Retrato En Sepia Analysis Essay

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Isabel Allende 1942-

Chilean novelist, short story writer, memoirist, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Allende's career through 2001. See also Isabel Allende Criticism (Volume 97).

Respected today as one of the icons of contemporary Latin American literature, Allende documents the tumultuous social and political heritage of South America in her prose and memoirs, most notably in her first and best-known novel, La casa de los espíritus (1982; The House of the Spirits). Allende frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her relatives in Chile to examine the violence and repression that characterizes much of Latin American history. Adopting the hallmark style of the 1960s Spanish American literary “boom” era, Allende's writing style integrates conventional realism with elements of fantasy and hyperbole—also known as “magic realism.” After moving to the United States, Allende began incorporating the cultural aspects of California's diverse Hispanic population into her prose. Widely translated around the globe, Allende's fiction has enjoyed international popular and critical acclaim, particularly with feminist scholars.

Biographical Information

Allende was born in Lima, Peru, where her father was a Chilean diplomatic attaché. Although she eventually lost contact with her father after her parents divorced, Allende attended social events with his extended family during her childhood. This family network included Salvador Allende, her uncle and godfather, who served as president of Chile from 1970 to 1973. Raised in Santiago, Chile, Allende lived with her maternal grandparents, who later became models for the patriarch and matriarch of the family whose history is chronicled in The House of the Spirits. Traveling in South America, Europe, and the Middle East as an adolescent with her mother and diplomat stepfather, Allende eventually returned to Chile and took a job as a journalist, working on television programs and appearing on newsreels. From 1967 to 1974, Allende worked as an editor and staff writer for Paula magazine, writing a number of feminist articles as well as a recurring satirical column known as “Los impertinentes” (“The Impertinents”). In 1973 Allende's life abruptly changed when General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte led a military coup that resulted in the assassination of her uncle and the overthrow of his socialist government. Allende stayed in Chile for several months after the takeover, assisting the opposition to Pinochet's regime, until her own personal safety was jeopardized. In 1974 Allende escaped with her family to Caracas, Venezuela, where she wrote for the newspaper El Nacional. She eventually relocated to the United States and later held teaching positions at the University of Virginia, Montclair College, and the University of California, Berkeley. Allende's literary career grew out of a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, a nearly one-hundred-year-old man who had remained in Chile. Although Allende never sent the letter to her grandfather, her memories of her family and her country were later transformed into her first novel, The House of the Spirits. Throughout the 1980s, Allende published a variety of novels and short story collections, including De amor y de sombra (1984; Of Love and Shadows), Eva Luna (1987), and Cuentos de Eva Luna (1989; The Stories of Eva Luna). In late 1991, while preparing for the publication of her novel El Plan Infinito (The Infinite Plan), Allende was notified that her daughter Paula had suddenly developed medical complications due to porphyry, a genetic disorder. Paula lingered in a coma for a year, during which Allende rarely left her side, until Paula eventually died in 1992. Allende later documented this period in her memoir Paula (1994). Since Paula's death, Allende has published several works, including Afrodita: Cuentos, recetas y otros afrodisíacos (1997; Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses), a selection of essays, short stories, and recipes, as well as the novels Hija de la fortuna (1999; Daughter of Fortune) and Retrato en sepia (2000; Portrait in Sepia).

Major Works

The House of the Spirits is set in an unnamed South-American country that is recognizable as Allende's home country of Chile. The plot recounts the experiences of four generations of the del Valle/Trueba family, set against the backdrop of Chilean politics from the turn of the century up to and including the coup that brought the military regime to power in 1973. Although not overtly autobiographical, The House of the Spirits derives much of its inspiration from the experiences of Allende's family and from her own memories of the house in which she was raised. The novel's two central characters are Esteban, a passionate and violent landowner-politician, and his clairvoyant, kindhearted wife, Clara. Of Love and Shadows begins with a journalist, Irene Beltrán, who is accompanied by a freelance photographer, Francisco Leal, on assignment to write a story about a fifteen-year-old peasant girl alleged to possess miraculous powers. Unexpectedly the pair find themselves involved in a confrontation with the military police, whereupon Evangelina, the peasant girl, disappears. Irene insists on trying to find the girl, and in the process, she and Francisco uncover evidence of atrocities committed by military personnel. Set in a country that closely resembles Venezuela, Eva Luna tells the story of an illegitimate young girl named Eva whose mother dies when Eva is only six years old. The narrative focuses on Eva's survival throughout her difficult childhood and adolescence, progressing to her discovery of success and fulfillment as a scriptwriter for television. The story of Eva's maturation alternates with that of Rolf Carlé, an Austrian emigré who becomes a photojournalist; when the two meet and fall in love, their separate stories merge into one. The Stories of Eva Luna revisits the character of Eva, transforming several of the biographical sketches of individuals contributing to her development into short stories. The Infinite Plan follows Gregory Reeves, a young man raised in a poor Chicano neighborhood in Los Angeles. His father is an ex-preacher who subscribes to his own personal philosophy of salvation, called the “Infinite Plan.” The plot follows George's life as he works his way through law school, marries twice, and serves a brutal tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Paula was written as a family memoir that Allende planned to present as a gift to her daughter once Paula recovered from her coma. The work traces Allende's family history through several generations, recounting her own privileged upbringing and the terror of her uncle's assassination and the resulting military coup. Aphrodite is a collection of prose devoted to the sensuality of life and, more specifically, food. Allende presents essays and stories that discuss the effects and variations of several kinds of aphrodisiacs, and offers over one hundred recipes for rich and sumptuous meals. Daughter of Fortune, a multigenerational novel about characters at the fringes of “proper society,” traces the life of Eliza Sommers, an orphan at birth who was unknowingly raised by her real aunt in Chile. As Eliza chases her lover, Joaquin, to California during the 1849 Gold Rush, she eventually comes to doubt his existence. Vividly recreating the era of Chile's civil wars during the late nineteenth century, Portrait in Sepia draws on characters from both The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune. Due to a severe trauma, a woman named Aurora del Valle—the granddaughter of Eliza Sommers from Daughter of Fortune—is unable to remember her early childhood years. Aurora decides to piece together her fragmented past and begins exploring her family history. Written for a young adult audience, La ciudad de las bestias (2002; City of the Beasts) concerns an American teen's magical adventure among Stone Age Indians in the Amazon rainforest. In 2003 Allende published Mi Pais Inventado: Un Paseo Nostalgico Por Chile (My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile), a collection of memoirs and reminiscences of her native country.

Critical Reception

Often described as one of the first women to break into the male-dominated Latin American literary scene, Allende has also been widely credited with launching the so-called post-“boom” era in Spanish America with the publication of The House of the Spirits. Critics have often compared the narrative structure, themes, and style of The House of the Spirits to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. However, several reviewers have noted that The House of the Spirits introduces a more positive world view and spirit of reconciliation that distinguishes it from the works of other “boom” authors such as García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier. Although the critical reaction to The House of the Spirits has been largely positive, Allende's other works of fiction have received mixed reviews. While some commentators have regarded works such as Of Love and Shadows and Eva Luna as derivative and melodramatic, others have praised these novels for their lushly detailed prose, compelling images, and subtle moral and political themes. A number of scholars have commented on the political overtones in Allende's fiction, debating whether Allende successfully combines her social beliefs with the more fantastic elements in her prose. Much of the critical analysis of Allende's oeuvre has been devoted to her feminist perspective, with many reviewers applauding her depiction of patriarchal societies in Latin America. However, some critics have argued that Allende's portrayal of Hispanic men is stereotypical and relies too heavily on clichéd behavior.

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