Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own.
These are the first words of the novel. They are repeated, almost exactly but in reverse order, as the last words of the novel. The "I" in this quote is Alba, speaking about her grandmother. Although Alba is one of the principal narrators of the story, she almost always uses the third person. This sentence and the epilogue are the only two places she expresses herself in the first person. Clara is Alba's grandmother.
Writing is thematized in The House of the Spirits. This is a metatextual gesture: by having her characters openly discuss writing, Isabel Allende refers to her own process of creating The House of the Spirits. We do not learn until the epilogue that the "I" from these opening lines is Alba. It is easy to assume that the "I" here refers to Isabel Allende herself, since it talks about the process of writing the text we are reading. While Alba is in many ways based on Isabel Allende, it is important to distinguish the two. Allende purposefully created Alba as a character who is both the subject of the novel and one of its narrators.
At birth Rosa was white and smooth, without a wrinkle, like a porcelain doll, with green hair and yellow eyes—the most beautiful creature to be born on earth since the days of original sin, as the midwife put it, making the sign of the cross.
Rosa is Clara's older sister. She is Esteban's first fiancé but dies before they can be married. This quote is a perfect example of the way magic realism works in the novel. It is not realistic for anyone to have pure white skin, green hair, and yellow eyes. However, Rosa is a very real character in the novel. Although her beauty is other-worldly, she has to deal with it in very real and realistic ways. She has to tan very carefully because her skin is so pale, and she must wash her hair with special herbs to make it a more natural color.
The midwife's reference to original sin and her making the sign of the cross emphasize that the setting for the novel is Catholic country. Within that context, if Rosa is to remain untouched by original sin, she must be a saint or must die young. Her mother realizes that Rosa is too beautiful to last and is not surprised when she dies before marrying Esteban.
He could hardly guess that the solemn, cubic, dense, pompous house, which sat like a hat amidst its green and geometric surroundings, would end up full of protuberances and incrustations, of twisted staircases that led to empty spaces, of turrets, or small windows and 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, all of which were Clara's inspiration.
Esteban builds the big house on the corner, described here, during his courtship of Clara. This description of the house is given as Esteban is building it but foreshadows what will happen to the house throughout the course of the novel. The elements that Esteban and Clara contribute to the house reflect their respective characters. Esteban is practical and serious while Clara is imaginative and creative.
The big house on the corner is a metaphor for the novel. On the surface it is straightforward, if somewhat ostentatious. Similarly, The House of the Spirits can be read as a traditional romance novel, following a single family over several generations. However, the house Esteban builds ends up full of complicated, twisted, and impractical additions. Despite its apparently traditional structure, The House of the Spirits contains an enormous number of complicated twists of plot. The title of the novel underlines the association: The House of the Spirits refers both to the book as a whole, and also to the big house on the corner, which, thanks to Clara, is always full of ghosts and spirits.
"I set my curse on you, Esteban!" Ferula shouted back. "You will always be alone! Your body and soul will shrivel up and you'll die like a dog!"
After discovering her in bed with Clara, Esteban throws Ferula out of his house and tells her that if he ever sees her near his family again, he will kill her. Ferula goes, leaving this curse on her brother. Every action in The House of the Spirits eventually comes back to haunt or help the characters. It is not necessary, therefore, for Ferula to curse Esteban in order for his cruelty to her to effect him later on in life. The curse here works as a foreshadowing. Ferula predicts as much as she causes what will happen to Esteban. Fitting the tradition of magical realism, however, this curse also works quite literally. Not only is Esteban increasingly estranged from his family, but his body actually begins to shrink enough for Esteban to notice it and to travel to the United States to consult doctors there.
Alba did not see Esteban Garcia again until he was standing next to her in the university parking lot, but she could never forget him. She told no one of that repulsive kiss or of the dreams that she had afterward, in which Garcia appeared as a green beast that tried to strangle her with his paws and asphyxiate her by shoving a slimy tentacle down her throat.
Esteban Garcia is Esteban Trueba's illegitimate grandson; Alba is Esteban Trueba's legitimate granddaughter. Alba does not know who Esteban Garcia is, but he haunts her life. They meet, seemingly by accident, three different times. The scene in the university parking lot, which is the source for these reflections, is the third. They will meet one more time, when he will torture her.
The two sides of Esteban Trueba's character are represented and played out in his two grandchildren. Esteban Trueba's two most notable traits are his love for Clara and his mistreatment of the peasants. The first produces Alba; the second produces Esteban Garcia. Just as everything in the novel comes back around, although not always s in the most fair of manners, Alba and Esteban Garcia's relationship works as the revenge of the peasants for Esteban Trueba's actions.
The blurry lines between dreams and reality are demonstrated here. The strange creature who haunts Alba's dreams turns out to be a very real person who has literally lurked around her house and her life waiting for a chance to avenge himself on her. All of the different times of the novel also come to play here in this passage: the moment when Alba meets Esteban Garcia in the parking lot, all of the other times she has met and will meet him, the time before either of them was born when the nightmare was unleashed, and the time after their last meeting when Alba will try to make sense of it all.