EXPLORING THE MASCULINE AND FEMININE IN ISABEL ALLENDE’S
THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS
By Jodi Denny
Old Dominion University
Copyright (c) 1997 Jodi Denny
This document may not be reprinted without the permission of the author.
For permission, contact: [emailprotected]
Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits is woven with dichotomy. Opposing forces are juxtaposed: rich and poor,
good and evil, political left and right, birth and death, and the forces that will be explored in this paper, the masculine and
feminine. The masculine and feminine are equal in importance to the world of the novel, indeed, the existence of one depends
on the existence of the other. The danger lies in the fact that the masculine overshadows the feminine so much that the existence
of the feminine is threatened. If ?women are a nation’s primary, fundamental root from which all else grows and blossoms? (Ba
61), this threat to the feminine is a threat to the world of the novel itself. The novel illustrates the dangers of an imbalance of the
masculine and feminine within the individual, the family, and nation.
This paper will explore the concepts of the masculine and the feminine within the novel in the context of Carl Jung’s theory of
the anima and animus. Jung recognized distinctive features in the psyche of men and women. He analyzed these differences in
his study of the anima and animus. The anima is the personification of the feminine nature of man’s unconscious; the animus the
masculine nature of a woman’s unconscious. In her book Women in Twentieth Century Literature: A Jungian View, Bettina
L. Knapp explains that ?Jung believes the woman’s psyche to be the adverse and reverse of the man’s — complementary to his.
He has remarked time and time again that Eros, or the principle of relatedness and feeling, is dominant in the female; that
Logos, the analytical way, the power to discriminate and judge is supreme in the male? (6). Jung’s theory says that logic and
objectivity are usually the predominate features of a man’s outer attitude, or at least regarded as ideals, and in a woman it is
Marian L. Pauson elaborates on Jung’s concept of the anima and animus in Jung the Philosopher: Essays in Jungian
Thought. She asserts that the animus pole is often projected in different media as ?directed, didactic, forceful, functional,
rational, and serious? while the anima pole is projected as ?fanciful, imaginative, colorful, lyrical, light, intuitive, decorative, and
amusing? (97). On a deeper level, she discusses the emotional tension of the polarities within the masculine and feminine, their
shadow and transcendence. The shadow of the anima is manifested as ?irrationality and chaos;? the transcendence as
?inspiration and intuitive vision.? The shadow of the animus is manifested as ?cruelness, cunning and brute force?, the
transcendence as ?practical wisdom? (98).
Jung asserts that these opposing natures can come together in an individual’s search for ?selfhood,? which represents a balance
between the opposing forces within the personality. This results in what Jung calls androgyny: individuals who have fully
developed both the masculine and feminine aspects of their personality. The manner by which these opposite natures can be
reconciled into wholeness is called paradoxical unity (Walz). Jung claims that ?life is founded on the harmonious interplay of
masculine and feminine forces, within the individual human as well as without? (Bennet 128). Jung seems to suggest that a
reconciliation of these opposites within the self, and within the larger realm of society, is necessary in order to obtain peace and
enlightenment within both, is necessary as a foundation for life itself.
Whether Jung’s cited differences in the male and female psyche are psychologically innate or whether they have been inscribed
on the collective conscious by patriarchal dominance is debatable. It would be sexist, indeed, to define certain traits as purely
masculine or feminine. Obviously men don’t have the exclusive right to logic and thought nor women to emotion and intuition.
Many feminists have criticized Jung’s definitions of the masculine and feminine. In Jung and Feminism Demaris S. Wehr says
that ?Jung defined the feminine largely in terms of receptivity? and remarks that some people ?reject Jung’s notion of the
feminine and its corresponding receptivity. They argue that Jung is stereotyping women once again, depriving them of being
agents in their own right? (6). Others believe the opposite, that feminine receptivity ?is a quality much needed in the world, and
that it is a form of empowerment? (6).
The point of this paper is not to argue the etiology of these differences or to place a moral judgment on either gender, but to
demonstrate how the Jungian concepts of the masculine and feminine apply to the world of The House of The Spirits: how the
masculine and feminine elements manifest within individual characters and the effects of these individuals on the society in which
they live. The novel suggests that an integration of these elements is necessary in order to obtain harmony. By weaving fiction
and fact within the novel so delicately, Allende explores the implication of this integration of masculine and feminine forces in the
real, tangible world, particularly in Latin America.
The House of the Spirits revolves around the Trueba and del Valle families and spans almost a century, starting at the
beginning of the 20th century. It chronicles several generations of family and national history and takes place in South America,
but a specific country is never mentioned in the novel. Allende reports that her ?ambition was to paint in broad strokes a fresco
of all Latin America? (Meyer 239), although there are obvious inferences to the ousting of Chilean President Salvador Allende
(Isabel Allende’s uncle) and the subsequent military takeover and dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile during the 1970s. The novel
focuses on the lives of Clara del Valle and Esteban Trueba, wife and husband, and illuminates the effects of their actions on
individuals, family and nation. The family saga is told through the journals of Clara and presented by her granddaughter, Alba. It
is sprinkled with commentary from Esteban Trueba, the reactionary patriarch of the family.
The point of view of the story itself represents a unification of masculine and feminine elements. The narration is a
complementary combination of the perspectives of Clara and Esteban, the primary representations of the feminine and
masculine within the novel, and brought together by Alba, who, at the end of the novel, demonstrates a strong and healthy
integration of the masculine and feminine within the individual. The point of view also balances the masculine and feminine in that
it prominently offers a woman’s perspective on reality. The majority of the narration comes from Clara’s journal and is
presented by Alba. Alba has control of the narration. This offsets the ultimate patriarchal control of the social and political
worlds of the novel.
Allende employs the genre of magical realism to present fabulous and fantastic events in a narrative that maintains an objective,
realistic report. Ruth Jenkins, in her article ?Authorizing Female Voice and Experience: Ghosts and Spirits in Kingston’s The
Woman Warrior and Allende’s The House of the Spirits? contends that Allende uses the genre of magical realism to reveal
alternative experiences that formal realism can neither portray nor contain sufficiently, and while present in both male- and
female- authored texts, the use of the supernatural by women may also serve as a specific rhetorical strategy both to expose
and counter the androcentric social and literary scripts that circumscribe ?acceptable? behavior. (61)
The ?alternative experience? to which she refers is the feminine. Like the prominent female point of view, the use of magical
realism serves to compensate for the overabundance of the masculine in the social and political worlds of the novel.
Allende also uses the genre of magical realism to demonstrate the integration of the anima and animus in one entity. The real and
the magical are juxtaposed in the novel, corresponding to the rational and the irrational, the masculine and the feminine,
respectively. The magical becomes an integral link to the survival of the real. This is demonstrated when the spirit of the
deceased Clara comes to Alba in the ?doghouse,? the solitary confinement cell of the concentration camp, and saves Alba’s life
by inspiring her to transcend her situation, the suffocating quarters, her hunger and pain, and construct a safer reality within her
mind. The spirit of her Grandmother Clara appeared with the novel idea that the point was not to die, since death came
anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle. . . [she] brought the saving idea of writing in her [Alba’s] mind, without
paper or pencil, to keep her thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live. (414)
Esteban Trueba is the masculine archetype in the story and represents an individual with an overabundance of the animus. He is
the principal male character in the story. In the course of the novel, Trueba increases his power in the world as he progresses in
status from conservative landowner to powerful senator. He is tyrannical, treating his family members and the tenants on his
family hacienda, Las Tres Marias, like subjects rather than intimate community. The basis for most of Trueba’s actions is a
desire for power, control, and wealth, and he pursues these things at any cost, disregarding the effects of his actions upon the
people in his life. Trueba is successful politically and financially, but he suffers emotionally. In his book Landmarks in Latin
American Literature, Philips Swanson confirms that ?Trueba’s commercial and political climbing is matched at every state by a
decline in his emotional fortunes? (240). As we see Trueba’s wealth and power grow, we see his relationships with his family
members and tenants crumble. Trueba disregards the feelings and the dignity of his tenants. In his need to control, he censors
the tenant’s education ?for fear they would fill their minds with ideas unsuited to their station and condition? (59). He controls
the way they spend their money by introducing a voucher system which ?at first functioned as a form of credit, but gradually
became a substitute for legal tender? (60).
The most brutal display of his power and control are the many rapes he executes on Las Tres Marias:
. . . not a girl passed from puberty to adulthood that he did not subject to the woods, the riverbank, or the
wrought-iron bed. . . he [Trueba] began to chase after those from the neighboring haciendas, take them in the
wink of an eye, anywhere he could find a place in the fields. (63)
Trueba rationalizes away his guilt, absolves his sins by ?harden[ing] his soul and silenc[ing] his conscience with the excuse of
progress? (63). His actions, however, come back to haunt him later in the novel, when the product of one of his rapes, his
illegitimate grandson, Esteban Garcia, becomes a leader in the military regime and captures his beloved Alba, who is tortured
and raped by Garcia’s men. The act of rape becomes a motif in the novel, symbolizing the dominance of the masculine, its role
in the oppression of the feminine, on an individual level and a larger societal level. We see a collaboration of the masculine in the
pursuit of this oppression in Esteban Trueba, wealthy landowner, member of the oligarchy, and Esteban Garcia, a tenant,
member of the military regime. We also see that Trueba’s conquests provoke ?jealous admiration among the men of his class?
Trueba also desires control over wife and granddaughter. This creates tension between the intellectual and the emotional, the
masculine and the feminine, primarily in Trueba’s relationships with Clara and Alba, the most important women in his life. He
wants ?control over that undefined and luminous material that lay with her [Clara] and that escaped him? (96). His unconscious
need to experience the anima within his psyche is projected as a need to control Clara, who embodies the feminine. Trueba
tries to rationalize Alba’s actions when she participates in political activities: ?she took it into her head to help fugitives get
asylum in foreign embassies, something she did without thinking, I’m sure? (418). Trueba can’t understand thinking from the
heart, until he must rescue Alba from the militants and he experiences thinking from the heart himself. The tension within his
psyche erupts at that point, and only then is change possible.
Trueba succeeds in his terms of wealth and power, ?becomes the most successful patron in the region? (62). There are many
positive aspects to his success. He improves the standard of living of his tenants, provides food and shelter, ?built brick houses
for his workers, hired a teacher for the school,? and offers medical care. Objectively, intellectually, these things are wonderful
for the tenants, but Trueba denies the tenants their dignity and humanity while he raises their standard of living. His rationale is
. . . these poor people are completely ignorant and uneducated. They’re like children, they can’t handle
responsibility. How could they know what’s best for them? Without me they’d be lost — if you don’t believe me,
just look what happens every time I turn my back. Everything goes to pieces and they start acting like a bunch
of donkeys. They’re very ignorant. My people have it fine now, what more do they need? They are everything
they want. If they complain, it’s out of sheer ingratitude. They have brick houses, I blow their kids’ noses and
cure their parasites, give them vaccinations and teach them how to read. (64)
He meets the rational, physical needs of the tenants, but disregards their emotional needs and their dignity, their equality as
fellow human beings. We see the positive aspects of Trueba’s successful business ventures and politics in that they allow his
family and tenants to live comfortably; he meets their basic physiological needs quite nicely, but fails miserably when it comes to
their emotional needs, and this eventually has an effect on his own emotional health.
We see evidence of Trueba’s emotional decline in that as his power increases ?his bad temper becomes legend, and grows so
exaggerated that it even makes him uncomfortable? (63). It is interesting to note how Trueba fits into Jung’s analysis of a man
with an overdeveloped animus. According to Jung’s theory, the mother is the origin of the anima quality in man. We are told that
Trueba ?had never really loved his mother or felt at ease in her presence? (71) and that she had ?peopled his childhood with
prohibitions and terrors and weighed his manhood with responsibilities and guilt? (72). Like his relationship with his mother,
Trueba’s anima is underdeveloped, and his animus overcompensates for this. Trueba’s temper is legendary; he is described as
his most salient trait was his moodiness and a tendency to grow violent and lose his head, a characteristic he
had had since childhood, when he used to throw himself on the floor foaming at the mouth, so furious that he
could scarcely breath, and kicking like one possessed by the devil. (41)
In his book What Jung Really Said, E. A. Bennet claims the following about the animus:
Jung asserts that an overdeveloped animus manifests when a man accepts the masculine role almost too
thoroughly and everything feminine may become taboo. Nevertheless he cannot alter his nature completely.
There remains in him his feminine side, and if this be repressed in favor of masculinity, his anima may appear in
irrational moods, in peevishness or bad temper, and not infrequently in sexual deviation, often associated with
immature emotional development (122).
Trueba’s moodiness and temper are manifestations of ?an unconscious effort to bring about self-regulation through
compensation? (Bennet 122). After all we’ve learned about Trueba it is obvious how the above applies to his psyche, but we
can also see how is applies to society itself. The society which exists in the novel represses the feminine nature, oppresses
women, ropes them into patriarchally defined roles. Eventually, like the earthquakes in the novel, this tension festers and erupts
in the form of the dictatorship, a power that destroys and devastates.
Clara is the feminine archetype and demonstrates an overabundance of the feminine. At times she operates almost completely
on intuition and possesses supernatural powers that enable her to interpret dreams, predict the future, and move objects with
her mind. These powers can’t be explained by reason or intellect, and they are associated only with the female characters of the
book, until the crisis action, when Trueba begins to accept the feminine within himself.
Clara does not learn practical, domestic tasks because of a nine-year period of her childhood in which she does not speak. She
decides that ?speaking [is] pointless? (73) after she is traumatized by witnessing the embalmment and sexual molestation of her
sister’s corpse. This silence is voluntary, the family doctor ?declared that her case was not within his province to cure, since the
child was silent because she did not feel like speaking, not because she was unable to? (73). Swanson asserts that Clara
?converts the traditional concept of feminine coyness and passivity into an act of will? (241). She turns silence into something
dynamic, something that motivates those around her and fosters the development of her intuitive powers. It becomes a powerful
coping mechanism for Clara throughout her life, ?her last refuge? (113). The notion of silence as inherently passive is turned
upside down; silence becomes assertive, powerful. One could also interpret this silence as a symbol of the patriarchal definition
of female passivity, even a mimicry of what is deemed feminine. An overabundance of this aspect of the feminine, as exemplified
in Clara’s prolonged silence, is unhealthy for the individual and the society, and fosters the stereotype of the passive female.
It is important to note that the event which inspires Clara’s silence is the rape of a dead female, her sister Rosa, who embodies
the feminine even more than Clara. In life and death, Rosa possesses a preternatural beauty, mermaid-like qualities. This
provides more symbolic representation of how the masculine in this society violates and stifles the feminine.
Clara’s supernatural powers can be interpreted as a characteristic of the feminine. Jung’s theory of syncronicity supports this
assertion. Synchronicity occurs when dreams, visions, and premonitions have a correspondence to external reality. It bridges
the unconscious, which is associated with the feminine, and the real world (Walz). Clara’s prescience is a manifestation of the
feminine within the individual. Jenkins confirms this when she asserts that ?the supernatural is closely linked to the female voice. .
. spirits provide authority for articulation and identity. Such authority . . . proves a genuine challenge to patriarchal authority?
(69). Examples of this challenge can be seen in the way some of the men react to Clara, particularly men related to the church
and government, institutions where the masculine runs amok. Father Retrespo, the fanatical parish priest, says that Clara is
?possessed by the devil? (7). Clara’s father, Severo del Valle, fears that his daughter’s powers will affect his political future and
he ?forbade her to read the future in cards and to invoke ghosts and mischievous spirits? (77). Esteban Trueba also realizes that
his wife’s special abilities have the power to affect his future in politics and insists that she only express her spiritual side, thus
her femininity, in the domestic sphere. This is symbolic of the way the society of the novel restricts the feminine to the domestic
Clara’s powers increase with the onset of menstruation, which emphasizes their connection with the feminine. She can ?predict
the future and recognize people’s intentions? and develops the ability to ?move objects without touching them. . . [she] was so
accomplished that she could move the keys on the piano with the cover down, even though she never learned to move the
instrument itself around the drawing room? (77). Here is representation of the imbalance of the rational and the irrational within
the feminine. Clara can play music on the piano with her powers, which provides pleasure, but she can’t move the piano, which
Clara is not docile, at times she participates actively in the lives of her family and society, but during these times her special
Clara immerses herself completely in helping those in her community, in one instance she tends to the poor in a task that had
neither beginning nor end. . . she left the house early in the morning and at times returned close to midnight. She emptied the
wardrobes of the house, taking the children’s clothes, the blankets from the beds, her husband’s jackets. She paced up food
from the pantry. . . to distribute among the poor. (135)
We see Clara operating from her heart, her actions exemplify the connectedness of the feminine. Clara is described as the ?life
of the house,? and reigns over the domestic sphere like a ?small, happy, toothless queen? (210).
In light of the complexity of the character of Clara and her activities, I must disagree with Patricia Hart in Narrative Magic in
the Fiction of Isabel Allende, when she asserts that Clara ?is an essentially passive human being? (52). The text of then novel
proves otherwise. As shown above, Clara is active in many ways, particularly in her connections with other human beings. Hart
erroneously suggests that ?her passivity in a metaphorical sense is closely related to and excused by her clairvoyance? (52). On
the contrary, Clara’s powers are more of a representation of the power of the feminine, rather than a negative, disabling aspect.
The feminine remains passive in the family and society because of the dominance of the masculine, not because of Clara’s innate
passivity. Furthermore, passivity itself is not a characteristic of the feminine. To assert this buys into the patriarchally inscribed
definition of the feminine. Hart criticizes Clara further, insisting that she uses her prescience as ?a tool to get her own way? (52)
and to try ?to appear important by intuiting something that everyone else already knows through observation? (52). This
degrades the character of Clara unjustly. Clara’s prescience is presented throughout the book as something real, other people
see the effects of her powers, it is not contrived. It is a representation of the power of the feminine in an individual.
However, at times Clara indulges in her supernatural powers to a point where they become debilitative and affect her ability to
function in the real world. We see the detrimental effects of an overabundance of the anima in an individual when Clara uses her
powers to escape reality and in the process neglects her family and community. At one point in the novel Clara grows
?increasing remote, strange and inaccessible? (127). She seeks ?God through Tibetan sciences, consulting spirits with a
three-legged table that gave little jolts — two for yes, three for no — deciphering messages from other worlds that could even
give her the forecast for rain? but she is ?incapable of braiding Blanca’s [her daughter’s] hair for school? (127) Her obsessive
involvement with her powers prevents her from functioning practically. During these times, Clara floats through life on a
?sailboat on a sea of calm blue silken water? (96). She is associated with this image throughout the book, particularly when she
is immersed in her supernatural powers.
The incredible knowledge to which her powers allow access give her the potential to act in many ways, to affect great change in
the world, but she doesn’t use them to enact change. Instead she clings to the ideas of fate and destiny. This is where I would
accuse Clara of passivity, but this passivity is not related to her prescience, it is related to the traditions of the culture, traditions
prescribed by the patriarchy, traditions that limit her action to the domestic sphere (which includes her charitable activities), the
only realm in which the feminine is traditionally allowed within the world of the novel. Her granddaughter Alba, on the other
hand, rejects the idea of fate and takes control of her own destiny and her country’s destiny.
Clara is a powerful force. She holds the family together, is described as ?the soul of the big house on the corner? (283). When
she dies the house ?loses its flowers, its nomadic friends, and its playful spirits and enters into an era of decline? (283). The
anima, which is the Latin word for ?soul? and ?breath of life,? departs with Clara. Jung says that women ?merge things together
rather than separate them? and that their ?moon-like consciousness holds a large family together regardless of all the
differences? (Walz). When Clara, the feminine archetype, dies, the spirit of the house disconnects, separates.
It is no accident that Clara’s death coincides with the political unrest in the country and the rise of the militant government. We
can symbolically connect these two events, the feminine grows weaker while the masculine strengthens, representing the
continued masculine domination of the feminine on individual, social, and political levels. Fortunately we see an uprising of the
feminine in Alba, an individual who fights for the feminine and tames the masculine in social and political realms. We can also
see an uprising of the feminine in the solidarity of the women prisoners on the concentration camps.
Alba is the daughter of Pedro Tercero, socialist revolutionary singer, and Blanca, Esteban and Clara’s daughter. Alba emerges
as the hero archetype, the savior. The union of Blanca and Pedro Tercero represents many paradoxical unions: rich and poor,
conservative and socialist, and the masculine and feminine. The product of their union is Alba, who represents the amalgamation
of the masculine and the feminine, a paradoxical unity.
Alba is a woman who acts outside the domestic realm. While Clara acted within her assigned roles, Alba gets involved in the
political activities of the Socialist party. She participates in student protests, steals food from her mother’s stockpile during the
military siege to give to the poor, she even smuggles weapons out of her grandfather’s arsenal, which were originally collected
for the right-wing government, and passes them on to the socialists to use in defense of the people. She risks her life by
?secur[ing] asylum for those in danger of death? (378). She actively participates in the revolution, acts decisively, rationally, for
the good of her country and in the name of humanity for its people. She uses her reason and rationale to accomplish deeds in
the name of humanity, connection. She combines the best of both of her grandparents, the masculine and feminine archetypes.
She represents a new breed of woman in the world, one that effects change outside of what the patriarch has deemed
appropriate, but without sacrificing her connection to emotion. Those in power on the left and right, led by the masculine
elements, attempt to enact change for what they think is the good of the country, but they do so without humanity. They do so
at the expense of the dignity and welfare of the citizens of the country.
It is important that the person in which these masculine and feminine elements come together is a woman. The masculine has
been dominate in the political and social worlds of the story. The figure of Alba represents the emergence of the power of the
feminine in these worlds.
Another aspect of the story that suggests balance is possible is the progressive change in Esteban Trueba. By the end of the
story, Trueba is operating through his emotions rather than his logic and reason. During the military takeover, Trueba’s son
Jaime is killed by the new government. Trueba does not want to believe that the government he has supported could be
involved in such an act, so he denies the news. But when Jaime never turns up, Esteban turns to his intuition:
In my deluded solitude, I sat waiting for my son in the armchair of my library, my eyes glued to the doorsill,
calling to him with my mind, as I used to call for Clara. I called him so many times that I finally saw him, but
when he came he was covered with dried blood and rags, dragging streamers of barbed wire across the waxed
parquet floors. That was how I learned that he had died exactly as the soldier reported. (376)
This begins to change his attitude, his rationale. He says ?only then did I begin to speak of tyranny? (376) and admits error,
says that ? I began to think I had been wrong to do as I had? (377) in supporting the military government. He recognizes the
importance of intuition at this point and the importance in can play in our own decis