Magic empowers women in la casa de los espiritus

In Isabel Allende’s first novel, La casa de los espíritus the reader is introduced to her use of magic as a means which enables women to feel “sustained in times of difficulty” and which “provides them with a power base” (Bennett, C. 2003:174). Interestingly, the women’s connection with the spiritual and magical stands in contrast to the men’s rejection of anything that doesn’t adhere to their strict perception of morbid reality.

Therefore, Allende quite clearly outlines “magical properties as essentially feminine” (Shaw, D. 997:116) and spirituality in all its forms as a “province of the female of the species” (Hart, S. 2005:275) only. It can be argued that women and magic are inconsequential in a society dominated by masculinity, the military and an overall patriarchal culture. Nonetheless this essay will aim to address the question whether or not women are empowered by magic in Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus and evaluate the other means with which women escape and fight the difficulties of living in a society which repeatedly undermines their importance of existence and takes advantage of them.

Initially, it seems that despite their connection to the spirit world and magic, the women’s and especially Clara’s clairvoyant abilities are rarely seen to be very beneficial to them. Stephen Hart comments that “women are unable to stop the ravage and carnage that men and politics wreak” (Hart, S. 2005:276), introducing the idea that women’s intuition, spiritualism and magic aren’t very valuable assets. According to Caroline Bennett, however it is important to note that “neither are they harmful” (Bennett, C. 2003:173).

This is emphasised in various instances when the reader is informed that ‘Clara the Clairvoyant’s abilities “se manifestaban casi siempre en asuntos de poca importancia” (La casa de los espíritus, 17) and the reader also becomes aware that even if they were matters of importance, she would usually be ignored by the males, “Clara predijo que el caballo iba a voltear a Luis, pero éste se negó a escucharla y desde entonces tenía una cadera desviada” (La casa de los espíritus, 18). Instances of magic and spiritualism are also often juxtaposed with the mundane.

One example being when Clara invites the Mora sisters to her house “para invocar a los espíritus e intercambiar cábalas y recetas de cocina” (La casa de los espíritus, 137), the effect is almost comical and seems to emphasise the women’s triviality in the eyes of society. The author may therefore be commenting on the difference between men and women, criticizing the patriarchal society in which men represent a mainly destructive force. The women on the other hand are often victims of this but unable to stop them- despite having magic on their side.

The above all points to the conclusion that the women don’t have much use for magic- let alone are empowered by it. It is necessary to note, however that there may be other, less obvious uses for magic which don’t eminently effect people’s lives but much more serve as a way for a woman to “free herself […] by the only path possible” (Allende,I. 1984: 41) from the patriarchal society of 20th century Chile. Below I will outline some of the empowering aspects that magic has on women in La casa de los espíritus.

In Allende’s novel it is their spirituality and connection to the mystical that allows the women to escape the controlling tyranny of men. According to Deborah A. Shaw, spirituality is seen “as a form of feminine resistance” which “can be used to ward off the evil spirits of patriarchy” (Shaw, D. 1997:116). This resistance is most clear in Clara who “conocía el significado de los sueños” (La casa de los espíritus, 87), “veía el futuro” (La casa de los espíritus, 88) and is able to “mover objetos sin tocarlos” (La casa de los espíritus, 89).

It is through this clairvoyance and her long spells of silence -“decidió que no vale la pena hablar” (La casa de los espíritus, 85) – that Clara is able to leave her husband at a complete loss in his determination to make her “dependiera completamente” (La casa de los espíritus, 139). Though some critics are of the opinion that Clara is a passive character and her silences aren’t exactly magic, Marjorie Agosín argues that Clara “chose silence not out of passivity or fear but rather because that was the only way for her to create her own space composed of hidden signs and signals” (Agosín, M. 984:36). It therefore represents a place for her to be alone with the spirits and creates a safe haven away from the destructiveness and aggressiveness of her husband. Even though Agosín’s statement rejects Clara’s passivity, it is possible to disagree on the basis that “she did not have sufficient information, and possessed neither the power nor the tools necessary” (Allende, I. 1984:41) to bring about her liberation-therefore she was forced to refer to what can be read as passive resistance.

As a result of this, Esteban is unable to connect with her and soon realizes that “Clara no le pertenecía y que si ella continuaba habitando un mundo de aparecidos […] lo mas probable era que no llegará a pertenecerle nunca” (La casa de los espíritus, 108). Interestingly Clara’s dwelling in her intrinsic reality and lack of engagement in political matters juxtapose to the orientations of her granddaughter. Alba has a more pro-active and emancipated personality “turned […] toward work, politics and the preoccupations of present-day society” (Allende, 1984:40).

When compared to Alba’s mother and especially her grandmother Clara, this pro-activeness instead of passivity can be seen as a representation of the changes in society throughout the course of the novel as well as that of the 20th century. Allende’s novel thereby shows how through the generations, the women of the del Valle family become more active and assertive in matters previously reserved for the males of the species.

Furthermore, it should be mentioned that despite the women’s development through the generations, they still have magic (or the memory of it) to fall back on in times of need. When Alba is being tortured by Colonel García for example, she finds refuge when Clara appears to her and “trajo la idea salvadora de escribir con el pensamiento” (La casa de los espíritus, 434). Thanks to her grandmother’s ‘magic’ she is therefore able to psychologically escape her brutal surroundings and no longer allows herself to be terrorized by García- she is ““más allá de su poder” (La casa de los espíritus, 435).

This brings up the notion that regardless of being more extrinsically oriented than her grandmother, Alba nonetheless draws strength from her memories of Clara, “la persona más importante […] y la presencia más fuerte de su vida […]. Ella era el motor que ponía en marcha y hacía funcionar aquel universo mágico […] (La casa de los espíritus, 297). The women in the novel are therefore able to maintain the ability to escape and fight male dominance throughout the generations thanks to their spirituality and magic, in a society which initially deems “silence as the appropriate expression of female experience” (Jenkins, R.

Y. 1994:63). A very relevant aspect on the topic of female empowerment through magic is Ardener’s diagram (1972- artfully recreated by me, 2013) which shows the relationship between the dominant and muted group, in this case males and females respectively: According to Elaine Showalter, the riffled crescent of the red circle represents the “wild zone” (Showalter, E. 1981:200) which falls outside of the dominant male’s control and/ or ability to understand, the area which is “defined and maintained by men” (Showalter, E. 981:198). Caroline Bennett therefore argues that the “wild zone” can be understood to “represent magic in the novel” (Bennett, C. 2003:184-175). Whilst it is quite easy to agree with that- as even the novel’s main male protagonist, Esteban García is of the belief that “la magia, como la religion y la cocina, era un asunto propiamente femenino” (La casa de los espíritus, 148)- it leaves unmentioned all of the other aspects which can be seen to empower women throughout this novel.

The aforementioned aspects (apart from magic) which empower women are numerous and as D. Shaw notes, “Allende’s heroines are successful because they are able to engage with material reality when required by circumstances” (Shaw, D. A. , 1997:116). Despite being the most spiritually oriented character of Allende’s novel, Clara also finds refuge and a sense of purpose through her charity, “una tarea que no tenía principio ni fin” (La casa de los espíritus, 147), working herself to exhaustion in the only effort she felt capable of to redeem social injustice.

Furthermore she is spatially empowerd through the constant reconstruction of “la gran casa de la esquina” (La casa de los espíritus, 106), which ends-up “convertida en un laberinto encantado imposible de limpiar, que desafiaba numerosas leyes urbanísticas y municipales”(La casa de los espíritus, 105). Through this, she is able to construct not only her own space in her mind but also physically distance herself from her husband, whom she never spoke to again after he “descargó un puñetazo en la cara a su mujer” (La casa de los espíritus, 214).

Furthermore it is the women’s solidarity and interconnectedness which helps them feel empowered. When Alba is at her weakest and being tortured, she is helped by a fellow compañera, Ana Díaz who “ayudó a resistir” and is described as “una mujer inequebrantable” (La casa de los espíritus, 432). These above points emphasise the fact that although magic is effective and empowering within what Showaltar describes as the “wild zone”, it is only one form of resistance which allows the women to be less affected by the male- dominated society. Therefore it is only a refuge, not power.

C. Bennett goes on to add that magic “hovers between a female utopia and a prison-house”, a symbol of women who have “colluded in their subjection” (Bennett, C. 2003:179). Another important point which must be mentioned in female empowerment through magic is Clara’s notebooks which ‘bear witness to life’ as well as Alba’s later participation. In an interview with Magdalena García Pinto, Allende describes how Esteban is the “spinal column of the novel” whose narrative is representing the “voice from the outside, always trying to construct the world” (Allende, I. 1991:80).

Through Esteban’s objective and factual accounts, the reader becomes aware of the overriding female narrative,( constructed through Clara’s and Alba’s notes) which “combines the commonplace and the scatalogical, the sublime and the mythic, the past and the future, the realistic and the hyberbolic” (Davies, L. 2000:65) and thereby “is telling the underlying story, not the story everyone can see” (Allende, I. 1991:80). Through doing this, the narrative suggests that “telepathy, spiritual empathy, female comradeship all melt into each other; the spiritual and the physical are seen as one” (Hart, S. 005:175). Through this blend of realities in their recording of history the women are able to “empower their voices” (Jenkins, R. Y. 1994:66) as it acts as a “counter current to the province of patriarchal control” (Jenkins, R. Y. 1994:70). The result of this is that women are empowered through their inclusion of magic in history which allows the reader to “ver las cosas en su dimensión real” (La casa de los espíritus, 453) and helps Alba as she states that Clara’s notes allowed her to “rescatar la memoria del pasado y […] sobrevivir a mi propio espanto” (La casa de los espíritus, 11 & 434).

In conclusion, women are empowered through magic in La casa de los espíritus, however mostly in a marginal and passive form of resistance to patriarchal society (within the “wild zone”). Other aspects, like female comradeship, writing and political engagement also serve as empowering features and additionally evoke more of an active engagement in life, rather than a passive submersion into the spiritual world. It seems that Allende’s aim might have been to emphasise the importance of feminine resistance within the dominating, male-centered society which defined Chile throughout the 20th century and in parts, still does today.

References/ Bibliography: * Allende, Isabel. La casa de los espíritus, 6th ed. , Published by: Random House Mondadori, Barcelona. 2012. Print. * Agosín, Marjorie. “Pirate, Conjurer, Feminist- Interview 1984”. Conversations with Isabel Allende. Rodden, John (ed. ) Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1999. 35-42. Print. * Bennett, Caroline. “The Other and the Other-Worldly: The Function of Magic in Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus”. Isabel Allende. Bloom, Harold, (ed. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003. 171-182. Print * Davies, Lloyd. Isabel Allende, La casa de los espíritus. Critical guides to Spanish texts: 66 London: Grant & Cutler, 2000. Print. * Hart, Stephen M. “Isabel Allende” The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel. Kristal, E. (ed. ) Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 2005. 270-282. Print. * Jenkins, Ruth Y. “Authorizing female voice and experience: Ghosts and spirits in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Melus 19. 3, 1994:61-73. Web. Accessed at: http://www. jstor. org/stable/10. 2307/467872 * Shaw, Deborah A. “Isabel Allende- Chilean Prose Writer” Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature (ed. ) Smith, Verity. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. 115-117. Print. * Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist criticism in the wilderness. ” Critical Inquiry Vol. 8 No. 2, University of Chicago Press, 1981:179-205. Web. Accessed at: http://www. jstor. org/stable/10. 2307/1343159

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