Study Guide

The House of the Spirits Women and Femininity

By Isabel Allende

Women and Femininity

The ladies moved into the living room. […] There they could weep at leisure, unburdening themselves of their own troubles as they wept for someone else's death. […] The maids moved back and forth through the sitting rooms and halls, distributing […] cold compresses soaked in ammonia for those ladies who felt faint from the lack of air, the scent of candles, and the weight of their emotion. (1.59)

More than an actual grieving, which might take place in private, the act of weeping at Rosa's funeral is a performance taken up by the women in attendance. (Check out the performance of grief at Old Pedro García's funeral in Chapter 6 – in that case a different group of people is assembled to weep for the dead [6.29].) The men, by way of contrast, stand, stroll through the halls, and talk business in low voices.

It was the custom then for women and children not to attend funerals, which were considered a male province, but at the last minute Clara managed to slip into the cortège to accompany her sister Rosa… (1.66)

Clara doesn't ever pay too much attention to social norms and customs – she follows her own rules.

"I would like to have been born a man, so I could leave too," she said, full of hatred.

"And I would not have liked to be a woman," he said. (2.19)

Férula provides a foil for Esteban – they're similar in temperament and grew up with the same tough family life, but Férula takes on the role of her mother's nurse and feels trapped at home, while Esteban is free to go off and seek his fortune. Both she and Esteban chalk that up to the fact that, in their society, women are expected to stick around the house and take care of the sick and elderly, and men are expected to go out into the world and earn a living.

"If women don't know that two and two are four, how are they going to be able to handle a scalpel? Their duty is motherhood and the home. At the rate they're going, the next thing you know they'll be asking to be deputies, judges – even President of the Republic!" (2.77)

For Esteban, the divisions of society are clearly delineated – women belong in the domestic realm, taking care of the children and the elderly; and men belong in the public sphere, doing cool things like performing surgery and being President and stuff. (Side note: today, in real life, the President of Chile is Michelle Bachelet – yup, a woman. Take that, Esteban Trueba! Oh, wait…we're fighting with a fictional character again.)

"Since when has a man not beaten his wife? If he doesn't beat her, it's either because he doesn't love her or because he isn't a real man. Since when is a man's paycheck or the fruit of the earth or what the chickens lay shared between them, when everybody knows he is the one in charge? Since when has a woman ever done the same things as a man? Besides, she was born with a wound between her legs and without balls, right, Señora Clara?" they would say. Clara was beside herself. (4.3)

It's not just the patriarch who thinks women and men have their separate and unequal roles in society – this attitude is shared by the poorest and most oppressed members of their society, the women among the peasants on Esteban Trueba's hacienda.

"In that respect women are really thick. They're the daughters of rigidity. They need a man to feel secure but they don't realize that the one thing they should be afraid of is men. They don't know how to run their lives. They have to sacrifice themselves for the sake of someone else. Whores are the worst, patrón, believe me. They throw their lives away working for some pimp, smile when he beats them, feel proud when he's well dressed, with his gold teeth and rings on his fingers, and when he goes off and takes up with a woman half their age they forgive him everything because 'he's a man.' No, sir, I'm not like that. No one's ever supported me and that's why you'll never find me supporting someone else." (4.41)

Tránsito Soto isn't willing to put up with the socially accepted idea that a woman needs to be ruled by a man. Even though she works as a prostitute – a position that some feminists argue exploits women – Tránsito doesn't let herself be exploited. She's her own boss.

But he was determined that at least his sons would be kept at a safe distance from her magic, so Jaime and Nicolás were sent to a Victorian English boarding school. […] Blanca's case was a different matter, because her father […] believed that her destiny was marriage and a brilliant life in society, where the ability to converse with the dead, if kept on a frivolous level, could be an asset. (4.94)

Esteban's limited notion of the roles of men and women in society lead him to envision very different futures for his daughter and his sons.

He maintained that magic, like cooking and religion, was a particularly feminine affair; for this reason, perhaps, he was able to feel a certain sympathy for the three Mora sisters, while he despised male spiritualists almost as much as he did priests. (4.95)

Magic, to Esteban, is appropriate for women but not for men, which is why he's so offended by his son Nicolás's attempts to become involved in his mother's clairvoyant activities. The author's position on whether or not magic is "feminine" is ambiguous – while women are the most talented practitioners of magic in this novel, we certainly see a number of male characters that are interested in magical and spiritual affairs.

She walked over to the mirror on the wardrobe and stared at herself for a long time. She took off her nightgown and, for the first time in her life looked at her body in detail, and as she did so she realized that it was because of all these changes that her friend had run away. She smiled a new, delicate smile, the smile of a woman. She put on her old clothes from the preceding summer, which were almost too small, wrapped herself in a shawl, and tiptoed out so as not to wake the rest of the family. (5.12)

Here the question of gender is attached to both the physical changes happening in Alba's body and the grown-up clothes she wears to indicate those changes.

He had finally come to accept – beaten into it by the tide of new ideas – that not all women were complete idiots, and he believed that Alba, who was too plain to attract a well-to-do husband, could enter one of the professions and make her living like a man. (10.25)

Thankfully, popular conceptions of the role of women in society change, and Esteban is forced to update his ideas about gender roles. That's not to say he's ever completely liberated from his antiquated patriarchal notion that men work in the public sphere and women work in the home – even while he pushes Alba to pursue a professional career, he thinks she'll be imitating a masculine lifestyle.

He said it was good for men to have a wife, but that women like Alba could only lose by marrying. (11.2)

Esteban's observation that women "lose" something by marrying is perceptive – by accepting a lesser role and permitting a man to have authority over her, a married woman certainly loses a measure of freedom and power in a patriarchal society. The marriages portrayed in this novel don't tend to reflect that kind of unbalanced relationship, however, suggesting that the idea of patriarchal authority is more of a performance than anything else.

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