Isabel Allende

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Norma Helsper (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3075

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 interests combating the theocrats. It held that God appointed the king, rather than the church authorities, to represent the secular interest of “the people”. Later, when the church made peace with established monarchs, identifying its interest with the interests of the secular authorities, the church adopted the doctrine as its own. And subsequently the bourgeoisie repudiated the doctrine, in repudiating both monarch and state. It did so in the name of “rights,” as the doctrine had originally been in the name of “rights.” Among these “rights” was “freedom.” And Marx in turn stole this bourgeois symbol for the proletariat.


One of the concepts that has proven to be a popular one for “stealing back and forth” is that of the family. Perhaps because of the generally conservative nature of that institution, the Right has often been quick to claim the family as its own. In the introduction to their 1984 book When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimer and Nazi Germany, Brithenthal et. al. remind us of this.

A close look at the history addressed in this volume alerts us to the dangers signaled by well-financed, well-organized movements in command of the latest propaganda techniques that, then and now, mobilize around such code words as “pro-family” …, “patriotism,” and “military strength.” We want to stress that Nazism did not arrive full blown, with promises of war and gas chambers. It came slowly, step by step, draped in the prospective coloring of love for country, strong medicine to combat unemployment, and most importantly for our purposes, a pledge to restore the traditional family …

(Bridenthal xii)

During the years of the Popular Unity government in Chile (1970-1973), the Right also attempted to set itself up as the guardian of the family. For example, during the campaign preceding the elections won by Salvador Allende, rumors were circulated that a socialist government would usurp patria potestad or parental authority, taking children from their parents and sending them for indoctrination. (The same rumor had made hundreds of Cuban parents send their young children to the United States after the triumph of that revolution in 1959.) Here I will discuss how Chilean novelist Isabel Allende “steals back” the notion of family in her 1983 novel La casa de los espíritus.

The family is a powerful symbol in Western society. Analysts from Engels (in his 1884 work The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State) to contemporary feminists have identified the institution of the family as one which perpetuates the limiting of sex roles and women's oppression. The dominant conception of the family since the eighteenth century's industrial revolution is that which Christopher Lasch uses as the title of his history: Haven in a Heartless World (1977). This double identity of the family is not lost on Allende, and, in fact, the message of her book revolves around the institution's internal contradictions. In La casa de los espíritus, the traditional family as symbol is debunked and, simultaneously, the power of...

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the family-as-image is reclaimed for the novelist's Utopian purpose. The hope which Allende holds out for the future of her country is based on one other than the model of an accepting, loving family.

The image of nation-as-family is most often utilized by ideologues who attempt to deny the existence or importance of class differences and sexual oppression.1 This is not the case, however, of La casa de los espíritus, in which the traditional family is shown to be a respectable façade that hides the truth of rape, adultery, battering and domination. Isabel Allende implicitly criticizes the traditional family by associating it with the patriarch Esteban Trueba, who was “fanático, violento y anticuado, pero representaba mejor que nadie los valores de la familia, la tradición, la propiedad y el orden” (273). But the character Trueba also is made to set in motion what could be seen as a deconstruction of the tradition notion of “family.” Because Trueba rapes a campesina, Pancha García, the traditional coveted place of the primogénito, the first born son, is filled by an, illegitimate mestizo who never uses his father's last name. Trueba's legitimate children all rejected their “assigned” roles. His son Jaime, a physician, decides to use only his mother's family name when he finds that the name Trueba causes suspicion in his lower-class patients. Typically, the son of a patrón has his first sexual experience with a female servant, but in this case it is Trueba's daughter, Blanca, who chooses a campesino, Pedro Tercero García, for her lover. The enraged father goes after the young man with the purpose of killing him; Esteban García, Trueba's grandson by the campesina he raped, betrays Pedro Tercero's hiding place. But Trueba does not know García is his grandson and further denies him respect by refusing to pay him the promised reward.

By failing to give first to Pancha, and then to Esteban García, the recognition due human beings, let alone blood relatives, Trueba contributes to the creation of an inhuman monster. When grown, the young campesino comes to ask his patrón for a recommendation to the Chilean police academy. While waiting in the library, he comes close to sexually molesting Trueba's other, recognized grandchild, Alba:

Se sentó en una de las butacas de cuero negro y poco a poco atrajo a la niña y la sentó en sus rodillas. Alba olía a Bayrum, una fragancia fresca y dulce que se mezclaba con su olor a natural de chiquilla transpirada. El muchacho acercó la nariz a su cuello y aspiró ese perfume desconocido de limpieza y bienestar, y sin saber por qué, se le llenaron los ojos de lágrimas. Sintió que odiaba a esa criatura casi tanto como odiaba al viejo Trueba. Ella encarnaba lo que él nunca tendría, lo que él nunca sería.


The beast of class hatred later threatens to destroy Chilean society in general. In the exemplary case of the Trueba Del Valle family, Coronel Esteban García has a role in torturing Esteban Trueba's son, Jaime, and takes Alba as his special scapegoat, almost killing her. While his granddaughter is “disappeared,” Esteban Trueba's contribution to creating her torture and thereby almost destroying what he most loves in the world is brought home to the reader. Senator Trueba is desperate when he goes to ask his old friend Tránsito Soto for help:

Tránsito … puedo darle lo que me pida, cualquier cosa, con tal que encuentre a mi nieta Alba antes que un demente me siga mandando más dedos cortados … discúlpeme que me ponga así, me tiemblan las manos, estoy muy nervioso, no puedo explicar lo que pasó, un paquete por correo y adentro sólo tres dedos humanos … una broma macabra que me trae recuerdos, pero esos recuerdos nada tienen que ver con Alba, mi nieta ni siquiera había nacido entonces … por favor. Tránsito … soy un pobre viejo destrozado, apiádese y busque a mi nieta Alba antes que me la terminen de mandar en pedacitos por correo …


Trueba of course, is wrong in saying that the memories brought back to him by the three human fingers he receives in the mail have nothing to do with his granddaughter. The fingers that he remembers are those he cut from the hand of Alba's father, Pedro Tercero García, in his rage over discovering that the campesino and Trueba's daughter Blanca were lovers. The boy who witnessed the event and who was later denied the reward promised him for leading Trueba to Pedro's hideout was Trueba's illegitimate grandson Esteban García. Now Coronel García, he, in effect, sends the message that he will finish the job, started years earlier by the patrón, of destroying one reminder of cross-class fraternizing.

Parallel to the legacy of cruelty, degradation, and revenge reviewed in the preceding paragraphs, La casa de los espíritus posits another chain of events which constitutes a Utopian image of hope for the salvation of both the Trueba Del Valle family and for Chile. The novel picks up the story of this positive chain with Esteban Trueba's marriage to Clara Del Valle. Trueba starts forging his link of the negative chain with the rape of Pancha García, his part in the positive chain begins with his tender love for his new wife Clara. Although she disagrees with his world view and in many ways fails to conform to a traditional woman's role, he loves her. This ability to love someone very different from oneself is, in the final analysis, the major source of hope for society's redemption.

The next generation's link of love is forged by Blanca Trueba, daughter of Clara and Esteban, and Pedro Tercero García, the son of the peasant foreman of their ranch. Their love is so forbidden and so strong that it is associated with an earthquake:

En un instante (Clara) comprendió la causa del color del aura de Blanca, sus ojeras, su desgano y su silencio, su somnolencia matinal y sus acuarelas vespertinas. En ese mismo momento comenzó el terremoto.


Such a relationship across class lines “shakes the social edifice to its foundations.” In the construction of her story Allende makes sure to highlight the interconnectedness of the generations. For example, the place where Trueba's daughter and her friend first make love has special significance: “Pedro Tercero la esperaba en el mismo sitio donde se habían juntado el verano anterior y donde muchos años antes Esteban Trueba se había apoderado de la humilde virginidad de Pancha García.” (319)

The next link in the positive chain of events is Blanca and Pedro Tercero's child Alba. Alba is a character who reverses the centrifugal movement that the novel's characters experience up until her appearance on the scene. Family members who no longer have or never had anything in common share a love for Alba. But most important in the novel is the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter. As Alma grows up, she comes to have beliefs very different from those of her grandfather, but their affection for each other survives. It is important to note here that they do not simply “agree to disagree,” nor do they diminish the scope of their relationship by excluding certain topics from their conversational repertoire. In one of the novel's sections narrated by Esteban, the ongoing dialogue with his granddaughter is reflected.

A veces yo iba al pueblo y volvía con un veterinario que revisaba a las vacas y a las gallinas y, de paso, echaba una mirada a los enfermos. No es cierto que yo partiera del principio de que si los conocimientos del veterinario alcanzaban para los animales, también servían para los pobres, como dice mi nieta cuando quiere ponerme furioso.


She is loved by Trueba in spite of being the daughter of his enemy, just as she will love her child, most probably engendered by a rapist. After her release from the concentration camp, Alba writes:

Me será muy difícil vengar a todos los que tienen que ser vengados, porque mi venganza no sería más que otra parte del mismo rito inexorable. Quiero pensar que mi oficio es la vida y que mi misión no es prolongar el odio, sino sólo llenar estas páginas mientras espero el regreso de Miguel, mientras entierro a mi abuelo que ahora descansa a mi lado en este cuarto, mientras aguardo que lleguen tiempos mejores, gestando a la criatura, que tengo en el vientre, hija de tantas violaciones, o tal vez hija de Miguel, pero sobre todo hija mía.


Alba also forms fraternal links with people who are not members of her biological family: in the women's prison she cares for other inmates' children as if they were her own and upon her release she is taken in and protected by a stranger. By the novel's end, following the footsteps of her grandmother, Alba has begun to forge a new model family which will include Chileans of all social classes and political tendencies. This family is the Utopian image which anchors the novel.

Alba embodies hope for the future, as her name implies: Alba, the dawning of a new day, bringing with it another chance. In one of her typical inversions, Allende places the victim of rape in the role of a pregnant Virgin Mary. Since traditionally, especially in Spanish literature, sexual relations, whether forced upon her or not, have always been the woman's fault, it can be said that the awaited savior is a person denoted by two of the strongest insults in the Spanish tongue: hijo de puta, hijo de la chingada. The novel ends with Alba, and the reader, expecting the arrival of the child, an inverted Christ figure in two ways. Rather than the child of any god, this one is of unclear but doubtlessly human origin, conceived most probably in hate rather than in love. And her mother writes, this child will be a girl. This seems to suggest that hope will be embodied in a future in which “feminine” values will have ascendancy over “masculine” ones.

As the preceding examples have illustrated, Allende finds hope in the ability of people to love across social barriers. Another cause for optimism proposed in the novel is the superior resilience of love in comparison to hate. This latter emotion requires too much energy to maintain. When Trueba is taken hostage by the campesinos on Las Tres Marías, Pedro Tercero, now a government bureaucrat, comes to rescue his former patrón at Blanca's request:

Era la primera vez que estaban frente a frente desde el día fatídico en que Trueba le cobró la virginidad de su hija con un hachazo … Se observaron en silencio por largos segundos, pensando los dos que el otro encarnaba lo más odioso en el mundo, pero sin encontrar el fuego del antiguo odio en sus corazones.


The other character who has trouble maintaining her hate is Alba.

En la perrera escribí con el pensamiento que algun dia tendría al coronel García vencido ante mí y podria vengar a todos los que benen que ser vengados. Pero ahora dudo de mi odio … parece haberse diluído.


Alba recognizes the possibility that the cycle of violence will continue:

El día en que mi abuelo volteó entre los matorrales del río a su abuela, Pancha García, agregó otro eslabón en una cadena de hechos que debían cumplirse. Después el meto de la muyer violada repite el gesto con la nieta del violador y dentro de cuarenta anos, tal vez, mi meto tumbe entre las matas del río a la suya y así, por los siglos venideros, en una historia inacabable de dolor, de sangre y de amor.


Knowledge and understanding are proposed as the necessary elements in conquering fear and hate, because only with these tools can one work to see that the chain of terror is interrupted. Alba writes:

Y ahora yo busco mi odio y no puedo encontrartp. Siento que se apaga en la medida en que me explico la existencia del coronel Garcia y de otros como él, que comprendo a mi abuelo y me entero de las cosas a través de los cuadernos de Clara …


La casa de los espíritus is a novel of fantasy and of history. It recounts a sad chapter in Latin American history and simultaneously projects a Utopian vision into the future. Although its proposition is radical, the novel utilizes two of the most traditional images of Western culture: the family and the messianic child. Perhaps much of its power is derived from the use of these two ideas, which are deeply rooted in our collective psyche.

What Allende does with the family-as-symbol brings to mind another of Burke's ideas:

Occasionally, when one makes a statement, his auditor will reprove him by observing that some Nazi ideologist has made a similar statement. No account is taken of the difference in the statement's function due to the difference of context in which it is used. This kind of “refutation” exemplifies to the fullest the process of “being driven into a corner” whereby one despoils himself of an idea's serviceability simply because his opponent has misused it.


Allende isn't about to be “driven into a corner.” Rather than abandon the family, so laden with the positive idealized connotations of warmth, affection, safety and solidarity, Allende reconstitutes it. At least in her novel, “family” is inclusive rather than exclusive, since rich and poor, dark and light, left and right are shown to be “relatives.” Ultimately, Esteban and Alba are able to bridge the gap of political differences because of their loving familial ties; and Alba, through her recognition that her torturer is also her kin, proposes the family as a model for her divided country: members of this family have oppressed, wounded, and tortured each other, but they are the same ones who must now heal one another. The family she posits is all of Chile.


  1. See, for example, Hernán Vidal's analysis of an early play by Chilean playwright Egon Wolff, in “Una relectura del teatro democratacristiano inicial: Vodanovic y Wolff, el problema de nuestra ética colectivista,” Ideologies & Literature, 2nd Series 1 (1985): 31-80.

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. La casa de los espíritus. 17th ed. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1982.

Bridenthal, Renate, Atina Grossmann and Marion Kaplan. When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany. New York: Monthly Review P, 1984.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes toward History. vol. 1, New York: The New Republic, 1937. 2 vols.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Trans. Ernest Untermann. Chicago: Charles Kerr, 1902.

Lasch, Christopher. Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. New York: Basic Books, 1977.


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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.

Edna Aguirre Rehbein (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4597

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 protagonista contándoles a otros el cuento de su propia vida. En Eva Luna puse muchas cosas: quería decir, por ejemplo, lo que significa poder contar, cómo a través del contar se van ganando espacios, se va ganando gente, se seduce a un lector. … el poder contar cuentos es como un tesoro inagotable …1

In Eva Luna, Isabel Allende's third novel, the author focuses on two closely linked aspects of story-telling and/or of narrating. On the one hand, she experiments with the act of narrating by creating a story in which the roles of Eva Luna, the protagonist, Eva Luna, the narrator, and the role of the character in the soap opera Bolero (written by the protagonist) are at first separate, but then seem to converge into one. The resulting intertextuality and self-reflexivity create various levels of fictionalization leading the reader to question “reality” within this fictional setting. The other aspect which Allende examines is the art of narrating, as she experiments with the text and demonstrates that the slightest manipulation of language can create or transform reality. An individual's adeptness in utilizing language, thus constructs a particular reality. These two aspects of narration, so skillfully crafted by Isabel Allende, are inseparable as they work together to create or change textual “reality” to meet the narrator's liking.

Though at first this work appears to be like many other narratives, it is clear that Allende intends the novel to be more than merely another autobiographical first person account told by the narrator. Allende's intentions for the novel are clearly stated by her protagonist at the end of the novel when Eva states that perhaps all of what has taken place in the story has occurred “de acuerdo al principio de que es posible construir la realidad a la medida de las propias apetencias.”2 In the same way that Eva Luna can mold “la Materia Universal” (250) into anything she wishes, Allende and Eva also mold reality according to their liking.3 In this text, the very act of narrating becomes integrated with the plot of the novel, as the protagonist first learns to tell stories orally, then blossoms from a state of illiteracy, learning to read and then to write, and finally, writes her own story. For Eva, the narrator, and for Eva, the protagonist, the text becomes one long process of learning about the power of expression, be it in written or spoken form.

The importance of revealing or telling about events is seen throughout the novel as other characters also occupy themselves with this activity. Rolf Carlé, the Austrian immigrant who becomes a photo journalist in South America, finds it extremely important to reveal the true story when he reports on political activities. His desire to tell the “official truth” is often frustrated either because the government will not allow it, or because to do so would compromise and endanger the guerrillas' lives.4 Huberto Naranjo, the guerrilla leader, occupies himself with obscuring the true story, molding it to conform to his needs and even changing his name when necessary (216). Eva acquires this gift of story-telling from her mother, Consuelo, who often engaged in this activity (25).

Eva's skill is very powerful as it not only serves as entertainment for herself and others, but becomes crucial to her survival. She at times uses it in exchange for food and shelter. Allende explains, “Eva Luna, la protagonista de mi novela cambia sus cuentos por comida, por techo, después por amistad, por amor …”5 Toward the end, this skill becomes her profession when she begins working as a writer. More significant, however, is the fact that throughout her life Eva, the protagonist, relies on her stories to remove her from difficult situations. As she struggles to survive, she relies on their magical power to transport her from the harsh reality by which she is surrounded, to a prettier, more acceptable world which exists only in her dreams or memory. It is through this process, for instance, that as an adult she is able to continue experiencing the “existence” of her mother who died when she was only a small child (123). Isabel Allende's complex story is a reflection of her own belief in the magical power of the word and the narrative6 as Eva, the narrator, becomes the active agent involved in molding reality and consequently the outcome of the novel.7

At first glance, the novel appears to be merely another first person account of someone's life: Eva narrates her life story. The first chapter provides background information on Eva's mother, Consuelo, who was orphaned and raised by monks and then went to work for various people; it also tells of Eva's birth. Already in this first chapter Allende introduces the key role played by story-telling and the concept of a reality made pliable and changeable through the use of language. Eva's mother. Consuelo, is clearly gifted with the magical powers of story-telling.

Mi madre era una persona silenciosa, capaz de disimularse entre los muebles, de perderse en el dibujo de la alfombra, de no hacer el menor alboroto, como si no existiera; sin embargo, en la intimidad de la habitación que compartíamos se transformaba. Comenzaba a hablar del pasado o a narrar sus cuentos y el cuarto se llènaba de luz, desaparecian los muros para dar paso a increíbles paisajes, palacios abarrotados de objetos nunca vistos, países lejanos inventados por ella o sacados de la biblioteca del patrón; colocaba a mis pies todos los tesoros de Onente. La luna y más allá, me reducía al tamaño de una hormiga para sentir el universo desde la pequeñez, me ponía alas para verlo desde el firmamento, me daba una cola de pez para conocer el fondo del mar. Cuando ella contaba, el mundo se poblaba de personajes, algunos de los cuales llegaron a ser tan familiares, que todavía hoy, tantos años después, puedo describir sus ropas y el teno de sus voces.

(25; emphasis added)

Eva continues,

Ella (la mamá) sembró en mi cabeza la idea de que la realidad no es sólo como se percibe en la superficie, tambien tiene una dimensión mágica y, si a uno se le antoja, es legítimo exagerarta y ponerle color para que el tránsito por esta vida no resulte tan aburrido.


At the end of this first chapter, it is also apparent that Eva, like her mother, believes in her own ability to transform reality. She explains, “Una palabra mía y, i¡chas!, se transformaba la realidad” (28).

The second chapter begins with the life story of Rolf Carlé, a young Austrian boy whose life develops parallel to Eva's. The narrator alternates between a chapter about herself and one about Rolf throughout the remainder of the novel until the last three chapters when their lives intersect and they fall in love. In subsequent chapters, the reader learns about Rolf's own involvement in story-telling through his use of film.

By the third chapter, Eva has actively begun using her story-telling to achieve a number of goals. Eva describes how she told stories to Elvira, her madrina: “Me enrollaba junto a Elvira y le ofrecía un cuento a cambio de que me permitiera quedarme con ella” (58). To Huberto Naranjo, the street-wise young boy who helps her survive, who later gets involved in guerrilla warfare, and then becomes Eva's lover, she offers some of her stories as entertainment and compensation for taking care of her: “Me acurruqué entre los papeles y le ofrecí un cuento en pago de tantas y tan finas atenciones” (63). It is through Huberto's insistence that she begins to learn to read (110).

Eva's ability to create or invent continues to become stronger and more evident. Later, when she finds herself alone again and feeling totally abandoned, Eva resorts to using her imagination to “magically” retrieve her mother who died when she was young.

Escondí la cara entre las rodillas, llamé a mi madre y muy pronto percibí su aroma ligero de tela limpia y almidón. Surgió ante mí intacta, con su trenza enrollada en la nuca y los ojos de humo brillando en su rostro pecoso, para decirme que esa trifulca no era nada de mi incumbencia y no había razón para tener miedo, que me sacudiera el susto y echáramos a andar juntas. Me puse de pié y le tomé la mano.


And “… la presencia visible de [su] madre …” (126) continues to accompany her through her troubled days in the streets while she looks for a home.

It is not until she goes to live with Riad Halabí, however, that she actually learns to read and the next phase of her creativity is initiated. Halabí, who finds her on the streets, takes her to work with him in his home in Agua Santa. He becomes like a father to her and takes a special interest in educating her, finding her a tutor, buying her many books, and teaching her to read (140-141). Halabí not only teaches her to read and write, rather more notably, he is the one who makes her an “official” person by acquiring a birth certificate for her. Later Eva reflected on his generosity,

Riad Halabí me dio varias cosas fundamentales para transitar por mi destino y entre ellas, dos muy importantes: la escritura y un certificado de existencia. No había papeles que probaran mi presencia en este mundo, nadie me inscribió al nacer, nunca habia estado en una escuela, era como si no hubiera nacido, pero él habló con un amigo de la crudad, pagó el soborno correspondiente y consiguió un documento de identidad, en el cual, por un error del funcionario, figuro con tres anos menos de los que en realidad tengo.


Her interest in reading becomes a passion and consequently, she begins to write her own stories. She states,

Yo devoraba los libros que caían en mis manos, … mis historias aparecían anhelos e inquietudes que no sabía que estaban en mi corazón. La maestra Inés me sugirió anotarlos en un cuaderno Pasaba parte de la noche escribiendo y me gustaba tanto hacerlo, que se me iban las horas sin darme cuenta y a menudo me levantaba por la manana con los ojos enrojecidos. Pero ésas eran mis mejores horas. Sospechaba que nada existia verdaderamente, la realidad era una materia imprecisa y gelatinosa que mis sentidos captaban a medias … Me consolaba la idea de quo Jo podía tomar esa gelatina y moldearla para crear lo que deseara no una parodia de la realidad, como los mosqueteros y las esfinges de mi antingua patrona yugoslava, sino un mundo propio, poblado de personajes vivos, donde yo imponía las normas y las cambiaba a mi antojo. De mi dependia la existencia de todo lo que nacía, moría o acontecía en las arenas inmoviles donde germinaban mis cuentos. Podía colocar en ellas to que quisiera, bastaba pronunciar la palabra justa para darle vida. A veces sentía que ese universo fabricado con el poder de la imaginación era de contornes mas firmes y durables que la región confusa donde deambulaban los seres de carne y hueso que me rodeaban.

(173-174, emphasis added)8

Eva becomes conscious of her own power as the reader of these stories and of the fact that she alone has the power to create everything that occurs in her narrative. At times, her imagined environment becomes preferable to the harshness of life itself.

Eva's ability to change her perception of “reality” to her liking continues to become further developed as she gains confidence through reading. Upon moving into an apartment with Mimí, Eva invents an entire family tree for herself by acquiring old photographs of “toda una familia” and placing them on her wall, thereby creating for herself a valid past as well (206). The hardest photograph to find, however, is that of Consuelo, her mother. She decides on a portrait of a beautiful woman and feels that one is appropriate because the woman in it “era lo bastante hermosa como para encarnar a mi madre.” (207) She goes on to state, “así deseo preservarla en mi recuerdo” (207; emphasis added).

Aside from the obvious fact that the previous citation reinforces how Eva is again engaging in molding reality to her liking, this quote represents a pivotal point in the novel because it is one of the first times that the narrator uses the present tense as she relates her life story. Previously, she has been looking back in time at events in her life, in her mother's, and in Rolf's, so she has used the past tenses. It is at this point in the narrative that the lives of Eva, the narrator and Eva, the protagonist begin to converge, and Allende begins to communicate this merging of narrative time and of the protagonist/narrator through her meticulous use of the language. Gradually, in this chapter, and then more suddenly in the next two, there is a shift from the re-telling of events from the past to the recounting of events in the present, as they occur at that moment. This evolution from past to present is seen again just a few pages later as Eva tells of her responsibility for her madrina. She explains that upon coming to the capital city, she finds her madrina, who has been living in terrible conditions in a public nursing home. With Mimí's help, they move her to a privately run attractive care unit. “Mimí pagó la primera mensualidad,” states Eva, adding, “pero ese deber es mío” (209; emphasis added).

Shortly thereafter Eva begins to work as a secretary in the military uniform factory and at night, encouraged by Mimí, she writes stories in her cuaderno de cuentos (207). She begins to see Huberto more, but only when he decides he can come out of hiding. After one of their passionate encounters, Eva reflects on their relationship, once again using the present tense.

Para Naranjo y otros como él, el pueblo parecía compuesto sólo de hombres; nosotras debíamos contribuir a la lucha, pero estábamos exluidas de las decisiones y del poder. Su revolución no cambiaría en escencia mi suerte, en cualquier circunstancia yo tendría que seguir abriéndome paso por mí misma hasta el último de mis días. Tal vez en ese momento me di cuenta de que la mía es una guerra cuyo final no se vislumbra, así es que más vale darla con alegria, para que no se me vaya la vida esperando una posible victoria para empezar a sentirme bien. Concluí que Elvira tenía razón hay que ser bien brava hay que pelear siempre.

(214; emphasis added)

Whereas previously the narrative has described Eva's life in retrospect, this passage clearly creates the impression that Eva, the narrator is now recounting Eva, the protagonist's life as it is unfolding and developing before her. By merging narrative time in this way, the author dissolves the gap between Eva, the protagonist and Eva, the narrator. At this point in the novel, the two become one.

This evolution of narrative time is intensified in the subsequent sections as Eva quits her work at the uniform factory and dedicates herself to writing on a regular basis. Mimí, who believes in fortune telling, reads Eva's future and affirms that her “destino era contar” (229). Mimí encourages Eva to begin writing screenplays for the soap opera in which she appears and purchases a typewriter for her. The next morning, as Eva anxiously sits down to write, she is filled with a flurry of emotion and inspiration.

Desde que la maestra Inés me enseñó el alfabeto, escribía casi todas las noches, pero sentí que ésta era una ocasión diferente, algo que podría cambiar mi rumbo. Preparé un café negro y me instalé ante la máquina, tomé una hoja de papel limpia y blanca, como una sábana recién planchada para hacer el amor y la introduje en el rodillo. Entonces sentí algo extraño, como una brisa alegre por los huesos, por los caminos de las venas bajo la piel. Creí que esa página me esperaba desde hacía veinti-tantos años, que yo había vivido sólo para ese instante, y quise que a partir de ese momento mi único oficio fuera atrapar las historias suspendidas en el aire más delgado, para hacerlas mías.


She explains:

Se ordenaron los relatos guardados en la memoria genética desde antes de mi nacimiento y muchos otros que había registrado por años en mis cuadernos. Comencé a recordar hechos muy lejanos, recuperé las anécdotas de mi madre cuando vivíamos entre los idiotas, los cancerosos y los embalsamados del Profesor Jones; aparecieron un indio mordido de víbora y un tirano con las manos devoradas por la lepra; rescaté a una solterona que perdió el cuero cabelludo como si se lo hubiera arrancado una máquina bobinadora, un dignatario en su sillón de felpa obispal, un árabe de corazón generoso y tantos otros hombres y mujeres cuyas vidas estaban a mi alcance para disponer de ellas según mi propia y soberana voluntad.

(230-231; emphasis added)

Allende adds to the text's complexity by allowing Eva to detail the recording of these events which have already been written by the narrator and have been read previously by the reader in this same novel, thereby leading the reader to question the reliability and chronology of the narrative. Eva explains that

Poco a poco el pasado se transformaba en presente y me adueñaba también del futuro, los muertos cobraban vida con ilusión de eternidad, se reunían los dispersos y todo aquello esfumado por el olvido adquiría contornos precisos.

(231; emphasis added)

As she continues to write she begins to speculate about her own future: “Sospechaba que el final llegaría sólo con mi propia muerte y me atrajo la idea de ser yo también uno más de la historia y tener el poder de determinar mi fin o inventarme una vida” (231). It is as if narrative time, the action being retold, has now caught up with the present events and Eva Luna has begun to recount her life as it takes place. The implication, therefore, is that she is now beginning to tell her life story as it will transpire in the future, though it has not yet occurred. Eva Luna is now in total control of her destiny: all she needs to do is to write it in order for it to occur in her narrative “reality.”

When Eva Luna and Rolf Carlé finally meet at a dinner party, she is asked to supply more of her cuentos. Eva's creative powers and the author's utilization of the present tense amidst passages narrated in the past tense are further evidenced. The following passage illustrates Allende's techniques:

Mimí dice que tengo una voz especial para los cuentos, una voz que, siendo mía parece también ajena, como si brotara desde la tierra y me subiera por el cuerpo. Sentí que la habitación perdía sus contornos, esfumada en los nuevos horizontes que yo convocaba.

(234; emphasis added)

Whereas the early segments of the novel conveyed the idea of a narrator who was telling about her life as it had happened many years back, the interjection of these comments in the present tense make the text seem like a conversation in the present with some momentary descriptions of past events.

In Chapter Eleven, Eva, who has become involved in helping the guerrillas with their greatest effort against the government, finds that Rolf, who had previously merely been documenting the events, is also now involved in the struggle. While out in the countryside, waiting for the attack to occur, Rolf asks her to tell a story she has never told before. She willingly begins to tell about “una mujer cuyo oficio era contar cuentos” (258). This unmistakably is a reference to herself, Eva the story-teller. The story she continues to tell, however, is even more engaging and insightful as it seems to correspond very closely to the narrator's/protagonist's life story. She states that the young woman met a man who was very sad and was burdened by his past, so he asks her to create a new history for him. She consents, but after she has told the new story of Rolf's life, Eva comments:

Por fin amaneció y en la primera luz del día ella comprobó que el olor de la tristeza se había esfumado. Suspiró, cerró los ojos y al sentir su espíritu vacío como el de un recién nacido, comprendió que en el afán de complacerlo le había entregado su propia memoria, ya no sabía qué era suyo y cuánto ahora pertenecía a él, sus pasados habían quedado anudados en una sola trenza. Había entrado hasta el fondo en su propio cuento y ya no podía recoger sus palabras, pero tampoco quiso hacerlo y se abandonó al placer de fundirse con él en la misma historia …


The story that Eva tells Rolf is indicative of what has happened in the novel with respect to her own life and Rolf's, for earlier, Eva too had helped Rolf accept his painful past by changing it for him through her cuentos (238-239). Eva and Rolf have become intertwined just as have the two characters in her cuento.

After the guerrillas' successful maneuvers against the government, Eva and Rolf become concerned over how the government will present the news about the occurrence, so they decide to tell the story in the next episode of her soap opera. Eva and Rolf explain that they can avoid any problems with the government censorship because, “siempre se puede alegar que es sólo ficción y como la telenovela es mucho más popular que el noticiario, todo el mundo sabrá lo que pasó en Santa María” (272). Thereby, Eva uses her fictional media to depict a true incident. Eva's soap opera, Bolero, becomes very popular and receives enormous attention. Mimí plays herself in the television story, while Eva,

… escribía cada día un nuevo episodio, inmersa por completo en el mundo que creaba con el poder omnímodo de las palabras, transformada en un ser disperso, reproducida hasta el infinito, viendo mi propio reflejo en múltiples espejos, viviendo innumberables vidas, hablando con muchas voces.


At the end of the novel, Eva and Rolf leave the city for a while because they are concerned about possible repercussions from the telecasting of their episode depicting the guerrilla actions. While in Colonia, the couple fall passionately in love. Eva describes their kiss, saying;

Se acercó a grandes pasos y procedió a besarme tal como ocurre en las novelas románticas, tal como yo esperaba que lo hiciera desde hacía un siglo y tal como estaba describiendo momentos antes el encuentro de mis protagonistas en Bolero. Aproveché la cercanía para husmearlo con disimulo y así identifiqué el olor de mi pareja.


The narrator ends the story by stating that they loved one another for a while until their love faded. But then she interjects,

O tal vez las cosas no ocurrieron así. Tal vez tuvimos la suerte de tropezar con un amor excepcional y yo no tuve necesidad de inventarlo, sino sólo vestirlo de gala para que perdurara en la memoria, de acuerdo al principio de que es posible construir la realidad a la medida de las propias apetencias. … Escribí que durante esas semanas benditas, el tiempo se estiró, se enroscó en sí mismo, se dio vuelta como un pañuelo de mago y alcanzó para que Rolf Carlé—con la solemnidad hecha polvo y la vanidad por las nubes—conjurara sus pesadillas y volviera a cantar las canciones de su adolescencia y para que yo … narrara … muchos cuentos, incluyendo algunos con final feliz.


The novel is a prime example of Isabel Allende's belief in the magical power of words and in the concept that books have their own spirit to exist as they wish. Eva, the narrator, is completely in control of the narrative and capable of molding and defining time and reality as she wishes. Allende demonstrates that the act and the art of narrating consist of the skill and talent to change language in order to achieve the desired textual “reality.”


  1. Isabel Allende, personal interview, 5 January 1989.

  2. Isabel Allende, Eva Luna (Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1987); 281. Emphasis added. Other references to the novel will be from this edition and will appear within the text.

  3. Already in Allende's first novel, La casa de los espíritus (1982), the author's emphasis on the process of narration is evident. This first novel, is in fact the product of the author's continuous narration in the form of a letter to her grandfather. The second novel, De amor y de sombra (1984), also relates to writing in that it is the novelized re-counting of a true event she read in a journalistic article.

  4. Rolf Carlé's interest in presenting the “official truth” about the guerrillas' efforts is evident in a number of situations. He is first depicted as an anxious young photographer, interested “en captar la imagen, aun a costa de cualquier riesgo.” (202) Later he struggles with the idea of presenting the truth without revealing the whereabouts of the guerrillas (215 and 222).

  5. Isabel Allende, personal interview, 5 January 1989.

  6. Isabel Allende has explained her personal belief in the magical, transformational power of language in her essays: “La magia de las palabras,” Revista Iberoamericana 132-133 (Julio-Diciembre 1985): 447-452 and also in Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus, in an essay by the same title, edited by Marcelo Coddou (Xalapa: Universidad Veracruzana, 1986): 15-20.

  7. Allende's narrator is what Wayne C. Booth has called a dramatized narrator agent, someone “who produces some measurable effect on the course of events.” The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1983 ed., (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961): 153-154.

  8. The narrator's beliefs coincide precisely with Allende's own perspective on the power of language. See footnote #6 above for further information.

  9. Isabel Allende often makes reference to the importance of beginning her writing on a blank white sheet of paper. Another such reference occurs on page 234 where she speaks of how she began to create on “un desierto blanco.” She also commented on the necessity of this in her interview of 5 January 1989.

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. Eva Luna. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1987.

———. Interview. 5 January 1989.

———. “La magia de las palabras.” Revista Iberoamericana 132-133 (Julio-Diciembre) 1985: 447-452.

———. “Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus.” Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus. Ed., Marcelo Coddou. Xalapa: Universidad Veracruzana, 1986: 15-20.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 1983 ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.

Philip Swanson (essay date April 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10741

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 female characters with a serious political consciousness. Mora concludes—having spotted some unacceptable traces of individualism in the form of a few allusions to the idea of destiny—that, behind Allende's superficial revisionism, there lurk “fundamentos más insidiosos que amarran a las gentes a creer en esencias e inmutabilidades.”1 In other words, Isabel has committed the crime of liberal humanism, which, of course, if true, would put her in pretty bad odour with post-structuralist and feminist critics alike. Unfortunately, too, Allende's public persona does little to allay such fears. In a 1988 interview in the magazine Mother Jones, she gave a very bourgeois picture of the new-found idylicism of her life as a Californian housewife. She tells us how, having parted with her largely agreeable husband, she then fell head-over-heels with the handsome North American, William:

And then somebody introduced us. William had read my second book, Of Love and Shadows, and he had liked it very much and he had wanted to meet me. And so we just looked at each other and fell in love immediately. In the first meeting. … Well, I think Frank Sinatra was singing ‘Strangers in the Night’ in the restaurant and maybe that helped. And then we had a wonderful pasta.

Soon she was packing her bags to rejoin him in the USA and did not return home to Venezuela. The text of the interview is adorned by a photograph of Isabel in a rather glamorous pose, twirling around with a colourful shawl in the air (calling to mind the image of Beatriz Beltrán, the sharply satirized middle-aged, middle-class, looks-and-fashion-conscious mother of the protagonist of De amor y de sombra).2 Add to this image her appropriation of the conventions of popular and romantic fiction, the apparently wavering ending of La casa de los espíritus and the repeated allegations of borrowing from García Márquez, and we are left with an ideologically suspect standard-bearer for women's fiction in Latin America.

The problem is that Isabel Allende's popular success has made her (quite legitimately) a media figure. At the 1987 Hamburg Ibero-Americana Festival, while her compatriot José Donoso—until the appearance of La casa de los espíritus in 1982, the undisputed major modern Chilean novelist—was giving a reading of the German translation of his Casa de campo in a cramped bookshop in the peripheral suburb of Begedorf, Allende's fans were filling the seats of the city's large theatre, the Deutsches Schauspielhaus. Not surprisingly, the star treatment lavished upon her has tarnished her image in certain academic circles. And, as far as feminist criticism is concerned, there is little point—on a stylistic plane—in looking for manifestations of Irigaray's “parler femme” or Cixous' “écriture féminine”, or in seeking stylistic parallels with, say, the Brazilian Clarice Lispector's A hora da estrela or the African American Toni Morrison's Beloved. Allende's style aims to be more transparent. For her, writing is not “about good literature but about telling a story”, it is “un ancho canal de comunicación”.3 Indeed, the effect of her work is to invert the García Márquez model rather than imitate it. Despite the Colombian's public political posture and despite Gerald Martin's efforts to reduce his fiction to clear social messages,4Cien años de soledad remains largely ineffective as a political novel precisely because of its ambiguous, playful and magical nature. The magic of literature is somewhat different for Allende: “Eso tiene de maravilloso un libro”, she says: “establece un vínculo entre quien lo escribe y quien lo lee. Es la magia de las palabras.” Putting it plainly, she goes on:

Los escritores somos intérpretes de la realidad. Es cierto que caminamos en el filo de los sueños, pero la ficción, aun la más subjetiva, tiene un asidero en el mundo real. A los escritores de América Latina se les reprocha a veces que su literatura sea de denuncia. ¿Por qué no se limitan al arte y dejan de ocuparse de problemas irremediables?, les reclaman algunos. Creo que la respuesta está en que conocemos el poder de las palabras y estamos obligados a emplearlas para contribuir a un mejor destino de nuestra tierra.

Allende's aim is to provide “una voz que habla por los que sufren y callan en nuestra tierra”: in other words, to push the marginal into the mainstream. It is ironic that Luis Harss' landmark collection of conversations with Latin American writers from the 1960s is called Into the Mainstream. If this was to celebrate the Latin-American novel's coming of age, the only “mainstream” into which most of its practitioners had entered was a rather narrow bourgeois or academic one. The strength of a novel like La casa de los espíritus, on the other hand, is that what it lacks in richness and multiplicity, it gains in sheer emotional and political power. And, as we shall see, a fundamental textual feature of the novel seems to be the displacement of the master discourse of the Boom in favour of a more directly politicized discourse of the post-Boom. This politicization includes sexual politics and brings us closer to a Kristevan model of marginality based on all “that which is repressed in discourse and in the relations of production. Call it ‘woman’ or ‘oppressed classes of society’ it is the same struggle, and never the one without the other”.5 Though Allende's early work may not betray the same “jouissance” on a linguistic or stylistic level as Kristeva's French avant-garde texts, it does reveal an awareness of basic issues in the feminist debate and a degree of intellectual engagement with them. And if the allegedly ambivalent ending of La casa de los espíritus is a liberal form of Utopianism, this is not a million miles away from the position of a number of French feminist thinkers and is, in any case, combined with a harrowing exposé of real material oppression to act as a counterbalance. The complaints of Mora, then, if of a certain allure, are perhaps ultimately unjustified. Allende does not inhabit what has been called the “rococo realm of the academy”,6 but does do the rounds of the American universities circuit: as a popular writer she does not need to satisfy Mora's criteria; as a serious one she rises to their challenge.

Jean Gilkison has argued that the portrayal of women in De amor y de sombra tends to undermine that novel's political impact.7 Nonetheless, it seems plain that La casa de los espíritus at least attempts to establish a connection between the women's struggle and the class struggle. As Toril Moi has pointed out, marginalized groups like women and the working classes are actually central to the process of reproduction and the capitalist economy: “it is precisely because the ruling order cannot maintain the status quo without the continual exploitation and oppression of these groups that it seeks to mask their central economic role by marginalizing them on the cultural, ideological and political levels”.8 The main strategy in this programme of marginalization (and this is the principal argument of Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics) is the creation of an illusion of a unified individual and collective self, a given universal world order in which male, white, middle-class, heterosexual experience passes itself off as “nature”. It is not surprising, therefore, that the discourse of the patriarch Esteban Trueba is replete with the language of order. One short, randomly-chosen sentence contains the words “excentricidades”, “madurara”, “equilibrado” and “sostén”.9 In a typical elision, we are told that Trueba “representaba mejor que nadie los valores de la familia, la tradición, la propiedad y el orden” (273). Thus bourgeois and capitalist values are made to appear synonymous with “order”. With regard to women, Nívea's feminism is said to be “en abierto desafío a la ley de Dios” (11), “contra la naturaleza” and likely to produce “una confusión y un desorden que puede terminar en un desastre” (65). This is exactly Trueba's view of the peasant and working classes. His “teoría de los fuertes y los débiles” is “la naturaleza”, “la realidad” and “como es el mundo” (264). Indeed the oppression of women is repeatedly placed in a wider context of the oppression of the lower classes. For example, Pedro Segundo García's passive acceptance of his lot is seen in essentialist terms by Trueba as “la timidez propia de la gente del campo” and, echoing the conventional role of the submissive woman with no independence or mobility, he speaks for all marginalized groups when he acknowledges to his master: “Entendimos, patrón … No tenemos donde ir, siempre hemos vivido aquí. Nos quedamos” (52). The parallel is continued into the graphic account of Trueba's violent rape of Pancha García. The vocabulary employed in the description of the rape (“fiereza”, “incrustándose” “brutalidad”, “sangrientas”) contrasts sharply with the young girl's total lack of resistance. Her passivity is not just a reflection of her position as a woman, but also her poverty and class status. Trueba's first words after the deed are: “Desde mañana quiero que trabajes en la casa” (58). Her mother and grandmother had likewise been the enforced sexual and domestic servants of the “casa patronal”. In this way the economy of ownership is mirrored in sexual relations and Trueba frequently talks of women in terms of property: as a sort of cattle (27), as a kind of consumer good to be purchased (37) or as something to be possessed totally (117). The link is reinforced by the dual perspective of Pedro Segundo García on Trueba and his wife Clara: “La apreciaba tanto como odiaba a Esteban Trueba” (149). The inference is that the women's and workers' struggles are an interconnected reaction against patriarchy. It is significant in this respect that, as the central female characters develop their own sense of identity as women, they achieve an increasing degree of solidarity with the underprivileged classes.

Of course, awareness is the first step towards resistance and for this reason, one of the novel's principal tasks is to unmask the “natural” as the learned. A young peasant grows up knowing “su lugar en el mundo” (133), so that a relationship between the classes cannot take place “porque esa posibilidad no estaba en el orden natural del mundo” (156). In fact, Pedro Segundo denies to his son the possibility of social change for them: “Siempre ha sido así, hijo. Usted no puede cambiar la ley de Dios” (147). Interestingly, Pedro Tercero grows up to invert the language of the natural order, arguing for “leyes más justas y repúblicas como Dios manda” (154). The point is that “nature” and “order” are concepts appropriated by the dominant classes to preserve the prevailing hierarchy of power relations and that identity, therefore, is something which is socially constructed. As Simone de Beauvoir said of the “second sex”, “One is not born a woman; one becomes one”10 The Nana hints at this harsh moulding into the values of the Symbolic Order when she claims that “hay muchos niños que vuelan como las moscas, que adivinan los sueños y hablan con las ánimas, pero a todos se les pasa cuando pierden la inocencia” (15). She is herself a small but crucial figure in the novel's theory of identity. In a passage which recalls the depiction of the “viejas”, the old nursemaids and servants of Donoso's El obsceno pájaro de la noche, the Nana's life is summarized:

Había nacido para acunar hijos ajenos, para usar la ropa que otros desechaban, para comer sus sobras, para vivir de sentimientos y tristezas prestadas, para envejecer bajo el techo de otros, para morir un día en su cuartucho del último patio, en una cama que no era suya y ser enterrada en una tumba común del Cementerio General.


She is characterized (as a servant and woman) in terms of lack, absence, with no individual identity of her own. Like Humberto Peñaloza in Donoso's novel, she literally becomes “nobody” as her identity is marginalized. Trueba's sister, Férula, is a similar case. Existing only to serve others (her mother, Trueba, Clara), she becomes sheer absence when, like Donoso's “viejas”, she is banished from her brother's house to a convent and supplements her own effective non-existence with a series of bizarre wigs and costumes (another possible borrowing from the “disfraz”/“máscara” motif of El obsceno pájaro de la noche). In so far as the Nana is concerned, it is significant that she has no individualizing name, a feature shared with the string of peasant characters with names like Pedro García, Pedro Segundo García, Pedro Tercero García. These marginal characters are effectively reduced to the level of supplement to the greater reality that is socially created by the ruling classes, their vital supportive role neutralized by a process of false naturalization.

The obvious link between the Nana and El obsceno pájaro de la noche also brings to mind Donoso's Peta Ponce and the motif of the witch. The crushing of identity is based on fear of the potential power of those sectors whose centrality to the interests of the dominant group requires their marginalization. In Allende's novel, Esteban Trueba wants his house to be “un reflejo de él”, with “un aspecto de orden y concierto, de pulcritud y civilización” (87), though under the influence of Clara it becomes “un laberinto encantado imposible de limpiar, que desafiaba numerosas leyes urbanísticas y municipales” (88). This reflects Jerónimo de Azcoitía's desire, in Donoso's novel to replace any “exuberancia natural” in his estate with “estrictas formas geométricas”.11 But Don Jerónimo's sense of order disintegrates as his wife Inés falls increasingly under the influence of the nursemaid and witch-figure Peta Ponce. Peta's residence lies at the edge of Jerónimo's symmetrical world in “un desorden de construcciones utilitarias sin pretensión de belleza: el revés de la fachada”, all of which “hizo tastabillar [sic] su orden al reconocer en la Peta Ponce a una enemiga poderosa” (181, 183). Similarly, the edge of Esteban Trueba's country estate is the point where “la casa perdía su señorial prestancia y empezaba el desorden de las perreras, los gallineros y los cuartos de los sirvientes” (40). Servant, women or witch, then, are all terms which connote the possible rupture of a secure order. The creation of the notion of “witch” is a means of exteriorizing and normalizing such a fear via a perverse form of sublimation and so weakening the threat by turning it into a negative, a taboo. All social structures grow, up to a point, out of a need to explain, to impose order (witches were essentially “created” to explain otherwise inexplicable disasters) and, as Sharon Magnarelli observes, the real sin of witches was their alleged knowledge, that is recognition of the dark, chaotic side of life and hence embodiment of the threat to order.12 So, in La casa de los espíritus, the priest, padre Restrepo, identifies the peculiarities of the child Clara with demonic possession, the phrase “hasta ese día, no habían puesto nombre a las excentricidades de su hija menor” (14) hinting at the need to name, explain, naturalize and neutralize. She is later seen as “una criatura algo estrafalaria” because she is “poco apta para las responsabilidades matrimoniales y la vida doméstica” (83). Dr Cuevas (the voice of science and reason) even diagnoses her silence (actually “su último inviolable refugio”) as “una enfermedad mental” (105). Rosa, la Bella—echoing the hyperbole of Remedios la Bella's role as an extreme if unwitting femme fatale in Cien años de soledad—is also seen as threatening because of her beauty and femininity. She is twice referred to as a “sirena” (12, 36) and we are told that “su belleza atemorizaba” (28). Just as, following Magnarelli's line of thought, Eve is created from Adam's rib, so man projects his sexuality on to woman, seeing her as the provoker of his unruly desire. But the witch or the femme fatale is not the only manifestation of patriarchy's (ir)rationalization of a perceived danger. A link with politics is again apparent in the way Esteban Trueba turns any potential alteration of the ruling order into an example of the red peril of communism. At one stage he refers to “la monstruosidad de que todos nacen con los mismos derechos” (65) and his ranting about “commie subversives” and Soviet spies recalls the allegorical transformation, in the minds of the landowners, of the natives into “antropófagos” (i.e. communists) in Donoso's Casa de campo. The child Wenceslao lays bare the true operation of the power structures and naturalizing processes at work here when he describes the cannibals/communists as “una fantasía creada por los grandes con el fin de ejercer la represión mediante el terror, fantasía en que ellos mismos terminaron por creer” and “una ficción con que los grandes pretenden dominarnos cultivando en nosotros ese miedo que ellos llaman orden”13

A further feature of patriarchy is that, in its identification of itself with the natural order, it seeks to efface any trace of ideology in its own allegedly neutral position, assigning ideology to the extremes of “cranky” theories like Marxism or feminism. It is no surprise, therefore, that Esteban Trueba's first-person discourse attempts to portray the landowner in liberal, common-sense terms. The “yo” person signals a faith in an essential, unified self, a source of power and control, as opposed to the general passive mass of women and peasants whose lives he can mould “con mi propia mano”. Indeed Trueba states clearly: “Yo era como un padre para ellos” (53). He is the source and centre of everything and in his patriarchal role he can justify his power by casting himself in the role of father-provider. Hence he furnishes a comprehensive account of his programme of training, feeding, housing and caring for the health of his work-force, concluding that, “Sí, he sido un buen patrón, de eso no hay duda” (55). Needless to say, this is, once again, a strategy designed exactly to perpetuate the marginalization of a group that is central to the landowner's needs. Education is a selective form of control: “tenía la ambición de que todos los niños y adultos de las Tres Marías debían aprender a leer, escribir y sumar, aunque no era partidario de que adquirieran otros conocimientos, para que no se les llenara la cabeza con ideas inapropiadas a su estado y condición” (59). Feeding and health care are a means of ensuring that the peasants “crecieran fuertes y sanos y pudieran trabajar desde pequeños” (59). Liberation here is actually a subtle form of repression: Pedro Segundo's potential for rebellion is disabled by his own recognition of his boss' achievements, leaving him with “una mezcla de miedo y de rencorosa admiración” (61). What basically happens is that, like many women, the peasants internalize their perceived inferiority and accept their dependency as a natural state. In describing the positive changes he has personally introduced, Trueba comments of the peasants that: “Eran gente buena y sencilla, no había revoltosos. También es cierto que eran muy pobres e ignorantes” (53-54). In other words, their naturally compliant nature is really a function of their deliberately generated ignorance, so that they become a blank page upon which the patrón can inscribe the hidden agenda of a seemingly quidditative order. As Trueba says, “Fue necesario que yo llegara para que aquí hubiera orden, ley, trabajo … Sin mí estarían perdidos. Si vamos al fondo de las cosas, no sirven ni para hacer los mandados, siempre lo he dicho: son como niños” (64).

In a specifically Latin American context, Trueba's world-view restates the basic values underlying the Spanish conquest and the emergence of the civilization-versus-barbarism ethic in the post-Independence subcontinent of the nineteenth century (and its survival into the twentieth). The Independence movement in general was, despite its liberationist rhetoric, largely aimed at furthering the interests of the well-off criollo classes, and, in many ways, the enlightened pursuit of “civilization” by Sarmiento et al was an extension of this. Trueba clearly sees himself as bringing civilization to a backward countryside but, as Cien años de soledad has already shown, the civilization-versus-barbarism notion was a myth which was passed off as reality. Trueba's obsession with “civilization” is reflected in his fascination with science and his favouring of European and North American customs and practices. His sister Férula incarnates a largely anti-countryside, anti-Latin American stance. She thinks that the child Blanca has “malos modales” because “parece un indio” (100), and she wants to “vivir como cristiana”, away from this “purgatorio de incivilizados” (104). Inadvertently echoing the twin beliefs of biological determinism and scientific positivism, she feels trapped “en una región inhumana, donde no funcionaban las leyes de Dios ni el progreso de la ciencia” (104). Yet Esteban's alternative “civilization” is frequently mocked or subverted. The much-admired European Jean de Satigny—whose “sentido práctico propio de los de su raza” is contrasted with “aquellos bárbaros aborígenes” (191)—is actually involved in raping the country of its talent and natural treasures, is engaged in a plainly barbaric trade in chinchilla skins and turns out to be (in the novel's terms) a ridiculous dandy. Trueba's decision to visit a North American hospital “porque había llegado a la prematura conclusión de que los doctores latinos eran todos unos charlatanes más cercanos al brujo aborigen que al científico” (216), has to be compared with old Pedro García's fixing of his master's broken bones in such a way that “los médicos que lo revisaron después no podían creer que eso fuera posible” (145) (the old man—though he does not always get it right—similarly rids the estate of a plague of ants in the face of the helplessness of foreign modern technology). Trueba also wants to have his house built on the model of “los nuevos palacetes de Europa y Norteamérica” (87), with a “jardín versallesco” to offset the native tendency towards “una selva enmarañada donde proliferaban variedades de plantas y flores …” (200). However, it is said that Clara, the woman Trueba idolizes, “creció como una planta salvaje, a pesar de las recomendaciones del doctor Cuevas, que había traído de Europa la novedad de los baños de agua fría y los golpes de electricidad para curar a los locos” (75). Clara's “madness” (or “barbarism”) is, in fact, nothing more than the exuberance of a true Latin-American condition which should not be distorted by alien values, hence Nívea's readiness to “amarla sin condiciones y aceptarla tal cual era” (74-75).

At the same time, woman, to Trueba's mind, is a key factor in the drive towards civilization. In the important third section of the second chapter, where he outlines his patriarchal philosophy, Trueba realizes that he himself is “convirtiéndose en un bárbaro” (56). The solution comes to him when “su sentido práctico le indicó que tenía que buscarse una mujer y, una vez tomada la decisión, la ansiedad que lo consumía se calmó y su rabia pareció aquietarse” (56). While this may seem to cast the woman in the typically gentle, feminine, supportive role, it does also show the falsehood of the male patriarchal notion of order, in the sense that Trueba depends on woman to overcome his own barbarism. So, union with a woman will be a positive development that will civilize him and his environs. Yet the irony is that he simply takes a woman: he rapes Pancha García. The episode, though upsetting, is a witty commentary on the civilization-versus-barbarism theme and its inherent contradictions. Significantly, however, it is the influence of Pancha which opens up Trueba to the more worthwhile aspects of “civilization”. His commands turn into a ‘súplica’ and in his happiness with her:

le mejoró por un tiempo el mal humor y comenzó a interesarse en sus inquilinos … Se dio cuenta, por primera vez, que el peor abandono no era el de las tierras y los animales, sino de los habitantes de los Tres. Marías, que habían vivido en el desamparo desde la época en que su padre se jugó la dote y la herencia de su madre. Decidió que era tiempo de llevar un poco de civilización a ese rincón perdido entre la cordillera y el mar.


Woman here is the source of positive action, but man thinks it is man. In practice, the “civilization” that Trueba brings is one which serves his own purposes but which comes to be indistinguishable from the natural order of things, the way of the world. By the end of the novel, though, he is finding it difficult to “seguir sosteniéndose en precaria estabilidad sobre un mundo que se le hacía trizas … Ya no tenía las ideas tan claras y se le había borrado la frontera entre lo que le parecía bueno y lo que consideraba malo” (350). In effect, the novel subverts the entire premise on which it superficially appears to be based: in the end it is Esteban Trueba who is living in a fantasy world rather than his supposedly eccentric wife Clara.

The evaluation of the alternative world of Clara and the other female characters is a much thornier problem than the exposition of the gaps and inconsistencies of the patriarchal discourse. Pointing out the errors is always easier than providing the right answers, but then this has always been the traditional role of literature. Isabel Allende here seems to oscillate between a kind of female essentialism, a radical deconstruction of essentialism and a more concrete political materialism. As an author rather than a systematic thinker, she may end up with a cocktail of all three, but with an overall taste that combines broadly consistent elements. This is, after all, a political work written in a popular tone with the ultimate goal of touching an emotional nerve and jolting the reader into a new awareness. The popular or mass-market dimension means that there is little pretence of producing an open-ended feminine14 language of so-called “other bisexuality” à la Cixous, nor much evidence of the ruptures and breaks in symbolic language talked of by Kristeva. None the less, some ideas associated with both thinkers can be detected at what one imagines would be the more important level for Allende of content.

Esteban Trueba can be identified with Cixous' “Realm of the Proper” while the female characters would be matched to the “Realm of the Gift”. Trueba, as an ambitious landowner, is clearly linked to property, self-projection, hierarchy and so on. His driving fear of communism is a fear of expropriation of land and power (or, for Cixous, the loss of the attribute or castration). Women, needless to say, do not share this fear and can oppose masculine culture (based on dominance) with the “Realm of the Gift” (based on giving and exchange). In the female characters of La casa de los espíritus such generosity is reflected in their sexuality and their charitable works, both of which, to different extents in differing cases, break down hierarchies and class divisions. The distinction is not unlike that of Annie Leclerc between desire and pleasure.15 Trueba, for whom sexual and economic desire are much the same thing, always wants to own or possess an “object”, while the women's thought is based on pleasure or “jouissance” (for instance, Blanca revelling in her housework or Clara in her world of spirits or all of the central women characters in their creative arts). This idea of female “jouissance”, though, suggests an essential feminine spirit, located in a sort of pre-Oedipal state. Indeed Allende's self-professed belief in a “feminine solidarity” passed on from mother to daughter and excluding men16 contains faint echoes of Cixous' notion of the mother as the origin of the source and voice in all female/feminine texts. Hence the bond between Nívea and Clara, “estableciendo un vínculo tan fuerte, que se prolongó en las generaciones posteriores como una tradición familiar” (78) and repeated specifically in Clara's relationship with Blanca (117), Clara's own pregnancy in which she finds herself “volcándose hacia el interior de sí misma, en un diálogo secreto y constante con la criatura” (93) and her belief in “una memoria genética” (156) which allows mothers to pass on their “locuras” (or special qualities) to their daughters. Hence too the evolving pattern of light imagery in the chain of names (Nívea-Clara-Blanca-Alba), implying that the world-view of each is informed and enriched by that inherited from the mother. This perhaps explains in part the use of water imagery in relation to women. The mermaid-like Rosa with her “belleza de fondo de mar” (32) is like “un habitante del agua” (12) and Trueba feels the urge to “hundirme en sus aguas más profundas” (39). Clara, meantime, “navegaba hábilmente por las agitadas aguas de la vida social y por las otras, sorprendentes, de su camino espiritual” (237). For Cixous, water is the essential feminine element, reflecting a closed womb-like world flowing through the female writer and keeping her in touch with the mother's voice.

Clara, living in her world of silence and spirits, is the most obvious example of this essentially feminine world. Her retreat into silence is a kind of retreat into the Semiotic or Imaginary unity with the mother, a challenge to the Symbolic Order (which, according to Lacan, is associated with the Law of the Father and is when language is acquired). Both instances of her self-immersion into silence involve solidarity with another woman and a rejection of masculine control. The first follows the symbolic “rape” of Rosa by the representative of scientific knowledge, Dr Cuevas, in the form of her autopsy (described in a way connoting assumptions of male “ownership” of the female body). The second comes after Trueba strikes her in response to her defence of Blanca's relationship with Pedro Tercero García. Clara's silent world undermines patriarchal binary thought, being a world where “el tiempo no se marcaba con relojes ni calendarios …, el pasado y el futuro eran parte de la misma cosa y la realidad del presente era un caleidoscopio de espejos desordenados donde todo podía ocurrir …, donde no siempre funcionaban las leyes de la física o la lógica” (78-79). The world of the spirits is an essentially female space where women meet to “invocar a los espíritus e intercambiar cábalas y recetas de cocina” (115) and which excludes men, being “una dimensión desconocida a la que él (Trueba) jamás podría llegar” (119). It relates also to a species of “ecriture féminine”. Clara's imaginative mind is set against Trueba's scientific rationalism: she loves to read, write and entertain poets, and when her husband removes all radios to keep the news from her, she simply discovers the truth through her intuitive powers (110-11). And though Allende's text makes no attempt to reproduce Clara's own style, it is made plain that the protagonist's “cuadernos de anotar” are written in an experiential, non-chronological format (380), at one stage defying conventional logic (124). In Cixous' terms she is (perhaps) in the free space of the Lacanian Imaginary: “the speaking/writing woman is in a space outside time (eternity), a space that allows no naming and no syntax”.17

There are a number of problems with this interpretation, however, and it would be highly reductive to rely too heavily on such a reading. For a start, it may seem inconsistent to oppose the patriarchal notion of a (false) natural order with a theory of an essential feminine nature (or, for that matter, an essentialist view of the innocent peasant or native Latin American). Having said that, at the level of an exposé of the workings of patriarchy, the text is not necessarily anti-essentialist in any strict sense: in many ways it seems simply to be arguing that “true nature” (which is unruly) has been replaced by a counterfeit nature (which is truly but artificial). This opens the way to a simplified version of the Kristevan concept of “bisexuality” (though, of course, Kristeva herself is no essentialist). From this point of view, the promotion of the female sex (“stage two” feminism) should give way to a more generalized weakening of gender divisions and dissolution of binary distinctions (“stage three” feminism). Though this does not lead to any real semiotic theory of writing in Allende, the deconstruction of rigid binary oppositions (right/wrong, appropriate/inappropriate, sane/mad, mine/yours and so on) does involve a reinterpretation of societal structures in a way which binds the question of woman's position to wider political or ideological questions. So, Clara's spiritualism is not purely and essentially feminine: it is said, for instance, (albeit in a comic context), that Marcos “tenía la teoría de que esta condición estaba presente en todos los seres humanos, especialmente en los de su familia, y que si no funcionaba con eficiencia era sólo por falta de entrenamiento” (21). All human beings have the potential to dissolve or at least loosen up the binary divisions that separate them. This is the significance of the hybrid figures that are portrayed in Rosa's sewing, Blanca's pottery and Alba's painting. In a similar way, Blanca's fairy tales tell of “un príncipe que durmió cien años, … doncellas que peleaban cuerpo a cuerpo con los dragones, … un lobo perdido en el bosque a quien una niña destripó sin razón alguna” (269). This also aids an understanding of the roles of the male children Jaime and Nicolás, sometimes thought to be poorly integrated into the text. They are equally marginal and anti-stereotypical. Despite being trained in the traditional art of upper-class manhood (117), the initially more conventional Nicolás becomes an outrageous-looking member of an Eastern religious group and Jaime abandons sexual and social norms by becoming “un sentimental incorregible”, a timid bookworm, a socialist and a friend of Pedro Tercero García (168).18 As Allende herself has said, “men and women are not really so different” but are “mutilated” by social “education” and “rigid roles”.19 These characters represent a plea for the slackening of those rigid class and gender roles. And this is really the key to the entire narrative structure of the novel. Esteban Trueba's first-person narrative is mixed in with a third-person narrative by a female narrator. Sandra Boschetto has commented that “la mediación metatextual será un intento por parte de la autora de reconciliar oposiciones, de fundir diferencias para crear una sola realidad totalizadora e incluyente, texto en blanco”.20 This is perhaps the nearest the novel gets to textual “bisexuality” as it were. But more meaningfully, Trueba's first-person narration regularly refers to the variant viewpoints of “mi nieta”, while the third-person perspective intervenes. Thus the novel revolves around a dialectic between Trueba and Alba, inaugurating a rapprochement between previously opposite sexes, age groups and sociopolitical loyalties. And hence the centrality of Trueba. Though some see it as a weakness to have a male character as the structural back-bone of a feminist novel, his centrality is the centrality of patriarchal binary logic which is in opposition with the “bisexuality” of the other members of his family. Yet the “bisexual” role invades and subverts the patriarchal pole. Trueba, as we shall see, undergoes a learning process and by the end of the novel he has moved towards Alba's position. And if Alba's epilogue seems a rather corny plea for mutual love, the basis of her appeal lies in the desired erasure of binary conflict which gives the text much of its cohesion.

While all this may seem rather utopian, the learning process does also enjoy a more concrete, material manifestation in La casa de los espíritus. Early on in the novel, Rosa's idealized, romanticized view of the young Trueba's exploits in the gold mines is said to be totally at odds with the harsh reality he has to face (13). This is an early hint at the potentially suspect nature of a “feminine” world-view which does not take account of material factors. From this perspective, Clara's silence and spiritualism needs to be re-interpreted. The two occasions she goes silent (discussed earlier) are, in fact, quite different. The first is ostensibly a traumatic reaction to the shock of Rosa's autopsy: it is a retreat from reality and into “un universo inventado para ella, protegida de las inclemencias de la vida, donde se confundían la verdad prosaica de las cosas materiales con la verdad tumultuosa de los sueños” (78-79). This is paralleled by her spiritualism up to and in adult life, described as “su tendencia a evadir la realidad y perderse en el ensueño” (123). The second silence, however, disrupts this pattern. It is not so much a retreat as an act of rebellion. The crucial changes come in the fifth and sixth chapters. The earthquake wakes her up from “una larga infancia … sin obligaciones”, exposing her to “necesidades básicas, que antes había ignorado” and making her spiritualism seem irrelevant (148). She becomes a working woman instead of “un ángel vestido de blanco” (155). This change is heralded by the freeing of the birds and the disappearance of the spirits:

Abrieron una por una las jaulas de los pájaros y el cielo se llenó de caturras, canarios, jilgueros y cristofués, que revolotearon enceguecidos por la libertad y finalmente emprendieron el vuelo en todas direcciones. Blanca notó que en todos esos afanes, no apareció fantasma alguno detrás de las cortinas, no llegó ningún Rosacruz advertido por su sexto sentido, ni poeta hambriento llamado por la necesidad. Su madre parecía haberse convertido en una señora común y silvestre.

—Usted ha cambiado mucho mamá—observó Blanca.

—No soy yo, hija. Es el mundo que ha cambiado—respondió Clara.


This may be a symbolic liberation of a material feminist and class consciousness. She travels alone for the first time, realizes that “ya no contaba con su marido, con Férula o con Nana” (148) and initiates her clearly significant friendship with the peasant Pedro Segundo García, to whom she is said to move closer as she now drifts away from the patriarchal Trueba (159-60). The final break with Trueba comes when he hits her following her open denunciation of his sexism, classism and hypocrisy. The blow sends her reeling into the arms of Pedro Segundo García and she never speaks to Trueba again: a conscious decision to reject patriarchal values and an acknowledgement of the material reality of class struggle.

In fact, the evolution of the feminism of all the main female protagonists is inextricably bound up with a similarly developing progressiveness and consciousness of material issues. Taking them chronologically, Nívea is a suffragette, but one who wears a fur coat and classy shoes to preach equality to a group of comfortless workers and discusses her campaign over tea and pastries in the Plaza de Armas (77-78). Her daughter, Clara, recognizes that it should be more than just a question of trying to “tranquilizarnos la conciencia” and that the poor “no necesitan caridad, sino justicia” (247); she defies her husband, spurns fashion and jewelry and has a friendship with a peasant. Her daughter, Blanca, continues her mother's charitable works, stands up to her father's authority, raises an illegitimate child and—going a stage further than Clara—has a lasting affair with Pedro Tercero García, a peasant leader, revolutionary singer and member of a Marxist government.21 Finally, her daughter, Alba, joins the student political movement, has a relationship with a guerrilla leader and ends up a victim of torture. She becomes the most fully integrated with the interlinked class, political and women's struggles. She finds solidarity with fellow prisoner, the working-class Ana Díaz, whose non-individualizing name associates her with the masses at large. As it happens, Ana used to distrust Alba because she was a “burguesa”. Alba's “education” is now complete, therefore, and is symbolically crowned by her positive encounter with ordinary women in a prison camp and, later, in a shanty town. And so, importantly, she puts Clara's non-chronological notes into order and writes a coherent history of her family (263). The material world, perceived through a feminist and politically aware perspective, has displaced the “feminine” world of the spirits.

The relationship of Alba's text to Clara's text brings us back to the question of style and tone. It has been argued elsewhere that from, roughly, the late 1960s/early 1970s the Latin-American novel began to experience a shift away from complex, even tortuous narrative forms towards more popular forms, often (though not always) relatively straightforward and more directly political: a shift as it were from the Boom to a post-Boom.22 The new novel had acquired an official air, lapsing into stereotype and a kind of heavy neo-classicism. The re-evaluation of popular culture (meaning, broadly speaking, mass culture rather than indigenism) by writers like Puig, Cabrera Infante, the later Donoso and Vargas Llosa brought a refreshing wind of change. Puig notes a connection between the previous valuation of popular culture and the valuation of women. Women, he says, especially in the Hispanic world, are rather like “géneros menores”: “se goza con ellas pero nadie se las respeta”.23 Hence in Allende's novel, which is firmly aimed at a wide market embracing a sizable middle-brow audience, the transition from spiritualism to materialism, from Clara's less penetrable text to Alba's accessible text, there is a re-enactment of the shift from Boom to post-Boom in a way which establishes a parallel between emancipation and narrative form. This is something of an inversion of the (by this stage) conventional view that formal textual disruption is revolutionary in political terms because it challenges the bourgeois, capitalist or patriarchal order. As Antonio Skármeta—one of the figures closely associated with the post-Boom—has said of the new novel (in a way applicable perhaps also to certain aspects of Cixous' and Kristeva's theories of writing): “Creo que la literatura del boom ha hecho más por cubrir que descubrir”.24 There is certainly ambiguity and even inconsistency in La casa de los espíritus, but those who accuse Allende of ideological impurity or masculinist aesthetics miss the point of this wish to translate notions of a feminine essence or consciousness into the more concrete and broadly-based arena of social and political reality, to address serious and difficult questions but simultaneously communicate with a larger public.

At this point, the question of the relationship of La casa de los espíritus to Cien años de soledad becomes unavoidable. The similarities are obvious: in both novels Latin-American history is explored via a lengthy family saga punctuated by bizarre or fantastic occurrences; the style (in its use of time and display of so-called “magical realism”) is alike in some ways; and there are some specific parallels such as those between Rosa la Bella and Remedios la Bella or tío Marcos' obsession with progress and inventions and that of several members of the Buendía family. But the most crucial point of contact is that between Alba's work with her mother's “cuadernos de anotar” and that of various Buendías with Melquíades' parchments. There are key differences here, though. Clara's scripts are quite dissimilar to those of Melquíades. His are deliberately obscure (they are written in Sanskrit, verse and secret code) and are notoriously difficult to decipher. Clara's are certainly non-chronological. However, this is justified on the grounds that they represent an intuitive feminine space which merely needs to be channelled into a more material direction: Alba's task is, therefore, simply one of ordering and rendering useful an eminently decipherable text. Though Martin makes the claim that “nothing, surely, could be clearer” for his feasible but highly reductive reading of Aureliano's cracking of the code of Melquíades' manuscripts as a political awakening,25 it seems an inescapable conclusion that this ending is much less satisfactory in concrete sociopolitical terms than the position in which Alba finds herself vis-à-vis Clara's notebooks. Why are Aureliano and Macondo destroyed at this point of realization? Is the text he deciphers the same as the one we are reading? Is he discovering his own fictionality and, if so, what can the novel say to us about reality? If the novel is a reflection on history and reality, why is it so dependent on a “magical” world-view for its appeal? And why is that view both celebrated and undermined?26Cien años de soledad is redolent with possibilities and associations, but, for that very reason, maintains an inevitably ambivalent relation to reality. Allende's novel, on the other hand, is, for Peter Earle, a “celebration of reality”.27 It refers, pretty unequivocally, to a specific (Chilean) reality instead of taking refuge in a quasi-allegorical unreality. Indeed it appears explicitly to reject the García Márquez approach. Clara, we are told, “no era partidaria de repetir los nombres en la familia, porque eso siembra confusión en los cuadernos de anotar la vida” (233)—a clear swipe at the obfuscation of García Márquez with his litany of José Arcadios and Aurelianos. And Alba sifts through her mother and grandmother's correspondence in order to preserve the facts, “salvándolos de la nebulosa de los hechos improbables” (219)—a criticism of an excessive tendency towards fantasy.

This position is supported by a narrative structure which appears to overturn the magical element. The magical strand is converted into a realist strand, as has already been seen in relation to the evolution of Clara as a character a process summed up in Alba's allusion to “un mundo mágico que se acabó” (78). The book is made up of fifteen chapters (including the epilogue). The middle chapter, the eighth, “El conde” is clearly a kind of pivotal interlude: it takes place in a different geographical location, is marginal to the mainstream of the action, and is the only chapter not to be divided into a series of sub-sections. After this chapter, the symmetrical centre of the novel, there is a marked structural shift. Chapter Nine starts with the birth of Alba and ends with the death of Clara: the world of magic is over and a grim new realism is ushered in. The change in the house of the spirits will be sharp: “Alba sabía que su abuela era el alma de la gran casa de la esquina. Los demás lo supieron más tarde, cuando Clara murió y la casa perdió las flores, los amigos transeúntes y los espíritus juguetones y entró de lleno en la época del estropicio” (250). The chapter ends with Jaime's diagnosis “Mamá ya se fue” and the next one starts immediately with the title ‘La época del estropicio,’ explaining that “la muerte de Clara” means that “los tiempos cambiaron”, giving way to “deterioro” and “ruina” (262). Significantly, the next chapter is called “El despertar”. The remainder of the book is an only tokenly veiled account of the election of Allende, the Pinochet coup and the appalling aftermath. The final chapter before the epilogue is “La hora de la verdad”. Alba now comes face to face with a horrific reality (torture and repression). Material change will now be all important.

This structural pattern does not really mean the negation of Clara's position by that of Alba. Clara's spiritualism, on one level, simply represents happy times which are destroyed by natural and political cataclysms. The world of the spirits, in other words, is the sort of ideal place the world should be. In the meantime, the positive force of Clara's spiritualism needs to be harnessed on a practical and political level. Yet if Clara is associated with magic, Esteban Trueba is equally living in a fantasy: the fantasy of a patriarchal natural order. But his fantasy world is also subverted by reality in the form of the arrest of Alba: he realizes “al fin que había llegado la hora de la verdad, después de casi noventa años de vivir bajo su propia ley” (353). The title of Allende's second novel, De amor y de sombra, could be a gloss on the first. Structurally “amor” is overthrown by “sombra” but there has always been a shadow hanging over love, and even now love survives despite the shadow: if people can learn (Alba) and change (Trueba), then perhaps one day “sombra” will be overthrown by “amor”.

The interplay between love and shadow and between magic and reality suggests a final feature of the structural pattern of La casa de los espíritus: the relationship of the circle and the straight line. It is a commonplace in García Márquez criticism to talk of the circular structure of Cien años de soledad.28 But circularity and progressive politics are strange bedfellows. In La casa de los espíritus there is a narrator in the present trying to recuperate the past and reconstruct a link through to the present: this implies both a straight line and a learning process. This is reflected in turn in the evolution in the feminism and politics of the central line of female characters discussed earlier. Alba's name is “el último de una cadena de palabras luminosas que quieren decir lo mismo” (234), but the chain Nívea-Clara-Blanca-Alba indicates a progression in the positive image of whiteness, culminating in Alba, a kind of new dawn or new hope amidst the darkness and despair. Yet this is set against a series of instances or images of circularity. For example, despite Clara's distaste for the duplication of names, there are some classic García Márquez-style repetitions, such as Férula's assumption of the role of the Nana and the recurrent children's games with the books from tío Marcos' trunk (91). More specifically, the novel sets up a pattern of circularity in which a victim becomes a victimizer. Férula sacrifices her life to look after her mother, while her brother Esteban Trueba enjoys a freedom of which she is envious: before long she is manipulating and victimizing her brother (45-47, 92), though she, of course, becomes his victim too. Trueba's greed and arrogance has its roots in his poverty as a child or youth (48, 201): emblematic of this is the humiliating episode of the “café vienés” at the Hotel Francés, which scars him for life (45-46). Victimizing others, Trueba ensures the repetition of the circle. Esteban García, a kind of Frankenstein's monster, resents the wealth and power of the grandfather who created his bastard father and dreams of revenge (170). Alba, who “encarnaba lo que nunca tendría, lo que él nunca sería” (253), is in turn raped by him. This raises another central circular or repeated motif of Cien años de soledad, incest. Though incest can be identified with solitude and non-solidarity in García Márquez, it is often celebrated in a bawdy, earthy way as, for example, with the final couple Aureliano Babilonia and Amaranta Ursula. Here there is nothing marvellous about incest: it is an unequivocal image of a distorted society. So, circularity and repetition in the style of García Márquez are associated with negative and destructive forces, while the straight line of female development is positive and progressive. This may be the function of the del Valle family's tree. In a repetitious “rito de iniciación”, all the male members of the family wanting to start wearing long trousers had to climb the tree to prove their worth—until cousin Jerónimo falls and is killed and Nívea intervenes and orders that the tree be cut down. Rodrigo Cánovas has identified the tree with the family tree.29 Yet this is the point at which the circular male ritual is stopped and a female dynasty begins. In the same chapter Clara decides to speak again, announcing her marriage. The only offspring of this marriage to produce a child will be the female, Blanca; her daughter is pregnant at the end of the novel. Thus a productive female line displaces a circle of sterile male activity, culminating in Blanca and Alba's role in the disintegration of a hitherto hermetic integrated phallic male self as their experience forces the patriarch Trueba out of his false circle and into the world of “verdad”. Once more, this ties to the level of class and politics. The moving turning-point of Trueba's embrace with Pedro Tercero García (a positive development) follows the more-or-less exact (though inverted) repetition of a dialogue between them that had taken place some time earlier: the circular trap has been punctured (345, 319). The peasant names, Pedro García, Pedro Segundo García and Pedro Tercero García, echo the reduplication of names in Cien años de soledad, suggesting they are caught in a hopeless circle of oppression. But their names contain the seeds of numerical progress (Segundo, Tercero), linking them to the forward-moving chain. As Allende herself has commented, “nada es un callejón sin salida, es que siempre al final hay una respuesta, hay una salida, hay una solución”.30

The epilogue of the novel may now seem more acceptable. Even if there is an element of fudge and some toying with the buzz notions of the new novel, Mora's judgement that it represents “una postura conservadora”31 is somewhat harsh. True, the final pages do talk of repetition and predetermination: “Sospecho que todo lo ocurrido no es fortuito, sino que corresponde a un destino dibujado antes de mi nacimiento y Esteban García es parte de ese dibujo …” (379). But surely this is a reference to the Frankenstein idea—that oppressive patriarchal systems will inevitably breed their own monsters which will one day turn around and bite. Trueba and the system he represents have brought disaster upon themselves. However, Alba realizes that this apparently cyclic pattern, this “trazo tosco y torcido”, has a hidden meaning, that “ninguna pincelada es inútil” and that, when the “rompecabezas” is deciphered, “el resultado sería armonioso” (379). Putting it simply, people can learn from the past and there is hope. It is equally true that the last line of the novel takes us back to the first. Yet this does not close the text in a vicious circle of inevitability. The last line is from Clara's diaries, from which Alba has learned a positive lesson. If directed along proper avenues, writing can overcome confused, circular patterns and help us to “ver las cosas en su dimensión real y … burlar a la mala memoria” (379). In other words, the last sentence underlines Alba's vital political function as a mainstream testimonial writer: she will retrace the family history in an accessible form so that people can learn from it. Alba's role in the “rompecabezas” is to replace the stifling circle of a false order with the straight line of learning and truth:

Clara … le sugirió, además, que escribiera un testimonio que algún día podría servir para sacar a la luz el terrible secreto que estaba viviendo, para que el mundo se enterara del horror que ocurría paralelamente a la existencia apacible y ordenada de los que no querían saber, de los que podían tener la ilusión de una vida normal, de los que podían negar que iban a flote en una balsa sobre un mar de lamentos, ignorando, a pesar de todas las evidencias, que a pocas cuadras de su mundo feliz estaban los otros, los que sobreviven o mueren en el lado oscuro.


This, also, is the role of Isabel Allende. Popular culture can, without doubt, be exploited as an agent of oppression, but it can also be liberating. Its value, when used appropriately, is that it can distil relatively complex concepts into a readily-digestible form: essentially, the process that has been described here. Thus, when old Férula, ticking off Trueba for his ostentation, comes out with the sort of naive-sounding hackneyed cliché conventionally thought typical of her social-sexual role, she is actually crystallizing the argument of the novel and an important historical truth: “tanto despilfarro era seguramente pecado mortal y Dios iba a castigar a todos por gastar en chabacanerías de nuevo rico lo que estaría mejor empleado ayudando a los pobres” (87). Similarly, a simple song by Pedro Tercero García about chickens and foxes (in which the once-timid chickens get together to scare off the sly fox) has a far greater political impact than the more recondite messages of the Socialist Party “panfletos” that he tirelessly distributes (157). So, those academics who mistrust Isabel Allende because of the mainstreamism of her work are effectively mirroring the sentiments of Esteban Trueba with his loathing of “la música popular” (203) and his prohibition of radios that transmit “canciones subversivas” and “comedias y folletines” (274). The supposedly trashy world of women, peasants and popular culture can be seen to challenge the official tyrannies of patriarchy, capitalism and cultural supremacism. Thus the various theoretical positions rehearsed in La casa de los espíritus are condensed into a concise but simple philosophy of love in the closing pages. Alba says: “Me será muy difícil vengar a todos los que tienen que ser vengados, porque mi venganza no sería más que otra parte del mismo rito inexorable. Quiero pensar que mi oficio es la vida y que mi misión no es prolongar el odio, sino sólo llenar estas páginas …” (379). She has set herself free from aimless circularities (social, political, sexual and artistic) and chosen to use her writing to communicate a clear and powerful message of love. This will be the most effective way of trashing the tyrants.


  1. Gabriela Mora, ‘Las novelas de Isabel Allende y el papel de la mujer como ciudadana,’ Ideologies and Literature, II, 1 (1987), 53-61, at p. 60.

  2. Douglas Foster, ‘Isabel Allende Unveiled,’ Mother Jones, XIII (1988), No. 10, 42-46. It should be pointed out that, since this article was written, there have been a number of developments in Isabel Allende's public and personal life, amongst them the tragic loss of her daughter.

  3. Linda Levine and Jo Anne Engelbert, ‘The World is Full of Stories,’ Review, XXXIV (1980), 18-20, at p. 20; Isabel Allende, ‘La magia de las palabras,’ Revista Iberoamericana, LI (1985), 447-52, at p. 451: the remaining quotations in this paragraph come from the same page.

  4. Gerald Martin, Journeys through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1989), 218-35.

  5. Julia Kristeva, ‘La femme, ce n'est jamais ça,’ Tel Quel, LIX (1974), 19-24, at p. 24, quoted in Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Routledge, 1990), 164. The theoretical positions outlined in this essay are largely drawn from Moi's excellent survey. The main references are to Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, particularly, in the latter case, La Révolution du langage poétique (Paris: Seuil, 1974), in which she examines avant-garde and modernist writers.

  6. Gene H. Bell-Villada, García Márquez: The Man and His Work (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990), 208.

  7. Jean Gilkison, ‘The Appropriation of the Conventions of Romance in Isabel Allende's De amor y de sombra’. Paper given at the conference of the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland, Belfast, 1991. I am grateful to Dr Gilkison for providing me with a copy of her entertaining and persuasively-argued paper.

  8. See Moi, op. cit., 171.

  9. Isabel Allende, La casa de los espíritus (Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 18th ed., 1985), 203.

  10. See Moi, op. cit., 92.

  11. José Donoso, El obsceno pájaro de la noche (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 6th ed., 1979), 230.

  12. ‘José Donoso's El obsceno pájaro de la noche: Witches Everywhere and Nowhere,’ in Sharon Magnarelli, The Lost Rib: Female Characters in the Spanish-American Novel (London: Associated University Presses, 1985), 147-68. The general comments on witches here draw on Magnarelli's stimulating analysis.

  13. José Donoso, Casa de campo (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 3rd ed., 1980), 34, 130.

  14. The French word, ‘féminin’ translates as ‘female’ and ‘feminine’. Usage here will vary according to context. Broadly speaking, ‘feminine’ is preferred to ‘female’ where possible essential qualities of the sex are being considered. The adjective ‘masculine’ poses a similar problem.

  15. Annie Leclerc, extract from Parole de femme (Paris: Grasset, 1974), in French Feminist Thought: A Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 73-79. I am grateful to Dr Jean Andrews for bringing this item to my attention.

  16. See Levine and Engelbert, art. cit., 18.

  17. See Moi, op. cit., 114.

  18. Mario A. Rojas, in ‘La casa de los espíritus, de Isabel Allende: un caleidoscopio de espejos desordenados,’ Revista Iberoamericana, LI (1985), 917-25, usefully discusses the tendency to ‘obliterar las rígidas dicctomías que polarizan la diferenciación genérica’ (921). In particular, he notes hints of androgyny in the portrayal of Jaime and other characters (216). Similar points could be made about the later Nicolás.

  19. See Levine and Engelbert, art. cit., 19.

  20. Sandra M. Boschetto, ‘Dialéctica metatextual y sexual en La casa de los espíritus de Isabel Allende,’ Hispania, LXXII (1989), No. 3, 526-32, at p. 530. Unfortunately, the overall argument of Boschetto's well-written article is the familiar and, in this case, irrelevant one that the text is merely a ‘signo representando otros signos, significantes apuntando a otros significantes’ (562).

  21. There are obvious shades of Víctor Jara here, though he died in the repression that followed the coup. Mora complains that Pedro Tercero García's escape to and success in Canada devalues his political significance (art. cit., 57).

  22. For a fuller discussion of the post-Boom see my ‘Conclusion: After the Boom,’ in Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction, ed. Philip Swanson (London: Routledge, 1990), 222-45.

  23. M. Osorio, ‘Entrevista con Manuel Puig,’ Cuadernos para el Diálogo, CCXXXI (1977), 51-53, at p. 52. Puig does not, however, in my view, always expound a coherent view of popular culture or reconcile it adequately with politics or the aesthetics of the new novel. See my ‘Sailing Away on a Boat to Nowhere: El beso de la mujer araña and Kiss of the Spider Woman, from Novel to Film,’ in Essays on Hispanic Themes in Honour of Edward C. Riley, eds. Jennifer Lowe and Philip Swanson (Edinburgh: Univ. of Edinburgh, 1989), 331-59.

  24. Verónica Cortínez, ‘Polifonía: entrevista a Isabel Allende y Antonio Skármeta,’ Revista Chilena de Literatura, XXXII (1988), 79-89, at p. 80.

  25. See Martin, op. cit., 231.

  26. For a fuller discussion of these questions see my Cómo leer a Gabriel García Márquez (Madrid: Júcar, 1991).

  27. Peter G. Earle, ‘Literature as Survival: Allende's The House of the Spirits’, Contemporary Literature, XXVIII (1987), No. 4, 543-54, at pp. 543-44.

  28. Of course, not all critics would reduce Cien años de soledad to a circular structure. See my survey of the various critical positions in Cómo leer a Gabriel García Márquez.

  29. Rodrigo Cánovas, ‘Los espíritus literarios y políticos de Isabel Allende,’ Revista Chilena de Literatura, XXXII (1988), 119-29, at p. 122.

  30. See Cortínez, art. cit., 81. A slightly less convincing case of the circle-v-straight line is that of Tránsito Soto. Marjorie Agosín, in ‘Isabel Allende: La casa de los espíritus’, Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía, XXXV (1985), 448-58, has argued that Clara uses her femininity as a means of self-advancement when she turns silence (traditional feminine coyness and passivity) into a weapon and act of defiance (450 ff). In a similar way, Tránsito Soto uses her female sexuality to progress from small-town whore to wealthy star turn of a top brothel in the capital. This linear development is matched by a circular inversion. Trueba lends her the money to start her off on her, he thinks, laughable ambition, but he ends up begging her to help him free Alba. The right-wing senator is now out of favour with the dictatorship, while she (a former member of a co-operative) is in a position of influence with the government. Trueba's full-circle turnabout may represent the inevitable come-uppance of an unjust system, but the prostitute remains a dubious symbol of emancipation.

  31. See Mora, art. cit., 55.

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

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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 freely throughout this labyrinthine dwelling, communicate with its female inhabitants and give them power over their patriarchal heritage, just as the revolutionary spirit of the Socialist party results in the overthrow of the oppressive head of state. Throughout the novel we see the ever-present symmetry of good and evil represented in the stereotypical male and female characters. Esteban Trueba, the right-wing conservative patriarch of the family, who forces himself on peasant women and adamantly opposes social change, embodies the dark and stagnant side of life. On the other hand, the principal female characters receive a spiritual inheritance through the matriarch, which allows them to transcend the baseness of their society in order to liberate themselves and others. Clara, Blanca and Alba, whose names symbolize truth, light and spiritual rebirth, can be regarded as messiah figures because they provide hope for all women in oppressive situations. Following the tradition of the French/Peruvian Flora Tristán, considered by many as the first woman socialist and precursor of feminism, these women are essentially outcasts of their community.1 As a young girl, Clara was ostracized by a priest in the Roman Catholic church because she openly challenged its premises. Her daughter Blanca was punished severely for her sexual liberation and the granddaughter Alba was blacklisted and subsequently tortured by the conservative government for her role in harboring political revolutionaries. In this study we will examine psychological aspects of these three female protagonists who learn to survive their chaotic environment by retreating occasionally to a more nourishing spiritual world that transforms them and provides inner peace.

Since primitive times woman has been regarded as the mistress of all that implies nourishment. She is responsible for preservation, clothing and shelter, and thus, becomes a repository of transformation from the natural plane as Earth Mother to the spiritual plane as priestess.2 Woman, according to Erich Neumann in his book The Great Mother, is the original prophetess who is overpowered by a spirit that erupts within her unconscious and enables her to direct man's life (Neumann 296). In India the Matriarchal Goddess “white Tara” is revered as representative of “self-mastery and redemption” out of darkness (Neumann 332). “Her eyes are half closed and in her meditation she turns toward the outward as well as the inner world: an eternal image of the redeeming female spirit” (Neumann 334).

The first female character we will analyze is Clara del Valle Trueba, matriarch of the house of the spirits, whose psychic powers enable her to predict deaths, interpret dreams, foretell the future and move objects without touching them.3 We are told that Clara is very precocious and has a great imagination, which she inherits from all females on the maternal side of the family. However, this imagination is heightened by her readings of Uncle Marcos' adventure books and the parish priest's terrifying picture of sin (11).

Clara is considered a phenomenal creature who at age ten challenges Padre Restrepo on the existence of Hell while he is saying Mass and is promptly labeled a “soberbia endemoniada” (15). Although Clara's family accepts her eccentricities, as long as they do not harm others, the conservative society in which she lives considers her marginal. Her psychic abilities are not understood, and therefore her powers are feared.

When Clara predicts that a wrongful death will occur in her family and this turns out to be her sister Rosa's, we may pose the following question. In the light of feel ostracized by others and subsequently bringing shame on her entire family, could Clara have unconsciously desired her own death, but through dream transference predicted her sister's?

In his discussion of psychoanalysis Terry Eagleton states that “Dreams for Freud are essentially symbolic fulfillment of unconscious wishes; and they are cast in symbolic form because if this material were expressed directly then it might be shocking and disturbing enough to wake us up.” “[Therefore,] … our dreams become symbolic texts which need to be deciphered.”4 Since many images are scrambled to make the conscious meaning less painful, what is interpreted verbally is often a “condensation and displacement of meaning[s]” (Eagleton 157). Therefore, what emerges into consciousness is a slightly distorted image of the original dream content which cannot be interpreted in a precise manner linguistically, according to Freud.5

Taking this theory into account, we may conclude that Clara really sought the finality of death as a form of escaping once and for all the oppression of her alterity, but then interpreted this unconscious death wish as the death of another family member. The fact that Clara was not precise in indicating the exact person demonstrates the scrambling of images that occurs in the unconscious and that Freud's “bar of repression” prevents from escaping into conscious thought (Vergote 195).

Rosa dies after she had mistakenly consumed poisoned whiskey sent to her father by one of his political opponents. Thus Clara's prediction of a wrongful death is confirmed. However, it appears that Clara is guilt-ridden after secretly witnessing Rosa's autopsy performed on the kitchen table, a place, which according to Cirlot, “… sometimes signifies … psychic transmutation. …”6 As a result, Clara retreats into her own space by refusing to speak for nine years, thereby blocking out the unpleasantries of the world she inhabits (41). She resumes speaking on announcing that she will marry Esteban Trueba, Rosa's suitor, thus assuming Rosa's role within the family.

According to Marjorie Agosín:

Cuando [Clara] se sentía que el ambiente se cargaba de influencias negativas, se sumergía en un mundo interior, cerraba los puentes de comunicación con el exterior y se quedaba en silencio.7

For Clara the only place of escape was her imagination and silence, which have been common refuges for women throughout history.

Clara pasó la infancia y entró en la juventud dentro de las paredes de su casa, en un mundo de historias asombrosas, de silencios tranquilos, donde el tiempo no se marcaba con relojes ni calendarios y donde los objetos tenían vida propia, los aparecidos se sentaban en la mesa y hablaban con los humanos, el pasado y el futuro eran parte de la misma cosa y la realidad del presente era un caleidoscopio de espejos desordenados donde todo podía ocurrir. … Clara habitaba un universo inventado para ella, protegida de las inclemencias de la vida, donde se confundían la verdad prosaica de las cosas materiales con la verdad tumult[u]osa de los sueños, donde no siempre funcionaban las leyes de la física o la lógica. Clara vivió ese período ocupada en sus fantasías, acompañada por los espíritus del aire, del agua y de la tierra, tan feliz que no sintió la necesidad de hablar en nueve años.


According to her granddaughter Alba, Clara's diaries describe a magical world that had ended (78). It seems that she retreated into a fantasy land and recorded her thoughts and activities to save herself from the conflicts and guilt she experienced within her family and in society. For Clara, writing served not only as a record of family history but as a personal catharsis, and maintaining the cuadernos de anotar la vida became sacred to mother, daughter, and granddaughter.

Sharon Magnarelli writes in her review of The House of the Spirits that “… the voice of the women is essential, even if not always acknowledged as such. In fact the females of the text are often silent, particularly Clara, … who … provides us with a rewriting of history, women's history, long silenced, but what is ultimately the history of us all, male and female.”8 She also points out that this rewriting provides for a masculine oriented discourse which is not often encountered in the history written by men (Magnarelli 103). Here Esteban Trueba, Clara's husband and patriarch of the family, is allowed to present his testimony, thereby creating a somewhat less biased impression of events.

In her article on the diary as female autobiography Judy Nolte Lensink shows how the people and situations that the diarist writes about bring cohesion to her world and form the plot of the diary. It is interesting, she notes, that women's life stories, unlike men's, are usually not linear but cyclical which does not allow for closure.9 We see this narrative form in La casa de los espíritus where at the end Clara's granddaughter Alba awaits the birth of her child, thus continuing the life cycle and the cuadernos de anotar la vida.

Due to her sheltered life before and after her marriage to Esteban Trueba, Rosa's former suitor, Clara shows very little interest in domesticity. She continues to be treated like a child by Esteban's iron-willed sister Férula, who lives with them and ministers to her every need. By not carrying out her role as traditional wife and mother within a patriarchal society, Clara clearly reveals her power to act in accordance with her own spirituality instead of submitting to her husband's authority. We may ask ourselves how Esteban would have tolerated Clara's independence, but as Marjorie Agosín points out: “La independencia de Clara se acepta debido a su condición de estrafalaria” (Agosín 452).

However, it is evident that Clara's relationship with her domineering husband is strained because he can never possess her spirit (90). He wants his wife to be completely dependent on him, but Clara does not need Esteban because of the inordinate attention she receives from her sister-in-law Férula (117-118). Therefore, Clara has the time to practice her clairvoyance and tries to communicate with Esteban telepathically, but he is not capable of receiving her messages (92). This is because he represents the external, material, acquisitive world of conscious reality which is completely differentiated from her internal, immaterial world centered in the unconscious.

Here I believe it is appropriate to use the metaphor of the house to analyze the sexual and psychological differences between Clara and Esteban. If we think of the house in anatomical terms, we may view the external structure as a protective environment created by Esteban in which to enclose or shelter his wife from the outside world. Luce Irigaray in her article entitled “Sexual Difference” makes man's nostalgia for the womb analogous to his desire for shutting his wife in a house. “He envelops her within these walls while he envelops himself and his things in her flesh.”10 These limits are invisible, but the risk of “… imprisoning or murdering the other …” is great “… unless a door is left open” (Irigaray, 123). In La casa de los espíritus Clara is limited to the house but finds spiritual strength communicating with supernatural beings and takes refuge in her silenced space. Clara's spirit, which seems to glide in and out of the rooms, indicates a lack of boundaries and represents the fluidity of women in general.

Furthermore, we may compare the labyrinthine structure of the house to Clara's mind. The narrator points out that every time the family needed more space Clara would add another room to the house of which she was the center (88). It appears that Clara's journey inward—her silence—would be to ignore partially the external house or structure within which her body dwelled to find solace, comfort and a new vision. This microcosm of the house—her mind—would serve then as the centre to which all the female characters in the novel returned. An interesting factor in this psychological analysis is that Clara's lively imagination was inspired by her Uncle Marcos' magic books stored in the basement of the house—a level symbolic of the unconscious, according to Cirlot (Cirlot, 146).

From her mode of dressing in long white tunics due to her lack of interest in her elegant surroundings, it is obvious that Clara is living in another world, which excludes her tyrannical husband. Once pregnant she turns increasingly inward in secret communication with her child (92-93). According to Margaret Homans in Bearing the Word, this presymbolic or literal language of nonrepresentational sounds shared by mother and daughter continues from childhood and represents “a language of presence.”11 It unites them psychologically in such a way that the mother views her daughter as an extension of herself (Homans, 18). Clara's relationship with her daughter Blanca appears to achieve the closeness she had with her own mother, and like her, she keeps alive the oral tradition of relating family histories.

Like her mother Nívea we are told that Clara had also developed a social conscience form a very early age and is involved in helping educate the women peasants who live at Las Tres Marías, the Trueba country estate. Clara notes that here she has finally found her mission in life and for the first time lives a relatively normal routine with her husband (99). However, when Clara becomes pregnant for a second time, she retreats to her inner world and converses with invisible beings (104). At this point it is interesting to hear Esteban's reaction to his wife's extraordinary conduct upon their return to their town house:

Entró [Clara] en otro de sus largos períodos de silencio, creo que le duró varios meses, durante los cuales se servía de la pizarrita, como en los tiempos de la mudez. En esa ocasión no me alarmé, porque supuse que recuperaría la normalidad como había ocurrido después del nacimiento de Blanca y, por otra parte, había llegado a comprender que el silencio era el ultimo inviolable refugio de mi mujer, y no una enfermedad mental como sostenía el doctor Cuevas.


Here we see that Esteban's love of Clara allows him to comprehend his wife's eccentric behavior and in turn the reader feels a certain amount of sympathy for the male protagonist.

Three years after giving birth to twins we find that Clara is plagued by sleepwalking and nightmares due to her clairvoyance (142-43). Her apocalyptic vision of animals being torn apart and people being swallowed up by the earth precedes her announcement of another earthquake (143) and is symbolic of the political revolution which ravages the country. The economic crisis, followed by an increase in beggars and the spread of Marxist ideology, freezing temperatures and a typhus epidemic (122-23), are examples of impending national doom.

On a personal level this temblor, which also literally and figuratively divides the country house and buries Esteban beneath the rubble (144), represents a sparagmos or total shake-up within the Trueba family and especially in Clara's personality. She finally becomes independent and responsible because she can no longer depend of her injured husband, her sister-in-law, or her longtime nanny for help. Clara must take action and begin to reconstruct her life (148). “Despertó al fin de una larga infancia en la que había estado siempre protegida, rodeada de cuidados, de comodidades y sin obligaciones” (148).

We see that the earthquake has put Clara in contact with the basic needs of her family which she had long ignored. Thus Clara descends for a time from her spiritual plane to the terrestrial, and even her daughter Blanca, who has been away at boarding school, notices that her mother has become a “senñora común y silvestre” (151). Clara remarks that she is not herself because the world is different now—something that Esteban refuses to accept (151). However, on a personal level he is forced to realize that Clara is changing. He notes that she seems more tired and distant from him, is no longer seductive or tender and is sure that he has lost her love (163).

The turning point in Esteban's relationship with his wife comes about when he knocks out her teeth in a rage and she refuses to speak to him again. Clara removes her wedding band, discontinues using her married name and returns with her daughter to the city, thus distancing herself physically and psychologically from this tyrant (180).

As always, in times of personal distress, we see Clara resorting to spiritualism which restores her tranquility and enables her to face life's trials with assurance. Clara's granddaughter Alba, who follows her around the big house on the corner, is aware that her grandmother is its soul; when she dies, the house, which has united the family for three generations, will be torn apart (262). Clara seems to be aware that her time on earth is coming to a close because she begins putting her affairs in order (255). Even Alba notes the Clara “Parecía irse desprendiendo del mundo, cada vez más ligera, más transparente, más alada” (255). “Había comenzado a despedirse también de la luz, para entrar lentamente en las sombras” (256). It is apparent that Clara is finally going back to the darkness of the womb, to the eternal return from which we are (mythopoeically speaking) separated at birth and spend our lives trying to regain.12 As Clara had said: “Morir es como nacer: sólo un cambio” (256). Here we see the cyclical nature of the work re-enforced further when Clara, in trying to console her family, states that “… en su caso la muerte no sería una separación, sino una forma de estar más unidas” because if she was presently able to communicate with souls in the “Más Allá,” after her death she would certainly be able to communicate with them in the “Más Acá” (256-57).

It seems that Clara's daughter Blanca shows no interest in communicating with spirits, although her mother had introduced her to this supernatural world at a very early age (124). In fact, we find the family commenting that Blanca is the only normal person born in several generations (130). Therefore, if Clara is viewed as the Spiritual Seer or clairvoyant, which her name suggests, Blanca's role in the novel may be that of Earth Mother due to her sensual nature and the fact that she appears to be “one with the cosmos,” during her annual visits to the country estate. The narrator notes that:

Sólo en el campo, con la piel dorada por el sol y la barriga llena de fruta tibia, corriendo con Pedro Tercero por los potreros, era risueña y alegre. Su madre decía que ésa era la verdadera Blanca y la otra, la de la ciudad, era una Blanca en hibernación.


Like Clara, Blanca is raised in a protective environment in the city where she attends convent schools that prepare her inadequately for her future role as a single mother. The narrator informs us that growing up in this enclosed world is stifling for Blanca, who longs for the country and her boyfriend Pedro Tercero García, son of one of her father's hired hands. This eternal conflict between society's expectations of Blanca and her evolving self is what Annis Pratt terms “the growing-up-grotesque archetype.”13 She states:

Every element of her desired world—freedom to come and go, allegiance to nature, meaningful work, exercise of the intellect, and use of her own erotic capabilities—inevitably clashes with patriarchal norms.

(Pratt, 29)

We see Blanca rebelling against these restrictions by feigning sickness in the convent school so that she can return to the country and recover her lost self (154):

Blanca … le contó [a Pedro Tercero] que se había puesto cáscaras de plátano y papel secante en los zapatos para que le diera fiebre y había tragado tiza molida hasta que le dio tos de verdad, para convencer a las monjas de que su inapetencia y su palidez eran síntomas seguros de la tisis.


At Las Tres Marías Blanca appears to be a free spirit. Every night she sneaks out of her parents' house to join her lover, who waits for her at the river where they make passionate love (153). It is obvious that neither society nor parental disapproval will deter Blanca and Pedro from their frequent trysts until her father learns of these secret meetings (177-78). Their ideal world appears to be shattered after Esteban threatens to kill Pedro, and Blanca is forced to marry someone she does not love to legitimize Pedro's unborn child (192).

During this brief marriage, from which Blanca escapes before her daughter Alba is born, we find her “vegetating like a flower in another climate” (translation mine) (225). Blanca begins to think that her sensuality is asleep and that she no longer has the capacity to love (225). However, she is aroused from her lethargy when she discovers that her perverted husband has photographed all of the household servants in the nude. It is obvious that this crisis has a profound effect upon Blanca, who in her relationship with Pedro Tercero, had never been exposed to anything pornographic or artificial. She is horrified and her only thoughts are that she must return to her parents' home where the child she is carrying can grow up in a wholesome environment (230-31).

We find history repeating itself in the third generation of women who inhabit the house of the spirits. Blanca's daughter Alba is characterized very much like her grandmother Clara, since both possess supernatural powers and a heightened imagination stimulated by Uncle Marcos's magic books (239). We notice that Alba has also inherited a social conscience when she asks her grandfather Esteban why the Indians were not the true landowners of Las Tres Marías (251). This awareness is increased even more when Alba's boyfriend introduces her to leftist ideology. Although initially Alba appears to be interested in politics because of her love for Miguel (284), we find that she is fully committed once the Socialist government is overthrown, her beloved uncle is killed and Miguel leaves for the revolution. Like the earthquake that caused her grandmother to accept responsibility for her family, Alba realizes her world has been changed by the revolution and that her mission is to hide political refugees (333-34). Despite the fact that Alba's dead grandmother warns her that she should depart for a country where she will be safe (322), Alba pays no heed and is taken to prison by the right-wing military police (354).

During Alba's imprisonment and subsequent torture, we find her involving the spirits of her grandmother's house to see her through this horrendous period, just as Clara had done in time of adversity (354). It is apparent that Alba must block out the real world in order to survive and in doing so plunges into her own unconscious where she experiences a spiritual rebirth. According to Freud: “We strive onwards only to be constantly driven backwards, struggling to return to a state before we were even conscious” (Eagleton, 161). Alba states that through communion with Clara's spirit she received the idea of clarifying her prison experiences in her mind so that she might tell the world of the horrors that were being perpetrated while the rest of the world slept (362).

The epilogue informs us that Alba has survived her ordeal and is at peace with herself because she feels that her fate had been cast at birth, and the torture she experienced was just a link in the chain of events. She believes that out of this chaos harmony will reign and is now able to see things in their proper perspective through the writings of Clara, Blanca and the administrative books of Las Tres Marías (379).

The recent loss of her conservative grandfather, who represented the old social order, will soon be replaced by the birth of Alba's child (a girl) who brings hope for a more enlightened future (379). She writes in her journal:

Quiero pensar que mi oficio es la vida y que mi mision no es prolongar el odio, sino sólo llenar estas páginas mientras espero el regreso de Miguel, mientras entierro a mi abuelo que ahora descansa a mi lado en este cuarto, mientras aguardo que lleguen tiempos mejores, gestando a la criatura que tengo en el vientre, hija de tantas violaciones, o tal vez hija de Miguel, pero sobre todo hija mía.


Even in the reproduction of life Alba assumes that she will transcend her circumstances by claiming and fostering what is hers, and making hers that which is “other.”

In this study we have seen how three generations of Trueba women have found comfort and inspiration in returning to the house of the spirits to reconstruct their lives. Clara takes refuge there with Blanca after the earthquake and Esteban's abuse. It is a safe haven to which Blanca flees with her unborn child after discovering that her husband is a voyeur, and Alba returns to her home from prison pregnant with a child who represents a new age of peace and love. In each case the spiritual journey back to the center represents a need for nurturing and healing which will result in a transformation and rebirth of the spirit. If the house is imposed on them by their society, they will nonetheless take it and use it, making it always their own, and their daughters'.


  1. Mary-Garland Jackson, “La formulación de mujer-mesías en Méphis, ou le prolétaire,Discurso literario: revista de temas hispánicos, 4.2 (1987): 601.

  2. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, trans. Ralph Manheim, Bollingen Series 47, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974) 283-87. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Neumann and the page number.

  3. Isabel Allende, La casa de los espíritus (Barcelona: Plaza & Janés Editores, S. A., 1982) 73-74. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with the page number.

  4. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 157. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Eagleton and the page number.

  5. Antoine Vergote, “From Freud's ‘Other Scene’ to Lacan's ‘Other’” in Interpreting Lacan, eds. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan, Psychiatry and the Humanities Series 6 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983) 196-97. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Vergote and the page number.

  6. J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962), 146. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Cirlot and the page number.

  7. Majorie Agosín, Isabel Allende: La casa de los espíritus,Revista Iberoamericana de Bibliografía, 35.4 (1985): 451. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Agosín and the page number.

  8. Sharon Magnarelli, rev. of The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, Latin American Literary Review July-Dec. 1986: 103.

  9. Judy Nolte Lensink, “Expanding the Boundaries of Criticism: The Diary as Female Autobiography” Women's Studies, 14.1 (1987): 42-43.

  10. Luce Irigaray, “Sexual Difference,” in French Feminist Thought: A Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1987) 123. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Irigaray and the page number.

  11. Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson, Women in Culture and Society (Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1986) 18, Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Homans and the page number.

  12. Mircea Eliade, El mito del eterno retorno: arquetipos y repetición, trans. Ricardo Anaya (Madrid: Alianza Editorial S. A., 1972) 129.

  13. Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981) 29. Subsequent references to this work will be listed in the text with Pratt and the page number.

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie. Isabel Allende: La casa de los espíritus.Revista Iberoamericana de Bibliografía 35.4 (1985): 448-58.

Allende, Isabel. La casa de los espíritus. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés Editores, S. A. 1987.

Cirlot, J. E. “House.” A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage, New York: Philosophical Library, 1962.

Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1977.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Eliade, Mircea, El mito del eterno retorno. Trans. Ricardo Anaya. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, S. A., 1972.

Guerra-Cunningham, Lucía. “El personaje literario femenino y otras mutilaciones.” Hispamérica: revista de literatura 43 (1986): 3-19.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Women in Culture and Society. Catharine R. Stimpson, ed. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Irigaray, Luce. “Sexual Difference” in French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Toril Moi, ed. New York: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1987.

Jackson, Mary-Garland. “La formulación de la mujer-mesías en Méphis, ou le prolétaire.Discurso literario: revista de temas hispánicos 4.2 (1987): 601-11.

Lensink, Judy Nolte. “Expanding the Boundaries of Criticism: The Diary as Female Autobiography.” Women's Studies 14.1 (1987): 42-43.

Magnarelli, Sharon. Rev. of The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende. Latin American Literary Review July-Dec., 1986: 101-04.

Moody, Michael. “Una conversación con Isabel Allende.” Chasqui 16.2 (1987): 51-59.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Bollingen Series 47. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton, UP, 1974.

Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.

Rojas, Mario A. “La casa de los espíritus, de Isabel Allende: Un caleidoscopio de espejos desordenados.” Revista Iberoamericana 51. 132-133 (1985): 917-18.

Sjöö, Monica and Barbara Mor. The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1987.

Vergote, Antoine. “From Freud's ‘Other Scene’ to Lacan's ‘Other’” in Interpreting Lacan. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan eds. Psychiatry and William Kerrigan eds. Psychiatry and the Humanities Series 6. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

Watts, Alan W. Myth and Ritual in Christianity. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Further Reading

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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 family, as represented in The House of the Spirits.

Shaw, Donald L. “Isabel Allende.” In The Post-Boom in Spanish American Literature, pp. 53-72. Albany: State University of New York, 1998.

Shaw discusses the historical and literary significance of The House of the Spirits, characterizing Allende's fiction as a defining work of post-“boom” literature.

Additional coverage of Allende's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 18; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 125, 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 51, 74; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 57, 97; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 145; DISCovering Author Modules: Multicultural, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Feminist Writers; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latin American Writers Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 1; Novels for Students, Vol. 6; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 11; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Mira Schwirtz (review date May-June 1995)

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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.

The violent end of her uncle Salvador Allende's socialist administration and the subsequent years of torture, imprisonment, and death of many innocent Chilean citizens is chronicled in many of Allende's books. It also plays a major role in this new book of nonfiction [Paula], but here it figures as a disturbing blot in a memoir spanning Allende's fifty years. Far more terrifying is the end that hovers on the story's outer perimeter, the lid inexorably closing on author and reader as Paula's prognosis become less and less hopeful.

As Allende's life rolls forward to meet the present, Paula languishes first in a hospital bed in Madrid, then a clinic in California after an exhausting, 20-hour flight home hooked up to life-support, and finally, in the author's Bay Area home. Allende carefully describes her own and her family's anguish as they keep their hopes alive and endure a bitter struggle to remain patient, not despair, and come to terms with their tragedy. Some of her family look to their faith; Allende sustains herself with the love of family and friends, her own soul's wellspring of hope, an iron will, and a belief in spiritual communication.

To take refuge from this unthinkable loss, Allende delves into her history, taking us on a memorable journey through her childhood in Chile, her marriage, exile, divorce, move to California, and second marriage. Anecdotes and character sketches about her parents and grandparents, her in-laws, lovers, friends, and co-workers are woven within the narrative at every turn. There is Allende's stern and dignified grandfather, a regal patriarch who cares for his daughter's family after Isabel's father disappears; her beautiful, long-suffering mother who tells her three children stories each night; Allende's son-in-law, Ernesto, whose devotion to his wife and determination during her coma create some of the most wrenching scenes in the book.


Salvador Allende appears here, too, although the author was never in close contact with her uncle. She recalls family picnics with the entire Allende clan and the socialist candidate racing down a grassy slope with all the children. Allende's spare writing evokes the richest details, from a breathtaking description of the Chilean landscape to the adolescent turmoil of a first love.

These, and a hundred other absorbing scenes, are a gratefully received, temporary respite from the reality on the other side of their shimmering images. The felling of suspension as we wait for Allende to draw out of her memories and again raise the curtain on her personal pain adds a color and an intensity to the book that is almost excruciating. Yet she controls the narrative skillfully—never hastening the pace—examining and telling her story with a straightforward, unreserved interest.

As in all her books, the boundary between reality and the world of the dead is porous. The spirits of her grandmother and of her daughter, imprisoned within her comatose body, appear to Allende in her dreams, offering her direction, hope, and toward the end, entreaties that she let her daughter go. It is through this personal mysticism that Allende attempts to transcend her loss, and, ultimately, proves to be her salvation.

As I dissolved, I had the revelation that the void was filled with everything the universe holds. Nothing and everything, at once. Sacramental light and unfathomable darkness. I am the void, I am everything that exists, I am in every leaf of the forest, in every drop of the dew, in every particle of ash carried by the stream, I am Paula and I am also Isabel, I am nothing and all other things in this life and other lives, immortal.

Allende likens her visions to the muse, made of the same ethereal stuff, that inspires her work. She confides that it is her attenuation to supernatural energy that allows her “to receive the first sentence in a trance, so the door may open slightly and allow me to peer through and perceive the hazy outlines of the story waiting for me.” When in possession of her, it forces her to write without stopping. Although Allende says early on in the book she thought she would never write again after Paula fell ill, it is both admirable and wonderful that her indomitable spirit never failed her in documenting a long and arduous experience with death, a journey that, even in its terrible adversity produced something fundamentally eternal.

Amanda Hopkinson (review date 22 September 1995)

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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.

It is also the story of Allende's own life, in one of its permutations. She can provide entertainment with entirely different accounts of one event, as she did when we met. Then, she suggested that she met Willie (her present husband) by jumping in to save him from drowning beneath the Golden Gate. This is rectified here by the tale of their first night of passion, tempered by her supposedly candid confession that: “I am tempted to invent wild erotic rites to adorn my memoirs, as I suppose others do, but in these pages I am trying to be honest.”

The miracle is that the reader believes such a consummate storyteller. This is down to Allende's expertise in fusing the seriousness of her theme with a practised lightness of touch. It is also enormously hard not to warm to an author who can come up with such felicitous turns of phrase: babies “growing like melons in their mothers' tummies”, or a grandfather's house “as long as a railroad, [where] the walls were so thin that our dreams intermingled”.

The descriptions of her native Chile add to her extensive family the figure of her uncle, the assassinated Popular Unity president. She recalls her cousins talking politics, making her feel frivolously inferior, as they picnic on the hill of San Cristóbal where: “Salvador Allende always took the lead with his dogs, and his daughter Carmen Paz and I were always the last, reaching the bottom with scraped hands and knees after all the others had grown tired of waiting for us.”

School in the Lebanon had taught her that even war had a certain comedy in its insanity—with disembarking US troops greeted by hawkers desperate to offload sweets and condoms—and that there would never be “a meal I cannot eat, including English food”. And Allende's return to Madrid (where she had an unhappy love affair) to keep her dying daughter company includes a visceral examination of Spanish customs: “their smoking, their two-fisted consumption of coffee and liquor, their staying up till dawn, the mind-numbing amount of fat they eat, and their never exercising”.

Despite the longer interludes of memory—of her own substantial life, as well as her daughter's abruptly curtailed one—the book's essential mission lies with her comatose child: “One more day of waiting, one less day of hope … Death wanders freely through the hallways, and my task is to distract it, so it cannot find your door.” Only at the end does Allende permit herself to launch beyond even the cliché of “fighting like a lioness” for that slipping life, into the worst of purple prose. By then, we have come to know the author better than the daughter.

Throughout we are reminded that “books are conceived in the search for answers”. Allende's personal philosophy may be homespun in its quest for the “two equally powerful currents: passion and tenderness”, yet one must admire her insistence that “the curiosity overcome the panic”. Paula is much more than a letter to a departed child, far less than a biography of that dead soul. Nor can it make sense of the senseless. It makes something better, which is fantasy. The book offers a fantastical family history, with flights of imagination and descents into banalities, unsurpassed by Allende since her seminal The House of the Spirits.

Ruth Behar (review date November 1995)

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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, which has left her speechless, motionless, lost in an angelic stupor that is broken only rarely by tears and trembling. As her mother unfolds her tale, patiently seeking to awaken Paula and bring her back to the world of the living, Paula edges closer to death. By the end, she becomes a gentle spirit who appears to her mother in the night, asking to be released from the suffering and weight of her body. Allende must finally confront a harsh truth: not only that her tale won't save her daughter, but that she must cease her storytelling altogether, for it is keeping Paula strapped to a reality she no longer inhabits.

Paula, despite the title, is not a biography or even an account of the life of Isabel Allende's daughter. It is Allende's own autobiography, told to a daughter who has entered a limbo between life and death. Paula's entrance into that border zone becomes the occasion for Isabel Allende to tell her own life story. The dying daughter becomes a mirror in which the mother reaffirms her reality and comes to terms with the decisions she has made as a woman and a writer. In the cruelest possible twisting of the order of things, Paula must die before her mother, must become a daughter who gives birth to her mother. This unflinchingly honest self-portrait becomes Allende's parting gift to her daughter.

How inspiring it is for any woman who feels she has yet to do the work that really matters to read Isabel Allende's story of how she found her calling as a novelist. Allende recalls, “New Year's, 1981. That day brought home the fact that soon I would be forty and had not until then done anything truly significant. Forty! that was the beginning of the end, and I did not have to stretch too much to imagine myself sitting in a rocking chair knitting socks.” Unable to imagine what she might do that would seem significant in her own eyes, she makes a number of sensible New Year's resolutions. She resolves to stay indefinitely in Venezuela, where she'd gone into exile with her husband, her two children, her mother and her stepfather in 1975 after General Pinochet toppled the democratic government of her uncle, Salvador Allende, and instituted a regime of repression, torture and terror. She resolves to continue working steadily at a school in Caracas for children with emotional problems, which will provide security and stability. And she resolves to “sacrifice love” for the “noble companionship” of a good husband, for whom she no longer feels any passion.

“The plan was entirely rational—and it lasted not quite a week,” Allende tells us. On January 8, in a phone call from Siatiago de Chile, she learns that Tata, her beloved grandfather, soon to turn one hundred years old, is dying. She begins to write a letter “to tell him he could go in peace because I would never forget him and planned to bequeath his memory to my children and my children's children.” That letter, like a wild weed, quickly and unexpectedly grows into the five hundred pages of her novel, The House of the Spirits, and it is Paula who, in another strange gesture of premonition, tosses the coin that helps Allende choose the title of the book that will completely change her life.

Not long after, Allende writes a second novel, Of Love and Shadows, to prove to her literary agent in Spain that she is a serious writer and not just the accidental lucky author of a best-seller. All her sensible plans for a quiet and predictable life joyfully unravel. She quits her job at the school, gracefully undoes her marriage in a single afternoon and lets passion sweep over her in California, where she meets Willie, a cowboy-booted lawyer who'd given up on women, and overnight convinces herself and him that they have found in each other the passion of a lifetime. Sound romantic? Well, it is, and Allende, a magical writer, makes you believe that “happily ever after” is still possible, and in the very prime of a woman's life.

Now, Allende desperately wishes she could trade her life for her daughter's life. She is a privileged woman, in that she can afford to be present constantly at Paula's bedside and can hire others to help with all the complicated details of her daughter's daily care. But like Job she struggles with God, asking why her daughter had to be anointed early, so early, as a spirit? For a writer whose first best-selling novel was entitled The House of the Spirits, it is ironic to see that fictional house of spirits transformed into her real-life daughter's home.

Indeed, the premonitions of her fiction haunt Allende throughout the writing of Paula. Especially eerie to her is the foresight embedded in her short story, “And Of Clay Are We Created,” which was inspired by the 1985 avalanche in Colombia that buried a village in mud. Among those trapped was Omaira Sánchez, a thirteen-year-old girl who became the focus of attention of news-hungry photographers, journalists and television cameras that fixed their curious and helpless eyes on the girl who kept her faith in life as she bravely met her death. In that horrid audience of onlookers, there was one man, a reporter, who made the decision to stop observing Omaira from the lens of his camera and lay down in the mud to offer her what comfort he could as her heart and lungs collapsed. Allende, who was obsessed by “the torment of that poor child buried alive,” wrote her story from the perspective of a woman—and she was that woman—“who watches the televised struggle of the man holding the girl.”

Allende assumed that once the story was published (in The Stories of Eva Luna), Omaira would disappear from her life. But Omaira, she discovers, is

a dogged angel who will not let me forget her. When Paula fell into a coma and became a prisoner in her bed, inert, dying slowly before the helpless gaze of all around her, I remembered the face of Omaira Sánchez. My daughter was trapped in her body, as the girl had been trapped in mud. Only then did I understand why I had thought about her all those years, and finally could decipher the message in those intense black eyes: patience, courage, resignation, dignity in the face of death.

(p. 310)

She reaches a paradoxical conclusion: “If I write something, I fear it will happen, and if I love too much, I fear I will lose that person; nevertheless, I cannot stop writing or loving. …”

Like the reporter who joins the girl in the mud, Allende, too, relinquishes the detached observer position. For her, this means exiling herself from the territory of fiction, which in the past has allowed her to invent the destinies of her characters and so removed reality to a safe and controllable distance. Until her daughter fell ill, she remarks, she much preferred to write fiction. But with Paula's descent into death, Allende comes to feel she can only write about the world that lies insistently before her, as if

a dark curtain has separated me from the fantasy world in which I used to move so freely; reality has become intractable. … Everything is suspended, I have nothing to tell, the present has the brutal certainty of tragedy. I close my eyes and before me rises the painful image of my daughter in her wheelchair, her eyes staring toward the sea, her gaze focused beyond the horizon where death begins.

(p. 260)

The pages of the memoir that Allende writes at her daughter's bedside in a Madrid hospital and later in her home in California are

an irreversible voyage through a long tunnel; I can't see an exit but I know there must be one. I can't go back, only continue to go forward, step by step, to the end. As I write, I look for a sign, hoping that Paula will break her implacable silence and answer somehow in these yellow pages …

(p. 238)

Paula is a heartbreaking lament, written with the charged poetry that emerges at those times when there is an urgent need to speak, though one knows that words, no matter how ravishingly spoken, will change nothing. Isabel Allende couldn't save her daughter by writing Paula, nor even by enlisting every kind of therapy and remedy, from the most advanced biomedical techniques to acupuncture and astrology. And yet it is a tribute to Allende's skill as a writer and the depth of her soul-searching that Paula, written on the eve of death, is immensely life-affirming. This is one of those unusual books about suffering that has no use for pity, that manages, somehow, in a situation of utter depletion, to give much more to the reader than would have seemed possible. One reads Paula with gratitude for the way it poignantly marks the loss of a daughter while restoring faith in the power of language to free those of us women who are still in this world and still caught in the labyrinths of our own lives. And Margaret Sayers Peden's translation into English is so exquisite that the unpretentious lyricism of Allende's Spanish seems to glow on the page.

In the face of her daughter's dying, Allende may have felt unable to write fiction, but like Eva Luna, the protagonist of her third book, she has clearly set out to live her life “like a novel.” Or at least, to her daughter, Paula, to try to awaken her, she tells her life as if it were a novel. In that novel of her life, Isabel Allende emerges as a woman who isn't afraid of her own desire, or her own happiness. She is able to admit, at one of the worst moments of her grief, “I have lived nearly half a century, my daughter is dying, and still I want to make love. I think of Willie's reassuring presence and feel goosebumps rise on my skin, and can only smile at the amazing power of desire that makes me shiver despite my sorrow, even push death from my mind.” Embracing life and love with all her might, Allende honors the memory of Paula and lets her go, gently, back out into the universe.

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

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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 volunteer with poor children at a Catholic school in Madrid when she became ill. Although porphyria is rarely fatal, due to an error in procedure, an accident, or some other unknown circumstance, Paula never came out of her coma and died on December 6, 1992. In spite of the fact that Paula was engendered by a tragedy, this is not a sad book, for Allende emphasizes the beautiful moments she spent with her daughter as much as the physical destruction caused by the disease.

In her presentation, Allende spoke of the most difficult moments of her long, hard ordeal, but she also read humorous passages about her own life, including one in which she recounts her experiences as a chorus girl at the follies, when she was researching an article for a feminist magazine. I was impressed with the ease with which she passed from terribly painful to amusing segments of the book, laughing and provoking laughter, telling embarrassing anecdotes, answering difficult questions. Small, pretty, and very sharp, in front of an audience Allende is a professional in complete control of her medium—perhaps due to the long years she worked on Chilean television. It was obvious that this presentation had been carefully orchestrated and rehearsed, one of many that she was giving to promote her new book in countless cities. And yet, one sensed terrible pain behind the protective shield. After the talk, several listeners remained in their seats sobbing disconsolately.

I asked Allende where she found the strength and vitality to do these presentations night after night, week after week—how she could go on talking about Paula and laughing, how she managed to get on with her life—because her energy was indeed amazing. “When the idea to do this book tour came up, I was terrified,” she admits. “I thought I wouldn't be able to do it. Obviously because the topic is very hard for me to deal with, and also because it's all still very fresh in my mind. Two things have helped me a lot. One is people's reaction. There's a marvelous energy that the public transmits. You can feel people's affection, their openness, their tolerance, their understanding. So many people come up to me with a letter they've written on the back of a ticket, a little note, or a gift to tell me that they've lost someone close … Or often very young girls who identify with Paula … The second thing is that I read these texts in English, and the language constitutes a filter. These aren't the words that I wrote: they're the words of my translator, and that creates a little space between the text and me, which helps. But those few times I'll have to do it in Spanish I think will be very hard.”

In her talk at Georgetown Allende spoke of the mask of language she hides behind. Nevertheless people penetrate that mask and feel her pain. “It's that the pain is always there,” she explains. “It's part of my nature. It's like wrinkles and grey hair. Those things are part of me now. I welcome a feeling that I know will be with me the rest of my life. Each time I see a long-haired girl in blue jeans walking down the street, I think it's Paula. And often I find myself with my hand on the phone ready to call her—because I called her all the time, almost every day—and then I realize that there's no place to call her. What I'm saying is, that's going to be with the always … and I have to live with it.”

Four years ago Allende was at a party celebrating the publication of The Infinite Plan feeling elated, triumphant, thinking that she had reached the high point of her career, when she received the call that Paula was in the hospital. When she arrived at the intensive care unit and was informed of her daughter's state, she was convinced that Paula would get better. She began to write during the long hours of waiting at the hospital; it was a way of killing time. Besides, she thought that Paula might not remember certain things when she awakened, and the book—a long memoir of the author's life with family anecdotes and descriptions of the political situation—would serve to orient her.

“My mother told me: ‘Write or you'll die,’” says Allende, “and I started to think that as long as I wrote, Paula would stay alive. It was a way of defying death. My mother saw the end way before I did. Life is full of signs and premonitions, if only we knew how to read them. I had a lot of trouble coming to terms with the truth.”

Allende began jotting down her thoughts and recollections on a yellow pad. She didn't intend to write a book, so the procedure never became a literary project. “At least not while I was writing,” she says. “Now it is, because it's out of my hands. But writing was so tied to everything that happened. … From the moment when Paula got sick I began to write, and I wrote during the entire year she was ill and during the first year of mourning. It was like part of the process, I never separated it completely. There are no variations in an illness like this one, nothing ever happens. There are no reactions. I wrote a lot of letters to my mother … when I went back over them I saw that none of them revealed any kind of change … Everything is the same from the first day to the last. Writing was a means of separating the days, of allowing time to pass and fixing it in my memory. It was like, by writing the day, the day happened. Without that, everything was the same. Writing was so tied to the process of grieving and also trying to help Paula that the book never developed an independent life. It's just that it wasn't a book. It started to be a book a lot later. So it never had its own life. When I wrote the last draft of the book, we still hadn't decided whether or not to publish it because I wasn't really writing it for anyone but myself, first of all, and then for my son, Nicolás, and my grandchildren. Porphyria is a genetic problem. Nicolás may have it. It might possibly show up in the children. It's a dominant gene, so it's very possible that the children have it. I thought it was important to leave them a testimony of what happened. Who knows when it might happen again?”

Nevertheless, today book publishing has become a commercial enterprise. Under the circumstances, marketing Paula must have been tremendously difficult for Allende. “I never had to do this before The Infinite Plan,” she explains. “When I changed publishers, HarperCollins stipulated in the contract that I had to do book tours. And I did the one for The Infinite Plan under terrible conditions because my daughter had died some six months before. I had to go all over the country, to eighteen cities, talking about The Infinite Plan, which didn't have anything to do with Paula's story, with a truly broken heart. So that was a really traumatic experience. This time, as well, I approached it with certain terror, but it hasn't been so bad. Of course, I don't think of it as selling the book. Instead, I think of it as talking about Paula. And somehow a sort of spiritual clearing forms in which I can take refuge, even on this trip, because the topic is a spiritual one.”

There has been a lot of talk about the influence of other writers, especially Gabriel García Márquez, on Allende's work. However, in Paula there can be no question of imitation. The tone is intimate and the voice, absolutely authentic. The author insists that the question was raised years ago with respect to The House of the Spirits but hasn't come up since. “I believe that every story has its own way of being told, every story has its own tone,” she says. “I had never written nonfiction before … well, of course, when I was a journalist, but I'd never written a whole book that wasn't fiction. But the tone of this book is very different from that of the others. This one is written the way I speak.”

Allende believes that Paula is different from everything else she has written. “I can't judge it from a literary perspective,” she says, “and I can't compare it with other books because it would be unfair both to this book and the others; they're two different genres … I don't know what I'm going to write in the future. I don't even know if I'm going to write. I feel that during my whole life I was preparing to write this book. And what comes after, I don't know. I have the impression that nothing. All I feel is a great emptiness.”

As for her evolution as a writer, she says: “I've learned very little. I've learned to cut a lot, to be more and more critical of my own work. But I have the impression that for each book you have to start from scratch. I know certain things that I'll never do again. For example, I can't try to force the story or the characters in a particular direction because I have a preconceived notion of how things should be, because that doesn't work for me. When I try to do that, everything falls apart. I have to follow the natural course the story takes all by itself. As if I could just interpret something that's in the air, but not create something new. That's something I've learned. And I've learned to be disciplined. I don't believe in inspiration. I believe in work. In my case, inspiration doesn't cut it; what cuts it is sitting all day, six or eight hours, and working. And that's something I know now, so I don't even wait for the story to fall out of the blue because I know that won't happen. And to edit, to do a lot of editing. But I always have the impression when I start on a new project that I don't know anything. Nothing.

“It seems to me that all my books are written differently. The House of the Spirits has an oneiric, magical tone. Of Love and Shadows is a police story that could have been written by a journalist. Eva Luna has a very different tone because there's a strong element of irony; it's a book that can be read on a lot of different levels. On the first, it could just be the story of Eva Luna; on another, the story that she invents about herself; on another, the soap opera that she's writing about the story that she's inventing about herself. There are a lot of steps to reading it. And that sensation of peeling an onion, I had it while I was writing. It's very different from my other books. The Infinite Plan is a story that was already there. My job was to re-create it, but all the characters already existed, and the entire story existed. Even the title existed because my husband's father was the one who invented the religion called the Infinite Plan, and that's where the story came from. So I even stole the title from him. Everything!”

Allende also has a popular collection of short fiction, The Stories of Eva Luna. “People are always asking me for stories, but they're difficult to write,” she says. “Stories are like apples. They come to you whole, round. Any little thing that's off, the story is ruined. There's one advantage, though: It's that you can work in segments, in segments of time. In two or three weeks, you can write a story. On the other hand, a novel is a commitment that can last two, three years. It's like falling in love. On the other hand, a short story is like a one-night stand!”

When she's working on a book, Allende follows a rigid schedule. She has one day—January 8—when she begins all her projects, “because it's too easy to put off writing,” she says. “There's always something better to do, like play with the grandchildren, for example, so I need the discipline of always beginning on the same day. And once I begin, I don't start any other project until I finish the first one. I write just one book at a time, I never have several projects going at the same time. I write in the morning rather than in the afternoon because I'm more creative and energetic in the morning than in the afternoon. I get up very early, at six, and I go to another town, where I have a study, a garage that my husband fixed up like a study, and that's where I work. In the afternoon, at about two more or less, I have to take care of my correspondence. There's always more and more mail; we're forever waiting for it to crest and die down, but it doesn't, it just … it's like bureaucracy, it can only grow. Unless it's contracts, invitations … my assistant—who fortunately is also my daughter-in-law, Celia in the book—she takes care of all that. She deals with it … she's really my boss. The letters, the fan letters, I answer them all personally. Because, if a person is kind enough to write me a letter, to look up my address and send it to me, at least I can answer it. That takes quite a bit of time.

“Generally, I type right into the computer a draft into which I pour everything. That's the part I like best, telling the story, without worrying about how it will come out. And after I've written the whole story, which takes about three or four months, I print it and read it for the first time. Then I know what it's all about. After that, I begin to clean it up, to leave the main story and get rid of all the extraneous material. That's for a novel, not for a memoir or stories, which are different. And then, there's a second draft in which the story is there, defined, and another in which I only worry about tension, language … I polish it, I polish it carefully … I don't know how long that takes because with the computer you correct and overcorrect and correct again right on the screen … I don't print it each time. And when I have the feeling that it's pretty much ready, I print it out and send it to my mother in Chile.

“My mom reads it with a red pencil. Then she gets on the first plane she can find and comes to California. We lock ourselves up in the dining room to fight, and we fight for about a month. There's no better editor than my mother. She's heartless, absolutely cruel. She says things that would destroy any writer … If she weren't my mother, I'd have killed her already! But I know she does it because she loves me. She demands a lot from me because she loves me so much. She's not jealous of me, and she doesn't have a preconceived notion of what will sell, the way an editor from a publishing house might. A professional editor might be thinking … well, if we put a sex scene on page 40, we'll sell more copies. Such an idea would never occur to my mother. She just goes by the quality. She insists and insists. We polish it between the two of us, and then she leaves and I continue polishing the draft by myself, incorporating a large number of my mother's suggestions, but not all of them, because my mom, for example, is shocked by the fact that I include sex scenes in my books. Sometimes I don't even show them to her. Now, with the computer, I censor them before she sees them.” Allende bursts out laughing, proof that she hasn't lost her sense of humor. “If there's some reference to the pope, I censor that too,” she says, still laughing.

Although Allende's books have been translated into many languages and are praised all over the Western world, she has not been immune to negative criticism. I asked her how adverse commentaries affect her, whether they hurt her or simply roll off her back. “It depends,” she answers. “There are criticisms that are just negative and others that are malicious. And there's quite a difference. I can accept that someone doesn't like what I write for some reason. But at times I perceive meanness in the criticism. Meanness that comes from the fact that I wrote something that someone doesn't understand for any particular reason. Or because there was antagonism there to start with. Sometimes it's happened to me that another writer, often a man, criticizes my work, and you can tell from his comments that he is envious. His tone is nasty. That bothers me. But it doesn't bother me that much, because in reality, public response is what really matters in the long run. There are criticisms that are very destructive. The worst review in the history of literature appeared in the New York Review of Books on Eva Luna. This is an important piece because it goes to all the bookstores, all the libraries, so any students or other people who are studying my work or want to know anything about me, the first thing they'll do is go to the library and look for criticism, and the first thing they'll find is that one, which is horrible. A man who is an expert on baseball and took a trip to Latin America wrote it. Someone thought that because he had traveled in Latin America, he was the person to write about Eva Luna. He didn't understand the book at all, and he tore it apart in the most vicious way possible. And that bothered me because, who is this guy? What moral or literary authority does he have to take a book he didn't even understand and tear it apart?”

In spite of being the subject of many studies and theses, Allende admits that she doesn't keep up with the latest literary criticism. “I never studied literature,” she explains. “And I haven't taught it, either. I've taught creative writing, which isn't the same thing. So fortunately, I'm not up on all the theories, which terrify me! But I get a lot of studies done by students, books written by professors on my work … Generally, I don't understand them. I think it's the same with most writers. One writes as one can, the best one can, and it's the job of other people to vivisect what one produces, to explain it, but it's difficult for a writer to explain her own work. I have maybe four papers on Barrabás, the dog in The House of the Spirits … what the dog symbolizes … It was just a dog who lived in my house and his name was Barrabás, that's all! But how can I explain to a student who has been working on a thesis on Barrabás for a year that he's just a dog? I'd feel awful!” The author laughs as she remembers the strange explanations that some critics have given to different characters or episodes in her books. “I think it can also be very paralyzing if you have that kind of explanation in your head … if you're always thinking about those theories, about what the critics are going to say,” she says. “You wind up writing for professors and critics, which is very dangerous.”

Some feminist critics have insisted that there is such a thing as “women's writing,” which, according to the French theorist Hélène Cixous, is more spontaneous, natural, and fluid than men's writing. Allende approaches these theories rather cautiously because, in her opinion, “women have been segregated from everything in life, including writing. So, when we talk about literature, we just suppose it's masculine and it's not qualified by an adjective. When women write, they call it ‘women's literature’ as if it were a minor genre. I think we women have to be careful not to fall into that trap ourselves. Nevertheless, on the one hand, literature is always the same and language, the instrument that we use, is always the same. But, of course, it's also true that there's such a thing as point of view, perspective, which is determined by one's sex, one's age, one's place of birth, the social class one is born into. All these things determine a biography, a world view and, therefore, a form of writing. Why do women chose subjects different from the ones men choose? Why do women read certain books that just don't interest men, and vice versa? Because certain things are common to our sex.”

The House of the Spirits, the book that launched Allende's career, continues to be her most highly praised work. In spite of this, however, it seems that certain aspects of the novel have been understood only superficially by readers outside of Chile. For example, The House of the Spirits is one of the few books that really show the diversity of opinion among conservatives during the socialist regime in Chile. Many of the conservatives of the generation of Esteban Trueba, the protagonist's grandfather, were afraid of change and unable to support socialism on ideological grounds, but felt that when Salvador Allende fell, Chile would return to its democratic roots. When they saw what Pinochet's dictatorship brought, they were horrified. Outside Chile, there is a tendency to classify the opponents of socialism automatically as supporters of the dictatorship. Nevertheless, Allende shows that this was not the case.

I asked her if she feels that readers grasp this aspect of the novel. “Some, yes,” she says. “But others get angry. For example, when The House of the Spirits was published, it was during the worst part of the repression in Chile. And the message at the end is reconciliation. Not forgetting, but yes, reconciliation, with the idea that a new country could be built—or the country could be restored—only on a foundation of national reconciliation. It just wasn't possible to go on proliferating hatred systematically forever and ever, on and on, because that way we would never end the violence. That set very badly among the people who had suffered repression firsthand in Chile, because it was practically asking them to forgive in a period when no one was entertaining that idea yet. So I had a very negative reaction from the people on the left, and of course, a horrible one from the people on the right, because I tried to explain the circumstances under which the coup occurred; I spoke clearly of torture and the horror that took place under the military regime, which, back then, it was still possible to deny because we were living with censorship and self-censorship, so nothing was being published about it and people could say no, those are just Communist rumors and not accept what was really happening in Chile. Nowadays it's almost impossible for people to keep on denying it. It's very difficult. There are still people who do, but those are just dinosaurs who really don't matter. So I had bad reactions from both sides. But there was a huge number of people in the middle who did understand the subtleties of how things were, because in every family there were people on both sides. The country was divided, families were divided, couples were divided. So a lot of people did understand, and the book was very well received by those people in the middle. Now, how the public understands it in the United States or in, say, Denmark, I don't know. I just don't know.”

In 1994 a film based on The House of the Spirits was released, with Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, and Antonio Banderas. It received mixed reviews, but the author liked it a lot. However, she says, “I felt a few things were missing. The lack of humor, that's what bothered me the most. I don't know if you know Jeremy Irons … he's the funniest person imaginable. I think that in the book, in The House of the Spirits, except in the very most tragic moments, there's a current of irony and humor that just isn't in the movie. I found that lacking, and also a more Latin touch … I would have liked more … more of that Latin tone. But I did like the film very much.”

It is hard to believe, in spite of what she says, that Allende has no plans for the future. She is too dynamic to remain inactive, and she loves writing too much to give it up. She admits that she has already begun another project: “Well, January 8 always prompts me to begin another book,” she says. “And I did begin something. Let's see when I finish with all this, if I can spend time on it and create another book. But I don't feel the passion to write it that I've felt before, with other books. I think it's because Paula is still too fresh. I just finished the memoir last October. It was published immediately in Spain in December. Everything has gone so fast that I haven't had time to breathe. It's been too fast.”

In spite of how hard it has been, at least she is fortunate enough to be able to count on the support of her family: “I have a husband, a son, and a daughter-in-law, who want only for me to write, because that way I don't bother them. They want me to be locked up writing all the time. My husband met me because he fell in love with one of my books … Of Love and Shadows … He read it in English, he fell in love with it, and so he went to San José [California] when I was on a book tour, and that's where he met me. So, he came to me because he admired my work. And his admiration for my work hasn't diminished at all. It's a nice feeling because, as a Latin woman, I've had to struggle my whole life against the lack of respect of the male establishment … in every aspect of my life. For example, it took many years before my stepfather, whom I adore, was able to respect me professionally, in my career. He automatically respected the male children. Women, we have to earn respect from one day to the next. It's hard. To have to fight like that during your whole life leaves you scarred.”

But Allende hasn't lost faith in people. She sees her book Paula as a celebration of existence, of all the things in the world that are beautiful and worthwhile. She concludes a conversation with these words: “The only thing I want to say is that this book, in spite of the tragic subject matter and the tragic circumstances under which I wrote it, is not a book about death. It's not a sad book. I think it's a book about life … about family … about relationships … about love … about all the things that are important and should be celebrated in my life and in Paula's.”

Deborah Cohn (essay date 1996)

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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 marginalized category, for, historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.

Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory”

From riot to revolution and Harlem to Santiago, the distance that separates Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) from Isabel Allende's La casa de los espíritus (1982) might seem, at first glance, unbridgeable. But perhaps it is simply that the bonds of commonality lie deeper than the obvious surface disparities. The focalization of Allende's first novel through the perspective of women in Latin America coincides with Ralph Ellison's depiction of an African American male's experiences of U.S. society in that both articulate realities traditionally absent(ed) from historical writings which claim to bear the truth of the past. I approach the novels in this study both as fictional works and as projects for self-empowerment conceived by members of social groups that have suffered from injustice and inequality in Latin America and the U.S. Writing for them doubles as an extra-literary means of resistance, a challenge to dominant structures which overpower and disempower. The structural, textual, and thematic similarities between these two authors' works are sometimes uncanny. Rather than suggesting direct influence, though, I argue that the texts' commonalities are examples of convergences, similar features which have evolved in response to exposure to comparable circumstances—in this case, the shared problematic of marginalization. In particular, I explore the authors' shared recourse to non-realist discourses to bring the hidden past to light and restore experiences that have been elided from the historical record to visibility. By telling the tales of members of society who live “outside of history,” their novels endeavor to redress the invisibility of the black presence and of women's agency in their respective regions.

To see America with an awareness of its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led to the unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. … [T]here must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of a fairy tale. … Our task then is always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed manners and values of the few, and to struggle with it until it reveals its mad, vari-implicated chaos and its insight, its truth.

Ralph Ellison, “Brave Words for a Startling Occasion”

La autoridad no siempre tiene éxito en su propósito de poner grilletes a las palabras. Las palabras prohibidas … consiguen transmitir las ideas y escribir la historia secreta, la historia oculta y verdadera de la realidad. Así lo hemos comprobado en América Latina.

Isabel Allende, “La magia de las palabras”

The debate over magic realism has raged since Alejo Carpentier posited it as a literary correlative to Latin America's fantastic reality, a mode which was able to elude realism's insufficiency, its inability to describe an ex-centric experience.1 It represented an indigenous and endogenous means of expression, rather than one which had been imported and imposed. “Vuelve el latinoamericano a lo suyo,” Carpentier wrote, “y empieza a entender muchas cosas.” Lo real maravilloso emerged out of conditions of life on this side of the Atlantic. It was identified in cultural artifacts, rituals, and natural reality. It was also to be found in supernatural feats, further mythologized by the collective memory which preserved and transmitted them. The enumeration of its distinct manifestations was inextricably linked to the search for americanidad, for what was authentically and essentially Latin American. P. Gabrielle Foreman considers the dynamics of the black population in the U.S. to be similar to the multicultural, multiracial circumstances of Latin America, and has proposed magic realism as a key feature bridging Latin American and African American literature.2 Black writers in the U.S. have, in fact, afforded beliefs and events outside the parameters of western definitions of reality a privileged position in their texts. Toni Morrison, for example, avers that African Americans are “practical,” but that “within that practicality we also accept what I suppose could be called superstition and magic. Which is another way of knowing things.”3 In Song of Solomon, she uses a matter-of-fact, non-apologetic style to draw her readers into the text and the beliefs that it presupposes, naturalizing the “amplified reality” that she views as an important part of African American culture.4

Carpentier speaks of a marvelous reality; Morrison, perhaps echoing him, of one that is “amplified.” Ellison challenges “the apparent forms of reality,” while Allende records “incredible or magnificent facts—which, in Latin America, are not hyperbole, because that is the dimension of our reality.”5 Each of these authors also links the need to recognize otherly experience to the act of writing. “[O]ur crucial problem,” García Márquez proclaimed to the world in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. … The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free.”6 Each of them (and, of course, many of the others who inscribe their works in the same genre) is motivated by the sense that the referent of supposedly mimetic realist narrative does not correspond to the experience of groups which have been excluded from mainstream reality and deprived of its benefits. As part of their challenge to cultural hegemony to demand that their voices be heard, then, they renegotiate current ideologies and redefine what these have labelled ‘reality.’ Hence, Ellison and Allende's novels utilize ‘non-realist’ or un-‘real’ discourses which undertake to correct biases in the recording of history and to carve out a space and mode for representing populations subject(ed) to the control of a center but not recognized within its perimeters.

Ellison excoriated the aesthetic imperatives of social realism, especially as they related to the depiction of African Americans.7 He claimed that realism's reliance on “facts” and exterior details alone denied blacks their individuality and, instead, merely reproduced skewed images from the stock comprising the white world's distorted construction of reality, “To white Americans' claims to represent ‘American reality,’” he wrote, “the Black American answers ‘Perhaps, but you've left out this, and this, and this. And most of all, what you'd have the world accept as me isn't even human” (S & A [Shadow & Act] 26). This exogenous perspective thus compounded society's objectifying and discriminatory practices. Ellison also denounced social realism's demand that protest and fighting ideological battles take precedence over art and craft, for the mandate to “express ‘black’ anger and ‘clenched militancy’” does not permit the writer to speak of his or her personal experience (120). Moreover, he found that the presumed contiguity between life and art was often manipulated in such a manner as to aggravate the circumstances that social realism purported to combat. As Henry Louis Gates points out, Invisible Man signifies upon Richard Wright's fictions precisely in order to expose the latter's naturalistic approach “as merely a hardened conventional representation of ‘the Negro problem’ and perhaps part of ‘the Negro problem’ itself.”8 As in literature, communism had failed to resolve racial problems in a social and political setting, for it had neither recognized the needs of the black community nor afforded it the opportunity to exercise effective leadership. Race simply could not be subsumed to economic issues, defined—and with strategies of resistance devised—by white political groups implicitly working to defuse and disarm the struggle for racial justice.

Thomas Schaub has noted that some of Ellison's views on social realism coincide with those held by white liberals disenchanted with the Left in the 1940s (Schaub, American Fiction 91). However, he continues, while the latter take a universalist view of contradiction and irony as basic operating principles of history, Ellison asserts that they reflect the specific African American experience of a political system which has failed to fulfill its obligations, to live up to its promise of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ A constant state of social invisibility had given rise to a generalized feeling that blacks simply did not exist. Hence the narrator's sense of alienation from the American flag, for it reminded him “that my star was not yet there.”9 His task, then, and that of his race, was one of compelling the nation “to live up to its ideals. … It is [the black American] who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a closer correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, our assertions and our actions.”10 Accordingly, Invisible Man was conceived as an antidote to the traditional realist novel, which Ellison found too limited and limiting to apprehend his and the narrator's experiences. In order to correct the disjunction, he proceeded to invalidate the constructs upon which realism is predicated, including causal relations and a fixed, substantial reality. This, in turn, would enable him to redefine reality and restore referentiality to both literature and politics—with a twist.

Various critics have made correlations between the invisible man's social and geographical journey and the stages of black history in America.11 Whether the focus is the race's experience as a whole or the frustrations of its leadership, the analyses essentially concur that the link between novelistic biography and collective history is to be found in the experience of invisibility and in the disparity between the narrator's expectations and the results of his actions. The “boomerang effect” of his efforts to change his personal and communal realities belies the notions of causality and of history as linear progression (Strout 85). Nor can logic and reason obtain in an environment where the material self is rendered invisible, treated as if it did not exist. The narrator inhabits a world that is “unreal” both because it is governed by different laws and because it is, for the same reason, not recognized by dominant society. Elsewhere, in fact, Ellison has described Harlem as haunted by a “sense of unreality,” a world “so fluid and shifting that often within the mind the real and the unreal merge, and the marvelous beckons from behind the same sordid reality that denies its existence” (S & A 302, 296). Accordingly, Ellison prioritizes psychological and social factors, rather than economics or class consciousness, as the primary targets of change (Schaub, American Fiction 91). His belief that only an interiorized discourse offers the possibility of a more accurate depiction of his race is emblematized in the narrator's loss of a physical self (Schaub, “Ellison's Masks” 128). At the end, he is pure subjectivity, “invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice” (IM [Invisible Man] 502).

Shifts in literary mode correspond to changes in the protagonist's lifestyle, “express[ing] both his state of consciousness and the state of society” (S & A 178). Enveloped by the relatively stable, traditional life of the South, the narrator accepts unquestioningly its categories and its presumption of white superiority. In these “pre-invisible days” (IM 47), nonconformity is carefully compartmentalized, set aside in figurative and literal enclaves and marked as deviations from the normative order: the grandfather who encourages the narrator to sabotage the dominant order while feigning acquiescence is labelled crazy by the rest of his family; Trueblood's incestuous relations with his daughter ostracize him from the black community even as they validate whites' construction of black reality; and educated black professionals who have used their skills but been denied success in white society are sent to the Golden Day asylum. As he moves to the constant change of industrialism in the North, however, the narrative becomes more surreal. Here the narrator is forcefully separated from all that he has learned, thrust into an unknown world where his structures of certainty no longer obtain. The sole continuity with his past is to be found in the social hierarchy, only now the “old freezing unit” which had conditioned him to accept his status begins to melt (IM 226). Subsequently, the laws of reality mandated by the Brotherhood are juxtaposed with and overpowered by subjective visions, hallucinations, and dreams which conflate time and space and blur the boundaries separating exterior from interior reality.

Invisible Man is ‘realistic,’ then, in the sense that its style accommodates a different form of experience, and that it undertakes to demonstrate the shortcomings of official institutions' rigid definitions of the past and present. This is most evident in the narrator's relationship with the Brotherhood, an organization (or ideology) with “a policy for everything” (IM 352), which describes—defines, rather—a world of order, certainty, and regularity. To attain social visibility within the organization, which, in turn, determines his incorporation within what it designates as “historical time” (381), he must accept the role he is assigned, identifying himself in the terms that he is offered, and give up his past and ethnicity, for race, supposedly, does not “count,” only dispossession (340). Viewing the world from his adopted perspective—from “inside of his opponent's sense of time” (12), as it were—the narrator is at first unable to comprehend the exile from the Brotherhood chosen by Ras, Clifton, and, finally, the black youths whom he sees forging their own style on a subway platform. Their dissociation seems tantamount to plunging into the nothingness outside of history, where they have no voice and will not be remembered. Not until his own actions clash with the organization's plans does he understand that he, too, is still invisible, and that his plight is that of the African American excluded from the frame of another's picture of reality. The Brotherhood is but another manifestation of the whites who control reality and dispossess others of their pasts by putting the world “in a strait jacket” with prescriptions of the way things are supposed to be (497). The invisible man's lesson, then, is that the truth of history may—indeed, must—be transmitted by someone who is outside of ‘history.’

Ellison claims that awareness of the discrepancy between authorized and unofficial histories has made African Americans skeptical of the truth-value and representativity of written records of the past.12 Since slavery, popular traditions that do not challenge the dominant order in its own, written terms have served blacks as alternative modes for preserving their experiences. They thus offered Ellison a particularly apt vehicle for representing and re-presenting his section of American life. In the novel, this vital, emic form of communal expression and history stands in opposition to the ideologies which vie for the narrator's subservience.13 Ellison affords a prominent role to different folkloristic forms, from figures such as Peter Wheatstraw and Rinehart the trickster, to music, dreams, speech, and sermons. Jazz in particular stands out as a mode of cultural expression defined by its anti-repressive spirit. The slaves, Ellison reminds us, substituted music for freedom (S & A 255). Throughout Invisible Man, it serves as a metaphor for history. The boys that the narrator sees in the subway station are not just “out of time,” they are “outside the groove of history”; their names would be forgotten, but the music of the blues would “be recorded … the only true history of the times” (IM 9-10, 383; emphasis added). In the “invisible music of my isolation,” then, the invisible man finds a supplement to existing systems of expression (16). Words can neither describe nor contain experience. Additionally, they form part of a legacy of dispossession. The inexpressive lyrics of the song that he listens to are thus likened to the “lies” that the historian records to help him keep his power (379). In contrast, as with “There's Many a Thousand Gone,” it is the “emotion beneath the words” which expresses a shared and transcendent sentiment “for which the theory of Brotherhood had given me no name” (392). The spiritual, the narrator discovers, constitutes a true expression of self and collectivity, in the same manner that the unseen, the unheard, and the unknown complete the historical record. Music thus offers a way to expose the dominant ideology, call into question its image of reality, and propose an alternative.

Upon achieving self-consciousness of his invisibility, the narrator realizes that his true job had not been to get the transitory men into the “groove of history,” but, rather, to let the “unheard sounds” speak and exist in their own terms and time (IM 9-10). Being invisible gives him a “different sense of time,” which allows him to extricate himself from the music's regular beat and instead explore the “breaks” of its linear progression (11). The dialectic between the song's forward movement and its still points and silences foreshadows the narrator's final insight. He will only be able to find his identity by deviating from the imposed “straight white lines” of mental vision (297), and learning to see “around corners” into the future. This nonlinear mode of perception will derive from his revalorizing a shared black experience and the traditions that evolved to express it, an act previously precluded by his acceptance of others' ideologies. In preparation for starting anew, the narrator stops perceiving his experiences as materials to be shaped to someone else's program, and instead assimilates them into his own identity:

They [the Brotherhood] had set themselves up to describe the world. What did they know of us, except that we numbered so many … offered so many votes. … And now all past humiliations became precious parts of my experience, and for the first time. … I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me. It was as though I'd learned suddenly to look around corners; images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they were more than separate experiences. They were me; they defined me.


Like Morrison's other “way of knowing,” the invisible man's new perspective both derives from and leads him back towards collective racial consciousness, and at the same time helps to clarify his own situation. Thus, at the end of the novel the protagonist acknowledges from his basement that he has “boomeranged,” arriving at a point quite distant from the standing towards which he had originally aspired. On the one hand, as in Notes from Underground—and Ellison openly proclaimed Dostoievski as a literary model—the narrator is situated underground in a literal, physical sense, emblematic of his dissociation from dominant culture.14 The site chosen for the rejection of imposed white ideologies, coupled with the reaffirmation of black values, is additionally charged with the subversive connotations of the slave railway. On the other, the orator who had disseminated white accommodationist ideology to his people through their own traditional, oral forms, now inverts his betrayal. He resorts to the written tradition, expanding the fixed novelistic form to include his own experiences. If realism is like authorized history, whose recording of the ‘truth’ is both partial and partisan, then Invisible Man focuses on those parts of reality that have traditionally been denied representation. Writing, the narrator “makes music of invisibility” (16), and thus offers a more ‘realistic’ expression of black experience.

The issue of referentiality and finding a more representative means of representation is also a primary concern in Allende's novel. Many critics have catalogued Allende's variations on literary realism—e.g., magical, political, and historical—as part of her search for a mode which will capture and convey at a thematic level the enmeshment of the fantastic and the real characteristic of the prodigious region which is her subject.15 Where Invisible Man posits literary style as an analogy of historiography's exclusiveness, La casa de los espíritus suggests that prevailing discourses for constructing and depicting reality are handmaidens of the patriarchal system. Its pseudo-objective voice claims to stand for the past but, in truth, reproduces only that which affirms and perpetuates its own norms. Accordingly, magic realism is refigured here from a feminist perspective to describe women's experience and strengths within a male-dominated system. The novel attempts to provide a corrective to the official view of history by emphasizing its feminine protagonists' “second sight”: Clara's clairvoyance, of course, but also the peripheral vision—the vision of and from the periphery—shared by the women of the Trueba family.

The power dynamics behind the competing visions of reality in the novel are concretized in the structure and remodelling of the family home. Potentially as disruptive to society and its institutions as Nívea's activism, Clara's magic is circumscribed to the house, first by her father and, subsequently, by her husband. However, she sets a precedent for the women of her family by marking off a space for herself—both literally and figuratively—within Esteban Trueba's domain. The notebooks in which she compensates for her silence, and which later become her excuse for wresting the privilege of naming children from the patriarch, are ultimately the sole remaining testimony of the magical realm that she inhabited. Written and ethereal space together place Clara beyond her husband's desire to possess her in body and soul, since he cannot control or even enter them. “Traté inclusive de compartir esos aspectos de su existencia,” he confesses, “pero a ella no le gustaba que leyeran sus cuadernos y mi presencia le cortaba la inspiración cuando conversaba con sus espíritus.”16 The metaphysical territory of the spirit world is reified in the sections of the house that Clara takes over, and which are actually partitioned off during Trueba's terms in office. In the same manner that her notebooks defy historical convention, narrating events in terms of their importance rather than in chronological order, she turns the house, constructed in a uniform, classical style as the public image of the senator and his family, into a twisted aberration. It gradually becomes an enchanted labyrinth whose architecture breaks municipal laws made on earth, while the activities it shelters defy the laws of physics and logic-ordained in the heavens. In the magic universe of her own devise, she holds court with her friends and carries on conversations with the other world; here, “el tiempo no se marcaba con relojes ni calendarios y … los objetos tenían vida propia” (LCE [La casa de los espíritus] 84).

In her testimony, Alba repeatedly refers to Clara's heyday as “los tiempos de los espíritus,” part of “un mundo mágico que se acabó.” Critics have seized on these and other references to the departure of the spirits to postulate a gradual transition in the novel from one order of reality to another, and, concomitantly, from magical realism to a politically realistic style.17 As the Trueba family becomes more involved in events outside the house, and as these become more appalling, they claim that Clara's magic recedes from Alba's experience. While I agree that the world invoked by the former does not survive her death intact, I would argue that it was not a hermetically sealed refuge even during her lifetime, nor had it ever been. “‘El mundo … ha cambiado,’” Clara remarks, when she returns to the house in the city and finds it devoid of spirits and eccentricities alike (LCE 162). Both magic and tragic historical realities are present in the narrative from the very beginning. Rosa's death officially announces the violence—at first anonymous, but, later, engendered by Trueba himself—which is to mark the family's destiny. The relationship between the two orders of being is not progressive, but instead has enchanted periods punctuating starker moments. The spirits might abandon the house, but they do not go far away. The narrative owes its very existence, in fact, to their actions. First Clara, herself a ghost, visits her granddaughter and bids her to write to surmount her circumstances. And finally, Clara's notebooks, repositories of the past and sources for Alba's text, escape the pyre which destroys the other family papers only because they are “escamoteados por algunos espíritus cómplices” (411).

The novel's political history, conversely, is not itself lacking in “unreality”—and not, simply, because the evil that it engenders is too horrifying (diabolical, as it were) to be believed. The dictatorship seemingly renders the benevolent spirits impotent only to appropriate their powers for its own purposes. It actively exploits the public's need for something to worship, for “el lado mágico de las cosas” that had not been satisfied by the atheist, pragmatic Marxist doctrine of the deposed regime (LCE 291, 362). It uses magic to support its illusions of order and prosperity: overnight, gardens appear “por encantamiento,” promoting the “fantasía” of a peaceful spring (361). And it is successful in creating a sector of reality which is able to lead a fairy tale existence: the upper class returns to the bounty of the era preceding the socialist government, and the city had never appeared more beautiful. On the other hand, this prestidigitation makes the lives of some surreal. Reality becomes “una pesadilla” when Jaime sees the pistol in his doctor's life-giving hands, and later, when Alba is taken captive (349, 382). Additionally, Trueba, unable to trace the latter's whereabouts, cannot explain her disappearance except “por obra de magia” (396). It is under these circumstances that Clara's warning that “[l]os espíritus protectores son ineficaces en los cataclismos mayores” proves true, and twice they fail to rescue Alba when she calls upon them (346).

And yet, even though the women's self-authored roles and alternative spaces are largely overpowered by male-dominated forces—and it is extremely important to keep in mind Allende's repeated conflation of patriarchy and military—they channel their subversive strategies in other directions. In addition to an unbridled imagination, each woman also passes on a strong sense of social justice to her children, a compulsion to confront forces of victimization that does not allow them to remain enclosed in a fantasy world (Rojas 920). Consequently, there is throughout La casa de los espíritus a continuous dialectic between the women's metaphysical undertakings and their earthly missions. One critic's claim that Clara's magical powers recede when she is devoting her energies to a worthy cause, and are fullest when she is engaged in frivolous activities, is overly reductionistic.18 It is true that when circumstances are most dire, her supernatural resources wane, and she must draw on other skills:

En pocas horas, el terremoto la hizo aterrizar en la violencia, la muerte y la vulgaridad y la puso en contacto con las necesidades básicas, que antes había ignorado. De nada le sirvieron la mesa de tres patas o la capacidad de adivinar el porvenir en las hojas del té, frente a la urgencia de defender a los inquilinos de la peste y el desconcierto … a sus hijos del abandono y a su esposo de la muerte.

(LCE 159)

And even though she strives to maintain a “delicado equilibrio … entre los espíritus del Más Allá y las almas necesitadas del Más Acá,” her greatest accomplishments and, later, Alba's, are achieved through her interaction with the latter (159). Nevertheless, the spirits are still granted indispensable—if adjunctive or secondary—roles in her projects.19 Her power to “ver lo invisible,” for example, points out to her the hatred and resentment seething at Las Tres Marías (105). It awakens her to social reality and precipitates her activism among the women of the ranch. Thus it is responsible for drawing her out of a sheltered life and compelling her to redress the legacy of the patriarch's abuse, even as it temporarily puts an end to her contact with the spirits.

Clara gradually erases the boundaries between public and private, “masculine” and “feminine” spaces and, with them, the separation between her earthly and otherworldly enterprises. When the welfare system fails, she brings her beneficiaries into her home, sheltering them alongside the eccentrics already in residence there. Her daughter and granddaughter follow her precedent, appropriating more and more of the patriarch's domain, but at the same time displacing most of the final remnants of her magic. They use the rooms first wrested from Trueba's power and set aside for séances to spirit away, as it were, political refugees, including Pedro Tercero, the senator's lifelong enemy. As Marcelo Coddou notes, Allende's female protagonists achieve greater independence from the patriarch and the patriarchy as they participate more actively in history and politics.20 And if, as we see here, the system's analogous treatment of women and the poor has resulted in the convergence of their struggles, the dictatorship's (mis)treatment of both has a similar result. The designation of political dissident bridges the distance previously separating Alba, nicknamed “la Condesa” for her wealth and social standing, from her revolutionary classmates; shared suffering allows her and Ana Díaz, a fellow activist from her days in the university, to be friends. The strength to prevail and to force the world to take note of the dictatorship's abuses will, in the end, be found in this solidarity and in the determination that it inspires. And while, as a spirit, Clara is powerless to remove Alba from García's physical clutches, her encouragement—her own spirit—and her notebooks reinforce this strength and help Alba to work through her own experiences.

Finally, then, at the end of the novel, the difference between “espíritus” and “espíritu” becomes clear. Offered shelter by one of the myriad stoic women whom she views as the backbone of the country's strength, Alba realizes that “el coronel García y otros como él tienen sus días contados, porque no han podido destruir el espíritu de esas mujeres” (LCE 408). The dictatorship temporarily renders the spirits impotent, but together the women are able to surmount the difficulties that they face and take action. The regime may harness their spirits, but their spirit, like Alba's, is beyond its reach. More so than the ghosts, then, I suspect that it is the bearers of this strength, the women who inhabit “la gran casa de la esquina” and the dissidents who pass through it, whom Allende honors in her title. It is an homage rendered explicitly in her dedication of the novel to her mother, grandmother, and “las otras mujeres extraordinarias de esta historia.”

Carpentier's original formulation of lo real maravilloso foregrounded the power of black supernatural belief to mobilize and achieve revolutionary social change. So, too, do these two authors' similar extra-literary projects correspond to their depiction of an alternate reality and, in turn, bear directly on their mode of representation. Subjectivized, surreal, magically and politically real, Ellison and Allende write unofficial stories, as it were, which challenge conventional(ized) referentiality, and which they feel more accurately correspond to their otherly experiences. The novels' denial of linearity and teleology reduplicates this intention at the level of form. The boomerang which represents the trajectory of the invisible man's life doubles as the structure of his tale. “[T]he end is in the beginning,” he tells us in the prologue and echoes towards the novel's conclusion. This statement is made literal in Allende's novel, which opens and closes with the same sentence, “Barrabás llegó a la familia por vía marítima.” Nor do Clara's notebooks adhere to historical discursive form: they are not arranged in chronological order but, rather, according to the importance of the events that they detail. Both novels, then, dramatize Robert Stepto's remark that “any step outside what others call reality requires an accompanying step outside what others call literary form.”21

The storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers … counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. … The storyteller takes what he tells from experience … [a]nd he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.

Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller”

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Sometimes a writer … has the ability to speak for others who have been kept in silence.

Isabel Allende

“I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” These final verses of the chorus to “Amazing Grace” encapsulate for me the invisible man's trajectory, the realization of his blindness and the re-valorization of his invisibility. His journey is an exemplary tale directed at those who, like himself, go unseen, and at those who refuse to see. Allende's female characters, in contrast, are conscious all along of their refusal to conform to society's plotting of their lives. La casa de los espíritus thus becomes a tribute to their self-definition and a testament of horror that even the willfully blind must acknowledge. I would like now to offer a closer examination of the role of self-awareness (or the lack thereof)—specifically of knowledge of the self in relation to the group—in the two novels, to show how it reveals a critical difference in their evaluations of the relationship between individual and collectivity.

In an excellent recent article, Lois Parkinson Zamora discusses ghosts as reifications of collective memory (both of course being equally intangible), reminders of a shared past, its traditions and transgressions, as well as of the community itself.22 Their presence, she avers, is often a sign of the “slippage from the individual to the collective to the cosmic,” the transformations and instabilities that challenge the fixed conventions of character, time, and place in realist narrative, and that are by the same token hallmarks of magical realism (Zamora 501). But Zamora claims that there is a critical distinction between the counterrealist traditions of the U.S. and Latin America. “[M]ost contemporary U.S. magical realists,” she writes,

find a way to bring their ghosts above ground, that is, to integrate them into contemporary U.S. culture in order to enrich or remedy it. … Isaac Bashevis Singer … Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison imagine reestablished communities after disruptive cultural transitions and political abuses. … Most contemporary Latin American magical realists, on the contrary, refuse such consolation: magical resolutions are considered, then canceled by crushing political realities.

(Zamora 542-43)

She singles out La casa de los espíritus as an exception that proves this rule leaving me to wonder where Ellison's protagonist—not exactly a ghost, but a man who is, after all, “invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice,” and one who has yet to emerge from underground (IM 503)—may be seen in relation to the rule.

The problematic dialectic between individual and community, solitary and solidarity, lies at the heart of Invisible Man. The narrator's progress participates in what Stepto considers two fundamental movements, ascent to self-awareness and immersion in group consciousness, which are the slave narrative's legacy to African American literature (Stepto 168). Toni Morrison describes this negotiation between public and private as “provid[ing] an instance in which a writer could be representative, could say, ‘My single solitary and individual life is like the lives of the tribe; it differs in these specific ways, but it is a balanced life because it is both solitary and representative’” (Morrison 349). Implicitly rendering homage to the collective dimension of his identity, the protagonist embarks upon the symbolic journey northward, toward enlightenment and freedom, that is a central trope in the autobiographical form. And yet, throughout much of the novel, the balance that Morrison refers to is lacking; the narrator's solitude, isolation, and lack of affective ties by far upstage his representativity. Additionally, until the end, he feels that his identity would be hampered by identification with the African American as well as the dominant white community, and so he casts off his ties to both, and casts his task as an individual quest for power and success within society's mainstream institutions. The narrator accepts the names, identities, and goals that are given him, and looks to the successive frames of the black college which emblematizes the segregated South's race relations, Liberty Paints, and the Brotherhood to emplot his life with meaning. He is unable to recognize, though, that in each organization this meaning is the same, the only constant in his experience: it is a white man's world, white, is always right. Nor does he see that he is only invested with power—in other words, visible—as long as he serves the interests of the white hegemony, but that attempting to define himself with the terms it offers him only results in self-effacement. He has no need of Jack's oculist for he has long since learned to “not-see myself as others see-me-not” (IM 412). The engagement in politics that affords the women in Allende's novel a measure of independence has the opposite effect here, then: the narrator's activism on behalf of the Brotherhood makes him more unknown to himself, leaves him powerless to effect change and, moreover, makes him dangerous as a leader of the African American community. His lack of self-awareness, his failure to understand that he was the incarnation of the Sambo puppets that symbolized the organization's manipulation of blacks, that by toeing the party (or Party) line, he is maneuvering the Brotherhood into a position where it will sacrifice the black community that he believes he is representing, leads him to betray his constituents by leading them into the race riot.23

While it may be difficult to see any resemblance to the white power structure marginalizing African Americans in an organization that appears—Ellison's denials notwithstanding—to represent the radical and non-mainstream Communist Party, that is, in effect, precisely the Brotherhood's role in the novel. The protagonist's early intuition that his participation in it gives him a “glimpse [of] how the country operated” is confirmed in his final revelation (IM 265): “And now I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack and Norton and Emerson merge into one single white figure. They were very much the same, each attempting to force his picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me” (438). The Brotherhood is thus representative of white American political activists using blacks for their own ends. To become Harlem's true leader, he must acknowledge his racial identity and recognize that his problems and their solutions are part of a collective plight. This will, in turn, give him access to the lessons learned by others before him—that is, to the heritage, condensed in his own passage through the different stages of black history in the U.S., that the Brotherhood forced him to forsake. Perhaps, then, Ellison's ‘ghost,’ who remains underground at the end of the novel but has acquired self-awareness and is moving towards group consciousness, may also be considered an exception that proves Zamora's rule.

The non-realism in Invisible Man is the outgrowth of a collective experience, but is manifest atomistically, as a subjectivized, psychological apprehension of reality: the black's “sensation that he does not exist in the real world at all … [that he] seems rather to exist in the nightmarish fantasy of the white American mind as a phantom that the white mind seeks unceasingly … to lay” (S & A 304). In contrast, in Allende's novel, a shared plight generates an alternate world, a parallel universe which, like the reification of the women's dissenting perspective in the architecture of the family home, is accessible to all the dispossessed. Here, the individual's struggles to achieve self-definition are largely cast as struggles against the patriarchal system. The women of the Trueba family are aware of the social dynamics that oppress them, and each of the four generations traces a different stage in the development of a shared female consciousness that is present from the very beginning. Their solidarity gradually extends to the poor and to the socialists, as Allende develops the parallels in the predicaments of several marginalized groups. And where the enlightenment of Ellison's protagonist is a gradual process, here, the incompatibility of dominant descriptions of life with the outsider's experience is demonstrated synchronically. This dialogic reality is also reduplicated structurally in the novel's assignment of two opposed perceptions of reality to separate narrators.

Senator Trueba is the advocate of conformity and the embodiment of the patriarchal system. His most outstanding qualities—“Era fanático, violento y anticuado, pero representaba mejor que nadie los valores de la familia, la tradición, la propiedad y el orden” (LCE 292)—both qualify him for political leadership and are the paradigm out of which the dictatorship emerges. The actions of the military regime both emulate and perpetuate his abuses. Where the senator had censored from his early letters home all mention of his enjoyment of his patriarchal ‘rights,’ as well as the children, poverty, and resentment that this engendered, and had dismissed all alternatives to his rule as ‘Communist,’ the dictatorship fabricates an official story in which world history is rewritten, its own brutality and the city's misery are hidden from sight, and international Communism is blamed for attempting to sabotage its order and progress. The patriarch and the military alike count on the complicity of the upper class—“los que no querían ver” (361)—which concedes to the use of violence to protect its privileges.

The novel details how Nívea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba defy Trueba's authority by rejecting the roles he has allotted them, and directly links their efforts to re-articulate their positions with the class struggle. Women are thus depicted as a pressure group which mobilizes others to collaborate in transforming society; their project is both symbol and part, metaphor and metonymy of a larger movement. Like the hens in Pedro Tercero's revolution-inciting song, they band together against a common aggressor. This convergence of causes reaches its climax in the narration of Alba's imprisonment. Her activism in the public sphere leads the military to retaliate by breaking down the walls of the family home and breaking into her private life. Brutalized by the regime which levels differences of class and gender, subjecting all to mistreatment indiscriminately, she turns to writing, the other legacy from Clara, to expose and denounce the official story. Her testimony thus dialogues with Trueba's sections. Whereas the senator situates himself at the center of his story and presents his goals as beneficial to all society, Alba's self-effacing, third-person account draws attention away from the subject of narration, restores what has been excised, and provides a corrective to her grandfather's legitimating discourse.24 Her private tale records communal memories in addition to helping her to work through her own experiences, and is directed at shattering the ideological blinders of those who refuse to see. Her individual, autobiographical concerns, already imbricated in a political cause, are now completely caught up in the demands of a shared plight and a project for collective empowerment.25 She writes a testimony which is to force collective historical awareness; her personal and family history encapsulates that of Chile and Latin America in the twentieth century, and thus is also a public document that challenges the patriarchy's claim to authority through both dialogic structure and content.26

Motivated by a need to speak for others, Ellison and Allende champion collective action, empowerment by race, gender and class, as means of promoting social change. The invisible man's need for self-authorship, though, for creating an individual identity for himself apart from any allotted to him by a collectivity, contrasts sharply with La casa de los espíritus, where conflict at the level of the individual is emblematic of larger dynamics, and telling one's own story dramatizes the struggles between marginalized groups and the hegemony. Perhaps these positions with respect to the common goals of individual and community bear some relation to the moments of intense solidary activity during which the novels were written. Invisible Man was published just two years prior to the landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. The Civil Rights movement and its efforts to recover and revise American history arose out of this and other groundbreaking events of the 1950s. In earlier years, though, disillusioned by the black leadership and community's frustrated efforts at surmounting racism and injustice, Ellison had turned to Marxism as a means of redressing the inferior position to which society had relegated him. However, the Party's failure to address matters important to the black community, and its prioritization of economic issues critical to its own agenda, soon disabused him of his enthusiasm. Allende, in contrast, stresses the transformative potential of Marxism in Latin America. She began writing La casa de los espíritus during the revolution in Nicaragua, and finished in the midst of the activity and the waves of hope that followed; the novel was, not surprisingly, barred from distribution in Chile during most of the Pinochet dictatorship, but, like the spirits whose tale it tells, it circulated in a clandestine manner.

Despite these differences, however, implicitly and explicitly, both authors explore shared situations of injustice and exploitation and set out to validate different realities, or different experiences of reality. Both also emphasize responsibility, commitment, and the social function of literature.27 Although Ellison's narrator begins his tale by declaring that “responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement” (IM 16), he would seem to arrive at a different conclusion by the novel's end, speculating that even an invisible man may carry out a socially responsible role. The invisibility that causes him to go unrecognized obliges him to dissent, and, through writing, shatter the “dream world” of the collectivity that refuses to see (17). Allende, too, views her task as an obligation to challenge the tacit and willed consent to the status quo. “You cannot,” she exhorts, “live in a bubble away from the problems you think are not yours … you are responsible … and we cannot ignore reality. We cannot say, ‘I didn't know.’ We bear the responsibility to know! And I know, as a writer, I bear the responsibility to tell and convince you that all this is happening.”28 The need to know is, of course, at the core of both authors' desire to have their fictions interact with and even re-articulate the contemporary social context. By making the invisible visible and speaking for voices that have been muted, Ellison and Allende offer their addressees an opportunity to see what lies beyond the dominant structure. And, of course, knowledge precedes action. Both novels have been criticized for the ‘passivity’ of their endings, in which the narrators are writing in isolation, disengaged from society and sheltered from its violence.29 I would argue instead that writing is both the authors' and their protagonists' chosen mode of dissent. The epilogues do not suggest a final refuge in escapism. Rather, they are deliberately left open, with the possibility of movement outward (and upward, in the case of Ellison's protagonist), and are pervaded by a sense of expectation, in the etymological sense of ‘hope’ as well as ‘awaiting.’ Both meanings are implicit in Alba's ‘expectant’ state. And the invisible man's underground “hibernation” is actually “a covert preparation for a more overt action” (IM 16). The process of thinking through, shaping, and writing his experiences is not just the representation of action, it is, as Gates suggests, an action in itself, and one which demands his final emergence (Gates 293). The invisible man can continue to wage his war against Monopolated Light & Power “without their realizing it,” just as Bledsoe, the accommodationist president of the black university, wields his power in the dark (IM 9). This, however, is acquiescence, and even complicity, for the fight is carried out in terms that have been given. On the other hand, he may re-appropriate the light and use it to “confirm [his] reality” (10). The invisible man's text thus joins forces with Alba's narration. Both are antidotes to collective “mala memoria” and its selective transmission of the past. Also, by preventing knowledge from being “filed and forgotten,” both keep alive the “possibility of action,” and thus of change (501).

Through writing, the protagonists additionally exorcise their own hatred, rather than using it to justify the vengeance that reduces history to an endless cycle of destruction. The invisible man and Alba's trajectories, as well as their final realizations, are eerily similar. For the former, writing is a process of “disarmament,” anticipating Martin Luther King's nonviolent resistance and advocacy of a love-centered revolution (IM 501). “I've set out to throw my anger into the world's face,” he writes,

but … even before I finish I've failed. … The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. … In order to get some of it down I have to love … too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate.

(IM 501)

Alba, in turn, states that

En la perrera escribí con el pensamiento que algún día tendría al coronel García vencido ante mí y podría vengar a todos los que tienen que ser vengados. … Y ahora yo busco mi odio y no puedo encontrarlo. … Me será muy difícil vengar a todos los que tienen que ser vengados, porque mi venganza no sería más que otra parte del mismo rito inexorable.

(LCE 409-10)

In both cases, love is a personal and a political sentiment, underscoring the imbrication of the experience of individual and community.30 In this manner, the revised historical record—revised both in the sense of ‘corrected’ and re-vised, or ‘seen again’—and the very act of rewriting it become together a means of achieving a future different from the past.

In these novels, the unspeakable, unofficial stories, are told by the unsaid, those whose presence and voices have been suppressed. The invisible man and Alba's liminality, their assumption of a position on the margins of society, then, enables them to narrate what the former had at first been unable to perceive, the difference “between the way things are and the way they're supposed to be” (IM 127). Ellison's protagonist is, in fact, the living antithesis of all norms and centers: he is invisible, anonymous, faceless, and voiceless, living underground somewhere in a “border area” near the “jungle of Harlem” (9; emphasis mine). Both narrators speak with an insider's and an outsider's perspective on society, a figurative ‘clair-voyance’ or ‘second-sight’ which helps them to reclaim the visual metaphorical field from which they have been excluded. That is, they can see with the double vision of the periphery, and through the illusion that is presented as reality. Where the goal of the invisible man is to “try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through” (502), so, too, does Alba, following Clara, write “para sacar a la luz el terrible secreto … para que el mundo se enterara” (LCE 391). This ability to re-present and reclaim misrepresented historical experiences is part of the power of the marginalized experience, hailed by Ellison in 1955, to apply pressure and hasten the “achievement of democratic ideals” (S & A 182). By speaking as a subversive voice from outside of history, then, Ellison's narrator meets the challenge of improving our peripheral vision. Similarly, it is the spirits in La casa de los espíritus—whom I have come to think of as reifications of the invisible man—who protect Clara's notebooks, the Trueba family's unofficial story, from the pyre which destroys so many other documents. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. As in African American autobiography and Latin American testimonial literature, the first person narrator in these novels is both solitary and representative, a nexus between private life and public action. Both novels have enjoyed tremendous popularity nationally and internationally, inspiring efforts to break down the authority of a dominant ideology, move the margins towards the center, and, ultimately, make their subjects visible.


  1. For additional information on this subject, I refer the reader to the following discussions: Alejo Carpentier, “De lo real maravilloso latinoamericano,” Tientos y diferencias (Montevideo: ARCA, 1967) 103-20; Roberto González Echevarría's chapter, “Fugitive Island” (especially 107-29), in Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977); and Walter Mignolo, Literatura fantástica y realismo maravilloso, Literatura hispanoamericana en imágenes (Madrid: Editorial La Muralla, 1983). My own use of the terms “magic(al) realism” and “lo real maravilloso” is largely grounded in Mignolo's definition of the discourse as an expression of “una preocupación estética común: el esfuerzo por capturar una ‘realidad’ americana que, proveniente de las culturas tradicionales y del folklore, escapa a nuestro concepto de ‘realidad.’ Se trata, en última instancia, de ‘dos realidades’: una que se esboza en el mito de la razón; la otra, en la ‘rażón mítica’” (40). Magical realism's endeavor to interpret American reality in terms of its cultural syncretism, privileging neither of the coexistent realities over the other, is also particularly important in this context (46).

  2. P. Gabrielle Foreman, “Past-On Stories: History and the Magically Real, Morrison and Allende on Call,” Feminist Studies 18 (1992): 370.

  3. Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Black Women Writers (1950-1980), ed. Mari Evans (Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984) 342.

  4. Morrison 341; Foreman 382.

  5. Isabel Allende, “Writing as an Act of Hope,” Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, ed. William Zinsser (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989) 45.

  6. Gabriel García Márquez, “The Solitude of Latin America (Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December, 1982),” rpt. in Gabriel García Márquez and the Powers of Fiction, ed. Julio Ortega, trans. Marina Castañeda (Austin: U of Texas P, 1988) 89.

  7. Ellison's essay, “The World and the Jug” (in Shadow & Act [NY: Vintage, 1964; henceforth cited parenthetically as S & A]), elaborates upon his views of social realism. I am indebted to Thomas Schaub's discussions of Ellison's use of realism and social realism for helping me to frame my approach to Ellison and Allende; I draw upon his works throughout this section. See Thomas Schaub, American Fiction in the Cold War (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991), and “Ellison's Masks and the Novel of Reality,” New Essays on “Invisible Man,” ed. Robert O'Meally (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988) 123-56.

  8. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Routledge, 1984) 294.

  9. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (NY: New American Library, 1952) 342. Further references will be cited parenthetically as IM.

  10. Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (New York: Vintage, 1986) 111.

  11. Cushing Strout associates Ras the Exhorter with the back to Africa and racial pride themes of Marcus Garvey's black nationalist movement of the 1920s; the Brotherhood, which is the first organization to offer the invisible man the opportunity to be “more than a member of a race” (IM 307), reflects the Communist Party's activities in Harlem in the 1930s. Cushing Strout, “Invisible Man and the Politics of Culture,” Approaches to Teaching Ellison's “Invisible Man,” eds. Susan Resneck Parr and Pancho Savery (New York: Modern Language Association, 1989) 82. Susan Blake makes a more specific correlation between the institutions dominating each of the novel's episodes and a period of black history: the southern black college is associated with Reconstruction, and the narrator's departure with the Great Migration; Liberty Paints with northern industrialism in the 1920s; the Brotherhood again with Communism during the Depression; and the end with disillusionment with the Party and the Harlem riot of 1943. Susan Blake, “Ritual and Rationalization: Black Folklore in the Works of Ralph Ellison,” PMLA 94 (1979): 126-7. Russell Fischer focusses on the thwarted leadership roles that the narrator assumes in each of these stages: student and accommodationist, industrial worker in urban society, and political organizer. Russell Fischer, “Invisible Man as History,” CLA Journal 17 (1974): 338-67.

  12. Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward, “The Uses of History in Fiction: A Discussion,” The Southern Literary Journal 1 (Spring 1969): 69.

  13. He affirms that the emergence of African American folklore within a culture which regarded it as inferior attested to “the Negro's willingness to trust his own experience, his own sensibilities as to the definition of reality, rather than allow his masters to define these crucial matters for him” (S & A 172).

  14. For a detailed discussion of the novels's relationship to Notes from Underground and other works by Dostoievski, as well as similarities in the authors' strategies for undermining hierarchical structures, see Joseph Frank, “Ralph Ellison and a Literary ‘Ancestor’: Dostoievski,” Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, ed. Kimberly Benston (Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1987) 231-44.

  15. Articles on this subject include: Foreman, “Past-on Stories”; Robert Antoni, “Parody or Piracy: The Relationship of The House of the Spirits to One Hundred Years of Solitude,Latin American Literary Review 16:32 (July-Dec. 1988): 16-28; René Jara, Los límites de la representación (Madrid: Fundación Instituto Shakespeare-Instituto de Cine y Radio-Televisión, 1985); Mario Rodríguez Fernández, “García Márquez/Isabel Allende: Relación textual,” Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus, ed. Marcelo Coddou (Xalapa, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1986) 79-82; Mario Rojas, “La casa de los espíritus, de Isabel Allende: un caleidoscopio de espejos desordenados,” Revista Iberoamericana 51 (1985): 917-25; and Philip Swanson, “Conclusion: After the Boom,” Landmarks in Latin American Fiction, ed. Philip Swanson (London: Routledge, 1990) 222-45. The obvious question of the relationship of La casa de los espíritus and García Márquez's Cien años de soledad has also generated much discussion. While conscious stylistic and thematic modeling is clear in Allende's novel (in its textuality, its nonchalant tone for describing the extraordinary, and in its very assertion of difference, as when Clara refuses to repeat names so as not to cause confusion in her notebooks), the debate still rages as to whether the echoes are parody, parroting, or piracy; assessments tend to correlate with the critic's overall opinion of the book. While I believe that Allende draws upon García Márquez's magic realism and applies it to her own ends, my own analysis of La casa de los espíritus will not specifically address the question of influence. Instead, it sets out from the authors' shared perception of Latin American reality, summarized in the Colombian's comment that “[i]t always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination while the truth is that there's not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination” (qtd. in “Gabriel García Márquez,” Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin American Authors, Doris Meyer, ed. [Berkeley: U of California P, 1988] 229).

  16. Isabel Allende, La casa de los espíritus (1982; Barcelona: Plaza & Janes, 1991) 171. Hereafter cited parenthetically as LCE.

  17. Rojas states that “el mundo mágico y la encantada atmósfera de Clara empiezan a resquebrajarse cuando a la muerte de Clara la casa abre sus puertas al mundo ominoso que la envuelve, donde ocurren hechos de inverosímil ficción que son a la vez la terrible realidad histórica” (918). Foreman claims that Clara's enchanted realm is gradually eclipsed by Alba's world of stark historical reality, her magic swept away by political cataclysm. Jara, in turn, suggests that “[q]uizás el Golpe no podía ser narrado de otra manera, tal vez necesite del dramatismo estólido de la épica para cronicar la brutalidad de su ocurrencia. El Golpe, al fin y al cabo, significó el colapso de la cotidianidad; hasta los fantasmas dejan de hablar por un rato. Dentro del modo épico a que se acoge entonces el discurso de Isabel Allende, la ficción del testimonio parece ser la forma más apropiada de narrar ese hecho traumático” (26). Rodríguez Fernández views “un paulatino retroceso de lo maravilloso, de lo fantástico o lo extraño a favor de un proceso social y político que se va imponiendo hasta dominar en el capítulo final” (80). Antoni claims that the novel's focus changes from family saga and romance to love story, and on to political history, as the focalization shifts from Clara to Alba: “the ‘magic’ begins to disappear, slowly displaced by the ‘historical’ narrative,” until “finally there is no longer magic but only realism, and the novel becomes the tragic political history of Chile” (22, 20).

  18. Gabriela Mora, “Ruptura y perseverancia de estereotipos en La casa de los espíritus,Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus, ed. Marcelo Coddou (Xalapa, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1986) 73.

  19. To criticism that the women's association with magic and the spirit world accentuates their passivity (see, for example, Gabriela Mora, “Las novelas de Isabel Allende y el papel de la mujer como ciudadana,” Ideologies and Literature 2 [1987]: 53-61), I would respond that Allende has judiciously contrived this impression in specific episodes. Clara's second pregnancy, that is, her fulfillment of the role of dutiful wife, returns her to the protected world of spirits and notebooks and causes her to lose interest in her charitable works. In this instance, then, her alternative spaces are subservient to the male order. However, Clara's tendency to “encontrarlo todo muy bonito” (LCE 105, 111), and the immersion in an enchanted realm of the imagination that this state entails, is far more insidious than the fact of the magic itself, precisely because it signals acceptance of the position allotted her within the patriarchal system. And it is this blindness to social injustice, not the engagement in the spirit world, that is the precursor to the willed ignorance of her compatriots, who later cover their eyes and ears to deny the horror surrounding their happy world.

  20. Marcelo Coddou, “Dimensión del feminismo en Isabel Allende,” Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus, ed. Marcelo Coddou (Xalapa, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1986) 52.

  21. Robert Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979) 190.

  22. Lois Parkinson Zamora, “Magical Romance/Magical Realism: Ghosts in U.S. and Latin American Fiction,” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, eds. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris (Durham: Duke UP, 1995) 497.

  23. Phillip B. Harper, Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994) 138.

  24. Sharon Magnarelli, “Framing Power in Luisa Valenzuela's Cola de lagartija and Isabel Allende's Casa de los espíritus,Splintering Darkness: Latin American Women Writers in Search of Themselves, ed. Lucía Guerra Cunningham (Pittsburgh, PA: Latin American Literary Review P, 1990) 55.

  25. Francine Masiello, “Discurso de mujeres, lenguaje del poder: reflexiones sobre la crítica feminista a mediados de la década del 80,” Hispania 15 (1986): 54.

  26. For similar observations on the role of personal testimony in this novel as a bridge between public and private experience and histories, see Doris Meyer, “‘Parenting the Text’: Female Creativity and Dialogic Relationships in Isabel Allende's La casa de los espíritus,Hispania 73 (1990): 360-65, and René Campos, “La casa de los espíritus: mirada, espacio, discurso de la otra historia,” Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus, ed. Marcelo Coddou (Xalapa, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1986) 21-28.

  27. Both Ellison and Allende are highly sensitive to the resonances of social realism and its didacticism, and have often declared their refusal to sacrifice aesthetic standards to social utility. Their artistic and social projects are inextricably linked, but neither author limits the former to expressing an ideological platform. Nevertheless, both have been taken to task precisely for not writing ‘effective’ novels of protest, and, instead, reinforcing the dominant literary and cultural traditions. In effect, these criticisms claim that the authors' double vision is compromised by double-voiced discourse. Bernt Ostendorf questions Ellison's use of black folklore as an emic expression of racial experience because it originated and was shaped within an oppressive symbolic universe. Bernt Ostendorf, Black Literature in White America (Sussex: The Harvester P, 1982) 130. Michele Wallace accuses the author of harboring a unitary conception of the Other that posits an analogy between the oppressed position of black males and white women in American society, but still leaves the black woman voiceless. Michele Wallace, “Modernism, Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture,” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990) 44. And still others perceive the suppression of differences entailed by the universalization of the invisible man's plight, the extension of his identity to greater American society, as a betrayal of the race's goals that compromises the work's protest value (e.g., Schaub, American Fiction 114-15). Similarly, there are qualifications of the effectiveness of women's resistance in La casa de los espíritus, accusations that Allende has not ventured very far into the “wild zone” beyond male-generated and -dominated ideology. Mora (“Las novelas de Isabel Allende” and “Ruptura y perseverancia”), Marta Morello-Frosch (“Discurso erótico y escritura femenina,” Coloquio internacional: Escritura y Sexualidad en la Literatura Hispanoamericana [Espiral Hispano-Americana, 1990] 21-30), and Kavita Panjabi (“The House of the Spirits, Tránsito Soto: From Periphery to Power,” Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels, Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, eds., Series XXIIL Latin American Literature 14 [New York: Peter Lang, 1991] 11-20) claim that her female characters never truly achieve greater independence, for their roles are adjusted to traditional male stereotypes. Morello-Frosch further accuses Allende of complicity with the patriarchal system, on the grounds that the women's alternative paths do not empower them, but, instead perpetuate their subordination. One might ask, though, whether these condemnations subject the authors to the critics' standards of exemplarity, reflecting their agendas more than the circumstances in which the authors wrote. They also seem to ignore the fact that both novels marked break-throughs in their “otherly” strategies for representing marginalized groups. Allende has written that her protagonists are feminists “a su modo.” Like them, she and Ellison also “lucha[n] de acuerdo a su carácter y a la época en que le[s] tocó vivir” (qtd. in Marjorie Agosín, “Isabel Allende: La casa de los espíritus,Inter-American Review of Bibliography 35 [1985]: 919).

  28. “The Responsibility to Tell You: An interview with Isabel Allende,” by John Rodden, The Kenyon Review 13 (1991): 118.

  29. See Michael Cooke, “Ellison and García Márquez: Nostalgia and the Destruction of ‘Text,’” Yale Journal of Criticism 1 (1987): 87-106, and Mora, “Las novelas de Isabel Allende.”

  30. John Callahan, “Frequencies of Eloquence: The Performance and Composition of Invisible Man,New Essays on “Invisible Man,” ed. Robert O'Meally (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988) 75.

Support for this essay was provided by a grant from the Columbia University Council for Research in the Humanities.

Maria Roof (essay date June 1996)

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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 exciting ways. Distant in time and space are two seemingly disparate writers, the famous U.S. intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) and the contemporary Chilean novelist Isabel Allende (1940). Yet Du Bois's theories about the marginalized African sector of U.S. society illuminate essential aspects of Allende's narratives that have remained unexplored in literary criticism.

Allende's novels—The House of the Spirits (1982), Of Love and Shadows (1984), Eva Luna (1987), and The Infinite Plan (1991)—depart from the predominant models of Latin American and other Third World narratives by positing new forms of affirmative female protagonists. The thoughts and actions of these characters appear to be conditioned by a sort of “double consciousness” which parallels the early characterization by Du Bois of the situation of freed blacks in the United States.

In his 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, “the founding text of modern African American thought,”,1 Du Bois framed a major consideration of the African-American male in terms of a “double consciousness”—a bipolar identification which, on the one hand, allowed him an enriched view of possibilities for the pluralistic development and progress of U.S. society, while it also expressed a sense of cultural ambivalence and lack of social integration which begged for resolution. Du Bois's conception of a dual mode of existence constitutes an early insight into the situation of African ethnic minorities then living in the U.S., and it also can be suggestive regarding the circumstances of the gender-based minority, women, in other Westernized, partially Westernized, or postcolonial societies.

The novels of Isabel Allende provide important concrete examples of women's actions in structured literary environments. When interpreted with the framework provided by Du Bois, those examples can be analyzed in terms of their import for the potential empowerment of Third World women. Just as Du Bois's initial duality of consciousness was ultimately resolved in his personal life in favor of one of the binary elements rather than his once hoped-for resolution in terms of integration, the limits of the duality as conceptualized in Allende's novels will also be explored.


Du Bois outlines his theory of “double consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folks in this way:

[The Negro is born] gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americans, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.2

The duality of the consciousness described by Du Bois is mirrored, mutatis mutandis, in the contemporary unique position in U.S. society of members of the black middle class, who simultaneously feel cultural ties to masses of black folk and economic similarity to middle-class whites. On the one hand, for example, as Marsha Houston Stanback has studied for linguistic signs and implications, black middle-class women in the U.S. move between two cultures when they reside in black social contexts and work in white social contexts, or vice versa, which heightens awareness of both their own and the majority culture's communicative norms and provides experience in effective communication within both ranges of norms.3

There is, however, an ambivalence created by this dual knowledge, expressed, for example, when black women, accustomed to male-female expressive parity within the black culture, self-impose restraints on their communicative expression in black contexts, which would seem more appropriate to the asymmetrical relation of male-female expression in the white culture (Stanback 184). In other words, the black women's cultural ambivalence leads them to effectively abandon their advantageous position within the black culture, which supports “smart talk” such as braggadoccio and the loud-talking and insultingly humorous exchanges of “signifying” (Stanback 182-83). Instead, they adopt linguistic strategies more appropriate to mainstream women socialized to communicate as less powerful social actors than are men, by learning “to control their speech to help convey the impression that they are living in the background” (Lakoff, cited in Stanback 180).4


Especially apparent in the female characters in Isabel Allende's novels is the sense described by Du Bois of one's definition and judgment by the Other's standards, “this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (5). This attributiveness of definition and value by an Other is often apparent in Allende's novels, for example, in the projection of the dominant political cadre's values as the supposed sentiments of the people, such as when the maintenance of power is equated with the lack of female virtues:

The General was immutable before the storm of gossip, certain that accusations of abuse and corruption would merely solidify his prestige. He had taken as his own El Benefactor's lesson, and believed that history hallows audacious leaders, and that the people consider honesty to be an undesirable trait in a real man, something befitting priests and women. He was convinced that … when it is a question of power, only the high-handed, feared caudillo comes out on top.5

That this exclusionary definition of women is a prerogative of males regardless of their relation to the power structure or political self-definition is made evident in the same novel when the guerrilla commander, Eva Luna's lover, while rejecting her plea to accompany him in the struggle, states, “This is a man's war” (232). This sparks the following reflection in her:

[Even as a boy] he believed that because I had been born a girl I was at a disadvantage, I should accept my limitations and entrust myself to others' care. In his eyes, I would never be independent. … [I]t was not likely that the Revolution was going to change those attitudes. I realized that our problems were not related in any way to the fortunes of the guerrillas; even if he achieved his dream, there would be no equality for me. For Naranjo, and others like him, “the people” seemed to be composed exclusively of men; we women should contribute to the struggle but were excluded from decision-making and power.


The strength and contradictory nature of Other-defined limitations are evident in the continuation of this passage as Eva Luna decides to put on a (characteristically female) happy face as her struggles for equality continue: “I realized that mine is a war with no end in view; I might as well fight it cheerfully or I would spend my life waiting for some distant victory in order to be happy” (233).

As if to call our attention to the internalized nature of the oppressive restriction of women in male-dominated society, in the first pages of The House of the Spirits, Allende portrays, on the one hand, the rejection by Nívea of the political inequality of women in her support of her husband's parliamentary ambitions: “If he won a seat in Congress she would finally secure the vote for women, for which she had fought for the past ten years.”6 On the other hand, Nívea accepts the social subordination of her beautiful daughter Rosa, who “had a fiancé and would one day marry, on which occasion the responsibility of her beauty would become her husband's” (5).


In resistance to the attraction of accepting socially circumscribed roles for women, Allende's works offer the significant symbol of the woman as writer, emblematically suggested in her first novel by the figure of Clara, the annotator of family history, whose notebooks are later used by her female descendent, the first-person narrator, to “reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own.”7 As much as Allende's The House of the Spirits has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), there is a most significant variant noted by Jean Franco. In One Hundred Years, Ursula

serves as the memory of the Buendía family by weaving lives together in the chain of domesticity. But it is a male, the gypsy Melquíades, who writes down the epic of the Buendía family in Sanskrit (i.e., a literary language that needs competent deciphering), and it is a male, Aureliano, who discovers how to interpret Melquíades's manuscript and thus affirms literature as an act of communion between male readers.8

In the first pages of The House of the Spirits, as if to negate Marsha Houston Stanback's admonition that “a young girl's speech and language development may be influenced as much by her culture's expectations regarding the social roles women should play as by the repertoire of social roles she may actually acquire as an adult” (180), Clara speaks with an unexpectedly unfettered and different voice. Into that holiest of patriarchal spaces, the Catholic Church of Father Restrepo, Allende drops an innocent verbal bomb at a moment during the sermon when the Father's accusatory finger is raised. This finger might symbolically replace what Marilyn Frye calls the “arrogating eye” of the patriarchal male,9 an eye which has been deconstructed from a radical feminist perspective in theater critic Jill Dolan's argument against “male subjectivity as the ideal spectatorial position” and “the traditional representational theatre apparatus [which] constitutes the subjectivity of male spectators and leaves women unarticulated within its discourse.”10 The child Clara speaks, she who “had inherited the runaway imagination of all the women in her family on her mother's side” (3-4), just as Father Restrepo's finger relegates an arthritic devotee of the Virgin del Carmen (doña Ester Trueba) to the condition of a “shameless hussy who prostitutes herself down by the docks!” (2) and Clara's mother Nívea to the status of the Pharisees, who had tried to “put women on an equal footing with men—this in open defiance of the law of God, which was most explicit on the issue” (3). As if to signal the emergence of a new woman, at the precise moment when her mother Nívea is musing on her own ambivalent inability to break with social norms regarding the wearing of corsets—

She had often discussed this with her suffragette friends and they had all agreed that until women shortened their dresses and their hair and stopped wearing corsets, it made no difference if they studied medicine or had the right to vote, because they would not have the strength to do it, but she herself was not brave enough to be among the first to give up the fashion. …


—the child Clara raises a new voice, “heard in all its purity, ‘Psst! Father Restrepo! If that story about hell is a lie, we're all fucked, aren't we?’” (7).11

As with other pairs of female characters in Allende's novels (for example, Irene Beltran and her mother in Of Love and Shadows), these two characters, Clara and her mother, Nívea, serve to contrast the internalization versus the rejection of limiting conventions which deny “women's self-fulfillment [and] self-determination.”12 Nívea embodies a struggle typical of “women living change” and described by Sue Freeman as a moral dilemma: “A woman's struggle is not only against upholders of the traditional views but also against herself, her socialization, self-image, and her formerly held beliefs about her life paths” (228). In contrast, Clara as a “presocialized” child un(self)consciously represents and foreshadows the possibility of “women's claiming of power over their own lives, which requires a different socialization and new self-images” (Freeman 228).

This incident can be taken as a metaphor for one of Isabel Allende's most persistent messages on the empowerment of women, and especially of Third World women, whose voices can be used to deconstruct dominant worldviews of the “arrogating male eye,” which organizes everything seen with reference to himself and his own interests, since “the arrogant perceiver does not countenance the possibility that the Other [woman] is independent, indifferent.”13

The aspect of double consciousness that involves one's “creation” by another can be replaced through a process of change. As Sundquist noted with regard to Du Bois: “Few had seen so clearly, as Thomas Holt writes, ‘alienation—raised to a conscious level, cultivated, and directed—has revolutionary potential.’”14 Allende's novels portray female protagonists who remold traditional cultural norms in order to assume control of their working lives (if not of their rather melodramatic romantic involvements). Two of her protagonists (journalist Irene Baltran and radio scriptwriter Eva Luna) are writers, who at early points in their careers accept the traditionally ascribed subjects and forms considered appropriate for female word crafters, but who grow to “deterritorialize” women by appropriating the non-female/non-feminine public spaces of politics and legalities as targets of their professional work.

In this sense, these characters as women professionals offer two new images of women to literate audiences throughout the Third World as they break with constrictions which relegate “decent” women to private spaces and as they transgress the spatial limits imposed on upper- and middle-class women. In effect, they liberate themselves from the determinism of the arrogating eye, that same gaze of the double consciousness, which would “keep women in their place,” aptly identified by Jean Franco as “the home, the convent, or the brothel” (“Beyond Ethnocentrism” 507). As female characters in a Latin American setting, they offer a contrast to Gabriel García Márquez's perhaps facetious observation in a 1983 Playboy Magazine interview that women “stay at home, run the house, bake animal candies so that men can go off and make wars” (cited in Franco, “Beyond Ethnocentrism” 508).15


Jean Franco describes the allegorization of women characters in traditional Latin American novels as “mother, prostitute or love object,” restricted to private spaces, and, in what she labels a “giant generalization,” states that

even the great historical novels of contemporary Latin America—Terra nostra by Carlos Fuentes, The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Supreme I by Roa Bastos, The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez … take as given the contrast between male (activity and enterprise) and female (passivity and reproduction). These novels are such efficient machines that we forget that there isn't an intelligent woman in any of them or that the most common form of male and female intercourse is rape.16

In contrast, not only are Allende's female protagonists educated or naturally smart (if, perhaps, less than astute politically), but even when she portrays rape as a “common form of male and female intercourse,” she counteracts the destructive nature of rape with the attitude of a character such as Alba. Alba, the last in a line of strong women, suddenly adopts a passive posture in her typically female role of reproduction and concludes The House of the Spirits with the thought that she will “wait for better times to come, while I carry this child in my womb, the daughter of so many rapes or perhaps of Miguel, but above all, my own daughter” (432).

Outside the realm of literature, the decade begun in 1973 saw the invasion of the public sphere by Latin American women, an expression of the radically changed structures of everyday life: “In Chile, families of the disappeared chained themselves to public buildings; in Mexico, they held fasts and vigils. In countries in which women's public behavior has been carefully circumscribed, they made spectacles of themselves” (Franco, “Heroines” 107-08). Allende's self-affirming protagonists escape the closed circuit of permissible female action which conditions the creation of what Jean Franco calls “self-destructive heroines” in other works by contemporary Latin American women writers (Griselda Gambaro, Rosario Ferré, Luisa Valenzuela and Marta Traba). The liberated artists or performers in those narratives are women who occupy both private and public space, yet who “find themselves performing a sado-masochistic script in which their originality can only take the form of abjection or death. They are self-destructing heroines, but their failed performance should not deter us from envisioning a society that would give them room” (Franco, “Heroines” 115).17

For a consideration that Allende's positing of non-self-destructive heroines can be revolutionary in a Third World context, we would cite Jean Franco's application of Nancy Hartsock's “description of a left-wing theory that is trapped within a negative eros, one that values the violent confrontation with death over community and life” (“Beyond Ethnocentrism” 512). As women participated in Latin American guerrilla movements and reported that “[f]eminine sexuality, desire to have children or not to have them, the disposition of our bodies was not taken into account,” and that they “were not militants in the true sense,”18 they were “forced to recognize the unbalanced nature of a movement in which one gender [alone] constitutes revolutionary meaning and practice” (“Beyond Ethnocentrism” 512). Also, it is to be noted that

[i]n countries under military dictatorship, there is a growing recognition of the importance of cultural politics in the creation of nongendered solidarity groups … [which involves] realizing that violence, while necessary in self-defense … is not the only way to be revolutionary. That is why an understanding of the socially constructed nature of sexual as well as class and racial divisions is so important, for it enables us to recognize the ethnocentricity of knowledge/power. The fact that the metropolis has always been the place in which knowledge is produced has reinforced the association of domination with masculinity in the Third World and has, therefore, restricted the balanced development of revolutionary movements.

(Franco, “Beyond Ethnocentrism” 514)

The overt intrusion of Allende characters into public spaces is given a positive sign, as, for example, in the incident of the “Revolt of the Whores,” which “showcases government hypocrisy and corruption and sets a precedent for subsequent novelistic action, … [as it expresses the prostitutes'] sense of sisterhood with other women,” a sense, albeit mistaken, of solidarity among women.19 And when the “pots and pans clang” in the streets in Of Love and Shadows—a clear reference to the extratextual marches against the Salvador Allende government by middle- and upper-class Chilean women manipulated by the military authorities (as argued by Mattelart20)—the political ignorance of Irene Beltran's mother as representative of a certain sector of the bourgeoisie is illustrated: “When she again heard pots and pans clanging, [she] thought it was in support of the military leaders, as it had been during the previous government. She could not understand that this form of protest was being directed against the very ones who had invented it.”21

Oddly enough, the least ambiguous of Allende's female characters in the novels' public spheres are seen in her sympathetic portrayal and important narrative use of prostitutes as strong, capable, self-empowered women who also perform traditional “female” roles as intermediaries between men of power. Also of interest in this regard is the strategic role in two of Allende's three novels of a male character who identifies with women yet retains the advantages of male prerogatives in society—the homosexual Mario in Of Love and Shadows and the woman in a man's body, Melesio/Mimí, dear friend and unquestioning supporter of Eva Luna.

What are the implications of the non-confinement of Allende's heroines to a self-destructive, “sado-masochistic script”? In a real sense, their lives are given a superficial and melodramatic quality which requires a less than full-fledged challenge to the structures of patriarchy, as they yield to the predominant view of male-female relations, “put on a happy face” (as cited earlier), and ultimately reveal their stereotypical dependence on protective male figures. Eva Luna, for example, is led by her apolitical female heart to feel equally attracted to two sworn enemies, the military colonel and the guerrilla comandante, each of whom will symmetrically attempt to use her to entrap the other, yet she ultimately unites with a photojournalist who, perhaps significantly, is not a Latin American male.

In an almost backhanded way, Allende's works demonstrate the force of social truisms in molding the imaginary repertoire of novelists. Gabriela Mora's “discomfort” with Allende's first two novels responds to the novelist's apparently unconscious incorporation of traditional gendered stereotypes even in figures she otherwise depicts as positive and progressive.22 One of Mora's most serious and, in our opinion, correct criticisms is that Allende's protagonists are locked inside their individual egoisms and appear, in spite of their experiences, “incapable of transcending the personal aspects of their drama toward the collective experience of the Chilean tragedy.”23

In addition, Allende's heroines appear to be limited as active women by a socialized fear reinforced by life experiences, which inheres in positions of relegated social inferiority, and which Anne Wilson Schaef describes as guilt resulting from “the original sin of being born female” in a dominant white male system,24 and which Marilyn Frye calls

a mortal dread of being outside the field of vision of the arrogant eye. That eye gives all things meaning by connecting all things to each other by way of their reference to one point—the Man. We fear that if we are not in that web of meaning there will be no meaning: our work will be meaningless, our lives of no value, our accomplishments empty, our identities illusory.25

Or, as W. E. B. Du Bois portrayed similar fears among blacks, those who wanted liberty, freedom and opportunity were tormented by

the afterthought—suppose, after all, the World is right and we are less than men? Suppose this mad impulse within is all wrong, some mock mirage from the untrue? […] a shriek in the night for the freedom of men who themselves are not yet sure of their right to demand it.


We might compare Allende's novels to those by African-American women novelists of the 1890s, studied by Hazel V. Carby, which were “meant to be read as actively attempting to change the structure of the Afro-American culture of which they were a part. … These books both shaped and were shaped by strategies for resisting and defeating oppression.”26 In contrast, as Gabriela Mora notes, “With good will and generous intentions, we believe, the author [Allende] falls into ideological premises which sustain injustices, and into characterizations—above all of women—which follow dangerous patterns.”27

Compared to those novelists' revelation of a “basis for an analysis of how patriarchal power establishes and sustains gendered and racialized social formations,”28 Allende's novels can be seen as, certainly, a denunciation of the dysfunction of liberal institutions such as judicial and parliamentary systems in the Latin American worlds she creates. And even an acerbic critic like Mora recognizes the value of Allende's exposure to the public, “under the guise of fiction, of many of the most sinister events of recent decades in Chile.”29

But to criticize is not necessary to effectively challenge dominant institutions or expose their functioning, and Allende's works recede from a full commitment to the empowerment of women for change, a view which we feel is ultimately circumscribed by her perception, openly stated in interviews (for example, with Marjorie Agosín,30 or as analyzed by Beatriz Hernan-G⊙mez31) and obvious in her novels, of the circularity of history, and, therefore, the futility of any attempts to effect significant change.

While we will save for another occasion an analysis of what material and ideological determinants might have conditioned such a mythical perception of history by Isabel Allende, we are inclined to suggest that she might take to heart a piece of conversation from Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple (1982), in which Celie and Shug Avery discuss the elimination of “man” as “mediator between a woman and ‘everything’”:32

You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a'tall.

Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain't. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug.


  1. Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993) 15.

  2. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, introd. Donald B. Gibson (1903; New York: Penguin, 1989) 5. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference only.

  3. Marsha Houston Stanback, “Language and Black Woman's Place: Evidence from the Black Middle Class,” in Paula A. Treichler, Cheris Kramarae, and Beth Stafford, eds., For Alma Mater: Theory and Practice in Feminist Scholarship (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985) 185. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text and notes.

  4. The internalized awareness of “black culture as sub-culture” (Stanback 184), against which Du Bois dedicated his life efforts, has been confirmed in black social studies as a continuing component of existential ambivalence among urban blacks toward their own and white cultural forms, as in the “double consciousness” described in Ulf Hannerz's 1969 study of Washington, DC, “biculturated ghetto boys,” who were forced to learn black ghetto-specific roles and survival mechanisms, even as they were instructed in mainstream culture through diverse mass media at home and in school, and whose awareness of two cultures led to conflicts and contradictions as they acted according to one model or another (Ulf Hannerz, Soulside, Inquiries into Ghetto, Culture and Community [New York: Columbia UP, 1969] 137).

  5. Isabel Allende, Eva Luna, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Bantam, 1989) 135. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  6. Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits, trans. Magda Bogin (New York: Knopf, 1985) 3. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  7. Isabel Allende, La casa de los espíritus (Barcelona: Plaza & Janes, 1982) 1.

  8. Jean Franco, “Beyond Ethnocentrism: Gender, Power, and the Third-World Intelligentsia,” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988) 510. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  9. See Marilyn Frye, “Arrogance and Love,” in Paula A. Treichler, Cheris Kramarae, and Beth Stafford, eds., For Alma Mater: Theory and Practice in Feminine Scholarship (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985) 261-71.

  10. Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, Theater and Dramatic Studies Ser. 52 (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Research P, 1988) 103, 99, respectively. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text and notes.

  11. Perhaps due to the force of the reflexive verb in Spanish, this sounds to my ear much more iconoclastic and outrageous in the original than in the translation—“¡Pst! ¡Padre Restrepo! Si el cuento del infierno fuera pura mentira, nos chingamos todos?” (14).

  12. Sue J. M. Freeman, “Women's Moral Dilemmas: In Pursuit of Integrity,” Women Living Change, ed. Susan C. Bourque and Donna Robinson Divine (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1985) 227. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  13. Frye 262.

  14. Sundquist 487.

  15. For a more extensive treatment of “the feminine literary character and other mutilations, see Lucía Guerra-Cunningham, “El personaje literario femenino y otras mutilaciones,” Hispamérica 43 (1986): 3-19.

  16. Jean Franco, “Self-Destructing Heroines,” Minnesota Review 22 (1984): 105-06. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  17. Cf. Jill Dolan's observation on Maria Irene Fornes's plays: “Brutality becomes not only a metaphor, but a visual sign of the power dynamics in the gendered social relations Fornes represents in her plays. The women's attempts to wrest power into their hands ultimately turns against them, as though women's expression of their desire and agency, in this historical moment, can only be self-destructive” (Dolan 108).

  18. Ana María Auraujo [sic], Tupamaras, des femmes de Uruguay (Paris: des femmes, 1980) 163 and 165, respectively, cited in Franco, “Beyond Ethnocentrism” 512.

  19. María Roof, “Isabel Allende: modelos de la solidaridad,” Studies in Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, IV (Orlando: Rollins College, 1992) 131. [My translation.]

  20. See Michèle Mattelart, “Cuando las mujeres de la burguesía salen a la calle,” La cultura de la opresi⊙n femenina (México: Era, 1977; reprinted as “The Feminine Side of the Coup,” Women, Media and Crisis: Femininity and Disorder, Comedia Series 33 (London: Comedia, 1986).

  21. Isabel Allende, Of Love and Shadows, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Knopf, 1987) 246-47.

  22. Gabriela Mora, “Las novelas de Isabel Allende y el papel de la mujer como ciudadana,” Ideologies and Literature 2.1 (ns) (1987): 55. [My translations.]

  23. Mora 55.

  24. Anne Wilson Schaef, Women's Reality: An Emerging Female System in the White Male Society (Minneapolis: Winston, 1981) 23.

  25. Frye 268.

  26. Hazel V. Carby, “‘On the Threshold of Woman's Era’: Lynching, Empire, and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory,” Critical Inquiry 21.1 (1985): 264.

  27. Mora 59. The problems cited by Mora are countered by Peter Earle, who bases his defense of Allende's sympathetic portrayal of, for example, the patriarchal Esteban Trueba, on a heightened awareness of the part of the “average reader” who “gains from his crude performance throughout the story a better perception of how the authoritarian mentality accommodates criminal methods in its procedures” (Peter G. Earle, “Literature as Survival: Allende's The House of the Spirits,Contemporary Literature 28.4 [1987]: 548n9). The most pertinent questions here would be (1) whether an “average reader” ascribes Trueba's actions to the realm of “the authoritarian mentality” as opposed to some personal idiosyncrasy; and (2) whether, as we believe, allowing Trueba (and many military figures) to appear as ordinary humans, just doing the job allotted to them by fate, will create the conditions for the desired analysis of the formation of repressive power structures.

  28. Carby 267.

  29. Mora 54.

  30. Marjorie Agosín, “Entrevista a Isabel Allende,” Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal 1.2 (1984): 42-56.

  31. See Beatriz Hernan-G⊙mez, “Las violencias circulares (Notas a La casa de los espíritus),” Studi di Letteratura Ibero-Americana (Rome: Bulzione, 1984) 333-48.

  32. Cited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Editor's Introduction: Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes,” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 14.

George McMurray (review date summer 1996)

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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 Paula, still comatose, to her home in California, where Paula dies the following December.

Allende is well known as a novelist. Paula being her only nonfiction volume. In many respects, however, this text resembles a novel. Thus, the first-person narrator (Allende) alternates between the details of Paula's illness and the dramatic story of her own life. Readers familiar with Allende's past will recall, from her interviews, several of the episodes in the book. These include her TV programs in Chile while she was working for the UN, her move with her family to Venezuela after the 1973 military coup, and her long letter to her dying grandfather that would become The House of the Spirits.

Most of Allende's memoir is new, though, at least to this reviewer. Of special interest are the passages describing the terror in Chile after the coup and the disastrous economic effects brought about by the military regime. Allende and her husband did not leave Chile, however, because of the economy, but because they were in danger of arrest. Thus in 1975 they emigrated to Venezuela, their home for more than a decade. There they experienced the typical hardships of exiles and the strains on their marriage that would eventually end in divorce. It was here also that Allende wrote her first three novels and acquired a Venezuelan daughter-in-law and son-in-law.

Allende also provides interesting information about the conception of her novels. The basis for Of Love and Shadows came to her through accounts of bodies found buried in a mine near Santiago; a chance meeting with a man in Europe gave her the idea for Rolf Caulé, the hero of Eva Luna; and The Infinite Plan stems from her life in California with her second husband and his dysfunctional family.

Impulsive, superstitious, and highly imaginative, Allende is never dull in her memoir. In fact, these very traits liken her to several of her fictional characters, who find themselves trapped in circumstances beyond their control. For example, while living in Caracas, Allende fell in love with” an Argentine musician and followed him to Spain. But when her situation there became untenable, she was forced to return to her forgiving husband and children.

Beautifully translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden, Paula is a poignant tribute from a mother to her dying daughter. In addition, it is a fascinating chronicle of the life of one of Latin America's most widely read writers.

Brad Hooper (review date 1 February 1998)

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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 appreciator of beautiful writing from thoroughly enjoying this extraordinarily seductive book. Yes, Allende does provide recipes, and many of them may spark chemistry between two individuals. But more important than the recipes are her historical and biological ruminations on the inseparability of food and eroticism. With her “sole focus [being] on the sensual art of food and its effects on amorous performance,” the author wanders delectably through the ways food arouses the senses, citing tales and truths, folklore and science, and drawing into her discussions other topics such as the role of language in seduction, the need for physical touch, and the pleasures of drinking wine—an act that “lessens inhibitions, relaxes, and fosters joy, three fundamental requirements for good performance.” Readers may view their lunch-time Big Macs and fries in a different light after enjoying Allende's pages, for, as she posits, “all of creation is one long uninterrupted cycle of digestion and fertility.”

Barbara Mujica (review date June 1998)

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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 observations—some of them fairly inaccurate, numerous recipes, and drawings that range from spectacular to adorable.

Although Aphrodite is hardly a literary masterpiece, it is written with a mirth and animation that make it a joy to read. Like Esquivel, Allende starts from the premise that food and love are inextricably joined. Preparing and eating food is an erotic experience; providing a meal is an expression of affection, or even of passion; sharing a meal is an act of love. Diets are anti-amatory, a real turn-off. Allende regrets, she explains in her introduction, the delicious dishes she passed up due to vanity, just as she regrets the affairs she didn't have either because conventional notions of virtue prevented her from doing so, or because she was just too busy.

Behind Allende's apparent hedonism, however, lies pain. As her occasional references to her daughter, Paula, make clear, when Allende began this book, she was grieving for her oldest child, who had died in California as the result of a misdiagnosis in a Madrid hospital not long before. For months, she says, she had seen everything in shades of grey. She began this book when color was just beginning to come back into her world. The book is a celebration of life, of pleasure, of beauty—of all—those things that stimulate our senses and remind us that we are alive. If the writing occasionally seems too cute or cloying, it is, perhaps, because sometimes the author needs to strain to keep going.

Fortunately, most of the time she does not. Among the tales she has collected is one from tenth-century Japan called “Muerte por perfume” [“Death by Perfume”], an exquisitely morbid tribute to the sense of smell originally published in an anthology by Alison Fell and Ayre Blower. Many of the stories are warm reminiscences of Allende's childhood.

The recipe section includes some fine Latin American classics—chicken mole, pebre (a typical Chilean hot sauce), guacamole, salsa huancaina—as well as dishes from Europe, the Orient, and the United States, many described with a pinch of humor and a dash of spice. None requires exotic ingredients. If you must have baboon testicles to get you going, comments the author, what you need is a psychiatrist, not a cookbook. Also missing are vegetables with no aphrodisiac properties—broccoli, for example.

The illustrations include paintings, drawings, and photographs by a wide range of artists, among them Fernando Botero, Martin Maddox, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Vladimir Zabaleta, and Ana Mercedes Hoyos, making this a luscious book indeed—a feast for the eyes as well as for the mind and the palate.

Isabel Allende and Michael Skafidas (interview date spring 1999)

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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 Pinochet for the crimes that took place in Chile during the 1973 coup. Now that you have lived in the US for more than a decade, how do you evaluate America?

[Allende]: In the US I live in a sort of bubble. To start with, I am a legal immigrant and am married to an American. I have resources and a job that gives me a privileged status. But this does not mean I can't see how other people live.

One of the problems I see in America is the denial of pain. Americans constantly deny reality—they deny pain, aging, poverty, homelessness, failure of any kind, fat or anything that has to do with the dark side of life. And our culture and media promote this denial by exalting wealth, youth, beauty, health, strength.

There is another cultural gap that is also very hard for me to live with. I come from a culture where community, family and extended family are very important. In the US I feel isolated. I have tried for 11 years to put together an extended family, but it is artificial in many ways; it does not work naturally.

Of course, I'm not the only one who feels this isolation. In the US there is a crisis now with the family, and there is a conscious effort to return family to its proper place in society. But this is difficult because the community doesn't hold the family together. People move so much here. By the time you are 18 it's expected that you leave your home. You go to college, you break with your family—that is the tradition.

This is a very individualistic country whose only real value is to be self-made. In my culture, it's not a virtue to be self-made; the virtue is to belong to something—community, tribe, village, family.

In other countries, especially in Latin America, you don't expect the government or the health insurance company to take care of you. Your family will; it is a very organic process. Even if you don't like them too much, your family is your only safety net.

But lately, there is a strong trend toward spirituality in America—it's almost like a need for redemption from feelings of loneliness and isolation. Even if this spiritual quest is happening on a superficial level, it is still an indication that people have started looking in a different direction for redemption. It shows that despite relative comfort and prosperity people are still missing something vital: love.

On the positive side I also see many good things about the US: democracy, for one; another is feminism. These aspects of American culture can have a real impact on the rest of the world. With regard to feminism, it will be impossible to censor the contributions women have made in American politics and culture. Information is now global, so that even in a village in Africa you get the sitcoms, movies, news—everything that reflects the undeniable influence of women in America today. Women will really change the balance of power in the next century, and Americans are leading the way.

In the US, your books have been more successful than any other Latin American writer. How do you explain this?

First, I have a very good translator who helps convey the spirit of each book while also adapting it to the new culture. She says things like, “This sentence will not sound good in English. It's very sentimental.” In Latin culture, for example, we talk about destiny. In America, “destiny” is a loaded word. You say “luck” or “fate.” So, by the choice of words my translator adapts my work to the culture.

I also think that the mixture of honest emotion, feminism, politics and the bringing of other cultures into the book fascinates Americans. People in the US are touched by the raw and explicit emotion of my books. Because, as I said before, this is a culture in which people deny or withhold their emotions.

With more than 30 million books sold, you are considered one of the most successful writers in the world. How much power does a popular writer have in the age of Internet?

Not much. My power is relative. I don't think my books will substantially change cultures. When Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in the US, for example, books had the power to cause change. Uncle Tom's Cabin made an impact. With regard to slavery, it really moved the consciousness of a nation. The time was ripe and literature was the only medium for that kind of change.

Today, we have the Internet, movies, television. People are much more visual, so that the impact of a book is not that big. This is not a pessimistic but a realistic view. Also, I know that people who buy my books already agree with my worldview. It's very unlikely that a right-wing fundamentalist would read any of my books. As a matter of fact, some Catholic groups, including Opus Dei, forbid the reading of several of my books. In some Mormon schools in Utah they won't allow my books because of the politics or sometimes because of the sexual explicitness.

As a female writer have you experienced prejudice?

When I started, it was very hard for me to get published because in Latin America nobody wanted to read books by women—or at least that's what the publishers said. Then I got an agent in Spain who really pushed my first book The House of the Spirits and got it published. The idea of getting an agent came one day when a secretary at one of the publishing houses called and said that shed taken my manuscript home and read it. “I don't know much about literature,” she said, “but I think this is good.” But she also told me to offer it to another house because no one where she worked would read it. She ended the conversation by saying, “You need an agent.”

This is the case with many women writers. Women are looked down on when it comes to ideas. Anything that a woman creates from scratch is not considered serious. She can follow somebody else's lead; she can play beautiful music, for instance, but she cannot compose music. In literature, it's only in the last 15 or 20 years that women have broken through the conspiracy of silence with regard to their work and have begun to be taken seriously as writers.

Until The House of the Spirits was published, there was no major female Latin American novelist. You have emerged from a profoundly male-dominated genre. Your success, I suppose, has annoyed some people.

This is true. Carlos Fuentes has been very supportive, but he is an exception. Many other successful male Latin American writers don't like the fact that I sell so many books. They are envious and denounce my books as not real literature. You see, a good book should not sell! I am a storyteller. I do not write for myself but for an audience, and I need to know that someone will read what I am writing, whether it's to million people or one person.

Is there a special bond between a woman writer and a woman reader?

Not at all. So-called “women's literature” is a marketing creation, not a literary one. That 60 percent of the world's readers are women who want to read novels does not mean that the books they read are “women's literature.” The cliche goes that men prefer to read how-to books or nonfiction. I don't take these things seriously. I write for everybody. If women tend to like my books more than men it is because my stories come from a woman's own history. But men like my books, too. One cannot have specific statistics, but I don't think The House of the Spirits was less liked by men than women.

Through books such as The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, and Paula, you have created a unique literary genre. Was that a conscious decision?

No. I never studied literature and my reading has never been organized. Everything has come from within, from what I know. My writing has been inspired and ignited by memory. But it is also true that as far as my background is concerned, I feel neutral when it comes to writing. I don't necessarily write as a Latin American, or at least it doesn't feel this way. My experience, my tradition, stems from Latin America, but I always try to put this experience into a universal perspective.

Carlos Fuentes has said that “the novelist is not someone who reflects the truth, but is the one who creates reality—and in order to create reality you must tell lies.” You've said that “I only express what exists. I don't invent anything.” Is there any common ground between these two viewpoints?

Of course. I guess we are both saying the same thing with different words. I lie all the time when I write fiction. That you choose what to tell and how to tell it is a form of lying. When you decide what to omit you are twisting reality. However, with these lies you present something that is basically true. If it isn't basically true, then you have romance novels, thrillers or mysteries, which are forms of entertainment but are not real literature.

People find interest in a book because they see something from their own reality reflected there. Even if the characters are invented, what you have to say about the characters has to be true and believable. This is the first duty of the fiction writer, but it is very hard because sometimes reality is not true in the strict sense. An example from a few years ago comes to mind: A child was dying of hunger in Ethiopia. At the time people were indifferent to the suffering there because it appeared too much on television. But then a camera followed one little child to his death and suddenly it became real—that child could be anybody's child. The suffering became immediate and urgent.

However, it was discovered later that the cameraman had faked this story, in a way. The child he had followed with his camera was not the same as the dead child he later captured on film. The story was not exactly true, but it reflected the truth: the hunger was true; the place; the time; the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of children, were all true. So perhaps that one child's death had to be faked in order to bring out the truth.

A few years ago, in an interview for NPQ, you said that “it will be impossible for the new (Chilean) government to punish all those who should be punished: the torturers won't be tortured; the rapists won't be raped; the murderers won't be killed. And people will have to understand that it is not out of revenge that we will rebuild our country but out of love and forgiveness.” The recent arrest of General Pinochet in London has brought with it the possibility that perpetrators of crimes against humanity will finally be held accountable: Pinochet may well become the scapegoat for all this century's dictators.

At the same time, many Chileans are not happy with the turn of events. As you argued recently, many Chileans see the intervention of Spain and Britain as colonialist. What do you think should happen to Pinochet? Would you rather deal with him the way Mandela's South Africa dealt with its own painful past—amnesty but not amnesia?

For the sake of democracy and for the next government in Chile what is desirable is that Pinochet return to Chile. However, for the sake of history and of Pinochet's victims, he needs to be tried somewhere, even if he's tried in absentia. A trial means that it will become impossible for his supporters to continue hiding the truth, not only in Chile but also in the US.

Some Americans should be tried as well. But this will not happen because there is a double standard and a very colonial attitude when it comes to Third World countries. When less powerful nations are tried in the court of world opinion, Europe and America become the judges. But these powerful nations resist being judged themselves.

Chilean stability is heavily dependent on Pinochet's fate. There is still division and controversy over his name. The good thing is that, thanks to his arrest, the wind has changed in Chile. I was there a few weeks ago and to my astonishment I heard people on television for the first time calling Pinochet “the ex-dictator” as opposed to “senator for life.” Morally, Pinochet is destroyed. The embarrassment of his arrest has stigmatized him for life. He won't go down in history the way he had planned.

But now it should be left up to the Chileans to try him and demystify his evil. The big lie still holds strong for some: his wonderful economic legacy; without him Chile would have never been the modern country it has become. Chile may be modern, but at whose expense? In Pinochet's Chile, the poor never became middle class, whereas the rich became richer. Greed became religion. Everything worked in favor of the few powerful capitalists and against the working class which was never allowed to form unions or protect its interests. So, to say that Pinochet was good enough because he improved the economy is like saying that Mussolini was a good leader because the trains were on time.

Pinochet did make improvements in the economy. He changed patterns and models of inefficiency, but at a tremendous cost. I wonder if people who applaud his economic policy would be willing to have it in their own countries at that cost—if the Americans, who approve so much, would be willing to have 17 years of a brutal dictatorship in order to have an economic improvement that only benefits certain people.

Sometimes I ask myself whether I want Pinochet to vot in prison. And the answer is no. I really don't. I see him as he is: an old man. And if his return to Chile means less trouble for Chile, then let him return. For God's sake, he's caused enough trouble for the past 25 years. Let's not perpetuate it. Chile's democracy is still very fragile, and in order for it to grow stronger the last thing it needs is Pinochet's ghost hanging around.

Cecilia Novella (review date September 1999)

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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 us from Valparaiso, Chile, to somewhere in California, covering the gold rush and its aftermath. She also includes a look back at events in Europe in the early 1800s, as part of the personal history of Rose Somers, one of her characters.

The story, which begins in the port of Valparaiso, is simple enough. A baby girl, born of a clandestine love affair, is abandoned at the house of the Somers family and taken in by her own father's siblings. She is given the name of Eliza Somers, and her real aunt, Rose, brings her up to be a proper young lady in the Chilean society of the early nineteenth century. Actually, as soon as she finds the baby left at her doorstep, Rose knows she is the daughter of her brother John, a sailor who spends little time ashore. This explains Rose Somers's interest in educating the girl in accordance with the social position of her British family. In addition to the training received from her Aunt Rose, Eliza also takes lessons in the service patio of her home, where Nana teaches her the secrets of the kitchen and other household occupations. Between her two “schools,” Eliza is well on her way to becoming a perfect lady and homemaker.

But Rose's plans are suddenly upset when, upon turning fifteen, Eliza falls passionately in love with a boy of modest circumstances not much older than she. Joaquín Andieta is the son of a seamstress and an unknown father. The love affair of the young couple abruptly changes the direction of the story.

The recent discovery of gold in North America attracts a greedy horde. Joaquín catches the fever and takes a ship to seek his fortune. But he does not know when he leaves that Eliza is expecting a child, since she herself discovers it only after he has gone. Anticipating Rose's reaction, she in turn boards ship, incognito, to search for her beloved Joaquín in the north.

Once Eliza has stowed away, with the help of the ship's young Chinese cook, Tao Chi'en, she begins to show symptoms of a complicated pregnancy that nearly kills her. Tao, also a doctor, does what he can for her and shares her secret with a young prostitute, Dolores Placeres, who is seeking the promised land. Eliza has a miscarriage but lives and reaches land with the help of her new friends.

Dolores then goes her own way, and Eliza begins to search for her lover. But her life is to be forever linked to Tao Chi'en through a close friendship that develops into platonic love on his part. From time to time Eliza leaves Tao in a fruitless search for Joaquín. She wanders from place to place asking for him, at which point his name, passed along from one person to the next, is changed from Andieta into Murieta.

Any work of fiction involves a certain amount of ambiguity. Here it concerns the true identity of Andieta-Murieta. Even Eliza herself wonders, at one point, whether she really had a love affair with Joaquín or merely dreamed it. We do not even know if Joaquín Murieta, bandit to some and dispenser of justice to others in Allende's own tale, is a deformation of the name Andieta, deriving from Eliza's inquiries, or her informers' confusion regarding a man who was beginning to acquire a reputation and who eventually becomes a legendary hero. The closest Eliza comes in her progress toward Joaquín is a man rescued from certain death on a frigid night by the inhabitants of the brothel where she had taken shelter. Eliza herself, applying the knowledge learned from Tao Chi'en, cuts off his two gangrenous fingers to save him from an even worse fate. The man leaves the group that had saved his life, and later Eliza hears stories about the fearsome Jack Threefinger, said to be the most trusted lieutenant of Joaquín Murieta.

Wearying of her futile search, Eliza writes Tao Chi'en to come for her and returns with him to the place where he has set up his medical practice. When Joaquín Murieta and his band are captured by the police, Eliza tries to recognize him as the lover who left Valparaiso two years earlier. Again we are uncertain whether or not he is Joaquín Andieta, Eliza's beloved, and she declares herself to be free of the past. That final equivocal statement fails to clarify whether the past is dead and cannot be revived, or whether her search has ended because she has tired of the quest.

Allende's narration flows with the natural ease we remember from her earlier books. The passage describing developments on board the ship in which a pregnant Eliza journeys to the North American coast is frighteningly realistic. She conveys the difficulties and anguish of Tao Chi'en, who doesn't know what to do with a female stowaway, dependent completely on his cunning in order to survive and to reach her destination strong enough to leave the ship without obliging him to reveal her hidden presence in the hold to the rest of the crew.

However, the best section of the novel is the chapter dealing with Tao Chi'en, from his humble origins in a distant village of his country to his education by the honorable teacher who instructed him in medicine. The description of Tao's childhood surroundings, his parents' poverty, his life and his training in the mysterious and sometimes inscrutable tradition of Oriental culture, is exceptional. Tao's stoicism, humbly offered wisdom, infinite patience, and ingenious responses to Eliza's observations make him tower above the other characters. At times, even Eliza is dwarfed by the presence of Tao Chi'en.

This episode seemed to be so well executed that I tried to recall where, in the back of my mind, I might have registered a character and a place so faithfully described. Then it came to me that in her book Paula, Allende was impressed by a Japanese doctor who took care of her young daughter, Paula, during her final days. I may be wrong. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks and the character of Tao Chi'en is not modeled on any real person.

The evocation of Tao's character may be one of Allende's strengths, but it is not the only one. She also provides us with a masterly description of that part of North America that was to become California at the height of the gold rush, painting a vivid picture of boisterous activity, chaos, avarice, unrelieved drudgery, and the broad range of lifestyles, habits, and dissolute ways of those drawn there by the gleaming precious mineral.

Hija de la fortuna [Daughter of Fortune] is an entertaining story and an easy, quick read. But unlike other of Allende's books, where all issues are resolved, this novel leaves one with the feeling that something is missing, that a number of loose ends need to be tied up. Several stories are left unfinished or trail off, while the ultimate fate of Eliza and Tao Chi'en and a number of other questions are left hanging. Nevertheless, this may please readers who like to draw their own conclusions and write their own ending.

Alev Adil (review date 12 November 1999)

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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 life story of a real woman, Jo Monaghan, who, after bearing an illegitimate child, passed as a man for many years, sharing her secret only with her Chinese lover. (She was also the subject of Maggie Greenwald's film The Ballad of Little Jo, 1993.) Eliza Sommers is an engaging heroine, a foundling abandoned in a soap crate on the doorstep of Jeremy Sommers, an English businessman and a cold fish who “went stiff just shaking a human hand”. It is his spirited sister Rose who is determined to adopt the child.

Eliza is brought up as a corseted and cosseted English gentlewoman, but a short-lived romance with a handsome revolutionary leads to a journey that involves stowing aboard a sailing ship, disguising herself as a Chinese boy, playing the piano in a brothel, gambling at bear fights and operating on outlaws.

Although this is a romantic novel, most of the women in it are independent, resourceful and adventurous. Eliza's friend, Paulina de Santa Cruz, defies her family to elope with her lover Feliciano, but she is also an entrepreneur who makes a fortune shipping frozen food to San Francisco. We also learn that after a teenage affair with an Austrian tenor, Rose Sommers refused to marry any of her many ardent suitors. As well as becoming the mainstay of the expatriate community's social life in Valparaiso Rose has a lucrative secret career as a writer of pornographic novels. Her lover Karl, a man of great talent, is vulgar and lewd; barrelchested, potbellied, far from handsome, he has a “Teutonic, apoplectic face”. Rather than undermining its credibility, Allende's comic observations lighten the atmosphere and make their passion all the more believable. The reader is invited to identify with a feminine need for romance, but is shown that “time and obstacles extinguish even the most stubborn fires of love”. Within the lush sweep of this tale of the heart, there is the message that love is transient and illusory, that it is the beginning of a journey of self-discovery, not the end.

Daughter of Fortune takes us from high-class soirées to brothels, revolutionary meetings and opium dens; it introduces a cast of colourful, if at times stereotypical, characters—lovable rogues and spirited women like Bone Crusher Jo, a gruff but kind-hearted madame, who adopts a traumatized orphan, Tom No Tribe, and turns her brothel into a hospital when an epidemic strikes. Clichés, such as the tart with the heart of gold, are embraced warmly, yet, despite the sometimes crude characterization, the story remains fresh and original. This is a novel with an appetite for crowd scenes and panoramic views, in which subtlety is sometimes sacrificed for scale. Allende enjoys the spectacle of an anarchic rabble, whether it be the ecstatic flagellants, nuns and aristocrats thronging the Christo de Mayo festival or the moiling masses of San Francisco. The book is a celebration of “the heterogeneous throng who pulsed with frenzied activity”, seeking to change their destinies and build a new life on the west coast of America.

In the generic historical novel, the exoticism of the past is usually reassuringly familiar, simply a matter of fashions and furnishings rather than any engagement with alien ways of understanding the world. History is put to work justifying and glorifying contemporary values. Allende is, to some extent, guilty of performing just such tricks. Her dialogue lacks intimacy, and her characters engage in rather stiff conversations in which they inform one another that “the world is changing”, and “in the United States free men are equal before the law. Social classes have been abolished.” The espousal of modern values and the ability to foresee the transformative possibilities of capitalism are a mark of wisdom. The man who asks, “where do you get such harebrained ideas, woman?” inevitably learns the error of his ways.

Isabel Allende's portrait of nineteenth-century Chilean and American history is multicultural and not uncritically celebratory. She emphasizes the plight of immigrants, native Americans and women, without, however portraying them as pathetic victims. Depending on the reader's politics, her novel is either indulging in liberal historicism or reclaiming lost histories.

Peter Donaldson (review date 13 December 1999)

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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 of Fortune, is resolutely realistic, although there are always intimations of the transcendent.

The setting here is the Chilean port of Valparaiso in the 1830s, where the growing British colony has established a nation within a nation, with its clubs, afternoon teas and sedate musical evenings. Into this prospering world comes Eliza, abandoned at birth and of unknown parentage, who is adopted by an English family and brought up as an English lady. An independent spirit, Eliza struggles to adapt to the formalities of her routine and escapes whenever she can to the easy warmth and acceptance of the Indian cook through whom she absorbs something of the very different legends and traditions of Chilean culture.

The corsets Eliza is forced to wear constrict her body and the rigid expectations of her adopted English family constrict her spirit. The threat of the foundling home, if she misbehaves, is never far away. At 16, the precarious balance of her life is destroyed when she falls in love. Her suitor is from the wrong social class and ethnic background and so the affair must remain secret.

When news filters down to Chile that gold has been discovered in the mountains of California, Eliza's lover escapes to seek his fortune, leaving her behind, pregnant and unhappy. With little future in Valparaiso, Eliza embarks on a long journey to North America, concealed in the hold of a ship. She falls ill on route, loses her baby and it is only the skill of a Chinese healer, Tao Chi'en, that saves her.

Eliza eventually arrives in California in 1849. Allende brilliantly evokes the enormous vigour of a country in the grip of gold fever, teeming with settlers of every nationality. The novel, at this point, broadens its scope and one suspects that Allende may have been diverted by her desire to illustrate how the American character has arisen from the melting pot of such turbulent times. As a result, the driven clarity of the early narrative falters, but there is still much to enjoy as Eliza, disguised as a boy, takes a job playing the piano in a brothel.

Tao Chi'en also has to find his way in a land where the opportunities are enormous but the penalties for failure are harsh. He feels his destiny is “to ease pain and achieve wisdom”. He practises acupuncture and herbal medicine in San Francisco's Chinatown while his affection for Eliza deepens. A less accomplished writer would have made of this little Chinaman an uneasy caricature—the benign sage spouting Confucian wisdom so wearisomely familiar from countless Hollywood movies. But with Allende he is safe, and we are moved by his struggles.

In 1995, Allende, after completing Paula, her powerful memoir about the death of her daughter, wrote that “now I find it difficult to write again. What can I possibly write about that is as significant to me as Paula?” Well, nearly five years on, Allende has emphatically answered her own question by writing what may well be her best novel yet, a rich adventure story set against the emergence of the American nation.

Barbara Mujica (review date October 2001)

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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 on the side), Eliza follows her lover Joaquín to California during the gold rush, but winds up marrying Tao Chi'en, a zhong-yi, or Chinese doctor.

The couple's daughter, Lynn, reputedly one of the most beautiful girls in San Francisco, is seduced early in Retrato en sepia [Portrait in Sepia] by Matías, son of Paulina del Valle and her husband, Feliciano Rodríguez. Paulina is a shrewd businesswoman who seized the opportunity to make a fortune in California, not by panning for gold, but by supplying the miners with goods. Using steamships, she makes a killing transporting produce and other merchandise from Chile to California. Matías inherits neither his mother's ambition nor her smarts, however. Instead, he gravitates toward San Francisco's countless brothels and opium dens. When he gets Lynn pregnant, he runs off to Europe, where he sinks further into decadence.

Severo del Valle, Paulina's hardworking nephew, falls in love with the girl and marries her, thereby legitimizing the baby, Aurora. After Lynn dies from a hemorrhage, Severo leaves for Chile to fight in the War of the Pacific. The formidable Paulina attempts to seize the child, but Eliza and Tao are determined to raise her. However, when Tao is murdered suddenly, Eliza brings Aurora to her paternal grandmother and disappears. After Feliciano dies, Paulina marries Williams, her butler, who masks his lower-class origins behind the accent and manners of an English lord, and returns to Chile. There, Williams mingles easily among the crème de la crème of Santiago society, and Paulina increases her fortune by pioneering the Chilean wine industry. She raises Aurora in the lap of luxury with the intention of marrying her off to a suitable husband. However, Aurora is plagued by a sense of mystery surrounding her background. She knows nothing of her mother's family, for Paulina has taken care to hide her Chinese ancestry. Furthermore, she is tortured by a recurring nightmare in which she sees pajama-clad children fleeing a Chinese man lying in a pool of blood.

Aurora resists the convent-school education that her grandmother tries to impose on her and instead takes up photography. On a trip to Europe she falls in love with a young man whom Paulina deems an appropriate match, even though Williams has misgivings. Aurora soon finds herself married to Diego Domínguez, the second son of a wealthy rural family, and stuck in a monotonous existence in an isolated area. She amuses herself by photographing the family, the landscape, and the Indians, and trying to please her increasingly distant husband. Eventually, she discovers that Diego is carrying on an affair with his sister-in-law, Susana. Aurora returns to Santiago, where she lives with a young doctor—an extraordinarily brazen move for an upper-class married woman at the beginning of the century. Eventually, Eliza Sommers returns from her travels and clears up the mystery of Aurora's past and Tao's murder, thereby freeing Aurora from her nightmares.

In Hija de la fortuna and Retrato en sepia Allende brings together a cast of fascinating characters—Chileans of all social strata (enterprising bourgeois, rancid traditionalists, revolutionaries, professionals, suffragists, Indians, and dandies), as well as British, Americans, and Chinese. The Chilean presence in California during the gold rush is a dramatic, but relatively unknown sliver of history. Allende brings to life the chaos and excitement of the period—the fortunes won and lost in an afternoon, the Chinese healers and the gangs, the straggly miners, the fops, and the hookers.

Unsurprisingly, Allende's most deftly drawn characters are women. The author takes a clearly feminist stance without ever becoming preachy or losing her sense of humor. Miss Rose, Eliza's aunt, is a feisty spinster who lost her virginity to a traveling opera singer and supplements her fortune by writing pornographic novels. Nívea, whom Severo del Valle marries after Lynn's death, is a progressive, feminist, and free spirit of sorts. She bears countless children who follow her around like a gaggle of geese, yet she never flags in her political commitments. Paulina maneuvers the waters of the business world—then, as now, dominated by men—with skill and determination. And Aurora defies the rules of Chilean society by working as a photographer, leaving her husband, and taking a lover.

Through characters such as Williams, the former ruffian passing as an English lord, Allende pokes fun at the social snobbery of the Chilean elite. The relationship between Eliza and Tao serves not only to elucidate both the splendor and corruption of San Francisco's close-knit Chinese community, but also the intolerance of California society which, in spite of the free-for-all atmosphere of the gold-rush era, takes a dim view of racial mixing.

Allende raises a number of other moral issues as well. For example, her descriptions of the brutality of combat, both in the War of the Pacific and in civil conflicts, force the reader to ponder human beings' seemingly infinite capacity of evil. A vibrant, richly woven, often humorous and sometimes hair-raising page-turner, Retrato en sepia is Isabel Allende at her best.

Ilan Stavans (review date 5 October 2001)

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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 twenty-five languages, from Albanian to Icelandic. There are photographs too, one featuring Allende's uncle, Chile's President Salvador Allende, next to her mother, and scores of others in which she poses with celebrities such as Antonio Banderas and Jeremy Irons.

Allende, although Peruvian by birth, was raised in Chile and is based today in San Francisco. In 1982, her first novel, The House of the Spirits, symbolized the end of the old boys' club of Latin American letters, which had sought, in the work of Julio Cortázar and José Lezama Lima and others, to renovate literature: to show that the novel as a genre no longer belonged solely to Europe, but was instead alive and well in the Americas, where the labyrinthine reality itself shrieked to be turned into art. Allende was the first woman to be taken seriously as a femme de lettres in this constellation. Now we can see that her arrival signified something else: that literary experimentation no longer carried the cachet it once had, for it had been replaced by sheer entertainment. Allende is the ultimate transmogrifier of literature into a middlebrow commodity. With the probable exception of Paulo Coelho, no author from south of the border—not Laura Esquivel, not Gabriel García Márquez—is more commercially profitable. None is more predictable.

Portrait in Sepia is the conclusion of a trilogy that started with The House of the Spirits and continued in Daughter of Fortune. The protraction from one novel to another offers a Faulknerian effect of sorts. The sweep is operatic; the time span ranges from 1848 to 1973, and important sequences take place outside Chile—in San Francisco's Chinatown, for instance. Three generations of women are portrayed; this installment is about Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of Eliza Sommer, an orphan raised in Valparaiso, and placed by Allende in California's Gold Rush. Aurora, the narrator of this tale, undergoes a trauma early on in her life and blocks its echoes. As the plot unfolds, the reader travels with her as she unravels the mysteries of her past. In the novel, photographs—thousands of them—help Aurora to dislodge her private memories, and one cannot help comparing them to those on Allende's website; used as tickets to an array of nostalgia and to call up our admiration, they must be put in order to shape the narrative. “All fiction is autobiographical”, as Allende often tells us.

Love and politics, the complex relationship between the Americas North and South, women caught in a macho milieu who search for their redemption, the class struggle that only grudgingly gives room to change: these are some of the recurrent themes in this fast-paced novel, delivered in a heightened prose that is, as always, admirably translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Portrait in Sepia is hopelessly formulaic, however. Its female protagonists—stubborn, independent proto-feminists, often immigrants by choice or by force—fight to uncover their identity against a backdrop of injustice. This picaresque odyssey of epic proportions is full of stilted dialogue:

“I believe, señorita, you've mistaken me for—”

“Forgive me, Dr, Radovic,” I apologized, feeling like an idiot.


“Don't you remember me? I'm Paulina del Valle's granddaughter.”

“Aurora? Surely not, I would never have recognized you. How you've changed!”

Allende states that the novel is “about memory … this theme, like freedom, is particularly relevant in my own life. I have been traveling always, I don't really belong anywhere. My roots are in my memory. Every book is a journey into the past, into the soul, and into memory.”

In spite of Allende's obvious talents, there is not a single ounce of originality in the 300 pages of this novel; one may read on, enthralled, but one never gets lost in another world in the way one does with the best books. Therein, no doubt, lies the reason why Portrait in Sepia is poised to be another big best-seller; Isabel Allende's bet isn't on originality but on the roller-coaster paths of overinflated emotions.

Philip Graham (review date November-December 2001)

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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, though, before Aurora finally tells of her birth—marked by the death of her mother, Lynn Sommers, and abandonment by her father, Matias del Valle.

Aurora's maternal grandparents, Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en, care for her in San Francisco until the grandfather is murdered. From the age of five she is raised in Chile by her widowed paternal grandmother, the indomitable businesswoman Paulina del Valle, who is determined to keep her from discovering her complicated origins. Meanwhile, Aurora is haunted by a recurring nightmare that has her holding the hand of someone whose face she cannot see when they are menaced by children dressed in black pajamas, a pool of blood gathers on the ground, and she loses the grip of that friendly hand.

No one can or will explain those unsettling images that often leave Aurora in paralyzing fear. But she suspects they are somehow linked to her history, so uncovering her mysterious past becomes a vital mission.

Allende has made the crucial mistake, however, of allowing her narrator to reveal in the first third of the novel too much of what she will eventually discover. Consequently, when Aurora spends the next 200 pages searching for the details of her past, it is difficult to remain sufficiently engaged by the quest because you already know the outcome. Allende does manage to leave until the end the explanation for her nightmares, but attentive readers will not be surprised by it either, particularly if they are familiar with the other parts of what the publisher says is a trilogy.

In terms of the period covered, Portrait in Sepia fits between the author's two most successful previous works—The House of the Spirits (1987), her monumental first novel, which casts its narrative gaze across a large part of the 20th century, and Daughter of Fortune (1999), which takes place in the mid-19th century. The new book, describing the years from 1860 to 1910, is peopled and practically overwhelmed by characters introduced earlier. Eliza Sommers, Tao Chi'en and Paulina del Valle appeared initially in Daughter of Fortune; Severo and Nívia del Valle, the parents of the mystical matriarch Clara, are from The House of the Spirits. All are powerful, busy figures who found clinics, establish vineyards, go to war, or stow away on a ship to follow a vanished lover.

The introspective Aurora is simply no match for them. A wallflower in her own narrative, she is too often reduced to observing the dramas of others, or recounting long past adventures she has heard about. Since much of this novel concerns events far from Aurora's own experience, she is frequently unable to capture their vibrancy. One notable exception is Severo's experiences in Chile's War of the Pacific, which she portrays with a harrowing immediacy:

As the Chilean artillery pounded the town with cannon fire, leaving ruin and twisted iron where once there had been a peaceful holiday resort, Severo lay in the patio of the hospital, along with hundreds of mutilated corpses and thousands of wounded abandoned in puddles and besieged by flies, waiting for death or to be saved by a miracle.

Whatever powers of observation Aurora does possess she attributes to her mentor in photography. Don Juan Ribero. This gruff Santiago master is able to teach even after he goes blind. His students “take turns describing what they've seen: a landscape, a scene, a face, an effect of light. They have to learn to observe very closely in order to endure Don Juan Ribero's exhaustive interrogation. As a result their lives change; they can't any longer wander through the world in their old casual way because they have to see with the maestro's eyes.”

From her apprenticeship Aurora develops her own sense of vision. Through her camera she examines “familiar objects with new eyes, as if seeing them for the first time, without taking anything for granted.” Unfortunately, Allende does not allow the reader to experience this transformation, does not limn a single moment of insight that would help us better understand Aurora's inner life.

The rather straightforward historical realism of Portrait in Sepia puts it in a different literary universe than The House of the Spirits, with its expert channeling of Gabriel García Márquez' brand of magic realism. To be sure, Latin American writers before García Márquez wrote books that combined the authorial omniscience and grand sweep of a 19th-century novel with the surrealism of the early 20th century (most notably Miguel Ángel Asturias, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967). Yet it took García Márquez' ability to describe the fantastic in his masterly deadpan voice with eerie understatement, to establish magic realism as a recognized international literary style. Standing beside his towering masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude, but by no means entirely in its shade, are Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Allende's The House of the Spirits.

That magic realism was more an early influence than a personal language for Allende is readily apparent in her subsequent novels. Each makes progressively less use of ghosts, inexplicable occurrences and a casual reordering of reality. One may therefore ask, after shedding the influence of García Márquez what is Allende left with?

The answer is, quite a lot. There remains, of course, her talent for painting a panorama, whether it is San Francisco's Chinatown (“the clocks obey no rules, and at that hour the market, the cart traffic; the woeful barking of caged dogs awaiting the butcher's cleaver, were beginning to heat up”) or a battle in the Andes (“guerrillas hid on snowy peaks, in caves and gullies, on windswept heights that only they, men of the sierra, could survive. The Chilean troops' eardrums burst and bled, they fainted from lack of oxygen, and they froze in the icy gorges”). Then there is her swift, canny take on character: “Paulina always moved deliberately, for she considered that nothing made one as unattractive as haste.”

As for Allende's real subject, her inspiration, it is what she speaks of in Daughter of Fortune as her characters' “rage hidden beneath good breeding.” This is the author's rage as well at the social conventions that trap women—and men—in constricted lives. Her greatest sympathies lie with those who refuse a fate of reduced expectations. In Daughter Eliza Sommers flees the invisibility an illegitimate child could expect in Chile, and during California's gold rush falls in love with and marries a Chinese healer, Tao Chi'en. In The House of the Spirits Blanca Trueba pursues a longtime affair with activist Pedro Tercero, against her landowner father's wishes.

A similar struggle makes Portrait in Sepia come alive. Aurora's tale of the early years of her marriage to the oddly distant Diego Domínguez is a moving, painful account of a husband and wife who have not been able to forge intimate bonds: “Pretending to be asleep, I would press myself against his back and interlace my legs with his; in that way I sometimes bridged the abyss that was deepening between us. In those rare embraces I was not seeking pleasure, since I didn't know that was possible, only consolation and companionship. For a few hours I lived the illusion of having recaptured him, but then dawn would come, and everything would again be as it always was.” Here we find genuine feeling and immediacy; Aurora is finally at the center of her story, and the drama is hers and hers alone. When she searches family photographs she has taken for clues to the reasons for her husband's coldness, Aurora's new powers of sight help transform her life, and Portrait in Sepia finally catches the fire in its author's heart.

Reading Allende's trilogy in the order of its composition, we see a writer who relies increasingly on formula. Formidable parental figures, love at first sight, illegitimate birth, and mansions that expand over the years with a kind of architectural improvisation recur throughout these works. This almost obsessive echoing of subject matter can be said to illustrate the cyclical nature of history. Certainly the political oppression Aurora describes in Chile's 1890s Civil War is a chilling prophecy of the terror that would consume that country in the 1970s—so strongly depicted in The House of the Spirits. But because Allende has covered this material before, she is not always able to make it seem fresh.

Portrait in Sepia has been described too aptly by the publisher as a bridge that completes the author's trilogy. Regrettably, the bridge does little more than connect two far more substantial works. Perhaps Allende should follow the example of her favorite characters and seek out new territory that might revive her protean imagination.

Beth Kephart (review date November-December 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

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. Courtesans, aristocrats, seafarers, orphans, nephews and grandmothers, not to mention purveyors of erotica, rush tantalizingly by; everything's a scandal. A whorl of place names—San Francisco, Chile, Panama, London, New York. Florence—further threatens all reason and calm. Every tangent leads to at least two more, and it is almost impossible to make a guess at where the story's going. Who is this book about, and why should we care? You can almost hear Allende laughing at her readers' inevitable confusion.

But Allende is nothing if not a wholly self-confident spinner of baroquely complicated tales. She has no interest in narrative ease; she prefers, instead, to tantalize and to perform. Portrait in Sepia is, in some ways, a sequel to Allende's Daughter of Fortune, and the author clearly has a lot to say about one spectacularly sprawling, barely legitimate family. She wants her characters to dance out on the stage. Her head is full of gossip, titillation and naughty sex.

Ostensibly, Portrait in Sepia is about Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of the wanderlust-ridden Eliza Sommers, who starred in Daughter of Fortune. To get to Aurora's story, however, we must first go back and find her roots, must learn the sordid details of her conception and the tragic circumstances of her birth, must meet the maternal grandparents who raise the child until the age of five, must spend time in the company of the paternal grandmother, the fabulous Paulina del Valle, who spirits Aurora away to Valparaiso, Chile, soon after the child is summarily placed in her care. Aurora's first impression of Paulina is fabulously drawn in Allende's coy and captivating style; “Since I saw her so many times in that same chair, it isn't hard to picture how she looked that first day; gowned in a profusion of jewels and enough cloth to curtain a house, Imposing, Beside her, the rest of the world disappeared. … I had never seen a creature of such dimensions, perfectly matched to the size and sumptuousness of her mansion.”

Practically hurled into the exceptional world of her paternal grandmother, and soon faced with the confusing politics of a restless Chile, Aurora, an easily embarrassed and inherently shy child, suddenly finds herself among dozens of cousins and uncles, aunts and tutors and society do-gooders, not to mention an entire catalog of intrigues. Everyone in this book has a story to tell. Paulina, for her part, remains preposterously oversized—her hairstyle and wardrobe, her work and home, her charity and business propositions. But all the distractions of Paulina's tempestuous household do not prevent Aurora from seeking answers about the mystery of her birth and early years, Paulina has made it her business to eradicate the child's tragic past. Aurora, who suffers from private torments and nightmares, chafes against the obfuscation. Her history is like a mist that she can't quite push through. She turns in all directions, questioning, but no one will yield the slightest answers.

Told by both third- and first-person narrators, riddled by countless subplots (many of which are only peripherally linked back to Aurora), the book follows Aurora's maturation from a bewildered child and idiosyncratic young teenager through her unhappy marriage and erotic intrigues. It delves—although not entirely convincingly, and with an uncharacteristically stilted prose—into her passion for photography, a medium that purportedly helps her see and know the world. It explicates (and also sometimes seems to make light of) the civil unrest that churns outside her door. Throughout, plot is rarely the focus, instead, the book is exuberantly and perpetually about people, just as it is exuberantly and perpetually about Allende's high-kicking prose. Allende's imagination is a spectacle unto itself—she infects her readers with her own colossal dreams.

The end of Portrait in Sepia, sadly, is a disappointment; the origins of Aurora's disturbing nightmares, while revealed, do not surprise the reader. And Aurora as a young woman never quite springs to life—the final biographical details and intrigues feel tacked on, out of steam, manipulated. But with Portrait in Sepia, Allende proves once again that she is capable of concocting stories of the most vivid and surreal kind, that she is still in the business of teasing, seducing, lusting, shocking Allende, it seems, has fun when she writes. Her books are effusive and energizing, and therefore fun to read.


Allende, Isabel


Allende, Isabel (Vol. 97)