The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende
Tools of Characterization
In this novel, character names are key. They often provide our first clue to understanding a character's role or personality. Take, for example, Férula, whose name comes from the Latin word for "iron rod" – appropriate, since her rigid morality earns her the reputation of a living saint. Or Tránsito Soto, whose name means "dirty traffic" in Spanish. Guess what she does for a living? The three Mora sisters have a last name that's strikingly similar to Moirae, the mythological Fates who are responsible for determining the course of a person's life.
Sometimes the author seems to use names to trick us into having false expectations of a character. Barrabás's name, a reference to the Biblical insurrectionist whose release condemned Jesus to crucifixion, hints at a sinister nature – but really, the dog is as gentle as a lamb.
Then there are a whole slew of names that refer to colors – most significantly, the names of the matriarchal line that begins with Nívea del Valle. Nívea, meaning "snowy" in Spanish, is the first of four women to bear a name referring to something luminous, white, or light in color. She's followed by Clara ("clear"), Blanca ("white"), and Alba ("dawn"). The similarity in the women's names reflect the close relationship that exists between mothers and daughters in that family, and hints at some of their other qualities, like the clarity of Clara's spiritual visions. Get it?
Last names, too, are pretty significant in the novel. The repetition of the name Pedro García hints at the fact that, amongst the peasant farmers, nothing really changes much from generation to generation. Esteban García's name reflects his illegitimate status – he bears his grandfather's (Esteban Trueba) first name, but not his last – while Jaime's desire to change his last name indicates his rejection of his father's inheritance.
The kind of clothes a character wears often helps reveal elements of her personality, class status, or emotional state. Clara prefers her white tunics, for example, to the fancy, sequined gowns and expensive jewels her husband buys her, indicating her preference for the spiritual over the material. When she sheds her wedding ring and starts to wear false teeth, we know her marriage with Esteban is on the rocks. The expensive clothes Alba wears when she's a child demonstrate her close relationship with the family patriarch, while the tattered garments Blanca wears make her indistinguishable from the servants and indicate her disinherited status. Likewise, Esteban's mourning clothes, Pedro Tercero's transition from peasant garb to suits and ties, and Blanca's bohemian skirts all tell us something about their interests, occupations, or emotions over time.
But enough about clothes – let's talk about all the characters that get naked in this novel. Jaime is always taking off his hand-knit sweaters and even his pants in the middle of the street to give them to the poor – that's because he's such a generous guy. Nicolás's inclination towards nudity, on the other hand, is either to get in touch with his spiritual side or to just bother his dad – his public exposure in front of Congress is a classic act of rebellion. Other instances of nudity might indicate unconventionality (as in the case of Uncle Marcos), poverty (as with the unclothed children at Tres Marías), vulnerability (as it does for the many prisoners we see in the novel), or freedom from social constraints (like when little Blanca tears off her clothes to run around outside with Pedro Tercero).
The characters in this novel display widely varying attitudes towards education. When Pedro Tercero rises at dawn every day so he can walk to town to attend high school, for example, it indicates his determination to overcome the barriers presented to him by his social status. The humiliation that Esteban Trueba experiences while attending school as a youngster not only reveals his excessive pride but also goes a long way toward explaining his character's motivation – he works hard so he'll never feel humiliated again, the way he was in front of his schoolmates.
Examples here are plentiful . First, Clara's home education is indicative of the fact that she's just too weird for society. Blanca's dropout status reveals that she values love and romance over education, though she later comes to regret this when she's unable to make a living for herself. And the fact that Esteban forces his sons and granddaughter to attend English boarding school shows that he considers European culture to be superior to Latin American culture. And so on and so forth.