The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits Themes


There are at least two kinds of retribution in the novel: immediate and personal, and delayed and transferred. One example of immediate and personal retribution occurs when Esteban Trueba sets out to kill Pedro Tercero García. Esteban wants to avenge his daughter's deflowering and his resulting loss of pride. Esteban takes the law into his own hands in order to fulfill his thirst for revenge, although he ultimately succeeds only in wounding the fugitive. Another example of this type of retribution occurs when Clara stops speaking to Esteban for the rest of her life after he knocks out her teeth. She punishes her husband immediately and without harming anyone but him, and her actions do indeed drive him mad. When she dies, he even wears her false teeth in a bag around his neck to show how sorry he is and how much he misses her. The novel's strongest example of delayed and transferred retribution is Esteban Garcí­a's continual mistreatment and eventual near-murder of Alba. As Alba explains it later, "The day my grandfather tumbled Pancha Garcí­a among the rushes of the riverbank, he added another link to the chain of events that had to complete itself. Afterward the grandson of the woman who was raped repeats the gesture with the granddaughter of the rapist, and perhaps forty years from now my grandson will knock Garcí­a's granddaughter down among the rushes, and so on down through the centuries in an unending tale of sorrow, blood, and love." Alba supposes that retribution is never complete; the next generation always pays for the mistakes of the last. It is especially poignant that Esteban Garcí­a chooses to punish Esteban Trueba only indirectly. He hurts Alba, when the patron is the one who raped his grandmother. It is as though he wishes to make the retribution more exact, to rape someone as dear to Esteban Trueba as his own grandmother was to him. Knowing he can never have the wealth and name to which he feels entitled as the patron's blood relative, he avenges the rape with another rape.


The House of the Spirits is stocked with selfless characters who serve as foils to Esteban Trueba, the novel's bastion of selfishness and materialism. First there are those characters who care for others (including the less fortunate), but do not devote their entire lives to selflessness. These begin with Ní­vea the suffragette. She sets an example for Clara, who invites anyone who needs shelter or care into "the big house on the corner." Clara also tries to improve the living conditions at Tres Marias almost single-handedly. After her, Blanca starts the weekly pottery program for mentally disabled children. Then there are the characters that seem to have an addiction to sacrifice and go to extremes in their displays of selflessness. The first of these is Férula. She spends much of her youth caring for her mother, Doña Ester, as she becomes paralyzed by arthritis and in her last days, rots alive. When Doña Ester is finally dead, Férula seeks another outlet for her generosity and capacity for sacrifice. She finds it in Clara, who, though not as helpless as Doña Ester, does not look after herself. Férula becomes so obsessed with caring for Clara that she even develops a selfish desire to cuddle with her in bed. After Esteban banishes Férula from the household, she still maintains a saintly existence. She does not use any of the money Esteban sends her, instead living in a filthy tenement and saying daily prayers for her unappreciative neighbors. In a similar vein, Jaime rejects the material comforts with which he was raised for a bare-bones existence as a doctor to the poor. His only possessions are his books and tools, and he wants no more. Jaime's life ends in sacrifice when he refuses to betray the president during the coup and the police torture and kill him. Ní­colas also sacrifices material comforts, but his sacrifice is not necessarily selfless like Férula's and Jaime's are. On the contrary, Ní­colas's abandonment of food, clothing, and normal human contact are utterly selfless; although he has followers, he primarily wants to achieve a personal state of nirvana. Throughout the novel, children sacrifice their parents' approval in order to have the lovers, professions, and lives they want. Sometimes the child sacrifices for her parent, as Blanca does in marrying Jean de Satigny to protect her father's reputation. Allende presents sacrifice as an integral part of life, connected equally to its sweetness and to its sorrow.

The Spiritual World

From early childhood, spirituality and mysticism play a vital role in the lives of the del Valle sisters, Clara and Rosa. From a very young age, Clara can tap into the spiritual world. She can read dreams and the future, and can even move objects with her mind. Although Rosa is not particularly spiritually inclined, she is born with the exquisite looks of a mermaid. The fact that she is born this way suggests that an otherworldly nature is ingrained in Rosa and therefore in the rest of her family. Even though the Trueba household is known as "the big house on the corner," we know from the title of the novel that it is really "The House of the Spirits." Spiritual creatures dominate the household despite Esteban Trueba's relentless materialism, and even seep into his own life after Clara's death, when visions of her comfort him. During her lifetime, Clara's disregard of the material world in favor of the spiritual world maddens Esteban. Even though Esteban thinks spirits to be a phony business, a part of him is jealous of Clara's connection to them: "He wanted far more than her body; he wanted control over that undefined and luminous material that lay within her and that escaped him even in those moments when she appeared to be dying of pleasure." Esteban realizes that Clara's spiritual connections are completely separate from him, meaning that he cannot control or be a part of them. He does, however, tolerate them. It is during Clara's heyday that "the big house on the corner" transforms into "The House of the Spirits," when guests of all kinds circulate through its doors. "Spirit" suggests otherworldliness, but also worldly pleasures (as in "good spirits"). Clara brings both spirituality and good cheer to the house, and both largely disappear in her absence. The spirits who appear in the most discrete form are the ghosts of Férula, and later Clara. Both ghosts come to reconcile with loved ones whom they did not have a chance or did not want to forgive in life. When Esteban banishes Férula from the house, Clara uses all her powers to find her, but to no avail: Férula does not want to be found. As a ghost, she feels free to march back into the house and kiss Clara goodbye. In the same vein, Clara's ghost returns to Esteban when his own grief finally overcomes his pride and he allows himself to see her. It is also Clara's spirit that gives Alba the will to live through the horror of the "doghouse." Later, when Alba records the family history, she finds her grandmother's notebooks to be a repository of her spirit, which she revives and preserves by writing herself.

Political Struggle

The House of the Spirits begins in a relatively calm political atmosphere and ends in a political uproar. Despite the relative calm of the beginning of the novel, the seeds of unrest are evident when Rosa dies at the hands of Severo del Valle's political adversaries. Although it is accidental, Rosa's death is one of the first major sacrifices in the novel. It foreshadows the moment when Alba is sacrificed for Esteban Trueba's sins during the Terror. Politics divide the Trueba family as soon as Jaime and Ní­­colas are old enough to express their own beliefs. Esteban Trueba hates Marxism in all its forms, and both his adversaries and his friends caricature him as the doctrine's fanatical enemy. Meanwhile, Jaime is in cahoots with the Socialist candidate (and later president), for whom he ultimately gives his life. Ní­­colas stages a public, nonviolent protest against his own father. Even though she loves her grandfather, Alba becomes wrapped up in the university encampment through her relationship with Miguel. She finds herself hiding her true identity in order to seem politically sound to her friends. Pedro Tercero Garcí­­a and Esteban Garcí­­a become the novel's two most important political figures, and both struggle against Esteban Trueba. Esteban Trueba would loathe to be connected to them, much less blamed for their actions, yet his tyrannous attitude at Tres Marias is what feeds their bitterness and leads to their decision to take away both Blanca and Alba from him. Although the two Garcí­­a men are related, they are completely opposite in their methods of defiance. Pedro Tercero Garcí­­a allies himself with Blanca at a very young age and will do anything to keep her by his side. Even though his songs call for revolution, his feelings can be summarized by the hippie cliché: "Make love, not war." Like the Poet, he vents his political frustrations into his art. He is involved in violence, but it is visited upon him. Esteban Trueba tries to kill him as revenge for a completely consensual act of lovemaking with Blanca, even though he himself raped many of the peasant girls at Tres Marias. This injustice is part of what incites Esteban Garcí­­a to take up such a violent political agenda later in life. Having been betrayed by his tyrannous grandfather, he becomes a dictatorial police colonel.


In the novel, fatherhood is characterized primarily by issues of pride and disappointment. Esteban Trueba's children, for example, disappoint him continually. They must evaluate their relationships with him in terms of how much or how little they agree with his ideals and choose to react to his outbursts. Fatherhood is overshadowed by the issue of mere paternity. Esteban Garcí­­a punishes Esteban Trueba for not recognizing their blood connection. For a long time Alba does not know that Pedro Tercero Garcí­­a is her father, and she is tormented by tales of an imaginary father dying in the desert. In the end, Alba deems paternity unimportant. She says that even though her unborn daughter is likely the product of a rape, what matters is their special mother-daughter bond. The unique bond between mothers and daughters characterizes motherhood throughout The House of the Spirits. Ní­­vea del Valle begins the tradition in her close relationship with Clara. As the narrator, Alba, tells us: "Ní­­vea, despite having given birth to fifteen children, treated Clara as if she were an only child, creating a tie so strong that it continued into succeeding generations as a family tradition." Clara has three children, but continues Ní­­vea's tradition of doting on her only daughter. Blanca seems to break the pattern when Alba is closer to Clara than her. Yet when Clara dies, Alba learns to cherish her mother's company and trust like the women in her family before her. Allende links the mothers and daughters through the meaning of their names, all of which refer to light. The names are: Ní­­vea, "snow," Clara, "clear," Blanca, "white," and Alba, "dawn." Through naming, Allende suggests that in the midst of life's confusion, these women are each other's beacons. It is clear that Allende places great value on motherhood from her use of the novel's last moments. Alba stands as the symbol of the strong mother, having been through calamity and emerged fiercely loving instead of embittered. Her unborn daughter represents the chance to begin anew, to find a new purity and clarity by nurturing the next generation.

The Power of Writing

Allende uses the structure of her novel to emphasize the importance of writing. It is not a mere story, but one that Alba tells by piecing together Esteban Trueba's memories, her own recollections, and Clara's writings from her "notebooks that bore witness to life." As she closes The House of the Spirits, Alba seems to speak in Allende's own voice as she proclaims: "Memory is fragile and the space of a single life so brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of out acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously." To Allende, writing is more than a means for preserving events. It is the key to other dimensions and to a higher wisdom than can be accessed merely "bearing witness to life" as it happens. Alba's explanation of the importance of writing makes us question whether life is as linear as it seems, or as it is presented in the pages of a book. According to her, writing is "bearing witness to life": it is multidimensional and kaleidoscopic, full of secrets that we can access by quiet, retrospective examination. In a simpler sense, writing (or any kind of art) is a savior. It serves as a powerful outlet for the feelings one cannot convey in a repressive atmosphere, such as the one Esteban Trueba maintains for his family. Rosa is a quiet beauty, but vents her understanding of things around her by embroidering monstrous creatures. Blanca echoes these monsters in her crèches. Clara deems it of utmost importance that Alba be able to record things as well, and lets her paint her sorrows, joys, and frustrations all over her bedroom walls. Pedro Tercero Garcí­a uses another form of writing, the medium of songwriting, to express his rage at the condition of his people. Allende especially underlines the power of writing in Alba's experience in the "doghouse." Alba is able to keep herself alive by writing, not even on paper but in her mind. Her imagination buoys her even amidst unimaginable suffering. Having acknowledged the power of writing, it is Alba's greatest gift to her family and to us to record the story of The House of the Spirits.

Violence and Suffering

Violence permeates The House of the Spirits. Alba calls the family's history an endless tale of "sorrow, love, and blood" because for them joy, pleasure, and love are inseparable from their counterparts of sadness, pain, and hatred. The violence and suffering in the novel begin with Rosa's murder and autopsy. Rosa is a symbol of innocence and beauty upon which undeserved pain and death are visited. The accident of the death itself is not an uncommon story: a loved one suffers in place of the intended victim. Yet it is Rosa's fate after death that characterizes the novel's tendency towards the grotesque. Her body endures the humiliation of nakedness and the desecration of disembowelment. After that, it is molested at the hands of Dr. Cuevas's assistant. The scene is so horrifically violent that after witnessing it, Clara remains silent for nine years. Later, violence interrupts the joy of Clara and Esteban's engagement party when Barrabas is murdered and stumbles in to die in Clara's arms. Then Esteban begins his long life of violent actions by raping Pancha Garcí­­a at Tres Marias. As we learn, Esteban's violence comes back to haunt him when Esteban Garcí­­a rapes and tortures Alba. Two other specific incidents remind us of the permanence of violence's effects: Esteban Trueba knocks out Clara's teeth and cuts of Pedro Tercero Garcí­­a's fingers. During the Terror, violence disfigures the country just as it has individual characters (like Rosa, Clara, and Pedro Tercero) in the past. Jaime's death and Alba's rape and torture are the height of the novel's exploration of suffering. Both characters pay for crimes they did not commit, just as Rosa died at the hands of people who hated her father. Allende weaves violence and suffering throughout The House of the Spirits in a manner that makes sure to highlight its senselessness while fully acknowledging its inevitability.