Is Isabel Allende A Feminist English Literature Essay

The online dictionary defines feminism as the ‘belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’ While radical feminists believe that in order to fully achieve equality a total overthrow of the current patriarchal system and a total social reorganisation is essential, most feminists simply believe woman should have access to all the things to which men have access.

It has been widely discussed whether Isabel Allende is, herself, a feminist and whether her novel The House of the Spirits is promoting feminism or whether it is, in fact the opposite and Allende is simply reinforcing traditional stereotypes. Isabel Allende is by no means a radical feminist; whilst implying as she does that the patriarchal society in which the women in her novel are oppressed, must be overthrown and reorganised, she is still presenting a feminist story where the assertive women do not bow to their male counterparts, and they are constantly striving for their independence. The women throughout the novel are unconventional and seek freedom from the men who mistreat them. They want to break the restrictions placed upon them by the patriarchal society, such as marriage to a suitable person, rather than to the one they love. The focus of the story follows the female lineage through the family promoting their equality through their intellect, love and morality. Allende does use the role of women in her novel to present her own feminist viewpoint, but does that make her “a feminist”?

The women in The House of the Spirits are complex yet vibrant characters who retain that focus throughout the novel. Although there are many men who feature in the story, their roles primarily revolve around the female characters. Comparisons have been made between the characters of Nivea, Clara, Blanca and Alba in the novel with the different stages in the women’s movement during the same time in Chilean social and political history [3] . It can be clearly seen that it is Nivea, who promotes feminist causes, who represents earlier movements of women’s suffrage, while Clara instead chooses to focus her desires on being equal in her own home. She constantly faces battles for freedom with Esteban who continuously tries to repress her. Blanca unlike her mother is more active in her quest for freedom. Although she does not openly revolt, she often rebels against her father’s decisions. The character of Alba represents women in the time of the sexual revolution who went against conservative values and were much more experimental and adventurous [4] . All of these women are able to defy the patriarchal system in different ways. Whilst Nivea and Alba are more active than Clara and Blanca, they embody the change from the campaign for suffrage by middle and upper class women, to the central incorporation of women in the revolt against the militant government. Although women are not totally liberated at the end of the novel, women are accepted and included much more in society.

Clara is an example of a strong willed independent woman who does not allow her husband to have total control over her. Clara’s husband Esteban repeatedly abuses her and attempts to dominate her; however she never actually allows him to do so. While protecting her daughter, Esteban slaps Clara and to punish him for his betrayal, Clara vows to never talk to him again. Although her silence can be seen as a weak attempt at defying her husband, it is in fact a powerful weapon against him, with which she can truly overpower her husband. While Esteban remains infinitely stronger and more physically powerful, it is Clara’s psychological power over Esteban which is long lasting and therefore more dominant. Although he may be able to physically overpower her, Clara is the one who holds the control in their relationship. The pain that Esteban feels during the time in which Clara refuses to acknowledge him, is far more agonizing and frustrating than anything Esteban could do to Clara. It has been commented that if Clara were truly a feminist seeking independence, then she would seek to divorce her abusive husband; however the time in which the story is set, divorces would not have been accessible. Allende is trying to convey an authentic presentation of life during the early twentieth century in Chile, whilst still allowing the women in the story to resent the enforced restrictions placed upon them.

Another independent woman in the novel is the daughter of Clara and Esteban, Blanca, who also refuses to submit to traditions and is defiant of her father. During the story Blanca falls in love with a worker in her father’s mine named Pedro Tercera. Despite his lower class standing and her already arranged marriage to a suitable man, Blanca resists her father’s wishes as long as she can; although when violently beaten by her father she gives in and marries the Count despite not loving him. Blanca is another example of Allende’s feminist outlook in that there is more to life than rules and social class. Although Blanca has wealth and a good social standing, she constantly defies her father, choosing freedom instead of money and power. Blanca is forced into marrying someone she does not want to be with. Blanca’s refusal to remain in her arranged marriage, reinforces her rebellion against her father and against traditional values. Although Blanca’s actions are limited she still does what she can without being totally disowned by her father, to be with the man she loves. Although she is married to the Count, Esteban cannot stop Blanca from being with Pedro and she ultimately ends up in the arms of her true love showing that not even her father’s physical violence can keep her under his control. The fact that Pedro is the father of Blanca’s child Alba, despite not being able to be with him, is proof that Blanca is still in control and that her father cannot dominate every aspect of her life.

Alba, is perhaps the most radical of all the Del Valle- Trueba women. She embarks on a relationship with a leftwing radical named Miguel. Their sexual relationship, despite their not being married, shows how Alba is able to break tradition and be with the man she chooses. Alba unlike the previous generations of women is able to live as she pleases, happily with the man she loves. However when Alba directly defies the government, she is arrested and forced into a prison camp where she is repeatedly abused physically and sexually. Again this highlights the injustices women constantly faced during this time when they were used at a man’s will. At the prison camp the women are able to group together and support one another through their tortures. Despite her horrific experiences at the camp, Alba shows great moral character and decides to keep the unborn child inside her, which could potentially have been fathered by one of her rapist attackers. Alba shows enormous strength and compassion knowing exactly the social consequences which would follow if she were to have a child out of wedlock, especially if it was the child of a rapist. Because of this, Allende is able to present the warmth and love of a woman. At the same time, she is also able to portray someone who is able to make decisive choices showing that women are not weak and incapable.

Allende’s presentation of the oppression faced by women, with the constant themes of rape, prostitution and domestic violence, enables women to reclaim their unspoken voices. Throughout history women have been silenced and forgotten, as men have had total control throughout society and politics. Allende is able to draw upon her own experiences living in Chile and documents well the underlying issues of gender inequality throughout social and political areas. Allende is able to take some of this oppression and injustice to which women have been subjected, and put it at the forefront of her story, bringing publicity to a previously unspoken area. She cleverly addresses the struggles faced by women to obtain equality and independence over their own lives whilst at the same time still presenting a captivating storyline during key points in Chilean history.

Arguments have been made against Allende’s perceived feminism. Some may criticise her feminism by claiming that the women are not so active or empowered, but that they are simply coping with the situations they face as best they can. With the example of Clara’s silence, it is not so much that she does not wish for him to be able to dominate her or mentally touch her, but that divorces were not obtainable, and thus silence was the only way for her to separate herself from him. However it is evident throughout the novel that Clara is strong and independent, and because she can see the future, she can change it and shape it however she can. She is by no means a passive women who chooses to idly sit aside and let her husband dictate rules to her. It can also be considered that Allende is not trying to be feminist; that she is simply documenting a combination of her own upper middle class experiences with a female point of view; that she is not trying to liberate the women in her story. However this is also a weak analysis. Although it is true to say that Allende has drawn upon her own experiences which would have been limited to traditional conservative viewpoints, Allende is also trying to show the repression women constantly face by this traditional patriarchal system. That women are constantly abused and dictated to; that women not allowed to make their own decisions; that women are forced to submit to the will of men simply because society views them as inferior. It can be seen as a woman-centred response to the paradigmatic text of magical realism; Gabriel García Márquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude [5] .

It can be clearly seen that Isabel Allende uses the roles women to convey her own feminist viewpoint. Allende, being one of the first female writers to enter into the literary boom in Latin America, cleverly exposes the injustices of women and how women were forced to act in certain ways because of their male domination. However, her story also shows the ways in which women could try and resist this domination; that even when repressed and abused, these women could still not be defeated. Whilst Blanca is forced to marry a man of her father’s choice, her father cannot dictate who she shares her body with. The blatant contrast between the strong willed women and the traditional values of the patriarchal system are constantly clashing. However the women in the novel never give up; they never give in to their oppressor’s cruelty. Alba although raped and tortured does not give in and remains strong. Allende, like her characters, is empowered through writing and recording of her own history, and the history of Chile [6] . She is a feminist in so far as she presents women as the stronger sex who are able to triumph despite the patriarchal society in which they live. However it is so much more a story of victory through and over adversity, rather than a radical feminist tale.

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