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The House of the Spirits | Study Guide

Isabel Allende

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The House of the Spirits | Context


Although the country in which The House of the Spirits is set is never named in the novel, the setting, mood, and political events all point to Chile. The time period of the political upheavals described in the novel parallel those of Chile. Those events were very well known to Isabel Allende, since her family members were directly involved. The novel's genre, magical realism, originated in Latin America, and the customs described in the novel are authentic to Chile. Key figures who remain unnamed in the novel—the Candidate and President, the Poet, the Dictator—are modeled after famous Chileans as well.

Chilean Politics

The politics of Chile were placed in the world spotlight in 1970, when Salvador Allende (Isabel's cousin) became the first Marxist president elected democratically in the Western Hemisphere. Marxism is a social and political policy based on a classless society and the public ownership of the means of production. Allende's agenda focused on radical social reform. He supported the nationalization of industry and the more equal distribution of wealth, land, and other resources. Yet, Chile experienced some serious economic problems during Allende's presidency, which were important factors that led to the successful military coup that took down the government on September 11, 1973.

General Augusto Pinochet assumed control following the coup. During the attack, President Allende committed suicide, although the cause of death was controversial at the time. Privatization of production returned under Pinochet, and the economy became one of the most open in the developing world. However, Pinochet's government was an extremely cruel and repressive dictatorship. Thousands of Marxist supporters were arrested, many were tortured, and basic human and civil rights were denied. The Pinochet regime controlled Chile until 1990, when civilian rule was regained following the restoration of elections in 1989.

In The House of the Spirits the fervor of people on both sides of the political battle is clearly portrayed. Economics and politics are intertwined, just as they were in Chile during the Allende and Pinochet years. The novel's unnamed Socialist party Candidate/President is Salvador Allende, and the Dictator is Pinochet.

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a literary genre most often associated with Latin American authors. The genre can be described as realistic fiction with fantastic elements presented in the narrative in a matter-of-fact way. Before the name was first used sometime in the 1940s, the writing technique was part of many literary traditions, including ancient myths and epics like The Odyssey.

Some scholars have linked the rise of this genre in Latin America to the dual realities present in the postcolonial world—the time period after the departure of colonizing nations. As the cultures of original peoples were juxtaposed with those of the conquering nations, people were forced to become comfortable with the side-by-side existence of two very contrasting ways of life.

Isabel Allende is considered one of the leading authors of magical realism. There are specific characteristics found in most novels characterized as magical realism:

  • supernatural elements
  • acceptance of ancient beliefs
  • extreme shifts in settings and characters' states of mind
  • lack of accepted boundaries for space and time
  • frequent use of the literary techniques of repetition, foreshadowing, reversal, and figurative language, especially metaphors

Translation by Magda Bogin

Allende wrote The House of the Spirits in Spanish. It was translated into English in 1985 by Magda Bogin, a highly regarded writing professor, author, and translator. The translation is highly praised in literary circles and is especially important because so few books by women are translated each year—with even fewer being both written and translated by women.

Despite the luminous quality of Bogin's work, some of the careful literary choices made by Allende are lost in the translation. Perhaps the most important one relates to the names Allende uses for her female characters. As the Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English explains, each name, generation by generation, moves toward "a progressive lightening/enlightenment and a move towards the dawn of a new age of reconciliation and understanding." But the English reader misses this connection by not knowing that each Spanish name is a word related to lightness, whiteness, and purity: Nívea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba.

The Poet Pablo Neruda

Chilean-born poet Pablo Neruda (1904–73) was a hugely significant figure in his country. Allende includes him in her novel but refers to him only as "The Poet." Pablo Neruda is his pen name; the name given to him at birth was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. He experienced early success—while still only in his teens—as a writer, and especially as a poet.

Neruda was well-traveled because the Chilean government named him an honorary consul to different countries. Latin American countries often honor their famous poets in this way, but Neruda went beyond diplomacy to take an active role in politics. In 1945 he was elected to the Senate in Chile and joined the Communist Party, a move that forced him into hiding and then exile once the government took action against communism. When Neruda could safely return to Chile to live and work, Isabel's cousin Salvador Allende became one of his good friends.

Isabel met Pablo Neruda in 1973 when she was working as a journalist in Chile. He asked her to visit him in his home. She thought she would be interviewing him. Instead he called her there to chide her for being a poor journalist, saying that she was much too subjective in her reporting. At the same time, he encouraged her to pursue literary writing. Feeling humiliated, the young Allende dismissed his comments, deciding he was losing his mental faculties along with his physical health. However, when the coup occurred later that year, freedom of the press was erased from Chile, and Allende had to flee the country. She remembered the poet's words. Those, combined with the inspiration received as she began writing a letter to her grandfather, led her to begin her career as a novelist. The epigraph in The House of the Spirits is from the Neruda poem, "And How Long?" More than simply giving a nod to Neruda by choosing this poem, Allende underscores some important messages of her novel, including the meaning of life and death and what is ultimately left of a person after he or she dies.

Neruda's body of work is considered significant all over the world. He is often referred to as "the people's poet." Neruda received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971. But he is especially highly regarded in his home country. By choosing his poem for her epigraph, Allende indicates that the country of her story, never named in the novel, is in fact Chile.

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