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.
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