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Strength Through Adversity: The Women of 'The House of the Spirits.'

Updated on July 10, 2015


When the last page has been turned, and we are told “Barrabas came to us by sea” - (Allende 403) so ends the saga of the Trueba family. 'The House of the Spirits' depicts a number of underlying themes - political, family relationships, lovers, and despisers. It will expand on the lives of Patron Esteban Trueba and his extended family, weaving through generations, a story of triumphs and failures.

Along with political and social issues, there lies another message. It is quiet, but sure as there are butterflies in spring, the message, sometimes soft like rose petals, other times, bitter as unripe persimmons, is there: it is the brilliance, the endurance, the strength of the women. When adversity has blocked their way, they have risen to the challenge, gliding above their obstacles. From the depths of sorrow, humiliation, and heartbreak, they fight for causes they believe in, remain true to their convictions, and show introverted as well as extroverted strengths. These women are true survivors.


In the beginning, Clara, Esteban Trueba’s wife, is out of reach. Her clairvoyance is intriguing, but we still sense an invisible barrier. We cannot move chairs with our minds, so it is hard to relate to her. Yet, after her daughter Blanca’s birth, Clara, at Tres Marias, begins to show herself as a woman more on our level. She rises at dawn and “divides her time between the sewing workshop, general store and school” (105). Clara shows inner strength after the earthquake when Esteban is injured, and for the first time, she takes on the responsibilities of running Tres Marias. The earthquake “brought her face to face with violence, death, and vulgarity and had put her in touch with the basic needs to which she had been oblivious” (165). Clara is finally forced to become a part of the real world.

Clara shows strength and determination by leaving her husband, Esteban. He will one day beat their daughter, Blanca, for secretly having a love tryst with Pedro Tercero Garcia, whom he detests. Clara defies her husband for such an act, then becomes the recipient of his violence herself, as Esteban knocks out her front teeth. After having been “surrounded by attention and comforts with no responsibilities” (164), she must now be strong, not only for herself, but for Blanca. She declares that she will never speak to him again, packs her belongings and Blanca, and leaves Tres Marias.


Ferula, the lonely sister of Esteban, develops an emotional attachment to Clara, much to Esteban’s dismay. Ferula’s destiny, she believes, is to serve others, and she finds in Clara, the perfect person on whom to dote. Esteban observes Ferula’s attachment, and slowly begins resenting the closeness between Ferula and Clara. In a final rage, Esteban throws out Ferula, whom in turn curses him to die like a dog.

Ferula is happy with simplicity. She wants to do for others, so much so, that it becomes her determination, and she will stop at nothing when it comes to following her convictions. She takes “pleasure in humiliation and in menial tasks” (42) and believes she will “get to heaven by suffering terrible injustice” (42). Does this show strength or does it appear that she is weak because she wants to serve others before herself? Who could, or would, do such a thing? Wouldn’t it take a certain strength to stay true to one’s convictions? When confronted with the possibility of having luxury, she refuses. Yes, Ferula shows strength. Strength to remain steadfast, and to stand up for what she believes is right, no matter the cost.


Blanca will develop a strength that comes with time. She falls in love with the son of her father’s foreman, Pedro Tecero Garcia, whose political views differ from her father’s. When he confronts Blanca over her desire for Pedro, we see Blanca defend the man she loves. Esteban, desperate to keep her apart from Pedro, sends her to a convent. Blanca comes face to face with adversity, but she is strong, she will not cave. As a means of returning home, she devises a plan to trick the nuns by “drinking ground chalk until she got a genuine cough” (166) and “convinces the nuns that her loss of appetite and pallor were…tuberculosis” (171). Strength. She could have given up hope, but she blazed through her adversity. She returns to Tres Marias, and re-joins Pedro - whom later will end up being cast out by Esteban due to their social and political disagreements.

Later, Blanca receives the attentions of Count Jean de Satigny, a French count who has befriended Esteban. Blanca eventually marries the count because Esteban has told her that he killed her lover, Pedro. By this time, Blanca is pregnant with Pedro’s child. She believes the count to be decent, until later, she finds out that he has perverse sexual tendencies with the household staff, and she will not put up with it. She returns to Tres Marias and gives birth to Alba. Wanting the best for her daughter, she determines that Alba shall attend school, and tells her stories about women who are heroes in a world where men receive the credit. Alba will learn of “a prince who slept a hundred years” (303) and of “damsels who fought dragons single handed” (305).

Movie Adaptation of 'The House of the Spirits' - Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Rider, Antonio Banderas, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave

Colonel Esteban Garcia (Patron Esteban Trueba’s grandson) remembers Alba, for he had molested her as a child once, when he had visited her father’s house. He grew up deeply resentful of her because she had lived the privileged life he never had. Years later, he rose in the ranks in the military and captured Alba. He tortures her in attempts to find out information about her love, Miguel, then rapes her as his grandfather (Alba’s grandfather) had raped Pancha Garcia, the pheasant, before meeting and marrying Clara.

Alba falls in love at eighteen with Miguel, an aspiring leftist leader, and falls in to political socializing with friends from college. In cafes, she gathers with them about “the necessary changes in the world” (310). A military coup, headed by Esteban Trueba to fight against communism is set into place, but the military becomes power hungry and levies out of control. They begin a crusade to squelch all opposition, and this includes Alba, whom they eventually come after, and imprison.

Alba begins to lose hope, but her grandmother's (Clara) spirit comes to her prison cell, telling her wish not to die, but to live. Dying is too easy. This spiritual visit propels Alba to find her inner strength. She, and another prisoner friend, Ana, sing “with the strength of their despair” and “female voices rose from the other cells” (412). Alba overcomes adversity.

Good for Blanca for telling hero stories to Alba! Blanca and Alba are themselves like the “damsels who fight dragons single handed” (303). The women, as a whole, in 'The House of the Spirits' prove they are achievers, and that with determination, nothing is impossible. Their strengths are their gateway to transcending location, poverty, obstacles, and class.


“It is very strange to write one’s biography because it is just a list of dates, events, and achievements. In reality, the most important things about my life happened in the secret chambers of my heart and have no place in a biography. My most significant achievements are not my books, but the love I share with a few people, especially my family, and the ways in which I have tried to help others.”

— Isabel Allende

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Author, Isabel Allende, short bio

American-Chilean Isabel Allende Llona, was born in Lima, Peru on August 2, 1942. Her family, of political background, greatly influenced her ideals and insight into political and human-rights advocacy. Her father, Tomás Allende, had been a second secretary at the Chilean embassy, and a first cousin to Salvador Allende who was Chile’s President from 1970 to 1973, and a first cousin once removed to Isabel.

Allende describes herself as a writer, journalist, and teacher of Creative Writing and Latin American Literature. She has received scores of honorary doctorates from 14 international Universities, and winning 50 prestigious awards from more than 15 countries that date back to 1984. Her accolades include 20 books translated into 35 languages, with more than 65 million copies sold, 2 international movies, and numerous works adapted for movies, plays, musicals, operas, ballets and radio programs.

Allende says she is a “realistic literature” fiction writer, influenced by her childhood and her environment, and writing about social politics and social justices are of great prominence in her books, particularly the political coup that occurred in 1973 in Chile while her cousin once removed, Salvador Allende, had been in office. He died in the coup.

Allende has had to defend against some scathing reviews and attacks on some of her publishings. In particular, 'The House of the Spirits' was being called on for review at Watauga High School in North Carolina on the grounds that it was indecent due to some of the sexual content, and too violent. Parents were calling for removal of the book on October 15, 2013. Even a Watauga County commissioner offered his statement calling for a book rating system, and that Allende's book offered no life lessons. Allende wrote in defense of her book:

"...No student is forced to read the book. Teachers like to teach it because they believe it gives the students insights into Latin American literature, history, politics, social issues, and customs. They usually offer their students other options but most students choose the book, they enjoy it and often they write to me. Their comments prove that they have understood the story and they are curious to learn more. The novel seems to open their minds to other places and peoples in the world...As you know, it takes just one parent who disapproves of a book to pressure the school and eventually the Board of Education. In this case one person has circulated fragments of the novel—taken out of context—among parents who probably have not read the book. The fragments refer mostly to sexual content. The plan is to gather support to ban the book completely, even as optional reading. Since today TV series, movies, video games and comics exploit sex and violence, including torture and rape, as forms of entertainment, I don’t think that young adults will be particularly offended by the strong scenes from The House of the Spirits, which are always part of the historical and political content of the novel."

A Watauga High School advisory committee met on October 25, 2013, and decided unanimously that the book would remain as a tenth-grade honors reading curriculum. An appeal was made against the advisory board committee's decision.on November 6.

Allende became a feminist activist, assisting the oppressed under the new Pinochet regime, ultimately causing her harm to her own safety. She fled to Venezuela with her husband and children, living in exile for 13 years, only returning to Chile upon learning that her grandfather was dying.

Allende states that she wrote a letter to her grandfather, recounting childhood memories growing up in her grandparent’s home. Her grandfather would die before seeing her letter, but Allende would use this letter as a foundation for writing her book, “The House of the Spirits”.

Allende started a foundation in honor of her daughter, Paula, who died in 1992, committed to protecting and enabling the rights of girls and women.

"Isabel Allende defends 'House of the Spirits' to North Carolina school board." - by Karen M. Peterson

Click on link to read excerpt or to hear an audio clip.

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