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Literature / The House of the Spirits

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The House of the Spirits is a 1982 novel, Isabel Allende's first and most famous.

The book deals with the members of the Trueba family, their growth, their rise and eventually their downfall. Esteban Trueba, an ultra-conservative landowner, marries the Cloudcuckoolander Clara del Valle, with whom he has three kids, Blanca and the twins Nicolás and Jaime. Trueba builds his fortune through his farm Las Tres Marías, but this, coupled with his political views, throw a few wrenches in the wheels of his family. Drama ensues.

It sounds like your usual family drama. Well, that's because it is. Of course, all this is analyzed through three generations of Truebas, all this laced with political unrest, an earthquake and a coup d'état, between other stuff that happen in Chile... er, I mean, some nameless Latin American country.

It spawned a film adaptation in 1993, featuring an All-Star Cast (Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder, Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave).

This novel provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie cuts A LOT of characters. (Justified, since they are so many, but still).
  • All Men Are Perverts: Esteban Trueba is the main culprit here, but it can be noticed with a majority of the male characters.
  • All Women Are Prudes: There's exactly one female character who gives an indication of actually liking sex. Clara gets to the point where she just thinks it's boring. Blanca enjoys making love to Pedro Tercero but after she gets pregnant and is forced to marry Jean de Satigny, she can't think of having sex with anyone else. Alba is shown as having a really good sex life with her boyfriend Miguel, and then she's sexually abused to the extreme by her evil cousin.
  • Aloof Big Sister: Férula and Esteban aren't all that close.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: Blanca is described as having dark hair and as being aloof in her youth, though she mellows out in her later years.
  • Armies Are Evil: The Army of the unnamed Latin American country (that rather transparently is all but stated to be Chile) is portrayed as evil. Considering that in the novel they engineered that coup d'état and brutally supressed dissidents, this is understandably justified.
  • Attractiveness Isolation: Early in the book, Esteban becomes the official fiancé of World's Most Beautiful Woman Rosa purely by being the first man able to work up the courage to propose. Everyone else seemingly considered her to be too far out of their league to even ask her out.
  • Author Tract: Author Isabel Allende is the niece of Salvador Allende, the president of Chile who was overthrown in a coup d'état, which makes the novel's very clear point that "coups are bad" rather understandable.
  • Babies Ever After: Subverted. Alba ends up pregnant, but she doesn't know if the baby is by her boyfriend or her bastard cousin, who raped her repeatedly. She thinks about it and decides that it's her baby after all, so it'll work somehow.
  • Banana Republic: The novel is set in Chi... some unnamed Latin American country that later in the story goes under a dictatorship.
  • Bastard Bastard: Esteban García is such a fine illegitimate child that he could compete with Ramsay Bolton. The Irony is that he's more like Esteban Trueba than any of Trueba's legitimate progeny, embodying all of Trueba's worst qualities.
  • Berserk Button: Don't talk to Esteban about communist ideals. Don't even dream to discuss his methods with his servants and peasants. Don't discuss anything he doesn't like, really.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Truebas/García are such a big screwed-up family that it plays both the humorous side and the tragic side of this trope.
  • Bittersweet Ending: By the end of the book, almost the whole family is dead (Jaime, Clara, Esteban Trueba himself) or in exile (Blanca, Pedro Tercero, Nicolás). And so are their friends (Amanda). But at least Alba is free from the military and has hopes for a good future as she rests from her ordeals and waits for Miguel's return.
  • Book Ends: The book starts with Clara as a kid writing in her life book. Alba is reading the same "book" in the end.
  • Break the Haughty: The second part of the book completely smashes Esteban Trueba's whole world, as punishment for all of his sins. Taken to extremes when he goes to his old friend Tránsito Soto and actually weeps when begging her to save Alba.
  • Bury Your Gays: The two most prominent gay characters (one of them is simply heavily implied) die way before the end of the novel.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: Though it's not outright comedy, the book starts with fairly happy episodes. After the coup d'état, the country starts to look like Mordor, and everything becomes Darker and Edgier.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Tránsito Soto, Miguel, Esteban García, etc.
  • Cloudcuckoolander:
    • Clara del Valle is clairvoyant, barely aware of the material world, and sporadically attentive to it.
    • Clara's older sister Rosa also was pretty... off. Nivea was seriously worried that the girl wouldn't ever do anything but sewing.
  • Child by Rape:
    • Possibly the case with Alba's baby. Also poor Ana Díaz's aborted child.
    • Also the case with many bastard sons fathered by Esteban Trueba, up to and including Esteban García's father.
  • Childhood Friend Romance:
    • Blanca and Pedro Tercero, who were used to sleeping naked together since early childhood. An entire chapter contains their growing romance.
    • In a roundabout way, Alba and Miguel. Since his older sister Amanda was among those who helped Blanca when she was giving birth to Alba in the Trueba home, Miguel managed to slip inside the room and was present when Alba came into the world.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: What happens to any dissident the military police gets its hands on after the Military Coup. Very realistically portrayed with Alba's experience in the clutches of now-powerful officer Esteban García.
  • Cool Uncle: Uncle Marcos is one to Clara as a child. Jaime also is this and a Parental Substitute to Alba.
  • Crapsack World: After the Military Coup, the country is practically Mordor.
  • Creepy Child: Esteban García smiles as he takes Pedro Tercero's chopped fingers while understandably Esteban Trueba himself, the one who chopped off the fingers, is throwing up. Previously he had also tried to gouge out the eyes of the corpse of his great-grandfather.
  • Cute Mute: Clara, from her sister's death until Esteban proposes to her.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Esteban Trueba starts it when he rapes Pancha García. Years later, Esteban García brings it full circle by raping Alba. Alba hopes to end it by choosing to not seek revenge.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: The worst of all scum, a Dirty Communist!
  • Depraved Homosexual: Jean de Satigny turns out to be one. Later in the book it is discovered he owns kinky, gay pornography featuring sex between his servants.
  • Dialogue Reversal: Between Pedro Tercero and Esteban.
    I came to get you outta here.
    [Blanca/Alba] asked me to.
    Go to hell.
    Well, that's where we're going. You're coming with me.
  • Dirty Communist: You will hear Esteban rambling a lot about this. When it's not his point of view, communists are actually portrayed rather sympathetically.
  • The Dutiful Son: Férula is a gender-flipped version. And boy, does she resent it.
  • Dying Alone:
    • Férula damns Esteban to die like a dog. Averted, because he dies in the company of his granddaughter.
    • Férula herself dies alone; her family only finds out that she's dead after her spirit visits them during a family dinner. This was deliberate: after Esteban kicked her out, she refused to have any contact with the Truebas-to the point that Clara can't use her powers to find her.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Esteban García gets a few before the golpe or coup, where he's shown since childhood to his teens. They are at least useful enough to understand he's the bad guy.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The FEW who get a happy ending have to work for it really hard.
  • Earthquakes Cause Fissures: And worse things. It's actually based on the 1939 Chillán earthquake, the single deadliest earthquake in Chile, complete with the pandemonium that followed.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Pedro Primero. He seems to be just a rambling old man, but he can get rid of an ant plague and mend all the broken bones of Esteban without any problem. Oh, and did we mention he's blind?
  • Elective Mute: Clara becomes mute by choice after predicting the death of her sister Rosa, and doesn't speak for nine years until her engagement to Esteban. Later on, after he hits her in the face, she promises to never speak to him again, and communicates to him only through signs till the end of her life.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The names of The Poet and The Candidate (later The President) are never mentioned in the book; they are exclusively referred to by these titles.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Alba, as a prisoner and at the end of the book, after the Truebas have lost most of their fortune and influence.
  • Fingore:
  • Finger in the Mail: One day Colonel García felt witty and sent Alba's severed fingers to Esteba Trueba, to taunt him.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Nicolás is the foolish sibling to Jaime's responsible sibling.
  • Forceful Kiss: Alba at fourteen gets a VERY NASTY one by Esteban García.
  • For the Evulz: According to the author, the military regime.
  • Foreshadowing: Alba has always had the feeling that Esteban García will do something bad with her. She was horribly right.
  • Freudian Excuse: Esteban García has always suffered his condition as a bastard and has always envied the happy and prosperous infancy of Alba. Instigated by his grandmother Pancha García, he seeks revenge...
  • Generation Xerox: Seen in a Metaphorically True perspective, Esteban Trueba and his grandson, Esteban García, aren't that different.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted. Amanda has an abortion and it doesn't make her any less of a sympathetic character, nor does she she really feel bad about it. She's frightened of the operation itself, but that's only because there's a serious risk she'll bleed to death.
  • Grammar Correction Gag: Nicolás sends love poems to his girlfriend Amanda... and she sends them back, with corrections.
  • Grave Robbing: Esteban and his sons exhume Rosa's corpse from the Del Valle's crypt to put it in the Trueba's crypt.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Esteban. When he finds his sister and his wife in bed, he has Férula banished from the family. He cuts off Pedro Tercero Garcís fingers after catching him together with Blanca. He strikes Clara in the face so hard he breaks her teeth (that's when she resolves will never again speak to him).
  • Head-Turning Beauty: Rosa's unusual beauty when Esteban Trueba sees her for the first time causes a crowd of men to form outside the window of the shop she is in - however this same beauty intimidates men to the point where nobody has ever ventured to marry her. Rosa is known after her death as Rosa the Beautiful.
  • Heroic Bastard: It's easy to forget that Alba is actually the illegitimate daughter of Pedro Tercero Garcia and Blanca Trueba, since her grandfather dotes on her and has named her his official heir. This makes her in an interesting contrast with her fellow illegitimate child Esteban Garcia, who is not only a Bastard Bastard but also twice her cousin and her Archenemy.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It: After a massive earthquake wreaks havoc upon Las Tres Marías, the Truebas start dividing events in before and after the earthquake.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Esteban Trueba's bastard son, product of Trueba's rape of Pedro Primero's daughter Pancha, has a son who eventually turns Esteban's life into a living hell. To add insult to injury, he's the one that gets Esteban García him a job with the police just to shake him off.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Clara and Férula, so much, especially on Férula's part. Esteban notices this, which leads him to kicking Férula out of his house
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Tránsito Soto, who consoles Esteban when he's down and eventually helps him set Alba free from the military.
  • Kiss of Death: As Esteban exhumes Rosa's corpse, he finds her intact in her beauty and kisses her lips. After this, he finds out it is a rotting corpse indeed.
  • Lots of Luggage: Esteban Trueba feels "defeated" the first time Clara and Férula join him in the trip to Las Tres Marías, as he can't comprehend why they need the absurdly big amount of servants and stuff they're bringing along, while he fares just fine with his two trusty suitcases.
  • Loved by All: Despite her strangeness and being the source of gossip, Clara is generally beloved by most everyone she meets. Upon her death, Esteban Trueba is astonished at how many people come to attend her funeral. Love for her is arguably the only thing the family have in common and after her death, relationships between them become extremely distant, to the point that Esteban ends up exiling one of his sons.
  • Magic Realism: After One Hundred Years of Solitude this novel is one of the best-known of the genre.
  • Maiden Aunt: Férula. And she's damn bitter about it.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: At the end Alba doesn't know if her child is by Miguel, Colonel García or some random soldier who raped her during her imprisonment, but she doesn't care.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Jean likes Blanca well enough, but he really only wants to marry her because she's rich. Blanca, for her part, only marries Jean to get away from her father's rages and because she believes Pedro Tercero is dead.
  • Meaningful Name: A lot of names reflect the characters' personalities, especially the women's.
  • Memetic Molester: Esteban García is one in-universe. Poor, poor Alba.
  • Mind over Matter: Clara moves a table only with her mind.
  • Miss Kitty: Tránsito Soto, towards the end of the book.
  • The Mourning After: Esteban never gets over Clara's death.
  • Never My Fault: Esteban refuses to accept that any of the many bad things that happen to him because he can't control his temper are his fault, always finding a way to blame them on someone else, like the person who made him angry. For instance, he blames Pedro Tercero for his estrangement from Clara and Blanca, thinking that a peasant should know better than to fall in love with a Trueba, rather than accepting that he, Esteban, should know better than to strike his wife and daughter.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Poet is a thinly-veiled Pablo Neruda. Ditto with The Candidate, later The President, who is the former Chilean president Salvador Allende.
  • No Indoor Voice: When Esteban loses his temper, he starts shouting very loudly.
  • Off with Her Head!: Nívea del Valle. It was in the car accident that also killed her husband Severo, if you were wondering: a piece of shrapnel broken into the car they were in, hit Nivea in the neck, and beheaded her. Said head flew through the window and was lost, and Clara only managed to find it with her powers several months later (and when she was about to give birth to Blanca!).
  • One-Steve Limit:
    • Averted with the García family, which has three Pedros; however, to differentiate the first one from his son and grandson, the latter two are named Pedro Segundo and Pedro Tercero (Pedro the Second and Pedro the Third, respectively).
    • Enforced by Clara inside the Trueba family; she claims that namesakes messed with the proper understanding of her life books. That was the reason why Esteban couldn't name one of his sons after himself. He does, however, share his name with his bastard grandson.
    • Blanca wished to name Alba after Clara, but Clara offered the same reason and suggested to look for a synonym in the dictionary.
  • Only Sane Man: Blanca seems to be this in a Big, Screwed-Up Family.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The movie faithfully presents the main storyline, personalities and motivations, but compresses a lot of the plot and removes about half of the characters. Events on the book unfold for about 50 years, but the movie storyline lasts 30 at most. The most noticeable changes are that Nicolás and Jaime are removed, and the plots of Blanca and Alba are compressed on the former. Alba still appears, but only as a small girl instead of her young adult incarnation.
  • Plucky Girl: Alba, particularly in comparison to her mother. Also Tránsito Soto.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Jaime is a serious academic and Nicolás is a crackpot hippie.
  • Poster-Gallery Bedroom:
    • A non-traditional one-Alba's bedroom is a full mural that she has been painting herself since she was a little girl, depicting the most important moments of her life. This is foreshadowing of The Reveal that she has been The Narrator all along.
    • "Minor" versions: Rosa's huge and unfinished tapestry and Clara's life books.
  • The Promise: Esteban gives a teen prostitute named Tránsito Soto some money so she can go to the city and make herself a name there. Tránsito accepts, but she also promises to repay him someday. Fifty years later, she keeps her word via using her contacts to save Esteban's Morality Pet, his granddaughter Alba.
    • Also, Amanda promised to protect her little brother Miguel through all of his life, even with her own life if needed. She fulfilled it by being tortured to death by the secret police and yet managing to keep his whereabouts secret.
  • Promotion to Parent: Amanda had to raise her much younger brother Miguel.
  • Psychic Powers: Clara talks with spirits, can see people's auras and moves objects with her mind. She's so skilled at the latter task that she can play the piano without even touching it. There where rumors that she could read the minds of others but it was never stated by Clara herself.
  • Put on a Bus: Nicolás, after his eccentricities embarrass the Truebas way too much. Pedro Tercero and Blanca, when he becomes a fugitive and they both leave the country (ironically, it's Esteban who bails him and Blanca out).
  • Rape as Drama: Unfortunately, the male lead had the bad habit of assaulting peasant girls. He gets paid back when his bastard grandson rapes his legitimate granddaughter specifically as revenge.
  • The Rival: Nana vs. Férula, over taking care of the pregnant Clara.
  • Roman Clef: The novel began as a letter Ms. Allende was writing to her agonizing grandfather, albeit she didn't finish it until way after his death. At some point she had to change the name of a character because she inadvertently gave him the last name of the real life inspiration/counterpart.
  • Self-Made People:
    • Esteban goes from an Impoverished Patrician miner to a very rich landowner and a Senate member before losing almost everything.
    • Similarly, Pedro Tercero goes from a poor farm boy to a well-known guitar player and musician idolized by the local youth.
    • Tránsito Soto goes from an ugly but plucky teen prostitute to a beautiful and smart Hooker with a Heart of Gold and then to a financially fluent and very well-positioned Miss Kitty.
    • A villainous example is Esteban García, who from being a bastard farm boy ends up an high-ranking colonel of the military regime. This last one will fall pretty hard on the Truebas.
  • Settle for Sibling: Esteban was earlier engaged to the beautiful Rosa but after her premature death, he ends up marrying her much younger sister Clara.
  • She Is All Grown Up:
    • Blanca grew into her looks, and was depicted as genuinely ugly when she was born.
    • Similarly, Esteban only recalled Clara as an average-looking and VERY awkward 12-year-old. Cue him being almost dumbstruck when he meets her at age 18 and sees that she has grown into a much prettier woman.
    • Also happens to Tránsito Soto. She started as an ugly yet plucky teen hooker, then was seen as a kinda prettier but still not super special-in-looks prostitute, but when in her 30's she was incredibly beautiful as well as very well-positioned and cultured.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Esteban makes Blanca marry Jean de Satigny because she's carrying Pedro Tercero's daughter.
  • Sibling Triangle: Nicolás, Jaime and Amanda. Nobody wins.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Falling to the cynical side, but hope is the last to die.
  • The Speechless: 12-year-old Clara loses her ability to speak due to a traumatic event (Rosa's murder), which she blames herself for. She only regains it when she announces that Esteban will ask her parents for permission to marry her.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Subverted with Blanca and Pedro Tercero. They at least have some sort of happy ending.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Esteban has always believed in this, till senility and his love for his granddaughter change his views somewhat and he wishes for Alba to have economical independence.
  • Straight Gay: Férula (her homosexuality/bisexuality is only implied) is supposed to be this.
  • Straw Misogynist: Esteban tends to dominate the women around him and believes in Stay in the Kitchen to the core. Character Development happens, though.
  • Tangled Family Tree: A result of frequent relationships between the Truebas and the García. Some relationship are romantic, others...are not.
  • Tell Him I'm Not Speaking to Him: Clara never directly speaks to Esteban after he hits her for the only time ever during the Pedro Tercero deal. Esteban settles for interpreting her silences and body language. If she needs to say something more specific she sends a message through a servant.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Rosa was very talented at sewing and needlepoint, and she channeled said skill via sewing a HUGE tapestry through the years.
  • Theme Naming: The women of the Trueba family: Clara (Clear), Blanca (White) and Alba (Spanish for "Dawn" and Latin for "White"). Also the mother of Clara, Nívea (snow-white), follows the theme. Blanca lampshades the fact they don't have more names to keep the tradition; she only points out her they can use foreign names.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: The military wasn't happy with just filling poor Jaime's body with bullets, they also had to dynamite it.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Clara has telekinesis. It's mentioned that when she was young and people came over for dinner her family worked out a system to prevent people from noticing plates and saltshakers randomly rising into the air. When she's older, her husband and children are utterly unfazed by seeing her sitting in a chair that's zooming around the room and playing the piano with the cover closed.
  • Victorious Childhood Friend:
    • Six year old Miguel was there when Alba was born (that one's justified: Amanda, his older sister, was there as well).
    • Also Alba's parents, Pedro Tercero and Blanca.
  • Villainous Crush: Esteban García develops one to Alba. Too bad that he slams her into an isolation cell after figuring this out.
  • Villainous Incest: Esteban García, illegitimate grandson of Esteban Trueba, rapes Trueba's legitimate granddaughter Alba. Many times. He has been molesting her since childhood.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Some characters, like Pedro Segundo, stop appearing. Basically because they stop being part of the Trueba life. Kinda justified in Pedro Segundo's case: he willingly removed himself from there after Pedro Tercero was mutilated by the "patrón" whom he always hated for his abusive behavior (and envied due to being married to Clara, whom Segundo was implied to love), and only briefly reappears for Clara's funeral.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Rosa del Valle had a practically unearthly beauty.