Study Guide

The House of the Spirits Violence

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Neither the zeal of the police nor Severo's own investigation, which was carried out with the help of a private detective he engaged, shed any light on the identity of the assassin, and the shadow of suspended vengeance has continued to hang over succeeding generations. It was the first of many acts of violence that marked the fate of the del Valle family. (1.61)

The author establishes here the idea that violence can provoke a chain reaction of vengeance that passes from generation to generation.

He realized too late, from the blood spattered on her dress, that the young girl was a virgin, but neither Pancha's humble origin nor the pressing demands of his desire allowed him to reconsider. […] Before her, her mother – and before her, her grandmother – had suffered the same animal fate. (2.63)

This small glimpse into Pancha's family history starts to hint at the revelation that Alba will have at the end of the novel – the rape that Pancha experiences at the hands of the patrón is part of a chain of violence that spans generations, and is not easily broken.

When there were no more available women in Tres Marías, he began to chase after those from the neighboring haciendas, taking them in the wink of an eye, anywhere he could find a place in the fields, usually at dusk. He did not bother to hide, because he was afraid of no one. On a few occasions, a brother, father, husband, or employer showed up at Tres Marías to call him to account, but faced with his uncontrolled violence, these visits in the name of justice or revenge became less frequent. (2.74)

Esteban's impunity in committing acts of violence – both in raping the young women in the countryside and in standing up to the men who try to stop him – has a lot to do with his class. As a member of the wealthy elite, he can get away with anything.

Twice the bullet-riddled bodies of peasants from other haciendas were discovered. There was not the shadow of a doubt in anybody's mind that the guilty one was from Tres Marías, but the rural police simply recorded that bit of information in their record book with the tortured hand of the semi-literate, adding that the victims had been caught committing a theft. The matter never went any further. (2.74)

Here we find one of the discrepancies between Alba's narrative and Esteban Trueba's. While the third-person narrator leads us to believe that Esteban is, without a doubt, the murderer of the two peasants, Esteban swears in his own testimony that he's never killed anyone.

The day Esteban Trueba discovered that the son of his administrator was slipping subversive pamphlets to his tenants, he summoned him to his office and, in the presence of his father, gave him a lashing with his snakeskin whip. (4.99)

Esteban Trueba's decision to whip Pedro Tercero in the presence of Pedro Segundo is perhaps based on the patriarchal notion that the son's shame is a source of shame for the father as well. In punishing Pedro Tercero, Esteban is also punishing his faithful foreman.

Blanca reminded Pedro Tercero of the Socialist leader who a few years earlier had bicycled across the province, distributing pamphlets on the haciendas and organizing the tenants until the Sánchez brothers caught him, beat him to death, and hanged him from a telephone pole at the intersection of two roads, where everyone could see him. (5.110)

Like Esteban Trueba, other members of his class can get away with murder. In this society, more value is attached to the lives of upper-class citizens than those of the poor working class.

When he saw his daughter, Esteban Trueba was unable to restrain his evil character and he charged her with his horse, whip in the air, beating her mercilessly, lash upon lash, until the girl fell flat and rigid to the ground […]

"Who is it? Tell me who it is or I'll kill you!" (6.54)

Esteban's "evil character" is constantly getting the better of him and causing him to inflict punishments that he regrets later, in moments of greater sanity.

He lost control and struck her in the face, knocking her against the wall. Clara fell to the floor without a sound. […] Two days later, Clara and Blanca left Tres Marías and returned to the capital. Esteban, humiliated and furious, remained with the sensation that something in his life had been destroyed forever. (6.62)

This is a turning point for Esteban Trueba – while his relationships with his family have already been deteriorating, the violence he inflicts upon his daughter and wife completely severs his relationship with them.

It took me several minutes to calm down and realize that I hadn't killed him. My first reaction was one of relief, because the feel of his warm blood on my face had quickly taken the edge off my hatred, and I had to make a real effort to remember how badly I had wanted to kill him to explain the violence that was suffocating me, making my chest nearly burst, my ears buzz, and my eyes cloud over. (6.87)

For once, the punishment that Esteban inflicts is less violent than he intends. Instead of guilt and remorse for having let his temper get the best of him, as is usually the case, Esteban's reaction is one of relief that he failed to kill Pedro Tercero.

He wanted to do it, feel her writhing and kicking at his knees, squirming as she fought for air. He wanted to hear her moan and die in his arms. He wanted to pull off her clothes. He felt violently aroused. […] In a corner of his brain he had just enough sanity left to realize that he was poised on the edge of a bottomless pit. (9.69)

Esteban García's violent impulse is cast as insanity – it's quite evident that the narrator, while trying to make Esteban's motivation clear to us, condemns his actions and the dark impulses that nearly cause him to rape and murder a child.

Alba tried to turn her face away, but he held it firmly in both hands, forcing her to look at him. It was her first kiss. She felt a warm, brutal sensation as his rough, badly shaven skin scraped her face. She smelled his scent of stale tobacco and onion, and his violence. […] Alba thought she was choking, and pushed him with such force that she managed to get away from him. (10.45)

This scene reminds us of the passage in which Esteban Trueba rapes fifteen-year-old Pancha García. While Pancha's "humble origin" doesn't stop Trueba from forcing himself on her, Alba's social status may be the only thing that prevents García from doing the same to her.

Miguel […] said that the violence of the system needed to be answered with the violence of revolution. (11.4).

For the first time in the novel, we are presented with a sympathetic character who advocates the use of violence in order to achieve a more just society. Other characters, like Jaime, disagree with him. What do you think? Is violence ever justified?

In an empty lot they were shot on the ground, because they could no longer stand, and then their bodies were dynamited. The shock of the explosion and the stench of the remains floated in the air for a long time. (13.25)

The tone of the passage that presents Jaime's murder is distanced and fairly unemotional, though it narrates what is possibly the most violent scene in the novel so far. Perhaps the impassive, matter-of-fact telling of this event makes it even more horrific to the reader.

He had never imagined that he would see a dozen plainclothesmen break into his house under cover of curfew, armed to the teeth, to drag him from his bed and push him into the sitting room, without even allowing him to put on his slippers or throw a shawl over his shoulders. He saw them kick open Alba's bedroom door and storm in with machine guns in their hands, and he saw his granddaughter waiting for them; she was already dressed, and though her face was pale, she looked serene. He saw them push her out and take her at gunpoint to the drawing room, where they ordered her to stand beside him and not move. (13.139)

The big house on the corner, the central gathering point for the characters in the novel and the setting of so many important family events, has always seemed an inviolable fortress. The fact that the secret police are able to breach this bastion of safety is indicative of the complete lack of rights, privacy, and security of the citizens under the military regime.

The man spun around and slapped Alba in the face, a blow that knocked her to the floor. Senator Trueba was paralyzed with terror and surprise. He realized that his hour of truth was finally upon him, after living almost ninety years as his own boss. (13.146)

In his "hour of truth," Esteban Trueba is at his most vulnerable. The phrase is also the title of the next chapter, in which Alba is entirely at the mercy of Esteban García and his men. What "truth" do the characters learn at their moments of greatest vulnerability?

She heard Miguel's name but did not know what they were asking her, and kept repeating a monumental no while they beat her, manhandled her, pulled off her blouse, and she could no longer think, could only say no, no, and no and calculate how much longer she could resist before her strength gave out, not knowing this was only the beginning, until she felt herself begin to faint and the men left her alone, lying on the floor, for what seemed to her a very short time. (14.8)

We can feel Alba's disorientation and exhaustion when we read this sentence. Just like the torture she's experiencing, it seems to go on, and on, and on… The sentence finally stops, just when Alba gets a bit of a break, but it won't be for long.

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