The House of the Spirits is a family saga that spans four generations, but focuses primarily on the lives of two women in the clan, Clara del Valle and Alba de Satigny, and the connection between them. Events are not recorded chronologically, which can make following the plot a bit complicated, but let's give it a shot.
The novel opens with Clara as a young girl, writing in her first journal about the arrival of a new pet, an enormous dog that she names Barrabás. Clara continues to write in journals the rest of her life, and it's thanks to her that the narrator can piece together the family history fifty years later.
We're introduced to the del Valle family as Severo and Nívea sit in a sweltering church with their eleven living children and listen to the overly zealous priest's fire-and-brimstone sermon. When little Clara curses during a silent moment she earns a reputation for demonic possession. This concerns her parents, for more reasons than you might think. Turns out, Clara already has some special gifts – she can predict the future, interpret dreams, and move furniture around telekinetically.
Around this time, Clara's Uncle Marcos dies. Uncle Marcos is one of Clara's most beloved relatives, an adventurer who tells her stories of his trips around the world and bequeaths to the family a chest full of magical books. So when he arrives at the del Valle home in a coffin, Clara would be quite upset if it weren't for the mangy, half-starved puppy that shows up in her uncle's luggage. Meet Barrabás, the adorable monster.
Esteban Trueba is a young, ambitious entrepreneur who's engaged to the eldest del Valle daughter, Rosa the beautiful. He slaves away in a mine in the North, hoping to make his fortune so he can return to the capital to marry Rosa. Unfortunately, Rosa dies before he can strike it rich, poisoned by a swig of brandy that was intended to kill her father, a liberal politician. Everyone's devastated, especially Esteban. Clara stops speaking for the next nine years because she's worried that, by predicting Rosa's death, she's the one who caused it.
Esteban Trueba's family consists of his gloomy sister, Férula, and his decrepit old mother, Doña Ester. Esteban and Férula had a poverty-stricken childhood, and they're not particularly close. After Rosa's death, Esteban announces that he's not going to return to the mine, and that he's going to go take care of the family property in the country instead. The hacienda (estate), called Tres Marías, is in pretty bad shape. Esteban acts all authoritative and gets his tenants to help him clean things up. Soon, Tres Marías is flourishing, but the tenants fear Esteban's iron fist, quick temper, and voracious sexual appetite, which tempts him to rape every peasant girl on the property. Esteban gets a lot of these girls pregnant, including one woman named Pancha García, but he doesn't regard any of their offspring as his own children.
Esteban meets with local landowners to plan for a Conservative Party victory in the upcoming election, and thus begins his somewhat shady political career. (And we mean vote-buying, peasant-bribing, violence-threatening kind of shady.) When he's not assaulting teenage girls, bossing people around, shooting animals, or subverting the democratic process, Esteban spends time at a local brothel where he meets an ambitious young prostitute named Tránsito Soto. He lends her 50 pesos to seek her fortune in the big city, and she promises to repay him some day.
Clara's muteness and psychic powers keep her from having any friends, and she grows up to be a charming but odd young woman. When she's nineteen, Esteban Trueba comes back to the capital because his mom is dying. He promises his mom he'll get married and have kids right before she dies. Esteban goes to the del Valle home once again to see if they have a daughter he can marry. He meets Clara, and they agree to tie the knot. They seem to get along OK, but ominously enough, the dog Barrabás collapses with a knife in his back in the middle of their engagement party. He dies in Clara's lap, and gets blood all over her dress.
Clara becomes close friends with Esteban's sister, Férula, and invites her to move into their new house, a colonial-style mansion that Esteban designs to look as European as possible. Clara gets pregnant and has a baby girl named Blanca. The whole family goes to Tres Marías one summer, and Clara tries to harangue the peasant women with her feminist principles, until she gets pregnant again and has to move back to the city. She announces that she's going to give birth to twins named Jaime and Nicolás, and Esteban gets mad that she doesn't want to name one of the boys after him. Esteban goes to a brothel in town called the Christopher Columbus and meets Tránsito Soto there, to his surprise.
Clara's parents die in a car accident, and Clara's mom Nívea is beheaded in the crash. Pregnant Clara drags Férula out to find the head, and they return to the house just in time for Clara to give birth to her babies. Nana, the del Valle family maid, comes to live in the big house on the corner.
Clara starts to hold weekly séances, attended by all sorts of spiritual eccentrics, like the three Mora sisters, who become her close friends.
Esteban and Férula are both obsessed with Clara, and start to get jealous of each other. Eventually Esteban catches Férula sleeping in bed with Clara, and kicks her out of the house. Férula puts a curse on Esteban and disappears.
Blanca, Esteban and Clara's firstborn, develops a close relationship with a peasant on her father's farm named Pedro Tercero García. He's a little spitfire who writes revolutionary songs on his guitar and isn't afraid to stand up to the patrón (Esteban). He and Blanca fall in love, but decide to keep their relationship a secret from Blanca's family.
Férula's ghost appears to the family at dinner one night, so they know she's dead. Clara and Esteban find her body in the run-down apartment in which she'd been living.
Back in the country, Blanca and Pedro Tercero lose their virginity in a steamy love-making session down by the river. Blanca starts jumping out of her window every night so they can keep having romantic interludes. They almost get caught when there's a huge earthquake and Clara realizes that Blanca's not in her room. But the house collapses on Esteban Trueba, breaking every bone in his body, so Blanca's off the hook. Old Pedro García, Pedro Tercero's grandfather, sets Esteban's bones, and he lives. The earthquake does kill Nana, however – she dies of fright.
Esteban orders that the plantation house be rebuilt exactly as it was before. Blanca makes herself sick in boarding school so that she can come back to Tres Marías and be with her boyfriend. But Esteban Trueba fires Pedro Tercero for his Socialist propagandizing, and warns him to make himself scarce if he doesn't want to get shot as well. This elevates him to the status of hero among the peasant workers. Pedro Tercero sneaks back onto the property periodically to see Blanca, always in disguise.
Esteban and Clara start having marital problems. He's a grumpy jerk to her during the day, and she stops wanting to have sex with him. Esteban starts to think his body is shrinking, and blames it on Férula's curse.
Meanwhile, Tres Marías acquires a houseguest named Count Jean de Satigny, who charms everyone with his cosmopolitan airs and wants to marry a rich South American heiress. Blanca snubs him, of course, because she's in love with her own South American sweetie. Count Jean starts to spy on Blanca and follows her on one of her late-night outings to the river. When he finds her sleeping naked with Pedro Tercero, he wakes up Esteban Trueba, who tracks Blanca down and beats her with a horse whip. Esteban and Clara get in a big fight over this, and Esteban knocks out Clara's teeth. Despite his profuse apologies, Clara never speaks to her husband again.
Esteban is really sad and lonely, and blames Pedro Tercero for all of it. He offers a reward for information about the young man's whereabouts and the young Esteban García, Esteban Trueba's creepy illegitimate grandson, shows up to sell out Pedro Tercero. When Esteban Trueba finds Pedro Tercero, he tries to kill him but only manages to chop off three of Pedro Tercero's fingers before the young man escapes. There's a kind of gross moment when Esteban García picks up the severed fingers and offers them to the patrón. Esteban Trueba refuses to give the little kid a reward, which is a pretty bad idea because it really ticks him off – and something tells us you don't want this twisted child as an enemy.
Clara, Blanca, and the twins move back into the big house in the city, and Jaime, Clara's son who has just become a doctor, alerts the family that Blanca is pregnant. Esteban Trueba is, of course, super angry about this, and he forces Blanca to marry the Count (even though we know he is not the father). The newlyweds move to the north so Blanca can have her baby without causing a scandal.
Nicolás's girlfriend Amanda gets pregnant, and he convinces his brother Jaime to give her an abortion. This is weird for Jaime, because he's in love with Amanda too.
Blanca's husband turns out to have some deviant sexual interests that really freak her out, so she leaves the Count and books it back to her parents' house, where she gives birth to a daughter, Alba. Amanda's little brother, Miguel, watches the birth from inside a wardrobe.
Alba grows up happily, in the midst of her hodgepodge of weird relatives, and gets along well with all of them, even her grumpy old grandfather who loves her more than his own kids. Blanca and Pedro Tercero find each other again and pick up where they left off with the whole love affair. Blanca introduces Alba to Pedro Tercero, but never tells her that he's her real dad.
Esteban García shows up in the city one day to ask the patrón for a letter of recommendation to the police academy. The creepy kid is now a creepy adult, and he nearly rapes and strangles six-year-old Alba in her grandfather's library. Esteban Trueba has no idea that Esteban García is his grandson, and that the young man has been building up resentment towards the patrón for disinheriting him.
Clara dies and the big house on the corner loses its sparkle. The guests stop coming and the ghosts just don't haunt the place the way they used to.
Jaime and Nicolás both annoy their conservative father to no end, who at this point has become a Senator. Senator Trueba ends up shipping Nicolás to North America and telling him never to come back.
Esteban Trueba builds a huge mausoleum so he can rest eternally in between his first fiancée, Rosa, and his beloved wife, Clara. When the del Valle family refuses to let him have Rosa's body, he and Jaime break into the cemetery and steal it instead. Missing Clara, Esteban goes to the Christopher Columbus one day and meets Tránsito Soto once again. She's organized a cooperative and taken control of the business. Esteban is really attracted to her, but she doesn't ease the pain of losing Clara.
Alba falls head over heels for a revolutionary boy she meets at the university. She doesn't tell him that her grandfather is a conservative Senator, and soon they're walking around all googly-eyed over each other. She goes with this guy, whose name is Miguel (hm…where have we heard that name before?) to a student sit-in where they end up facing-off with the police, one of whom is Esteban García. Alba gets sick and Esteban García has to take her home. While she's recuperating at home, Alba remembers the time when she was fourteen years old and Esteban García forced himself on her. Ever since then she's had nightmares where Esteban García is a slimy green monster that tries to strangle her.
Alba and Miguel build a love nest in the big house on the corner, and Miguel has a flash of déjà vu – he's been there before. Yeah, that makes him the little kid who watched Alba being born. What a coincidence. Maybe it's fate?
Everyone's talking about the upcoming Presidential election and the Socialists' chance of winning it. Jaime is friends with the Socialist candidate, and he suspects that they're going to win this time. Esteban Trueba works tirelessly to try to prevent that from happening.
Miguel's sister gets sick, and he asks Jaime to help her. Jaime gets a big surprise when he finds out who Miguel's sister is – it's Amanda, the girl he used to be obsessed with when she was Nicolás's girlfriend. He helps her go through a drug detoxification program.
The Socialists win the election, and most of the family is pretty excited about it, with the exception of Senator Trueba. He starts meeting with other right-wing politicians and foreign experts to hatch a plot to destabilize the new government. They wreak havoc on the economy in an attempt to turn public opinion against the Socialists, but ultimately Esteban starts calling for a military coup.
Pedro Tercero goes to work for the new government. He and Blanca have a falling out because she refuses to marry him, and they split up for a while.
Food is hard to come by, so Blanca starts stockpiling it in the house. Alba steals the food to give to Miguel to distribute among the poor.
Esteban Trueba buys a whole lot of guns and keeps them in crates in a locked room. Alba and her Uncle Jaime steal the guns and bury them in a secret location so that they can't be used against the Socialists.
Jaime starts going out with Amanda, even though he's not that into her anymore – he's actually sort of in love with his niece. Hm. What is it with him and unattainable women?
The government seizes Tres Marías and gives it to the tenants, who run it as a cooperative. Esteban Trueba has a fit about this and storms off to the hacienda with a machine gun. Instead of shooting up the place, however, he gets knocked on the head and taken hostage by the peasants. Blanca knows Pedro Tercero was once a hero to the peasants, so she gets her ex-boyfriend to go rescue her dad. They make up and get back together.
Luisa Mora, one of the psychic Mora sisters, stops by the big house on the corner and warns Esteban that a huge violent catastrophe is about to happen. She also warns Alba that death is at her heels, and that she should flee the country. Neither of them listens to her.
Jaime gets a call from the President's secretary, asking him to come to the Presidential Palace. Turns out the military's revolting, and the President needs his doctors by his side. After a standoff that lasts a few hours, the military bombs the palace and take the survivors prisoner. Jaime is taken to a prison, tortured, and eventually killed. The President does not survive the coup either.
Meanwhile, Jaime's dad is celebrating the downfall of the Socialist government. Alba, on the other hand, is worried about her family and friends, especially Miguel, who calls her and tells her to destroy all evidence that they even know each other.
After a few days, Esteban Trueba gets annoyed that the military hasn't asked him to participate in the new government, so he drives to the Ministry of Defense to see what's up. It doesn't go well – an officer is rude to him and takes his car.
A soldier from the prison that Jaime was taken to comes to the big house and tells Blanca and Esteban Trueba that Jaime is dead. Esteban is in denial for a few months, until Jaime's ghost appears to him and he's forced to admit the truth.
Alba uses Jaime's old car to smuggle victims of the military persecution into foreign embassies so they can get asylum. Esteban gets his farm back, and he punishes the peasants who had taken over by burning their houses to the ground and kicking them all off the land.
The Poet dies, and a few brave fans of his work are willing to risk political persecution to attend his funeral.
Esteban Trueba finally admits to Blanca and Alba that he's made a mistake. The government he helped to put in place is far worse than the one he worked to overthrow.
Blanca admits to her dad that she's been hiding Pedro Tercero in the house, and asks for Esteban's help in getting him political asylum. Esteban sneaks him into the residence of the Papal Nuncio and gets Pedro Tercero and Blanca safe passage out of the country.
Alba shows Miguel where she and Jaime buried Esteban's secret stash of guns so that he can use them in his revolutionary activities. Miguel warns Alba about being the girlfriend of a guerilla, but she's too much in love to break things off.
The police finally break into the big house on the corner and arrest Alba in the middle of the night. They trash the house and build a huge bonfire of the family's books. Then they cart Alba off to a secret prison. Her grandfather pledges to find her and bring her home.
Alba arrives blindfolded at the prison, but she recognizes the voice of the man in charge – it's Esteban García, now a Colonel. Uh oh. In Colonel García's clutches, Alba is raped and tortured repeatedly. She realizes that he has a personal vendetta against her for being the legitimate heir to Esteban Trueba's fortune. Alba's cellmate in the secret prison is Ana Díaz, a woman she went to school with.
Eventually Colonel García realizes he's growing attached to Alba and throws her into a cramped, windowless cell called the doghouse, where she is kept in isolation for several days. In the doghouse, Alba decides she wants to die, and tries to starve herself. But the spirit of her Grandmother Clara appears to her and convinces her to survive by writing a testimony in her head. Alba's new activity protects her from her suffering and gives her the will to live.
Esteban Trueba goes to the Christopher Columbus to look for Tránsito Soto. He knows that she has connections within the military regime, and he wants to cash in the favor she's owed him for the past fifty years. He breaks down in front of her and begs her to rescue his granddaughter from prison. Tránsito agrees, and two days later she calls Esteban to let him know she's done what he asked her to.
Alba arrives home and is joyfully reunited with her grandfather. Her hand is mutilated, and we can guess that Colonel García had her fingers chopped off to send a message to her grandfather. Alba tells the story of her release: after her hand became infected, she was transferred to a secret clinic where she met a nice nurse named Rojas who told her that Amanda had died. Then Alba was moved to a concentration camp for women, where she was reunited with Ana Díaz. A few days later, she was taken to a dump in a bad part of town and instructed to wait there until morning. A kind woman took Alba in for the night and got her a ride to the nice part of the city where her grandfather lives.
Alba and Esteban fix up the house and Esteban gives his granddaughter the idea of writing this story. They each write passages to contribute to the family saga. When Esteban's finished writing, he dies.
Alba gets over her desire for revenge against Esteban García and reflects that everything that's happened to her is part of a cycle of violence that was put into motion long before her birth. She decides to break the chain of vengeance. Alba says that her mission is life, and that's why she writes. Writing helps her feel connected to the past and overcome the terrors of the present. The novel closes with Alba writing, waiting for Miguel, and carrying a daughter in her womb.