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“I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of the past and present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously-as the three Mora sisters said who could see the spirits of all eras mingled in space.” The House of the Spirits  page 432

Every family has a story to tell. The House of Spirits shares the epic tale of three generations of the Trueba- de Valle family told through the memories of the patriarch, Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter Alba.  As an old man, Esteban looks back on the events of his past, the family’s ancestry, the history of his country and his family with loneliness, remorse, and forgiveness. Reading through the notebooks his mystical wife, the love of his life Clara, has left him with her passing, Esteban is able to understand things about the decisions he made which altered the course of not only his fate, but many others as well. Isabel Allende’s novel creates a complicated fictional world in which the Trueba family lives in a constant state of conflict over the cultural, political, class, economic, and spiritual struggles existing in the time and place they find themselves. Both the characters and reader are thrown into the life-long tumultuous situation which is the country and living environment in the house on the corner- the house of spirits. Although it is fiction, and personalities and circumstances may be exaggerated-no moment feels far from truth.

One of the most powerful messages the author sends in the novel is the alienation a family is able to feel, even for someone they are meant to love. Esteban Trueba begins his life as a poor man with an invalid mother and only his sister Ferula to support him. Ferula wishes to leave her terrible life caring for her mother. She is resentful and jealous of her brother, but he will not sacrifice the way she has. In order to become the rich and powerful man he dreams of being, Esteban goes to the country and seizes control of Tres Marias, land with peasants that leads to his financial success. Although the peasants of Tres Marias wish to be given their personal freedom in the form of wages as payment instead of Esteban controlling their food rations, he wants to be patron. Despite his own poverty stricken past, his new wealth has turned him into a Conservative. He does not keep the people from being free due to intentional cruelty, but because he believes he knows better than they do what they need.  Around the same time Trueba’s power grows, he marries the young Clara de Valle, his deceased finance Rosa’s little sister. From the start, it is obvious that Clara is Esteban’s opposite.

From the time Clara moves in to Tres Marias, she makes it known she will not allow Esteban the unlimited power he desires. Esteban, on the other hand, is so madly in love with Clara that she may do as she pleases much of the time. Clara, like her father, is a Liberal, which she will pass on to all three of her children to the distain of her husband. She follows in the footsteps of her mother Nivea helping the poor around her, causing her husband to complain she will spend his fortune on them.  But it isn’t until Clara has a daughter, Blanca, who from childhood on falls in love with a peasant boy, Pedro Tercero Garcia, that husband and wife really struggle to communicate. Blanca and Pedro spend their entire lives sneaking around until one day their relationship is revealed by the man Esteban has arranged for her to marry. On this day, the famous temper of Trueba is unleashed upon his daughter and then his wife.

All his life Esteban Trueba has been unable to control his temper. The day he finds Blanca with Pedro Tercero, also the boy who has been encouraging the peasants to vote against the Conservatives in elections, he attacks Blanca. No daughter of his will love a common man. When it comes down to it, his daughter pays him no attention. How can this peasant earn her affection? Later in life he would see that answer was simple: like her mother she despises her father’s inhumanity and inability to see the suffering of others. It will take him fifty years to help his daughter finally unite with the man she has always loved; the man he has kept her from. Esteban beats his daughter senseless when he finds her near the water at Tres Marias. They arrive home and Clara attempts to defend Pedro, simply stating that Esteban himself has consorted with women not of his class. She does not mention he has raped them and fathered their children. But he hits her so hard that she falls into the wall, spitting out several teeth. Clara never speaks to Esteban again.

No matter how hard Esteban tries to keep his pride intact, there is a fated intermingling of classes and characters from past to present. The first woman Trueba raped at Tres Marias, Pancha Garcia, has a son whom she named Esteban. Trueba is not willing to give his son his name or an inheritance. This is a mistake eventually leads to the suffering of the only person who ever loves the old man. After beating Blanca for being with Pedro Terceros, a boy named Esteban (Trueba’s forgotten and embittered son) comes to show Trueba where Pedro is hiding. When they find him, Trueba cuts off the guitar playing boy’s three fingers with an ax. It is because of this act that Pedro Tercero Garcia leaves Tres Marias and later becomes a famous musician in the capital. In this way he is able to come into contact with Blanca because this is where she is living with Pedro’s daughter, Alba, in the house on the corner.

Perhaps the most realistic aspect of the text is the family environment portrayed by the author through her narrators. Each member of the family resembles the other which they cherish, but their differences make it almost impossible for them to co-exist, even in the large mansion they share. As in all families, personalities clash and sometimes faults are ignored or denied. Accommodations are made for the twin brothers Jaime and Nicolas to bring girls home, start sandwich a factory in the kitchen, and Jaime changes his last name because he is ashamed of his Conservative Senator father. Clara brings the magical Mora sisters, spirits, and bird cages inside. Blanca uses the space in the kitchen for her clay projects and never once mentions why she left her husband the Count. Esteban’s temper is violent, threatening and cruel, but the family reacts accordingly. Alba listens to her father, Pedro Tercero Garcia’s, music on the radio and Esteban attacks it. ‘The next day, Clara bought another radio so Alba could listen to Pedro Tercero whenever she felt like it and old Trueba pretended not to listen.’  The accuracy and truth with which the author casually explains the everyday behavior of the people living inside the house that may appear bizarre to an outsider is incredibly comprehensible. They are the Trueba’s, yet somehow they could be my family, or yours. They hate each other sometimes, but I also see love in their actions.

Throughout the story, the narrators inform the reader that Clara has kept records of events, ancestry, and spiritual accounts all of her life. In life and in death Clara is a clairvoyant with magical powers. She communicates with the living and the dead, following her family around the house on the corner and warning her granddaughter of the danger she faces. Since Clara has always been able to predict some things in advance, such as the decapitation of her mother and the death of her sister Rosa, the reader also becomes a part of the tale-a psychic. Clara’s chronicles and reflections eventually become a way for Esteban and Alba to tell the history in the future of their past.  What may appear to be magical, or a premonition in the text, is the narrators peering into the past via help from their relative.

Esteban Trueba continues to gain power until he is a very old man. As he gains power he loses those closest to him. Finally, a Socialist president is elected in the country to Esteban’s surprise. The rest of the family is pleased and participates in the revolution. Intending to support the conservative party,Trueba supports the military coup unintentionally with weapons. Clara is already dead and wandering the halls of the house on the corner. She has warned Alba not to get involved, but it is too late. Alba is in love with Miguel, a revolutionary guerilla and she wants to aid the cause because of him. Jaime, a doctor and friend of the President finds himself trapped in the Presidential suite and dies with the Liberal government in an attack. Once again, Esteban’s mistakes have hurt others.  Esteban Garcia, a Colonel in the concentration camp where Alba is arrested for harboring fugitives, tortures and rapes her repeatedly. Garcia doesn’t ever plan to release her. Alba must be punished for her family, which is also his. Alba is the only person the old man has left in the world, the only person he ever had. He finds an old prostitute who owes him a favor to help him. Alba is released.

The pride, anger, illusions of control, lack of empathy toward others Esteban Trueba lived his life with lead to his own loneliness and unhappiness. What is worse, his lifestyle leads to the destruction and devastation of those he loved most. Despite the experiences of his youth, it took the torture and rape of his granddaughter for him to feel true regret and sorrow.

So often in life we make mistakes and feel regret. But have we truly reflected enough not to allow the same misstep to occur again? Or, is it possible to look back and notice a pattern in our actions? It is easy to judge others for faults. Especially when they affect other people the way Esteban Trueba’s choices altered his family’s life. He seems like a villain in many ways. In others he’s all too human. Although it may not be intentional, people repeatedly miscalculate and slip-up. Allende has many messages in this novel. At the end of the day, one of them is for her readers to be introspective about the choices they make. No regrets!

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

For more information:

Chilean Revolution 1973

Isabel Allende wikipedia

Film(1993) starring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder