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The House of the Spirits | Study Guide

Isabel Allende

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The House of the Spirits | Chapter 1 : Rosa the Beautiful | Summary



The novel opens with a sentence written by Clara when she is a young child: "Barrabás came to us by sea." The events surrounding the fact she records take place around the wealthy del Valles' home in the capital city. It is Holy Thursday of Easter week, and the family has been shamed by Clara's sudden outburst at church, featuring curse words, that leads Father Restrepo to label her "possessed by the devil." They are back at home for a holiday meal, but Severo and Nívea del Valle are distracted by what has happened. Since Clara is already a known clairvoyant, they are concerned she will become some sort of a freak show.

Then several men arrive bearing the corpse of Uncle Marcos, Nívea's brother, and all of his worldly possessions. He has died on a ship returning from Africa. Uncle Marcos had always been an adventurer, and readers learn of several of his wildest trips and undertakings. One of them, an attempt to fly a huge bird he makes across the mountains, results in his reported death. However, he returns home a week after his funeral and burial, as healthy as ever. After that he works with Clara to tell people's fortunes, so the two of them become quite close. The little girl never tires of her uncle's stories. So when a puppy is discovered among Uncle Marcos's possessions, it is natural for Clara to claim him as her own. She names him Barrabás and nurtures him back to good health. He becomes her constant companion and grows to the size of a horse.

During this same period of time, Clara's beautiful older sister, Rosa, is engaged to 25-year-old Esteban Trueba. He has been away for two years working in a mine in order to earn enough money to marry her. He takes over the narration of the story in the middle of the chapter and shares the story of falling in love at first sight, wooing her, and securing the promise of her hand in marriage. Just when he strikes a rich vein, however, he receives news that Rosa has died.

Rosa's death was foreseen by Clara: "there would soon be another death in the del Valle family ... by mistake." Rosa is accidentally poisoned. Severo del Valle's political aspirations are finally fulfilled when he is invited to be the Liberal Party's candidate for Congress. Following the announcement, a stuffed, roasted pig is delivered to the del Valles. So is a half-gallon decanter of fine brandy. When Rosa comes down with a chill, the doctor suggests she be given sugared lemonade with some liquor in it. So Severo tells Nana to open the brandy and give that to his daughter.

Nana discovers Rosa's dead body the next morning. The doctor quickly decides something is amiss and tests the brandy and finds it poisoned. Still, he announces that he must perform an autopsy to verify the cause of Rosa's death. Nívea will only allow the procedure if it is performed at the house, not at the morgue. So Severo arranges for the autopsy to take place after everyone has gone to bed. He, Dr. Cuevas, and the doctor's young assistant move Rosa's body to the kitchen. Then Severo leaves the men to their work. Just before dawn, the doctor has the conclusive evidence he needs that Rosa died from poison. He leaves her body with the assistant and goes to tell Severo the news. The next morning the house resembles a funeral chapel. Rosa is put on view in her casket in the dining room, and legions of mourners pay their last respects.

Rosa's death quickly becomes a political scandal. The police determine that the brandy decanter did not come from the same source as the roasted pig, but the true source is never discovered. It seems clear that the poison was intended for Severo, probably sent by a political foe, but the mystery is never solved.

At this point the narration returns to Esteban Trueba's voice as he recalls the day he learns of Rosa's death. He is happy for the first time in a long time, because he has struck a rich seam in the mine. He is writing his betrothed a letter with the good news when a telegram arrives from his sister Férula advising him of Rosa's death. He explodes with anger, then travels by mule to the train station, desperate to get back in time for the funeral. He arrives, disheveled and half crazed, in time to see her beautiful body just before it is loaded into the carriage for the trip to the funeral. The one person who offers him comfort is little Clara, but after the burial is completed, Esteban is left alone by her tomb where he remains all night.

The chapter ends with the revelation that young Clara has seen Rosa's autopsy. She watches through a window, while standing on a wooden box. When she finally returns to bed after watching Rosa's body cleaned, dressed, and carried to her casket, "Silence filled her utterly." She will not speak for nine years.


Immediately readers should notice the use of I in the narration. It creates questions such as: Who is this "I" who says he/she uses Clara's notebooks 50 years later "to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own" but who then disappears into a third-person omniscient point of view? Why does I then appear again halfway through the chapter, to focus on telling a personal tale rather than presenting events from a broader perspective? Readers can figure out that this second "I" is Esteban Trueba, based on knowledge gained already in the chapter. Still, it is rather confusing to experience the sudden shift to this personal point of view and to realize that the very first "I" in the narrative is not Esteban Trueba. So the question remains: "Who is telling the story?" That question will not be answered until the end of the book, when the opening sentence of Chapter 1 is repeated and everything becomes clear. This is part of the intrigue of The House of Spirits, the slow uncovering of the story itself.

Also from this opening chapter, the elements of magical realism are evident. Facts about real life in the real world are juxtaposed with descriptions of wildly fantastic, magical, and supernatural events—presented in an ordinary tone as if they are not at all unusual. In the world of the novel, anything is possible. Children are born with green hair and yellow eyes. Dreams portend the future. A child can move objects just by thinking it. Dogs can grow as big as horses. So readers learn early on that they must expect the unexpected in order to fully appreciate the story. As the phrase the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously coined suggests, "the willing suspension of disbelief" is an important part of reading this particular piece of fiction.

The opening chapter presents plenty of details to move readers quickly toward understanding the characterization of key figures in the story. Clara at 10 years old is not much different from what she will be the rest of her life. As the chapter reveals, Clara lives on a spiritual plane and is sometimes burdened by her mental gifts but mostly dependent on them—as are the people around her. When the chapter ends with the pronouncement that she will be silent for nine years following the traumatic experience of Rosa's death and observed autopsy, it is only the first time she will retreat away from the level of interaction with the real world that speaking requires.

Esteban Trueba's passion, dedication to working hard to get what he wants, tendency toward violent rage, and inability to get past a grudge are all clear from this chapter. These character traits become more pronounced the longer he lives.

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