House of the Spirits as a Magical Realism Feminist Novel
Voice and Narrative
Cari Gilkison, Winter 1997
The House of the Spirits is a Magical Realist Feminist Novel. There is no debate on the presence of Magical Realism, but there is on the feminism. Just what is feminism and how does it apply to this book? What was Allende’s purpose and did she achieve it?
First we must know what feminism is to know if the book can be considered a work of feminism. Is feminism having more power than men or a military movement? Or is it equality? Is it celebrating women in their glory? Or is it man-bashing? Feminism is such a strong word, with many connotations. It is very much open for interpretation. However, feminism in context of this book is easy to define. For Allende, Feminism is acknowledging women’s limited power in her society and celebrating their roles and strengths. Like many feminists, Allende would like to see women become equal. The book is definitely feminist in turning Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s style of Magical Realism upside down. His novel A Hundred Years of Solitude focuses on three generations of men and the magic in their lives, while The House of Spirits focuses on three generations of women.
What is controversial is how Allende treats her women characters. Clara retreats into her world of fantasy to escape the dysfunction of her family. This can be construed as weakness, but it could also be construed as a way to go inside herself and gain the strength she needed to survive. The problem is that the reader knows too little of her inner thoughts to be sure if her method of dealing with her situation is effective. Blanca does not have any magical aspects to her really. She is quite practical. She does stand up for herself, unlike her mother. She falls in love with a lower class native and they have a child together. Despite this rebellion, her father still exerts a great deal of control over her, and she is forced to marry a French man. The strongest sign of Blanca’s feminism is how she reverses the tale to become more focused on the women in the family. Alba is the only one who truly stands up to her grandfather, the male patriarch of the family. She is the only one who got to know him and stopped being afraid of him as mother and grandmother were. Alba is the strongest character in the book, but we what all she must overcome through her mother and grandmother’s journeys.
Allende starts out The House of Spirits with the character of Esteban and a very male dominated narrative. Esteban’s struggles are the most important at first and at the forefront of the novel. He created a name for himself and created a family, but his mistakes not only destroyed him, but his family as well. Esteban became an iron-fisted tyrant and misused his power. Allende shows how Esteban’s rape of Pancha comes back to haunt him with the birth of their illegitimate son. It is that son who, in turn, comes to rape Esteban’s daughter Blanca. Esteban saw things in terms of power. He saw things in black and white, which cost him dearly. It isn’t until his old age at the end of the novel that we see him softening and becoming more accepting the power of the women in his life.
The narrative slides from Esteban’s male perspective to Alba’s female perspective as the novel progresses. We see that Clara and Blanca struggle to have a voice in the world. That is why Allende does not give them such a strong voice in the novel. Through her grandmother and mother’s struggles, we see Alba claiming her voice and a part in the narrative structure of The House of Spirits. This choice in narrative structure reinforces Allende’s showcase of how Colonial Society silences women even though in the end it is the story of women that she is interested in exploring.
Although Allende does well in examining the issues facing Clara, Blanca and Alba, but she does not discuss the role of the native women in her society. The native women were even more oppressed than the higher class women like Clara, Blanca and Alba. The native women do not even really get a voice in the novel, which is somewhat problematic. While Allende shows that the rape of a native woman is ultimately Esteban’s undoing, we do not get to hear her side of the story. We know very little about Pancha, which is a small, but tragic flaw in the overall structure of The House of Spirits.
In the end we see that the family Esteban creates comes to represent the dynamics of the society he lives in. We see the family struggle for power, lose it and then come to find peace. Allende’s writing is not just about one family, but how one family can represent society. The House of Spirits succeeds in demonstrating how women have gained a voice in the world and how their connection to family and spirituality can give the strength to carry on the family that was created by colonization and patriarchy long after colonialism and patriarchy have collapsed.