"The House of the Spirits," Vocabulary from Chapters 9-11

A fictionalized multigenerational account of the Chilean political scene, Isabel Allende's "House of the Spirits" doesn't limit itself to discussions of corruption and torture- there are also scenes of prophesy and magic. Learn this word list that focuses on Alba and Esteban Trueba.

Here are links to our word lists for the novel: Chapters 1-2, Chapters 3-5, Chapters 6-8, Chapters 9-11, and Chapters 12-Epilogue.

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. distinguish
    mark as different
    Her Grandmother Clara searched her back and found the tiny star-shaped mark that distinguishes those born to true happiness.
  2. endow
    give qualities or abilities to
    This is why they made no effort to prepare the child for life, since the stars had already conspired to endow her with so many gifts.
    "Endow" also means "furnish with a capital fund"--although this definition doesn't fit the example sentence, it emphasizes that Alba was born into a wealthy family, and later, after a series of events both in and out of Esteban's control, she becomes his only heir. The irony that Alba (as the narrator) now realizes is that none of these endowments prevented her from falling into Esteban Garcia's hands.
  3. propitious
    presenting favorable circumstances
    Fortunately, she managed to restrain herself within her mother for a few more hours and to enter the world in her grandparents’ house, on the day, the hour, and in the place most propitious for her horoscope.
  4. innocuous
    not causing disapproval
    The rest of her was tiny and innocuous as opposed to the other women in her family, who were, almost without exception, splendid.
    "Innocuous" also means "not injurious to physical or mental health" or "lacking intent or capacity to injure"--this could be the opposite of the other women in her family, whose splendid beauty makes many men suffer. Alba's physical innocuousness is due to half her genes being from Pedro Tercero Garcia, which unknown to her at first, puts her in the perfect position to help the peasants and the oppressed.
  5. supersede
    take the place or move into the position of
    One Christmas Eve, Clara gave her granddaughter a fabulous present that occasionally superseded the fascination of the basement: a box filled with jars of paint, brushes, a small ladder, and permission to use the biggest wall in her bedroom whenever she wanted.
  6. sufficient
    of a quantity that can fulfill a need or requirement
    Blanca argued that her reading should be monitored because there were certain things that were inappropriate for her age, but her Uncle Jaime felt that people never read what did not interest them and that if it interested them that meant they were sufficiently mature to read it.
  7. constitution
    the way in which someone or something is composed
    The upshot was that in addition to her normal baths and meals, Alba sucked the candies her uncle brought her and hosed herself down whenever she was hot, neither of these two activities having the slightest effect on her healthy constitution.
  8. macabre
    shockingly repellent; inspiring horror
    The child, who had a certain inclination for the macabre, would concentrate according to her uncle’s instructions until she was able to visualize her mother’s death as if it were really happening.
  9. impose
    inflict something unpleasant
    If she managed to get through an entire week without crying, overcoming all the tests Nicolas imposed, she won a prize, which almost always consisted of a motorcycle ride at breakneck speed—an unforgettable experience.
  10. vertigo
    a reeling sensation; a feeling that you are about to fall
    She would always remember the heavy animals, their slowness, their filthy tails hitting her in the face, the smell of dung, the horns grazing her, and the terrible sensation of emptiness in her stomach, of fantastic vertigo, of incredible excitement, a mixture of passionate curiosity and terror that she only felt again in a few fleeting moments of her life.
    The act of remembering these happy moments is what later saves Alba from the desperate vertigo that was filled only with terror. Although Alba is the main narrator throughout the book (which to her is part memoir, part family history), she refers to herself in the third person because 1) she is describing a younger self that no longer exists; 2) she needs to distance herself in order to heal; 3) the broader perspective helps her tell a better story.
  11. sentiment
    tender, romantic, or nostalgic feeling or emotion
    Esteban Trueba, who had always found it difficult to express his emotions and had had no access to tenderness ever since his relationship with Clara had deteriorated, transferred all his finest sentiments to Alba.
  12. fragile
    easily broken or damaged or destroyed
    At the end of his life, when his ninety years had turned him into a twisted, fragile tree, Esteban Trueba would recall those moments with his granddaughter as the happiest of his whole existence.
  13. complicity
    guilt as a confederate in a crime or offense
    Alba too remembered the complicity of those trips to the country holding on to her grandfather's hand, the jaunts behind him in the saddle of his horse, the sunsets in the vast pastures, the long nights beside the living-room fireplace telling ghost stories and drawing pictures.
  14. surmount
    get on top of; deal with successfully
    She was the only one in the family who did not lose her serenity, thanks to her training in surmounting pain and the fact that her grandmother had often explained to her the circumstances and rituals of death.
  15. meticulous
    marked by extreme care in treatment of details
    I took off her nightgown and examined her meticulously for any trace of illness that might have justified her death; when I found none, I realized that she had simply fulfilled her mission in this life and that she had escaped to another dimension where her spirit, finally free of its material burden, would be more at home.
    Esteban presents his meticulous examination as if he were a doctor looking for a cause of death, but his action here is almost as much of a violation of Clara's body as Dr. Cuevas's assistant's autopsy and kissing of Rosa's dead body. Although Esteban is her husband and has seen her naked many times, Clara had stopped talking to him and had installed a bolt on her bedroom door.
  16. extol
    praise, glorify, or honor
    She listened to speeches extolling virtues her grandmother never had, and when she returned to the house she ran to lock herself in the basement, where she waited for Clara’s spirit to communicate with her, just as Clara had promised.
  17. expiation
    the act of atoning for sin or wrongdoing
    Under his shirt and close to his chest he wore a tiny suede bag that hung from a fine gold chain; in it were his wife’s false teeth, which he treated as a token of good luck and expiation.
    "Expiation" also means "compensation for a wrong"--although Esteban's nature makes him quicker to demand compensation for a wrong than to admit that he was wrong, the chosen definition is a better fit for the example sentence. The day that Esteban knocked out several of her teeth was the day that Clara decided never to speak to her husband again. Wearing her false teeth both reminds Esteban of what he had done and keeps Clara closer to him in death than she had been in life.
  18. appall
    strike with disgust or revulsion
    She observed her for a couple of weeks, and when she was certain of the diagnosis she summoned Blanca Trueba to her office and explained as politely as she could that the child was simply not cut out for a British education, and suggested that she try placing her in a school run by Spanish nuns, who might be better at controlling her wild imagination and correcting her appalling manners.
  19. avarice
    extreme greed for material wealth
    He did not behave this way out of avarice; it was simply that his family no longer interested him.
  20. perpetuity
    the property of being seemingly ceaseless
    Work on the mausoleum began soon after Clara’s death, but it took almost two years to complete because I kept adding costly new details: tombstones with Gothic lettering in gold, a glass cupola to let the sunlight in, and an ingenious apparatus copied from the Roman fountains that allows a small interior garden, which I planted with roses and camellias, the favorite flowers of the two sisters who had won my heart, to be watered in perpetuity.
  21. lugubrious
    excessively mournful
    We carried our tools down the cypress-lined path, found the del Valle family tomb, and embarked on the lugubrious task of opening it.
  22. irrevocable
    incapable of being retracted
    He didn’t try to talk me out of it, because he recognized the tone that creeps into my voice when I’ve made an irrevocable decision.
  23. catalyze
    change by catalysis or cause to catalyze
    I stopped eating in the house, even on the weekends, because without Clara’s catalyzing presence there was no reason why I should put up with my children’s bickering.
  24. flaccid
    drooping without elasticity
    My heart was weighed with sadness and my penis was as flaccid as a withered, aimless flower between my legs.
  25. torrent
    a violently fast stream of water or other liquid
    I murmured without thinking, and I felt a tear roll down my cheek and then another and another until it became a downpour of grief, a torrent of sobs, a suffocation of nostalgia and sorrow that Transito Soto had no trouble understanding, for she had long experience with the heartaches of men.
  26. insolence
    the trait of being rude and impertinent
    He also warned her against love and marriage, with the same insolence with which he insisted that Jaime should find a decent girl and settle down because he was turning into a hopeless bachelor.
  27. stalwart
    a person who is loyal to their allegiance
    Alba did not resent his mocking nickname for her; in fact, on more than one occasion she had fantasized about seducing the stalwart professor.
    "Stalwart" also means "having rugged physical strength; inured to fatigue or hardships"--Alba had fantasized about seducing the professor, so this physical description seems fitting, especially since the professor was described as "indefatigable" as men half his age. But he also has "poor lifeless legs" that need to be supported by crutches. His stalwart support of a Communist revolution is what makes him admirable to male students like Miguel.
  28. disconcerted
    having self-possession upset; thrown into confusion
    The familiarity of his gesture disconcerted the girl, who was paralyzed for a second but quickly drew back, trying to struggle free.
  29. pretext
    something serving to conceal plans
    On the pretext that she had to study late at night, she left the room she had shared with her mother ever since her grandmother died and set up a room on the first floor, facing the garden, so she could let Miguel in through the window and lead him on tiptoe through the sleeping house to their enchanted lair.
  30. attribute
    a characteristic that distinguishes objects or individuals
    She regretted that the splendid women in her family had not bequeathed their attributes to her, that the only one who had, Rosa the Beautiful, had given her only the algae tones in her hair, which seemed more like a hairdresser’s mistake than anything else.

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