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Historical Criticism of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Updated on May 25, 2012

Biographical Elements of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Literature often reflects events that occur in real life. Major turning points in history, such as the overthrow of a country’s government, can serve as a prevalent theme in literary works of the time period. This is especially true of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, in which the true event of the overthrow of the Chilean government by the military is an important aspect of the plot in the otherwise fictional novel. The novel can be analyzed based on the historical context when it was written, and the influences this had upon Allende’s life. Allende’s intentions behind including the overthrow in the novel may be speculated upon. What is the effect of the accurate portrayal of the overthrow of the Chilean government in The House of the Spirits?

Oftentimes, controversial events are publicized through literature. It is possible that Allende included the overthrow of the government in the novel to raise awareness about the event in other countries. Chile is not one of the more dominant countries of the world, and therefore the author may have felt that the rest of the world was not paying enough attention to the events of her country. The overthrow of the government, and especially the harsh conditions of the military regime that followed, may not have been widely publicized in other countries, and thus their inclusion in the novel could serve to raise awareness of these events.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that the press and media of democratic governments like the United States would have turned a blind eye to what was occurring in Chile, with Salvadore Allende, a socialist, as president. Indeed, the United States sent in CIA operatives to try to prevent the socialist from becoming president, and afterwards tried actively to encourage a right-wing coup d'état, by working to worsen the economic conditions in Chile (1973 Chilean). While the American press did not release these details to the public, they spread some information regarding the events of Chile. It is possible that newspapers caught wind of the atrocities committed after the coup by the military officials in Chile and spread the news in America and elsewhere. Thus it is unlikely that the purpose of raising awareness was Allende’s main goal in including these true events in her work.

On a somewhat similar note, Allende may have been trying to demonstrate what it was like in Chile immediately before the coup, and under the military dictatorship. The description of the food and goods shortages prevalent during the socialist’s rule—the doing of the previous government—and the subsequent development of a black market system—not to mention the desperate acquisition of goods that citizens did not even need—may have served to simply highlight the dreadful living conditions that were prevalent in the country. To demonstrate the desperation, Allende writes, “People who had never smoked wound up paying an exorbitant sum for a pack of cigarettes, and those without children found themselves fighting over cans of baby formula” (Allende 348). The portrayal of Alba, the granddaughter of politician Esteban Trueba, being imprisoned and tortured for remaining loyal to socialist rebels after the coup was likely intended to provoke outrage at the mistreatment of the citizens of Chile. As one biography of Allende puts it, “All over the world her stories are read and then everyone knows what life is like for the victims. In this way, empathy is built and action might be taken” (Rogoff).

However, it must be noted that Allende fled the country shortly after the coup, due to her familial relationship to Salvadore Allende, the socialist president who was assassinated, and due to her aid of refugees (Rogoff). Thus, it is unlikely that her main goal was to highlight the dreadful conditions, as she was barely even there to experience them. It is true that she probably heard about the conditions through family and friends still in Chile, but it likely did not have a huge impact upon her life or writing. Had she remained in the country longer and experienced more of these conditions firsthand, it would be more likely that the living conditions did play a large role in her life. She did, however, experience the starvation and dreadful conditions before the coup, and so this portrayal may have been a motivating factor to include the true events in the novel.

Another possibility could be to demonstrate how Allende is a product of her time and place. The military overthrow and the assassination of her uncle served as very important events in Allende’s life. Her inclusion of these events in the novel may serve to highlight this importance to who she feels she is as a person. Many aspects of the novel, such as the peasants, the haciendas, the separation from the European World Wars, and particularly the elements of magic realism, demonstrate the importance of Chile’s influence as a social environment upon Allende. The overthrow of the government was likely just another of these aspects that reflect the world she knew and lived in, much the same way that the character of Clara represented her grandmother, and the same way the frequent earthquakes were just a characteristic of her country.

However, although the overthrow may be included because it was a major aspect of Allende’s worldview, this is likely not Allende’s purpose behind including it in the novel. It is unlikely that she included it simply to demonstrate the setting of Chile during this time period, or to demonstrate the influence of her residence in Chile upon her work, especially as she did not even write the book while living in Chile. More likely, the event had a significant impact upon her life, and she wrote about it as a way of dealing with the grief and the pain of her loss.

Perhaps the most accurate theory for the effect of the overthrow in the novel is that it was Allende’s way of coping with her grief. After all, she was effectively exiled from her country, and she lost friends and family members to the coup. As she stated in her autobiography, “‘In writing [The House of the Spirits], I wanted to recover all that I had lost—my land, my family, my memories, and the memories of those who were no longer with me’” (Rogoff). The House of the Spirits, after all, did not start out as a book. It started out as a series of letters to her grandfather. “To keep her memories of her family and country from disappearing altogether, in 1981, Isabel began writing a series of letters to her grandfather as he approached the age of 100. This writing turned into Allende’s The House of the Spirits” (Rogoff). Thus, Allende did not begin writing the novel with the intention of raising awareness, of describing the details of the coup, of writing an autobiography, of criticizing the coup, or of demonstrating that, as a writer, she is a product of her time and place in history—no, she started the novel in an attempt to regain her self and everything that had mattered to her that she had lost. The overthrow of the government caused her to lose friends and family, and to flee the country in fear for her life. Displaced in a foreign country, Allende longed for her life the way things had been before. The House of the Spirits was written as a way of regaining that life.

It may be argued that if Allende wanted to regain the life she had before the coup, then the coup itself should not have been included in the novel. However, including the events that tore her life apart was the culmination of Allende’s form of coping. In any therapy program, the afflicted is usually aided in facing their fear or their illness. Allende did this for herself by detailing and documenting the dreadful events themselves. The character Alba is imprisoned, tortured, and raped, but she comes out of it sane and alive, and starts to write out a history of her family based on her grandmother’s journals. Thus, Alba—like Allende—is overcoming her trauma by documenting it, from the very beginning, when “Barrabás came to us by sea” (Allende 433).

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Bantam Books: New York, 1993.

Murfin, Ross and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. New York: Bedford Books, 1998.

Rogoff, Marianne. “Isabel Allende.” MarinWomensHallofFame. Marin Women’s Hall of Fame, 1995. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.


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