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The House of the Spirits | Study Guide

Isabel Allende

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The House of the Spirits | Themes



Change and resistance to change undergird the novel. All story elements feature this theme: characterization, plot, and setting. The story characters either readily change for the good or refuse to change, preferring to remain stuck in whatever negative patterns their basic natures produce. Esteban Trueba is the most stubborn, but even he is able to change at the end. However, he doesn't change until his violence, arrogance, and need for control have caused suffering for everyone he loves.

Throughout the country change is desired by some and resisted by others. Those with the power and money, from the upper classes, want things to remain the same. Many others desperately want the type of change that will make their lives easier. The end to class divisions is attractive to them, and so socialism appeals to many. Some want the change to occur within the system, whereas others insist that it can only result from violent revolution that fosters complete change. Neither idea forecasts exactly how things do go. When a Socialist wins the presidency, the desired changes are blocked by powerful interests, and conditions become so bad that a violent military coup is able to step in, seize control, and create a dictatorship. At first, the victory is celebrated, but then this change as well is seen as a terrible mistake. And so more change must be on the way.

Allende's point is that change is inevitable, and it must be viewed as a process. Whether it applies to people making personal progress to become better individuals or an entire nation making progress toward a better government, change is often painful and slow.

Violence and Suffering

The House of the Spirits is full of violence, and Allende does not shy away from the details of violent acts and the suffering of people. It is sometimes painful to read, but Allende is intent on exposing the types of violence, including murder, that her family experienced.

The point is that people cannot simply turn their backs, not on political and government-sponsored violence, and not on the violence inflicted on women and children within or outside of the family circle. When violence invades institutions such as police forces and families, civilization is in jeopardy. Just as police officers should not be allowed to beat those in their custody, men should not be allowed to beat their wives. Esteban Trueba steps way over the line when he beats Blanca with a whip and knocks his wife's teeth out.

Alba admits that initially she dreams of wreaking revenge on the evil Esteban García who tortures her so cruelly. However, after she learns of all the violence in her family and sees how no good ever comes of it, she knows she must end that cycle. Her torturer deserves punishment, but she will not inflict violence herself.

Importance of Written Records

Over and over readers of The House of the Spirits are reminded that the only reason they are able to read the story is because Clara preserved history by writing it down. Additionally, someone else (the narrator, Alba, who remains anonymous until the end) had to make the commitment to weaving all sorts of records together in one long narrative for the story to be fully told.

Having a written record of history, whether it is political history or the history of one's family, is critically important because memory alone can fail the individual, and family, and society. People observe and remember things from an individual perspective, and that is always colored by personal leanings. A written history based on as many sources as possible is more accurate. By interweaving Esteban Trueba's narrative with the omniscient narrative, Allende makes this point.


Characters in the novel embrace silence when the real world becomes too much for them. Clara regularly enters into silence even from a young age. Silent by choice for nine years, throughout most of her childhood, she enjoys being "wrapped in her fantasies, accompanied by the spirits of the air, the water and the earth." As an adult, she enters silent periods whenever she needs to get back in touch with those early years of innocence and spirituality.

Jaime similarly falls into silence when his work as a doctor, witnessing so much suffering, becomes too much for him. Like Clara, he escapes into himself. Also like her, he enjoys reading at these times, which is why his room resembles a tunnel made of books.

At the worst moments during her torture, Alba seeks silence, refusing to speak and enduring what is happening to her by quieting her mind. Clara advises her when she is in solitary confinement to start writing a book in her mind, and so the world of books is linked to silence for her as well.

Allende implies that to learn and grow, people need to be quiet and take in new ideas. They do not need to rant and rave when stressed, as Esteban Trueba does, but rather to seek answers through inward serenity and contemplation.

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