Spirits And A Tree Grows English Literature Essay

Susan Chang

Glen A. Wilson High School

Candidate IB Number: 001023-002

Word Count: 3,

January 29, 2013

Table of Contents



Examination of Events……………………………………………………………………...4

Familial Ties………………………………………………………………………………...5

Strength of Women…………………………………………………………………………7

Mystical Elements…………………………………………………………………………..9

Presence of Nature……………………………………………………………………….…11

Cultural Relations…………………………………………………………………………..12




This essay investigates the varieties of common themes shared in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Readers can directly associate with themes such as family ties, the power of women, mystical elements, nature, and culture. Across time and values, these points connect the Trueba and Nolan family with similarities. But each still retains its unique hint of story-telling – while Allende focuses more upon Chilean traditional upper class upbringing, Smith tells the tale of a modernist family trapped by poverty. To further examine these links between the two works of different cultures, the following research question was asked: How are common thematic elements portrayed in The House of the Spirits and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?

To accurately and descriptively answer the question, an analysis of the themes had to be conducted to determine how and what qualities are similar. Through research, the student had concluded that the two novels detail several important overarching themes that include the exploration of human growth and progress, the female role in family and societal life, familial bonds and obligations, social status and genealogy, nature in relation to individual characters, and mystical and supernatural occurrences. The study that follows is an analysis of the individual themes guiding both novels and their presence and implications in the two works of literature. The student found that


Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits chronicles the three generations of the Trueba family, while Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the growth and maturation of Francie Nolan as she changes from a poverty stricken young girl to an educated woman with a bright future. The novels at first glance seem to be very different, but through similar thematic elements, they are linked together. From a cultural perspective, one story is set in a Chilean background and the other is set in the all-American backdrop of Brooklyn, but upon a closer examination, the two cultures share common aspects that in turn contribute to common character types and thematic elements that share a bond beyond language. The student was intrigued by the nuances of similarities between the two very different novels. This fascination led to the following research question: How are common thematic elements portrayed in The House of the Spirits and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?

Examination of Events:

In The House of the Spirits, the reader follows generations of the del Valle and Trueba family and especially Clara del Valle, as she grows, matures, and leaves her family to its own workings. Allende starts out with Clara as a young precocious girl who is revealed to be clairvoyant as a child with sudden premonitions of the future, which serves to add elements of mystical reality to the story. She grows up to be an extremely level headed young woman who seems almost detached from the living world, and marries Esteban Trueba, who is shown to be a violent, obsessive, and lonely man. The Trueba children continue on the family legacy of a strong female presence and demonstrate this quality throughout the tribulations of each generation.

Blanca, the eldest daughter, falls in love with Pedro Tercero, to her father’s rage, and becomes pregnant with Alba. Alba becomes the only character to develop a long and lasting, loving relationship with Esteban, her grandfather. Esteban was prone to violent selfish actions when things do not go his way. For example, when Clara decided to name their twins something Esteban did not agree with, he "smashed a porcelain jar…to frighten her.., slammed the door behind me and went to the club" (Allende 115).Because Esteban’s rage was commonly felt by his family members both physically and mentally, he inadvertently alienated them, including his wife. Alba, with her revolutionist lover Miguel, joins the fight to overthrow the conservative dictatorship of Chile. At the end, Esteban and Alba write the story that pieces together the lives of their family.

The novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, set in 1912, recounts the early life of Francie Nolan and follows her growth from a young girl to a young woman. The Nolan family is situated in the poor apartments of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn which is where the Tree of Heaven grows. The Tree of Heaven is a tree that grows in the middle of the tenement apartment districts, and thrives without soil or care. Francie’s father Johnny is a weak willed man with a tendency to drink too much, while her mother Katie is a strong woman who is the main breadwinner of the family. Francie changes schools due to a socioeconomic discord with her teachers, and the innocence of her way of life is lost when her father dies. Suddenly, Francie is confronted with the status of her working class family in society, has a terrifying run in with a sex offender, and is exposed to the social taboos of female sexuality.

Francie is kept from attending high school because of obligations to support her family, but attends summer classes because of her drive to succeed in life. At the end, a close family friend marries Katie to help support her family and send her children to college, and Francie is engaged to a fellow summer class student Ben Blake. All the while, the Tree of Heaven continues its survival and perseveres through hardship.

Familial Ties:

The theme of family and the dedication towards family has been a strong theme throughout The House of the Spirits and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Readers are instantly drawn to the complexities and importance that family life plays in all the characters’ lives. Allende examines the relationships between countless relatives and also provides a broad view of how the family functions as a whole. Like Allende, Smith delves deeply into the framework of Francie’s small, tightknit family and provides different dynamics between multiple family members.

The dedication of the female characters towards their families is a strong point to make. Clara holds her family together despite her otherworldly affectations through love and devotion; readers can see how the family breaks apart after Clara’s death. "Clara’s death completely transformed life in the big house on the corner…Alba noticed the decline from the very first days."(Allende 295). This portrayal of Clara as the foundation and glue holding the Trueba family together is heightened by the monologues provided by Esteban throughout the novel, describing his now lonely existence and his continuing love for his wife. Clara’s calm presence and clear vision of the right path to take is the foundation upon which her family depends upon; without her, family members, especially Esteban become lost emotionally and spiritually.

Similarly, Francie Nolan is the force holding together the Nolan family, becoming the main breadwinner of the family and supporting her mother and brother both financially and emotionally. Even when Johnny dies, the family does not fall apart. Another strong character is Katie Nolan; she is the parental backbone of the family and instills in her children a strong sense of value in education. Katie vows to send her children to school so they can attain education in order to break free from poverty and realize the American Dream. The Nolan household forms a closer bond through their poverty and manage to prevail due to Katie’s tight rein on her family and the sacrifice that Francie made in order to support her family.

Strength of Women:

The strong links between the women in the novels and their families lead to the observation that both authors intended upon a portrayal of the strength and elasticity of women. The House of the Spirits revolves around the three generations of women – Clara, Blanca, and Alba. The gender inequality in the Chilean society is deflected by each woman’s measured resistance that contrasts with the men’s violence and tendency to enact abrupt change. The women are shown to create more long lasting and effective changes than the men do. When Esteban acts out in violence, "lost control and struck her in the face, knocking her against the wall," he is immediately regretful of his actions and "knelt by her side, crying and begging her forgiveness." (Allende 201). This example of a male violent response is countered right afterwards by Clara’s long term reaction against the mistreatment, by never speaking to her husband again. The power of her passive form of resistance is profound, as Esteban admits himself, "I felt so alone after that! I didn’t know then that loneliness would never leave me…" (Allende 202). The power that Clara holds over her husband continues on even in death, and is enough to curb his infamous temper near the end of his life. Lying next to Clara’s corpse, Esteban observed that "she had lost weight and at first I thought she might have grown, because she looked taller, but then I realized it was just an optical illusion, the effect of my own shrinking." (Allende 293). With Clara's passing, Esteban realizes how much he depended upon her for spiritual support, guidance, or just as a companion. He finally realizes that his rash actions had pushed his loved ones away, and this isolation makes him regretful for the past and long for Clara's insightfulness. This shows that Esteban’s violent manner has actually reduced his power and personal opinion; while Clara’s womanly gentleness is much more lasting and makes her the better person. Her strength and will in life has made her seem like a giant in spirit even in death.

Blanca, Clara’s daughter, is a stubborn woman, and exhibits independence from a young age, choosing to love a revolutionary whom her father dislikes, and divorcing the man Esteban had married her to. Blanca is the main force that ran the country house and never accepted her father’s money when he offered; rather, she chose to support herself with her own ceramic creations. Her identity as a headstrong woman shows her strong sense of self and self-confidence, which was rare in that context of time and seemed to be passed on to her by her stubborn parents and strong willed mother. Alba, Clara’s granddaughter, shows tremendous strength as a person and woman, since she did not give in under Esteban Garcias’s torture and through her traumatic experience, managed to "reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own" by writing the story of the Trueba family with her grandfather (Allende 432).

The women of The A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are equally strong willed and resilient to grief. Through the portrayals of the consistent reference to the hardships of child, it is implied that women are emotionally stronger and more able to withstand pain than men. For example, Katie "had borne a child but two hours ago. She was so weak that she couldn’t lift her head an inch from the pillow, yet it was she who comforted him and told him not to worry, that she would take care of him" (Smith 79). Smith accomplishes this by providing a male foil for most of the female characters. "Those were the Rommely women…they were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices. But they were made out of thin invisible steel" (Smith 69).Katie is portrayed as the responsible wage earner, while Johnny is shown as a drunk; Evy is seen as the stronger woman in the relationship, Flittman is the weak man who runs away to escape his situation instead of trying to solve his problems facing forward. Even Francie is shown to be stronger and more resilient than her brother Neely; Katie, unable to send both of her children to school, decides to send Neely to high school while Francie works. This decision can be seen as a confidence in Francie to succeed in society and be able to return to school on her own. Even with this lack of education, Francie finds the will to succeed on her own and attends school to achieve her American Dream. In the poverty stricken days of Francie’s childhood, her father Johnny would escape reality by drinking himself to unconsciousness. Conversely, Katie responded to the situation by taking on a job herself and attempting to make the best out of the little they had. Katie’s strength had passed on to Francie, and as a child Francie had taken particular interest in her mother’s role as a provider instead of her father, stating that God should "see that Mama isn’t strong enough to work so hard. And He’d see how Papa was and He’d do something about Papa" (Smith 276).

The two novels have brought together the inner strength and will of women, even across generation and culture gaps. Differences between the male and female characters are highlighted, and these discrepancies set the stage for showing the power of women in a variety of situations. In The House of the Spirits, this power is mainly shown through interactions between family members and the extent of influence that women have on the series of events in the novel. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, female characters mainly battle with society and the issue of poverty. But in the end, these women mold the bonds of their families and support themselves against the expectations of society and double standards.

Mystical Elements:

Both The House of the Spirits and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn contain mystical elements. In The House of the Spirits, Clara is clairvoyant and can tap into the spiritual world, is able to see ghosts, telekinetically move objects with her mind, and at times predict the future. Many times, Clara’s premonitions have been correct, such as her prediction of a disastrous earthquake or that Esteban would be chosen as senator. This opens the readers up to search for more foreshadowing moments that can be applied to other events without Clara’s mystical powers being a factor. Spiritual beings populate their house, and even Esteban sees the spirits after Clara’s death. Esteban was initially angry at Clara’s disregard of the material world and jealous of her wandering attentions to the supernatural, but after Clara’s death, he takes comfort in the knowledge that Clara’s spirit is in the house and has forgiven him for his past actions. In addition, Clara’s spirit goes to Alba during her capture by the dictator’s forces and revives Alba from her horrific torture experience.

Another mystical element that exists is in the division between dreams and reality. The fantastical dreams experienced by characters are often mirrored in real life. "Alba did not see Esteban Garcia … but she could never forget him. She told no one of that repulsive kiss or of the dreams that she had afterward, in which Garcia appeared as a green beast that tried to strangle her with his paws and asphyxiate her by shoving a slimy tentacle down her throat" (Allende 328). In this instance, Alba’s dream creature actually turned out to be a real person who was in fact a monster waiting to avenge himself by torturing her.

In a similar vein, Francie also has a connection with dreams and creates a mystical place to escape to, in a spiritual sense. She is taught the importance of creating a world in her mind to go to. This mystical realism contributes to the strength and determination of Francie, as she imagines a better world for herself and sets out in an attempt to realize this dream. Not only can she live out her dreams in her imagination, but she takes the steps to realize that dream. Disappointed in her own school’s cruel and unfair treatment of less privileged students, Francie sees a more ideal school and fantasizes about attending that school and creating a better life for her as a result. Thus, her imagination gave rise to action and causes her to takes steps in her real life to attempt to achieve that dream. This is what finally allows Francie to attend that new school. Francie escapes into her imagination to keep her mind off of the poverty of the Williamsberg tenements and to envision a world filled with the promise of a better life. This imagination fulfills the American Dream, as Francie realizes her goals in the end and uses her education to carve her own niche in society and to climb the social ladder. This is how Francie triumphs over her situational adversity and ultimately achieves her mother’s goal for her children to succeed and surpass her own mark and status in society.

Presence of Nature:

The concept of nature is important in defining each of the main characters. The recurring presence of the Tree of Heaven in the book also serves highlight the journey against poverty and the triumph of perseverance over hardships. "Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts" (Smith 6). The fact that the tree is planted in the middle of the Williamsberg tenements allows the tree to be the heart of all the poverty stricken citizens living in the apartments, but more importantly is a connection to Francie. When Francie was born, Katie directly compares her to the Tree of Heaven, thus linking Francie’s life to that of the tree’s. Accordingly, as Francie grows and matures, the tree continues to survive even without water, light, or even adequate soil. "But this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump – this tree lived! It lived! And nothing could destroy it" (Smith 493). Like the lotus flower, the tree shows that there is hope even in the worst of environments, and goodness will shine through. Thus, at the end, as Francie is preparing for college and a bright future ahead of her, the tree continues to grow and live on in the tenements.

In The House of the Spirits, the presence of flowers in the house is a representation of Clara. She was the one who watered them and talked to them, and filled the house with life and happiness, both metaphorically and physically, through the flowers. Like the flowers, Clara has an aura of childlike innocence and purity that lasted throughout her lifetime, and this quality is what allows her to be almost spirit like in her unconcerned attitude towards the materialistic world. After Clara’s death, not only did the spirits and the guests leave, but Alba also noticed "…the flowers wilting in their vases, saturating the air with a sickening odor that lingered while they dried up, lost their leaves, and fell apart, leaving only the musty stalks, which no one bothered to clean up until much later." (Allende 295). "No one tended the garden, either to water it or to weed it, until it was swallowed up by oblivion, birds, and wild grasses." (Allende 296). Clara’s oneness with nature is furthered by her setting free of her birds just before she herself was set free from mortal existence.

Cultural Relations:

At first glance, The House of the Spirits and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn seem to be of opposite cultures – one takes place in Chile while the other is set in America – but they possess similar cultural values that are emphasized throughout the two plotlines. The two novels revolve around the emphasis on society and class structure that defines the characters and gives some the motivation to enact change. In Chile, social status and genealogy play a key factor in the separation of marriage candidates and control of wealth. The Chilean society is separated into the Spaniard aristocracy and the peasants of indigenous descent. The de Valle and Trueba families, part of the aristocracy, are landowners who control the politics and business of the rural Tres Marias area. In contrast, the Garcias are the poor peasants who have little access to political and educational pathways. Esteban, a political conservative, opposes Blanca’s love for Pedro Tercero Garcia because of his status as a peasant, and a revolutionary peasant at that. They represent opposing views – while Esteban supports the status quo and does not believe that the peasant should share in the upper class wealth, Pedro joins the revolution to enact that change. The Trueba women all support the peasants, defying the patriarchal system. This class struggle gives birth to the resentment that Esteban Garcia, Esteban Trueba’s bastard son, holds for the Trueba family. He seeks revenge for his low social status and feels that Esteban Treuba is the embodiment of upper class cruelty and injustice towards the peasant class. His thoughts were biased, as his grandmother was raped by Esteban Trueba, but he fulfills his quest for vengeance when he rapes and tortures Alba when he becomes a commander in the military regime. Alba correctly guessed "that he was not trying to learn Miguel’s true whereabouts but to avenge himself for injuries that had been inflicted on him from birth." (Allende 411). This cycle of hatred was passed on to him by his grandmother and mother, who named their sons after their enemy Esteban Trueba, passing on their hatred from one generation to the next. This shows that the class divisions have been preserved for this long and has such a debilitating effect on society and the morals of right and wrong. Thus, it is for a good cause that Alba realizes this and decides to forgive Esteban Garcia for the torture, if only to spare her own descendants from the all-consuming quest for vengeance.

The social inequality and disparities between social classes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes a more upbeat turn than in The House of the Spirits, as it is the influencing factor that motivates the characters in a positive direction, towards progress and achievement. Francie was born into a family of poverty in the early twentieth century America, which sinks its fangs into ordinary family lives. For example, poverty in the Nolan family causes Johnny’s untimely death and his feeling of worthlessness, is the force that pushed Uncle Flittman to run away in order to escape, and prevents Francie from attending high school. Nevertheless, because of their poverty, the Nolan family placed much emphasis on the importance of education, as it was the only bridge that would allow them to cross over to attain the American Dream of success. Because of their experiences with poverty, Francie and her mother strive towards education as an outlet from poverty. There are many foils of upper class citizens to contrast with the Nolan family. These characters highlight the impoverished lifestyle of the main characters but also serve to contrast the Nolan family’s kindness and positive attitude with their own self-righteous and pompous attitudes.

The structure of the writing in The House of the Spirits and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is similar in that the progression of the story is intermittently broken up by further discussions. Allende utilizes flash forwards by Alba and Esteban to reflect upon past events, while Smith uses flashbacks to consolidate past events in accordance with the reader’s current knowledge. This technique allows for a different narrator and point of view, and is used to provide a reflection on the current events that have occurred. In The House of the Spirits, the story is told from Clara’s journals, with intermittent excerpts vocalizing the opinions, reactions, and reflections of Esteban and Alba in the future. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the flashbacks provide readers with a more solid understanding of Francie’s parent’s past and how Katie’s determination for the American Dream was born.


When examining the research question: How are common thematic elements portrayed in The House of the Spirits and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?, it has become clear that the links that hold these two novels together are formed primarily through repetition of similar themes and styles within the novels. Though the cultural aspect and plot are different, both works are essentially an exploration of the maturation and role that females play in a society based upon social status. We can catch a glimpse of mystical realism and the mundane events that ground the novels and provide a common connection to the readers. Through the physical and emotional strength of Katie, Francie, Clara, Blanca, and Alba, these women have shaped their lives and those around them and proved that although they cannot control omnipotent forces, they can guide their lives towards a path of worth. The women provide hope through personal conviction and an awareness of their actions. In The House of the Spirits, the three generations of Trueba daughters have directly contributed to the

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Rommely women have endured social hardships and poverty but still hold out hope for their future generation. This awareness of reality allows them to become steel-backed feminine figures able to persevere in the harsh world.