Isabel Allende

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Isabel Allende World Literature Analysis

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Since her appearance on the international literary scene, Allende has been known as a writer who blends Latin American political and social issues into compelling narratives that have popular appeal. However, limiting comments about her to that narrow scope neglects Allende’s other literary talents. Not only does she have a tremendous storytelling ability; she is also adept at weaving many characters into plots that cover generations and at creating strong, memorable female characters. She is thoroughly proficient at adding the dimension of Magical Realism to her otherwise historically realistic novels. All these elements combine to illustrate her main theme: that to be human requires insight into injustice and recognition of the power of love.

Allende’s female characters are at the heart of her novels and short stories. In The House of the Spirits, Alba, granddaughter of the domineering Esteban Trueba, suffers rape and torture at the hands of the military government. Through her courage, she is able to withstand the horrors. She is also helped by other strong women who are equally brutalized. In Of Love and Shadows, Irene risks death to escape from those who would kill her for her work with underprivileged classes. Her strength comes from interacting with poor women and seeing their strength. In The Stories of Eva Luna, Belisa Crepusculario makes her living selling words, strong messages that have power. In Daughter of Fortune, Eliza—the motherless daughter who is adopted by her wealthy English immigrant relatives—risks her life as a stowaway on a Dutch ship sailing from Valparaiso, Chile, to San Francisco; she also survives the brutal chaos of northern California during the 1849 gold rush in an attempt to reclaim a love that was forbidden in Valparaiso. Inés Suarez of Inés of My Soul is also a brave woman who is in search of a lover in a chaotic “new world” and finds her own strength and independence in the process. These women come from diverse backgrounds, but they all use their strength, creativity, and courage to resist oppression. Furthermore, these women embody the traits important to Latin American women and women everywhere who keep inspiration and hope alive.

Allende sets these characters into plots with many minor characters. One of her talents lies in skillfully weaving all of their stories together. The House of the Spirits and The Infinite Plan cover three generations and include the lives of at least fifteen characters. Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, and Daughter of Fortune have fewer characters but also focus on storytelling. In her works, something is always happening; there is always plot. The pages are rich with characters and events.

Allende’s stories have an added dimension: Magical Realism, a literary technique in which the fantastic and the realistic are both present and described with equal equanimity. According to Allende, Magical Realism is a literary device or a way of seeing in which there is space for the invisible forces that move the world: dreams, legends, myths, emotion, passion, and history. She believes that this view of life is not unique to Latin American writers but instead belongs to the literatures of all developing countries where the sudden accelerations of change juxtapose the old and the new. According to Allende, Magical Realism is the capacity to see and to write about all dimensions of reality, not just the realistic.

In The House of the Spirits , the magic of Clara (modeled after Allende’s grandmother) adds another dimension to one’s understanding of the world. Clara has a remarkable clairvoyant ability, having known the spirit world since childhood. Spirits tap on...

(This entire section contains 3476 words.)

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tables or play Chopin on the piano in order to bring her messages about where to search for lost items. InThe Infinite Plan, Allende includes fewer elements of Magical Realism, perhaps because it is set in a country that puts little faith in things that are not subject to analysis. In Daughter of Fortune, Magical Realism is displayed by the character Mama Fresia, who often mixes a sort of Santoria with unorthodox worship of the Catholic saints to cure or mollify mental and physical maladies and who takes the young Eliza to a fortune teller who predicts her fate and destiny: both will be consequences of her love.

This literary style amounts to a strong thematic statement on the limitations of reason and analysis. Magical Realism and spirituality allow Allende to emphasize her main theme, the power of love. She has said many times that she believes so strongly in the power of love, generosity, and justice that she is not bothered that some critics call her sentimental. Love empowers a person to overcome personal tragedy. Love also allows a person to see injustice and do something about it. At the end of The House of the Spirits, Alba’s love helps Esteban Trueba realize that his politics destroyed his own family. In The Infinite Plan, Gregory, with the love of the woman who records his story, sees the injustice he is perpetrating upon his family and turns his efforts toward renewing himself. In Daughter of Fortune, the pursuit of love allows Eliza to understand her identity, establish personal freedom, and potentially end a cycle of denial and cognitive dissonance among her family members.

Allende has said that she writes to speak for those who have no political power. Her work is a record of her attempts to preserve the memories of Latin America, including the injustices, the hopes, and the women heroes about whom one rarely hears. Her writing is her commitment to her fellows, and an act of love. In her works, the personal becomes the political.

The House of the Spirits

First published: La casa de los espíritus, 1982 (English translation, 1985)

Type of work: Novel

Memories of three generations reveal the turbulent personal, political, and social realities of Latin America.

In 1981, several years after Isabel Allende had fled her native Chile to settle in Caracas, Venezuela, her grandfather, with whom she had lived as a child, told her that he was nearing one hundred years old and was going to die. He reminded her of his belief that as long as people live in memories, they do not really die. To keep alive all the people and places she had to leave when exiled from Chile, Allende began a letter to him that recalled the past.

The letter was never sent, but instead became the manuscript for Allende’s first and best-known novel, The House of the Spirits. In it, she re-creates her own past by interweaving the stories of three generations of the fictional Trueba family. Throughout the book, but especially in the early chapters, she uses the literary technique of Magical Realism, a blending of realistic and fantastic detail, which adds an emotionally resonant dimension to the characterizations and to the theme of self-discovery through love.

The story is told by Alba, granddaughter of the central character Esteban Trueba, as a way of coming to terms with the horrors of her life. Though many other characters appear, the plot focuses upon Esteban Trueba, who, as a young peasant, sees the young and beautiful Rosa, daughter of a senator, in the street one day and vows he will marry her. Rosa possesses special spiritual qualities. Like her grandmother, she is able to make objects move, see into the future, and recall the dead. Nine years later Esteban has become rich, but because Rosa is dead, he marries her sister Clara and builds the magnificent house that becomes the house of the spirits and the setting for much of the novel.

Clara is the link with the spirit world and is the opposite of her domineering, possessive, willful husband. As he moves further and further into worldly events and pleasures, she retreats into a world of silence and spiritual insight. Their children grow in this weird atmosphere of the abstracted silent mother and the possessed father who alternates between intense love and intense wrath. His rages reach their peak when he finds out that his daughter Blanca is pregnant.

It is through Alba, Blanca’s daughter, that he finally gains some humanity. Alba’s affair with a rebel leader results in her being taken prisoner and tortured and raped by the military government that her grandfather supports. In jail she records her family history from her grandmother’s diaries. These memories enable her to transcend her suffering and to love Esteban, who has lived by exploiting others. When she is released and reconciled with her grandfather, he realizes the power of love and looks for a chance of fulfillment with her child, whose uncertain parentage (he is either the child of her lover, the rebel leader, or of brutality—the rapes she suffered in prison), represents a culmination of the family’s history.

The plot structure of the book is circular. At the end, another generation of Truebas is to be born. It too will be tied to the past by memories, while facing a present full of violent social and political struggles. Throughout the many tragedies, the power of love will enable them, as it has their ancestors, to survive.

“And of Clay Are We Created”

First published: “De barro estamos hechos,” 1990 (collected in The Stories of Eva Luna, 1991)

Type of work: Short story

A television journalist finds his life changed by the death of a thirteen-year-old girl buried in debris from a volcanic eruption.

“And of Clay Are We Created,” the last short story in Isabel Allende’s collection The Stories of Eva Luna, is based upon a real event. Omayra Sanchez was a young victim of the 1985 earthquake in Colombia. The story is told by the heroine of Allende’s third novel Eva Luna, whose lover, Rolf Carlé, is the main character. With a carefully crafted plot and delicate images, Allende illustrates the theme of self-discovery through love, the same theme that runs through all the stories in this volume.

The story’s first line, “They discovered the girl’s head protruding from the mudpit, eyes wide open, calling soundlessly,” not only begins the action and sets the story but also establishes the image of the eyes and the theme of insight. The last sentence of the paragraph foreshadows the ending: “Rolf Carlé . . . never suspect[ed] that he would find a fragment of his past, lost thirty years before.”

Rolf finds that past; the girl, Azucena, enables him to close the gap between his experiences and his feelings so he can confront it. Azucena is one of twenty thousand victims of a volcanic eruption that has wiped out an entire Latin American village. Arriving by helicopter, Rolf, a maker of television documentaries, finds himself first on the scene filming the volunteers trying to reach the girl, who is buried up to her neck in quicksandlike mud. Within minutes, the girl’s plight is broadcast throughout the world.

Rolf remains by her side. Throughout the night he tells stories of his adventures as a newsman to keep up her courage. Miles away, the narrator, Eva Luna, watches television and feels the pain of both Azucena and Rolf. She tries to get a pump sent to the site, but her efforts are futile. She even tries to help Rolf through her “force of mind.”

Later she watches the morning broadcast. Things have degenerated, but Rolf, now near exhaustion, still tries to keep the girl’s spirits up. More cameras and equipment arrive, and the worldwide focus on the young girl intensifies, making the scene so real to Eva that she envisions herself by their side using her love to help them endure the suffering.

On the second night, Rolf begins to talk of his life, speaking with an intensity like that of the volcano that has caused this tragedy. Beginning with the horrors of the concentration camps in Germany, he goes back even further to recall the abuse of his childhood by an evil father and his guilt over the fate of his retarded sister. As he finishes, he is in tears, ironically consoled by the dying Azucena.

In the morning, the president arrives and positions himself for the cameras beside the buried child. Rolf keeps his vigil throughout that day. Eva recalls the moment when, despite the president’s promises of help, the two give up hope. The strength of her love enables her to empathize with them as they accept the things that cannot be changed. On the night of the third day, with the cameras focused upon her, the girl dies.

Returning to Eva, Rolf is a changed person. He has set aside his cameras. Now able to see things clearly, he needs time to heal the wounds in himself just as the mud will cover the holes in the earth. The story ends with a thematic connection to the beginning sentence.

The Infinite Plan

First published: El plan infinito, 1991 (English translation, 1993)

Type of work: Novel

One man’s search for love and self-esteem leads him through struggles symbolic of those facing a generation of Americans.

In Allende’s fourth novel, she exchanges the Latin American setting and memorable heroines of the previous three books for an American setting and a male protagonist. The Infinite Plan tells the story of Gregory Reeves, son of an itinerant preacher. In it, Allende relies on realistic detail rather than elements of Magical Realism. She continues to use her skillful narrative techniques to interweave the lives of many characters who represent twentieth century American lifestyles.

Gregory, his mother, sister, and a family friend travel around the country in the 1940’s with his father Charles, who tries to win converts to the infinite plan, his peculiar doctrine of destiny and salvation. When Charles becomes ill, the group settles in a Hispanic barrio of Los Angeles, where Gregory finds that life is even harder than on the road. As a white misfit, he suffers the pains of being an outsider as well as the usual pains of adolescence. These are somewhat eased by Pedro and Immaculada Morales, who become his surrogate parents, and by their daughter Carmen, who becomes a lifelong friend.

In addition to the Morales family, Gregory has other mentors. They help him cope as his family life deteriorates. His father dies, his mother withdraws into the world of the infinite plan, and his sister eats to avoid her problems. Gregory is initiated into sex by Olga and into the life of the mind by Cyrus, a communist elevator operator at the public library. These people, like others Gregory meets throughout the novel, are not developed in depth but represent an array of desires, fantasies, and stupidities.

Graduating from high school, Gregory leaves the barrio for Berkeley to begin his search for himself in earnest. There he enthusiastically encounters the 1960’s hippie scene and begins another succession of adventures that represent a generation of Americans in their own social, political, and spiritual journeys. After a few years, the Berkeley scene leaves him empty and he ends up going to Vietnam to find himself as a man. Allende’s description of the Vietnam War emphasizes its horrors and their effects on Gregory.

Gregory returns from Vietnam determined to become a rich lawyer and to embrace the yuppie ethic of success. These values also fail to bring him happiness or self-esteem. He marries twice; both marriages are disasters resulting in two neurotic children, one a daughter who becomes a drug-addicted prostitute and the other a hyperactive son. Throughout all this misfortune, Gregory continues to rely upon his childhood friend Carmen, who has since become a world-renowned jewelry designer and successful single mother, having adopted the son of her dead brother and a Vietnamese woman. At the end of the novel, Gregory begins to face the mess of his life rather than run away and, with a multicultural cast of characters, begins to pick up the pieces.

Gregory tells his story to an anonymous woman with whom, the reader assumes, he will form some relationship. The plot progresses by alternating between his and her point of view. Using this technique, Allende succeeds in exposing the reader to many of the social and political problems, and their solutions, of the late twentieth century United States. When Gregory is in his late forties, he realizes that there are no quick fixes.

Daughter of Fortune

First published: Hija de la fortuna, 1999 (English translation, 1999)

Type of work: Novel

Prejudice and hypocrisy caused by an oppressive system of social stratification in nineteenth century Chile push a beloved daughter away from her family and toward self-knowledge and freedom.

Daughter of Fortune introduces readers to a young woman named Eliza Sommers, who, shortly after being born, was placed on the doorstep of Rose and Jeremy Sommers’s home in Valparaiso, Chile. Even though Eliza was an orphan, Miss Rose brought her up as if she were her own daughter and assured her that she was of British blood, as were all the Sommerses. Rose and Jeremy were unmarried siblings who came to Valparaiso when Jeremy acquired a position as the director of the British Import and Export Company. Rose supported this claim of British heritage with a story about the day they found Eliza on the doorstep. According to Miss Rose, Eliza was found in a beautifully adorned basket beneath an intricately handwoven blanket that only wealthy people could afford. Eliza, who has a memory of magical proportions, remembers being found in a soapbox covered with a wool sweater that smelled of cigar and the sea. Mama Fresia, the Sommers’s cook, Eliza’s first friend, and her companion in the world of Magical Realism, verifies Eliza’s version. However, Rose’s version turns out to carry some validity as well.

It is not long before Eliza falls in love with Joaquin Andieta, a Hispanic clerk who works for Jeremy’s company. Their love affair is filled with angst, secret meetings, and clandestine plans; this is because the social order places Hispanic people well below those of pure European ancestry, keeping them in destitute poverty and just above the native South Americans, who are not seen as people at all. Rose was grooming Eliza to marry a wealthy man of European descent; therefore, Eliza’s relationship with Joaquin is taboo. Eliza, however, puts all of her faith in Joaquin, who seems to love his socialist ideals more than he loves her. He soon embezzles money from Jeremy’s company and heads off to San Francisco, where he thinks he will make his fortune by finding gold during the 1849 gold rush.

Eliza follows him to California after meeting Tao Chien, the cook on her “Uncle” John Sommers’s ship. Tao helps her stow away aboard a vessel on which he also serves as cook. After barely surviving this trip, Eliza takes the identity of a boy, more specifically Tao Chien’s little brother, in order to survive in California. Her brave journey in California in search of Joaquin is the catalyst that forces the Sommers family to admit to hypocrisy, deception, and human weakness. It is one of many examples in Allende’s fiction that illustrates how the power of love can unravel systematic injustice.

The major characters in Allende’s novels often include a patrician family who hide secrets in order to maintain their status at the top of the social order. In this case, Jeremy and Rose’s obsession with keeping up appearances in order to avoid being ostracized by their own kind causes a potential cycle of self-abuse and an eventual breakdown of the family. They set a standard for civilized behavior that is not achievable. Consequently, they place those standards upon Eliza, which drives her away. The secrets that Jeremy, Rose, and John Sommers hold could free Eliza from the guilt and pain that may cause her demise, but they selfishly hold on to their false sense of social status, even though Eliza is suffering and lost.

The women in Allende’s fictional families often pay the greatest price for this hypocrisy. Even when raised by a wealthy family, the daughters are intended to be breeders. Many of Allende’s female characters rise above this limitation, but they often have to separate themselves from mainstream society and their families to accomplish this, as does Eliza. This oppressive atmosphere is also negative for the most romantic male characters in Allende’s novels. If they truly love a woman, they are caught in the trap of cognitive dissonance. Their cultural beliefs do not match their actions, which causes some male characters, such as Tao Chien, to function on the brink of nihilistic insanity. Allende shows time and time again that if one truly loves another, then systematic oppression by gender or race becomes a terrible mistake that could not only damage individuals and families, but also entire governments and nations.

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