Allende, Isabelle. The House of the Spirits. New York: The Dial Press. 2005. Print.
Introduction to the Selection by Heidi Schmitt
In Isabelle Allende’s 2007 TED Talk, she asks what is truer than truth? Her reply: the story. The House of the Spirits is just that. Taking a large inspiration from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Allende weaves a passionate tale in the style of Latin American magical realism. The House of the Spirits uses the magical explanations only permissible in storytelling to take the reader seamlessly through four generations of a Chilean family, ending in the 1970’s during a time of political turmoil which mirrors actual events that took place in Chile. Throughout the story, the narrative places a strong emphasis on describing the habitats of the characters. Often times, emotive feelings of the characters are reflected through natural disasters or political unrest. In the case of the home, the exteriors are a representation of the body’s state, while the interiors reflect the mind. The descriptions are hardly technical, but rely on spiritual feeling, smell, and qualities of light to reflect the owner’s mental state. The interiors are often retrofitted, never used as intended or as originally built, which comments on the characters’ development of individual thought, and how a certain character’s ideals start to contrast with their initial status, both politically and ideologically. The spaces are described so clearly that the character of the occupants themselves are known through their home, and in reverse, a character is only fully understood in the novel once the reader visits their abode.
Although the novel involves a complicated network of important characters, this analysis will focus primarily on the relationship of Esteban Trueba and his wife Clara. The timeline of the story chronicles the life span of Esteban, a young man who works hard for his fortune, house, and family, but fails to become the protagonist due to his ferocious fits of rage and his unyielding patriarchal ideals. It is not surprising then that Allende, a self-declared feminist, makes Esteban’s wife Clara the true protagonist of the tale. Since she was a young girl, Clara found herself attached not only to this world, but also to the realm of spirits. Her ties with the spiritual world produce premonitions that hold the dysfunctional family. The second excerpt is a retrospective description of how Clara’s physical body houses a new world that makes sense of the chaotic events the family endures throughout the book. Clara takes in the bad luck and coincidences and strings them together by means of the spiritual world when the physical world lacks an explanation. Her mysticism not only provides comfort and justification to her family in the novel, but also provides a vehicle for the reader to establish a narrative that transcends the linear timeline of Esteban’s life and becomes a highly connective tissue of reaction and consequence to previous events in the family’s history. Later in her life, Esteban refers to her as Clara the clairvoyant, Clara the clear.
Clara is often described as a mother who lacks maternal instincts. She does not shower her children with affection, and she does not clean, cook, or decorate her home. In a traditional sense, she does not bear the torch of motherhood. However as the story progresses, Clara redefines the term “housekeeper.” From the beginning, Esteban is enthralled by Clara’s beauty and desires to possess her. He believes that he will earn back the status once applied to the name Trueba with his new family. However from the description given in excerpt two, the reader never expects the traditional, French architecture of Esteban’s design described in excerpt three to hold Clara’s metaphysical body. In the same respect, the reader never expects Esteban to own Clara. Her nature overpowers Esteban’s, just as the passage describes, and Clara adds nonsensical appendages to the home. Eventually the house is split, marked by a devastating earthquake, between Clara’s world and Esteban’s. Unfortunately, their children also inherit inescapable quirks that draw them to their mother’s spirit and never are able to fulfill Esteban’s expectations.
The fourth excerpt demonstrates the strength of Clara’s presence in the house and within Esteban himself. Even after death, her spirits fill the empty rooms (or so Esteban believes). At this point in the novel, the narrator describes the state of the house, her additions ultimately encompassing Esteban and his living quarters. Because the house continues to evolve in its eccentricities, Clara remains in control of her husband’s mind and body, and Esteban is confined by the boundaries that her spirit has established.
Excerpt 1: p. 37-38
Clara’s older sister Rosa has just died by accidental poisoning. Clara, because she predicted Rosa’s death, feels guilty that she may have been the cause. After this incident, Clara does not speak for the next nine years. This is an example of how Allende uses architecture to describe the feeling of the character at the time.
The night that Dr. Cuevas and his assistant cut open Rosa’s corpse in the kitchen to establish the cause of her death, Clara lay in bed with her eyes wide open, trembling in the dark. She was terrified that Rosa had died because she had said she would. She believed that just as the power of her mind could move the saltcellar on the table, she could also produce deaths, earthquakes, and other, even worse catastrophes. In vain her mother explained that she could not bring about these events, only see them somewhat in advance. She felt lonely and guilty, and it occurred to her that if only she could be with Rosa she would feel much happier. She got up in her nightshirt and walked around barefoot to the bedroom she had shared with her older sister, but she was not in the bed where she had seen her for the last time. She went out to look for her. The house was dark and quiet. Her mother, drugged by Dr. Cuevas, was asleep, and her brothers and sisters and the servants were already in their rooms. She went through the sitting rooms, slipping along the walls, frightened and cold. The heavy furniture, the thick drapes, the paintings on the wall, the wallpaper with its flowers against a background of dark cloth, the low lamps flickering on the ceiling, and the potted ferns on their porcelain columns all looked menacing to her. She noticed a crack of light coming from under the drawing-room door, and she was on the verge of going in, but she was afraid she would run into her father and that he would send her back to bed. So she went toward the kitchen, thinking to comfort herself against her Nana’s breasts. She crossed the main courtyard, passed between the camellias and the miniature orange trees, went through the sitting rooms of the second wing of the house and the dark open corridors, where the faint gas lights were left burning every night in case there was an earthquake and d to scare the bats away, and arrived in the third courtyard where the service rooms and kitchen were. There the house lost its aristocratic bearing and the kennels, chicken coops, and servants’ quarters began. Farther on was the stables where the old horses Nivea still rode were kept, even though Severo del Valle had been one of the first to buy an automobile. The kitchen door and shutters were closed, and so was the pantry. Instinct told Clara that something out of the ordinary was going on inside. She tried to see in but her nose didn’t reach the window ledge. She had to fetch a wooden box and pull it to the window. She stood on tiptoe and looked through a crack between the wooden shutter and the window frame, which was warped and damp with age. Then she saw inside.
Excerpt 2: p. 82
Here Alba, Clara’s granddaughter and narrator of the novel describes the eccentric setting of Clara’s mind, and describes how she exists in a world of her own creation. This description is later corroborated by Clara’s many premonitions that eventually come to pass.
Clara’s childhood came to an end and she entered her youth within the walls of her house in a world of terrifying stories and calm silences. It was a world in which time was not marked by calendars or watches and objects had a life of their own, in which apparitions sat at the table and conversed with human beings, the past and the future formed part of a single unit, and the reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors where everything and anything could happen. It is a delight for me to read her notebooks from those years, which describe a magic world that no longer exists. Clara lived in a universe of her own invention, protected from life’s inclement weather, where the prosaic truth of material objects mingled with the tumultuous reality of dreams and laws of physics and logic did not always apply. Clara spent this time wrapped in her fantasies, accompanied by the spirits of the air, the water, and the earth. For nine years she was so happy that she felt no need to speak. Everyone had lost all hope of ever hearing her voice again, when on her birthday, after blowing out the nineteen candles on her chocolate cake, she tried out the voice that she had kept in storage all those years, and that sounded like an untuned instrument.
Excerpt 3: p. 92-94
After Esteban Trueba marries Clara, he builds a house for them in which he intends to house his future family. Here is a description of its original form and hints how it evolves later.
Esteban Trueba took charge of a team of bricklayers, carpenters, and plumbers who were engaged to construct the largest, sunniest, and sturdiest house imaginable, built to last a thousand years and lodge several generations of a bountiful family full of legitimate Truebas. He hired a French architect and had part of the building materials imported from abroad so that his would be the only house with German stained-glass windows, moldings carved in Austria, faucets of English bronze, Italian marble floors, and special locks ordered by catalogue from the United States, which arrived with the wrong instructions and no keys. Ferula, horrified by the expense, tried to keep him from additional folly, from buying French furniture, teardrop chandeliers, and Turkish carpets, by arguing that this would quickly be their ruin and that they would find themselves repeating the story of the extravagant Trueba who had sired them, but Esteban countered that he was rich enough to give himself these luxuries and threatened to line the doors with silver if she went on bothering him. She replied that such wastefulness was certainly a mortal sin and that God would punish all of them for spending on nouveau riche vulgarities what they should be giving to the poor.
Despite the fact that Esteban was no great lover of innovation, and had, in fact, a deep mistrust of the dislocations of modernity, he decided that his house should be constructed like the new palaces of North America and Europe, with all the comforts but retaining a classical style. He wanted it to be as far removed as possible from the native architecture. He would hear nothing of three courtyards, corridors, rusty fountains, dark rooms, walls of whitewashed adobe, or dusty tiles on the roof; he wanted two or three heroic floors, rows of white columns, and a majestic staircase that would make a half-turn on itself and wind up in a hall of white marble, enormous, well-lit windows, and the overall appearance of order and peace, beauty and civilization, that was typical of foreign peoples and would be in tune with his new life. His house would be a reflection of himself, his family, and the prestige he planned to give the surname that his father had stained. He wanted the splendor to be visible from the street, and so he designed a French garden with topiaries fit for Versailles, deep wells of flowers, a smooth and perfect lawn, jets of water, and several statues of the gods of Olympus and perhaps one or two courageous Indians from the history of the Americas, naked and crowned with feathers, his one concession to patriotism, He could hardly guess that that solemn, cubic, dense, pompous house which stood like a hat amid its green and geometric surroundings would end up full of protuberances and incrustations, of twisted staircases that led to empty spaces, of turrets, of small windows that could not be opened, doors hanging in midair, crooked hallways, and portholes that linked the living quarters so that people could communicate during the siesta, all of which were Clara’s inspiration. Every time a new guest arrived, she would have another room built in another part of the house, and if the spirits told her that there was a hidden treasure or unburied body in the foundation, she would have a wall knocked down, until the mansion was transformed into an enchanted labyrinth that was impossible to clean and defied any number of state and city laws. But when Trueba built the house that everybody called “the big house on the corner,” it bore the stately seal which he managed to stamp everything around him, as if in memory of his childhood privations. Clara never went to see the house during the time it was being built. She was as uninterested in it as she was her trousseau, and she left all decisions in the hands of her fiancé and her future sister-in-law.
Excerpt 4: p. 394-395
In the final chapter of the book, all of the family has left the house on the corner except for Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter Alba. Alba has taken on the duty of hiding revolutionaries that are wanted by the Fascist dictatorship, and transporting them to embassies that will grant the fugitives freedom. Esteban, the former Senator, has lost his political power after the coup; however he remains a respected man of the republic and would be furious to know his own granddaughter was helping “communists”. His wife Clara has since passed away, leaving the house and Esteban to fall into a state of disarray, which parallels the state of the country at this fearful time.
Senator Trueba was left alone in the house with his granddaughter and a few remaining servants. At least that is what he thought. But Alba had decided to adopt her mother’s plan and was using the abandoned wing of the house to hide people for a night or two until she found a safer place or a way to get them out of the country. She helped those who lived in shadow, fleeing by day and mingling with the bustle of the city, but who had to be hidden by nightfall, always in a different place. The most dangerous time was during the curfew, when fugitives could not be out on the street and the police could hunt them down at will. Alba thought her grandfather’s house was the last place they would search. Slowly but surely she transformed the empty rooms into a labyrinth of secret nooks where she hid those she took under her wing, sometimes whole families. Senator Trueba used only the library, the bathroom, and his bedroom. There he lived surrounded by his mahogany furniture, his Victorian glass cabinets, and his Persian carpets. Even for a man so little given to intuition as he was, the dark mansion was disquieting: it seemed to hold a hidden monster. Trueba could not understand the reason for his uneasiness, because he knew that the strange noises the servant said they heard were made by Clara as she wandered through the house in the company of her spirit friends. He often came upon his wife gliding through the sitting rooms, in her white tunic, with her young girl’s laugh. He pretended not to see her, not moving and even holding his breath so as not to frighten her. If he closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep, he could feel her fingers gently stroking his forehead, her fresh breath touching him like a breeze, her hair brushing against his hand. He had no reason to suspect anything irregular, and yet he tried not to venture into the enchanted realm that belonged to his wife. The farthest he went was the neutral zone of the kitchen.