Isabel Allende | Critical Essay by Ronie-Richelle García-Johnson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 3,794 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Ronie-Richelle García-Johnson

Critical Essay by Ronie-Richelle García-Johnson

SOURCE: "The Struggle for Space: Feminism and Freedom," in Revista Hispanica Moderna, Columbia University Hispanic Studies, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, June, 1994, pp. 184-93.

In the following essay, which originally appeared as a chapter of a senior honors thesis presented at Harvard College on March 1, 1991, García-Johnson examines Allende's representation of the struggle for dominance between men and women.

The temporal setting of the action in The House of the Spirits spans fifty years—from the early twenties to about 1974. Historically, and fictionally, within the novel, these were the years in which the women's movement began to gather strength, and then gain progress. While it is apparent that Allende has traced the development of women's struggle for freedom in her novel, some critics have suggested that Nivea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba are allegorical characters which epitomize women at various phases of Chilean social and political history. Michael Handelsman has proposed that Nivea symbolized the early suffragist movement, Clara, more personal statements of liberty, Blanca, the movement towards free and healthy passion, and Alba, the consolidation of these distinct forms of protest and their most recent successes. Marjorie Agosín asserts that the novel is "feminocéntrica." Patricia Hart argues that Clara and Blanca "indulge in passive behavior." Gabriela Mora has insisted that, while both male and female characters broke some stereotypes, Allende's female characters were not feminists. While the insightful arguments of Handelsman, Hart, Agosín and Mora lead to various conclusions, a spatial interpretation of the novel contributes to the idea that the Trueba women were proponents of their own independence.

A thorough and complex understanding of The House of the Spirits demands spatial interpretation, and thus a spatial examination of the treatment of women in the novel is imperative as well. There are treasures hidden in the spaces and rooms of Allende's novel, where the idea that bodies and structures are both houses, and that they are inseparable and essential, is fundamental. Careful examination reveals that, besides the bloody political battle between the military and the liberals, there is another war in the work. The battle of the sexes is cleverly manifested in the continuous struggle for space in the house; the main house in The House of the Spirits is a divided one. Allende's magnificent representation of the fight for dominance between men and women, the discordant coexistence of the male and female, is a prime example of the author's perception and presentation of a universal theme.

Allende utilized spatial symbolism to emphasize and parallel the actions of female characters as they sought to overcome the tyranny of patriarchy. In her novel, structures, and the spaces they contain, serve as metaphors for or symbols of social and political barriers. Rather than allowing these metaphorical or symbolic obstacles to determine their lives, the women of the Trueba family overcame them. Clara, Blanca, and Alba managed to defeat Esteban Trueba, who, with traditional notions of honor, of a woman's "place," and of sexuality, attempted to possess and confine these women. The Trueba women confronted Esteban in his own space, usurped his control of that area, expanded their lives into alternative spaces, or left Trueba's property altogether. Trueba and "his" women were contenders struggling to dominate the space they should have shared; by the end of the novel, Trueba found that he had lost the battle and the war.

Trueba's attitude towards women, "possessing" them, and keeping them within his own structures became apparent spatially in the beginning of the novel. After he learned of Rosa the Beautiful's death, he regretted not having married her sooner and he thought that, if he had known that she was to die, he would have "built her a palace studded with treasures from the ocean floor," "kidnapped her and locked her up," and only he "would have had the key." According to Trueba, his betrothed would have never been "stolen" from him by "death" if he had kept her to himself. Like many traditional fathers and husbands, Trueba regarded his women jealously and attempted to confine them as treasure in a chest to maintain their loyalty. So intense was Trueba's determination to keep his women with him that he prepared a tomb with a place for not only himself, but for his wife and his long-dead Rosa. No one, or thing, was going to "steal" his women from him again.

No structure, however, could keep Clara isolated and protected from the outside world. Clara had inherited her mother Nivea's determination to have her own way; she was a strong, willful woman. While Nivea enthusiastically promoted feminist causes, Clara quietly continued her own fight for freedom within her own home, the home that Trueba had built for her. Clara did not have to physically and permanently leave the structure of the house to escape the domination of her husband. She found freedom and battled Trueba with various spatial manuevers. She existed, spiritually, in another space or dimension, and brought the outside world inside the space of the house to her. She manipulated the space within the house as she pleased and, when all other techniques failed, she locked herself up, in her own secluded space, out of Trueba's reach. This spatial analysis agrees with Agosín's interpretation; according to Agosín, Clara "inhabited her own space and her own imagination" and thus "evaded the presence of her spouse."

Clara had developed the habit of seeking alternative mental spaces in which to dwell as a child in her father's home. She would escape her immediate reality as she read a book, or imagined herself in far-away places. Her "magic" and her attempts to move articles about with the power of her mind distanced her from the "real" world. Once she was married, Clara maintained her secret, interior universe. As she prepared to give birth to her first child, she announced: "I think I'm going to levitate." Clara "meant that she wanted to rise to a level that would allow her to leave behind the discomfort and heaviness of pregnancy and the deep fatigue that had begun to seep into her bones. She entered one of her long periods of silence…." This last sentence is a key to Allende's use of pregnancy as a metaphor. Allende has said: "I need long periods of silence … because the books build up inside of me little by little. It's like expecting a baby for some time." Clara was pregnant with more than a physical child, she was pregnant with love, creativity, and what would later be born as a text. This confirms Agosín's idea that Clara's silence was far from passive, it was a kind of writing. Whether Clara's silence is interpreted as a retreat, a refuge, as Agosín has termed it, or as a clever victory over the mundane, it is clear that she entered an alternative space, a "closed world free from any masculine insertion" as she "levitated" in silence.

Although, at the moment when Clara was preparing to give birth Trueba understood that this silence was a "last refuge," he later became distressed. He "wanted control over that undefined and luminous material that lay within her and that escaped him even in those moments when she appeared to be dying of pleasure." The patriarch "realized that Clara did not belong to him and that if she continued living in a world of apparitions … she probably never would." Trueba could build a house to contain wife, and he could enter the space within her body, but he would never be allowed to enter the home she had built for herself inside her own head. Clara had defeated male domination.

Clara's magic and the happiness she found as she practiced it was attractive to artists, poets, and spiritualists. The "big house on the corner" became a gathering place for these marginal people as Clara invited them into the space of her home. Clara also opened her home to the unfortunates who needed food and shelter. By encouraging these people to enter the exterior world that represented her interior self, Clara let them into the space that was forbidden to Trueba. Not surprisingly, Trueba objected to the carnivalization of his home and the daily parade that marched through it. He insisted that the "big house on the comer" was not a thoroughfare and coldly ordered that the celebration of the everyday be stopped. Clara and her children, especially Nicolás, continued to live as they pleased, and to fill the space as they desired, while Trueba was out of town. Upon his return, the atmosphere of the house changed, and the party was over—temporarily. Trueba continually struggled to dominate the space of the house in the city and his family fought back with determined consistency.

As she found herself trapped in a particular space and time, and could not divorce Trueba, Clara had to manipulate her immediate area. She attempted to move objects with the power of her mind, and she redefined the limits of the structure Trueba had built for her in the "big house on the corner."

In response to Clara's imagination and the requirements of the moment, the noble, seignorial architecture began sprouting all sorts of extra little rooms, staircases, turrets, and terraces. Each time a new guest arrived, the bricklayers would arrive and build another addition to the house. The big house on the corner soon came to resemble a labyrinth.

The use of the world labyrinth is telling, for it suggests a space that, rather than possessing a masculine, linear order, is as complex as the intuition of a woman. Trueba's perfect, logical space was transformed by a woman. Instead of allowing his space to enclose her, she opened it and recreated it to suit her.

The struggle for space came to a climax while Clara was still alive and surrounded by her eccentric friends and Trueba campaigned for the office of Senator of the Republic. Clara needed space for her continuous spiritual celebrations, and Trueba needed space for the operations of his political party.

The house filled with political propaganda and with the members of his party, who practically took it by storm, blending in with the hallway ghosts, the Rosicrucians, and the three Mora sisters. Clara's retinue was gradually pushed into the back rooms of the house …

The house became a house divided as "an invisible border arose between the parts of the house occupied by Esteban Trueba and those occupied by his wife." As the house has traditionally represented the unification of its occupants, the "invisible" spatial division within the house is a symbol, not only of the Trueba's spliced relationship, but of the separation of the sexes.

Trueba believed that the spirituality that captivated his wife and her friends was for women only. Before Nicolás departed to India, he told him "I hope you return a man, because I'm fed up with all your eccentricities." He considered his other son, Jaime, to be eccentric as well, because he cared for the underprivileged and didn't want to join his father in business. Jaime, therefore, was not a "well-adjusted man." Other readers have noticed that with some special exceptions, such as Jaime, Pedro Tercero García, and the prostitute Tránsito Soto, the men in the novel operate with logical thinking while the women depend on their spiritual and emotional strength to survive. This presentation of men and women is based on beliefs which are prevalent in Latin America. The author of The House of the Spirits herself has stated that "at times science is less efficient than magic." As the "big house on the corner" in Allende's novel is a symbol for the family, the house naturally reflects the fact that the family, and the world, exists only because of the differences between two groups: women and men. It is not surprising that Allende chose to represent the schism spatially; as she spoke of her childhood, she noted that men and women were "segregated," and this implies a spatial understanding of the problem.

In the arena of the house in the city, Clara was victorious as she defended her independence. While the "facade of the house underwent no alterations" the most intimate interior of the house belonged to, was dominated by, and represented Clara. Even "the rear garden," once a perfect, strict emulation of "a French garden" became hers, "a tangled jungle in which every type of plant and flower had proliferated and where Clara's birds kept up a steady din, along with many generations of cats and dogs." The house belonged to Clara.

Campos discusses this conversion of space and, combining her ideas with those of Gastón Bachelard, concludes that the house "is Clara" … the space of the "unconsciousness, of the Imagination, of the mother." Agosín states that Clara is the "soul" of the house on the corner. The validity of these ideas is confirmed with Allende's statement that the basement of the house was a womb. By manipulating the space of the house, it began to represent Clara, instead of Trueba. Gone was the house that Trueba had desired, planned, and built. His house was not a reflection of himself, as he had wanted, but of Clara, the family, and his relationship to them. One might venture as far to say that the house was female. With spatial symbols, Allende communicates the message that, although the patriarchy may seem to be in control, women and traditionally feminine spirits prevail behind the facade.

After Trueba slapped her and knocked her teeth out as she tried to defend her daughter, Clara's response to his physical violence was twofold. First, she refused to speak to him and then, she locked herself in her room. Clara's denial of access to the space of her room, of her body—the spaces which Trueba had violated—was a powerful weapon. Even more potent was her refusal to allow Trueba to enter her mental space; she would never verbally communicate with him again. Clara had once again defeated Trueba with his own space; he was the one who had built and decorated her room. While some have mistaken both of these manuevers for passivity, spatial analysis demonstrates that Clara's actions were far from passive, and thus provides evidence to support Agosín's assertions regarding feminine silence in the novel. Clara had refused the masculine body access to her feminine world, and she swore not to enter masculine verbal space. Trueba was, more than frustrated, defeated; he could not touch Clara's soul, let alone control it.

Blanca, Trueba's only daughter, continued the tradition of independence begun by her grandmother. Although she did not rally for women's suffrage, or practice magic like her mother to assert her freedom, Blanca defied her father. Trueba would have never sanctioned the love that Blanca had for the peasant leader Pedro Tercero García. The house that divided Blanca and Pedro Tercero García was the elaborate symbol of elite wealth and social grace; her home at The Three Marias sharply contrasted with the little hut in which her peasant lover lived. It would have been absurd for Pedro to cross into Trueba's space, to visit the big house, and it would have been scandalous for Blanca to debase herself by setting foot in the peasant's quarters. Nevertheless, Blanca asserted her freedom with her actions and by symbolically passing through space.

Instead of opening her window and waiting for her lover to climb over a wall and into her father's space, Blanca crossed the barriers of her father's home herself. She waited until her father was asleep, until the landscape was hidden in the darkness, to lock her bedroom door and leave her father's house and domination. She would slip out the window, climb down a trellis covered with flowers, and run in the darkness. She did not go to the peasant quarters to meet her lover—that space, technically, belonged to her father. Instead, she and Pedro Tercero García met far from the structures, the houses and the huts, which symbolized the tyranny imposed over both of them and found each other by the banks of the stream, which for them, represented the flow of life, freedom, and passion.

Trueba's characteristic reaction to Blanca's defiance was to violently regain his powerful authority over her. He beat her and forced her to marry the Count. When Blanca arrived at the big house the morning after her wedding to visit her mother, Trueba ordered her to return quickly to her husband. By leaving the hotel to go to her mother's house and space, Blanca was symbolically negating her marriage. Trueba sent Blanca away, out of his space. He could not tolerate the fact that his daughter had willfully negated his position by leaving his house in order to meet Pedro Tercero García. Trueba knew that, by leaving the protective space of his house, Blanca had escaped his masculine domination, and that she aspired to sexual freedom by inviting a man of her own choice to penetrate her physical space. While Blanca did obey her father and marry the Count, she did manage to keep a sacred space within her womb for the product of her union with Pedro: Alba. Later in the novel, Blanca subverted her father's dominion with the brazenly defiant act of bringing Pedro into Trueba's home.

While Clara didn't care to concern herself with the daily upkeep of the house, Blanca, and later, Alba, became devoted to its maintenance. They would feed the members of the household, keep the birds singing, the plants green, and do the gardening. During Trueba's absence, these women effectively ran the household. Bachelard discussed the idea that, while men build the external house, its is the women who, immersed in the day-to-day project of maintenance, make the house livable, or better—make it a home. "In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside." In fact, as time passed, the women of the "big house on the corner" were responsible for the renovation and rebirth of the house. Bachelard is helpful with the concept of the renewal of the house as well: "housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch." At the end of the novel it is Alba who convinces her father to renew the house and resurrect the garden, the symbol of freedom. Allende's message seems to be that with love and patience, women maintain their nations as well as their homes.

Alba's youth coincided with the late sixties and the early seventies, a time of sexual revolution. Despite the ideas of the youths, those of the older, empowered generations did not look favorably upon these developments. Trueba would never have consented to Alba having a pre-marital sexual relationship with anyone. He wouldn't have tolerated mere courtship if her suitor were someone like Miguel, a radical leftist. Like her mother, however, Alba did not let her grandfather's attitude stop her from loving the man of her choice. For, in Agosin's words, Alba was "the one destined to leave the benevolent space of the house on the corner" to join the struggle for social justice.

Alba did not run away from her home to live as she desired. Although at first she and Miguel would meet in his apartment, she found that the most comfortable solution was to bring Miguel into Trueba's home, where "in the labyrinth of the rear rooms, where no one ever went, they could make love undisturbed." The use of the word "labyrinth" reminds the reader that the house was still Clara's house, even though, after her death, it deteriorated for lack of her laughter. "One by one the lovers tried out all the abandoned rooms, and finally chose an improvised nest in the depths of the basement." Alba would lead Miguel in through the garden (the symbol of freedom) into the basement. It is spatially significant that the lovers went to the basement because their love, like the basement was "underground"—a secret.

The basement is, as the reader will remember, also a metaphor for the womb. Alba was leading Miguel to the most intimate of spaces, the space where life, (and text, in the cases of Clara and Alba,) is created. Their entrance into the basement was symbolic of sexual intercourse as well as of a more profound act of love. Alba and Miguel rearranged the space Trueba had created, as had her grandmother Clara, although they transformed the basement into a love nest. Alba and Miguel utilized the long-forgotten artifacts they found to turn their underground "nest" into an "nuptial chamber." Although they occupied the same space that Alba's grandparents had, Alba and Miguel shared a more fruitful love, and they did so by transforming the vestiges of an old world into a new "home."

Of all the actions of the women who had gone before her, Alba's spatial statement was by far the most assertive. Instead of preserving her intimate space with silence and magic, as Clara had, or leaving her "father's" home as Blanca had, Alba lived as she pleased in the space where she had grown up. This spatial relationship represents a confrontation with the patriarchy. Alba and Miguel's complicity as they recreated the basement, the history of the Truebas, to suit themselves, suggests that a new generation, women and men alike, would overcome that patriarchy. In Campos's words, they were the "salvation of the future."

The patriarchy, however, manipulated more than the freedom of the Trueba women. Just as Trueba attempted to control "his" women within the structures he had built for them, those with power in the country of which Allende wrote dominated the lives of workers, farmers, and every underprivileged citizen within the political structure. As Alba, and all the women of The House of the Spirits battled for their freedom as women, they struggled for political justice. The struggle for independence was not just a feminine one; it was a fight for the rights of all classes, creeds, and sexes. Clara had always been interested in the welfare of the poor. Blanca not only loved a leftist peasant, she hid this wanted man in her father's home after the Coup. Alba hid weapons for the resistance forces and her radical, guerrilla lover in her grandfather's home. She took food from the cupboards and sold furniture, including the portrait of her grandmother Clara, to feed the poor who were starving as a result of the Military's policies. Alba directly defied the government, and her grandfather, the symbol of conservatism, as she utilized Trueba's space and that which it contained. In The House of the Spirits, feminism and leftist liberalism were united in the struggle to preserve the Chilean home; feminine auras and the forces of freedom alike dwelt in the "house of the spirits."

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