Gender Roles in "House of the Spirits"
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 from sex to reinforce that her body is of her own and not Esteban’s.
Clara refrains from indulging Esteban in sermonic quarrel and through her passivity and restraint, and through this, she shows her security as a woman who does not need to verbally reinforce her independence. Her silence also reflects control over her own ego, which she uses against Esteban. Although traditionally men would have technical ‘property’ over their wives and thus would be entitled to silence them – disallowing them to speak as they please – Clara’s restraint of speaking with Esteban reflects how she has independent control over herself, here represented by her voice and speech. Clara thus employs passivity and silence to prove herself independent and self-sufficing. She adheres to the values imposed by society, thus acting in accordance to her rightful class while avoiding any form of self-sacrifice.
Clara’s character is of particular interest as she is the only chief character who possesses telepathic abilities. Hart’s accusation of telepathy being a stereotype of women is invalid for this very reason – Clara is the only female character that possesses such abilities, and stereotypes occur with the presence of universalities among the female characters.
Hart associates this telepathy to a form of weakness due to the anti-physical nature of the ability, however, as a man; he fails to regard the fact that ‘true’ strength is mental, not physical. Twentieth century society necessitates intellectual and mental strength in getting things done as opposed to physical strength. Although Allende describes Esteban as someone of mental strength, considering his successes as a businessperson and politician that reflect his persistence and diligence, his domestic life is much less successful, due to his violent nature, which reflects weakness in his inability to practice self-restraint. It is such that Esteban’s violent nature does the opposite of what is intended, in that hitting Blanca to control her leads to further rebellion, and hitting Clara to command respect as a husband results in her silence. Physical strength is therefore conveyed by Allende as a form of anti-strength, and Clara’s lack of it – expressed by her intuition – represents her individual mental strength.
Clara’s intuition reflects the strength of passivity. As the spiritual world is completely separate from the physical world in which Esteban has ‘control’ over her, she uses it to her own advantage. Clara’s passivity in her relationship with Esteban is directly attributable to her spiritual tendencies. Her unhealthy marriage – which is largely physical in nature (her belonging to Esteban is expressed through sex) – can easily be escaped by diverting herself to the spiritual, which is not constrained by a patriarchal society. Clara’s absent-mindedness and indifference, which is shown in earlier parts of the book when Esteban experiences frustration over their marriage, is due to her spiritual abilities. She is mentally superior to Esteban as she is able to cause frustration on his part, while the opposite does not occur. Here Esteban’s frustration over Clara’s absent-mindedness is apparent:
“The more distant Clara became, the more I needed her love… I wanted to possess her absolutely, down to her last thought, but that diaphanous woman would float by me like a breath of air, and even if I held her down with my hands and embraced her with all my strength, I could never make her mine. Her spirit wasn’t with me. (Allende 177)
Despite the similar natures of Clara and Blanca’s personalities, Blanca’s personality may appear to be the weaker one, and may have been the basis of Hart’s criticism. While both Clara and Blanca accept marriages without love, the nature of Clara’s relationship with Esteban differs greatly with Blanca’s relationship with Count Jean de Satingy. While Clara had control over Esteban because of his love, such was not the case for Blanca and Count de Satingy. Clara’s passivity was successfully employed against Esteban’s activeness in trying to attain control over her. Count de Satingy’s personality differs greatly with Esteban’s in that he, too, is largely passive and is not passionately in love with Blanca. Therefore, Blanca has no harborage against him. She is constrained to marriage, but cannot do anything about it because her husband does not care.
In Clara’s marriage to Esteban, she does not suppress any part of herself as Esteban is in love with her no matter what. Conversely, in Blanca’s marriage to the Count, she suppresses her own sexuality – which is shown to be very active in her relationship with Pedro – to make the marriage ‘workable’ and thus suppresses a large part of herself, which leads to her unhappiness. Her suppression of her sexuality is apparent in this passage:
Still, from the moment she accepted the liaison with Jean de Satigny, she knew that she would never consummate the marriage. (Allende 246)
Additionally, Blanca does not possess Clara’s intuitive abilities to escape into the spiritual world where she is able pursue her own, un-patriarchy-bound interests. Passivity is shown to only be employable when the opponent is active, and Blanca simply becomes the victim of circumstance.
Although Blanca’s agreement to marry the Count may appear to reflect submission, it also reflects common sense. In believing that Pedro is dead, she sees that an unloving marriage would not be any worse than life as a bachelorette. Additionally, in accepting the Count’s hand in marriage, she avoids conflict with her father and secures a financially secure life. She submits, but only to her own benefit.
While Blanca and the Count’s marriage may seem to reflect a weak personality on Blanca’s part, her relationship with Pedro Tercero suggests otherwise. Despite Esteban’s clear prohibition of their relationship, Blanca does not submit to his will, despite her awareness of what Esteban could do. Like how spirituality empowers Clara, love is shown to be the driving force of Blanca’s personal strength. She even succeeds in imposing her will on Esteban – a very stubborn man – when she convinces him to help free Pedro Tercero. Her ‘weakness’ in the Count’s marriage is due to her lack of love, but her perseverance in her relationship with Pedro reflects how powerful she can be with love.
It is worth noting that Alba’s character lives in an era where the traditional values of society had begun to erode, as opposed to Clara and Blanca’s subjection to social limitations. Even Catholicism, which restricted the roles of women in earlier parts of the work, had begun to emancipate women, shown in Father Juan’s support of Alba’s humanitarian pursuits. She appears much stronger than Clara and Blanca even though this might not be the case. Although Alba is strong, her strength is not limited by social impositions, which may have amplified its appearance. It is also why her behavior is much more proactive than Clara and Blanca’s more subtle approaches to imposing their will unto others.
Like spirituality for Clara, and romantic passion for Blanca, Alba is driven by political pursuits. Alba opposes Esteban Trueba’s political doctrine, and harbors refugees in the house without people’s consent. Her rebellious nature is contradictory to Hart’s accusations of submissiveness.
Alba’s character is a perfectly suited example of the dual nature of passivity. Alba is an active pursuer of politics, but similar to Clara she still uses silence and passivity to her advantage. During her interrogations concerning Miguel’s location, Alba’s response of, “I want to go to the bathroom,” reflects how she uses feminine stereotypes to her own advantage. (Allende 409) The remark connotes gentleness, and passivity that are considered ideals. She resists the interrogation with the strength associated to men while remaining feminine and womanly.
The chief female characters in The House of the Spirits are apt representations of feminine ideals. They remain realistic in their womanly behavior, while displaying the emotional strength and perseverance traditionally associated with men. Although the women in the work sometimes show traces of submission and weakness, the rare appearances of these traits are vastly overshadowed by the general strength displayed by these women. Allende does not paint a black and white picture of gender roles and traits. She is realistic, in that, women, too have vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and lapses of judgment. Ultimately, The House of the Spirits does not typecast women as unintelligent, passive, and submissive. If anything, it is an anthem of how respect and will can be commanded by women even with all odds against them.
Word Count: 1852 words
Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Trans. Alastair Reed. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
"Ephesians 5:22-24." Blue Letter Bible (King James Version). 18 March 2008 <http://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/Eph/Eph005.html#22>.