The House of the Spirits

Magical novel explores personal, political passions.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Isabel Allende's first novel, The House of the Spirits, tells the story of four generations of a land-owning family in postcolonial Chile. The novel incorporates many elements of magical realism (it blends supernatural occurrences with realistic events). It's easy to separate the fantasy from reality, however, and readers will learn much about the history of political movements and power shifts in Chile from the early 20th century through 1960s. Specifically, readers will see why an oppressed underclass of people embraced Marxism or socialism, why and how the patrons (land owners) struggled to preserve their way of life, and how the brutal military police was able to take power. The novel also reveals a great deal about the role of religion, and gender and class struggles, and the ways these evolved over time.

Positive messages

There are equal parts love and suffering in The House of the Spirits, but there's an amazing amount of hope even in the most dire situations. Charity is also prized very highly in this novel; most of the main characters are devoted to doing good works to feed, heal, and shelter the poor. And familial love eventually triumphs over any grudges or philosophical differences.

Positive role models

The three generations of women who appear most in The House of the Spirits -- Clara (grandmother), Blanca (mother), and Alba (daughter) -- are generous, caring women who devote themselves to their loved ones and to helping the needy in their community. Jamie, one of Blanca's twin brothers, is a good-hearted doctor who puts healing far ahead of financial gain.


The House of the Spirits includes a lot of interpersonal and political violence. A young girl is traumatized when she sees her older sister cut open by a doctor doing an autopsy. A family pet is stabbed. A woman is decapitated in a car accident. A father beats his wife and his teenage daughter, and attacks the daughter's boyfriend. Many women are raped. Political prisoners are tortured, murdered, and in the case of female prisoners, raped. A powerful earthquake results in destruction of property and loss of thousands of lives.


The House of the Spirits tells about romantic sex between truly loving couples, but also sex with prostitutes, and violent sexual acts (see "Violence" section). A landowner rapes and impregnates several young female tenants. Male sexual desire is described on several occasions, including a young man with violent and sexual feelings for a young girl. Couples make love with or without benefit of marriage, and one becomes pregnant. A young wife discovers she's married to a sexual deviant who takes lewd photographs of servants performing sex acts. A married man visits brothels where there are female and male (homosexual) prostitutes. An abortion is described in detail.


Profanity used in House of the Spirits include the words "s--thole," "son of a bitch," "bastards" and "damned." Also, women are called "whores," and one is called a "dyke," and male homosexuals are called "fags."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Brandy and wine and consumed by adults. Two young adults smoke marijuana together. A kind doctor helps a woman recover from drug addiction.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Isabel Allende's magnificent novel The House of the Spirits tells the story of four generations of a family in postcolonial Chile, using the literary device of magical realism. The book delves deep into the intersection of complex personal and political issues during a time of warlike struggle between Marxists on one side and capitalists and militarists on the other. There are numerous incidents of rape, torture, and murder, many times (but not always) in the context of the political power struggle. Unrelated to politics, there are a number of unsavory sexual situations: one character photographs deviant sex acts, and some characters have sex with prostitutes (heterosexual and homosexual prostitutes are mentioned). Loving couples have sex as well, within and without marriage. Other potentially disturbing content includes a detailed description of an abortion. Alcohol is consumed, a couple of people smoke marijuana, and a doctor helps one woman recover from addiction to what seems to be heroin.

Kids say

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What's the story?

THE HOUSE OF SPIRITS takes place in Chile and tells the story of four generations of characters, beginning with the intersection of the del Valle family and the Trueba family before the start of World War I. As a young man, Esteban Trueba becomes engaged to the beautiful Rosa del Valle, who looks strikingly like a mermaid. Later, Esteban becomes a wealthy landowner, or patron. He eventually marries Rosa's sister Clara, the youngest of the wealthy and politically active del Valles, who communicates with spirits and can see the future. Esteban becomes a senator, but his way of life is threatened by political war between the right-wing conservatives he supports and the Marxist underclasses, and then by a violent government takeover by militarists. Meanwhile, the Trueba children follow very different paths in their choice of lovers and careers. Two generations -- Esteban and his granddaughter, Alba -- tell their family's story, which intertwines with the story of Chile's 20th century political struggles.

Is it any good?


Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits is epic in its personal and political scope, and in its sheer beauty. Her elegant prose weaves easily between the two different points of view in the book: the patriarchal grandfather clinging to the past, and his forward-thinking, soft-hearted granddaughter. All of Allende's characters are complex and beautifully realized. This brilliant novel is a great literary achievement on every level, as it seamlessly intertwines the characters' personal and political passions and the momentous events of their times. 

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about Isabel Allende's use of magical realism  the blending of supernatural and realistic fictional elements. Do you believe that Clara could talk to spirits? Why do you think the author added this fantastical quality to The House of Spirits?

  • Talk about the ways gender/sex roles change over time in the book, and the ways they don't.

  • Can you see why an oppressed underclass of people would embrace Marxism or socialism?

Book details

Author:Isabel Allende
Genre:Historical Fiction
Topics:Magic and fantasy, Brothers and sisters, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Random House
Publication date:April 12, 1985
Number of pages:448

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Parent Written byblessedtobeamom March 23, 2014
age 17+

Graphic sexual content is too much

Allende is a very descriptive writer, and that is what should cause parents concern about their teens reading the graphic sexual content in this book. In addition to the items mentioned by the reviewer above (and there are many instances of what she has mentioned), there is a brutal rape of a virgin teen, sexual perversion with a corpse (that is observed by another character in the book who is left mute after witnessing this scene), and the molestation of a 6 year old girl that are described in more detail than is necessary or appropriate for teens. The main character is driven by sex throughout the entire book and it is graphically described - not images that are healthy for teens. Allende herself, in a recent letter posted on the School Library Journal website, says, "Since today TV series, movies, videogames and comics exploit sex and violence, including torture and rape, as forms of entertainment, I don’t think that young adults will be particularly offended by the strong scenes from The House of the Spirits". Her words should be a warning to all parents to read this book before you consider allowing your teens to read it. I know many parents and teens that don't consider sex and violence, torture and rape, as a form of entertainment.
What other families should know
Too much sex


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