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...
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The Trujillo Regime
The time period of the novel, 1938 to 1994, is dominated by the political regime of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (1891-1961) and its aftermath. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Before 1930, he had been trained by the American military forces who had taken control of the nation in 1916 and left in 1924. In 1930, he used his position as head of the Dominican military to assume control of the country. To ensure his election as president, his men brutalized political opponents and terrorized voters. He further secured his power by creating a secret police force that violently suppressed opposition to his rule, maintaining networks of spies, and taking control of the press and national education. He took over industries in the country and accumulated an immense fortune. To further trade and strengthen his regime, he supported American business interests in the country and maintained a strong anti-Communist stance.
His reign was characterized by...
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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 dictator?
1. Dedé sees how her sisters’ deaths have become spiritual as well as political symbols and how she is an object for reporters to interview and examine. Minerva befriends Sinita and learns of Trujillo. María Teresa learns of Trujillo’s evils and must bury her diary to avoid political issues. Patria doubts her religion and grieves a lost baby.
2. Minerva realizes that she has been brought up in a sheltered environment at home with her family. By interacting with other students and sneaking off campus, she is exposed to other types of people and learns about the political regime governing her country.
3. Minerva learns a merchant she knows from the town square is one of Trujillo’s hired killers. Minerva and the other students are asked to perform before Trujillo. Trujillo decides to court a student from the Mirabal sisters’ school, Lina. Minerva befriends Hilda, a town girl who hides from Trujillo on the sisters’ campus and whose association forces Minerva and María Teresa to bury their writings for fear of Trujillo.
4. He is having an affair with another woman. Their parents’ marriage is shaken.
5. After Patria miscarries her third baby, she realizes that her Catholic faith has never been “tested” through misfortune. Her pain makes her doubt her decisions and faith, and she comes to understand the bitter resentment Minerva feels toward the government when she looks at the image of Trujillo mounted on a wall near a religious scene. She feels mistreated by God just as Minerva feels mistreated by the Dominican government.
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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 from getting to know Virgilio and leads her to marry Jaimito, and it also keeps her from participating in the politics that bring her sisters together in a united front against Trujillo.
2. Minerva’s resistance to El Jefe’s attention and her association with Lío have brought the family notoriety, and they will forever after live under the dictator’s close watch—living under fewer freedoms than they had before.
3. Minerva is too proud to let the dictator use his power to get at her body, and she is also too proud to completely humor him—while she is strong enough to stand up for herself, her strength attracts and challenges Trujillo. This is because he wants to destroy that strength or see it focused on his and the regime’s needs.
4. She becomes attracted to a gun runner code-named Palomino who frequently calls on Minerva and Manolo, and her feelings for the movement to overthrow Trujillo are laced with romantic feelings for this man, whose real name is Leandro and who marries her.
5. She witnesses the deaths of innocent Dominicans and young teens while she’s on a religious retreat and decides this shouldn’t become her children’s fate. The church’s support for a Trujillo overthrow also reinforces her decision, since she is religious.
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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.
2. Dedé realizes that just by being related to her three other sisters her fate as a Dominican and as a Mirabal family member is bound up in their actions.
3. Trujillo comes down against the church and forbids religious iconography and songs. They are now symbols of the movement against him.
4. Mate feels she has learned about people from other cultures and that not all criminals have evil intent when they do the things they do that land them in jail, especially in the Dominican Republic.
5. After her imprisonment, Minerva feels a desire to pass the leadership torch elsewhere and is physically and mentally exhausted. She feels unable to step back up to her former role. She actually wants to stay near home and raise her children, rather than remain at the forefront. Foreign countries get involved in sanctions and disapproval of Trujillo, and some inside the country wait for outside aid instead; the movement becomes fragmented.
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The story is broken into four parts in each section with each part told from the point of view of one of the four sisters. María Teresa tells her part of the story through her diary entries. Patria Mercedes' point of view accentuates her strong religious beliefs. Minerva is the leader, her principles upheld with each decision she makes. She lives her beliefs, whether at home or in prison. She does not allow her inner fears to change her decisions or her actions, standing up for what she sees as right. Each of the sisters is strengthened by the use of her personal point of view. Stavans wrote, "We have a quatrain of novellas, only one of which doesn't end in tragedy." Dedé's novella may not end in death, but tragedy is there nonetheless.
Alvarez adds richness and depth to her characters by using many Spanish words and phrases in the text. Stavans commented that "when you ask somebody what's up and no easy reply can be found, people are likely to say, 'Entre Lucas y Juan Mejia.'" '"Between the devil and the deep blue sea' isn't the right equivalent in English," Alvarez added, "because you aren't describing the sensation of being caught between a pair of bad alternatives.…" What are you caught between? How did you get there? And how does it feel to be there?
He went on to say that Alvarez "stands apart stylistically, a psychological novelist who uses language skillfully to depict complex inner lives for her fictional creations."...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist for over thirty years. He maintained his dictatorship by any means necessary in the beginning and by any cruel whim in the end. He was supported by his secret police and by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. He was also aided by the attitude of many of the people, expressed by Papá Mirabal as "don't annoy the bees."
1. Find out what other countries in Central and South America have been ruled by dictators. Which of these have been allies of the United States? Why?
2. Alvarez spoke of finding the place where her worlds collide or come together to be the most interesting when she is writing fiction. We all live in more than one world, some private and some public. Discuss ways we overlap and divide these worlds.
3. Identify and discuss problems in our nation that are "between the devil and the deep blue sea."
4. What happened in the Dominican Republic after the assassination of Trujillo?
5. What kind of government does the Dominican Republic have today?
6. Compare the lives of the people in the Dominican Republic today with their lives under Trujillo.
7. In an article for Library Journal, Alvarez gave her formula for choosing books to add to her personal library. She said she chooses authors whose work she has found add to her understanding of life, books recommended by other readers whose opinion she...
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A fictionalized biography of the lives of four young women growing up in the Dominican Republic under the dictator Raphael Leónidas Trujillo, In the Time of the Butterflies brings alive the terror and anxiety of living in that time and place. The overarching concern is human rights, played against the consequences of a dictator's ability to gain total control over a nation, holding the lives of the people hostage to his whims. Underlying concerns are the rights of women in any society, freedom to make choices, and the right to live in a free society. "May I never experience all that it is possible to get used to"—Violeta's prayer while in the prison cell with the sisters—is a poignant reminder that people can lose their freedom if they allow themselves to become unconcerned.
Alvarez, having fled to New York as a child with her family to escape Trujillo, has noted that she finds her identity divided, a trait common among people who find they have to adjust to a new country and new culture. In DISCovering Authors, she said: "I am a Dominican, hyphen, American. As a fiction writer, I find that the most exciting things happen in the realm of that hyphen—the place where two worlds collide or blend together." Validation of these feelings is a universal concern in Alvarez's writing.
Born in 1891 to impoverished parents, Raphael Leónidas Trujillo, also known as El Jefe, entered the Dominican Republic's National Guard in 1919....
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Compare and Contrast
I960: Trujillo rules the country. No opposition party exists. No genuine elections are held. Joaquín Balaguer is Trujillo's puppet president.
1996: Balaguer steps down from the presidency. He held the office from 1966 to 1978 and from 1986 to 1996, winning in rigged elections. The new president, Leonel Fernandez Reyna, is elected with Balaguer's support. The election is judged non-corrupt. His vice-president is Jaime David Fernandez Mirabal, Dedé Mirabal's son. Patna Mirabal's son Nelson Gonzalez Mirabal is the vice-president's chief aid. Minerva Mirabal's daughter Minou Tavares Mirabal is deputy foreign minister.
1960: A 137-foot obelisk stands in Cuidad Trujillo. The dictator erected it in his own honor.
1999: The obelisk in the renamed Santo Domingo is adorned with a mural of the four Mirabal sisters. It is a monument to all who struggled for liberty in the country.
1960: On November 25, Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal are killed under Trujillo's orders.
1999: November 25 has been designated the International Day against Violence against Women in the Mirabals' honor.
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Topics for Further Study
Discuss whether writing a fictional account of real people is a valid or fair means of depicting them for an audience. Take into consideration Alvarez's comments in her postscript to In the Time of the Butterflies.
Research the life of a woman who, like the Mirabals, fought for human rights or political change at great personal risk. The list of subjects is quite long, but some possible choices include Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad, Qui Jin of China, Ruth First of South Africa, Fannie Lou Hamer of the American Civil Rights Movement, Rigoberta Manchú of Guatemala, or Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. You also may want to compare people's responses to these women to the Dominican people's responses to the Mirabal sisters.
Compare the lives of Dominican women today to the lives of Dominican women before 1960. Explore their social positions, gender expectations, educational opportunities, familial roles, or their political impact.
Compare contemporary political conditions in the Dominican Republic with conditions during the Trujillo regime.
Research the relationship between the Trujillo government and the U.S. government. Choose a particular time frame or event that helps to clarify...
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Mother Tongue, by Chicana poet Demetria Martínez, is the story of a young Chicana who falls in love with a refugee from El Salvador. The young man is exiled to the United States after being tortured as a counterinsurgent in his own country. Reviewer Elizabeth Martínez said that "good novels with political themes are a rare treat. Here we have not one but two: along with Butterflies comes Mother Tongue." She went on to compare the books interwoven personal and political themes, maturation of young female characters, links between spiritual and political matters, journal structures, and the different voices used. She claimed, "Both are treasures."
Stavans likened Alvarez's style to that of Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua. He wrote that "by intertwining disparate literary forms (journals, first-person accounts, correspondence, drawings, etc.) Alvarez allows each Mirabal to acquire her own voice." Writing in DISCovering Authors, critic Carla N. Spivack said: "One of Yehoshua's fundamental beliefs is that Israelis must break free from their past in order to live successfully and freely in the present and future.…" Minerva and the revolutionaries also believe their country must break free of Trujillo's rule if the people are to live successfully and in freedom.
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How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, published in 1991, is Alvarez's first novel. Largely autobiographical, the work features a collection of stories about Dominican sisters who grow up in el norte, America, having escaped from Trujillo's tyranny. Sybil Steinberg, reviewing the book in Publishers Weekly, noted that Alvarez "has an ear for the dialogue of non-natives, and the strong flavors of Dominican syntax and cultural values." Told from multiple points of view, the stories record the rebellion of young, first-generation American women against their parents. Alvarez uses each of their accounts of the events in their lives to show how they adapt themselves to the new country and society. These adaptations do not always please the parents. Alvarez won the Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature for this debut novel.
The Other Side: El Otro Lado, a book of poems by Alvarez, was published in 1995. It traces "a lyrical journey through the landscape of immigrant life … [and] ends with the title poem 'The Other Side/El Otro Lado,' a multi-part narrative recounting her return to her homeland as a woman transformed—translated—by the years she has lived in America from native to guest," as described by a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Homecoming: New and Collected Poems (1996) adds to her collection of the same name published in 1984.
A 1997 novel, Yo!, was called "a...
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What Do I Read Next?
- Like In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez's first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), revolves around the lives of four sisters. In this semi-autobiographical work, she depicts their struggles both as Dominican immigrants to the United States and as women.
- Something to Declare, published in 1998, is a collection of personal essays by Alvarez. She discusses several aspects of her life, including her search for information about the Mirabal sisters in "Chasing the Butterflies" and the impact of Trujillo on her family in "Genetics of Justice."
- The Woman Warrior (1976) by Maxine Hong Kingston inspired Alvarez. This acclaimed work is based on Kingston's experiences. It foregrounds Chinese cultural expectations, such as the imposition of gender restrictions and the perceived dangers of storytelling, with which contemporary Chinese-American women must contend.
- Edwidge Danticat's 1998 novel The Farming of Bones employs fiction to portray the impact of Trujillo's 1937 massacre of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic.
- In her poem "Parsley," Rita Dove evokes the horror of Trujillo's 1937 massacre and constructs a psychological portrait of the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Alvarez, Julia. "A Brief Account of My Writing Life," in Appalachian State University Summer Reading Program, http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Library/4061/alvarez.html, 1997.
———. "Genetics of Justice," in her Something to Declare, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998, pp 103-11.
Behar, Ruth. "Revolutions of the Heart," in The Women's Review of Books, May, 1995, pp. 6-7.
Bing, Jonathan. "Julia Alvarez: Books that Cross Borders," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 51, 1996, pp. 38-39.
Brown, Isabel Zakrzewski. "Historiographic Metafiction in In the Time of the Butterflies," in South Atlantic Review, Spring, 1999, pp. 98-112.
Echevarría, Roberto González. "Sisters in Death," in The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, p. 28.
Martínez, Elizabeth Coonrod. "Recovering a Space for a History between Imperialism and Patriarchy: Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies," in Thamyris, Autumn, 1998, pp. 263-79.
Mujica, Barbara. Review in Americas, March-April, 1995, p. 60.
Pritchett, Kay. Review in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1995, p. 789.
Stavans, Ilan. "Las Mariposas," in Nation, November 7, 1994, pp. 552-56.
Alvarez, Julia. "Chasing the Butterflies," in her...
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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 Butterflies.
Corpi, Lucha, ed. Máscaras. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1997. Included in this volume is Alvarez’s essay “An Unlikely Beginning for a Writer,” in which she describes her struggles to adjust to the English language and to perceive herself as a writer.
Cudjoe, Selwyn. Resistance and Caribbean Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980. This study of Alvarez’s predecessors helps map out one literary tradition to which she belongs.
Ghosh, Bishnupriya, and Brinda Bose, eds. Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film. New York: Garland, 1997. Although it does not discuss In the...
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