Isabel Allende Allende, Isabel (Vol. 97) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Isabel Allende 1942–

Chilean novelist, short story writer, memoirist, humorist, and children's fiction writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Allende's works through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39 and 57.

A Latin-American author largely known for her fiction, Allende often blends elements of realism and fantasy in her works to examine the tumultuous social and political heritage of South America. She frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her family to record the violence and repression that characterizes much of Latin-American history. Despite her recurring use of moral and political themes, Allende maintains that she does not intend to create political fiction. "I write about the things I care about," she has stated; "poverty, inequality, and social problems are part of politics, and that's what I write about…. I just can't write in an ivory tower, distant from what's happening in the real world and from the reality of my continent. So the politics just steps in, in spite of myself."

Biographical Information

Allende was born in Lima, Peru, where her father served as a diplomatic representative of Chile. Although Allende's contact with her father ceased following her parents' divorce, she remained close to his family—particularly Salvador Allende, her uncle and godfather, who served as president of Chile from 1970 to 1973. As a child in Santiago, Chile, Allende lived with her maternal grandparents, who would later serve as models for Esteban and Clara Trueba, the patriarch and matriarch of the family whose history Allende chronicled in her first and best-known novel, La casa de los espiritus (1982; The House of the Spirits). After spending her adolescence in Bolivia, Europe, and the Middle East with her mother and diplomat stepfather, Allende settled in Chile and became a journalist, working on television programs and newsreels, as well as writing for a radical feminist magazine. Her life changed abruptly in 1973 when a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, resulted in the assassination of Salvador Allende and the overthrow of his socialist government. Although she remained in Chile for several months following the takeover, Allende's efforts to assist the opposition of the new regime ultimately jeopardized her safety, and in 1974 she escaped with her family to Caracas, Venezuela. She has since relocated to the United States fol-lowing a divorce from her husband of twenty-five years and a second marriage to a California lawyer.

Major Works

Allende's literary career began when she started to write a letter to her dying grandfather, a nearly one-hundred-year-old man who had remained in Chile. "My grandfather thought people died only when you forgot them," the author has explained. "I wanted to prove to him that I had forgotten nothing, that his spirit was going to live with us forever." Allende never sent the letter to her grandfather, who soon died, but her memories of her family and her country were the genesis of The House of the Spirits. This work, set in an unnamed South American country recognizable as Chile, spans six decades and tells the story of three generations of a family shaken by domestic and political conflicts. Allende's 1984 novel, De amor y de sombra (Of Love and Shadows), also takes place in a country where citizens are repressed by the policies of a military regime. The novel concerns two lovers intent on exposing the fate of the desaparecidos, people who were "disappeared" by the dictatorship's secret police. Allende's third novel, Eva Luna (1987), relates the passage of the narrator Eva from an illiterate orphan to a successful television scriptwriter. 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. Eva Luna celebrates the storytelling abilities of the narrator, and in Cuentos de Eva Luna (1989; The Stories of Eva Luna), Allende transformed into short stories several of Eva's biographical sketches of persons integral to her development. The Stories of Eva Luna includes pieces originating from real events as well as episodes from the previous novel. Although Allende has acknowledged that not all the stories are told in Eva's voice, the author asserts that "it's her tone" that binds the collection together. Allende has also written a fourth novel, El plan infinito (1991; The Infinite Plan). Reviewer Nelida Kahan has summarized this work as an account of "the traumatic experiences of an American lawyer raised in a broken family in a Chicano community."

Critical Reception

The House of the Spirits has generated a great deal of critical attention, due not only to its merits but also to its likeness to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Several reviewers have considered Allende's first novel to be closely imitative of the magic realist style introduced by the "Boom," a literary movement of the 1960s whose members, including García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier, tempered realism with mysticism and hyperbole. They cite such similarities between The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude as their family chronicle structures, magic realist narration, and parallel characters, (including Rosa the Beautiful, who greatly resembles García Márquez's Remedios the Beauty). Other critics have contended that while Allende did utilize the technique of magic realism to chronicle legendary occurrences in the history of the Trueba clan, her own voice emerges in her straightforward, journalistic treatment of realistic events surrounding the military coup. Bruce Allen has observed: "Despite its undeniable debt to One Hundred Years of Solitude, [The House of the Spirits] is an original and important work; along with García Márquez's masterpiece, it's one of the best novels of the postwar period." While reaction to The House of the Spirits has been positive, Allende's fiction as a whole has received mixed reviews. While some commentators regard her works as derivative or melodramatic, most commend her polished technique, including the lushly detailed prose and compelling images which subtly convey her moral and political themes. Some debate has ensued, however, over whether she successfully combines her political ideas with the fantastic elements in her fiction. Much critical analysis of Allende's work has been devoted to her feminist perspective and her depiction of the patriarchal society of Latin America has been applauded, though some critics charge that her portrayals of Latin males are frequently stereotypically macho and that she at times resorts to other clichés about Hispanics. Allende's novels and short story collection have been translated into many languages and have achieved international popular acclaim. Moreover, critics have generally come to value Allende not only as a commentator on the turbulent nature of Latin-American society but also as an author of powerful, humanistic fiction. Some have even placed her in the ranks of the "Boom" tradition novelists she resembles. As Alexander Coleman has asserted: Allende is "the first woman to join what has heretofore been an exclusive male club of Latin American novelists. Not that she is the first contemporary female writer from Latin America … but she is the first woman to approach on the same scale as the others the tormented patriarchal world of traditional Hispanic society."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Civilice a su troglodita: Los impertinentes de Isabel Allende (humor) 1974
La casa de los espíritus [The House of the Spirits] (novel) 1982
La gorda de porcelana (juvenile) 1983
De amor y de sombra [Of Love and Shadows] (novel) 1984
Eva Luna [Eva Luna] (novel) 1987
Cuentos de Eva Luna [The Stories of Eva Luna] (short stories) 1989
El plan infinito [The Infinite Plan] (novel) 1991
Paula [Paula] (memoirs) 1994

Jane Urquhart (review date November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tales from Isabel Allende's Passionate, Magical World," in Quill and Quire, Vol. 56, No. 11, November, 1990, p. 25.

[Urquhart is a Canadian poet, novelist, and short story writer whose works include Changing Heaven (1990). In the following mixed review of The Stories of Eva Luna, she states that "what one takes away from this collection is a sense of the richness of life with all its attendant mysteries, celebrations, and miseries."]

This collection of fabular fictions [The Stories of Eva Luna], which is a kind of surrealistic spin-off from Isabel Allende's last novel, Eva Luna, opens with the photographer/journalist Rolf Carlé...

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Barbara Kingsolver (review date 20 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fish Fall from the Sky for a Reason," in The New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1991, p. 13.

[Kingsolver is an American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and poet. In the review below, she discusses the plots of various stories in The Stories of Eva Luna, calling them "miracles of construction."]

In years past, I've received and given out this common advice for writers: Let your novel's important characters dictate their life stories to you, beginning with childhood; write it all down; then throw it away and start the novel. The Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has now gone one better by having one of her characters write a book....

(The entire section is 885 words.)

John Butt (review date 8 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Night with Real Men," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4584, February 8, 1991, p. 12.

[In the review below, Butt focuses on the romantic themes in The Stories of Eva Luna.]

Readers of Isabel Allende's previous novel, Eva Luna, will recall that we left the left-wing waif in Cloud Cuckoo Land in the arms of the dashing international photo-journalist Rolf Carle: "He strode forward and kissed me exactly as it happens in romantic novels, exactly as I had been wanting him to for a century, and exactly as I had been describing moments before in my Bolero."

The purpose of the curious self-parody in the last part of the sentence was...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Ronie-Richelle García-Johnson (essay date 1 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, which originally appeared as a chapter of a senior honors thesis presented at Harvard College on March 1, 1991, García-Johnson examines Allende's representation of the struggle for dominance between men and women.]

The temporal setting of the action in The House of the Spirits spans fifty years—from the early twenties to about 1974. Historically, and fictionally, within the novel, these were the years in which the women's movement began to gather strength, and then gain...

(The entire section is 3833 words.)

Patricia Hart (review date 11 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Stories of Eva Luna, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 252, No. 9, March 11, 1991, pp. 314-16.

[An American critic and educator, Hart is the author of Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende (1989). Below, she discusses Allende's narrative structures, characters, and use of magic realism in The Stories of Eva Luna.]

Critics of Isabel Allende's first book, The House of the Spirits, seized on her blending of magic, hyperbole and realism to insist that it was a shallow ripoff of Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, without perceiving her vast fundamental differences from the Nobel laureate or that most of the superficial...

(The entire section is 1292 words.)

Eleanor J. Bader (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Stories of Eva Luna, in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 1991, p. 60.

[In the following review, Bader calls Allende a "master storyteller" but questions her treatment of women and feminist issues in The Stories of Eva Luna.]

Like virtually every American, I remember exactly what I was doing when George Bush declared war on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people: I was reading "Our Secret," one of the short stories in Isabel Allende's The Stories of Eva Luna.

Prescient and poignant, this tale is a slice-of-life look at two people who meet on the street, pick each other up for what...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Suzanne Ruta (review date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lovers and Storytellers," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 9, June, 1991, p. 10.

[Ruta is an American fiction writer and critic. In the following review of The Stories of Eva Luna, she describes Allende's stories as "mini-epics, mini-tragedies or even mini-sagas."]

In her first novel, The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende threw a veil of sweetness and light over a bitter period in Chilean history: her uncle Salvador Allende's coming to power, the destabilization and 1973 coup and its bloody aftermath. Her fidelity to the magic realist formula that Alejo Carpentier invented and Gabriel Garcia Marquez popularized and then...

(The entire section is 2090 words.)

Edna Aguirre Rehbein (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Act/Art of Narrating in Eva Luna," in Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels, edited by Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, Peter Lang, 1991, pp. 179-90.

[In the following excerpt, Rehbein maintains that Allende manipulates language and the narrator's voice in Eva Luna to represent a changing reality in the narrative.]

Cuando escribi Eva Luna, por primera vez me sente 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 contandoles a otros el cuento de su propia vida. En Eva Luna puse muchas cosas: queria...

(The entire section is 4062 words.)

Susan de Carvalho (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Escrituras y Escritoras: The Artist-Protagonist of Isabel Allende," in Discurso Literario, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1992, pp. 59-67.

[In the essay below, de Carvalho examines the self-exploration of the narrators in Eva Luna and The House of the Spirits.]

Isabel Allende has noted that La casa de los espíritus (1982) is the story of her family, or of a family similar to her own. She says that her grandmother was in fact clairvoyant and telekinetic, essentially similar to Clara. It follows, then, that Alba, who turns out to be the narrator, in many ways represents the author herself, the one who consolidates and disseminates the magically real...

(The entire section is 3675 words.)

Patricia Hart (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of El plan infinito, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 335-36.

[Below, Hart discusses Allende's shift to a Mexican-American protagonist in El plan infinito and praises her characterization, imaginative prose, and humor.]

All the exuberant strengths and endearing weaknesses of Isabel Allende's lively fictional style are in full evidence in her fourth novel, El plan infinito. Readers may struggle a bit to suspend disbelief at certain points, but the mosaic of outrageous anecdote, flamboyant and varied detail, and shrewd insight into the struggles of being human more than overcomes our skepticism. As ever,...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)

Robert Bly (review date 16 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Westward Ho the New Age Covered Wagon," in The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, p. 13.

[An American poet, critic, essayist, and editor, Bly is a prominent figure in contemporary American letters. In the review below, he examines Allende's treatment of American history in The Infinite Plan.]

Isabel Allende moves in this book [The Infinite Plan] into new territory for her fiction: the site is North America, her main character is an American man, and while describing with verve the last two generations of a North American family, the novel doubles as a cameo history of the United States. As World War II is ending, Charles Reeves, a tent preacher,...

(The entire section is 998 words.)

Marie Arana-Ward (review date 23 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coming to America," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 23, 1993, p. 6.

[In the following review of The Infinite Plan, Arana-Ward argues that Allende's novel suffers from clichés, "numbing descriptions," and slight characterizations.]

A promise is made in Isabel Allende's new novel, [The Infinite Plan] in the lure of its title and the shimmer of its opening tableau. A little boy urinates on a hillside at sunset, his back to the mountains, his eyes on the liquid gold of the Pacific Ocean. In the distance his family waits.

It is a moment he will never forget. At other times in his life, when confronted by...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Linda Simon (review date 24 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Odyssey of an Evangelist's Son," in The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1993, p. A8.

[Simon is an American biographer who has written works on such figures as Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder. In the review below, she argues that The Infinite Plan is "ethically diverse," but "not deeply felt."]

Isabel Allende was working as a journalist in her native Chile—writing news and feature articles, horoscopes and a lonely-hearts column—when, as she tells it, she met the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda for lunch. Neruda, who had read her pieces, gave her some advice: "You are a horrible journalist," he told her. "But—you are a wonderful...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 10 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Unusual Characters Pursue Their Dreams," in The Christian Science Monitor, June 10, 1993, p. 14.

[Rubin is an American critic. In the following review of The Infinite Plan, he argues that the novel "is ambitious in scope, but merely competent in execution."]

The Infinite Plan is Isabel Allende's fifth novel and her first to be set in the United States, where she now lives. The Chilean-born journalist and author received considerable attention for her previous books, The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, and The Stories of Eva Luna, which found their way onto the bestseller lists.

Allende writes...

(The entire section is 616 words.)

Jean McNeil (review date 9 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gringo Inventions," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4710, July 9, 1993, p. 22.

[In the review below, McNeil contends that Allende's treatment of themes in The Infinite Plan is predictable and simplistic, and that her female characters are stereotypical.]

"What they most esteemed was the ability to tell a story", Isabel Allende writes in The Infinite Plan. She is referring, here, to the Vietnamese, but you feel she might also be thinking of her own readership. The Chilean writer has been praised for her narrative talents; her hugely successful novels, The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, had their grounding in the weaving of...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

Patricia Hart (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Magic Feminism in Isabel Allende's The Stories of Eva Luna," in Multicultural Literatures through Feminist/Poststructuralist Lenses, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1993, pp. 103-36.

[In the essay below, Hart examines what she terms "feminocentric magic realism" in The Stories of Eva Luna, focusing on Allende's handling of such issues as prostitution and rape.]

Magic used to show the reader what equality between the sexes should be is a key technique employed by Isabel Allende in The Stories of Eva Luna. In the long tradition of magic realism in Latin American letters, the point has never been to hold up an exact mirror to...

(The entire section is 11623 words.)

Isabel Allende with Michael Toms (interview date May/June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Common Boundary, May/June, 1994, pp. 16-23.

[In the following interview, Allende discusses her writing technique, how personal experience has affected her works, her literary influences, and her career as a journalist.]

[Toms]: You began your writing career as a journalist. How did you become a fiction writer?

[Allende]: I didn't have a choice. I had been silent for a very long time, paralyzed by the experience of exile and the losses in my life. Then one day—it was January 8, 1981—I heard that my grandfather, who lived in Chile, was dying. When I was little, he was the most important male figure in my life. So I...

(The entire section is 5252 words.)

Claudia Marie Kovach (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mask and Mirror: Isabel Allende's Mechanism for Justice in The House of the Spirits," in Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical Call for Justice, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 74-90.

[Kovach is an American educator and critic who has written works on such subjects as ethnic American literature and literary theory. In the following essay, she examines the ways in which Allende propagates a "prophetic vision of female integrity and justice" in The House of the Spirits, focusing on the role of memories in the book and Allende's narrative strategies.]

No one brings suit justly,
no one goes...

(The entire section is 7013 words.)

Lynne Diamond-Nigh (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eva Luna: Writing as History," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 29-42.

[In the following essay, Diamond-Nigh examines Allende's treatment of Latin-American literary history in Eva Luna.]

In the beginning was the Word. And in the end. The opening lines of Isabel Allende's Eva Luna (1989) place us squarely in a world created and structured by the written word: "My name is Eva, which means 'life,' according to a book of names my mother consulted." Indeed, the entire first chapter of that novel functions to displace our center of reference from the real world to the world of the Book where the life of the...

(The entire section is 5023 words.)

Gabriella De Ferrari (review date 30 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Letters to a Dying Daughter," in Book World—The Washington Post, April 30, 1995, p. 10.

[De Ferrari is a Peruvian-born art curator and novelist. In the following review of Paula, she discusses Allende's portrayal of her life and family.]

Isabel Allende's new book, Paula, is more than a memoir. It is a tender, moving and vivid record of a mother's agony at the bedside of her daughter—a 27-year-old who succumbed to a hereditary disease called porphyria and, because of a doctor's misdiagnosis, lay in a coma for a year before dying. The book moves through dark territories from desperation to a heartbreaking ace: an acceptance of that most searing...

(The entire section is 1213 words.)

Doris Grumbach (review date 30 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Farewell My Daughter," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 30, 1995, pp. 3, 8.

[Grumbach is an American educator, biographer, memoirist, and critic who has written such works as Coming into the Endzone: A Memoir (1991). In the following review of Paula, she praises Allende's storytelling abilities.]

Many people believe that fiction arises out of somewhat well-disguised autobiography. Such readers search authors' life stories for clues to their seemingly imaginative fiction, certain that, if only they knew enough of the authors' real lives they could account for every detail that appears on the pages of novels. Isabel Allende's beautiful and...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

Suzanne Ruta (review date 21 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Long Goodbye," in The New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1995, p. 11.

[In the following review of Paula, Ruta faults Allende's writing as overly sentimental and criticizes Allende for failing to more fully develop Paula's character.]

"All sorrows can be borne," Isak Dinesen once said, "if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." That approach worked well for Isabel Allende—until lately. When her beloved grandfather lay dying she wrote him a letter that became her first, and most successful, novel, The House of the Spirits. Grieving for Chile under Pinochet, she wrote Of Love and Shadows. As her first marriage...

(The entire section is 1099 words.)

Mira Schwirtz (review date May-June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paula Remembered," in San Francisco Review of Books, May-June, 1995, p. 10.

[In the following review of Paula, Schwirtz states that Allende's depiction of her personal pain is intense and excruciating.]

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...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

John Butt (review date 29 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "After Pinochet," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4826, September 29, 1995, p. 28.

[In the following review of Paula, Butt contends that Allende's "defenceless optimism" and "effusive generosity" are effective in her memoirs but not necessarily in her fiction.]

Paula is a confessional autobiography written to relieve anguish during the many hours Isabel Allende spent in hospital waiting-rooms while her daughter (Paula) lay in a coma caused by porphyria. Hispanic writers are usually furtive about private matters, but life in California has converted Allende to the North American passion for letting it all hang out. This sometimes...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)

Wendy DuBow (review date November-December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Paula, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 6, November-December, 1995, p. 10.

[In the review below, DuBow states that while Paula is not really about Allende's daughter, the work nevertheless expresses true grief over her death.]

Isabel Allende's autobiographical Paula is a heartrending account of her 28-year-old daughter's losing battle with porphyria, a rare blood disease (brought to our attention recently by the film The Madness of King George). Paula takes the reader on a journey of love, terror, political turmoil, sadness, endurance, and magic.

An internationally known author of...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Foreman, P. Gabrielle. "Past-On Stories: History and the Magically Real, Morrison and Allende on Call." Feminist Studies 18, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 369-88.

Comparative study in which Foreman examines the "interrelation of history, ontology, and the magically real" in Allende's The House of the Spirits and Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Hughes, Kathryn. "California Scheming." New Statesman and Society (2 July 1993): 38-9.

Negative review of The Infinite Plan. Hughes states that this work "marks a sharp shift in location for Allende and a...

(The entire section is 406 words.)