In the Time of the Butterflies (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Julia Alvarez’s butterflies are the four Mirabal sisters, whose code name in the revolutionary underground was Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly. These women, daughters of Don Enrique Mirabal, a landed merchant-farmer who became prosperous and socially prominent, and his wife, Doña Mercedes, referred to as “Mamá” throughout the novel, were born into a rising middle class.
In the early 1930’s, an ambitious military man, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, barely literate and from humble origins, rose to be Dominican Chief of Military Operations. He seized the reins of government precipitously, declaring himself president after instigating the downfall of his predecessor.
Trujillo’s meteoric rise to power had begun in the army. He advanced quickly as those in line before him mysteriously disappeared. As second in command, he assured his ascendancy to Chief of Military Operations by devious means. He knew that his superior was having an affair with another man’s wife. One night he learned where the illicit couple planned to rendezvous. He informed the husband, who, lying in wait, killed the lovers in a jealous frenzy.
Trujillo thus became the second most powerful person in the country. He arranged his final ascent by engineering an uprising against the sitting president, then failing to respond to calls for help from the palace. As president, Trujillo, from whose regime Julia Alvarez’s family fled to the United States in 1960 when she was ten years old, retained power in two major ways: He annihilated his opposition without conscience, and he spent public money in visible ways to create an illusion of civic progress.
Alvarez tells the story of the Mirabal sisters in the first person. Each division of the book is headed by the name of one sister and by one or more dates. This structural device permits rounded development of each character because each sister speaks for herself in the first person but is also revealed as others see and comment about her.
Alvarez’s use of time is essentially sequential, although in some cases, as in Dedé’s opening section, it involves two or more nonsequential dates, in the latter instance 1994 and 1943. This is necessary because Dedé, the sister who survives the atrocity that killed the other three, is being interviewed by Alvarez, who remains much in the shadows more than three decades after the murders around which the novel revolves.
The technique Alvarez has developed results in readers’ coming to know the Mirabal sisters intimately, almost as people know members of their immediate families. As this feeling of intimacy grows, knowledge of the story’s outcome becomes agonizingly wrenching.
The novel poses a number of universal social questions. Most obviously, it is a strident statement about human rights and human dignity. It also becomes a forceful feminist statement. Minerva, the most independent of the daughters, is a feminist in every respect. Dedé, a submissive wife until she joins the revolutionary movement, divorces her husband and, after the political troubles have died down, becomes an extremely successful insurance agent, something she could never have done in the Dominican Republic as Jaimito’s wife.
Whereas Patria wants only to be married—she gains her desire at an early age—and have children, Minerva, who does not marry until she is twenty-nine, insists on attending the university and taking a law degree. Dedé and María Teresa, generally called Mate, begin as passive, conventional Hispanic women beholden to their husbands, as Mamá has been to her husband, although, as Alvarez reveals, Papá is the weakest member of the immediate family. Only once in Enrique’s lifetime does Mamá, who has never learned to read, publicly assume the control of which she is fully capable, and that is when Papá’s (and the family’s) future is severely threatened.
Alvarez deftly develops the theme that demonstrates how a bit-by-bit erosion of freedoms eventually eradicates them totally. She shows how a nation in the grips of a dictator becomes a fawning, paranoid society in which no one is secure. The walls have ears. People must put their minds in neutral and devote themselves to glorifying the megalomania of a dictator who makes their lives alternately—and at his own whim—sweet and bitter.
Early in the lives of his daughters, Don Enrique becomes a wealthy man. He owns a car and a truck and is prominent in his community, Ojo de Agua, whose lachrymose name suggests the inner torment of his family. The eldest Mirabal sisters are sent to a convent school to be groomed as submissive matrons. Even the fiercely independent Minerva, Papá’s favorite, submits partially: Upon graduation at age eighteen she returns home rather than going to the university as she wishes.
The turning point for Minerva comes when Trujillo invites Don Enrique to a Discovery Day Ball at his palace, requesting that Minerva accompany him. This addendum ignites suspicion: Trujillo is legendary for his appreciation—and exploitation—of virginal beauty. The Mirabal sisters remember how he whisked the beguiling seventeen-year-old Lina Lovatón from their convent school. He established Lina in a remote mansion and commanded the nuns to give her a diploma in absentia,...
(The entire section is 2172 words.)
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Questions and Answers Part I: Chapters 1-4
1. How does each sister lose her innocence or faith in the novel’s opening chapters?
2. Minerva says she “got free” after she moved away to go to boarding school. What does she mean by this?
3. The Mirabal sisters all learn in adolescence that Trujillo, the dictator who rules the Dominican Republic, is closer to their lives than they initially thought. Give at least three examples of Trujillo’s proximity to their lives.
4. What do the Mirabal sisters learn about their father in the book’s opening chapters?
5. How does Patria’s faith shield her from the evils of Trujillo? How does it lead her to understand the nature of her country’s...
(The entire section is 371 words.)
Questions and Answers Part II: Chapters 5-8
1. Dedé tells her companions she watches sports but doesn’t play them. In retrospect, what does this reveal about her character?
2. “Something has started none of us can stop,” says Minerva. What does she mean by this remark?
3. How does Minerva’s pride both help and hurt her in initial interactions with Trujillo?
4. How does María Teresa get involved in the movement to overthrow Trujillo?
5. What impacts Patria’s decision to join the movement?
1. Dedé’s initial fear of embarrassment and risk-taking lead her to make major decisions based on fear, rather than her feelings. Her fear prevents her...
(The entire section is 320 words.)
Questions and Answers Part III: Chapters 9-12 and Epilogue
1. How does the movement impact Dedé’s marriage?
2. How does Dedé, the non-participating Mirabal, nonetheless participate?
3. How does Trujillo’s regime respond when the church supports his overthrow?
4. How does Mate feel about her cellmates? What does she learn about humanity?
5. How does Minerva change in jail? What happens to the movement?
1. The question of Dedé’s participation in the movement leads to productive arguments with Jaimito and leads to a redistribution of power in their relationship. Dedé gets more control, and Jaimito makes a little more room for her to live her own life.
(The entire section is 253 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bergman, Susan, ed. Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith. San Francisco: Harper, 1996. One chapter of this collection is “Chasing the Butterflies. The Mirabals: Dominican Republic, 1960,” Alvarez’s description of the path that led her to write about the Mirabal sisters.
Booklist. XC, July, 1994, p. 1892. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Chicago Tribune. October 24, 1994, V, p. 3. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Christian Science Monitor. October 17, 1994, p. 13. A review of In the Time of the...
(The entire section is 312 words.)