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Julia Alvarez, in her novel of life under the autocratic regime of Rafael Trujillo, long-time dictator of the Dominican Republic, In the Time of the Butterflies, clearly suggests early in her story that Dede does, in fact, suffer from what has been labeled under similar circumstances “survivor’s guilt.” Because of the method Alvarez employed to tell her story – in effect, the use of “flashbacks,” with the novel beginning in the current time and the history of the sisters related by the sole survivor, Dede, to a visiting American woman – the reader learns right away that Dede exists in a perpetual state of sorrow, lamenting the loss of her family while she chose to avoid politics and conspiracies against the Trujillo regime. This sorrow, told too many times to too many visiting journalists and historians, has been blunted by the repetition to which Dede is subjected by these visits. Appearing numb to the topic, Dede suggests enough in the opening chapter of Alvarez’s novel to imply that, beyond that sorrow, there is an element of guilt for having survived. The first such suggestion occurs on the second page of In the Time of the Butterflies, as Dede, dreading this latest intrusion from a curious visitor, is described by Alvarez as follows:
“This certainly is one reason why Dede shies from these interviews. Before she knows it, she is setting up her life as if it were an exhibit labeled neatly for those who can read: THE SISTER WHO SURVIVED.”
Again, this in and of itself does not necessarily imply guilt. What follows, however, strengthens the suggestion that “survivor’s guilt” is a part of Dede’s psyche:
“Dede sighs. Yes, the woman is making perfect sense. She thinks of an article she read at the beauty salon, by a Jewish lady who survived a concentration camp.”
By referencing a “Jewish lady who survived a concentration camp,” a category of individual known for experiencing “survivor’s guilt,” Alvarez leaves little doubt that Dede is similarly haunted by such psychological burdens. Earlier, Dede has allowed for an apparently rare display of emotion by lamenting the loss of her younger sister, Maria Teresa, the baby of the family, referring to her as “probecita.” That she has survived by virtue of a conscious decision to avoid the political machinations that doomed her sisters, including her baby sister, has clearly left its mark on Dede’s psyche. There is little doubt that she feels guilt for surviving when her sisters suffered a brutal death at the hands of a dictator.
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