In the Time of the Butterflies Summary

In the Time of the Butterflies summary

In the Time of the Butterflies fictionalizes the real-life story of the Mirabal sisters. Desperate to eliminate his enemies, evil Dominican dictator Trujillo has three of the sisters killed. They are considered martyrs and dubbed "The Butterflies."

  • In Part I, surviving Mirabal sister Dedé relates the story of how her sisters first came to political awareness. Minerva performs in a play where she portrays the figure of Liberty and aims an imaginary arrow at Trujillo's heart.

  • In Part II, the Mirabal sisters become embroiled in the resistance movement attempting to overthrow Trujillo. Patria joins the movement after witnessing a massacre carried out by Trujillo's forces.

  • Part III ends abruptly as three of the sisters journey to visit two of their husbands, who've been detained in a remote prison. In the epilogue, their brutal deaths are recounted, and Alvarez makes brief mention of the fact that Trujillo is ousted a few years later.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the Time of the Butterflies is the fictional story of four real persons, the Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. In 1960, three of the sisters, members of the underground movement opposing the regime of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, were ambushed on a lonely mountain road and assassinated. Alvarez’s novel, made up of three sections and an epilogue, intersperses chapters for each sister. All except Dedé’s are first-person narrations; Dedé does narrate the epilogue, however.

Section 1 of the novel (“1928 to 1946”) opens in 1994 with a woman interviewing Dedé about her martyred sisters. The section then describes how youthful Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria awoke to political awareness. Minerva learned of the dictator’s brutality from her schoolmate Sinita, whose family lost all of its men to Trujillo. Minerva educates young María Teresa (Mate). Patria begins to quest on her faith in God and Trujillo as a young wife plunged into a religious crisis after a stillbirth. Minerva is the first to act on her political convictions. Won over to Sinita’s hatred of Trujillo, she performs in a play covertly celebrating pre-Trujillo freedom. Near its end, Sinita, playing Liberty, suddenly walks up to Trujillo with her toy bow and aims an imaginary arrow at him. She is quickly subdued, and the tense moment passes, but Minerva has come to Trujillo’s notice.

Section 2, “1948 to 1959,” covers the years of the Mirabals’ resistance activity. Minerva meets activist Virgilio (Lío) Morales and continues in his path when he is forced to flee the country. One day, she discovers her father’s mistress and four illegitimate daughters living in poverty. She also finds letters from Lío that her father has kept from her. Shortly thereafter, Trujillo summons her to attend a dance; when he tries to hold her vulgarly close, she slaps him. Her family quickly whisks her away, but she leaves behind her purse, containing Lío’s letters. Her father is soon detained for interrogation, and the experience breaks his health. Over the next months, Mate joins Minerva in the underground; both marry fellow revolutionaries and have daughters. Eventually, Patria’s son Nelson yearns to join too, and Patria is herself converted when she witnesses a massacre of young rebels by Trujillo forces.

Section 3 relates events leading up to the death of the three sisters, now known nationwide as “The Butterflies.” Trujillo attacks the underground, and Minerva, Mate, the three husbands, and Nelson are arrested. Mate and Minerva keep up the spirit of resistance in their crowded cell, and a solidarity grows between the political and nonpolitical prisoners there. Mate is eventually subjected to electric shock torture. Meanwhile, though, the political tide has begun to turn. The Organization of American States comes to investigate prison conditions, and Mate manages to slip their representative a statement by her cellmates. Soon afterward, Trujillo releases the Butterflies. When Minerva tries to track down information on the state of the underground, she learns that they have become national symbols of resistance. In fact, Trujillo claims his biggest problems are the church and the Mirabal sisters. Before long, Minerva’s and Mate’s husbands are moved to a remote prison. On November 25, 1960, the two wives and Patria set out with Rufino, their driver, to visit the men, despite Dedé’s warning that it is dangerous for them to travel together. They make it to the prison safely, but midway home the narrative breaks off abruptly. In the epilogue, Dedé recalls that for weeks afterward, people brought her information about her sisters’ last hours. They were strangled and clubbed, then returned to the Jeep and pushed off the cliffside. Dedé, enmeshed in grief, barely noted events of the next few years: Trujillo’s assassination, the murderers’ trial, the country’s first free elections in thirty-one years, a coup followed by civil war, and finally peace. The Mirabal sisters, meanwhile, become legends, and Dedé the conservator of their memory.

Alvarez’s postscript explains that her father was a member of the same resistance movement as the Mirabals and fled the Dominican Republic shortly before their deaths. Alvarez grew up hearing about the sisters and decided to write their story. When she began researching their lives, however, she uncovered a wealth of legends and anecdotes about them, but few verifiable facts. She thus turned to fiction to discover who they were. She began this project to answer the question, “What gave them that special courage?” She ends by noting that the anniversary of their deaths, November 25, is now, appropriately, the International Day Against Violence Toward Women.

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1994, Dede speaks to a “gringo writer” about her past. Dede, who is in her sixties, maintains a museum in the Dominican Republic in honor of her murdered sisters, who were nicknamed Los Mariposas (the butterflies). Dede acts as a guide for her guest, and when the writer leaves, Dede remembers a “clear moonlit night [in 1943] before the future began.” She is with her family and remembers her fun-loving father, her mother, and her sisters.

In 1938, Minerva is twelve years old. When she is sent to school, she learns the truth about the brutal Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and she is drawn into her country’s resistance movement. She meets Sinita, a charity student whose brother was killed by Trujillo. Later, she is horrified by the fate of Lina Lovaton, the beautiful seventeen-year-old whose life is ruined by Trujillo’s courtship. In 1944, at the end of their school years, Minerva, Sinita, and their friends win a recitation contest and are invited to perform before Trujillo. In the dictator’s presence, Sinita moves toward Trujillo with her bow and arrow, but Minerva’s quick thinking saves her friend

In 1945, Maria Theresa (nicknamed Mate), the family’s youngest sister, is ten years old. She comments from her child’s point of view on a variety of experiences, including catechism, first communion, problems at school, and interactions with her family. She has positive feelings toward Trujillo but gradually learns the truth from Minerva, whose participation in secret meetings intrigues Mate. When Minerva finds that Mate has recorded her activities in her diary, she tells Mate that she must bury the diary to protect Minerva and her friends.

In 1946, Patria, the oldest sister, is twenty-two. She reminisces about her past as a religious young woman at convent school. Her struggle between her hope to be a nun and her growing awareness of physical passion is decided when she meets and marries Pedrito Gonzalez. When her first child is stillborn, she feels guilt for her choice. She remembers going on a pilgrimage with her mother and sisters. She had an epiphany looking at the weary faces of other pilgrims, realizing she had been looking “in the wrong direction” before.

Dede, in 1994, is concerned with the “deification” of her sisters. When the interviewer asks her, “When did all the problems start?” she remembers 1948, when the sisters met their radical friend, Lio. Both Dede and Minerva were attracted to him, but the family was upset when they learned Lio was a communist. Her parents’ reaction made Dede realize she was living in a police state. When Lio was forced to go into exile, he left a note for Minerva with Dede—just as her cousin Jaimito was proposing to her. Dede accepted the proposal but burned Minerva’s letter from Lio.

In 1949, Minerva has been “cooped” at home for several years, longing to be in the capital with Sinita. She is hurt that Lio left without saying goodbye, until she finds several letters. It is too late, however; Lio has gone. Minerva also discovers that her father has a second family and confronts him.

When her family is invited to one of Trujillo’s private parties, Minerva fends off the dictator’s advances with a slap. The family leaves in fear. Minerva and her parents are summoned to see the governor, and her father is arrested in order to punish Minerva. At her father’s request, Minerva takes money to his second family and, in a change of heart, proposes enrolling her half-sisters in school.

Minerva and her mother go to the capital to petition for her father’s release. Minerva is questioned about Lio and propositioned for Trujillo, an offer she refuses. Her father is released three weeks later, but he is ill and out of touch with reality. Trujillo sees Minerva and her mother and accepts a letter of apology from Minerva. The young woman attempts to gain acceptance to law school. Trujillo releases Minerva and her parents, but Minerva realizes they are still in danger.

In 1953, Mate is eighteen years old. Her father dies, and his second family attends the funeral, making Mate angry. Minerva is accepted into law school, where she meets Manolo. Mate graduates from high school and moves to the capital to continue her education. Minerva and Manolo marry in 1955; Minerva gives birth to a daughter, Minou. In 1957, Minerva earns a law degree and leaves the capital. When Mate goes to help Miranda set up her house, she is drawn into the revolution after meeting Palomino (Leandro), who delivers guns to Minerva’s house. Mate’s involvement has more to do with love than with politics; she and Palomino marry in 1958.

In 1959, Patria is thirty-five. She has been settled with Pedrito for eighteen years, but she feels restless. She is concerned about her two sisters, who are involved in the resistance, and her son, who is old enough to be attracted to the revolutionaries. Patria, pregnant for the first time in thirteen years, is worried about the health of the baby. She goes on a retreat with her priest and women from her church, where the group witnesses the killing of a large number of campesinos, including a young man who reminds Patria of her own son. The priest and the women join the underground. Pedrito, concerned at first that he will lose his land, relents for the sake of his son, and all three join the resistance.

In 1994, Dede, who has been divorced for ten years, recalls her former husband forbidding her from joining the resistance. She also talks about Minerva with Minerva’s daughter Minou, who asks why Dede wasn’t with her sisters the day they were murdered in 1960. Dede remembers being torn between her husband and her sisters and reluctantly choosing to stay with her husband because of their children. When members of the resistance were picked up after their plot was discovered, Dede became the caretaker of her sisters’ children as well as her own.

In 1960, to Patria’s horror, Minerva, Mate, the three husbands, and Patria’s son are all imprisoned. Patria lives with her mother, praying in her grief to a picture of Trujillo. Through her father’s second family, whose relative works in the prison, Patria receives a note from Mate with news of her sisters. Patria, Dede, and their mother send packages to the prisoners with the help of their half-sister Margarita Mirabel. Margarita has become a pharmacist thanks to the education underwritten by Dede and Minerva. Patria petitions to see the prisoners, finally securing visitor passes and her son’s release. Mate and Minerva form a community with the “nonpoliticals” in their cell. Day-to-day life is discouraging, but the worst experience for Mate is being tortured in front of her husband.

The sisters are released from prison into house arrest in August of 1960. Minerva’s stay in prison has left her ill and concerned for the husbands still in prison. Manolo and Leandro are moved to a prison that is closer to the family, but reaching it entails making a dangerous drive over an isolated mountain pass. Minerva describes the sisters’ final trip to visit their husbands in detail, including a shopping stop, their visit with Manolo and Leandro, and the stop at a little restaurant before they and their driver head up the mountain.

Dede has pieced together what happened next from accounts of many witnesses who have come to see her in the intervening years. She remembers her “crazy” reaction to the news of the murders and caring for her sisters’ bodies. Then she talks about the husbands, who have moved on with their lives with new, young wives and families. She comes to terms with her role as survivor and thinks of going to Canada and of the Canadian man she had been attracted to on an earlier trip to Spain. In the end, she is perhaps able to move on and live her own life.

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alvarez had long desired to learn more about the Marabel sisters revered in the Dominican Republic. They were murdered in 1960, the same year that the Alvarez family fled to New York. In the Time of the Butterflies, based on historical facts, is an imaginative rendering of the incidents that transformed three ordinary women into unrelenting fighters against oppression.

The plot is neatly framed by the visit of an American journalist of Dominican origin to Dedé, the surviving sister. Dedé, accustomed to a stream of curious visitors to her little museum, wearily responds to the journalist’s questions. In the process, the past memories are revived and form the plot of the book. Dedé becomes the principal narrator in the story. Finally “A Postscript” by the journalist brings the narrative full circle.

Structured in three parts, with four chapters in each section and an epilogue, the narrative covers the incidents from 1938 to 1960, the year Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa were brutally murdered. Each part begins with Dedé’s point of view and is followed by each sister’s version of events. This technique provides smooth continuity of events and a deeper understanding of each sister’s thinking.

The first section of the book provides an overview of the Marabel household. Each sister is clearly distinguished by her traits: Patria, the eldest, is deeply religious; Minerva, the intellectual, is the most outspoken; Dedé, the no-nonsense pragmatist, is the solid rock for the household; and the youngest, Maria Teresa (Mate), the idealistic romantic, is the most immature initially.

As the details of each sister’s life are revealed, the reader learns of their goals and desires. They go through the normal vicissitudes of growing up. Patria had no interest in politics, yet when she sees innocent children being murdered, she plunges into the resistance movement. Minerva is the most vividly drawn character. Her intelligence, her courage to defy the dictator, and her leadership abilities convey her strengths. After her prison experience, she confesses her fears and insecurities hidden behind her cheerful appearance. Her vulnerability makes her a thoroughly credible character. Similarly, Mate initially reveals her immaturity in her diary entries; however, as her sisters engage in plotting against the regime, she, too, rises to the occasion. Her sustained silence about her torture shows how far she has come.

In the epilogue, dated 1994, Dedé provides an account of the last trip of her sisters to visit their imprisoned husbands, their murder presented officially as an accident, the assassination of Trujillo six months later, the trial of the sisters’ murderers, the second coup to replace the elected president, a civil war and more killings, another dictatorship, and Dedé’s incessant struggle to hold the remaining family together. Dedé may not have been active in the resistance, but her practical common sense and devotion to her sisters and their children make her sacrifice no less important.

Alvarez has presented a very loving portrait of all the sisters without any attempt at hagiography. They come across as normal, happy young women who were interested in developing their minds as well as spirits. They did not set out to change the world; they changed themselves in response to events. A remarkable feature of the work is that although the United States’ role in sustaining dictatorship on the Dominican Republic is no point of pride, Alvarez opts to stay away from this topic, thus producing an effective historical novel and not a political tract.

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary

Set in the Dominican Republic, In the Time of the Butterflies depicts the lives of the Mirabal family between 1938 and 1994....

(The entire section is 1330 words.)

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary and Analysis

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapters 1-4

New Characters
Dedé Mirabal: the only Mirabal daughter (of four) spared a political murder

American Woman: the woman who comes to interview Dedé about her sisters’ deaths

Minerva Mirabal: the third Mirabal sister, who is outspoken and freedom-loving

María Teresa Mirabal (Mate): the youngest of four sisters, a sensitive girl and diarist

Patria Mirabal: the oldest Mirabal sister, an earthy woman with a deeply religious spirit

Mamá Mirabal: the daughters’ mother, a deeply religious woman

Enrique Mirabal (Papá): the daughters’ father, who runs a farm and general store

Trujillo (El Jefe): a paranoid Dominican dictator...

(The entire section is 2985 words.)

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary and Analysis Part II: Chapters 5-8

New Characters
Minou: Minerva’s daughter, raised by Dedé after the murders

Virgilio Morales (Lío ): a revolutionary who befriends Dedé and loves Minerva

Manuel de Moya: Trujillo’s Secretary of State, who helps the dictator meet women

Margarita: an illegitimate daughter fathered by Papá

Don Chiche: a relative of Mamá whose connection to Trujillo protects the family

Raul and Berto: brothers who fight over María Teresa’s attention

Manolo: political “enemy of state” whom Minerva marries

Leandro Guzmán (Palomino): a member of the underground whom María Teresa marries


(The entire section is 3867 words.)

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary and Analysis Part III: Chapters 9–12 and Epilogue

New Characters
Peña: a guard assigned to monitor the Mirabal family

Don Bernardo: an elderly neighbor who remains loyal to the family despite their troubles

Santicló: a friendly prison guard who helps the girls by transporting medicine and notes

Magdalena: Mate’s prison friend, with whom she has a lesbian encounter

Rufino: the hired driver who chaperones the sister on short trips and befriends them

Delia: a female doctor and revolutionary who has managed to remain free

Chapter nine returns to 1994 and Dedé’s conversation with the reporter. Dedé concludes the day’s interview. Slightly agitated,...

(The entire section is 3514 words.)