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Psychological Criticism in Allende’s “The House of Spirits”


The novel called The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende gained an immediate attention for the reading audience at the international level. Its popularity is predetermined by the multidimensional representation of political, historical, and cultural context where the author manages to perpetuate the part of Chilean history of the twentieth century by engaging the events of three generation of the Trueba family. It is also a bright cultural representation of political and ethnic aspect taking place in that period. Despite the author’s flashback to the documented moment of the history, The Spirit of the House is first of all psychological representation and development of the characters that is blended with the political undercurrents and fantastic impregnations to the novel.

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In this novel, Allende applies the method of magical realism to render her ability to present a thought-provoking and imaginative account involving the description of memorable characters and images in her own, unique manner. Therefore, the author is more focused on the reflecting the psychological portraits of the protagonist through the expressions of feelings and deeds and through the investigation of the appeared conflicts and relations within the family. The psychological atmosphere is sustained by the rendition of fictional elements that interpret the psychological and symbolic elements. Apart from this, through this novel, the author attempts to render her own feelings and individual characteristics by self-portraying the main-heroine.

Psychological Criticism

Probably, there is scarce numbers of attempts to characterize the novel trough the psychological approach. However, an in-depth study of its tools and theoretical framework shows that Allende has managed to instill persuasive psychological elements into the literary work. In this respect, psychological criticism as theory of literature attempts to provide a psychological portrait of the writer trough the novel, to investigate the nature and character of the creative writing, to outline the laws occurred in the literary works. More importantly, this theoretical approach also studies the psychological effects of literature upon its readers (Griffith 187).

While investigating the psychological analysis in literature, one cannot omit the Freud impact on it. Despite the idea that not all ideas relate to the literary environment, three ideas remain attached to Freudian critics, such as “the dominance of the unconscious mind over the conscious, the expression of the unconscious through symbols… and the primacy of sexuality as a motivating force in human behavior” (Griffith 187). In addition to this all the concept are closely interconnected with each other. According to Freud, sexual guides are encapsulated in the unconscious that is repressed by the conscious mind whereas unconscious symbols are usually revealed by the repressed sexual desire.

Freudian supporters perceive literature as dream and source of insights into an individual author. With regard to psychological approach, the works of literature are perceived as symbolic interpretations of authors’ subconscious mind – the psychological image of writers. The correspondent principles are also used to explore and depict the characters in literary works. In particular, the authors regard characters in the light of their motivations, conflicts, inclinations and desires as compared with the real people. They are in the constant search for logical clues to create the portrait of character detected in dreams and mode of behavior.

All these aspects can also be found in Allende’s The House of the Spirit, particularly the unique creative process, the vivid character development, the self-portrait of the author, the primacy of sexuality, and the prevalence of the unconscious mind (Griffith 188).

Analysis of Allende’s Novel through the Prism of Psychological Criticism

The Uniqueness of the Creative Process and Symbolic Meaning

The process of writing is also presented as one of the subject of the novel thus introducing the meta-textual method. Hence, Isabel Allende addresses her unique process of creating the novel with notes of fiction. From the first lines of the novel, the readers can pursue this original technique of writing:

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Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters and afterword, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own (Allende 1).

The above words beginning the narration are repeated in the end of novel but in the reverse order. Here first-person narration is presented by Alba, one of the main heroines of the novel, in the epilogue and prologue of the novel. Such a circular structure together with the use of future tense, disengage reader from the concrete time, which is replaced by the so-called literary realism. The first lines of the novel also allow the reader to sense the psychological characteristics and symbolic representations. The introduction of Clara – as “the matriarch of the Trueba family” is achieved through the engagement of the biblical figure Barrabas personified in the giant dog (Cox 31). Barrabas symbolizes the spirits of freedom, independence, and rebellion with which Clara and all female protagonists are endowed.

In whole, the absence of the chronological order and linear progress in the novel emphasizes the importance of psychological expression and individual characteristics of the heroes. The author tries to involve the readers into analyzing the characters and their qualities.

The novel is also full of symbolic images. In the novel, Esteban Trueba builds the house on the corner, which is depicted as magnificent and straightforward. In the same way, The House of the Spirits can be read as a conventional and even classical romance novel accounting on a single family in the course of several generations. In the end of the novel, Esteban’s house acquires sophisticated and psychologically colored additions. Despite its traditional structure, the novel comprises a plethora of complicated details of the plot. Therefore, the title of book provides a double association: on the one hand, The House of the Spirits addressed the book in general, and, on the other hand, is associated with the big house on the corner that is inhabited with spirits and ghosts that are called up by Clara.

Psychological Representation of the Self-Portrait

Allende’s novel also discloses the author’s characteristics being particularly embodied into Alba, which also participates in narrating the story. The account on the three generations of the novel is closely intertwined with Allende’s life and family. The author’s touch is also seen in presenting the dominance of women in the story over the men. Hence, all the women are fearless and strong who do not want to bow to violence and mistreatment. They are also opposed to aggressiveness and cruelty of men instead revealing purely female qualities, like gentleness and calmness. The feminist topic reflects the psychological features of the author who was also willful, independent, and self-reliable (Boynton and Main 58).

Vivid Development of the Characters and Events

As it has been mentioned before, the priority is given to the description of females’ qualities and activities. The generalized female image serves to render the vision of femininity and to explain the role and essence women’s character in Latin America (Cox 36). In this respect, Clara, the youngest of Nivea’s children presents “the soul of the corner” who guards the house and family stability (Allende 240). Viewing Clara from Freudian psychological theory, Clara is a complicated personage being full of contradictions.

At a first glance, she seems to be fragile and malleable child whose girlhood is spent in silence. However, a closer consideration reveals that this woman is fully captured by the spirit world, the unconscious world where she is able to predict the future, and accomplish dreams. With regard to her supernatural activities, the reader can sense her complicated character the deeds she experiences and the thought she bears in mind.

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In contrast to Clara, her daughter Blanca is more attached to the material world – “the only normal person for many generations…a miracle of equilibrium and serenity” (Allende 123). Like all normal people, she experiences love and sufferings, pain of parting, and reconciliation with the destiny. She sharply opposes her mother thus representing of the material and idealistic world. Finally, Alba represents the hidden desires her mother and grandmother had been striving for the whole life.

The male protagonists of the novel manifest the restricted choice of masculine roles acceptable for this period cultural development. They represent the traditional image of Hispanic men thus conforming to Freudian characteristics. Throughout the novel, we can see the dominance of their physical desires of power and possession. Through the representation of these personages, the author reveals the topic of hatred and loneliness, obsession and revenge.

The Unconscious Mind and the Primacy of Sexuality

In the novel, the male protagonist Esteban Trueba is depicted as “the feared but finally benevolent patriarch, as man possessed of an out-of-control sexuality” (Allende and Rodden 46). Beside Esteban Trueba, his illegitimate son, Esteban Garcia is the replica of his father, who takes the revenge by raping his granddaughter. The theme of sexuality and hidden sexual energy is more typical of male part of the novel. The power and domination of men her is also depicted through sexual violence. This is brightly viewed on the example of Clara and Esteban marriage where Esteban is obsessed with his desire of physical possession of Clara who humbly subject to his will.

Pertaining to the unconscious mind technique, it is revealed throughout the entire novel by means of representation of symbolic retreats. For instance, the unconscious stream of thought is assigned to Clara who is detached from the reality who can predict all the event happened in her family. Her calling up to ghosts and spirits of the past and future symbolizes her inside psychological world and her behavior toward the material world.

Magic Realism as the Way of Rendering the Atmosphere of the Novel

As a proof of how the magical realism is presented in the novel can be perceived through the following quote:

At birth Rosa was white and smooth, without a wrinkle, like a porcelain doll, with green hair and yellow eyes – the most beautiful creature to be born on earth since the days of original sin, as the midwife put it, making the sign of the cross (Allende 4).

Rosa derived from the double nature – real, material world, as it is perceived by the characters in the novel, and idealistic world, as it is perceived by the readers. Despite her unnatural beauty, she had to face the real events and conflicts in life in the realistic way.

Allende’s The House of the Spirit is often associated with the work of Garcia Marques called One Hundred Years of Solitude – the outright example of such literary styles a magical realism. This explains the presence of many magical realist events and descriptions in Allende’s narration, which is trivialized by the attitude of the characters towards those phenomena who avoid trifle problems by using their supernatural skills.

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Magical realism, therefore, can represent a psychological image of the female part in the novel, which impairs the domination of men in Chile (Bowers 73). In this respect the author argues that that magical realism “is a form of feminist criticism of the patriarchal control over the women’s lives”, which is termed as magical feminism (Bowers 73). In other words, supernatural powers possessed by women are a kind of attributed advantage over the male violence and cruelty. In this way, Clara and Blanca attempt to free themselves from their passivity and neutrality thus compensating their poor emotional world.


The House of the Spirits is a unique novel, where it is possible to observe different theoretical frameworks and literary techniques applied to render the main idea and the complexity of the plot and event. However, one of the prominent approaches used by the author is psychological criticism that conveys the psychological portrait of the narrator, the common rules, and methods applied in the novel, and dominance of the sexual behavior and concealed desires manipulated by the male characters in achieving their goals. It should be also stressed that such style as magical realism also contributes to the representation of unconscious mind and human behavior.

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel, and Rodden, John. Conversations with Isabel Allende. US: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. US: Bantam Books, 1986.

Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magical realism. NJ: Routledge, 2004.

Boynton, Victoria, and Malin, Jo. Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography: K-Z. US: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.

Cox, Karen Castelluci. Isabel Allende: a critical companion. US: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.

Griffith, Kelley. Writing Essays about Literature: a guide and style sheet. US: Cengage Learning, 2005.

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