The House of the Spirits
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Struggle Between Classes
The major characters in The House of the Spirits come from two opposing classes: the landed aristocracy and the peasants. Most of the population of Latin America, as well as all of the characters in the novel, belong to one of these two classes. Essentially the only other class distinction that might be drawn is that occupied by those in civil service. Peasants can join the police force or the army and gain access to education and a higher class status, which is the case of Esteban Garcia. The del Valle and Trueba families represent the land-owning upper-class criollos (a criollo is a person who is born and raised in South America but is a direct descendant of Spaniards), while the Garcias represent the peasants. The two classes come into conflict because one (upper) owns the land that the other (lower) works on. Especially in rural areas such as Tres Marias, the upper classes control all of the infrastructure, such as schools, transportation, banks, and hospitals, as well as all of the capital. As the upper classes prosper, conflict mounts when that prosperity is not equally distributed.
Several different attitudes are presented toward this inequality in The House of the Spirits. Esteban Trueba represents the conservative view—that the status quo should be maintained and that there is no reason for the peasants to share in the upper class’s wealth or to change their situation. Pedro Tercero Garcia represents the revolutionary peasants who will work to make that change happen. The Trueba women, as well as Jaime, support the peasants. This sets up an important alliance between all of those who are subjugated by the patriarchal system.
Simply by making class struggle a major theme of the novel, The House of the Spirits supports the view of the peasants: the conservatives would not see class struggle as a problem, let alone a topic around which to organize a novel. The third person narration of the story is in fact given in the perspective of Alba, a staunch supporter of the socialist revolution. Alba’s views also prevail in the retrospective commentary of Esteban Trueba, who slowly comes to accept his granddaughter’s position.
The Power of Women
The protagonists of the novel are all women who work in different and subtle ways to assert their rights. The House of the Spirits can be seen as a woman-centered response to the paradigmatic text of magical realism: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Where One Hundred Years of Solitude centers around three generations of men, with the women whom they love as important but secondary characters, The House of the Spirits does the opposite. Clara, Blanca, and Alba remain the focus of the story, while Esteban, Pedro Tercero, and Miguel enter the story because they are the men those women love or marry. Experiences particularly central to the lives of women dominate the minor as well as the major events in the story, such as the detailed descriptions of each childbirth and the abortion, as well as the presentation of physical and sexual violence against women.
Aside from Nivea’s commitment to female suffrage, the women rarely explicitly condemn gender inequality. Each woman’s life is, however, marked by it. All of the women in The House of the Spirits are strong women who do not bow to mistreatment. They choose subtle responses the situations, though, instead of outright revolt. This very method of resistance can be seen as particularly feminine. If violence and activity are male traits, while gentleness and passivity are female ones, The House of the Spirits shows that this does not mean that men accomplish things and change things while women do not. On the contrary, the women in The House of the Spirits effect more long-lasting and drastic changes than do any of the men. While the men lead revolutions that topple governments, those revolutions are themselves quickly toppled. The women’s subtler methods of teaching literacy and basic healthcare, setting curses, and refusing to speak are far more effective in exacting permanent change.
The Importance of Genealogy
Although genealogy is a subtle theme in the novel, it is ultimately the source of the denouement. Almost all of the characters in the story belong to either the del Valle-Trueba family, or else to the Garcia family. The family name or genealogy to which each character belongs determines her or his class position. Genealogy does not, however, follow simply from biological parenting. In fact, the bloodlines of the Trueba and Garcia families cross repeatedly, but Esteban Trueba works hard to assure that their family names and their genealogies do not. In the novel, it is less whose genes you share and more the last name you carry that determines genealogy. At the birth of each child, the question of last name is raised. In addition, at each point that a character wishes to mark a drastic shift in alliances away from their father or family, they change their last name. Despite Esteban’s efforts to make genealogy by name the only type of genealogy that matters, his refusal to acknowledge some of his biological children ultimately comes back to haunt him.
Civilization vs. Barbarity
The unnamed country in The House of the Spirits, like Allende’s native Chile, is divided between modern city and largely undeveloped countryside, and between an aristocratic and a peasant class, with little in between. One of the oldest tropes or models for understanding the great divergences in Latin American culture is that of culture versus nature or civilization versus barbarity.
The traditional view of civilization and barbarity holds that while nature is bountiful and has restorative powers, it is barbaric and needs the influence of civilization in order to be productive. This same view considers civilization the realm of the upper classes and the cities; it is rational and well ordered. While several of the characters in The House of the Spirits subscribe to these traditional views, the novel works to break down any neat divisions between civilization and barbarity. The beliefs and practices of those who believe themselves to be civilized are shown to often be inhumane, irrational, ineffective, and backward. At the same time, the “barbaric” peasants demonstrate the most levelheaded, successful responses to everything from natural disasters to politics.
The House of the Spirits begins and ends with the narrators referring explicitly to her use of Clara’s journals in order to write the story at hand. Of course, the words of this narrator were written by Isabel Allende. Allusions to Clara’s writing pervade the novel. Special attention is given to the ways in which each woman learns to write, and the moments when writing acquires meaning in her life. Both Clara and Alba first learn how to write and then learn how to use writing. Writing serves as testimony both on a personal and on a political level, bearing witness to events for the purpose of broadcasting them to a wider audience that may be able to learn from or even remedy the events testified to. On the personal level, Alba and other family members are able to piece together their “true” family history based on Clara’s writings; on the political level, Alba is able to testify to the abuses of power of the military regime through her writing. Alba’s writing is also a metaphor for Isabel Allende’s writing of The House of the Spirits as a testimony to events that took place in her native Chile during her lifetime.
Chance or strange twists of fate recur repeatedly in The House of the Spirits. These are thematized in Clara’s clairvoyance, which allows her to understand people’s fates and to predict the future. They also structure the plot, which revolves around the encounters and reencounters of members of the del Valle-Trueba family and the Garcia family with each other and with their natural and political environment. Each of the romantic couples in the novel meets seemingly by chance at a young age and years later realizes that things were meant to be. Just as loves return and persist through a strange combination of chance and design, so do other connections, such as friendships and debts. Although Clara must come to realize that she can predict but not change the future, fate is not an entirely arbitrary experience in The House of the Spirits. Rather, each character’s fate is the result of all of their actions, great and small, just as the country’s fate is determined by the particular combination of political influences that those characters exert.
The Big House on the Corner
Esteban builds a big house on the corner 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, Esteban’s house ends up full of complicated 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.
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