (essay date spring-fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Mary-Garland. “A Psychological Portrait of Three Female Characters in La casa de los espíritus.Letras Femininas 20, nos. 1-2 (spring-fall 1994): 59-70.

[In the following essay, Jackson analyzes the house in The House of the Spirits as a symbol of not only the societal limitations imposed on Clara, Blanca, and Alba, but also of the ways women nurture themselves and their daughters within the house.]

La casa de los espíritus by the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende recounts the history of three generations of women who inhabit a ghost-filled house in the capital of an unnamed South American country. The spirits, which roam...

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Mira Schwirtz (review date May-June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwirtz, Mira. “Paula Remembered.” San Francisco Review of Books 20, no. 2 (May-June 1995): 10.

[In the following review, Schwirtz observes several of Allende's familiar recurring themes in Paula.]

In Chilean author Isabel Allende's life, two tragic twists of fate marked sharply divergent trajectories along which her life unfolded. Their imprint indelibly stamps all of her writing. One was the 1973 Chilean military coup that established Auguste Pinochet's totalitarian government and led to the Allende family's exile to Venezuela. The other was her daughter Paula's grave illness in 1991 that placed the young woman in a coma from which she never recovered....

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Amanda Hopkinson (review date 22 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hopkinson, Amanda. “The Tragic Muse.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 371 (22 September 1995): 34.

[In the following review, Hopkinson praises Allende's achievement in Paula.]

To have your child predecease you is to witness an unnatural act. To attempt to make sense of the senseless is but human nature, and persists in the teeth of every defeat. The Chilean novelist Isabel Allende's way of assimilating and conquering her many experiences is to write stories about them. [Paula] is the story of her daughter's collapse with porphyria; her swift descent into coma; her spasmodic rallies under treatment before crossing over into death at the age of 28....

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Ruth Behar (review date November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Behar, Ruth. “In the House of Spirits.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 2 (November 1995): 8.

[In the following review, Behar examines Paula with respect to Allende's past and motivation for writing the work.]

“Listen, Paula, I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.” With those simple, enchanted words, the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende begins Paula, a memoir of devastating passion dedicated to her daughter. Sadly, unlike Sleeping Beauty, Paula Frias Allende will never awaken to hear her mother's tale. She has fallen, at the age of 28, into a sudden coma caused by the rare illness of porphyria,...

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Isabel Allende and Barbara Mujica (interview date November-December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allende, Isabel, and Barbara Mujica. “The Life Force of Language.” Américas (English edition) 47, no. 6 (November-December 1995): 36-43.

[In the following interview, Allende discusses her writing process and her approach to marketing Paula.]

The night before this interview I attended a talk by Isabel Allende at Georgetown University—a stop on a long publicity tour for her memoir, Paula. Allende spoke about her book, which she began in 1991 in a hospital in Madrid, where her daughter was being treated for porphyria. A beautiful, intelligent, active young woman in her late twenties, Paula had just married a young Spaniard. She was working as a...

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Deborah Cohn (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohn, Deborah. “To See or Not to See: Invisibility, Clairvoyance, and Re-visions of History in Invisible Man and La casa de los espíritus.Comparative Literature Studies 33, no. 4 (1996): 372-95.

[In the following essay, Cohn compares the literary techniques of Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man and Allende in La casa de los espíritus, examining their respective treatment of the marginalization of social groups.]

My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over “proceedings too terrible to relate.” The exercise is also critical for any person who is black, or who belongs to any...

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Maria Roof (essay date June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roof, Maria. “W. E. B. Du Bois, Isabel Allende, and the Empowerment of Third World Women.” CLA Journal 39, no. 4 (June 1996): 401-16.

[In the following essay, Roof compares the narrative patterns of The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, and The Infinite Plan to W. E. B. Du Bois's theory of “double consciousness.”]

Might the theories developed by an African-American male sociologist-philosopher born in 1868 be so highly insightful that they have relevance to the works of a Basque-descended, Chilean, female novelist publishing in the 1980s? Some truths traverse cultures and speak to unanticipated audiences in new and...

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George McMurray (review date summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McMurray, George. Review of Paula, by Isabel Allende. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 671.

[In the following review, McMurray comments on Allende's literary accomplishment with Paula.]

Isabel Allende's most recent book is a memoir dedicated to her daughter Paula, who died in 1992 at the age of twenty-eight. The victim of porphyria, an ailment often resulting in a prolonged state of coma. Paula remained unconscious for a year. The first of the book's two parts begins in December 1991, when Paula falls ill in Madrid and is taken to a local hospital. This part ends in May 1992, when Allende, who has spent six months near her daughter, takes...

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Brad Hooper (review date 1 February 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hooper, Brad. Review of Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, by Isabel Allende. Booklist 94, no. 11 (1 February 1998): 875.

[In the following review, Hooper compliments the sensuous elements of Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses.]

If [Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses] is just a cookbook, then Allende's novels are just potboilers! From the author of such incomparable novels as House of the Spirits (1985) and the highly evocative collection Stories of Eva Luna (1991) comes a luscious book about aphrodisiacs—“the bridge between gluttony and lust.” To care less about food preparation with seduction in mind would not prohibit any...

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Barbara Mujica (review date June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mujica, Barbara. “Body and Soul.” Américas (English edition) 50, no. 3 (June 1998): 60.

[In the following review, Mujica lauds both the literary and gastronomical dimensions of Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses.]

Ever since Laura Esquivel published her spectacularly successful novel, Like Water for Chocolate, Latin American women writers have been putting out collections of literary writing combined with recipes. Well, it worked once … Isabel Allende's contribution to this hybrid genre includes personal observations and stories, letters from friends, folklore, properties of different kinds of foods, tales from diverse cultures, historical...

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Isabel Allende and Michael Skafidas (interview date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allende, Isabel, and Michael Skafidas. “Pinochet's Ghost.” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly 16, no. 3 (spring 1999): 22-6.

[In the following interview, Allende discusses her views of American culture, her place in literature, and the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.]

[Skafidas]: Until you and your family were forced to flee Pinochet's government after the coup against [your uncle] Salvador Allende, you had lived your life in Chile. You come from a culture and a family that, for good reason, has been suspicious of or even hostile toward America. As you have said, Henry Kissinger is no less guilty than Augusto...

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Cecilia Novella (review date September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Novella, Cecilia. Review of Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende. Américas (English edition) 51, no. 5 (September 1999): 61.

[In the following review, Novella evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Daughter of Fortune.]

Chilean author Isabel Allende, having followed the culinary example of her Mexican colleague Laura Esquivel in last year's Afrodita [Aphrodite], presents us this year with Hija de la fortuna [Daughter of Fortune], a novel in which she leaves the kitchen behind and returns to traditional narration.

Over the four hundred pages of her new novel, set in the nineteenth century, Allende takes...

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Alev Adil (review date 12 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adil, Alev. “A Tale of the Heart.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5041 (12 November 1999): 25.

[In the following review, Adil praises the fresh look at nineteenth-century Chilean and American life in Daughter of Fortune, but finds shortcomings with the novel's clichéd characters.]

Isabel Allende's latest novel, Daughter of Fortune, is a lively picaresque romance that spans the decade, 1843-53, and takes us on a circuitous and colourful journey from Valparaiso, a bustling seaport in Chile, to the gold trails of the Sierra Nevada, by way of Canton, Hong Kong, San Francisco and Sacramento. The central story seems to be broadly inspired by the...

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Peter Donaldson (review date 13 December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Donaldson, Peter. Review of Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende. New Statesman 128, no. 4466 (13 December 1999): 57.

[In the following review, Donaldson lauds Allende's rich characters and the cultural diversity of the setting in Daughter of Fortune.]

Isabel Allende has too often been lazily claimed as a magic realist but, in truth, her work defies classification. Allende herself has said that she merely wants to write “realistic literature”, whatever that means. In fact, the engine of much of her fiction is the notion that people may move through the same physical space yet really inhabit different realities. Her absorbing new novel, Daughter...

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Barbara Mujica (review date October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mujica, Barbara. Review of Portrait in Sepia, by Isabel Allende. Américas (English edition) 53, no. 5 (October 2001): 63.

[In the following review, Mujica appreciates Allende's multicultural diversity and feminist perspective in Portrait in Sepia.]

Isabel Allende's latest novel continues the saga of the Sommers and Rodríguez-Del Valle families, begun in Hija de la fortuna [Daughter of Fortune]. Eliza Sommers, the adventurous protagonist of the first book, is the illegitimate daughter of John Sommers, an English sea captain whose brother and sister settle in Santiago. Raised to be a proper young lady by her aunt (who writes naughty novels...

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Ilan Stavans (review date 5 October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stavans, Ilan. “Do You Remember?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5140 (5 October 2001): 26.

[In the following review, Stavans faults Portrait in Sepia for relying too heavily on the plots of Allende's previous novels, noting that the novel caters to the entertainment market rather than advancing the literary arts.]

Isabel Allende is a global phenomenon. It took less than a second for the search engine Google to come up with 49,700 results after I typed her name. Among these results is her website,, available in English and Spanish, which informs us about her novels, memoirs and collections of stories translated into some...

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Philip Graham (review date November-December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Graham, Philip. “A Less Magical Realism.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 38-9.

[In the following review, Graham finds the plot of Portrait in Sepia formulaic and predictable, but appreciates its perspectives on the human struggle to live and love.]

On the first page of Isabel Allende's latest novel, narrator Aurcra del Valle warns the reader: “This is a long story, and it begins before my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in the listening. If I lose the thread along the way, don't despair, because you can count on picking it up a few pages further on.” The promised “few pages” expand to nearly 100,...

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Beth Kephart (review date November-December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kephart, Beth. “Performance Artist.” Book (November-December 2001): 60-1.

[In the following review, Kephart criticizes the awkward prose and jarring plot of Portrait in Sepia, but argues that the novel is still an entertaining read.]

In the opening paragraph of her ninth, exotic book, Isabel Allende issues a warning: “This is a long story,” the narrator cautions, “and it begins before my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in the listening.”

No false modesty there. Reading the first several pages of Portrait in Sepia is like watching the ball roll, skitter and drop in a perpetual-motion machine....

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Amago, Samuel. “Isabel Allende and the Postmodern Literary Tradition: A Reconsideration of Cuentos de Eva Luna.Latin American Literary Review 28, no. 56 (July-December 2000): 43-60.

Amago examines the intertextuality, meta-narrative figures, structure, and indeterminate context of The Stories of Eva Luna in order to draw comparisons to the literary preoccupations of the “boom” generation.

Roof, Maria. “Maryse Condé and Isabel Allende: Family Saga Novels.” World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 283-88.

Roof focuses on feminist issues, concerning the woman's role in the...

(The entire section is 264 words.)