Study Guide

The House of the Spirits Themes

  • Family

    The House of the Spirits is a family saga, so it's pretty much impossible to avoid talking about the theme of family in this novel. The text examines relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and children, brothers and sisters – you name it. And it also looks at how families function as a whole unit – not always smoothly, it turns out, but there's something that keeps them all together. That mysterious glue might be a legal bond (like marriage), biological inheritance, physical intimacy, co-habitation, or just plain old love. Often it's some combination of those things. Our point is that it's not always easy to tell what makes two people "family," but the bond sure isn't easy to ignore.

    Questions About Family

    1. What makes someone part of a "family" in this novel? Do you consider the character of Nana to be part of the del Valle-Trueba clan even though she's neither biologically nor legally a family member? What about Amanda or Miguel? What about Esteban García?
    2. How does the process of naming work in the novel? How do last and first names serve to indicate familial connections between characters? Every once in a while a character changes his or her name – why do they choose to do that? What's the significance of changing a name?
    3. Do you consider the family in this novel to be a patriarchy or a matriarchy? Which lineage would you say is more important to the family history, the maternal or the paternal?
    4. What kinds of things do people inherit from their ancestors in the novel? Are physical traits, talents and abilities, or temperaments repeated across generations?

    Chew on This

    The extended family portrayed in The House of the Spirits serves as a microcosm of society as a whole. We can think of the Trueba-del Valle family as a tiny society whose trials and conflicts mirror those of the greater society in which they live.

    The traditional notion of patriarchy is constantly undermined in The House of the Spirits, and is replaced by a strong matriarchal connection among the women of the family.

  • Memory and The Past

    We get two whole sentences into The House of Spirits before we're hit with the theme of reclaiming the past. And, in a sort of beautiful symmetry that we literature nerds get super excited about, the second-to-last sentence hits us with it again. The idea of using the past to better understand the present and to prepare for a future is a theme of this novel, and it's bound up in the idea of storytelling and writing, since those are methods that the characters use to preserve memory. Check out the section on "Literature and Writing" to see how the two themes connect.

    Questions About Memory and The Past

    1. What kinds of documents and records are used in The House of the Spirits as a way of recovering memory? Are some of these sources more reliable than others?
    2. What role does silence play in the novel? When do the characters keep silent, and why? How does this affect their memory of certain events?
    3. Throughout the novel, certain events are portrayed from more than one perspective – we're presented with sometimes contradictory "versions" of history. Do you see discrepancies in the way the past is narrated? Why do you think the characters choose to remember the past in different ways?
    4. How does the epigraph reflect the author's attitude about memory and its role in the novel? (Check out "What's Up with the Epigraph?" to help get you started on answering this question.)

    Chew on This

    Clara and Alba are arguably the two most central characters in the novel, thanks to their role as family scribe – they are the recorders and keepers of memory for the Trueba family.

    In The House of the Spirits, people have different recollections of the same events, and those recollections may change over time. Memory therefore isn't presented as something solid and unchangeable – Truth with a capital "T" – but rather as a product of the desires and imaginations of the characters.

  • Literature and Writing

    The theme of writing is interwoven with pretty much all of the themes of The House of Spirits – writing helps the characters "reclaim the past and overcome terrors" of their own (there's "Memory and the Past" and "Perseverance" for you). It's also primarily done by the female characters of the novel ("Women and Femininity") as a way of recording family history ("Family") and connecting to the spirits ("The Supernatural"). Most concretely, the novel itself is imagined as the product of Alba's time in prison, a victim of state violence (so that covers "Violence," "Freedom and Confinement," and "Politics"). And if you can figure out a way to relate writing to the theme of "Society and Class" too, we'll give you a cookie.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. In The House of the Spirits, Clara begins to record trivialities during her period of muteness. What motivates her granddaughter, Alba, to begin writing things down? How does the process of writing relate to speech, storytelling, and silence in either case?
    2. Do you think that Alba's act of writing a testimony can be described as a spiritual experience? How do the spirits influence her writing process?
    3. Besides Clara and Alba, who else writes in this novel? What kinds of material do they write, and what are their reasons for doing so?

    Chew on This

    Despite the fact that Alba begins composing her testimony in solitary confinement, writing for her is never a completely solitary experience. She relies on the inspiration and support of the spirits, her companions in prison, and her living family members.

    Writing, like all acts of creative expression found in the novel, from Alba's painting to Rosa's embroidery, is a solitary and introspective act that removes the author or artist from the people around her.

  • Perseverance

    The House of Spirits is full of astounding illustrations of perseverance in the face of adversity, from Esteban Trueba's fierce determination to rise above the poverty of his childhood to Alba's survival of torture in the secret military prisons of the dictatorship. Several characters in this novel overcome physical mutilation, political oppression, and the limitations of societal expectations in order to achieve their goals and to somehow attain measure of happiness.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What differences mark Esteban Trueba and his sister Férula and the way they deal with their family's disgrace and the poverty of their childhood? Is Esteban more successful because he is more ambitious? Does this make him happy?
    2. How do societal expectations of women's behavior affect female characters' ability to overcome hardships? Do the women of the novel conform to these expectations or challenge them?
    3. What makes Pedro Tercero different from the other peasant farmers at Tres Marías? What motivates him to persevere in challenging the limitations of class structure?
    4. In order to survive the tortures of prison and to then emerge psychically sound, the women in the concentration camp have to remember some things and forget others. How do the characters manipulate memory in order to persevere?

    Chew on This

    Alba's participation in the Socialist movement as well as her survival of the tortures of imprisonment are primarily due to the influence and assistance of other, stronger characters in the novel. Alba perseveres thanks to her relationships with more dedicated people.

    Though Tránsito Soto has more obstacles to overcome than Esteban Trueba in order to achieve wealth and status, she ultimately becomes more successful and more powerful than he does.

  • Violence

    As dark and unpleasant as this may sound, we have to admit that violence occupies a central role in The House of Spirits – especially violence against women. Some have accused Allende of being too graphic in the passages about distasteful topics like rape and torture, but we don't think her descriptions are gratuitous. Far from glorifying violent acts, the text operates as a fictitious testimony – based on historical events – that gives a voice to victims of violence and seeks to prevent these things from happening again.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How does the language of the novel change as the author begins to describe the acts of state violence committed in "The Terror" and "The Hour of Truth"? Do you notice any differences in sentence structure or style between these last chapters and beginning chapters such as "Clara the Clairvoyant" and "The Time of the Spirits"?
    2. The most spiritual characters in The House of the Spirits seem also to be the most non-violent. Do we ever see violence overlap with the spiritual elements of the novel? Are magic and violence incompatible?
    3. How do the aggressors of the novel feel about their violent behavior? Do they exhibit any signs of regret, remorse, or hesitancy? Are there times in which they don't feel uneasy or repentant about their misdeeds? What do their attitudes towards their own actions say about the purpose of violence in the novel?
    4. Do you think Esteban Trueba is responsible for the deaths of the two peasants found on his land, ridden with bullets? How much can we trust his testimony that he never killed anyone?

    Chew on This

    The atmosphere of violent state repression that descends upon the characters in the final two chapters "doesn't allow for the magical side of things" (10.44). The failure of the beneficent spirits to come to Alba's aid when she gets dragged off to prison suggests that magic and violence are incompatible.

    Throughout the novel, women suffer violence as punishment for the sins of their fathers, indicating the extreme vulnerability of women in a patriarchal system.

  • Women and Femininity

    Women occupy a central role in the history of the del Valle and Trueba families. Because we're following the maternal line of the family, last names change, but the connection between mothers, daughters and granddaughters is emphasized in other ways. For example, as we've discussed, the first names of the main female characters in the novel all refer to something light, luminous, or white in color. This novel has a lot to do with women's concerns, struggles, accomplishments, and the crimes committed against them – maybe that's why so many critics heralded The House of the Spirits as the long-awaited feminine contribution to the Latin American literary "boom" of the late twentieth century.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Why do the women of the del Valle and Trueba families all bear names referring to something white, light-colored, or luminescent? What is the significance of this "luminous" connection between the four generations of women, and what does it say about their characters and their roles in the family history?
    2. Are women more in touch with things of a spiritual nature than men in The House of the Spirits? Is magic a specifically female trait or ability in this novel?
    3. What other lineages of women can be found in the history presented by the novel? What qualities, traits, or memories are passed down amongst those women, and what significance does their inheritance play in the novel as a whole?
    4. Is this a feminist novel? Are any of the characters feminists? What role does feminism play in the novel, and is it effective?

    Chew on This

    Whereas men play a violent, destructive role in The House of the Spirits, women provide the connecting, constructive force by which knowledge is transmitted and families are built.

    Crimes against women provide the impetus for the plot in The House of the Spirits – it is the murder, rape, and torture of women that provokes the narrator to tell the story in the first place, and with her forgiveness of these crimes, the novel comes to a close.

  • Society and Class

    You could say that The House of the Spirits is a story of class struggle. Yes, it's a family saga, a love story, and a history lesson, too. But all of these aspects are affected by the class structure that divides society into two basic groups – the white, educated elite of European descent who control politics and business, and the poor workers and peasants of indigenous ancestry who have little access to education or political enfranchisement. The resentment that builds as the characters struggle against this oppressive class structure propels much of the action of the climactic final chapters.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Are any of the characters in The House of the Spirits able to overcome the challenges posed to them by their class? With their success, do these characters succeed in shedding their class identity?
    2. Do any of the characters act in opposition to their social peers? Do members of the wealthy class empathize with and act in solidarity with the poor? Do members of the poor and working class perpetuate the power of the upper class?
    3. Are there any characters in the novel that don't fit into the schema of "wealthy, upper class" or "poor, working class"?
    4. What social customs are challenged by various characters in the course of the novel? Do these social customs change over time?

    Chew on This

    Class operates in The House of the Spirits as an oppressive matrix that promotes inequality and injustice – its inflexibility makes it impossible for any of the characters to rise above their class, no matter how hard they work or how much they accomplish.

    In the House of the spirits, upper-class individuals who try to improve the lives of peasants and workers fail to achieve any real social change. The fact that they can't relate to the reality of the impoverished class, who must struggle to survive and to meet their basic needs, makes them an ineffectual force for social change, and confirms Ana Díaz's idea that the bourgeoisie shouldn't be allowed to meddle in the affairs of "the people."

  • The Supernatural

    Since The House of the Spirits is classified as a work of magical realism, it makes sense that spiritual and supernatural phenomena figure prominently in the novel. You've got your run-of-the-mill ghosts, séances, and dream interpretations, along with tiptoeing mummies, premonitions, mystifyingly accurate folk remedies, floating grandmothers, and even communication with aliens. And just in case you thought that the supernatural element was merely a colorful addition to the story, consider the narrator's claim that this novel would never have been written were it not for the intervention of her grandmother's friendly ghost.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. What is the general tone of the author towards the supernatural? How does the author employ references to the spiritual world to provide comic relief?
    2. How do the characters with spiritual gifts acquire their psychic talents? Why is Nicolás, who so fervently desires to imitate his mother's telekinetic activities, unable to do so?
    3. How do the characters who don't possess a heightened level of spirituality regard the supernatural phenomena that they witness in the course of the novel? Are they skeptical or credulous?
    4. How do the spirits intervene in the lives of the living? What is their role in the resolution of conflict in the novel?
    5. How could this novel have been told in a purely "realistic" way? Would it be possible for the story to occur as it does without a supernatural element?

    Chew on This

    Clara's assertion to her daughter that there's no need to fear the dead, only the living, is reflective of the novel's portrayal of the spiritual world as a benign source of strength, inspiration, and companionship to the characters. The world of the living, on the other hand, is the source of the violent and destructive forces in the lives of the characters.

    The novel postulates openness to spirituality and the supernatural as distinctively Latin American, as opposed to European or North American. The people who express incredulity towards the magical elements of the novel are "gringos" and foreigners.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    From the very opening of The House of Spirits, when we're presented with the image of a caged puppy, the reader is invited to contemplate the themes of freedom and confinement. Barrabás's confinement may seem like a small offense, since he's a dog, but as the novel progresses we see greater and greater impediments to human freedom, culminating in Alba's imprisonment in "the doghouse." While some characters maintain that they're limiting the freedom of others for their own good, the author's message is pretty clear: people, and animals, need freedom in order to be happy.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What do references to caged animals – like Barrabás as a puppy or the caged animals that Alba sees at the zoo – accomplish in the novel? What do you think is the purpose of arousing the reader's sympathy towards animals in confinement?
    2. What does Alba's imprisonment in "the doghouse" remind you of?
    3. Why does Blanca decide to not keep Pedro Tercero as a prisoner in her home?
    4. Are there examples of confinement in the novel that don't involve prisons or cages? What else confines or imprisons the characters?
    5. What justifications do the characters provide for the literal or figurative imprisonment of others?

    Chew on This

    Although some characters argue that the restrictions placed on others are for their own protection and well-being, freedom is always presented as more ethical than confinement.

    The confinement of animals in The House of the Spirits hints at the eventual imprisonment of people, and provides a critique of the treatment of living creatures both prior to and following the imposition of military rule.

  • Politics

    The House of the Spirits presents a literary version of a political fiasco, namely the events leading to the 1973 coup d'état in Chile that removed Socialist President Salvador Allende from power. Politics begin to crop up in the second chapter of the novel, and become more and more central to the plot as the novel progresses. The characters debate and wage campaigns over questions of society and class, women's rights, and the idea of justice. While the author's political stance on this chapter of Chilean history is pretty clear, it's interesting that she manages to present the opposing point of view – still a prominent one in Chile today – in a somewhat sympathetic light as well.

    Questions About Politics

    1. In The House of the Spirits, what are the two opposing political positions on the subject of "justice"?
    2. What are the weaknesses of the leftist political coalition? Why does the system inevitably fail?
    3. What character or characters seem to possess the clearest and most accurate understanding of national politics in the novel?
    4. Does the question of politics end when the military regime comes to power? What happens to politicians under the military regime? And what is the place of politics in the new military government?

    Chew on This

    Alba's political involvement and acts of resistance against the military dictatorship are primarily motivated by other characters, like her boyfriend Miguel, the spirit of her grandmother, and her friend Ana Díaz. Alba doesn't have any real political conviction of her own – she's essentially a passive character.

    Though the author takes a definite political stance in the novel, she still manages to present the opposing point of view in a sympathetic light by explaining its rationale.