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Analysis of Writings of Allende


A Critical Analysis of the Writing Style of Isabel Allende

Memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously

----Isabel Allende

            Isabel Allende asked, “How can one not speak about war, poverty, and inequality when people who suffer from these afflictions don’t have a voice to speak?” This question encouraged Allende to give voice to the most disadvantaged members of society. In her books, characters of different races, classes, and gender are able to speak.  The life experiences have greatly shaped the writing of Allende. The close analysis of her first book, The House of the Spirits, reveals that she was a talented writer exploring the lives of the people she loved and lost. The story of her life is not easy as Allende had to overcome numerous challenges and the death of her beloved daughter.  In spite of all difficulties, she did not give up and achieved the global recognition as a prominent novelist. The novels she writes appeal to millions of readers because of the personal touch skillfully embedded by Allende into complicated stories of ordinary people.

Allende was born in Lima, Peru, in 1942 to Chilean Francisca (Panchita) Llona Barros and Tomás Allende.  The marriage of her parents was disastrous.  When Allende was born, her parents have been married for four years (Cox 1) but there was no peace in the family.  The father enjoyed an exuberant life style and lost all money in gambling. Eventually, he disappeared leaving his wife and children without any hope for better future.  Having no other choice, Francisca moved in with her parents in Santiago.  The first years of Allende’s life were marked with financial difficulties and everyday struggle to survive.  There was not enough space for the large family (Francisca had three children) and Francisca had to sleep in one room with her kids.  The life was difficult and yet Allende’s writing inspiration has evolved amidst those gray days of childhood. Despite of the “somber” atmosphere, the house was filled with the great books (Cox 2). Allende spent countless hours reading the great novels of prominent authors.  Moreover, each night, Francisca told fantastic stories to her children thus establishing “a dialogue that continues to the present day”. Today, Francisca is still the first reader and the only editor of Allende’s manuscripts.

When Allende was 11 years old, her mother married Ramón Huidobro, a diplomat, and moved with him to Bolivia.  It was not easy for Allende to accept Huidobro as a father, although many years later she spoke of him as the only father she had. Within two years, the family moved to Lebanon. Attending the local cloistered school for girls, Allende read A Thousand and One Nights, the book which uncovered the imagination of teenager Allende.  However, she had limited opportunity to explore the Eastern culture as she had to return to Chile in 1958 because of the civil war in Beirut and the conflict over the Suez Canal.  Having no other option, 16-year-old Allende again lived with her grandparents. The grandfather enjoyed traveling through Chile and Allende gladly became his companion.  Under the influence of her grandfather, Allende expanded her knowledge of her motherland. 

In 1962, at the age of twenty, Allende married an engineer Miguel Frias (Cox 3).  After the birth of the first child in 1963, Allende began translating romance novels and narrating a television show.  Being encouraged by her grandfather, Allende took a job of a journalist in 1964.  The economic independence inspired her to focus on writing for women’s magazines.   Within the next ten years Allende has been working for Paula, women’s magazine, and Mampato, children’s magazine.  Allende confessed that she was a lousy journalist as she made up quotes and materials.  The birth of the second child in 1966 did not interrupt the professional career of Allende in journalism. Moreover, the life of Allende’s family has changed for better with the election of her godfather Salvador Allende as the President of Chile. 

Willing to learn more about creative writing, in 1972 Allende met with the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who advised Allende to start writing novels (Cox 4).  Her professional growth in journalism was impressive. She worked for a television station, hosted two talk shows (humorous and interview-based), and confidently gained the popularity in Santiago.  Unlike the rest of her family, she was not interested in politics, at least as a politician.  The social problems caused Allende’s concern on the rights of women in her country.  As Allende noted, “I'd wanted to be a man since I was five”; thus, suggested that men had more rights and privileges than women. 

However, the cloudless life has ended for Allende in 1973, when she became an exile and was forced to flee Chile after the assassination of the President Allende, her godfather (Britannica).  Allende spent 13 years in Venezuela even though her heart has always been in Chile.  Led by the passion for writing, Allende worked for several newspapers and literary magazines in 1970s.  In 1979, she received a note that her grandfather was dying. On January 8th, 1980, Allende began writing him a letter, the one that later became the House of Spirits (Britannica)In the letter, she explored the characters of the members of her family and could not stop until she realized that 500 pages have been written. The book was published in 1982 and established her as a globally recognized writer.

Two years later, on January 8th, 1982, she started her second book, Of Love and Shadows. As Cox noted, Allende had a tradition of starting every novel on January 8th. When the book received positive criticism, Allende made a confident decision to devote herself to writing.  Probably, the success and recognition of Allende caused some tensions with her husband, Frias, whom she eventually divorced in 1987. A year later, in 1988, she married an American, Willie Gordon, and settled in San Francisco, United States. The Stories of Eva Luna was published in 1989. In this book, Allende explored her own life with Gordon in his chaotic household with dysfunctional children: one was living at home; the other on the streets.  In addition, Gordon had a 10-year-old hyperactive step-son from a previous marriage.  Allende devoted her book The Infinite Plan to the life of Gordon and his children.  Taking into account that Allende had three children as well; the household has never been calm.

The life of Allende has been difficult since the early childhood. However, the greatest tragedy in her life was the death of the daughter, Paula, in 1991. Paula was hospitalized with porphyria, a rare metabolic disorder, and went into coma on December 8, 1990.  A year later, on December 8th, 1991, Paula died (Cox 7).  The death of the daughter caused depression in Allende.  In her book Giving Birth, Finding Form, Allende wrote, “Then I realized that I had something inside me that was like a cavern, something empty and cold and dark that I couldn’t live with”. On January 8, 1992, Allende started writing another novel, Paula, a memoir of her daughter. The maternal love combined with the excellent writing skills turned Paula into the most popular novel of Allende. 

The recovery from depression was a long journey. As always, Allende was cured in writing.  In 1995, Allende wrote Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, a cookbook which linked sex and food. In the mid-1990s, three novels written by Allende were screened: The House of the Spirits, Listen Paula, and Of Love and Shadows (Cox 7).  It was a busy time for Allende as her popularity reached impressive heights. Her writing skills were rewarded in 1998 with the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts (Cox 7).  Two years earlier, in 1996, she founded the Isabel Allende Foundation with the aim to support women and girls in Chile and the San Francisco Bay area (Britannica). The loyalty to her motherland could not be erased even many years of living in the United States. 

Among the most recent works by Allende are such prominent novels as Daughter of Fortune 1999, Zorro, Inés of My Soul and The Sum of Our Days, and My Invented Country (in Spanish) 2003 (Cox 11). The productivity of Allende is impressive as she writes a new book yearly.  At the same time, Allende does not repeat herself in her writing and manages to create a unique story in every novel. As Allende noted, “Every book has a way of being written. Every story has a way of being told.” Regarding the writing style, Allende is afraid to confine herself to “a mere recorder of facts”; she aims at penetrating the “mystery of their origin”.  She is continuously looking for the vivid characters in thick plot lines and dynamic situations (Piña 145). The professional and responsible approach to writing, unquestionable talent, and unlimited imagination contribute the success of Allende’s books among global readers.

It is important to add that Allende’s characters are reflections of the real people she met in her life.  The real prototypes create the special bond of intimacy between the readers and the characters.  As Allende noted, characters “just walked into [her] house” embodying people she knew (Butler 1).  For example, the first Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits tells the story of two people, Esteban and Clara the Clairvoyant, who are the fictional personalities of her grandfather and grandmother (Cox 2).  In addition, while Allende has both male and female narrators, most of her novels center on strong female characters (Cox 35).  The life of Allende was not easy and it made her strong. Her novels reflect this strength through the female characters depicted by Allende. Because of the focus on female characters, Allende is considered as feminist writer. In The House of the Spirits, female heroines are strong, self-sufficient, and devoted individuals.  Allende highlights that her characters “symbolize [her] vision of what is meant by feminine, characters that could illustrate the destinies of women in Latin America” (Agosín, “Pirate” 40). 

There are many writers but there are few truly talented and skillful authors whose writings go directly to the reader’s soul.  Allende is one of such authors.  Every novel, every story, and every single character she created is a part of herself. In one of the interviews, Allende noted:  “I can only write about the things that I have experience, not exactly as I write in my books, but the feelings and the emotions of my characters are echoes of me. Some of my readers send me their lives and their stories, saying ‘You write this down as I am not a writer,’ but I cannot do this as I has nothing to do with me. So everything I write, even if it has nothing to do with me. So everything I write, even it seems very remote to my own life is based on my experiences”

            The challenges prepared by destiny for Allende made her stronger. Living though numerous problems and overcome diverse hardships, Allende did not give up but rather became much stronger while rediscovering her female sensuality.  Her strength and independence is expressed through portrayal of Eliza in Daughter of Fortune; her sensuality is uncovered in Eva Luna (Cox 10). In the preface to My Invented Country, Allende highlights, “Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one’s own circumstance and to clarify the confusion of existence, including insecurities that do not torment normal people, only chronic nonconformists, many of whom end up as writers after having failed in other undertakings” (xiv).

            The novels written by Allende are intrinsically linked with her real life.  In particular, Allende lived and traveled in many countries and her multicultural experience is revealed in the writings.  Allende possesses unique ability to find inspiration in the gloomiest environments around her and to turn the dullest themes into the fascinating plots.  In the first two novels, Allende talks about her motherland, Chile.  She describes the history of the country harshly while the landscapes are lovingly portrayed. This seemingly impossible combination of themes reveals Allende’s conflicting attitude toward Chile.  Venezuela is used as a setting for Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna while the United States is the backbone for her recent novels (Cox 10).

            As a novelist, Allende skillfully integrates her personal experiences, feelings, and thoughts into the creative writing.  Her experience in journalism enhanced her writing style by inputting the inexact recording skills.  Allende’s novels remind the imprecise reporting format.  As Mujica suggested, the novel Of Love and Shadows reads like “a police story that could have been written by a journalist” (39).   Thus, blending the unbounded imagination, creative writing skills, and professional knowledge in journalism, Allende creates written masterpieces of the real world decorated with the fictional personalities and events. 

            The best strategy to explore the personal writing style of Allende is to take a closer look at her first novel The House of the Spirits. The events of the book take place in an unnamed South American country in a multi-generational family (Cox 29).  The novel spans 75 years, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and ending in 1973 (Cox 30).  The lifestory of the three generations of the Trueba family is told through the eyes of Alba, a young woman who narrates the family history relying the tales told by her grandparents and journals to recount the time before her birth (Cox 30).  As Alba comments, the journals of her grandmother bear “witness to life” (Allende HS 368).  Allende opens the book with Clara, Alba’s grandmother, as a young psychic girl who marries an angry man named Esteban. They give birth to a daughter, Blanca. Blanca grows and falls in love with Pedro Tercero García, and becomes pregnant with his child. Her father is enraged and forces her to marry Count Jean de Satigny. Blanca gives birth to Alba. The second half of the novel covers Alba’s childhood and growth to adulthood. Throughout the book, Alba expresses her opinion on the political and social climate surrounding her life (Cox 33). Being in love with Miguel, Alba becomes politically active. Because of her beliefs, she is kidnapped and tortured. This experience inspires Alba to tell her lifestory to others (Cox 34).

            Even with the minor knowledge of Allende’s biography, it is impossible to neglect the striking similarity between Alba’s story and Allende’s childhood in Santiago. As Cox suggested, the novel The House of the Spirits is the fictional representation of Allende’s own family (30). Drawing on her personal experience, Allende focused on strong women. Even the choice of the names for female characters uncovers their strength: all the Trueba women are named after the color white in Spanish symbolic of their ability to cleanse the corrupt Trueba men (Cox 35). Pinto assumed that Allende wanted her female characters to have “the purity of facing the world with new eyes, free from contamination, without prejudice, open and tolerant” (79). Throughout her life, Allende proved her ability to carry on in the face of devastation. The House of the Spirits illustrates this theme in the final scene when Clara comes as a ghost to dying Alba and says, “Since death [comes] anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle” (Allende HS 351).  Thus, instead of falling deeper into depression, Alba finds the forgiveness and understanding in writing a book. 

The novel The House of the Spirits is filled with the unconditional love and respect of Allende toward her grandfather.  Talking about the novel, Allende noted, “My grandfather thought people died only when you forgot them. I wanted to prove to him that I had forgotten nothing, that his spirit was going to live with us forever” (Shapiro 145).  The novel is the written expression of her respect and love to her grandfather. 

The life of Allende was not always cloudless. Since the early childhood she learned about poverty, betrayal, family values, and, of course, writing. Reading the old books at the house of her grandparents, Allende did not expect to become of the most prominent novelists of modernity.  Inspired by the environment and encouraged by natural creativity, Allende writes masterpieces that speak directly to the heart of the readers. The personal life story laid into the foundation of her novels leaves unforgettable impression.

Isabel Allende is undoubtedly one of the most prominent authors in contemporary literature.  She does not aim at becoming popular as the primary focus is done on sharing the story of her life with others. Allende writes with passion and devotion and her unmasked sincerity appeals to the readers.  As Allende noted, “You are the storyteller of you own life and you can create your own legend or not.”  The life and novels of Allende show that she has indeed created her own legend.

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