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 literary devices are found in the book In the Time of the Butterflies?

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Julia Alvarez deploys vivid imagery in the descriptions of the Mirabal sisters’ Dominican home. To create these images, she often uses similes and metaphors. Another literary device is dialogue. Alvarez often presents the family in conversation, using distinct phrasing to distinguish the different characters. The father, for example, often uses idioms or sayings.

A description of the neighborhood where Dedé lives, which she captures in a sketch, is a huge, flower-covered tree; its branches are said to be “squirreling” out from the trunk. Other flowers are also mentioned, including the exotic orchids that Dede grows. An extended metaphor for grief is provided by her cutting the flowers: “in snippets, pinches, little sips of sadness.”

Similes are also used in the descriptive passages, such as a reference to silence that is emphasized by comparing it to a sound: “the night is as clear as the sound of a bell.” The mixing of different senses is the device of synesthesia.

The family’s constant sense of the danger of challenging the government is a running motif through the novel. Gossip and the process of withholding secrets are often presented in metaphors. An example uses sewing and cloth:

Words repeated, distorted...words stitched to words until they are the winding sheet the family will be buried in…

In other contexts as well, words and language are often the subject of commentary. When the girls go off to the convent school, Minerva is bored by all mothers’ polite, nonstop talking, which covers her thoughts like powder: “It was like a heavy shaking of talcum powder in the brain.”

In conversations, their father often makes a point by using colloquial sayings. He constantly reminds the girls how difficult it is for him to have so many daughters: “A daughter is a needle in the heart."

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The story In the Time of Butterflies is replete with imagery and various types of figurative language, as well as other literary devices. Most novels are filled with a number of different types of literary devices, and this one is no different.

There are examples throughout of figurative language, irony, allusion, foreshadowing, similes, metaphors, and much more. Irony is prevalent throughout the story as readers' narrative expectations are turned on their heads, such as when the normally pious and meek family decides to engage in revolutionary behavior in the midst of a quiet church.

The novel alludes frequently to works of scripture and biblical characters, such as Christ (the Lamb of God), Mary (the Merciful Mother), God the Father, and others.

Similes, metaphors, and other figurative language can be found in almost every chapter as the characters explore the setting around them and compare their revolution to other deadly revolts.

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Literary devices abound in Julia Alvarez’s book In the Time of the Butterflies. Here are a couple of examples.

Each of the sisters’ narratives is treated in a different way so as to give us a better understanding of her character. For example, María Teresa’s chapters are written in...

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the form of a diary. This gives us a richinterior monologue that is almost a stream of consciousness at times. We hear Mate talk to herself, and see themes repeated as she revisits her own ideas in order to make sense of them. This gives her narrative the feeling of a young girl coming of age and reinforces both her naivete and her position as the youngest sister.

Besides the use of interior monologue, the text is rich with imagery. Minerva says in chapter 3 that she has “left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country.” Patria, speaking of her strong religious convictions in chapter 4, says, “I did it automatically like a shoot inching its way towards the light.” María Teresa describes all of the girls from her school dressed up to march in a parade, saying they were “in white dresses like we were his brides.”

Alvarez also seems to include a number of Dominican expressions, and these both give us beautiful imagery and enhance our understanding of the culture. An example is when Minerva asked her father about his affair. “I know the clouds have already rained, … but, Papá, why did you do it?” Look carefully and you can find many more examples such as these.

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The text is rife with literary devices.  It is ironic that the Mirabals find their revolutionary roots at a sheltered religious school, and that Minerva is allowed to go to law school, only to find that she can not get a license to practice when she is done.  A master of ironic observaion, Minerva quips about Benefactor's Day that they should "go celebrate at the cemetery" (Ch.3).

Examples of the allusion include references to the "Merciful Mother" (Ch.3) and "the Good Shepherd (and) his lambs" (Ch.4).

The motif of rain foreshadows ominous events.  When Dede describes an idyllic childhood scene, "drops of rain" begin to fall in a sky that is otherwise "clear as...a bell", indicating that the days innocence are ending (Ch.1).  When Patria prays for guidance in choosing the course of her life, "the first zigzag of lightning, and...the rumble of thunder" in the distance portend that her life will be fraught with disaster (Ch.4), and during the fateful Discovery Day Dance, rain comes down in torrents, "hard, slapping sheets of it" (Ch.6).

Flowers are symbolic of women, with Dede busily tending the blooms in her house just as she nurtures the memories of her sisters (Ch.1).  A general says, "young ladies are the flowers of our country" (Ch. 6), and Patria senses upcoming calamity for the Mirabal sisters when she sees "blossoms tumbling in the wind of the coming storm" (Ch.4).

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