The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus, 1982) is a debut novel by Isabel Allende. Initially, the novel was rejected by several Spanish-language publishers, but became an instant best seller when published in Barcelona in 1982. The novel was critically acclaimed around the world, and catapulted Allende to literary stardom. That same year, the novel was named Best Novel of the Year in Chile, and she received the country's Panorama Literario award. The novel has been translated to over 20 languages worldwide.

The book was first conceived by Isabel Allende when she received news that her grandfather was dying, and she began to write him a letter that ultimately became the starting manuscript of The House of the Spirits.

The story details the life of the Trueba family, spanning four generations, and tracing the post-colonial social and political upheavals of the Latin American country they live in. The story is told mainly from the perspective of two protagonists (Esteban and Alba) and incorporates elements of magic realism. Some readers claim that the novel is a roman à clef. According to them, The Poet in the novel is probably Pablo Neruda, and Allende's cousin, once removed Salvador Allende, is both The Candidate and The President.

Plot summary

The House of Spirits chronicles the lives of three generations of Trueba women.

The story starts, however, with the Del Valle family, focusing on Clara and Rosa, mainly. The youngest daughter, Clara del Valle, has paranormal powers and keeps a detailed diary of her life. Using her powers, Clara predicts a death in the family. Shortly after this, Clara's green-haired sister, Rosa the Beautiful, is accidentally poisoned and dies as a result. Clara accidentally watches her sister's autopsy and afterwards, terrified, stops speaking, believing her words caused her sister's death. Rosa's fiance, a poor miner named Esteban Trueba, is devastated and attempts to mend his broken heart by devoting his life to uplifting his family hacienda, Las Tres Marías. He quickly earns/forces respect from the fearful peasants and turns Tres Marías into a model hacienda. During this time he makes a habit out of raping peasant girls. His first victim, Pancha Garcia, becomes the mother of his bastard son Esteban Garcia.

After his mother's death, Esteban decides to fulfill his mother's dying wish: to marry and have legitimate children. He goes to the del Valle family to ask for Clara's hand. Clara accepts Esteban's proposal, thus speaking for the first time in years, even though she does not love him. Esteban's sister Férula comes to live with the newlyweds in their mansion. Férula develops a strong dedication to Clara which fulfills her need to serve others. However, Esteban's wild desire to possess and be loved by Clara causes him to throw Férula out of the house. She curses him, telling him that he will shrink in body and soul, and die like a dog. Although she misses her sister-in-law, a passive and dreamy Clara finds happiness in developing her psychic powers. Spirits, artists, and spiritualists flock to the Trueba's big house in the city.

Clara gives birth to a daughter named Blanca and later, to twin boys Jaime and Nicolás. During their summertime stays at the hacienda, Blanca befriends a young boy named Pedro Tercero, who is the son of her father's foreman. Blance and Pedro Tercero eventually become lovers and life runs smoothly until Pedro Tercero is banished from the hacienda by Esteban, on account of his revolutionary communist/socialist ideas.

A visiting French count to the hacienda, Jean de Satigny, reveals Blanca's nightly romps with Pedro Tercero to her father. Esteban furiously goes after his daughter and brutally whips her. When Clara expresses horror at his actions, Esteban slaps her, knocking out her front teeth. Clara decides to never speak to him again, reclaims her maiden name and moves out of Tres Marías, taking Blanca with her. Esteban, furious and lonely, blames Pedro Tercero for the whole matter; he tracks Pedro Tercero to make him pay for taking Blanca's virginity. He only succeeds in cutting-off Pedro's three fingers, and is filled with regret for his uncontrollable furies.

Jaime becomes an empathetic doctor while crafty Nicolás concocts money-making schemes.The two develop a strange relationship with a woman named Amanda. Blanca finds out she is pregnant with Pedro Tercero's child. Esteban, desperate to save the family honor, gets Blanca to marry the French count by telling her that he has killed Pedro Tercero. At first Blanca gets along with her new husband, but she leaves him when she discovers his secret collection of disgustingly perverted pictures. Blanca quietly returns back to the Trueba household and names her daughter, who has inherited Rosa's shocking green hair, Alba. Clara predicts that Alba will have a very happy future and good luck. Her future lover, Miguel, happens to watch her birth, as he had been living in the Trueba House with his sister, Amanda. They move out shortly after Alba's birth.

Esteban Trueba, who has become isolated from every member of his family except for little Alba, who he is very fond of, runs as a senator for the Conservative Party but is nervous about whether or not he will win. Clara speaks to him, through signs, informing him that "those who have always won will win again" - this becomes his motto. A few years later, Clara dies peacefully and Esteban is struck with grief.

Alba is a solitary child who enjoys playing make-believe in the basement of the house and painting the walls of her room. Blanca has become very poor since leaving Jean de Satigny's house, getting a small income out of selling pottery and giving pottery classes to children, and is once again dating Pedro Tercero, now a revolutionary singer/songwriter. Alba and Pedro are fond of each other, but do not know they are father and daughter, although Pedro suspects this. Alba is also fond of her uncles. Nicólas is eventually kicked out by his father, moving, supposedly, to North America.

When she is older, Alba attends a local college where she meets Miguel, now a grown man, and becomes his lover. Miguel is a revolutionary, and out of love for him, Alba involves herself in student protests against the conservative government. After the victory of the People's Party (a socialist movement), Alba celebrates with Miguel.

Fearing a Communist dictatorship, Esteban Trueba and his fellow politicians plan a military coup of the socialist government. However, when the military coup is set into action, the military men relish their power and grow out of control. Esteban's gentle son Jaime is viciously and pointlessly killed by power-driven soldiers along with many others. The government goes from being Neoliberal (very conservative, the side Esteban is on) to liberal (with the majority rule, popular support, democratic election) to a full military dictator ship. People are kidnapped during the night and torture becomes the weapon of choice. Esteban helps Blanca and Pedro Tercero, now being persecuted, to flee to Canada , where the couple finally finds their happiness.

The novel takes a gruesome turn and documents the violent atrocities that the wealthy try to ignore throughout the country. The military regime attempts to eliminate all traces of opposition and eventually comes for Alba. She is made the prisoner of the military man, Esteban Garcia, son of Esteban Trueba and Pancha Garcia's bastard child, and thereof Trueba's illegitimate grandson. In revenge for the fact that she has lived a privileged life and will inherit everything, while he grew up in poverty and will get none of the wealth, Esteban tortures Alba repeatedly.He rapes her (having molested Alba once when she was a child and forced a kiss on her when she was older), thus completing the cycle which Esteban Trueba put into motion when he raped Pancha Garcia. Alba is also beat and tortured for information on Miguel. When Alba loses her will to live, she is visited by Clara's spirit who tells her to not wish for death since it can easily come, but to wish to live since that would be a miracle.

Esteban Trueba manages to free Alba with the help of Miguel and Transito Soto, an old friend/prostitute from his days as a young man. After helping Alba write their memoir, Esteban Trueba dies in the arms of Alba, accompanied by Clara's spirit; he is smiling, having avoided Ferula's prophecy that he will die like a dog. Alba explains she will not seek vengeance on those who have injured her, suggesting a hope that one day the human cycle of hate and revenge can be broken. Alba writes the book to pass time while she waits for Miguel and advances in pregnancy.

Main Characters

Some of the characters' names are significant, particularly the women's names, which often indicate the personalities of the character. In addition, the names Nívea, Clara, Blanca and Alba are all more or less synonyms, and this is mentioned as a family tradition. (Nívea means snow-white, and can be translated as "white" as can all the others, though they have specific meanings. In addition, Férula's name is of note, as this word, meaning "rod" in Latin, when used in Spanish refers to an object used to immobilize a limb, such as a splint or cast.)

Clara del Valle Trueba

Clara (in English, "Clear") is the key female figure in the novel. She is a clairvoyant and telekinetic who is rarely attentive to domestic tasks, but she holds her family together with her love for them and her uncanny predictions. She is the youngest daughter of Severo and Nivea del Valle, wife of Esteban Trueba, and mother of Blanca, Jaime, and Nicolás. As a child, she and her uncle Marcos used her powers to run a fortune-telling centre and realize many other paranormal activities. Her uncle eventually leaves in a primitive airplane he built himself, disappearing for many months, and later dies as the result of a 'mysterious African plague' contracted during his travels. Clara practices divining and moving inanimate objects, most notably a three-legged table, and she is surrounded by friends such as the psychic Mora sisters and The Poet. Severo and Nivea del Valle are main characters in another Allende novel, Portrait in Sepia.

Esteban Trueba

Esteban Trueba is the central male character of the novel and the only principal character to survive the course of the novel. In his youth, he seeks the mermaid-like and green-haired Rosa the Beautiful, daughter of Severo and Nivea del Valle, and so he slaves in the mines to earn a suitable fortune so that he can support her. However, while he is working in the mines she dies by accidental poisoning; a cruel stroke of fate which changes Esteban's life and hardens his heart. Although he eventually marries Clara and raises a large family, Esteban's stubborn and violent ways alienate all those around him. Esteban has a tense relationship with his daughter Blanca, but shows genuine love and devotion to his granddaughter Alba. Despite his often violent behavior, he is also devoted to his wife Clara, entering into a state of permanent mourning following her death. As a self-made man who earned all of his wealth from years of work spent improving Tres Marias, Esteban scorns those who are poor and believes them to be lazy and stupid. Later in life he turns to politics where he spends his money and effort trying to prevent the rising Socialist movement within the country - an ideology he condemns. However, after the military coup he loses much of his power and suddenly has to face the fact that he has become an old and weak man. Yet it is not the loss of power, so much as the injury done to his country, which agonizes the highly patriotic Esteban. His realization that he desires the love of his family and peace in his country leads to a pivotal change in his character. In his last days, he slowly loses the rage that has been driving him all his life. He confesses to Transito Soto that all he really cares about in life is his granddaughter's well-being, and he is ecstatic when Alba is rescued. Esteban dies in Alba's arms, knowing that he has achieved Clara's posthumous forgiveness.

Blanca Trueba

Blanca (in English, "White") is Clara and Esteban's first born daughter. She spends her childhood between their house in the capital and Tres Marías, where she forms a friendship with a boy named Pedro Tercero Garcia. Their friendship endures, despite Blanca's attendance of boarding school meaning that they are only able to see each other in the summer, and they eventually become lovers. Their love persists even after Pedro is run out of the hacienda by Esteban, because he is putting communist ideas in the other workers' heads. Following Blanca's marriage to the Count, she sees Pedro sporadically, resisting his attempts to persuade her to marry, but their relationship continues. Blanca's reconciliation with her father eventually allows her to flee to Canada with Pedro, where she finally achieves happiness with Pedro Tercero, and is able to earn large amounts of money for the first time by selling her clay figurines, which are seen as folk art by Canadians.

Pedro Tercero Garcia

Pedro is the son of the tenant/foreman of Tres Marías, Pedro Segundo. At a young age, he falls in love with Blanca and is the father of her only child, Alba. In his youth, he spreads socialist ideals to the workers on the hacienda, and later he becomes a revolutionary and a songwriter (his character may be modeled after revolutionary songwriter Victor Jara). It is mentioned that he resumes his political crusade during his exile in Canada where his music is embraced in translation even if "chickens and foxes are underdeveloped creatures" in comparison with the "eagles and wolves" of the North.

Alba Trueba

Alba (in English, "Dawn") is the daughter of Blanca and Pedro Tercero Garcia, although for many years of her life she was led to believe that Count de Satigny was her father. From before her birth, her grandmother Clara decreed that she was blessed by the stars. Because of this, Clara said she needed not to go to school, and was raised at home until she was seven. The novel ends with Esteban's death, and Alba sits alone in the vast Trueba mansion beside his body. The last paragraph reveals that she is pregnant, although she does not know (or care) whether the child is Miguel's, or the product of the rapes that she endured at the hands of security police, during her imprisonment.

School Curricula

The novel has been used in a wide number of school curricula around the world, notably for its use of magical realism, as well as a translated Latin American novel. Educational organizations such as the International Baccalaureate Organization recognize it as a world literature study book.

Author's Traditions

After the debut of The House of the Spirits, Allende began to follow a rule of starting to write all her books on January 8th. She is quoted as saying:
In January 8, 1981, I was living in Venezuela and I received a phone call that my beloved grandfather was dying. I began a letter for him that later became my first novel, The House of The Spirits. It was such a lucky book from the very beginning, that I kept that lucky date to start.

Film and Theatrical Adaptations

In 1993 the book was adapted into a film (The House of the Spirits) by Danish director Bille August. The movie starred Jeremy Irons as Esteban Trueba, Meryl Streep as Clara del Valle Trueba, Winona Ryder as Blanca Trueba, Glenn Close as Férula Trueba and Antonio Banderas as Pedro Tercero García. The movie achieved mild success and won awards at the Bavarian Film Awards, German Film Awards, Golden Screen (Germany), Havana Film Festival, and Robert Festival (Denmark), as well as from the German Phono Academy and the Guild of German Art House Cinemas.

The novel has also been made to theatrical adaptations in many theaters including Seattle's Book It Repertory Theatre.


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