On a Holy Thursday, Severo and Nivea del Valle and their eleven children go to Mass. They are not Catholic, but Severo wanted to be elected to parliament and feels it is important to be seen at Mass. Father Restrepo, the priest, is famous for his excessive religious zeal and for his long sermons. At one point during the service, Clara, the youngest of the del Valle children, asks Father Restrepo, out loud, "If that story about hell is a lie, we're all fucked, aren't we.... " Father Restrepo then accuses Clara of being possessed by the devil, and the del Valle family leave church in a hurry.
The members of the del Valle family are all unique. Nivea is an active suffragette who is extremely intuitive. Their oldest daughter, Rosa, is the most beautiful creature anyone has ever seen. Clara, in addition to being precocious, is clairvoyant. The family is quite rich and lives in an enormous house. Nana tends the house and cares for the children.
Despite Rosa's great beauty, she has never had many suitors who dared to approach her or her family. Several years before, Esteban Trueba, a young man from an old upper class family that lost all of its money, fell in love with Rosa and asked for her hand in marriage. Rosa and her parents agreed. However, Esteban wanted to secure his own fortune before the marriage and left to try to strike it rich in the mines. He works tirelessly, spurred on by his love for Rosa. Rosa spends most of her time embroidering a tablecloth with magic creatures.
After the del Valle family flees church, a group of men arrive carrying the body of Uncle Marcos, Nivea's brother. Marcos was an adventurer and Clara's favorite uncle. Between trips he stayed with the del Valle family, telling Clara stories and teaching her the customs of the far-off lands he visited. Uncle Marcos was also famous outside of the family because he had once assembled a flying contraption in which he had sailed off over the mountains. He had been taken for dead and was even buried, but then he reappeared. For this reason, Nivea has trouble believing that Marcos is actually dead this time. Marcos is truly dead, but accompanying his body is a puppy, Barrabas, which is still alive. Clara adopts the puppy, who grows into an enormous but docile dog.
At the end of the fall, Severo del Valle is invited to be the Liberal Party candidate for a southern province. Severo is very excited. They celebrate with a pig and many other gifts that the constituency from the south sends to the del Valle family. Clara announces that there will soon be an accidental death in the family. After the party, Rosa develops a cold. Doctor Cuevas visits Rosa and prescribes rest and lemonade with a shot of liquor. Severo tells Nana to follow the doctor's instructions, giving Rosa some of the brandy that had accompanied the pig. The next morning, Rosa is dead. Doctor Cuevas feels that there is something suspicious about the death and asks to perform an autopsy. The family reluctantly agrees. Doctor Cuevas and an assistant perform the autopsy in the kitchen. Clara, sensing that something strange is happening, sneaks out and secretly watches the entire autopsy. It turns out that the brandy, intended for Severo and snuck into the house along with the gifts from the constituents, was poisoned. No one ever discovers who sent the brandy. Clara is so shocked at the sight of the autopsy, and so frightened by her own prediction, that she stops speaking.
yEsteban Trueba is notified of Rosa's death and returns for the funeral, utterly distraught. He is furious that he was unable to spend any time with Rosa and is so unwilling to let her go that he bribes the cemetery caretaker to let him stay by her grave all that night.
Narrative voice and time figure prominently in the narration of The House of the Spirits. In the first paragraph, we learn that a first person narrator constructs the story fifty years after the first action in it takes place, based on the notebooks that Clara writes. The narration, however, quickly shifts to a third person omniscient point of view. More than halfway through the first chapter, a first person narrator reappears. This first-person narrator is Esteban Trueba. The entire novel will be narrated in this fashion, with sections in the first-person voice of Esteban Trueba and sections in an omniscient third person. In the epilogue, we will be told that Alba, who is Esteban Trueba's granddaughter, and Esteban Trueba are the co-narrators of the story. We can thus assume that the third person omniscient narrator is Alba. Of course, announcing at the end of the story who the narrators are is a literary device employed by the author, Isabel Allende.
The shift between the time when Clara is a child and the time fifty years later when the narrator re-constructs the story is only the first of many complicated temporal twists in The House of the Spirits. The story is not told in order from beginning to end. For example, the story opens with the announcement of Barrabas's arrival, then moves back to earlier that day when the family is in church, then shifts back further to Rosa's birth, returns to the family in church, and then moves forward to the foreshadowing of a time years later when Nivea would recall that very moment in church. This complicated movement back and forth in time is characteristic of the genre of Magical Realism. It is also thematized in the story through Clara's ability to predict the future.
Clara's name appears before any others in the novel, but she is quickly set within the context of her entire family. Although Clara and Esteban are the two central figures around whom all of the other connections in the story revolve, The House of the Spirits is a family saga. Different members of the del Valle-Trueba family take on the primary importance at various times.
The narrators do not mention any specific country in which The House of the Spirits is set. However, we can deduce that it is a South American country. The del Valle family lives in a highly developed city, but the country also contains rugged desert where Esteban works in the mines. Although no exact date is given, we can also deduce that the story opens around the beginning of the twentieth century.
Many of the characters possess eccentric characteristics. Clara's clairvoyance is an extreme example, but Rosa's beauty and Uncle Marcos's travels are also unusual. They introduce a world where the laws of what we may think of as realistic are not quite respected. However, all of the eccentricities lie just on the border of what is believable. Furthermore, the characters in the novel are aware of the strange qualities of their actions and beliefs, yet they take them in stride. This in turn makes them more believable. Magical Realism is often defined by just this type of combination of actions and qualities that lie on the edge of what we can accept as real. Rosa's green hair, yellow eyes and transparent skin are magically real. These qualities are not simply metaphoric. Rosa's hair is not so blond that it looks green; it is really green. The magical qualities of her coloring emphasize her extreme beauty in a much more effective way than the simple use of metaphors or superlatives could ever do. At the same time, they transform her beauty into something that is not quite real. All of the eccentric or magical elements of the story are described in simple sentences and vocabulary. The straightforward presentation adds to the believable, or real, quality of outlandish attributes or events.