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The House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

What effect do the numerous instances of foreshadowing and flashback have on the novel's development? How do they effect the perception of time?

The entire temporal structure of the novel is one of flashback and foreshadowing. The two primary verb tenses used are the past and the future. This structure is set up at the very beginning, when the narrator describes events in the past and then refers to the present when the narrator is writing. When the present is referred to from the past, it becomes the future (Fifty years ago Clara did not suspect that fifty years later the narrator would use her notebooks). The constant shifting from past to future underlines the cyclical nature of development in the novel. We are constantly reminded of how any one moment connects to the past and to the future. While events can be mapped in a temporal sequence (the novel starts with the grandmother Clara as a young girl and ends with the story of the granddaughter Alba as a grown woman), the story develops more in a circle than in a straight line. In addition, the narrators remark several times that Clara organized her notebooks, on which much of the story is based, thematically instead of temporally. Time becomes only one of many ways of ordering a narrative.

2.

Compare and contrast the characters of Clara and Esteban. How do they develop throughout the novel? What makes them get married?

Clara is barely aware of the material world. She is most interested in communicating with spirits and only pays attention to mundane details such as domestic chores in times of extreme necessity. Clara is often described as floating through the world. At times, this refers to her literally levitating, at others it shows the way she is able to ignore much of what she does not want to deal with. Clara's temper is extremely calm. She inspires great respect and devotion in all those who meet her, from Esteban to his sister Ferula to his foreman Pedro Segundo. Although she can see it in advance, Clara never fights her destiny. She is not, however, passive. When she faces a situation that she does not like, she proceeds to change it in quiet, subtle ways, such as adding little rooms to the big house on the corner bit by bit until, although it looks the same on the outside, it is completely transformed. Clara's character changes very little as she grows from a young girl to an old woman.

Esteban, on the other hand, is obsessive, violent, and materialistic. He devotes his life to his business and political careers, determined first to become rich and then to become powerful. He owes much of his success to the labor of the peasants at Tres Marias, but he never treats them with respect or equality. From the time he becomes engaged to Clara through the end of his life, Esteban is passionately in love with her. His love for her is so strong it is like an obsession. It is not, however, enough to curb his temper, even toward her. Esteban achieves his material goals but is not able to be close to anyone except his granddaughter Alba. As he get older, Esteban begins to see the negative outcomes of his violent, selfish actions and becomes increasingly aware of how lonely he is.

Esteban asks for Clara's hand in marriage because he needs a wife from a respectable family. Clara agrees to marry Esteban because she sees that it is her destiny. As soon as he gets to know Clara, Esteban falls deeply in love with her. With time, his passion for her only deepens. Clara never falls in love with Esteban. She tolerates him up a certain point, and over the years develops a deep affection for him. Esteban is tormented throughout his life by Clara's failure to return his love.

3.

What is the significance of the big house on the corner?

Esteban builds the big house on the corner during his engagement to Clara. Esteban, Clara, and their entire family live at the house throughout the novel, when they are not at their property in the country, Tres Marias. The structure of the big house on the corner is a symbol for the structure of the entire novel. Esteban constructs a house that on the surface 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 narrator informs us as Esteban builds the house that it will end up full of complicated, twisted, and impractical additions. Despite its apparently traditional structure, The House of the Spirits contains an enormous number of complicated plot twists. 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.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What are the effects of the double narration? Do you believe one voice more than the other? Does it help create sympathy for Esteban to have his voice as one of the narrators? Consider how the epilogue may change your view of the narration.

2. What is the significance of the characters' names? Think about both first and last names. Consider not only what they mean, but also how they relate to one another. What is the effect of so much repetition in the names?

3. What is the novel's political message? What are the political positions of the most sympathetic characters? What are the political positions of the least sympathetic characters? ow do political beliefs, practices, or events affect the lives of the characters?

4. Compare and contrast the characters of Jaime and Nicolas. Consider the significance of their being twins. What is their role in the story? Think about how they are different from the other male characters.

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