Portrait In Sepia Analysis Essay
Isabel Allende's latest novel, PORTRAIT IN SEPIA, is the
story of Aurora del Valle, her extraordinary family, her turbulent
childhood, and her journey of self-discovery. Like most Allende
novels, PORTRAIT IN SEPIA is sweeping in scope. It moves from San
Francisco to Europe to Chile, from extravagant California mansions
to South American battlefields and Chilean vineyards. It is
ostensibly a family drama but it also explores themes of politics,
love, sex, and most importantly, identity.
Born in 1862, Aurora is raised for the first five years of her life
by her maternal grandparents in San Francisco's Chinatown. Her wise
and brave grandfather, Tao Chi'en, surrounds her in love after her
mother's death, which occurred hours after she was born. Aurora, or
Mai Ling as she was called by Tao Chi'en, has little contact with
her paternal, Chilean family until tragedy strikes and she is sent
to live with them. Far from the comforts of Chinatown and Tao
Chi'en, she lives with her passionate and flamboyant grandmother,
Paulina del Valle. Life with the del Valle family is always
dramatic and dynamic and becomes even more so as Aurora and her
grandmother leave America and move to Chile. As she grows, Aurora
learns more about both sides of her family, about the mystery of
her father, about politics, about the ravages of war and poverty,
and about the ravages and joys of love. Out of the faded memories
of her shattered childhood Aurora begins to not only unravel the
mystery of her past, finding meaning in the nightmares that haunt
her, but she also begins to understand and assert her own needs and
emerges as a strong and whole woman.
To arrive at self-understanding, self-acceptance, and peace Aurora
must seek out the truth about her mother, her absent father, her
grandfather, and her missing maternal grandmother (Eliza Sommers,
the subject of Allende's earlier novel, DAUGHTER OF
FORTUNE). The reappearance, by the end of the novel, of
several characters who can help complete Aurora's biography
contributes to her sense of closure but may feel too artificial or
convenient to the reader. Realism, however, has never been
Allende's strong point. Her style instead blends the "magical
realism" of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the juiciest of soap operas
and romance novels and adds the exaggerated drama of Victorian
morality plays. PORTRAIT IN SEPIA is no exception. Every character
is heroic; even the adulterous husband is heroic in the scope and
breadth of his true love for his mistress.
While Allende's simple life lessons wrapped in historical drama do
not make for a thought-provoking or philosophical read, there is
something for almost everyone in this novel. As a storyteller,
Allende is wonderful. And, because she allows Aurora to narrate her
own brutal and beautiful story, the reader is easily caught up in
the often-unbelievable events. Aurora del Valle's emergence as a
woman strong enough to share her own painful history (and
triumphant present) makes this novel an enjoyable and recommendable
Reviewed by Sarah Egelman on January 22, 2011
Portrait in Sepia
by Isabel Allende
- Publication Date: November 1, 2002
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0060936363
- ISBN-13: 9780060936365
In-depth critical discussions of her life and works - Plus complimentary, unlimited online access to the full content of this great literary reference.
The border between fact and fiction has always been a porous one for Isabel Allende. Her acclaimed first novel, The House of the Spirits, began as a letter to her dying grandfather yet is filled with ghosts and green-haired and clairvoyant women; her memoir Paula, though ostensibly nonfiction, is a moving and highly imaginative account of her family history and the illness and death of her daughter, Paula. Even in the many interviews she has given, Allende has embellished the details of her life to captivate and charm her readers. She has more than succeeded. Around the world, readers have flocked to both her fiction and her nonfiction, making her one of the best-selling women novelists in the world today. Edited and with an introduction by John Rodden, a celebrated Allende scholar, this volume in the Critical Insights series brings together a variety of essays on this Chilean Scheherazade. Rodden's introduction assesses the phases of Allende's career and her growth as a writer, and Michael Wood, writing on behalf of The Paris Review, considers Allende's relation to magical realism. Amanda Hopkinson, in turn, provides a comprehensive biography of Allende and a measured examination of how her life has informed her work.
For students encountering Allende for the first time, four introductory essays provide a valuable framework for studying her in greater depth. Beth E. Jörgenson surveys the range of critical opinions and the major strands of critical thought on Allende's work, and Charles Rossman's close reading of The House of the Spirits analyzes in depth the novel's setting, characters, and plot. María Roof compares Allende's use of the family saga novel to Maryse Condé's, and Carrie Sheffield describes the context in which Allende wrote her first and most popular novel, The House of the Spirits.
Next, a collection of essays on key works and subjects deepens readers' understanding of Allende. The House of the Spirits is treated by Sara E. Cooper, who uses family systems theory to explicate the novel's major themes, and Barbara Foley Buedel considers the magical realist aspects of Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna. Linda S. Maier and Cherie Meacham both explore Paula, with Maier focusing on how the memoir acted as a catharsis for Allende and Meacham relating the work to The House of the Spirits.
Allende's prequels to The House of the Spirits—Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia—are then taken up by John Rodden and Nadia Avendaño. Rodden examines the autobiographical facets of both novels while Avendaño considers how Allende breaks down gender barriers in Daughter of Fortune. Linda Gould Levine extends Avendaño's insights with a broad study of how Allende has transgressed boundaries of race, class, gender, and nationality throughout her career. Vincent Kling seeks to overturn the common perception of Allende as little more than a popular novelist by revealing how she continually draws on myth, archetype, and paradox to lend depth and nuance to her writing.
A quartet of essays then treat a few of Allende's lesser known works. Philip Swanson examines Zorro, while Luz María Umpierre analyzes one of the short stories, "Two Words." Don Latham discusses the magical realist facets of Allende's young adult novels, and John Rodden considers Allende's self-presentation in her interviews.
Rounding out the volume are a chronology of Allende's life and a list of her principal publications as well as a bibliography for readers seeking to study this fascinating author in greater depth.
Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources: