illustration of a young woman's silhouetted head with a butterfly on it located within a cage

In the Time of the Butterflies

by Julia Alvarez

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What is the function of imagery in "In the Time of the Butterflies"?

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There are a number of images integral to Alvarez fictionalized account of the real life Mirabel sisters. The imagery is used to reinforce concepts of oppression, liberation, life and death, to name just a few.

First, of course, is the image of the butterfly. The sisters are known in the Dominican Republic as "Las Mariposas," the butterflies. A butterfly is beautiful but has a very short life span, just like Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Patria.

Another recurrent image is that of window, from which the imprisoned women view the world. It is symbolic of their captivity as a people, not just of the girls themselves.

The black towel that the girls use as a signal is an important image as it symbolizes both death and oppresion.

Yet another is the image of the "crown of thorns" referred to by both Patria and Dede. Patria's son is martyred to the "cause"; it is also the name of one of the plants that Dede grows in her garden, symbolizing her own regret and the cross of her decision that she must bear for the rest of her life.

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What function does symbolism seem to serve in the novel "In The Time of the Butterflies"?

The life cycle of the butterfly is an important symbol of the novel to which, and of course, the title alludes.

Literally, butterflies (in Spanish, "Las Mariposas") are beautiful but have very brief lives. The same is true of the Mirabel sisters, Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Patria, beautiful women whose young lives are cut short.

But strength and beauty are not the only traits butterflies share with the sisters. Despite their seeming physical weakness, butterflies are able to endure hardships that seem incredible (like flying hundreds of miles.) And, despite their seeming lack of power in the patriarchal regime of Trujillo, the Mirabels find astonishing strength despite their outward delicacy.

There are other important symbols, like Mate's hair ribbon and her braid, which, once her source of feminine pride, later is used to conceal contraband, and the "crown of thorns" that Dede tends in her garden, symbolizing her own lifelong torment.

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