Study Guide

The House of the Spirits The Supernatural

By Isabel Allende

The Supernatural

It was true there had been times, just as they were about to sit down to dinner and everyone was in the large dining room, seating according to dignity and position, when the saltcellar would suddenly begin to shake and move among the plates and goblets without any visible source of energy or sign of illusionist's trick. Nívea would pull Clara's braids and that would be enough to wake her daughter from her mad distraction and return the saltcellar to immobility. (1.11)

Clara's supernatural abilities are always portrayed as something benign, lighthearted, and even humorous. This reinforces our understanding of Clara, who holds the opinion that life shouldn't be taken too seriously.

They had also grown accustomed to the youngest daughter's prophecies. She would announce earthquakes in advance, which was quite useful in the country of catastrophes, for it gave them a chance to lock up the good dishes and place their slippers within reach in case they had to run out in the middle of the night. (1.11)

The extent to which we are supposed to understand Clara's supernatural abilities as real is made clear when we understand that her prophecies are a practical and everyday part of the del Valle family's life. This is an example of Allende's use of "magical realism" – the characters don't blink an eye at the youngest child's magical gift of prophecy; they just run to put up the good china.

Marcos maintained that his niece's gift could be a source of income and a good opportunity for him to cultivate his own clairvoyance. He believed that all human beings possessed this ability, particularly his own family, and that if it did not function well it was simply due to a lack of training. (1.22)

Marcos, like his nephew Nicolás really wants to be clairvoyant like Clara. Neither uncle nor nephew is ever very good at the whole psychic thing, though, and this makes us wonder – is magic portrayed as a particularly feminine ability in this novel?

By way of a series of discreet inquiries, they managed to obtain her earthly address and arrived at her door with decks of cards impregnated with beneficent liquids, several sets of geometrical figures and mysterious tools of their own invention for unmasking fake parapsychologists, and a tray of ordinary pastries as a gift for Clara. They became intimate friends, and from that day on they met every Friday to summon spirits and exchange recipes and premonitions. (4.72)

The extraordinary comes in with the ordinary when the Mora sisters appear – they bring both mystical tools and ordinary pastries, and exchange both premonitions and recipes. It's kind of great how the magical and the real are portrayed side by side in this novel, huh?

As for Clara, she went everywhere with her daughter hanging from her skirts. She included her in the Friday sessions and raised her in the greatest intimacy with spirits… (4.95)

Here's an example of how the theme of spirituality is wrapped up in the idea of domesticity and family life in the novel – the most spiritually active setting of the book is Clara's domain in the big house on the corner. (There's a reason why this book is called The House of the Spirits, after all. Check out "What's Up with the Title?")

Everyone who witnessed the moment agrees that it was almost eight o'clock at night when Férula appeared without the slightest warning. They all saw her in her starched blouse, with her ring of keys at her waist and her old maid's bun, exactly as they had always seen her in the house […] it had been six years since they last saw her and she looked very pale and a great deal older. (5.20)

The narrator emphasizes that everyone sees Férula's ghost, even the twins, who have been isolated from their mother's spiritual exercises. She wants us to take this ghostly apparition seriously – we can't just chalk it up to Clara's overactive imagination.

It was then that she began her first serious attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial beings and that, as she herself noted, she began to have her first doubts regarding the spiritual messages she received from the pendulum and the three-legged table. She often said that perhaps it was not the souls of the dead, wandering in another dimension, but rather beings from other planets who were trying to establish a relationship with earthlings but who, because they were made of an intangible matter, could easily be confused with souls. (7.4)

Clara expresses doubt as to the source of the spiritual messages she receives, but their authenticity is accepted as a matter of fact. This is just another example of the way supernatural or magical elements are taken to be realistic in the novel.

[Nicolás] tried in vain to imitate her… Clara tried to console him for his failures.
"You can't learn these things or inherit them," she would tell him when she saw him going cross-eyed with concentration in his strenuous efforts to move the saltshaker without touching it. (7.49)

Nicolás's inability to learn or inherit his mother's psychic gifts raises questions about gender and spirituality in the novel – women tend to be more spiritually perceptive than men. Is supernatural ability a female trait, as Esteban Trueba asserts?

Her mother replied that there was no reason to fear the dead, only the living, because, despite their bad reputation, there was no evidence that mummies had ever attacked anyone; if anything, they were naturally timid. (8.27)

The tone here is both humorous and ominous – the idea of timid little mummies skittering around is cute, but Clara's point about fearing the living is foreboding in light of the violent events that take place towards the end of the novel.

An exalted state of mind could easily put her into a trance in which she would move around the room while sitting in a chair, as if there were a hidden motor underneath the cushions. (9.11)

This is one of the most memorable examples of Allende's use of magical realism in the novel. To lend authenticity to the outlandish idea of an old lady floating around in an armchair, the narrator reports that Clara's levitation is even documented by an artist whose painting winds up in a British museum. It's not a trick of the imagination or an artist's fanciful defiance of the laws of physics, the narrator claims, but reality.

Perhaps he was dreaming that it was his wife who held his hand and kissed his forehead, because in his final days she did not leave him for a second. […] At first she was just a mysterious glow, but as my grandfather slowly lost the rage that had tormented him throughout his life, she appeared as she had been at her best, laughing with all her teeth and stirring up the other spirits as she sailed through the house. She also helped us to write, and thanks to her presence Esteban Trueba was able to die happy, murmuring her name: Clara, clearest, clairvoyant. (Epilogue.44)

The supernatural is a source of comfort and inspiration in the novel. Clara's ghost provides the impetus for Alba's exercise in writing, as well as assistance in the completion of the testimony. Esteban seems to be more in touch with Clara as he loses his anger, suggesting that rage and desire for vengeance may prevent people from communing with the spirits.

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