The author's tone is often playful and sympathetic, especially during the beginning parts of the novel. The follies and failures of the characters are told with lightheartedness and a certain unwavering affection, the kind of tone you'd probably use to describe your own family members. Yeah, they're crazy…but lovable.
Even the most detestable characters are portrayed in a sympathetic light. Esteban García's cruelty towards Alba is explained as being a natural reaction to the years of oppression that he and his ancestors suffered at the hands of the Trueba family. Thanks to the passages told from Esteban Trueba's perspective, we understand that his violent temper and unsympathetic nature are primarily due to his experience of childhood humiliation and his wounded pride. His propensity for rape, one of the most condemnable actions of the novel, is understood in part to be a product of his cultural context. The author does not absolve either García or Trueba of responsibility for their crimes, nor does she pretend that his character was formed in a vacuum. Ultimately, the author's tone is forgiving, and this goes along with Alba's decision at the end of the novel to forgive her tormenters and break the cycle of vengeance.
While The House of the Spirits definitely qualifies as a family drama and a work of historical fiction (see the section of "Setting" for more about the history that informs the book), it's also one of the most well known examples of South American magical realism. That means that magical or supernatural elements appear in the text alongside perfectly ordinary ones. So when the entire Trueba family is sitting around eating dinner, normal as can be (well, normal as they can be), and suddenly Férula's ghost walks into the room, that's an example of magical realism. Want some more? How about Clara's habit of moving the furniture with her mind, the Mora sisters' psychic prophecies, and Old Pedro García's talking cure for ridding Tres Marías of the plague of ants?
OK, you're going to hate us for this. But now that we've told you that The House of the Spirits is a preeminent example of the genre of magical realism, we should say that Isabel Allende herself doesn't necessarily see it that way. In fact, Allende has come out and said that she finds it "strange" that her work has been classified as magical realism, because she sees her own novels "as just being realistic literature." Hm. So maybe she's saying that what seems magical to us might not seem strange to her at all, and that whether we classify her writing as magical realism or not depends on our cultural background. What do you think?
The title brings up all sorts of associations for us – first of all, this novel is about a family, and the story of that family revolves around a house. It's "the big house on the corner," and it serves as the central gathering point for most of the characters we know, as well as their relatives, friends, political cronies, co-workers, servants, acquaintances, enemies, and even strangers. People hang out, party, write poetry, hide from the police, make love, give birth, and die in the house. The house is the place to be. The house is where it's at. (OK, we'll stop now.)
And the house is full of spirits. Both alive and, well… disembodied. Ghosts are everywhere in this novel, but they really run amuck in the big house on the corner. And the living characters take them pretty seriously – the spirits are a source of advice, consolation, and companionship in everyday life, and they also provide a connection to the past (which is pretty important in this novel).
Which brings us to our second point. A house can be more than just a building, right? A house can be a community (think of the four houses at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels.). And a house can also be a dynasty – a family, including friendly-ghost ancestors, unborn descendents, and weird distant relatives. Yep, they're all in here.
So pay attention to how the house of the Trueba family figures into the novel, and to what makes it different from all the other houses we read about. Because this house (both the building and the family) is special. It's the house of the living, but it's also the house of the spirits.
The ending of The House of the Spirits leaves us feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. After bawling over Chapter 14 for seventeen pages, it's such a relief to know that Alba makes it home to her grandfather.
But more than just a happy resolution to the plot, the Epilogue helps us understand how the whole novel comes together structurally. We learn that Alba has been the narrator all along, and that Esteban Trueba has been helping her write her family story, which is why some of the passages are told from his perspective. We even kind of get why the novel isn't always delivered in a neat and easy chronological order – because Alba is using her grandmother Clara's notebooks as inspiration, and those notebooks were never in chronological order. In fact, Alba's raw materials are a whole hodgepodge of family documents, photos, and records. Alba may be the person to put the words down on paper, but she didn't write this story alone – it's a family affair.
The theme of family is all over the place in the Epilogue, and thinking about Alba's relationships with her family members sheds some light on what we think this novel is trying to do. Through the act of writing, Alba connects with previous generations and paves the way for future ones. The whole point of writing this story and of reflecting on the past is so she can "overcome terrors" in the present and learn to live without prolonging hatred and violence that will only come back to haunt her descendents. And there's one on the way – at the close of the novel, Alba tells us she's expecting a baby girl. Aw. See? There's that warm fuzzy feeling again.
To understand the setting of The House of the Spirits, it helps to think about the novel on two levels – a micro level and a macro level. On the micro level, it's the story of a wealthy family who spends most of their time divided between a big colonial-style mansion in the capital and an estate (called a hacienda in Spanish) in the countryside. The two settings help illustrate the themes of women and femininity and men and masculinity, which are kind of a big deal in this book. The city house becomes Clara's territory, and she slowly transforms the straightforward colonial rooms into a charmingly chaotic labyrinth of twisting hallways and staircases that lead nowhere. The country estate, on the other hand, is the province of the patriarch, Esteban Trueba, who furnishes the house in heavy, no-nonsense furniture and rules his hacienda with an iron fist. (For more on the significance of houses in the novel, check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.")
On the macro level, the setting is pretty broad – we're talking about a family saga of epic proportions that touches on questions of national identity and spans more than fifty years. While Allende never comes out and says it, there are several clues that let us know she's writing about Chile. From the magnitude of the earthquake described in Chapter 5, we can guess she's referring to the 1939 Chilean earthquake that devastated the country and killed nearly 30,000 people. And Chapter 13 tells the story of the military coup d'état that General Augusto Pinochet led against Socialist President Salvador Allende, establishing a totalitarian state that would last for fifteen years. (The fact that the deposed president and the author share the same last name isn't a coincidence – Isabel is the daughter of Salvador's cousin.) References to world events such as World War I and the moon landing place the action between the 1910s and 1973, the year of the military uprising.
Since the historical context of this novel is so important to the action of the story, it's interesting that Isabel Allende chooses to never mention the physical setting by name. Instead of naming historical figures whose identities just scream Chile, like Salvador Allende, Augusto Pinochet, and Pablo Neruda, she chooses to refer to them by title, calling them the Candidate (later the President), the dictator, and the Poet. (Just to give you a comparison, that's like us telling a story about the U.S. while referring to George Washington and Elvis as "the Founding Father" and "the King." You'd know we were talking about American icons, but we wouldn't actually have to come out and say they were American.) So why the intentional vagueness when it comes to the setting? Well, maybe it has to do with the idea repeated by several characters that state violence "can't happen here." Maybe Allende's point is that violence and injustice can happen anywhere, if we're not careful.
How much does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or for several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say "for ever"?
The epigraph comes from a poem by Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, one of South America's most famous authors and probably the inspiration for the character of the Poet in Allende's novel. Neruda is, first and foremost, a great poet, and his works have been translated into oodles of languages and read by people all over the world. But he's also intimately associated with Chile and with Chilean politics. He was a member of the Chilean Communist Party, and some of his poems are pretty revolutionary. He died only twelve days after the violent military coup that put an end to democracy and leftist politics in Chile for almost two decades.
So what's one of Neruda's poems doing as the epigraph to The House of the Spirits? Well, for starters, it's our first major clue to the setting of the novel. Allende never comes out and says it, but it's clear that the story takes place in Chile (more on the setting later). And, since you could argue that national identity and politics are pretty important to many of the characters, starting the novel off with a quote from a hugely famous and recognizable Chilean poet is a big hint about where all this action goes down.
But aside from giving us some context, the epigraph also provides an idea of some of the important themes in the novel. These particular lines of verse have something to do with life, death, and immortality. When the speaker asks, "How much does a man live, after all?" and "How long does a man spend dying?" he's probably not looking for the average lifespan of the Chilean male (so, yes, 73.69 years would be kind of a smart-aleck answer). This is poetry, which means it's more complicated than that.
What he really wants to know is probably more along the lines of: "What's the whole point of living and dying anyway?" "What do we accomplish in our lives, and how do people remember us when we die?" Which brings us to the all-important theme of MEMORY! You'll notice that it comes up a lot in The House of the Spirits. Maybe memory is one of the ways we can say something – or someone – lasts "for ever."
While this novel contains some vocabulary that might be unfamiliar to you – words like hacienda and patrón that come from Spanish – for the most part the language is pretty easy to follow. The toughest part of the book isn't the way it's written, but the content. The story draws heavily on twentieth-century Chilean history, and it can be helpful to know a little bit about the military coup d'état that took place in 1973 before you start reading the novel. Still, you can follow the plot even without doing any additional research. And, like all great books, this one only invites you to learn more. Check out "Best of the Web" for some links that'll get you started clicking happily through the Internet, and soon you'll be an expert in both Chilean politics and Nerudian poetry. Trust us, that's a good thing.
Allende's style in The House of the Spirits is, for the most part, very flowy and organic, as if she were telling the story orally. Reading the text, we feel as though we're listening to a gifted and imaginative storyteller, following her through multiple digressions and repetitions and forgiving her occasional lapses in memory. The prose is inventive and precise, and sentences are generally fairly long and complex, with multiple clauses. Sometimes we get to the end of a sentence and forget where it began – the fact that this is not annoying means it must be a really good story.
After a short time, bored with having to appear at ladies' gatherings where the mistress of the house played the piano, with playing cards, and with dodging all his relatives' pressures to pull himself together and take a job as a clerk in Severo del Valle's law practice, he bought a barrel organ and took to the streets with the hope of seducing his Cousin Antonieta and entertaining the public in the bargain. (1.19)
Something that adds to the repetitive or circular feel of Allende's prose is her use of a technique we like to call prolepsis. That's just a fancy way of saying that she talks about things that haven't happened yet – she refers to future events. Then, when she finally gets to that point in the story, we feel as though we've already heard it before…because we have. Sometimes Allende even manages to cram past, present, and future events into the same thought. Here's an example:
Remembering all that, Alba discovered that the nightmare had been crouched inside her all those years and that García was still the beast waiting for her in the shadows, ready to jump on top of her at any turn of life. She could not know it was a premonition. (11.51)
In contrast to the free-flowing language of the first twelve chapters, the parts of the novel that describe the brutal violence inflicted by the military government are told in an abrupt, flatly unemotional style. Take a look at the passage that describes Jaime's imprisonment and torture:
They held him down by the arms. The first blow was to his stomach. After that they picked him up and smashed him down on a table. He felt them remove his clothes. Much later, they carried him unconscious from the Ministry of Defense. (13.25)
The sections describing state violence are completely devoid of the imaginative, magical, and playful aspect that the author's language possesses in the rest of the novel. It seems Allende may be making the point that it is dictatorship, or the forceful repression of the popular imagination, that "doesn't allow for the magical side of things" (10.44).
One day Pedro Tercero takes his girlfriend to visit his granddad (Old Pedro García) and Gramps tells them a story. It goes a little something like this: every night, a mean old fox would sneak into a chicken coop and eat the baby chicks and steal the eggs. One day, the hens decided they weren't going to take it anymore. They banded together, and the next time the fox tried to sneak into their coop, they pecked him half to death and scared him away. The end.
Now, is this little tale just about foxes and hens? Um, no. Chances are good that the foxes and hens are meant to represent something else, and that the whole point of the story is to illustrate a moral lesson. One that's about weak, little people (like the tenant farmers at Tres Marías) who band together to defend themselves against the big, powerful people who take advantage of them (like Esteban Trueba).
For us, the most significant part about Old Pedro García's parable is the role it plays in characterizing Pedro Tercero as a young, upstart revolutionary. Pedro Tercero writes a song about his grandpa's parable – then he sings it right to the patrón's face. And then, just to make sure Esteban Trueba really gets it, he says: "If the hens can overcome the fox, what about human beings?" (5.50).
The fox and hens song keeps popping up throughout the novel, and whenever we read about it, we think of Pedro Tercero. It's kind of like his theme song. The ditty catches on with the peasants, who hum the tune even when they're skittish of Pedro Tercero's revolutionary ideas. It makes his dad proud, and it makes him rich and famous.
If we were going to assign a gender to the two houses in this novel (and we are), we'd call the big house on the corner a girl house and the country home at Tres Marías a boy house.
OK, maybe that's a bit simplistic. But it does seem that, throughout most of the novel, space is divided into masculine and feminine realms. For the most part, Esteban Trueba dominates the country house and the front section of the big house on the corner, while his wife rules the roost in the back rooms of the house. Let's take a look at how those areas are described, and what that says about masculinity and femininity in the novel.
Certain traits – like forcefulness, physical activity, initiative, and a valorization of European and North American culture over Latin American – are associated with the areas dominated by Esteban Trueba, the book's masculine powerhouse. Esteban fixes up the house at Tres Marías with his bare hands and a stack of instructional manuals, employing his tenant farmers as laborers and commanding them with an iron will. He furnishes the place with "large, heavy, ostentatious pieces that were built to last for generations and to withstand country life," and arranges them "along the walls, with an eye more to convenience than aesthetics" (2.54). Creativity and inspiration have no place here – when the house is destroyed in the earthquake, Esteban has it rebuilt in exactly the same way. Nor does Clara's supernatural nature seem to affect the house at Tres Marías – she's always too busy with the practical matters of improving the quality of life of the tenants to engage in any spiritual activities.
When it's first built, the big house on the corner has Esteban written all over it, too. It's "solemn, cubic, dense" and "pompous," built to last for generations, and can house lots of little Truebas. Esteban designs it in a European style because he wants it "as far removed as possible from the native architecture." He wants the house to reflect his wealth and prestige, as well as the order and civilization that are, in his opinion, "typical of foreign peoples" (3.63). The house is all heaviness and straight lines, with snobby, imported furniture.
But then Clara moves in, and her feminine presence acts as a catalyst for change. Though the big house retains its Colonial-style façade, Clara slowly begins to work her magic on its insides, until the place begins to reflect her qualities of spirituality, inspiration, creativity, and complexity. Soon the rear part of the house is full of "protuberances and incrustations, of twisted staircases that led to empty spaces, of turrets, of small windows that could not be opened, doors hanging in midair, crooked hallways, and portholes that linked the living quarters so that people could communicate during the siesta." These changes are made according to Clara's inspiration and the instructions she receives from the spiritual world. And while they may sound chaotic, they create a world of peace and "complete freedom" for the female characters in the novel (9.45). It's also significant that the mansion "[defies] any number of state and city laws," because it reminds us of the way in which Clara's feminine magic challenges patriarchal authority (3.64).
Clara is the "motor that [drives] the magic universe" of the big house, and when she dies, the spiritual energy and constant flux of its architectural design come to an end (9.45). Without Clara's feminine presence to counteract Esteban Trueba's violent, masculine energy, no one bothers to fix the cracks in the walls or the broken furniture. The house becomes a ruin.
But don't worry – just because Clara is dead doesn't mean that this story has to end like a bad middle school dance, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. Clara sticks around as a ghost, and she and her husband make peace. Their reconciliation is reflected in the house's appearance – the invisible border that had been drawn between Esteban's territory in the front of the house and Clara's rear rooms dissolves, and the house is restored to its former glory. Esteban and his granddaughter Alba walk the entire house, paying tribute to the spirits, and put the rug made out of Barrabás (Esteban's idea of a wedding present) back in Clara's bedroom.
This novel is full of animals. From Barrabás's arrival at the del Valle home to the birds that Clara keeps in the enchanted portion of her house, animals seem to crop up all over the place. Oddly enough, a lot of them are in cages, out of cages, being released from cages, or put into cages. Take, for example, Barrabás the caged puppy, the animals at the zoo that give Alba a lifelong fear of imprisonment, the image of Clara releasing her caged birds, or the mean mastiffs that are tied to chains their whole lives so they'll serve as scary guard dogs at Tres Marías. It seems animals might have something to do with the theme of "Freedom and Confinement."
Additionally, it's interesting that three generations of del Valle and Trueba women embroider, mold, and paint exotic, imaginary creatures. In this way, animals serve as a link between generations and reveal a feminine connection to the imaginative and the supernatural.
So, you're reading along, and everything's pretty straightforward. The narrator's telling us the story of the del Valle family like she's a psychic fly on the wall – she's uninvolved, but she can get inside everyone's heads. She can also zip around in time and tell us things that are going to happen in the future. You figure the point of view is "third person omniscient," and get ready to move on.
But wait! You get a few pages into the first chapter and something weird happens. All of a sudden the word "I" starts popping up a lot in the narration, and you realize some grumpy guy is telling us his story in the first person. After a few paragraphs of this we go back to our nice, comfortable third-person narrator, but every chapter or so this dude butts in, and it's all "I, I, I." It doesn't take us long to figure out that the loud-mouthed narcissist is Esteban Trueba, but why give him his own soapbox to stand on?
Well, structurally it all makes sense when you read the Epilogue, which, by the way, is also told in the first person, but not by Esteban. Check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for an explanation of who's actually writing the whole story, and how it happens that Esteban Trueba is able to insert his own perspective into the narrative as it goes along.
Thematically it also makes sense to tell part of the story from Esteban's point of view. Yes, he's kind of a jerk, but getting inside his head helps us understand the insecurities that make him act the way he does. (For more on Esteban Trueba's inner emotional turmoil, see his "Character Analysis.") After all, if everyone thought the same way as the narrator, there'd be no conflict to speak of. And without conflict there'd be no story in the first place.
While The House of the Spirits contains some tragic elements – like an ambitious hero who messes things up for himself, a creepy "shadow figure" who pops up every once in a while – the novel's surprisingly happy ending makes it fit more comfortably into Booker's "Rebirth" plot structure.
Since Esteban Trueba is the only character to survive the course of the novel, it's difficult to do this kind of plot analysis without thinking of him as the "hero." Of course, we could also make a pretty convincing case that he's not the hero of this novel (what about all those strong female characters?).
An ambitious, power-hungry Esteban swears he's never going to live in poverty again, and sets out to make a name for himself. In doing so, he neglects, abuses, rapes, and pretty much tramples on a whole bunch of people, sewing seeds of resentment among the peasants on his land.
Everything seems to be going well for our hero. Not only is Esteban rich, he's also married and in love. Clara fulfills his enormous sexual appetite and he stops forcing himself on peasant women. In general, everyone seems happier – Clara works on the estate to help improve the peasants' quality of life, Férula has a place in the family, and Esteban and Clara start having children, which fulfills Esteban's goal of passing on the family name.
Esteban starts to realize that his wife and kids aren't going to do what he wants all the time. When he finds out Blanca's been sleeping with one of the peasants, his infamous temper gets the best of him. He beats Blanca and punches Clara in the face, prompting his wife and daughter to leave him. Esteban is tormented by remorse, grief, and rage. Tensions thaw a bit and the family is able to hobble along together for a few years, but Alba, Esteban's granddaughter, is the only person to whom he can show any affection. When Clara dies, Esteban enters a state of perpetual mourning.
What little love Esteban has left in the world disappears when Alba is kidnapped by the secret police and taken to a military prison. She's tortured by Esteban García, who is the grandson of the first peasant woman that Esteban Trueba ever raped. Esteban Trueba desperately tries to find Alba and have her released, but to no avail.
Just when we start to think Esteban has dug his own grave, he's miraculously redeemed. Alba's release is secured, thanks to a small and rare act of kindness that Esteban performed fifty years ago when he lent fifty pesos to a prostitute. Alba returns home to her grandfather. Their reunion helps to dissolve the rage that has plagued Esteban his entire life, and he's able to die peacefully, in the ghostly arms of Clara, the woman he loves.
For the first ten or eleven chapters of the novel, the Conservative Party is the only show in town. Esteban Trueba, a member of the landowning class, makes his fortune while mistreating the poor tenants on his family estate. Characters like Pedro Tercero and Esteban García suffer oppression and marginalization at the hands of the wealthy elite.
By the twelfth chapter of the novel, the Socialist movement has gathered enough momentum to challenge the conservatives of the country. The Socialist candidate wins the Presidential election and the social reforms his party enacts promise to benefit the poor underclass. However, the Conservative Party enlists the help of foreign intelligence agencies and their own military in order to destabilize the new government. Once again, we have characters on both sides of the conflict – Alba, Miguel, Jaime, and Pedro Tercero, for example, are elated by the Socialist victory, while Esteban hatches plots against the President with fellow conservatives.
In Chapter 13, the military revolts and ousts the President, killing one of our favorite characters in the process (poor Jaime). Miguel and Pedro Tercero have to go into hiding, and Alba starts to help victims of the military persecution.
Alba is arrested in the middle of the night by the secret police. Things start to look very dark when the soldiers blindfold her, take her to prison, and deliver her into the hands of Esteban García, her grandfather's arch-nemesis. The last sentence of Chapter 13, in which Alba realizes Esteban García has been waiting for her ever since she was a little girl, is so climactic it hurts.
For one agonizing chapter, Alba is under Esteban García's control. He rapes and tortures her, and she nearly dies. We get our first taste of denouement, or resolution, when Alba's Grandmother Clara appears to her and convinces her to live, but we're still left in suspense as to how Alba will ever make it out of prison. Esteban Trueba goes to Tránsito Soto and begs her to pull some strings for him to secure Alba's release.
The moment Tránsito Soto calls Esteban Trueba and tells him, "I did what you asked me to," we know that everything's going to turn out all right. Of course, this doesn't happen until the last sentence of the last chapter of the book. Good thing there's an Epilogue so the author can tie up all the loose ends.
A lot of emotional resolution takes place in the Epilogue. Alba returns home and is reunited with her grandfather, who manages to make peace with his inner demons and die a happy man. Alba forgives her torturers and writes the novel we have just read. Plus the house is restored, and Alba's expecting a child. For all the darkness of this novel's final chapters, this is a remarkably happy and hopeful ending.
This is a pretty long act. It covers Clara's childhood at the beginning of the novel to the military coup, when those who supported the Socialist Party have to go into hiding or, like Alba, help others escape persecution. There's no turning back now.
This act covers Alba's subversive activities, Pedro Tercero's hideout in the big house on the corner, Esteban Trueba's growing discomfort with the new military regime, and Alba's secret reunion with Miguel. It lasts until the secret police break into the big house on the corner in the middle of the night and burn the family's books and documents in a huge bonfire. They arrest Alba in the middle of the night and take her to a secret prison. The spirits don't come to her aid – it seems no one can help her now.
In Act III, Esteban Trueba goes to Tránsito Soto for help as a last resort. He begs her to use her influence to have Alba released. She does, thus managing to repay Trueba the favor she's owed him for fifty years. Alba is transferred to a women's concentration camp, and then released in a dump on the outskirts of the city. She makes her way home and is reunited with her grandfather. They restore the house and write this novel. Esteban dies at peace, with the help of Clara's spirit. Alba forgives her torturers and tells us she's expecting a baby. Resolution feels good.