Daughter of Fortune

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Daughter of Fortune

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Isabel Allende


Isabel Allende says of her female protagonist in Daughter of Fortune, Eliza, that she might well represent who the author might have been in another life. Allende spent seven years of research on this, her fifth novel, which she says is a story of a young woman's search for self-knowledge. Allende also believes that the novel reflects her own struggle to define the role of feminism in her life.

In Daughter of Fortune, Eliza takes a physical journey through time and space as she travels from Chile to Gold-Rush-era California. That journey also represents a spiritual quest. Eliza, as she stows away in a dark hole at the bottom of a ship, awakens to the challenge of first redefining herself in a man's world of adventure and aggression before she refines herself and returns to a new definition of what it is to be an unfettered and independent female.

Allende says that Daughter of Fortune did not turn out as she had planned and that during the process of composition, she often got angry with some of her characters who would not do what she wanted them to do. She also says that, while she was still writing the book, she had a dream that told her the book was finished, although she thought she still had a lot more to write. Her mother, who, at the age of seventy-eight, remains her only editor, questioned the ending as being too abrupt. However, Allende states that she knew that her dream was telling her that the story had arrived at its own natural ending. Some reviews of the book call Daughter of Fortune one of Allende's best.

Author Biography

In 1973, author Isabel Allende fled Chile with her husband and their two children after her uncle, Salvador Allende, then president of Chile, was forced out of office. From this experience, Isabel would go on to write her first novel, created from a series of letters that she wrote to her grandfather, who still resided in Chile.

Allende was born on August 2, 1942, in Lima, Peru, but would move with her family three years later to Chile. After completing her education, she worked ten years as a journalist for various magazines, newspapers, television shows, and movie documentaries. One of the magazines that she wrote for was Paula, a publication that advocated women's rights to divorce and abortion, a very radical position in Chile in the 1960s.

When she and her family escaped to Venezuela, she continued her career as a journalist but also began what would become her first published novel, The House of Spirits (1982)—a book that would win her much international acclaim. The novel would also mark her as one of the leaders of the Latin American feminist movement, as her characters confront the traditional, passive role of women. A movie adaptation was produced in 1993.

Allende wrote two more novels in rather quick succession, Of Love and Shadows (1984) and Eva Luna (1985), and enjoyed several whirlwind tours around the world as a novelist. In the late 1980s, Allende took advantage of a book tour to the United States to promote her newly published collection of short stories, The Stories of Eva Luna (1989), to take a break from the emotional stress of her recent divorce. It was during this time that she met Willie Gordon, an American man whom she would later marry. Gordon also became the model on which the character Gregory Reeves, from Allende's 1991 novel The Infinite Plan, was based.

Three years later, Allende's twenty-eight-yearold daughter, Paula, died after a long illness. Allende's memoir, Paula, was written as a long letter to her daughter, explaining the story of her family. The writing of this book, plus the effect of having to face the death of her daughter, drained Allende's creative spirit. In an attempt to rekindle her love of writing, she became involved in a project of putting together a collection of recipes. This lighthearted topic is captured in her book Aphrodite, the title referring to the nature of the recipes, which is food that inspires love.

Allende went on to write Daughter of Fortune (1999) and Portrait in Sepia (2000). The City of Beasts is a story that Allende wrote for an audience of young adults.

Plot Summary

Part 1

Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune begins with the narrator recalling the details of Eliza Sommers's arrival at the home of Rose and Jeremy Sommers. Rose and Jeremy took her in on March 15, 1832, the day celebrated as her birthday.

The Sommers live in Valparaíso, Chile. Rose and Jeremy are brother and sister. Rose takes care of household chores (with the help of Mama Fresia, a native woman who runs the kitchen) while Jeremy directs an import/export business. Rose and Jeremy's brother John is a sea captain who often visits them.

Eliza is something of a plaything for Rose, who likes to dress her in fancy clothes and provide a proper education for her. Mama Fresia, on the other hand, looks after Eliza's physical and psychological welfare. Rose teaches Eliza to play the piano and to enjoy reading. Mama Fresia teaches her to cook and to heal herself with medicinal herbs.

Jacob Todd is introduced early in the first chapter as a "charismatic redhead with the most beautiful preacher's voice." He has come to Chile on a bet, claiming that he can sell three hundred bibles. He is warmly received by the upper echelon of Chilean-British society, including Jeremy and Rose Sommers. It does not take long for Todd to fall in love with Rose, who constantly rebuffs his attentions.

As the story unfolds, Allende inserts a brief history of Chilean culture, including facts about immigration, the influence of the British Empire on society, as well as the controls placed on women, who were expected to remain largely inside the home. Agustín del Valle, a wealthy landowner, is introduced as representing the epitome of wealth, influence, and patriarchy.

Eliza enters puberty with the onset of her menstruation cycle, which Miss Rose tells her not to discuss with anyone. Jeremy, noting that Eliza is maturing, comments that "intelligence is a drawback in a woman," proffering his sentiments about the female sex in general. Rose wants to send Eliza to school, but Jeremy is against it. Rose, in retaliation, refuses to do anything in the home and locks herself away in her bedroom. Jeremy eventually submits.

Feliciano Rodríguez de Santa Cruz and the daughter of landowner Agustín del Valle, Paulina, are introduced next. Feliciano represents the newly established rich class, made so by the discovery of gold. He falls in love with Paulina, a match that her father is against. In order to prevent the two from getting together, he orders that Paulina must be taken to a faraway convent to be raised by the nuns until she comes to her senses. He also commands that her head be shaved to shame her. Todd steps in when he hears of Paulina's fate. He helps Feliciano find her. Eventually, Agustín relents, and Paulina and Feliciano are married.

Next, Todd befriends Joaquín Andieta, a very poor young man who works at Jeremy's business and preaches socialism on the side. Andieta and Todd often meet and discuss politics. Andieta believes that Todd lives "in the clouds," because he believes in a communal society. Andieta is more practical: his goal is to unionize workers and promote land reforms.

Part one closes with Todd being discovered as a fraud (the British community in Chile took him into their circle because they thought he was a preacher) and with Miss Rose trying to find an appropriate suitor for Eliza. Her attempts fail, as she introduces Eliza to Michael Steward, an English naval officer, who turns the tables on Miss Rose and falls for her. Eliza, taking matters into her own hands, falls in love with Joaquín. In a flashback scene, the story of Miss Rose's ill-fated love affair with Karl Bretzner, a Viennese tenor, who, Rose later discovers, is married and has two children, is revealed.

Part 2

Joaquín decides that he must travel to the United States to make his fortune. He and Eliza have been meeting clandestinely, and she mourns his decision. Feliciano and Paulina are also affected by the gold rush, but through Paulina's clever business mind, they decide to invest in a steam ship, which will provide food for the hungry masses of miners in the States. They enlist John as their captain.

Mama Fresia discovers love letters that Joaquín and Eliza have written to one another, thus exposing the secret that the young couple have been involved sexually. Eliza tells her that she will clear her name by marrying Joaquín, and, toward this goal, she must follow him to California. When Mama Fresia realizes that Eliza is pregnant, she concocts a recipe to try to abort the fetus. She is unsuccessful.

John arrives in Chile and introduces Tao Chi'en, a Chinese man who has been working for him. It is through Tao Chi'en that Eliza will be smuggled aboard another ship and taken to California. At the time, Tao does not know that Eliza is pregnant. He only knows that Eliza is in love and must be reunited with Joaquín. Tao, who is suffering the loss of his wife, fully understands Eliza's emotions. He brings her aboard and stows her in the belly of the ship in a small cargo hold.

Media Adaptations

  • Books on Tape, Inc., has a recording of Daughter of Fortune (1999) read by Blair Brown.

In another flashback scene, the story of Tao Chi'en is told. He is the son of a poor healer, who eventually was forced to sell Tao to a group of traveling merchants. When the merchants discover that Tao is a healer, they sell him, in turn, to one of China's greatest acupuncturists as an apprentice. It is through this great healer that Tao receives his name as well as his education in the medicinal arts. When his master dies, Tao travels to Hong Kong, where he sets up a business. According to tradition, Tao looks for a wife who has very small feet, the sign of beauty in Chinese culture at that time. Ironically, it is because of her bound feet (which cause her health to be frail), that his wife, Lin, eventually dies. Later, during a drunken spree, Tao is kidnapped by John and taken aboard his ship.

Tao soon learns that Eliza is pregnant. She becomes seriously ill, and he must take care of her when she miscarries. He cannot be with her at all times, so he enlists the help of Azucena Placeres, a Chilean prostitute who is traveling to San Francisco to set up a business there. She helps Eliza regain her strength, and, for her efforts, Eliza gives her a jeweled necklace.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Eliza dresses as a young boy and accompanies Tao through the town as they search for a place to stay. Although Tao was not planning on staying in San Francisco, he finds that he cannot leave Eliza. She is still too weak to fend for herself. He is not, like everyone around him, interested in finding gold. He would rather set up his medical practice. Meanwhile, back in Chile, Rose meets with Joaquín's mother and finds that he has gone to California. Rose later confides in John, asking him to search for Eliza there.

Part 3

Eliza regains her strength and begins her search for Joaquín. In her costume as a boy, she takes on the identity of Joaquín's brother. Eliza has left Tao in order to widen her search, but she often writes letters to him. She realizes how much she misses him.

It is through her travels that Eliza begins to find her courage and her independence. She sells prepared meals, writes letters for others, and offers her services in the medicinal arts. In the process, she meets new friends, such as Babalu the Bad and Joe Bonecrusher, who travels throughout the gold-mining counties offering entertainment. It is with Joe Bonecrusher's group that Eliza earns a living playing the piano.

Tom No-Tribe is introduced. Joe Bonecrusher adopted the Native American child after his tribe was massacred. Eliza takes to Tom and, when a fire breaks out in the house, saves him. In the meantime, Tao becomes established in his medical practice and becomes an advocate for the young Chinese girls who have been sent to the United States as prostitutes. The girls, some as young as eleven, rarely live more than two years after arriving. Tao eventually finds Eliza and asks that she come back to San Francisco to help him, which she does.

Back in San Francisco, Eliza hears of Joaquín's death. Before going to view his body, she realizes that she has fallen in love with Tao.


Elías Andieta

See Eliza Sommers

Joaquín Andieta

Joaquín is a very poor young man who ekes out a living at Jeremy Sommers's import business. He is a socialist at heart, much like Allende's own uncle, and works hard to try to unionize workers and protest against the government's treatment of the poor. He seduces Eliza with his intelligence and spirit, but it is unclear if he really falls in love with her. Joaquín seems rather to be in love with the idea of socialism. He leaves Chile in pursuit of gold in California. Stories about him abound, especially after Jacob (Todd) Freemont begins to mythologize him in exaggerated newspaper accounts of his activities, renaming him Joaquín Murieta. The story of Joaquín after his arrival in California is obscure. Readers never see him again, so all the details about his whereabouts and his activities are no more verifiable than gossip. He is found dead at the end of the story, having been shot by a group of mercenaries as they supposedly try to rid the West of one more notorious "Mexican" outlaw.

Señora Andieta

Señora Andieta is Joaquín's mother. She is very poor and loves her son very much. She is the one who leads Rose to assume that Eliza has gone to California when Rose visits her and discovers Joaquín's location.

Babalu the Bad

Babalu the Bad is a bodyguard for Joe Bone-crusher's girls. He is very big and said to be able to do the work of several men. He tries to make a "man" out of Eliza, whom he thinks is a bit too feminine to be a boy. He is an illiterate convict from Chicago who walked across the Midwest and the mountains to look for gold in California.

Joe Bonecrusher

Joe Bonecrusher is a very masculine woman who works as a madam in a traveling parlor of prostitutes. She and her girls are protected by Babalu the Bad. Joe befriends Eliza, letting her earn her keep by playing the piano to help entertain the men who come to visit Joe's girls.

Karl Bretzner

Karl Bretzner is an Austrian tenor who goes to London to perform several of Mozart's works for the royal family. He seduces Rose Sommers with his voice. She attends every performance, which he eventually notices and takes advantage of when he invites her to his dressing room. According to the narrator, he is built like a butcher, but his voice arouses an uncontrollable passion in Rose, and she gives in to him. Later, Jeremy Sommers guesses what is going on and investigates Bretzner, discovering that he is a married man and the father of two children.

Tao Chi'en

Tao Chi'en was born in Kwangtun Province in China to a very poor family. His father is a healer, and, before his family sells Tao, he learns many healing properties of plants, a fact that saves his life later when he is resold to a wealthy zhong yi, an acupuncture master, as an apprentice. The master takes Tao Chi'en in as his own son, gives him his name, and teaches him everything that he knows. When the master commits suicide, Tao inherits his money and medical instruments.

Tao then moves to Hong Kong, where he sets up his own practice and marries Lin. Then, in a totally inebriated state, Tao is kidnapped by John and taken aboard his ship to work as a cook. Tao and John become friends, which leads to Tao's being in Chile when Eliza asks for his help in smuggling her aboard a ship that is going to California.

Tao is haunted by the spirit of his wife, but he must accept the fact that his relationship with Eliza is deepening. He sets up a medical practice in San Francisco while Eliza travels through the mining towns in the California mountains, searching for Joaquín. Tao becomes involved in helping to rescue young Chinese girls who are brought into San Francisco as forced prostitutes. In the end, he and Eliza admit their feelings for each other.

Chile Boy

See Eliza Sommers

Agustín del Valle

Agustín del Valle is a character who represents the rich landowners and the power they have in Chile. He is known as a rake (a womanizer) and a severe landlord who often brutalizes his tenants. He is also the epitome of a dictatorial patriarch, as he demands that his family obey him. He rules the women in his family with an exceptionally tight rein, to the point of insisting that his daughter Pauline be taken to a distant convent after she falls in love with a man of whom he does not approve. Pauline defies him, however, demonstrating Allende's rejection of the patriarchal society.

Pauline del Valle

When Pauline del Valle falls in love with Feliciano, her father orders that her hair be cut off to shame her and then sends her to be raised by nuns, locked away in a convent. Pauline is a feisty woman, however, and defies her father by running away from the convent and into the arms of her lover. Eventually, her father relents and allows the young couple to be married. Pauline proves to be a good wife and a very intelligent and intuitive businesswoman.

Jacob Freemont

See Jacob Todd

Mama Fresia

Mama Fresia is of Mapuche Indian descent and works in the Sommers household as a cook and maid. She takes care of Eliza in ways that Rose does not. She tends Eliza's health with medicinal plants and incantations, teaches her skills in the kitchen, and tells her stories from her ancestral mythology. She also teaches Eliza how to read her dreams and how to understand nature. These skills, more than the ones that Rose teaches Eliza, help Eliza to survive during her journey into the Wild West of 1850s California.


Lin is Tao Chi'en's wife. She was brought to Tao through a matchmaker. Tao loved her for her tiny feet, which had been bound since she was a child. She and Tao fall in love upon marrying, and she eventually becomes pregnant but loses the baby. Not much later, she becomes ill. After her death, she appears to Tao and eventually tells him to move on with his life.

Joaquin Murieta

See Joaquín Andieta

Tom No-Tribe

Tom No-Tribe is the adopted son of Joe Bonecrusher. Joe found him after Tom's tribe had been massacred when Tom was only four years old. Eliza tells Tao that she wants to one day have a son as brave as Tom.

Azucena Placeres

Azucena Placeres is a Chilean woman who is on the same ship as Eliza as they go to San Francisco. Tao enlists Azucena's assistance in helping Eliza through her fever. Eliza repays her by giving her one of her necklaces. Later, John recognizes the necklace and insists that she tell him where Eliza is. Azucena lies, telling John that Eliza is dead.

Feliciano Rodriquez de Santa Cruz

Feliciano discovers gold in northern Chile. Since his money is newly found, he is not accepted into the old Chilean aristocracy and is rejected by Agustín del Valle, the father of the woman he loves. Feliciano plots to steal Pauline away from the convent where her father has sent her. Later, after they are married, Feliciano trusts Pauline's intuitive business sense and opens a bank account in her name, giving her money to invest on her own.

Eliza Sommers

Eliza Sommers is the product of an affair between John Sommers and a Chilean woman, whose name John cannot remember. She is left on the doorstep of Rose and Jeremy's house. Her development takes an interesting twist as she learns about British society through Rose and the way of the Chilean peasant through Mama Fresia. At the age of sixteen, she falls in love with Joaquín and has a clandestine love affair, which results in pregnancy. When Joaquín leaves to find gold in California, she insists on following him. To do so, she must sneak away from Rose and Jeremy and be hidden on board a sailing ship.

As she rides in the belly of the vessel in the dark recesses of the very small storage room, she loses her baby and is symbolically reborn to a new sense of self. It is through this experience that she also meets Tao, who will represent a more mature love relationship for her. When she arrives in California, she sets out to find Joaquín. In the process, she finds herself. First, she dons men's clothing and takes on a masculine identity in order to free herself from the prescribed notions of womanhood she has come to know. During this process, she takes on the name of Elías Andieta, the younger brother of Joaquín. Other people whom she meets also give her the nickname Chile Boy. In finding her independence, she discovers that she can redefine her feminine role. In the wild, she learns to earn her own living and to see life as an adventure rather than as a boring process of following someone else's senseless rules. It is then that she realizes that the love for Joaquín was immature. At the time of his death, she realizes that she is free of all the shackles that have held her back.

Jeremy Sommers

Jeremy Sommers is the oldest sibling of the Sommers family, the brother of Rose and John. He is thirty years old and still single when Eliza is left on his doorstep. He travels to Chile, taking his sister Rose with him to escape a scandal she was involved in, and becomes the manager for the British Import and Export Company, Ltd. He is very protective of Rose and also very concerned about appearances. He tries to rule his little family like a dictator but is often thwarted by both Rose and Eliza.

John Sommers

John Sommers is the renegade of the Sommers family. He has spent all of his adult life at sea. He drinks hard and finds pleasure in a wide variety of women. He is the exact opposite of his older brother, Jeremy. He is also the father of Eliza, although he does not admit this until the end of the story.

Rose Sommers

Rose Sommers is Jeremy and John's sister. She has a love affair with the Austrian tenor Karl Bretzner, a married man, while she lives in London. She spends the rest of her life taking care of Jeremy, who remains a bachelor.

When Rose is twenty years old, she takes in a baby girl, whom she names after her mother. She suspects that the baby is a child of her brother John, but she does not confront him with this fact until the end of the story. She lives vicariously through Eliza, doing all that she can to help the young child grow up and find a successful husband. She rarely consults Eliza about her own desires.

Rose enjoys the liberty of not having to submit to the demands of a husband and brushes off several proposals, including those of Jacob Todd. Although she enjoys her semi-independence, she states that she wants Eliza to grow up and have a better fate than her own.

Michael Steward

Michael Steward is a naval officer whom Rose sees as a proper suitor for Eliza. She woos him in Eliza's name, which confuses the young man, who incorrectly assumes that Rose herself is attracted to him.

Jacob Todd

Jacob Todd is referred to as a "charismatic redhead." He comes to Chile on a bet that he can sell three hundred bibles. It is assumed that he is a preacher, a fact that he does not deny, and, eventually, he accepts money built on this assumption. Todd falls in love with Rose but is rebuffed. He later is found out to be a fraud and leaves Chile, only to reappear in the story while Eliza and Tao are in California. In San Francisco, he takes on the name Jacob Freemont and becomes a newspaper reporter who writes a series of exaggerated stories about Joaquín, building him up as an infamous rebel, which ultimately leads to Joaquín's death.

Ah Toy

Ah Toy is based on a real person, a Chinese woman who sets up a house in which men can pay to look at her. This soon leads to more promiscuous activities, which end with Ah Toy becoming a very wealthy madam. She imports young Chinese girls, whom Tao tries to rescue.



One of Allende's main themes is that of patriarchy, which makes reference to a society in which men make all the rules, thus having authority over women and children. She sets this up in the first part of the story by demonstrating Jeremy's control of the Sommers household. She also emphasizes it with the creation of Agustín del Valle and his ruthless behavior toward the people who work for him and toward his daughter, Pauline, who tries to defy him. Allende does this with a purpose. In both cases, with Jeremy and Agustín, the women eventually get their way. No matter how strict the men are, the women do what they have to do in order to pursue their own interests. In parts two and three, Eliza continues to play out the rebellion against patriarchy as she searches for her identity and her independence. In order to do so, she dons men's clothing, stepping into their world and, in essence, competing with them. She is successful in doing so but realizes that she is not a man and is tired of playing the part. When she returns to her feminine self, she gains confidence and independence.


There are many different types of love expressed in this novel. Several of them are paired with a contrasting form to better define each of them. For instance, Rose's love of Eliza is much different from Mama Fresia's love. Rose loves Eliza as a young child might love a doll. She likes to dress her up and show her off. She also uses Eliza in a way to improve on her own life—to discipline Eliza so she will not make the same mistakes that Rose made growing up. Mama Fresia, on the other hand, loves Eliza for herself. She wants to help mold her so that Eliza will grow up strong.

Eliza is also torn between two loves. First, there is Joaquín, whom she falls in love with upon first sight and with whom she shares her first sexual relationship. She follows him to California because of her feelings for him but realizes, in the process, that she hardly even knows him. As she matures and becomes more independent, she realizes that her strong friendship to Tao is a deeper kind of love and, upon Joaquín's death, she comments that she is free (supposedly free of her fixation on Joaquín).

Tao Chi'en also has an early love, with his wife Lin. Although the love between them appears more true than the feelings shared between Eliza and Joaquín, Tao chooses his wife because of the small size of her feet. Her feet were bound in childhood, so they would not grow to adult size, an ancient Chinese practice. Tao found out too late that this practice actually compromised his wife's health. Because of her crippled feet, Lin was more dependent on Tao. Later, Tao realizes that he enjoyed the mature relationship with Eliza, a woman who learned to fend for herself.

Rose also has two different kinds of love. She falls madly in love with Karl Bretzner. Their love was passionate but very temporary, because Bretzner was a married man. However, Rose was so consumed with this passion that she required no more love in her life, at least not from a man. She has many other suitors, but they are all rather comical in comparison to her affair with Bretzner. Jacob Todd, for instance, loves Rose for no discernible reason; and the young suitor Michael Steward is a fool whose affections Rose acknowledges with horror.


Medicine is a topic that runs throughout the novel, but it is medicine as seen through different cultures. Mama Fresia comes from a tribe indigenous to Chile. She heals Eliza with concoctions and spells. Tao learned traditional Chinese medicine and treats his patients with a combination of herbs, plants, and acupuncture. He befriends Ebanizer Hobbs, a Western-taught physician who knows more about exploratory surgery than about natural healing. Tao would like to learn more about Western techniques from Hobbs in order to broaden his skills; and thus the two world views about medicine merge.

Topics For Further Study

  • There are many different types of fortunes discussed in Isabel Allende's novel, some made in gold mines, some made in prostitution, others made in the ownership of land. But what kind of fortune do you think Allende refers to when she titles her book Daughter of Fortune? She most certainly is alluding to Eliza as the daughter, but what is Eliza's fortune? Back up your answer with specific instances from the novel.
  • Research the story of Ah Toy. Did she really import young girls and force them to be prostitutes? Were there no laws to protect them? Are there current laws in California that would prevent the same thing from happening today? Research the prostitute rings in Thailand that are similar to the business that Ah Toy was running. Are there any groups or laws that are trying to protect the young Thai women?
  • Write a paper about the progression of rights of women in Chile from the beginning of the nineteenth century until today. How have they changed? Are there any leaders who stand out? How does the feminist movement differ from the one in the United States? Are women freer in Chile? Did they gain any rights earlier than women in the United States? What are some of the statistics of women in business in Chile? In politics?
  • What were the sailing vessels like that traveled from South America to California in 1850? Find illustrations not just of the outside of a ship that would be comparable to the one that Eliza sailed on but also of the inside structure. How did all the people and animals and cargo fit in the ship? How much room did the passengers have to walk around? What would their daily routine have been like while at sea? What about the crew? What kinds of jobs would they have held? What kind of food did they eat? What are the statistics of deaths aboard such ships?
  • Create a journal as if you were Eliza during the course of her sea voyage. What do you think must have been going through her mind? Imagine how you would have felt to have been enclosed in such a small cabin for so long, swaying with the waves, afraid of dying but almost equally scared to face yet another day in such dismal conditions. Remember how protected her life had been: she had hardly ever been out of her house alone, yet now she was sailing to another country. What do you think kept her alive?


Point of View

Allende tells her story through a third-person narrator. The strength of this approach is that the narrator can relate events through various positions, following one character after another as they act out their roles. This allows the reader a broad but limited view. It is broad because the narrator sees the story, like a person with a video camera, as the story unfolds. The camera is not fixed to any one point. Thus the reader views Miss Rose, for example, as she struggles with her brothers, whether or not Eliza, the protagonist, is involved in the scene. The narrator is limited, though, because there is very little knowledge of what is going on inside the mind of any character. Thus the reader is mostly left on his or her own in drawing conclusions about the emotions and psychological challenges that the characters experience. Conclusions can be drawn on a surface level, however, through an observation of the characters' actions, the dialogues they are involved in, and occasional and general comments by the narrator. One such observation is made about Tai Chi'en: "Tai Chi'en sank into widowhood with total despair," the narrator comments, thus giving the reader a sense of Tai Chi'en's feelings about his wife's death.

Historical Account

Allende has written her novel as if she were giving a historical account about actual events. She conveys this image through many different devices. First of all, she uses specific dates. She divides her book, for instance, into three separate parts, and each one is assigned a specific time period. Part one takes place between 1843 and 1848, while part two continues through 1848 and 1849, and part three between 1850 and 1853. Allende also supplies the birth date of Eliza, the female protagonist, as March 15, 1832; and she gives the date of Joaquín's departure for California as December 22, as well as Tao and Eliza's arrival there as "a Tuesday in April of 1849."

Allende also incorporates specific historical events into her novel. The California gold rush was a real event, as was the statehood of California, which occurred in 1850. She mentions the years of great immigrations into Chile and the discovery of copper and the subsequent economic impact on Chile's economy. Furthermore, Allende refers to real historic figures such as French painter Raymond Monvoisin (1790–1870); John Marshall, who was the first to discover gold in California; and Ah Toy, a Chinese immigrant who made her fortune in houses of prostitution.


Allende keeps her readers riveted to her story by creating quests for several of her characters. As her characters passionately set out on their adventures, readers naturally want to tag along to discover what will happen to them. Eliza, for instance, enters on her quest to find her lover Joaquín while he looks for gold. Tao also is on a quest, first to become a healer, then to find a wife. Next, he enters on a new quest as he starts his life all over. Eliza's is the most prominent quest and the most transformational, as she changes from a pampered and dependent child of a well-to-do English-Chilean family to an independent woman who redefines herself.

Divided Story

Daughter of Fortune is written in two different styles. Most of part one is told in an expansive or comprehensive way with only a slight emphasis on Eliza, the protagonist. This section is filled with different characters, some who play a major role in Eliza's life and some who barely interact with her. Background material is given for the Sommers family and for Chile. Characters are allowed extensive introductions. The relationships between Rose and Jacob Todd and between Pauline del Valle and Feliciano Rodríguez de Santa Cruz are explored extensively.

However, in parts two and three, the focus of the story tightens as Allende zooms in on the details of the lives of her female and male protagonists, Eliza and Tao. The section begins with Tao helping Eliza leave Chile; then Allende creates a flashback in Tao's background. She follows them as they land in California and temporarily go their separate ways, only to reunite and realize their love.

Historical Context

Overview of Chile's Contemporary Political History

Chile is a long, narrow country that extends down the western shore of South America from Peru and Bolivia at the north to the Straits of Magellan and the base of Argentina to the south. Much of Chile's economy is based on agriculture and mining, chiefly of copper. The mines were traditionally owned by the country's elite. However, in the twentieth century, they were taken over by U.S.-based companies, a fact that ultimately affected Chile's politics.

The political atmosphere of Chile tended to be very conservative, controlled by the moneyed classes of landowners, businessmen, and mine owners who supported the National Party or Partaido Nacional (PN). However, this changed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when socialist and communist parties emerged, calling for land reform, better working conditions, and a more uniform distribution of the country's wealth. This is the same time that U.S. interests in Chile's copper mines occurred.

During the 1950s and 1960s, political parties from the left and the right vied for control of the government, with conservative capitalist Jorge Alessandri winning the elections in 1958 and the Christian Democrat, or Partido Democrata Cristiana (PDC), candidate Eduardo Frei winning in 1964. It was during this election that Frei is reported to have received great financial assistance from the United States in his bid for office because U.S. business interests did not want to see socialist Salvador Allende, his competitor, come into power.

In 1969, the PDC split into right-wing and left-wing factions, thus dividing their political clout. Inflation and unemployment were also rising, adding more intensity to the socialist bid to make land reforms and to redistribute the profits of the big Chilean businesses. Therefore, when the 1970 elections came around, there was a three-way race for president. On the far right was former president Alessandri. The left had two candidates: Salvador Allende, the most radical, and Radomiro Tomic, who was supported by the PDC. Allende surprised everyone by eking out a victory, thus becoming the world's first freely elected socialist president.

Allende's objective was to replace Chile's economic structure by ousting the capitalists and the large landowners. Industry would be nationalized, social programs would be created, and wages would be increased as profits were decreased; unemployment would, therefore, decline. One year after his election, general salaries had indeed risen by almost 50 percent. U.S. mines were confiscated, which ultimately caused an escalation of U.S. involvement in attempts to destabilize the Chilean economy by dropping aid programs and establishing economic sanctions. Shortly afterwards, inflation in Chile rose and production fell.

Allende sensed that he was in trouble. However, he had very few places to turn to in order to find support. He had little control over Congress and over the military (whose officers were mainly U.S. trained). The media was controlled by capitalists who did not approve of his policies.

General Augusto Pinochet seized power on September 11, 1973, bombing the presidential palace and shooting anyone on the streets who was not wearing a specifically colored shirt. Allende was later found shot to death, an event that was called a suicide. Thousands of Allende's supporters were killed, and the rest were sent into forced exile. Pinochet immediately dissolved Congress and banned all leftist political parties. Many people were reportedly tortured during his first years in office. He did, however, restore the economy but was eventually and peacefully voted out of office in 1989.

Former president Eduardo Frei coordinated human rights tribunals during the 1990s as a result of the actions of Pinochet, but the strong military power thwarted many of Frei's attempts. Pinochet stepped down as commander-in-chief of the military in 1988, but, before doing so, he created for himself a constitutional lifetime seat in Chile's Senate. He also declared political immunity for himself in any future trials. He was, nonetheless, arrested in 1999 while visiting London. He returned to Chile in 2001, where the courts ruled that he is too ill to stand trial.

California's Gold Rush

In January 1848, John Sutter's work crew was in the process of building a saw mill on the American River in Coloma, California, a small town outside of Sacramento, when John Marshall found a handful of gold nuggets in the water. The news quickly spread, marking this event as the beginning of California's gold rush and one of the largest human migrations in history. Over one-half million people descended upon the golden state. It would also mark the birth of an industry that would last one hundred years.

The news of the gold rush reached China in 1848, and thousands of people sold everything they owned in order to sail to California. Upon arrival, most Chinese people were met with hostility. They were often resented by American-born prospectors, who tended to believe that the land belonged to them. Other miners were even more hostile if and when the Chinese stakes proved to be valuable. In these instances, several Chinese miners had their land stolen, their claims renamed, and sometimes their lives threatened.

Many women from China resorted to prostitution to pay for their voyages from their homeland, while others turned to traditional professions as doctors, restaurant and laundry shop owners, and farmers.

The Latino population in California at this time suffered greatly. Squatters were known to take over large ancestral Mexican estates, an act that was often sanctioned by the U.S. government. Anti-Mexican sentiment in California spread to include other Latino cultures. People from Central and South America were regarded as unwanted foreigners and were often driven out of their own mines by groups of angry and aggressive men. Reacting to both the hostility against individuals and the court decisions that always seemed to go against them, groups of Mexican vigilantes began to form. New laws against Latinos were quickly written, but only in English, as the legislature refused to translate them into Spanish.

Critical Overview

Allende is one of the most popular female writers from Latin America. She is also one of the leading South American feminists. Her female characters

rebuke the traditional confines of patrimony and often challenge the roles that are imposed on them by their society. However, in Daughter of Fortune, Sophia A. McClennen states for Review of Contemporary Fiction, Allende has gone one step further: "… the protagonist recognizes that her identity does not depend entirely on the man she loves." McClennen also points out that, by Allende disguising her protagonist as a boy throughout the last half of the novel, she provides many interesting topics of discussion about "gendered identities."

Peter Donaldson, writing for New Statesman, found Daughter of Fortune to possibly be Allende's best novel yet. Although he feels that the second half of Allende's book seems to be diverted from the "driven clarity" of the beginning of the story, he still enjoyed the broadened scope of her work as she leaves Chile behind and attempts to illustrate the turbulent times associated with California and the gold rush.

Daughter of Fortune is more like a "television miniseries than a motion picture," proclaimed Ruth Lopez for the New York Times Book Review. The novel "tells a pleasurable story," writes Lopez, but there is "nothing profound in the novel's prose." Nonetheless, Lopez finds that Allende "smoothly navigates" the reader through the story. R. Z. Sheppard, in a review for Time, also praises Allende's storytelling skills, referring to Daughter of Fortune as a "riproaring girl's adventure story." Sheppard finds that Allende exemplified a new approach of feminist writers who have been "plugging late 20th century cultural attitudes into a spacious 19th century literary vehicle." Allende's writing, according to Sheppard, demonstrates a confident woman's point of view.

On the other hand, Michiko Kakutani, writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, does not appreciate Allende's "feminist lamentations" on the state of nineteenth-century women. Kakutani finds Allende's characters to be "simplistic and trite" and refers to the book as a "bodice-ripper romance." She much prefers Allende's first novel, The House of Spirits over Daughter of Fortune.

Writing for the Guardian, Alex Clark also expresses disappointment with Daughter of Fortune, again preferring Allende's earlier works. The scope of the novel is too broad, Clark believes, and this gives Allende too little time to deepen her characters' development. However, there are moments in the narrative, especially those that concern "the enigmatic Rose," Clark writes, in which Allende demonstrates her storytelling skills and "her ear for the intriguing and bizarre."


Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and writes primarily on literary themes. In this essay, Hart examines the symbolism surrounding the rebirth of Allende's female protagonist, Eliza.

Similar to the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, Isabel Allende throws her female protagonist Eliza into the darkest recesses of a sailing ship, forcing her young heroine to confront her innermost convictions. The challenge brings Eliza close to death, but she prevails and goes on to claim a new identity. Her journey, as told in Daughter of Fortune, takes her from South to North America as well as from adolescence to adulthood. It is a voyage rich in symbols of a developing woman who rebels against a confining patriarchy and then must fill the void with a new definition of self.

Allende is often referred to as the Latina proponent of feminism. Her stories are driven by women who defy the constraints that their society imposes. They are raised under the dictates of a strict patriarchy that wants to silence them, and they must find the courage to create their own voices. Eliza Sommers exemplifies a typical Allende feminist heroine as she is first molded by her adopted parent-figures, who believe that the best possible future for her is to be kept by a man. Although Daughter of Fortune ends with Eliza in love with a man, she enters that relationship as an equal partner only after she has completed a journey in which she develops self-confidence and independence.

The story begins with another subtle biblical allusion, this time to the prophet Moses, as the narrator relates the story of how Eliza, as a baby, was abandoned. The memories of that day are mixed. Eliza believes that she was lying in a soapbox, for she remembers the scent; but Rose says that she found the baby Eliza in a wicker basket, reminiscent of Moses's adoption. Although the details of her life are not significantly tied to the story of Moses, Eliza is, in her own way, a leader, demonstrating through her adventures that there is a path that women can follow which will lead to freedom.

Eliza's own oppression comes in many forms. She must first deal with Rose, who insists on dressing her in fancy clothes to impress her societal friends. Because Eliza must not dirty these expensive dresses, she is imprisoned within them, unable to romp around the house like the playful child that she is. As she grows older, she must wear a corset, a tightly strung and stiffly reinforced bodice that artificially creates a small waist and a high-rising bosom—feminine features that attract men. To encourage a so-called correct posture, Eliza is also outfitted with a metal rod that is placed down her back as she practices the piano. Although Rose herself is gladly unmarried, understanding that she is a lot freer as a single woman, she wants to raise Eliza in a way that eliminates the mistakes that she made as a young woman. She spouts feminist attitudes and enjoys her semi-independent role, but she is thrown into confusion when she takes on the role of motherhood. Eliza is named for Rose's mother, and possibly the thought of her mother makes Rose review her own life through a filter tainted by the prejudices and conditionings of an earlier generation. The result is that Rose's rebellion, which she found gratifying, is suddenly overlaid with a film of guilt. As a mother, she feels more responsible socially and therefore constrains (or attempts to constrain) Eliza's natural impulses. Upon Eliza's reaching puberty, for instance, Rose warns her that men will now be able to do with her whatever they want, suggesting that Eliza should be wary of her own sexual stirrings. Rose looks upon Eliza's menstruation as a curse, and discussions about emotions are forbidden. Just as Eliza's body is confined in rigid undergarments reinforced from time to time with unyielding metal rods, so are her heart and soul contained. The material restrictions on her body are symbolic of the encumbrances of fear and guilt placed on her emotions and on her spirit.

Fortunately for Eliza, she has Mama Fresia, who has her own limitations but who at least provides Eliza with another interpretation of reality. Mama Fresia is an earthy woman who encourages Eliza to play in the dirt, to learn the language of plants and animals, and to understand the power of her dreams. In other words, she is almost the exact opposite of Rose. She is, however, a little too concerned with superstitions and has a fear of poverty and rejection. Although she tells Eliza to trust the messages that she receives in her dreams (an outlet for the emotions), she does not approve of Eliza's fixation on the young suitor Joaquín. However, when Eliza tells her that she is pregnant, Mama Fresia attempts to help her with an abortion. Mama Fresia is not a totally independent woman, but she is an alternative to Rose, feeding Eliza's imagination with the possibility that there may be other feminine definitions to discover.

Some of these feminine definitions are also brought out through Joaquín, who arouses Eliza's sexuality. Although she has rebelled against some of the restraints placed on her by Rose and Jeremy, it is not until she meets Joaquín that she totally defies them. She sneaks out of the house and then lies to cover her tracks. She is driven with the need to explore something about herself that no one had previously ever spoken of: passion. Joaquín epitomizes passion. He is a driven man, determined to change the world; and Eliza is infected with his zeal. The two young people mate, but not for purposes of conception. The birth that will proceed from their union is not a combination of their genes but rather a symbolic rebirth of Eliza herself.

She begins her trip tenuously as she is sneaked aboard and then taken down into the bowels of the vessel: "There, in the darkest, deepest pit of the ship, in a two-by-two meter hole, went Eliza….She could … cry and scream as much as she wished, because the sloshing of the waves against the ship swallowed her voice." It is here that Eliza plays out the story of Jonah and the whale. She, too, has been symbolically swallowed. It is here that she will spend the next several weeks, where she will have nothing but herself to confront. She will suffer the loss of the small fetus that resides in her womb and then will fall into a semiconscious state. She will be kept alive on a sparse diet, spiked with a hint of morphine to ease her pain. During her time in the darkness of the ship, she is stripped of her past identity, as symbolized by her miscarriage: the loss of an undeveloped self. The unconscious state of her mind, enhanced with drugs and hallucinations, represents a trip into the depths of her soul. When she recovers, she finds that one journey has ended, but, like Jonah who was finally spit out by the whale, yet another adventure is about to begin. Upon her arrival on the shores of North America, she arises, weakened not only physically but also in orientation. She is in a new land with new definitions still waiting to be tried on. She will don the clothes and identity of a man to protect herself; and it will take time before she understands in which new direction she must go.

In her male disguise, Eliza symbolically puts on the mantle of masculine traits, although this happens gradually. At first, she is too frail to fend for herself and must rely upon Tao, who continues to reinforce her health, which he does naturally through medicinal herbs and good nutrition. He also encourages her to be aggressive in her pursuit of who she is and what she wants. Eliza tries to figure it all out, but she has not fully arrived in the present. Parts of her past still haunt her; and before coming to any specific conclusions, she falls back on the training she received from Mama Fresia, who taught her everything she knows about the culinary arts. In this capacity, she serves meals to the miners around her, taking up the feminine position of nurturer. However, she soon tires of this role; and although her courage has blossomed and she is able to bid farewell (at least temporarily) to Tao, she is still influenced by her immature passions. Since she has no clear definition yet of who she will become, she again fixes her drive on Joaquín, who represents the stimulus that began her transformation. She falsely believes, though, that it is through Joaquín that she will be able to find herself.

Critics have commented that this is how most of Allende's previous novels have ended. The female protagonist rebels against the patriarchy that dominates her life only to turn to a man in order to define herself. Not so in Daughter of Fortune, although at this point in the story it looks as if that is exactly what Eliza is about to do. For a large portion of the remaining story, Eliza is involved in the pursuit of Joaquín, yet he is always elusive. He is represented in a rumor here, a confabulated tale somewhere else, but he never appears in the flesh. This is because Eliza's real quest is not based on finding Joaquín but in finding herself, which she does obliquely through her supposed need of him.

She makes her way through the man's world of the Wild West, where the few women that she encounters are either prostitutes, women whom the narrator describes as being men born in women's bodies, or effeminate men whom Eliza suspects are women, like herself, in male disguise. At one point in her journey, Babalu the Bad, a man who befriends her, tells Eliza that she is too weak and that he is going to make a man out of her. Shortly after this, the narrator states that Eliza "had no idea what trail to follow." The narrator is referring to Eliza's pursuit of Joaquín, but the statement also serves as commentary on the status of Eliza's thoughts. She has grown tired of searching for the elusive Joaquín. "Joaquín Andieta had evaporated in the confusion of the times," the narrator relates. He had turned into someone with whom Eliza could no longer identify, and without him Eliza feels suddenly lost. However, it does not take long for her to realize that the consequences of her quest have taught her quite a lot. She begins to realize how little she really knows about Joaquín and questions why she is looking for him. Everything about him has become confused in her mind to the point that their brief shared history appears as a fantasy. It is at this juncture that Eliza fully faces reality, one that she has conceived on her own. It is also at this point that Tao finds her and invites her to return with him to San Francisco. Eliza tells him that she is tired of dressing like a man. "It's very boring to be your stupid little brother, Tao," she says. He responds: "You won't have to dress as a man; there are women everywhere now." These statements are loaded with allusions to a change not only in Eliza but also in the relationship between Eliza and Tao. Tao wants Eliza to return with him, as if he understands that her solo journey is completed. He also implies that their relationship can now go beyond the platonic. The feminine is blossoming everywhere!

Eliza returns with Tao and discovers that she enjoys working with him, helping other pubescent girls disentangle themselves from oppression. She does not need to be with him. Rather, she has chosen to share a relationship with him. She has graduated into a much more fully developed woman. She feels so confident about her new position that she allows her more feminine traits to once again rise to the surface. She discards, at least momentarily, her masculine props and puts on one of her old dresses. When she does so, however, she refuses to constrain herself in the tight corset that she used to wear. The days of confinement are over. She neither has to enhance the physical aspects of her femininity through unnatural means nor bolster her confidence by adapting a masculine stance. She now understands what it means to be an independent woman, a definition that she has created for herself.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Daughter of Fortune, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.

Daniel Toronto

Toronto is an editor at the Pennsylvania State University Press. In this essay, Toronto discusses Eliza's journey to becoming a free woman and its significance.

The title of Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune is Hija de Fortuna in the original Spanish, and while the popular English translation of the title is in no way incorrect, another translation is possible. In Spanish, a common way of expressing possession is to use the preposition de—or in English, "of." The phrase "David's friend" would be expressed amigo de David, which, when translated back into English word-for-word, is "friend of David." Along the same lines, Hija de Fortuna can be translated as "Fortune's Daughter." This alternative translation brings out an interesting interpretation of the title that implies the offspring, product, or results of fortune rather than the meaning that comes to mind at first glance: the female progeny of a wealthy family. Both meanings are valid in the context of the novel. Eliza, the heroine, is the daughter of a relatively well-to-do family. She also, by the end of the book, has become a new, more fully developed person, which could not have happened without the occurrence of certain unlikely events. In other words, luck was key to her growth as an individual. This is not to say, however, that she did not possess any characteristics that contributed to her maturation. She is clearly a determined and adventuresome person with an obvious free spirit that would be difficult to completely suppress in any circumstances. The course of Daughter of Fortune takes Eliza on a journey that leads to her becoming a developed and liberated individual, a journey that is the result of a combination of fortune as well as Eliza's strength and tenacity as she strives to realize her desires. This allows the author to present a criticism of the oppressive, and generally male-dominated, situations that Eliza is subject to while at the same time offering hope to readers who may be suffering under similar limitations.

The importance of Eliza's faculties are established immediately when the very first line of the novel reads, "Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory." Both are invaluable to her throughout the book. Her ability to detect exactly what is in a dish by smell allows her, on several occasions, to earn a living by cooking when she has no other financial means. Her memory allows her access to her past. Whether recalling the teachings of Mama Fresia, stoking her desire by thinking of Joaquín's touch, or maintaining connection with Tao Chi'en through a cognitive recreation of his scent, her memory serves on a number of occasions. Other, likely more significant virtues, contribute to her survival as well as her growth. Her obstinacy allows her to persevere in the face of many obstacles:

"Give me your blessing, Mamita," she asked. "I have to go to California to look for Joaquín."

"How can you do that, alone and pregnant!" Mama Fresia exclaimed with horror.

"If you don't help me, I'll do it alone."

"I am going to tell Miss Rose everything!"

"If you do, I'll kill myself. And then I will come and haunt you for the rest of your days. I swear I will," the girl returned with fierce determination.

This determination serves her on many occasions. It carries her into and through her love affair with Joaquín Andieta. It leads her to make a deal with Tao Chi'en, a near stranger at the time, that will allow her to follow her lover to California. It gives her strength when she is shut up in the hull of a ship, suffering from sickness and a dangerous miscarriage. She is able to give up rules and conventions, instilled in her from a very early age, to the point that she lives and dresses as a hardworking, lower-class man in order to survive and continue the pursuit of her lover. At one point, she writes to Tao Chi'en, saying "I am finding new strength in myself; I may always have had it and just didn't know because I'd never had to call on it. I don't know at what turn in the road I shed the person I used to be, Tao."

A gift she does not posses, however, is foresight:

She had left Chile with the purpose of finding her lover and becoming his slave forever, believing that was the way to extinguish her thirst to submit and her hidden wish for possession, but now she doubted that she could give up those new wings beginning to sprout on her shoulders.

Without her intending it, "[Eliza] fell in love with freedom." Once she has it, she does not let it go, and in fact continues to push the envelope. She finds a way to have all she desires without sacrificing her freedom. Miss Rose, her adoptive mother, had found "independence she would never have with a husband." However, it came at a great cost. Rose had to give up the love of her life as well as any possibility of having a lover in the future. She has given up the chance of ever having a child of her own, and, possibly the most painful of all, she is condemned to living her life under the rule of a strict brother who cringes at the idea of showing any sort of physical affection towards his sister. Eliza, on the other hand, has a romantic relationship with Tao Chi'en, a man whom she at one point looks at and "realized that she had never been so close to anyone." Eliza lives freely with Tao Chi'en, and as his equal. It is foreshadowed throughout the book that she has a long relationship with him, which, of course, allows for the possibility of her having her own children. Though initially Eliza is limited in that she must live as a man, she eventually finds the will and courage to live openly as a free woman. She is so confident of her freedom that she even tells Tao Chi'en, "I am going to write Miss Rose." Her determination in going after what she wants in combination with her love of freedom allows her to reestablish a connection to a family that she loves, despite the possibility of their making an attempt to control her again.

However, even in view of these displays of character, it is still undeniable that Eliza's journey toward freedom could not have happened without certain fortunate happenings. To begin with, Eliza would never have had the same chances at freedom that she did if she hadn't been placed on the doorstep of the Sommerses' home. To be a member of the lower class in Valparaíso, Chile, could have been too much to overcome, even for the obstinate Eliza. The example we have from Daughter of Fortune of a peasant-class citizen attempting

to achieve liberation, Joaquín Andieta, ends up dying for his cause. Who knows how much more difficult it would have been for a woman in such a situation. It is also fortunate that it was Joaquín Andieta she fell hopelessly in love with:

She regretted nothing she had shared with her lover, nor was she ashamed of the fires that had changed her life; just the opposite, she felt that they had tempered her, made her strong, given her pride in making decisions and paying the consequences for them.

This passion had clearly been important for her, and it also led her to California, where, as Eliza writes, men "bow to no one because they are inventing equality."

Eliza's miscarriage, though sad and nearly fatal, drastically increases her chances of independence and survival, judging by the examples of Joaquín's mother and the singsong girls. Joaquín's mother is driven into poverty by her family after bearing an illegitimate son; the singsong girls are left to die when they can no longer perform their services as a result of pregnancy. There is clearly no reverence for a woman pregnant with an illegitimate child in these settings.

Several instances of small, unlikely events drastically change the course of the story. Purely by coincidence, Tao Chi'en arrives at the bar in Valparaíso at the same time as Eliza and Mama Fresia and subsequently saves them from two sailors who are "clearly drunk and looking for trouble." Then there is the second chance meeting with Tao Chi'en a short time later that leads Eliza to California. Of course, neither would have happened without John Sommers' deciding to kidnap him in the first place.

By contrast, luck is not on the side of the singsong girls, the young women who are captured or sold into slavery, only a fraction of whom Tao Chi'en is able to save. More often than not, they are forced into prostitution, their pimps caring nothing for them and depositing them in empty rooms, absurdly termed "hospitals," to die when they are pregnant or too sick to serve. Sometimes even poison is used so the pimps can be rid of the bodies more quickly. Those Tao Chi'en is able to give a better life are forever scarred:

The less fortunate, who were freed at almost their last breaths from the "hospital," never lost the fear that like a disease in the blood would consume them for the rest of their days. Tao Chi'en hoped that with time they would at least learn to smile occasionally.

Though these girls, and they are only girls, do have the chance at a better life through the generosity of Tao Chi'en, they will never be completely liberated from the trauma of their experiences. There are also the countless others that Tao Chi'en never has the chance to help.

I do not think Allende intends her readers to think that the singsong girls, if as talented or capable as Eliza, could escape their fates. Allende's harsh depictions of cruelty and injustice in Daughter of Fortune demonstrate that she means to criticize the occurrence of such atrocities as well as the societies that allow them to happen. She wants her audience to see that even her heroine could not contend with such adversity, that Eliza is indeed fortune's daughter. At the same time, the fact that Eliza would not have been able to complete her journey of growth through luck alone makes her a recommendation for those who are similarly oppressed, as many of her readers would be. Allende was born in Peru and raised in Chile, and according to Patricia Hart in Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende, "Practically speaking, feminism in many Latin American countries is in its infancy."

As Nora Erro-Peralta says in her essay on Allende in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Despite this incredibly painful, difficult material, her works are not filled with a sense of pessimism or despair." Daughter of Fortune focuses on Eliza and not the singsong girls, therefore leaving the readers with a sense of hope. Eliza still overcomes incredible adversity to achieve as much freedom as any male of her society at the time, and she does so while still embracing life and her femininity. According to Hart, Allende's writing satisfies the lament of Erica Jong's character Isadora, concerning the lack of feminine role models in literature:

… Flannery O'Connor raising peacocks and living with her mother. Sylvia Plath sticking her head into an oven of myth. Georgia O'Keeffe alone in the desert, apparently a survivor. What a group! Severe, suicidal, strange. Where was the female Chaucer? One lusty lady who had juice and joy and love and talent too?

In Isabel Allende: A Critical Study of Her Work, Esperanza Granados states "… Allende's female point of view is oriented towards offering poetic solutions to many of the crises faced by Chileans and by other Latin Americans as well." The thesis was published before Daughter of Fortune was written, but the sentiments still clearly apply. I do not think Allende would question that all deserve freedom. When freedom is not a given, however, Allende provides us with Eliza to lead the way, on the chance that it can still be earned.

Source: Daniel Toronto, Critical Essay on Daughter of Fortune, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.

Charlotte Mayhew

Mayhew is a freelance writer. In this essay, Mayhew discusses the different interpretations of Isabel Allende's novel Daughter of Fortune.

Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende's ninth book, defies classification into a single type, or genre, of literature. Critical reviews of the novel, which was published originally in Barcelona, Spain, in 1998, offer up interpretations of Allende's work that focus on her apparent political views, the elements of magical realism in her work, and the aspects of her work that seem overtly feminist. None of these interpretations do justice to the story or to the complexity of the finished novel, which blends many elements together seamlessly to form a satisfying and complete whole.

The novel starts out by focusing on the early life and development of the female protagonist, Eliza Sommers. Eliza is a foundling who is left, shortly after her birth, in the garden of the house inhabited by Rose Sommers, an Englishwoman living with her brother, Jeremy Sommers, an executive of the British Import and Export Company, Ltd., in Valparaíso, Chile, in the 1830s. Miss Rose has no prospects of or interest in marriage herself but is thrilled at the chance to be a mother to this needy infant. Against her brother Jeremy's objections, she takes the baby in, naming her Eliza after their mother. It is revealed much later in the novel that Eliza is, in fact, the love child of their brother John. Rose knows this, though she keeps it secret, and this influences her firm stance on the treatment of Eliza throughout the novel. As Eliza is completely unaware of the family connection, she does not feel bound to the family, except emotionally. When the time comes for her to choose between facing an uncertain future in Chile and following her lover to California, she follows her lover without a tremendous sense of guilt.

Eliza's early childhood is shaped by the influence of the housekeeper, Mama Fresia, Rose and Jeremy Sommers, their brother John Sommers, and the frequent visitors to the Sommerses' house. Eliza is taught English standards of behavior when Miss Rose has the time and inclination to pay attention to her. When Miss Rose is busy, Eliza's care falls to Mama Fresia, the Sommerses' housekeeper and a native Chilean.

Eliza grows up with a blend of two distinctly different cultures, both of which mold the person she becomes. The first is the more repressed English society, represented by Jeremy and Rose Sommers. When Eliza is an adolescent, Rose tells her,

I would happily give my life to have the freedom a man has, Eliza. But we are women, and that is our cross. All we can do is try to get the best from the little we have.

Rose then launches a campaign to educate Eliza in all the social niceties she will need to make a good marriage, including piano lessons. When Eliza eventually travels to California, she spends months playing the piano for a traveling brothel—hardly what Miss Rose had intended. It is a wonderful bit of irony that the one skill Eliza hated and Miss Rose insisted would be necessary does, in fact, enable Eliza to pay her way when her life takes her on a very different path than the one Rose Sommers had planned for her.

This part of the novel lends itself to feminist interpretation because of the character of Miss Rose, as it is slowly divulged. She is at first shown as a prim and proper English spinster—a rather flat character. It is revealed later that Miss Rose lives with her brother partly to escape the social ruin she faced in England after a disastrous affair with a traveling tenor who was, unfortunately, married. Towards the end of the novel, Eliza remembers Miss Rose saying to her, "A woman can do anything she wants, Eliza, as long as she does it discreetly." In her spare time and without the knowledge of her brother Jeremy, Miss Rose writes risqué novels which her brother John brings to her publisher in London. John uses some of the proceeds to buy Eliza presents and jewelry for her dowry.

Likewise, Eliza also uses the jewelry her unbeknownst-to-either-of-them father, John Sommers, has been collecting for her dowry on his voyages around the globe. Eliza bribes Tao Chi'en to smuggle her onto a ship bound for California with a pearl necklace from her dowry. When Eliza miscarries and falls sick mid-voyage, Tao bribes Azucena Placeres, another passenger, with a turquoise-studded brooch to help care for Eliza. It is this brooch that John Sommers eventually sees Azucena wearing in California, though she lies and tells him Eliza died on the voyage.

While Eliza is still in Chile, Miss Rose's interest in Eliza waxes and wanes, depending on the other projects she is working on. This inconstant attention serves Eliza well in the future by making her self-sufficient and self-reliant. It also allows Eliza to spend more time with Mama Fresia, the Sommerses' housekeeper, who teaches Eliza the things that she values:

That was how Eliza learned Indian legends and myths, how to read signs of the animals and the sea, how to recognize the habits of the spirits, and the messages in dreams, and also how to cook.

These skills also serve Eliza well when she journeys to California. She earns money reading letters to the illiterate miners and writing letters back to their families. She earns money to buy a horse and other supplies for her search for Joaquín Andieta by cooking and selling her excellent food; she also cooks for the traveling brothel. Eliza's imaginative meals earn her the friendship of the group's bouncer, Babalu the Bad; later, her skills at healing earn her his respect. Because of her knowledge of herbs, both for cooking and for healing, she earns the respect of Tao Chi'en. Unlike many of the other women in the novel, Eliza has been strangely well-equipped by Miss Rose and Mama Fresia for the unusual path her life has taken. As heroines go, Eliza Sommers is not run-of-the-mill. This is one of the most refreshing things about the novel. The story Allende weaves is so dense with themes that it is nearly impossible to predict the next plot twist.

In a 1991 interview with Jacqueline Cruz, Jacqueline Mitchell, Silvia Pellarolo and Javier Rangel, in response to a question about "women's" literature, Allende said:

… when we speak of women's literature you need the adjective because otherwise you don't know what you are referring to, as though it were a lesser genre. It was assumed for a long time that women's literature touched only on certain themes, and women could not write about history, politics, philosophy, or economy.

Daughter of Fortune touches on all these subjects as it follows the story of Eliza Sommers in Chile, then shifts to China to begin the story of Tao Chi'en, back to Chile where Eliza and Tao meet, and finally concludes in California. In all three locations, the subject of how women earn their keep comes up. It first appears when Miss Rose worries about how Eliza will support herself. The only obvious choice open to a young bourgeois English-woman at the time is to make a good marriage.

The specter of dire economic consequences looms large. Eliza's love interest, Joaquín Andieta, and his mother live in abject poverty because his mother made the mistake of succumbing to the passion Mama Fresia warns Eliza about. Miss Rose has escaped this fate by the simple fact that she did not become pregnant by her lover. Miss Rose is also lucky because her brother was willing to take her away to Chile, though her life in Chile is more of a life in a gilded cage than a free life. Provided she follows the social norms of the age, Miss Rose can be a society matron, despite her single status. She hides her solitary pursuit of writing and carefully keeps her past buried. She manipulates her brother to get her way when the question of Eliza's education and dowry comes up but has little real power over the direction her own life takes. Miss Rose is also savvy enough to realize that, should she marry Jacob Todd, she would lose what little autonomy she does have.

Eliza is vaguely aware of Miss Rose's circumstances while she is growing up. Eliza does not know all her secrets, but she sees Miss Rose's unhappy spells and learns from them. Unlike Miss Rose, Eliza does not feel bound by obligation to follow the societal norms. She is a product of two cultures and can pick and choose what she wants from each. Eliza risks all for love—first in sending notes to Joaquín Andieta, later in meeting him in the room with the armoires, and still later, in following him to California.

It is during the ship voyage to California that the groundwork for a different life is laid down; while Eliza does not at that time see herself staying with Tao Chi'en, she knows no one else in California and relies on him when they first arrive. For his part, Tao feels very protective of her, despite his belief that she is unfeminine and beneath him in station. They both have started to change their feelings about the other, though neither is as yet very aware of it. Eliza's masquerade as Tao's mute brother leads them both down an unseen path; it allows Eliza the freedom to act like a man and not be bound by the conventions of a woman. And it allows Tao to overlook her gender and treat her as more of an equal. The odd arrangement allows each to grow more comfortable with the other until they are good friends who rely on each other. Eliza, though, still feels bound to her quest to find Joaquín; it is in pursuit of this that she and Tao part ways and later come to realize how much the other meant to them. Still, Eliza pursues her quest until the bitter end. When she sees the preserved head of the bandit Joaquín Murieta, she says, "I am free." At last, she can follow a different path; her choices are wide open and not limited like those of the women around her.

The prostitutes in Chile, China, and California are presented as women with few choices. Azucena Placeres, who tends Eliza in the hold of the ship, is stuck in a dead-end line of work because she has no other marketable skills. Though, according to what she's leaving behind in Chile, Azucena's prospects in California are quite good. When John Sommers later encounters her in California, she is doing as well as can be expected, given her employment. She is not impoverished, but neither is she as well off as she had hoped to be.

In comparison to the prostitutes in China, where Tao Chi'en grows up, Azucena is doing very well indeed. In Tao's country, the prostitutes are little more than slaves. Tao, as a young man, is not disturbed by this; it is simply the way of things and he does not question this. The class system is highly structured. Tao himself is only the fourth son, less important in the family hierarchy than his three older brothers. In the confines of nineteenth-century China, women are second-class citizens at best; sons are far preferred over daughters. Allende does not shy away from presenting these facts, but they are not the main point. They are merely stepping stones readers encounter. To put extra emphasis on Allende's treatment of this part of the storyline is to miss the point. Tao as a character is immature in China. It is his exposure to other countries and other ways of living, as well as his association with Eliza, that opens his eyes to the fact that it is unfair to treat other human beings as less than human.

In California, Tao Chi'en confronts the ugliest side of the world's oldest profession when he is called on as zhong yi (an expert in Chinese medicine) to minister to the dying prostitutes in the house of Ah Toy. Ah Toy runs her house of prostitution in the traditional Chinese way; the singsong girls (as they are called by Eliza and Tao Chi'en) are little better than caged animals, imported for one purpose and casually discarded when they are used up. Tao Chi'en is shaken by his experience the first time he goes to treat one of Ah Toy's singsong girls; the girl is little more than a bag of bones and already dead.

When Tao returns to his home, he meditates all night, calling on the spirit of his dead wife to help him. It is his dead wife who challenges him to help the singsong girls. It is because of Tao's exposure to other cultures and to Eliza Sommers herself that he is able to consider helping them. When he was in China, Tao passed by them, even used them, without a thought. Now that he is more enlightened, he realizes that he must do something to counteract the suffering he has seen. Critic Patricia Hart, in her article "Magic Feminism in Isabel Allende's The Stories of Eva Luna," writes "Once more, the literally impossible event … brings us to a profound psychological truth: the burden to the souls of honorable men that the existence of prostitution imposes." In the case of Daughter of Fortune, the literally impossible event is the conversation Tao Chi'en holds with the spirit of his dead wife, Lin. There is no other character with whom Tao can have the discussion that brings him to his enlightened choice; he asks Ah Toy to give him the near-dead singsong girls for medical experiments. He nurses them back to health and then helps them find a new life. He finds he needs Eliza's help in this endeavor. It is this work of great compassion that brings Eliza back to him and, finally, sets Eliza herself free.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Allende's Paula (1995) is a memoir that she wrote for her daughter Paula, while the young woman was in a coma. It is a story about Allende's family and has received very good reviews. The experience, however, was exhausting for Allende, who suffered a writer's block after completing it.
  • The House of Spirits (1982) was Allende's first and most acclaimed novel. She wrote this book while living in exile and remembering the effect that her grandfather had on her. It is written as a series of letters to him, and it tells the story of one family through three generations of women: grandmother, mother, and the narrator, who is a young woman.
  • A nonfiction book by Allende, published in 2003, is My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile. In this book, Allende covers such topics as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the Chilean coup d'état in 1973.
  • Allende often credits Gabriel García Márquez as one of her major inspirations. García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; reprinted in 1998) is one of his greatest achievements. Readers willingly follow the male protagonist along a complicated and mystifying path of unrequited love, continually hoping that he will one day find a release for his desires. García Márquez is a master at using the techniques of magic realism to tell a story.
  • Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate (1990) features a young woman who has a magical influence over people through her cooking. This is a very unusual (and sometimes comical) story of forbidden love that takes place in Mexico. In 1993, the novel was made into a movie that received rave reviews.
  • Tessa Bridal, born and raised in Uruguay, witnessed political upheaval in her country that was, unfortunately, similar to what had previously occurred in Chile. Her book The Tree of Red Stars (1997) is a fictional account of the terror that she and her friends experienced.
  • Poems, Protest, and a Dream (1997) was written by poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was born in Mexico in 1648 and spent her entire adult life in a convent. This dual-language collection of her works includes an essay that offers insights into her life and her times, with an emphasis on the role of women in society, an issue that continues to be of concern today.

The economics of sustenance for nineteenth-century women is a running theme in this novel, as are other highly-charged political and social issues such as racism and sexism. While they are not the focus of the novel, Allende calmly uses the backdrop of these issues to provide the characters the means to grow, change, and, finally, to create a new path for themselves. Daughter of Fortune is, above all, a novel about two unlikely protagonists who come together by happenstance, eventually learning from each other as they seek their fortunes in a new land.

In a 1992 interview with Alberto Manguel, Allende said, "A novel is like a tapestry; the design reveals itself as it progresses, but you have to keep at it or the design vanishes, the coherence is gone." Like a tapestry, Daughter of Fortune works because threads of all colors blend together to form one large design. If one removed the colors one by one, what would be left would be a jumble of threads on the floor instead of a coherent work. Each thread, each piece, is necessary to create the whole tapestry, as each plot thread is necessary to render the whole story in clear, brilliant color.

Source: Charlotte Mayhew, Critical Essay on Daughter of Fortune, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.


Allende, Isabel, Daughter of Fortune, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1999.

Clark, Alex, "Rags from Riches," in Guardian, November 13, 1999.

Cruz, Jacqueline, Jacqueline Mitchell, Silvia Pellarolo, and Javier Rangel, "A Sniper between Cultures," in Conversations with Isabel Allende, University of Texas Press, 1999, p. 205.

Donaldson, Peter, "Novel of the Week: Daughter of Fortune," in New Statesman, December 13, 1999, p. 57.

Erro-Peralta, Nora, "Isabel Allende," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 145, Modern Latin-American Fiction Writers, Second Series, Gale Research, 1994, pp. 33–41.

Granados, Esperanza, Isabel Allende: A Critical Study of Her Work, Pennsylvania State University, 1991, p. iv.

Hart, Patricia, "Magic Feminism in Isabel Allende's The Stories of Eva Luna," in Multicultural Literatures through Feminist/Poststructuralist Lenses, University of Tennessee Press, 1993, pp. 103–36.

——, Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 31, 177.

Kakutani, Michiko, "Allende Quits Magical Realism for a Bodice-Ripper Romance," in Seattle Post–Intelligencer, November 6, 1999, section C, p. 2.

Lopez, Ruth, "Left on a Genteel Doorstep," in New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1999, pp. 7, 17.

Manguel, Alberto, "A Sacred Journey Inward," in Conversations with Isabel Allende, University of Texas Press, 1999, pp. 274–75.

McClennen, Sophia A., Review of Daughter of Fortune, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 184–85.

Sheppard, R. Z., "Footnotes No Longer," in Time, Vol. 154, No. 20, November 15, 1999, p. 108.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed., Isabel Allende, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002.

This book is a new collection of essays devoted to the writings of Isabel Allende, including an essay titled "The Struggle for Space: Feminism and Freedom" by Ronie-Richelle Garcia-Johnson.

Boessenecker, John, Gold Dust and Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen, and Vigilantes, John Wiley & Sons, 1999.

Although Hollywood has created an image of the Wild West as encompassing all the western territories, Boessenecker demonstrates that most of the notorious characters were concentrated in the California gold rush areas, writing this fact-based account to put faces and dates on the real people who fought hard (and not always fairly) for a chance to strike it rich. This is a well-written and intriguing book.

Kaufman, Edy, Crisis in Allende's Chile: New Perspectives, Praeger Publishers, 1988.

This book was written a decade after the overthrow of Salvador Allende and offers another view of the official and unofficial involvement of the U.S. government in Chile's politics. It was written by the executive director of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.

Levy, JoAnn, Daughter of Joy: A Novel of Gold Rush California, Forge, 1998.

Based on the life of prostitute Ah Toy, Levy's book contains an interesting fictional account of how the Chinese immigrant made her money in San Francisco's red light district. Ah Toy referred to those in her profession as "daughters of joy."

Rojas, Sonia Riquelme, and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, eds., Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels, P. Lang, 1991.

This is a collection of critical essays and interpretations of Allende's fictional works. It is written in both Spanish and English and is part of American University's study series on Latin-American literature.