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One glaring aspect of The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, a fact which contributes to the book having been banned from certain schools, is the barbarism and violence of the sexuality of the males in the novel. Although its influence on the work is often overlooked due to the sexual nature of the topic, it is nonetheless important in understanding certain themes and techniques used by Allende. Allende uses tone, diction, imagery, and symbolism in varying degrees to portray the inherent barbarism of male sexuality evident particularly in the characters Barrabas and Esteban Trueba.
Barrabas, the child Clara’s pet dog, is one of the first examples of this barbarism seen in the novel. Allende’s imagery, diction, and tone demonstrate one aspect of her attitude toward the barbarism inherent in male sexuality.
Allende’s use of imagery illuminates demonstrates the amount of violence that is a natural part of the simple reproductive act that Barrabas undertakes. “He would hurl himself onto the street, overcoming every obstacle in his path […]. He always returned with the poor dog hanging off him, suspended in the air, impaled on his immense masculinity” (68). This violence and desperation is understandable, given that Barrabas is an animal, but the sheer violence is comparable to sexual acts by other characters in the novel that are human, such as Esteban Trueba. The statement that “The children had to be whisked out of the way so they would not see the horrendous spectacle of the gardener hosing the dogs down with freezing water, until […] later Barrabas [leaves] her to die…” (68) shows that the children were shielded from such blatant sexuality, as Esteban Trueba’s children later are.
Allende’s diction in this portion of the book is also enlightening. “[His] beloved, leaving her to die” (68) evinces Allende’s sardonic opinion that whatever love Barrabas might have for his lover, who is a temporary engagement at best, and a rape victim at worst, is not enough to keep him from taking her and others, ultimately causing their deaths. It is ironic that in attempting to follow “his reproductive instinct” (68), Barrabas kills the very thing that would ensure the continuation of his line Indeed, this reproductive instinct is not at all reasoned, considered, or tempered by the same compassion he shows Clara and the other family members. The use of the phrase “immense masculinity” (68) rather than penis also emphasizes the fact that Allende, or perhaps only the narrator, equates the penis as a singular source of masculinity, and perhaps links males’ actions to their reproductive organs.
The tone used when discussing Barrabas’s reproductive tendencies indicates pity and horror. Phrases such as “poor dog” (68), “many gallons and kicks and other indignities” (68), “leaving her to die” (68), and “obliged to finish her off” (68) reveal a general pity toward Barrabas’s victim and the inevitability of the situation. The inevitability of the situation is shown by Barrabas’s lack of reasoning ability, “[he] never comprehended, for example, the transparent nature of glass, and in moments of great emotion he would charge the window at a gallop, with the innocent intention of catching a fly” (68). His reaction to a dog in heat seemed similar: he charged forward relentlessly with innocent, or at least non-harmful, intentions. There is also horror at both the situation, which Allende calls a “horrendous spectacle” (68), and the death of the female, who is dispassionately finished off by Severo.
Similarities can be seen in Allende’s treatment of Esteban Trueba’s sexuality. Particularly, the imagery, word choice, and tone of sections of the book relating to Trueba’s sexuality indicate the same barbarism that is evident in the animal Barrabas. During Trueba’s first duration of country life in Tres Marías, it is remarked that he “was slowly becoming a barbarian” (49). “His horse played nasty tricks on him, suddenly becoming a formidable female, a hard, wild mountain flesh […] and he was astonished to find himself burying his face in his saddle blanket, seeking […] the sour smell of his horse’s sweat…” (49). The imagery of a man lusting after a horse in lieu of a woman promotes the image throughout the novel of males as barbarians with regards to sex. Trueba’s situation is similar to Barrabas’s inability to resist a female in heat, during which he will overcome any obstacle to obtain that female; in Trueba’s case, he eventually gives up his humanity by raping a young woman. “He bent down and removed her burden, held it in the air a moment, then hurled it violently to the side of the path” (50) and “[…] attacked her savagely […], with unnecessary brutality” (50). Again, a similar violence is exhibited by both man and animal, in which sex becomes an act of ownership. Both Trueba and Barrabas chose their victims due to the fact that they perceived an intrinsic readiness on the part of the woman, whether because they are in heat, as in the case of Barrabas, or because they are simply of an age where there is both sexual maturity and prettiness, as in the case of Trueba. Although the woman does not die, as Barrabas’s lovers do, there is a mental abandonment after the act that is similar.
Allende’s word choice in the text involving Trueba’s sexuality further reveals his barbarism by showing his mood using words that symbolize the most base of human or animalistic desires or needs. “During the night, he sweated through nightmares of rotten shellfish, of enormous slabs of raw beef, of blood, semen, and tears” (49). Raw beef symbolizes both hunger and possibly a desire for blood; the blood and semen are basic, human and animal bodily fluids, and both are associated with sex and reproduction.
The tone during such sections as, “[he] bent down and removed her burden, held it in the air a moment, then hurled it violently to the side of the path” (50) and “[…] attacked her savagely […], with unnecessary brutality” (50), gives an impression of the near-frenzy and baseness of Trueba’s need, which is similar to Barrabas’s. However, while the narrator takes a pitying tone while speaking of Barrabas’s actions, she takes a more factual approach to Trueba while still portraying the idea that he is merely a victim to his own desires and physiology. During one of Trueba’s visits with Tránsito, he describes her as “a strong mare you could ride on without giving it a second thought, who didn’t make your hands feel heavy […] or your beard too scratchy, but someone like yourself, who […] didn’t need to be rocked with tender arguments or coaxed with flattery” (102). Trueba feels a need, despite the fact that his wife is carrying his child, to release his more primitive sexual urges. It is ironic that Trueba is describing himself as a savage here, as well as Tránsito. His tone as the narrator indicates that he understands his more violent sexual nature, his more barbaric side that he cannot reveal to his wife. The fact that Trueba mentally equates Tránsito with an animal seems to have nothing to do with the fact that she is a prostitute, but rather, it seems natural for Trueba to think of things with such primitive analogies.
There is very little or no judgment of Trueba’s and Barrabas’s sexuality, as is evident from the diction used in relevant passages. The retelling of the story is either quite
factual or pitying. Although the imagery is violent in both descriptions, and despite the fact that the females involved are injured or killed, there is no condemnation of the males for following what Allende perceives to be their natures. Nor is there any exalting, however. This seems to be part of a crucial theme in the novel; all creatures should be allowed to exhibit their own natures, no matter how eccentric or violent. This is relevant to all characters in the novel.
Isabel Allende uses tone, diction, symbolism, and imagery to evince the natural barbarism in male sexuality in The House of the Spirits in a nonjudgmental manner. This sexuality, and the lack of judgment of it by Allende, serves to reinforce the theme of letting characters demonstrate their true natures without moral condemnation.