Gender Roles in "House of the Spirits"

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Gary Kong

Miss Jessica Wilkins

English A1 HL

30 March 2008

A Woman’s Worth

A summative response towards gender roles in Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits”

Critic Stephen M. Hart accuses Allende of presenting stereotypical women in her novel. He says that the women are “intuitive (telepathic), weak (they put up with thrashings from their husbands), procreative and passive… They are epitomes of the female stereotype (women as unintelligent, passive and submissive).” What do you think of this criticism?

Late nineteenth and twentieth century literature is characteristic of feminist values. These works often tend to place emphasis on gender roles, and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is no exception, which is why Hart’s criticism of the work comes with such shock. The House of the Spirits portrays its chief female characters as powerful women, while remaining realistic to the societal conventions of their times, and, in fact, while using female stereotypes to their own advantages.

Hart’s accusations are invalid due to the differences of meaning between the words ‘passive’ and ‘submissive’. While passivity equates to submission, as it implies weakness and a tendency to obey readily to the will of others, the passivity of the female characters in the work instead denote strength and wisdom in the form of personal restraint. Esteban Trueba, whose character epitomizes megalomaniac patriarchy, does not get what he wants from his relationship with his female family members, which contradicts Hart’s accusation of female submission. Women are passive, but not submissive, as they do not submit to Trueba has will.

Setting plays chief to the roles of women in House of the Spirits. The exposition of the text shows a catholic setting, in which Latin-American society is rooted upon. Catholicism encourages submission as a feminine ideal, as seen in this biblical passage from John:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

Although the Del-Valle family wasn’t Catholic, their attendance of mass for the sake of reputation places emphasis on the imposition of Catholic values in their society, which influence the lives of the female characters to a significant degree. These values of passivity and submission are imposed only among the upper class women, as they are ‘ladylike’ norms. This is apparent in seeing Transito Soto’s character, a proletarian, who is shown to be ambitious and far from passive, as seen in this dialogue:

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“I’m not going to spend my life in the Red Lantern,” she had said. “I’m going to the capital, because I want to be rich and famous.” (Allende 69)

As a teenager, Clara’s acceptance of Esteban’s marriage proposal literally displays submission on her part, but Allende develops her character throughout the work to show how first impressions may be deceiving. Her reactions to Esteban’s actions consistently give her power advantage over him, despite the patriarchal nature of their society. Esteban’s continuous desire to exercise control over her – to literally own her – is rejected through Clara’s passivity. She restrains ...

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