Study Guide

The House of the Spirits Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Isabel Allende

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The parable of the fox and the hens (4.105)

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.

Houses

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.

Animal Imagery

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.