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The House of the Spirits | Study Guide

Isabel Allende

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The House of the Spirits | Chapter 4 : The Time of the Spirits | Summary



When this very long chapter opens, Blanca has reached toddlerhood. When it ends she is nearing the end of childhood. The toddler Blanca is much more mature than most children, largely because her mother treats her as an adult.

Clara decides the family should experience life at Tres Marías for the summer, and Blanca and Clara find that country living suits them. The summer visit turns into a much longer stay. Blanca becomes best friends with the foreman's son, Pedro Tercero García, who is her age. Clara takes on the duty of bettering the lives of the workers living at Tres Marías. She is particularly interested in teaching the women about women's rights, and this results in her first experience with one of her husband's temper tantrums. Nevertheless, she continues to thrive in her new role as the patrón's wife until she becomes pregnant again and returns to her life in the city.

Férula intensely dislikes the country. She is uncomfortable in the climate and the environment and finds the people ignorant. Especially horrifying are instances such as finding a mouse trapped in her corset, being interrupted on the toilet by a man who enters the bathroom, and a plague of ants. Only her religious ministrations to the pagan people of Tres Marías, commitment to caring for the family, and love for Clara keep her from fleeing back to the city. She is relieved when Clara's pregnancy forces the family's return there.

Esteban Trueba takes over the role of narrator to describe the return to the city. He sees that Clara can barely make the trip, and she enters one of her periods of silence to survive it and the rest of her difficult pregnancy. She breaks the silence shortly before her delivery date to serenely announce she is carrying twin boys who will be named Jaime and Nicolás. Esteban flies into a rage at the announcement of such names and for the first time gets drunk and visits the brothel called Christopher Columbus. He is thrilled to reunite with Tránsito Soto there. She is wealthy and successful, as she had predicted, but plans to become more so by running her own business, a "whores' cooperative."

As the narrative returns to third-person omniscient, Clara's delivery date is nigh. She dreams that her mother and father die in a car crash two days before it actually happens. When it does, Esteban thinks he can keep the tragedy from her and attempts to have her cloistered until the delivery date. Clara, however, convinces Férula to arrange for them to find Nívea's head, which was decapitated in the accident. Using her mental powers, she knows where it has rolled into some bushes, and they find it just as she goes into labor. The twins are born naturally at home, with Férula acting as midwife.

Much to Férula's dismay, Clara turns to Nana, who had so lovingly raised her, to help care for the twins. Clara begins her most intense spiritual period to date. She fills the house with like-minded spiritualists, acts as a medium, and becomes to her husband "increasingly remote, strange, and inaccessible." Only her relationship with Blanca is strong, modeled along the lines of the special tie between Clara and her own mother.

The more distant Clara becomes from reality, the greater the tension in the house grows. Férula and Nana hate each other, their negativity fueled by the jealous love each woman has for Clara. Férula is equally jealous of her brother's relationship with Clara and tries to interfere with it, making him uncomfortable in his own home. Meanwhile, Esteban Trueba grows increasingly despondent because of his wife's distracted attitude and his inability to make her love him with the same level of obsession that he has. He starts having sex with other women but eventually gives up most outside contact himself, preferring to stay at the big house on the corner as much as possible to greedily take all of Clara he can get. His relationship with his sister becomes especially tense.

The situation explodes when Esteban arrives unexpectedly from a required trip to Tres Marías to find Férula in bed with Clara. Férula is there because there was a small earthquake and she is frightened, but the enraged Esteban erupts and throws her out of the house forever. Férula places a curse on him and leaves. Because Férula "doesn't want to be found," Clara is unable to find her despite her mental powers

Esteban experiences no immediate effects from Férula's curse. Everything he touches seems to make him wealthier, despite most of the country being in the throes of an economic crisis. During a typhus epidemic, Clara becomes obsessed with yet another mission in life: helping the poor and sick. When she comes out of that, she goes deeper than ever into the spiritual world, escaping reality as never before. Esteban sends his sons away to school, but Blanca remains glued to her mother's side throughout childhood. The family begins spending summers in Tres Marías again, where Blanca and Pedro Tercero remain inseparable.


Foreshadowing creeps into the novel more consistently with this chapter. However, because the story spans so many years and several generations, the references are not always easy to pick up on in a first reading. For example, when Blanca and Pedro Tercero meet as children, they cannot at first be found. Eventually they are discovered curled up together. The narrator comments that far in the future they would again be found in this position, and "a whole lifetime would not be long enough for their atonement." This is the first hint that the two will become lovers, but why will they have to atone for that? Another example is Esteban Trueba's comment during his narrative portion of this chapter that he is only sharing the story of his tryst with Tránsito Soto because she has "an important role in my life a long time later." He indicates that the role is so important this story could not be written without her rescuing "us." Who else does she rescue besides Esteban? And from what? Finally, when readers are introduced to the bastard grandson of Esteban Trueba's first affair with a peasant woman, readers are given this ominous warning: "the strange Esteban García ... was destined to play a terrible role in the history of the family."

Also in this chapter, for the first time since Chapter 1, the omniscient narrator assumes a personal pronoun one time in this chapter, saying that the story about the twins' shared loss of virginity did not appear in Clara's notebooks left "for me to read one day." Once again, readers wonder whose voice this is. It has to be someone who is part of the family, part of the saga.

Some characters show an ability to change in this chapter. Clara moves from a passive state to being engaged with life. Esteban mostly curbs his more despicable behaviors. Yet, their basic natures always return. Allende seems to make the point that people are who they are.

Elements of magical realism are prominent in these pages. Superstitions abound, and the supernatural world takes over the big house on the corner. A decapitated head is lost and found and kept there. Wise old Pedro García ends an ant plague at Tres Marías by talking to the ants and showing them the way off the property. He knows where to dig wells because his bones tell him. Even the straitlaced, pious Férula puts a curse on her brother.

Clara's notebooks that she has been writing since childhood also become very prominent. They are mentioned several times and identified as the main source of the story being told. She even refers to her notebooks as one of the reasons why she doesn't want to name either twin after their father: "repeating the same name just caused confusion in her notebooks that bore witness to life."

Readers should note that the political climate of the country is becoming more unstable. For example, an important argument has begun between wealthy Conservative Party member Esteban Trueba and Pedro Tercero García, who admires revolutionary communist ideas and pushes for unions. The political upheaval can only worsen if the economic woes of the country continue.

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