Chapter 1 - Rosa the Beautiful
The story opens on Holy Thursday during the time of Lent in the Chilean countryside. A ten-year-old girl named Clara del Valle sits in church with her family while the priest, the bombastic Father Restrepo, leads services. Clara's parents are not avid churchgoers; Severo del Valle is an atheist and Nívea del Valle prefers personal communion with God, yet they must attend church to keep up appearances. Nívea and Severo have eleven living children. Their eldest daughter, Rosa, attracts attention wherever she goes, church being no exception. She was born with a strange and mermaid-like beauty, having green hair, yellow eyes, and almost translucent skin. She is engaged to a young miner named Esteban Trueba, who is trying to make his fortune in a faraway mine. Suddenly Clara breaks the silence in the church by saying: "Psst! Father Restrepo! If that story about hell is a lie, we're all fucked, aren't we..." Father Restrepo pronounces Clara possessed by the devil. While severe, Father Restrepo's pronouncement about Clara is not entirely off-base, because Clara is clairvoyant and can move objects with her mind. After church, the body of the eccentric Uncle Marcos is dropped off at the del Valle household. Uncle Marcos was an eccentric traveler who resembled a pirate. His most famous expedition was into the mountains on an airplane he made himself. After he disappeared for much longer than expected, he was presumed dead and a funeral was held, but then he made a grand return, after which he became a mentor for Clara. She was enthralled by his stories and his collection of books and magical objects. When Uncle Marcos's corpse is delivered to the del Valle household, Clara insists on keeping a decrepit puppy that is among his belongings. She names him Barrabas and he grows into a gargantuan dog that eats or knocks over everything in sight.
We switch to the perspective of Esteban Trueba, who narrates much of The House of the Spirits. He remembers being twenty-five years old, working in the mine to raise enough money to give Rosa a proper life. Esteban recalls how he first saw Rosa on the street and became obsessed with her. When he finally gathered the courage to go to the del Valle household and ask for her hand, he found it uncontested. Rosa was so beautiful that no man wanted to take on the responsibility of protecting her from other men. After Esteban and Rosa became engaged, Esteban obtained the concession for the mine, and left his sister Férula behind to tend to their aging and ailing mother, Doña Ester.
Severo del Valle becomes the Liberal Party candidate for the upcoming Congressional elections. On the same day Clara announces that a family member will die by accident, a gift of a jug of brandy arrives on the del Valle doorstep. Rosa becomes ill, and Severo gives her some brandy for her fever. The next morning, she is dead. The family doctor, Dr. Cuevas, determines that the brandy was poisoned by Severo's political adversaries. Severo is overcome with grief that his daughter has died in his place. Clara sneaks out of bed and, through the dining-room window, watches Dr. Cuevas and his assistant perform an autopsy on Rosa. After Dr. Cuevas leaves, his assistant fondles Rosa's corpse. From that moment on, Clara resolves not to speak, and keeps her resolution until nine years later when she announces that she will soon be married.
Chapter 2 - The Three Marías
We enter the lives of Esteban and Férula Trueba. Their mother, Doña Ester, is so crippled by arthritis that she can do practically nothing for herself. Férula has taken on the burden of caring for her mother; she makes Esteban feel guilty for having personal goals and wanting material things. He disdains Férula's guilt trips and wants to escape from her, but promises that he will always provide for her. Esteban decides to make a living by restoring their ruined family estate, Tres Marías. When Esteban arrives, he finds that the master house is just as it was when he was a child, but is now weathered and filthy. Generations of servants live on the property in squalor. Pedro Segundo García, a man about the same age as Esteban, has been acting as their leader in the absence of a patron. The servants immediately accept Esteban as their new patron and he begins a "new life that, in time, would make him forget Rosa." As an old man, Esteban is adamant that he was a good patron because he improved the standard of life at Tres Marías, even though he treated the servants badly in many ways.
Esteban soon feels at home at Tres Marías, but he is "slowly becoming a barbarian," overcome by his sexual urges. One day, he rapes Pedro Segundo García's sister, Pancha García. Afterwards, he allows her to work in the house as his mistress instead of in the fields. At the same time, he begins to work more furiously on restoring Tres Marías. Esteban and Pedro Segundo García develop a camaraderie, although Pedro Segundo García despises his patrÃ³n for raping his sister and looking down on his people. Soon Pancha García becomes pregnant with a son, named Esteban after his father, whom Esteban refuses to acknowledge as his own. He ceases his relationship with Pancha after this, and continues to rape other young girls on the estate. Esteban becomes the most respected patrÃ³n in the region, raising the standard of living at Tres Marías many times over. Yet he expects his workers to exhaust themselves completely every day, and pays them with vouchers instead of money. He insists that paying his workers a salary or giving them more rights are "Communist" ideas and tells anyone who complains that "this isn't Europe." In his free time, Esteban visits a brothel called the Red Lantern, where he favors a prostitute named Transito Soto. One day, he lends her fifty pesos so that she can travel to the capital and try her luck at wealth and fame. She promises that she will repay him. Soon after, he receives a letter from Férula telling him that his mother is dying. He puts Pedro Segundo in charge of Tres Marías and leaves for his mother's house.
The novel's first two chapters acquaint us with the first of several generations whose lives the book will record, examine, and intertwine. The oldest generation is comprised of Severo and NÃvea del Valle, and Doña Ester. Although Allende offers a great many details of their lives, their true importance as characters lies in the ideas they bestow upon their children's generation. Clara and Esteban become the main characters of the novel, and as we will see, are shaped greatly by their parents' attitudes and deaths. Clara's importance is evident from the book's very first words, which are spoken in her voice: "Barrabas came to us by sea..." We know immediately that Clara is an unusual creature: she is a writer and much more, an outspoken individual; she is unafraid of speaking her mind even to a priest, on the holiest day of the year, in the middle of a sermon. Clearly, her greatest power lies in her ability to inform others about what is happening around her. Because of this, her silence in the nine years following Rosa's death is the ultimate expression of grief. Clara knows the power her words hold for others, and uses the same technique of silence to punish her husband later on in life.
The short story of Rosa the Beautiful gives us a first insight into the unusual, mystical qualities that surround the novel's main characters. Rosa is born looking like a mermaid, a creature of fantasy. The fact that she is born with her ethereal traits makes it clear that an otherworldly nature is ingrained in the characters, not just visited upon them. Rosa's story also introduces the theme of violence and suffering. In the world of the novel, "sorrow, blood, and love" are inseparable and interdependent. Accordingly, Esteban Trueba's first love is surrounded by death, both his lover's and his mother's. In the same vein, Rosa's beauty is marred by the violence of her autopsy and subsequent molestation by the assistant. Rosa's death marks the first time in the novel that one family member pays for another's crimes. Rosa dies in place of Severo, killed by his political adversaries. Later in the novel, Esteban García will rape Alba to avenge his own grandmother's rape by Esteban Trueba - a cycle of love and violence that Alba understands will continue for eternity.
These chapters also introduce us to Esteban Trueba, who we see develop from a young man with few prospects into a beloved and hated politician and patriarch. Here we witness his humble beginnings as the downtrodden young man who must endure his mother's and lover's deaths as well as hard labor and poverty. As we will see, Esteban's tough experiences as a young man make him feel entitled to engage in the outrageous and often violent behaviors that characterize the rest of his life. This includes his first recorded act of violence, the rape of young Pancha García and subsequent denial of paternal responsibility. Despite his violent and stubborn nature, Esteban Trueba is very generous by nature. He is willing to give Transito Soto, a mere prostitute, money so that she may better her future. He continues this trend of generosity throughout his life; even as he completely rejects members of his family, including Férula and his son, Nícolas, he makes sure that they are materially comfortable. Something in Esteban Trueba cannot bear to see his family suffer. As a character, his bark is generally worse than his bite.
Allende introduces us to the novel's two major narrators, the adult Alba and the elderly Esteban Trueba. Let us examine the adult Alba, as it is she who tells most of the novel's story. On the novel's first page, the adult Alba confides: "I would use [Clara's] notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own." Even though we do not discover Alba's identity as the narrator until later, her language makes it clear that she is emotionally invested in the stories she tells. Alba explains that she does not merely reconstruct the past; she "reclaims" it. The word "reclaim" suggests that the past has been taken away from Alba. As we learn, political strife has robbed Alba of many of her family's belongings, and her grandmother's death robbed her of tales and wisdom. When she found Clara's notebooks, she could "reclaim" her family's true wealth-its stories. Alba also tells us that Clara's writing helps her "overcome terrors of [her] own." This statement gives us insight into the novel's message about the power of storytelling and the role of the storyteller. For Alba, and for many other characters, storytelling is not just entertainment or a way of preserving history - it is a tool that helps them surmount major challenges and even "terrors," as well as the lesser challenges of daily life. Stories provide the characters with a sense of perspective, connecting generations and giving them the strength to survive.