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.