Our January Pick: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Our pick for January is The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's award-winning debut novel. Allende is a Chilean-American novelist who lives in California, and has published more than 21 books, many of which are critically acclaimed. After rejection from numerous publishing houses, The House of the Spirits was finally published in 1982. The book was originally conceived as a letter to her dying grandfather, and established Allende as a "feminist force in Latin America's male-dominated literary world." In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the "highest civilian honor in the U.S."

Follow Allende on her blog, Twitter, Facebook, and website. You can watch her TED talks here.

From Goodreads:

In one of the most important and beloved Latin American works of the twentieth century, Isabel Allende weaves a luminous tapestry of three generations of the Trueba family, revealing both triumphs and tragedies. 

Here is patriarch Esteban, whose wild desires and political machinations are tempered only by his love for his ethereal wife, Clara, a woman touched by an otherworldly hand. Their daughter, Blanca, whose forbidden love for a man Esteban has deemed unworthy infuriates her father, yet will produce his greatest joy: his granddaughter Alba, a beautiful, ambitious girl who will lead the family and their country into a revolutionary future.

The House of the Spirits is an enthralling saga that spans decades and lives, twining the personal and the political into an epic novel of love, magic, and fate.

1) CLASSISM: Class struggle is a major theme throughout The House of Spirits. The poor/ peasants vs. the rich/land-owners is highlighted, with the members of the del Valle/Trueba family falling in different categories during different times. Which characters side with the poor? Which characters side with the rich? How much does who they side with have to do with their gender, upbringing or current status?

2) INDIGENEITY/RACE: "Indians" are referred to throughout The House of the Spirits.One notable portrayal is of the incompetent servants in Jean de Satigny's house. What do you think the portrayals of indigenous people say about race and colonization from Allende's point of view and in Latin America overall?

3) ABLEISM: The House of the Spirits refers to "mongoloids" as products of incest, and as Blanca's clay students. Did you find the novel to be problematic in regards to ableism or is it fitting for the time/place/narrative?

4) ROMANTIC FRIENDSHIPS: Ferula's relationship with Clara is quite detailed and shown as being a passionate devotion to her, or a "romantic friendship". There are also innuendos that it was a sexual relationship. Do you believe their relationship was one or the other? Why do you think so many novels blur the lines between the two, and hint at lesbianism but aren't explicit? Do romantic friendships between women exist?

5) RAPE CULTURE: There is a lot of violence against women in this novel, and Esteban Trueba is one of the lead perpetrators. In Chapter 2, page 74, it says "When there were no more available women in Tres Marías, he began to chase after those from the neighboring haciendas, taking them in the wink of an eye, anywhere he could find a place in the fields, usually at dusk. *He did not bother to hide, because he was afraid of no one.* On a few occasions, a brother, father, husband, or employer showed up at Tres Marías to call him to account, but faced with his uncontrolled violence, these visits in the name of justice or revenge became less frequent". How do you think this relates to rape culture in our present day? Are rapists held accountable? Which rapists do not have to bother to hide and get impunity?

6) SEX WORK: Transito Soto is involved in many of the key plot points of the House of the Spirits, as is prostitution/sex work. What do you think the book's position is on sex work-- is it perceived as valuable or honourable? Why or why not? How is Transito Soto portrayed- is she a favourable character?

7) FEMINISTS?: Would you say the female characters are feminists? We know that Nivea del Valle (Clara's mom) is a sufragette and openly known as a feminist, but what about Clara, Blanca and Alba? Why or why not? Do the women hold the power in the family or do the men? Overall, does the book seem feminist?

8) POLITICAL OPPRESSION & ACTION: The women in the book face a lot of political oppression and adversity throughout. Are they also politically active? What do you think about how the political actions of men are contrasted to the political actions of the women? How do the male politicians (Estebans, Pedro, Miguel) view the women's ability to endure and act against political oppression?

9) GENDER X CLASS: The House of the Spirits shows women of many different classes/statuses. How does the book's treatment of characters such as Pancha, Amanda, Ana Diaz and Transito Soto versus the wealthier Trueba women illustrate the intersecting oppressions of gender and class? Or, in other words, who gets the rougher deal? Does being of a higher class always help the women? How do gender and class factor into who gets held captive/trapped and who experiences power and freedom?

10) EMPATHY FOR ESTEBAN: Esteban Trueba is the only character to consistently narrate in the first person. Through the 3rd person narration (later found out to be Alba!), we also find out that Trueba is extremely violent against women, both raping and beating them. Did his 1st person passages make you feel empathy for him? Do you feel he showed remorse or regret? Why do you think he got to narrate in 1st person while Alba narrated only in 3rd person?

11) PREGNANCY: The story focusses a lot on pregnancy at all stages - birth control, abortions, and childbirth. How were each of the three options (preventing pregnancy, ending pregnancy, completing pregnancy) presented? What did you think about Amanda's abortion? Why do you think Allende focussed so much on these topics?

12) PROS VS CONS: What did you like about this book? What did you find challenging about this book? Did you like how it was written- how the narrative contained foreshadowing and flashbacks? Did you like the language that was used - did you find it beautiful, descriptive, gratuitous or graphic? Did you enjoy its genre of magical realism?

13) REVENGE & FORGIVENESS: In the epilogue, Alba does not hate Esteban Garcia for raping her, because she sees is as his vengeance against her grandfather for raping Pancha, Garcia's grandmother. Do you think Alba should forgive Garcia? This is one of many times where a woman has to "take the fall" for a male character. Why would Allende include that?

14) SEXUALITY: Sexuality is a big part of this novel. Why do you think that is? What did you think about the language used for descriptions of sex throughout, as well as the many different forms of sexuality shown? Wtf was going on with Jean de Satigny in his photography room?

15) WRITING: Writing is very important in this novel, being used as both personal and political testimony. Alba says that she writes the book to help her "reclaim the past". Do you see writing as an important tool for the feminist movement? Has writing helped you personally or politically? Do you think it can re-shape or reclaim your past?

Discussion Questions for The House of the Spirits are written by Alice, of TOFemCo's Underwire Podcast. Feel free to use for your own personal discussions, but please credit us if you re-post or publish them elsewhere.

Have you read the book? We'd love to hear from you! Let us know what you think in the comments.

TOFemCo Book Club
TOFemCo Book Club 14 members
TOFemCo [tee-oh-fem-co], also known as Toronto Feminist Collective, is a group of women and non-binary identified people who are passionate about intersectional feminism. We are rooted in the heart of Toronto. TOFemCo first began in spring 2015 as a book club where feminists who like to read could discuss a variety of books using a feminist lens and a sense of humour. Since then, we have grown into a community that supports each other, shares communal meals at monthly potlucks, plans social gatherings for Toronto feminists, and attends community and activist events. Members of TOFemCo are the hosts of the podcast Underwire: Support for the Girls. In our book club, we read a variety of books by a diverse group of authors. We strive to be a trans-inclusive, queer-positive, anti-racist and anti-oppressive space for all feminists who are interested in good reads, good conversations and good laughs. We do not shy away from controversial issues or debates, as long as the conversation is respectful of others.

Books we've read

Milk and Honey
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
The Complete Persepolis
The House on Mango Street
The House of the Spirits
Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
My Brilliant Friend
The Round House

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