The questions of gender equality and the role of women in family and society are central for Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits that was first published in 1982. Although Allende describes the life of her characters without directly naming the Latin American country they live in, it is possible to assume that the setting for the discussed events in Chile. Therefore, the analysis of how the author presents the shift in gender-related norms and principles in her novel should be conducted concerning the historical context of Chile. During the 19th century, the social and political life in Chile was mainly controlled by oligarchs’ families, and the relations in these families reflected the positions of women in Chilean society of that period. However, the situation began to change in the 20th century, and Allende’s novel allows for analyzing the evolution of gender issues in the country. The development of female characters in Allende’s novel demonstrates how gender-related views and norms were changing in Chile at family and social levels during the period of the the1800s-the 1970s from women’s subordination to their active participation in the rebellion.
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Allende’s novel starts with depicting the main characters as living according to the principles of a patriarchal family that was typical of the second part of the 1800s, and the position of Nivea del Valle seems to be inappropriate for women of that period. Nivea was a suffragette, and she was discussed by people as “the first feminist in the country” (Allende 135). Her unique position influenced the visions of her female descendants in the family, who tried to use all available means to protect their rights and interests. Even though Nivea’s daughter Clara acted almost as an ideal wife and mother according to the social principles of that time, and she was regarded as “the soul of the big house,” she used silence as her power (Allende 154). As a typical woman of Chilean society, Clara understood and accepted her role in a relationship with Esteban Trueba as a dominant husband and was focused on households.
Still, Clara’s character was rather strong, and she did not want to forgive Esteban’s violence and physical abuse. In the context of the Chilean society of the late part of the 19th century, when a woman almost could not survive without a man, Clara chose to leave Esteban after he had demonstrated his violence. Thus, Clara acted against social norms associated with gender roles, and Esteban always “realised that Clara did not belong to him” (Allende 107). Accordingly, the author depicts Clara concerning two opposite traits of her character: her focus on the family and awareness of women’s social roles and her remarkable dignity and individuality expressed in her relations with her husband.
Clara started to change typical visions of women’s roles, and her daughter Blanca demonstrated the further rejection of standard female positions in family and society. In her relations with Pedro Tercero, Blanca acted against the will of her father as well as against social norms, according to which the relationships between the representatives of different classes were almost impossible. Blanca’s father Esteban regarded her behavior as an offense for their family, and he stated that Clara with her unusual views was responsible for Blanca’s behavior. Esteban accused Clara “of having raised Blanca without morals, without religion, without principles, like a libertine atheist, even worse, without a sense of her own class” (Allende 223). Thus, Allende portrays Blanca as passionate to follow her desires, but she is limited according to social roles assigned to her because of her gender.
Later, Blanca pregnant with Pedro’s child had to choose marriage with the French count to avoid problems associated with being a single mother in a patriarchal society. However, Allende depicts all women in her novel as having a strong will, and Blanca finally chose to move to her family house and living in poverty rather than living with a husband she does not love (270-287). In this character, Allende depicts how a woman can reject material benefits in order not to betray her visions and ideas. In addition, the author also accentuates this woman’s focus on the necessity of political and social changes in the country as Blanca becomes interested in Pedro’s revolutionary ideas. Still, now Blanca was limited in her opportunities to demonstrate her wishes and views as she lived almost as a servant in her family’s house.
The key figure in Allende’s novel who illustrates obvious changes in gender roles typical of the Chilean society in the 1960s-1970s is Blanca’s daughter Alba. She became mature in the context of significant social changes, and she used the benefits of this period to receive education and to learn more about the ideas of revolutionists. In this context, Alba became socially and politically conscious; she followed a new role for women and demonstrated fearlessness during her imprisonment (Allende 369). In this female character, Allende illustrated how women’s views and roles changed in the context of the coup of the 1970s. According to the author, during that period, the traditional hierarchy of family and social relations was transformed under the impact of revolutionary visions.
Clara and Blanca are depicted by Allende as promoters of change at the level of their families where they tried to oppose traditions of a patriarchal family, but their efforts could not alter the perception of a woman in general. Alba is portrayed as belonging to a new generation of women, whose independence is accepted even by Esteban with his traditional views. Thus, Esteban said about this young woman: “it was good for men to have a wife, but that women like Alba could only lose by marrying” (Allende 353). Thus, the writer develops the character of Alba as a powerful woman not only in the context of a family but mainly concerning her social role and contribution. This change in perspective is associated with transformations in society observed in Chile in the 1970s.
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In her The House of the Spirits, Allende portrayed several generations of women from one family and represented them in the context of social realities that influenced their roles. It is possible to state that, in the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s, women in Chile were limited in their rights and opportunities for protecting their interests. However, the women from the depicted family tried to accentuate their positions and views concerning practices available to them: silence, the focus on daily routines, and passive oppression. As society developed, the portrayed women also became more active in following their desires and dreams even if they contradicted social norms. Therefore, Allende’s novel seems to indicate how the notions and norms regarding gender shifted during a certain period.
Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Simon and Schuster, 2015.