In times of peace, the fundamental rules that operate society are often overlooked; only during chaos and war do people reflect upon what has gone wrong, and in the process, reveal the intricacies of human society. Isabelle Allende’s personal experience with anarchy grants her that unique perspective with which she presents the complexities of human society in The House of the Spirits. Through the plot and the characters, Allende explores how life goes in circles, how events are intertwined and how history tends to repeat itself.
A major part of the story is devoted to chronicling the life of Esteban Trueba and his relationships with women. Through out the plot, his relationships are repeatedly broken, regardless of his actions; showing that life goes in a circle. His first relationship is one with his sister, Ferula. This relationship is to come crashing down the day Esteban “saw clearly the ways his sister used to keep him down” (43). The strained relationship between brother and sister comes to a climax on the night Esteban kicks Ferula out of the Big House on the Corner. Signalling the end of this relationship, Ferula casts her curse upon Esteban and leaves him forever.
The second relationship Esteban develops is one of love – with Rosa. Though, unlike the former, this relationship ends with Rosa passing away due to events beyond Esteban’s control. Nevertheless, it only strengthens the theme that life is cyclical, and that the inevitable end will come, no matter the decisions on Esteban’s part. To further illustrate her point, Allende ends Esteban’s relationship with Clara as well. Despite having endured the longest weathering from time, the ineluctable end eventually comes in the form of Esteban brutally striking Clara, from which time forth “Clara never spoke to her husband again” (201).
As well as Esteban’s life, the cyclical nature of life is also presented through the Del Valle line of characters and their associations with fantastical elements. It starts with Uncle Marcos, who “performed alchemy” (10), told fortune with slips of paper, had the collection of magical books, and an undying desire to fly. Then, passes on to Clara, who moved objects with her mind, talked with ghosts and accurately predicted events. And again, continues on to Nicolas, who is fascinated by the Mora sisters, practised outlandish meditations, and also had a desire to fly, which is described to have “always existed in the men of his lineage” (13). Allende uses this recurring association with fantasy in these characters to illustrate the cycle of life.
In much the same way that individual lives are cyclical, Allende also asserts that history is likely to repeat itself. This is achieved with her focus on describing a political backdrop, and the progression of the Tres Marias Haciendas. The story starts with an oppressive government. Their ruthlessness is demonstrated by the assassination attempt on Severo del Valle after he “[threw] his lot in with the liberals despite his social class” (31). As the plot progresses, the peasants become heavily influenced with Socialism ideals, causing a large scale up-rising. However, the newly established socialist government is quickly overthrown by yet another up-rising, which returns the country into an even more oppressive military dictatorship. In doing so, Allende has effectively recreated her experiences in Chile, and is in a way showing a repetition of events.
Nonetheless, the cycle of oppressive government to revolution and back again is the main depiction of a repetitive history. Furthermore, Allende’s creation of Tres Marias and its cycle in and out of ruins is another instance of a repetitive history. Initially, the Hacienda is “a lawless heap of rocks” (48), where the revolting sight of “a little boy [squatting] on the ground… to defecate” (51) shows the degree of disarray. Later on, it goes through a prosperous phase as Esteban succesfully restores it. But, during the revolution, the estate returns to its lawless former self as the peasants blocked the roads, bricked the windows and “fired [guns] into the air” (357). By thwarting Esteban’s work at restoration, Allende again shows the inescapable cycle of history.
Lastly, House of the Spirits employs intricate interconnectivity between events. Allende achieves this using the cause and effect model, where major plot events are followed by major consequences. The most significant of such a chain begins with Esteban, and his lascivious nature. Esteban’s rape of Pancha Garcia led to the conception of that “formless, gelatinous mass that he was unable to view as his own child” (62). And soon, his arrogance feeds the hatred that brewed in the young Garcia. Not only negating his right to be a Trueba, but also humiliating him, Esteban “[sends] him packing with a slap” (207) after Garcia asked for the reward for the tip on Pedro Tercero’s whereabouts. The consequence of this act is immediately foreshadowed by Allende as she describes Garcia standing “before the bolted door…weeping with rage” (208).
Ultimately, the event that completes this chain is the torture and rape that Alba receives under Garcia’s hands. A similar chain of events juxtaposed with Garcia’s shows an even more complex relationship between events. Once again, it starts with Esteban’s lust, but instead of fostering a negative consequence, Esteban’s coupling with Transito Soto is one of growth. The money that Esteban charitably gives Transito is little more than pocket change to Esteban, yet much later in the novel, the fifty centavos becomes the only reason Esteban is able to save Alba. In this way, it is ironic how Esteban’s one mistake is made up for by his other flaw. Through out the plot, these two parallel chains of events are themselves intertwined as well as with each other. Allende uses this subtle approach to effectively demonstrate how even the seemingly unrelated instances in human society are inseparable from each other.
By exploring the cyclical nature of life, the repetition of history and the interrelationship between events through the plot and characters in House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende asserts the complexity of human society. By relating the novel to her life, one finds the cause for chaos and anarchy; as Alba concludes, “revenge…[is] just another part of the same inexorable rite” (432), a terrible chain that must be broken. The irony of this revelation is that the same principles that allow human societies to function are also responsible for its dysfunctions, which again reinforces the theme of the complexity of society.