The Grass is Singing and the House of the Spirits are two famous novels, written by the British author Doris Lessing and Chilean author Isabel Allende. The two novels, both universally recognized as literary masterpieces, have quite a few similarities; despite their publishing date is 30 years apart. The Grass is Singing was first published in 1950, and The House of the Spirits in late 1982. Both novels quite rapidly became successes in both the United States and Europe, and both authors have received several awards for their fine piece of art. First, I will review the novels separately, then compare the two books, and describe the similarities which I found most important.
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Doris Lessing’s the Grass is Singing is a famous novel, commonly referred to as one of the greatest publications of its particular period. The novel is based in Rhodesia (today known as Zimbabwe) and tells the terrible story of Mary, whose life is severely changed, as she overhears someone at a party, claiming she’ll never marry. Mary therefore wants to prove she can get rid of her so-called spinsterhood, and immediately begins to look for a proper husband. After a while Dick Turner, a white farm owner who’s doing everything he can to make his farm profitable, ends up asking for her hand in marriage.
Mary goes to live with Dick on the farm, but their relationship seems to become somewhat distant. The couple seems to have a fairly different view on the farm-life. Though Dick very rarely shows cruelty to the workers, Mary often does; as she finds them more or less disgusting from time to time. In spite of this, she develops a sexual relationship with one of the native workers, Moses. Moses is portrayed as an intelligent man, though the plot ends wit|h him stabbing Mary to death, as revenge for being rejected.
Lessing’s novel is based upon the racial segregation, which was of course an unpleasant fact, in the former British colonies. Though racial segregation has been around in Africa since the colonial times, I currently refer more specific to the period around the 1940s, considering that the Grass is Singing takes place somewhere around that particular period. In the late 40s, the apartheid regime was forced upon the inhabitants of South Africa, and it would be inaccurate to claim that the conditions in Rhodesia stayed just the same after this gruesome happening. The white population of Rhodesia was most likely affected by their neighbors’ drastic change of politics, which of course didn’t lead to any better conditions for the colored part of the population. They were looked down upon as inferior to the whites, though only the color of their skin differed.
The main theme of Lessing’s novel clearly is racism, which is shown at its worst during the book. Her constant criticism against the racial politics and its “leaders” is rather obvious throughout the book. Despite this, Lessing still manages to cover up the moral, so that we have to think, as we read. Another possible theme, which I found quite interesting, is the development of Mary from the start of the novel till her death. In the beginning, Mary seemed like a good girl with a quite pleasant life. She had several friends and a nice job, but as she goes to live with Dick on the farm, Mary soon starts showing hatred against the native workers. She gets “cut off” from the outside world; therefore isolation, both physically and mentally, is also an important theme in Lessing’s novel. In addition to those mentioned, there are other themes, such as cheating and colonialism, and also some quite obvious contrasts. The contrast between the whites and the natives are of course pretty obvious through the novel, yet contrast does not seem to be very important, as I didn’t found any particular hidden or rather important contrast in Lessing’s book.
Mary had an unhappy childhood, and at some points it’s hard not to sympathize with her. Though her unhappy childhood doesn’t excuse the terrible behavior against the slaves, I believe Lessing intentionally tried to make the readers constantly switch from sympathizing with Mary to despising every inch of her. Lessing also portrays Dick as easy to sympathize with; a rather poor farmer, eager to make large profit out of his farm, yet highly unable to do so. Throughout the novel, it was hard not to sympathize with him, and at some stages I also felt some sort of sympathy towards Mary, as well. Lessing used this literary technique very well through the novel, though I think she sometimes overdid it.
Slavery was common in Africa around the 1940s, and Rhodesia was no exception. Of course, only the blacks worked as slaves, and any relationship between a black and a white person, was not taken kindly. Despite this, Lessing does not describe Mary’s intimate relationship with Moses as abnormal or illegal in any way, probably because she didn’t believe that it was. She wanted to let the readers know about her tolerance for relationships between two persons, regardless of the color of their skin, though many meant the opposite, at that time. Hopefully, Lessing somehow contributed to the fight against racial segregation in Africa, by writing this famous piece of literature. At least, the book became a world known bestseller, and there is no doubt whether Lessing’s novel is to be considered a total masterpiece, or not.
The House of the Spirits
The House of the Spirits is the debut novel by Isabel Allende, and tells the story of the Chilean Trueba family, over four generations. The novel was first rejected by quite a few publishers, but became an instant success when first published in 1982. Same year, the House of the Spirits won the award for best novel of the year in Chile, and as of today, it has been translated into over 20 languages, worldwide.
The story opens with Clara del Valle, one of the main characters, writing in her diary about a new pet, Barrabás. She carries on writing in her diary for years, and it’s thank to Clara, that her granddaughter Alba, the main narrator in the novel, can piece the history of her family back together, several decades later. Clara is the youngest daughter of Severo and Nívea del Valle, and has some sort of supernatural powers. She can predict future events, as well as intercept dreams and move things around without even touching them. A poor miner, Estaban Trueba, promises to marry Clara’s older sister, Rosa, after he has made enough money to buy his own hacienda. Unfortunately, Rosa dies from accidental poisoning, before Estaban has been able to marry her. Estaban, of course devastated by the loss of his fiancé, tries to mend his broken heart by resuming his family’s business at their hacienda, “Las tres Marías”. He works vigorous, and after a while, manages to become a quite wealthy man.
Upon his mother’s death, Estaban decides to fulfill her only wish; for him to marry and have legitimate children. He returns to the del valle family, and ask for Clara’s hand in marriage. Estaban and Clara marry, and move to their newly built mansion, where the Trueba family will live for generations. Soon after, Clara gives birth to a beautiful girl, Blanca, and later on two twin boys, as well. Blanca is sent to boarding school, but as she arrives Las Trés Marias for the first time she almost instantly befriend one of the natives, Pedro Tercero. Over the years, they develop an intimate relationship, and after some time, Blanca gets pregnant with Pedro’s child. Upon discovering this, Estaban makes Blanca marry the French count, Jean de Satigny, to save the family’s honor. Their relationship doesn’t seem especially bad in any way, yet after a while; Blanca leaves him and returns to the Trueba mansion, where she gives birth to Alba. Blanca reunites with her former lover, Pedro Tercero, who she hasn’t seen in a while, and they once again start a relationship. Not does Alba know about her real father, nor has Blanca told Pedro the truth about Alba, although he seems a bit suspicious. Despite this, Alba grows up happy, and also bonds with her grandfather, Estaban, who seems to love her more than his very own children.
In company with his fellow politicians, Estaban plans a military coup of the socialistic government, in fear of a communistic leadership. The coup seems rather well planned, but as it is set into action, Estaban and some of his political associates loses their influence to the military commanders, who start controlling the coup all by themselves. Estaban helps Blanca and Pedro flee out of the country, as they both are wanted by the military leaders. Alba, on the other hand, is captured by the military, and tortured, because they want information on Miguel, Alba’s current lover. After a while, Estaban and Miguel manage to free Alba from being held as a prisoner, with help from a prostitute he knows, Tránsito. Quite soon after this, Estaban dies in the arms of Alba, while helping her piecing her family’s history together, by combining the diary from her grandmother and Estaban’s memories.
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Author Allende has used several literary techniques throughout the novel, yet I found one of them especially interesting; the use of names. Allende’s choice of names, especially for some of the women, are quite significant, seeing that one can reveal parts of a character’s personality just by researching the meaning of her name. For example can all the four names of the main women in the family, Nívea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba, be translated into almost the same. This is, of course, done intentionally by author Allende, and in fact does Tránsito Soto, the name of Estaban’s prostitute friend, really mean “dirty traffic”, in Spanish. Her name is also chosen intentionally, considering what Tránsito does for a living.
There are quite a few themes in Allende’s novel, some more important than other. Retribution is, for example, one of the main themes, as it comes to mind several times throughout the book. One example is the point where Estaban wants retribution upon Pedro, when he finds out about the sexual intimacy between Pedro and his daughter, Blanca. Estaban takes the law in his own hands and sets out to kill Pedro, in order to fulfill his thirst for revenge, though he only succeeds in wounding him. Retribution also occurs when Clara decides to never speak with Estaban ever again, after he knocks out her teeth in total anger. Clara’s actions do indeed drive him mad, although she does “speak” with him, however through signs.
The supernatural also plays a vital role in Allende’s novel, obviously because Clara is in possession of some spiritual powers, which we do not know very much about. Estaban clearly is jealous of some sort, if we are to consider this quote from the book: “He wanted far more than her body; he wanted control over that undefined and luminous material that lay within herâ€¦.”. Despite this eager to define what the spiritual part of Clara really is, Estaban seems to accept the fact that he does not have the powers, which is in possession of.
The House of the Spirits also contains some political matters, considering that the political coup in the book is based on a real coup, which took place in Chile in 1973. The novel begins, politically, relatively calm, but ends in a political chaos. Despite the political calmness in the beginning, we do get some sort of a hint not far out in the book, considering the fact that Clara’s father, Severo, is a dedicated politician. I don’t think Allende isn’t the kind of author, who writes such a thing unintentionally; when she writes, there’s always a meaning with everything. Personally, I believe Isabel Allende was able to utter her political opinions, as well as her views on other matters, very well through the novel. There is quite a lot hidden between the lines, making this novel so very well written. Even though I found the book quite difficult to decipher, I completely agree with those claiming the House of the Spirits is a total masterpiece.
Similarities in the two novels
As mentioned, the novels have quite a few similarities, yet some quite obvious and other a bit more difficult and hidden. For example, both novels include a native population, and they’re quite similar in the two books. In the Grass is Singing, we meet the black population, who were forced as slaves, when the white man settled in their land, and In the House of the Spirits, we meet all the Chilean peasants, who don’t have any other choice, than working for Estaban at Las Trés Marias. In both novels, the natives are constantly held down by their “masters”. In Lessing’s novel, the colored slaves face violence from their masters, as they were considered animals. Although the Chilean peasants were not slaves, there were also forms of segregation of the natives in Allende’s novel, yet in another way. Estaban raped many of the native women at Las Trés Marias, and was merciless with the ones who, in any way, did him wrong. He ruled over them as a true dictator, and I dare claim that Estaban was no better than Mary.
Though both stories have important male characters, the women remain the main characters, of both novels. Clara, Blanca, and Alba clearly are the focus in Allende’s novel, while the three main male characters Esteban, Pedro, and Miguel, takes part of the book because there are the lovers/husbands of the three women. In Lessing’s novel, Mary quite clearly is the so-called protagonist, though both Dick and Moses play two important roles. I actually believe both authors tried to underline the fact that women are just as good as men, considering this was and still is an important issue, across the globe. Fortunately, the equality between the two genders has improved a lot, since these books were written and published. Another similarity is, of course, the fact that both novels are pretty political. Although Allende’s book seems like a more politically influenced novel, both novels contain important political appeals, just in a fairly different way. The political appeal in the House of the Spirits is more based on hostility against the military coup in Chile in 1973, while the political appeal in Lessing’s novel is a more general disgust for poor racial politics, though probably especially in Africa.
Considering that the books are actually quite different, I was surprised over all the similarities I discovered while reading the second book. Additionally, I liked the fact that not only do you have to read; you’ll have to think as well. Doris Lessing and Isabel Allende have both written two rather complicated yet very good pieces of art, and despite being published 60 and 30 years ago, both novels raise important issues, still highly relevant as of today. The two literary masterpieces share a lot in common, yet both books still are two completely different experiences. They are great publications in the literary history, and will probably be remembered for a long time.
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