The House of the Spirits begins by introducing us to our first major character, Clara.
Clara is in the habit of "writing down important matters" (1.1). Here she writes, "Barrabás came to us by sea" (1.1).
The first two sentences of the novel take us through a bit of a time warp. Clara, now a child, is in the habit of recording events in her notebooks, and will pass through a period of muteness for a while after starting this practice. Fifty years later, the narrator will use Clara's notebooks to "reclaim the past and overcome terrors of [her] own" (1.1).
Who is Barrabás? We don't know yet, but he arrives on Holy Thursday in a pitiful state – caged, covered in his own excrement, and with the "lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner" (1.1).
Despite all this, Barrabás has a certain dignity about him. The narrator tells us he will become a "legendary giant" (1.1).
It's a "bland, autumnal day" (1.1) (the holiday of Holy Thursday, just before Easter, takes place in the fall, not spring, in the southern hemisphere), unlike the events that we're about to hear about from Clara.
These events take place at the noon mass in the parish of San Sebastián.
Holy Thursday is a pretty somber day in the Catholic calendar. The church is decked out in mourning – the statues of saints are covered in "funereal sheets" and resemble "terrifying dark bundles" with "influenza-pale expressions" (1.1)
The statue of the church's patron saint, Saint Sebastián, is actually improved by being covered by a shroud. Normally the parishioners are exposed to the sight of his twisted body, "pierced by arrows, and dripping with blood and tears" (1.1). Clara finds the statue disgusting.
Holy Week does not sound like a lot of fun. Lots of "penitence and fasting" (1.2), and no card games or music allowed!
But wait – the fast doesn't sound too bad. "Soft puff pastries, delicious vegetarian dishes, spongy tortillas, and enormous cheeses from the countryside" (1.2).
Families aren't, however, allowed to "touch the least morsel of meat or fish on pain of excommunication" (1.2). Sounds a bit harsh but thank goodness for those puff pastries.
Father Restrepo is the man behind the morbid decorations and threats of eternal damnation. He likes to embarrass his parishioners by accusing them of various mortal sins.
Father Restrepo accuses one gentleman of stealing from the collection box, and then Doña Ester Trueba, a pious and elderly woman, of being a "hussy" who "prostitutes herself down by the docks" (1.3). His allegations are completely specious – Doña Ester Trueba doesn't even know the meaning of the word "hussy."
Father Restrepo's methods are a bit old-fashioned. He really likes to talk about hell and damnation. He makes everyone uncomfortable, but for some reason, he's popular enough that some of the faithful will follow him from parish to parish.
Now we're introduced to Severo del Valle, an "atheist and a Mason" (1.5) who only goes to church because he's a politician and wants everyone to see him.
Severo's wife, Nívea, doesn't care for mass either, but she supports her husband's efforts to run for Congress. She figures that his success will help further her own political ambitions to secure the right to vote for women.
Severo and Nívea have eleven living children, of whom Clara is the youngest. Clara is now ten years old.
The narrator notes that Clara, like all the women in her family, has an overactive imagination.
Nívea, hot and uncomfortable, begins to think about her eldest daughter, Rosa.
Rosa is extremely beautiful, in an other-worldly kind of way. Her green hair and the bluish tones of her skin make her look like a mermaid.
Rosa is engaged to Esteban Trueba, who has been gone for two years while working the mines in the North.
Rosa spends a lot of time embroidering an enormous tablecloth with fantastical animals.
Nívea's restrictive clothing sounds seriously uncomfortable, and she feels like she's choking in the hot church.
When Father Restrepo pauses for a dramatic break in his sermon, little Clara's voice can be heard saying: "Psst! Father Restrepo! If that story about hell is a lie, we're all fucked, aren't we…." (1.9).
Señor and Señora del Valle are embarrassed, and usher their entire family out of the church before anyone can react. As they exit, they can hear Father Restrepo pronouncing that Clara is possessed by the devil.
Clara's parents are worried about the priest's pronouncement because they recognize that there is something different about Clara – she often moves dishes around the dinner table using only her mind, and warns her family about earthquakes and accidents before they happen.
Nana, the family housekeeper, thinks Clara will grow out of her clairvoyant tricks when she hits puberty. Nana adores Clara, and often helps nurse the girl through her asthma attacks.
Severo is concerned that, if people find out about Clara's strange powers, it might damage his political career.
A group of men arrive at the del Valle home with a coffin containing the body of Uncle Marcos. Nívea insists on being allowed to see the body of her brother to make sure he's really dead this time. She's already had to bury him once before.
It's been two years since Clara has seen her Uncle Marcos, but she remembers him clearly. She finds it hard to believe he's dead.
Now we get some back-story on Uncle Marcos.
The del Valle children love Uncle Marcos because he comes to stay for several months at a time, bringing strange artifacts and animals from his exploration of foreign lands. He conducts strange alchemy experiments in the kitchen, practices bizarre exercises, and even teaches an Amazonian parrot to speak Spanish.
After failing to woo his cousin, Antonieta, with his barrel organ, the heartbroken Uncle Marcos leaves his parrot with Clara and takes off on a trip around the world. He comes back with a bunch of crates full of parts that he assembles into a flying machine, which he pledges to fly across the mountain range.
An enormous crowd gathers to see Uncle Marcos take off in his flying machine. He disappears over the mountain range. After a week, the del Valle family presumes him dead, and a team of mountain explorers sets out to search for his remains. They return with a sealed black coffin, which the del Valle family buries in a grandiose funeral.
One week after the burial, Uncle Marcos returns to the del Valle home, alive and well. The coffin is pried open and found to contain a bag of sand.
Marcos stays at his sister's house for another couple of months and then takes off again, leaving all of his belongings behind this time.
Clara is upset by her uncle's sudden departure – she and Marcos had grown very close during his last stay, thanks to her prophesying powers.
Here the narrator backtracks again: during his last stay at the del Valle home, Uncle Marcos spends a lot of time with Clara because he believes her clairvoyance can be a source of income, and because he thinks that working with her can train him to cultivate his own psychic powers.
He and Clara set up a business divining the location of lost objects and giving advice on how to acquire love and money. With Nana's help, the two establish a thriving business, but eventually get a little freaked out by their own success and decide to shut it down.
Clara is the del Valle child most interested in her Uncle Marcos's stories. She can repeat his many tales of his adventures in far-off places. Marcos also has a trunk full of travel journals, maps, and books of stories and fairy tales. His descendents love to read these, until the collection is burned on a pyre half a century later.
OK, now back to Marcos. He's actually dead this time. Cause of death: a "mysterious African plague that had turned him as yellow and wrinkled as a piece of parchment" (1.24).
Let's jump back again. When Marcos finds out he's sick, he hops a ship back to Chile, hoping his sister and the family doctor can heal him. But he dies at sea, and the passengers of the vessel have to convince the captain to not throw his body overboard. Captain Longfellow unloads the body and all of Uncle Marcos's possessions at port, and a customs official has everything shipped to the del Valle house.
Clara's grief is mitigated by the arrival of Barrabás, a filthy, crusty, famished-looking animal that she discovers in her uncle's baggage and identifies as a puppy. She nurses the pup back to health and refuses to give him up or to let Nana cut his tail.
Barrabás grows to be enormous and intimidating, but is gentle as a lamb. He wreaks all sorts of havoc in the house with his sweeping tail and terrifying appearance. Nana tries to poison him, but only succeeds in giving him a bad case of diarrhea.
Suddenly the narrative shifts to first-person. We're not really sure who's talking yet, but we do know the new narrator's twenty-five, works hard, and is really ambitious.
Oh, and he misses Rosa and lives in a mine. Must be Esteban Trueba, Rosa's fiancé.
Esteban lives in a sparsely-furnished, one-room shack in the middle of nowhere. He writes to his girlfriend a lot.
Esteban remembers seeing Rosa for the first time. She's buying licorice drops at a pastry shop with Nana and one of her younger sisters. She's attracting a lot of attention because she's so beautiful. Esteban Trueba follows her home, bribes the servants, and eventually manages to send Rosa love letters and gifts.
Esteban's sister Férula arranges for him to visit the del Valle family, and he becomes Rosa's official suitor, despite having no money.
Esteban realizes he needs to get rich if he wants to marry Rosa, so he gets a concession for a mine in the North and sets out on a dangerous and potentially financially devastating adventure, hoping for a stroke of luck.
Esteban's monologue ends here.
Back to the del Valle family: at the end of autumn, Severo del Valle is invited to be the Liberal Party candidate, representing a distant southern province in the upcoming Congressional elections.
In honor of the nomination, the voters of the southern province send Severo del Valle a huge roast pig. It arrives at the doorstep of the del Valle home, accompanied by a half gallon of very good brandy.
Three days after the pig arrives, Clara announces that there will be an accidental death in the family.
Rosa the Beautiful gets a cold, and Dr. Cuevas says she should be given a glass of lemonade with a splash of liquor to help her sleep. Severo gives Nana permission to open the decanter of brandy and give some to Rosa. Rosa goes to sleep.
The next morning, Nana discovers that Rosa is dead. Nana prays for the dead girl, Clara observes her sister silently, and Barrabás howls mournfully.
Dr. Cuevas suspects foul play, and discovers that the decanter of brandy is poisoned. In order to be sure that's what killed Rosa, he gets Severo's permission to do an autopsy.
Nívea doesn't want the doctor to take her daughter's body to the morgue, so Dr. Cuevas and his young assistant conduct the autopsy in the kitchen of the del Valle home.
Dr. Cuevas, his young assistant, and Severo del Valle begin the autopsy, but all three men react strongly to the sight of Rosa's beautiful naked body. Severo is overcome by grief and has to leave the room; the young assistant is so turned on he starts panting.
Nana and Severo bond in the drawing room – Severo invites Nana to have a drink, and Nana comforts him as he cries.
Dr. Cuevas determines that the poisoned brandy did indeed kill Rosa, and speculates that it had been meant for Severo.
Dr. Cuevas and the assistant decide to clean and preserve Rosa's body. Dr. Cuevas gets tired and leaves, and the assistant is left to dress the girl and to clean up the mess.
Severo suffers a major attack of guilt when he realizes that the poisoned brandy that had been meant for him was instrumental in his daughter's death. Dr. Cuevas gets him drunk, and they put him to bed.
The next day, a wake is held in the del Valle home. Rosa is laid out in the dining room, dressed in the white dress and crown of orange blossoms that were being saved for her wedding day. She looks more beautiful than ever.
At the wake, men roam the halls and the sitting rooms and talk business, while the women sit in the living room and weep or pray.
Nívea has lost other children, but Rosa's death is the hardest for her.
All the del Valle sisters except Clara attend the wake. Clara stays in the garden with Barrabás and refuses to go near the dining room.
Despite Severo and Dr. Cuevas's attempts to avoid a scandal by claiming Rosa died of galloping pneumonia, the rumor circulates that Rosa had been poisoned in her father's stead. Somebody accuses the conservatives. The police determine that the brandy did not come from the same source as the roast pig, and that the voters of the South had nothing to do with the attempt on Severo's life.
Foreshadowing alert! The narrator says that this unresolved mystery hangs like "the shadow of suspended vengeance" over succeeding generations of the del Valle family, and that it is "the first of many acts of violence that mark [their] fate" (1.61).
Now we hear about Rosa's death from Esteban Trueba's perspective. Back to the first-person narrative.
Esteban is having a good day and has just discovered a very promising lode of silver that might make him very rich. He's in the middle of writing Rosa with the good news when he receives a telegram from his sister, Férula, telling of Rosa's death.
Esteban is devastated, and he feels that, without Rosa, life no longer has any meaning. After the shock wears off, he becomes enraged, and beats the walls of his shack until his hands bleed. Then he packs a bag and makes the long journey to the capital, hoping to arrive in time to see Rosa one last time before she is buried.
Esteban arrives just in time. Clara takes him by the hand and leads him into the dining room to see Rosa's body. Esteban shouts, "Damn her! She slipped through my hands!" (1.65).
Moments later, a carriage arrives to take Rosa's body to the cemetery. Even though women and children don't usually attend funerals, Clara manages to accompany Esteban to the ceremony. He feels an unknown tenderness towards her.
Esteban doesn't know that Clara hasn't spoken in two days, and says that it will be three more days before the del Valle family becomes alarmed by her silence.
Severo and his oldest sons lay Rosa's coffin in the family tomb.
Esteban is filled with rage, and thinks life won't be worth living without Rosa.
Esteban bribes the caretaker to let him stay in the cemetery all night, and he talks to Rosa until morning. He spills his guts, and tells her all sorts of sappy, romantic stuff that he never would have said to her if she were alive.
Esteban thinks he'll never be able to fall in love, laugh, or pursue an illusion again. We're reassured, however, by his future self. You know, the Esteban Trueba that's narrating the story? Well, he says: "Never is a long time. I've learned that much in my long life" (1.74). So we know that he probably does learn to love, laugh, and pursue illusions again, and also that he lives a long time.
Esteban has a "vision of anger spreading through [him] like a malignant tumor" (1.75). Sounds unhealthy.
More than anger, though, what Esteban really feels is frustrated desire, because he and Rosa never got to sleep together. He was engaged to the most beautiful woman in the world, and then she dies a virgin.
The caretaker shows up in the morning and offers Esteban a cup of tea. Esteban pushes it away and storms out of the cemetery.
The narrative shifts back to third-person, but this time we get Clara's perspective on the events of Rosa's death.
Clara can't sleep. She's terrified that Rosa died because Clara said she would, and fears that she may be causing deaths, earthquakes, and other catastrophes by foretelling them. Could this be why she decides to stop speaking?
Clara wants to be near Rosa, and gets up to look for her. The whole house is dark, but she notices a light coming from the kitchen. She peeks through a window to investigate, and witnesses the freaky spectacle of Dr. Cuevas and his nerdy assistant cutting up her sister's body.
Clara watches as Dr. Cuevas leaves and the young assistant kisses Rosa on the face, neck, breasts, and between the legs. (Remember – Rosa is really, really beautiful. And she's only gotten more beautiful in death.) Then he dresses her in her wedding dress and orange blossom crown, and lifts her with the tenderness of a groom carrying his bride across the threshold of his house.
At dawn, Clara goes back to bed, feeling that "silence filled her utterly" (1.81).
Clara doesn't speak again for nine years. When she does, it is to announce that she is going to be married.