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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Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapters 1–4

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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 who kills skeptics to stay in power

Sinita: Minerva’s angry classmate, who tells her about the reality of the Trujillo regime

Lina Lovatón: a classmate of the Mirabal sisters, whom Trujillo chooses as a mistress

Hilda: the outspoken, political Dominican girl befriended by Minerva

Pedrito Gonzalez: a simple farmer who falls in love with and marries Patria

Nelson Gonzalez: the son of Patria and Pedrito Gonzalez

Noris Gonzalez: the daughter of Patria and Pedrito Gonzalez

Summary

In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez’s historical fiction novel about the three sisters who plotted to overthrow a dictator in the 1960s, opens in March 1994 in the Dominican Republic. The third-person voice narrates the story from the perspective of Dedé Mirabal, an older woman in the Dominican Republic, as she awaits a visit from an American interviewer. Dedé is frequently sought for interviews by journalists and researchers interested in how she escaped the murders that befell her three sisters. However, most of these interviews take place in November, the anniversary of the murders, not spring.

While she waits for the interviewer to arrive, Dedé reflects on her place in the family as “THE SISTER WHO SURVIVED.” Dedé hopes that if she gives the interviewer a quick tour of the house she will be satisfied and not opt to ask what for Dedé are difficult and personal questions. In addition to working at a museum, Dedé also sells life insurance.

The interviewer arrives, and Dedé takes her on a tour of the house, pausing to show the interviewer three images of her sisters. They are displayed prominently each November, when their deaths are commemorated. The interviewer says she wants to hear “all of it” and that she is pleased that Dedé is willing. She asks Dedé how she has remained so positive after surviving a tragedy. Dedé tells the interviewer, somewhat disingenuously, that she remains happy because she focuses on the cheerful memories of the past, dwelling on those instead of on negative memories. The interviewer asks her to highlight a happy, positive moment from her past—the sort of moment she can use to keep her spirits up.

Dedé recalls an evening in 1943 when her entire family had gathered outside to relax. Mamá, Papá, and the four sisters were gathered. Papá had been drinking and was cheerful and talkative. Villagers appeared in the darkness, asking Papá to open up shop so they can get items they need; some get products for free. Dedé asked how the family can live if things are given away, and Papá said that her question reveals why the family has her. She is hard-nosed and practical, a future millionaire.

This exchange prompted the other sisters to ask about their futures, but Mamá cautioned against fortune telling. The eight-year-old María Teresa asked about her future and was told she would be a coquette, a tempter of men. Patria asked and didn’t get an answer, but said she agreed with her mother that fortunes were wrong. Minerva claimed she wanted to be a lawyer.

The conversation turned to Trujillo, the Dominican dictator, and suddenly the parents led the children inside. Dedé recalls how even then Trujillo had informers hiding, noting people’s conversations and reporting back to the government. Dedé now thinks, in retrospect, how the happy evening foreshadowed what would happen to the family. She remembers how she was the only sister of the four whose future got a concrete prediction, just as she is the only sister who survived. In chapter two, the story switches to Minerva’s first-person voice and moves back and forth in time between 1938, 1941, and 1944. Minerva recounts how, in 1938, she and two of her sisters enrolled in a Catholic boarding school called Inmaculada Concepción, leaving Dedé behind until mid-year.

Minerva says the transition to school is “how I got free.” She says she escaped her family cage and began to understand that her country is also in a cage. She learns this through her friendship with a student named Sinita, whom she meets during a reception hosted by Sor Asunción, the school’s lead nun. The two grow close.

Minerva fills Sinita in on aspects of the facts of life, and in return Sinita says she’ll tell Minerva a secret. Sinita’s brother, José Luis, was murdered on Trujillo’s orders, as were her three uncles. Sinita says Trujillo’s ascent resulted from “bad things.” Minerva has trouble believing it, but also feels a “china-crack of doubt” about his benevolence. Yet, she notes that his image hangs on the family wall alongside Jesus.

Sinita tells her that Trujillo rose to power by killing anyone around him who might oppose him, by manipulating and plotting against people to rise to power, and ultimately by announcing himself president. Anyone who challenges Trujillo is killed. In fact, José Luis, Sinita’s brother, was killed by a dwarf merchant Minerva recognizes. Minerva asks how this is “Trujillo’s secret,” and Sinita says Trujillo has people killed at random.

Minerva’s recollections speed forward to 1941, when a classmate of hers, Lina, is courted by Trujillo. The beautiful Lina, with a womanly body even at seventeen, is spotted by Trujillo as she leads the girls’ volleyball team. Trujillo demands to see her and courts her at school. He pays the nuns off with gifts of cloth or funding for new religious icons. Most girls are impressed, but Sinita is disgusted.

Lina goes away to Santiago for Trujillo and never returns. When the students ask the nuns where she went, they get vague answers—Minerva notices tears in one nun’s eyes. She learns that Lina had gotten pregnant and aroused the jealousy of Trujillo’s wife, so Trujillo sent her to a mansion in Miami. Minerva describes feeling a “tightening” in her chest each time she hears more about Trujillo.

In 1944, the country organizes a centennial celebration, and Minerva develops a skit with Sinita and two other friends. The skit is set in historical times, with characters playing the Motherland, Liberty and Glory and ends with curtsies and the national anthem—nothing controversial. After the foursome wins the school’s skit competition, they are sent to perform before Trujillo and his son, Ramfis. Sinita veers off-script and approaches Trujillo, aiming a bow and arrow at him, and Minerva must improvise to save the play. Trujillo asks Sinita’s last name and makes a note of it. Then while Minerva is bound onstage, Trujillo demands that Sinita untie Minerva using her “dog teeth.”

The novel switches to María Teresa’s voice in the third chapter and weaves through diary entries from 1945 and 1946. María Teresa confides that she doesn’t like school very much but doesn’t want to trouble her parents with that information. She practices for her first communion, and ruminates on what it means to “really have a soul.”

One day, she is summoned to the principal’s office and finds Minerva there. The principal asks her if their relative, Tío Mon, is ill or not. Apparently, Minerva has been sneaking out of school and had told the principal it was to see her sick uncle. María Teresa says he is ill, and ill with a specific illness—a lie that reduces Minerva’s punishment for leaving campus.

Minerva explains where she has been going: she has been attending meetings at the house of a man named Don Horacio, an aging political organizer the police won’t harass because of his age. Minerva tells María Teresa she goes to the meetings because she wants her little sister to “grow up in a free country.” María Teresa is confused because she already thinks her country is free. María Teresa learns how the government and Trujillo really operate and becomes disillusioned and scared.

While she grows more aware of the politics of her country, she also watches with growing concern as Minerva spends time with Hilda, a rude and outspoken town girl. Hilda frequently spends time on campus, and the nun shields her when the regime comes after her. She’s eventually caught and everyone associated with Don Horacio is told to destroy their belongings: Minerva must hide her poetry, and María Teresa must hide her diary.

In chapter four, the story shifts to Patria’s experiences and is told from her perspective. The time is 1946, and Padre Ignacio, the local minister, tells her mother that perhaps Patria has been “called.” Patria was born with a deeply religious spirit and spent her childhood playing religion-related games. When Patria goes to Inmaculada Concepción at fourteen, people lament that a girl of such beauty would likely enter the church.

At school, the nuns note Patria’s religious devotion, and one encourages Patria to consider joining a convent, asking her if she has heard the formal “call” to pursue a life of religion. Patria says she has not, but she would be honored to hear that call and weeps tears of joy. However, soon she begins to feel a very different call, that of the senses. She longs to be touched and to engage her body sexually and otherwise sensually in the world, rather than accept the ascetic life of a convent. Her cravings subside for a time, and she continues to wait to hear the call.

Over a school break at home, she helps the church during holidays as one of several volunteers who wash parishioners’ feet before they come in to worship. Patria is struck by the appearance of one man’s feet, and she looks up at him, feeling an instant physical and spiritual attraction. She knows at this point that she will not hear “the call” the nuns want her to. She has felt and known the call to be with this man, whom she learns is Pedrito González. He is a simple farmer who works his family’s land, but Patria is attracted to his relationship with the land and his ease with farming and nature.

She marries him and moves to a nearby town. She bears two children, a boy named Nelson and girl named Noris. She miscarries a third baby, and afterwards, in an encounter with Minerva, she begins to understand the negative consequences of life under the Trujillo regime. She realizes that her faith, while pure, has also been uninformed by the reality around her: while her life has been untouched by the country-wide sorrow before the miscarriage, now that she has suffered she sees how God has let many others suffer, particularly under Trujillo. She looks into her family’s house and sees images of Jesus and Trujillo side by side on the wall. They seem to merge before her.

She grieves for both her deceased baby and her loss of faith, which she keeps to herself. She sees Pedrito rising one night and thinks he is going off to have an affair, but notices instead that he is digging outside and suspects he has stolen the baby’s corpse and is burying it on their lawn. She goes to the cemetery, claims she wants to add a religious medallion to the baby’s coffin, and demands that the coffin be dug up. It is, and she sees the baby’s corpse—a horrifying experience.

Patria sets off with the women of her family for a religious pilgrimage in a Ford her father has bought for the store, but which Minerva often uses. Patria notices her mother is remote and appears upset, and eventually it becomes clear to her and her sisters that their mother is upset because their father is having an affair. They reach the city of Higuey, and Patria goes to the altar for her turn to worship. Despite her cynicism, when she sees the people around her, she realizes she is stirred once again to religion, but this time, the worshippers and their faith move her more than the icons and legends of religion.

Analysis

Julia Alvarez structures her novel as the recollections of the one surviving Mirabal sister. Alvarez uses Dedé to convey what life had been like for three sisters murdered for their politics in a country ruled by a cruel dictator. By bringing an unnamed American interviewer into the story, Alvarez creates a contemporary occasion for Dedé to revisit her sisters’ and her family’s story. Ultimately, this allows Dedé to make her own sense and peace with that story and her own particular role in it.

The novel’s three parts include chapters told from the point of view of each of the four Mirabal sisters. Dedé’s chapters are written in the third-person voice, while her sisters’ chapters are written in their own distinctive first-person voices. This authorial choice reveals one of the novel’s functions, which is to tell Dedé’s version of her family’s story. By putting Dedé’s four chapters into third-person (and not first-person) narration, she becomes an object rather than the subject of her own narration. This position is passive, just as Dedé was passive in the face of the Trujillo regime and the country’s underground movement when compared to her sisters. Only in the book’s epilogue does Dedé finally speak in the first person. The author seems to suggest that the encounter with the interviewer has allowed Dedé to articulate her own version of events and finally speak with authenticity.

Chronologically, the first section of the novel is also a coming-of-age tale or bildungsroman within the longer work. It establishes the sisters’ different personalities and then shows how the sisters’ adolescent beliefs are honed and challenged as they leave their sheltered home and confront society at boarding school. Along with typical adolescent changes (menstruation, sexual attraction, mood swings and sensitivity), the Mirabal girls also begin to question their once-familiar world and the decisions that parents and society have made for them, in addition to their roles as women.

For Minerva, Sinita’s disclosure about Trujillo puts “a china crack” into her belief that all was well in her country. She thought her family had been a cage, but now she sees that her country is a cage. For María Teresa, the knowledge that her diary was not private and had to be hidden, that Minerva participates in secret political meetings, and that certain jokes about death and dictators are common all combined to make her disillusioned with the country. “Before, I always thought our president was like God, watching over everything I did,” she says.

Also established in these first chapters is the family’s and the sisters’ proximity to Trujillo, and the arms-length nature of their relationship to the regime at the time. Aside from knowing that spies hide in the bushes, that they must maintain a portrait of Trujillo alongside one of Jesus in their home, and that they must pay periodic allegiance to Trujillo, the girls begin to see that Trujillo’s evil is more prevalent in their lives than they had once thought. Sinita helps Minerva realize that a midget merchant she has seen for years in the town square was hired by the Trujillo regime to commit murders. She and María Teresa observe Trujillo’s courtship and eventual removal of Lina Lovatón from their school and how even the nuns must obey his orders and accept his bribes. Both sisters realize they must be careful about their associations after Hilda’s arrest and the government’s suspicion of Don Horacio begins.

The novel’s initial chapters show the sisters’ awakening, and to what. Patria does not become politically involved or angered, but rather debates between whether she belongs married to the church or to a man. She gets her answer (a man). From childhood, Dedé is aware of the country’s politics—aware, for instance, that spies are in the woods—but she, too, abstains from the strong feelings that captivate Mate and Minerva.

The sisters’ disparate priorities begin to create a tension that will play out later as they collaborate and face the reality of what it will take to overthrow the Trujillo regime. Alvarez conflates each sister’s disillusionment with childhood beliefs with the disillusionment of realizing that the government is a police state and dictatorship, rather than a democracy.

Minerva is the first sister to begin changing in response to the regime, and her change will establish an ongoing tension within the family over how each sister chooses to respond (or not) to the “movement” brewing within the country to overturn Trujillo. Dedé’s passivity, Patria’s religious beliefs, Minerva’s rebellious and outspoken nature, and María Teresa’s belief in fairness and justice all eventually define their roles in the revolution and why they participate in it.

The sisters’ character traits are well established in the novel’s initial pages. So, too, is Trujillo’s character: We learn he can be cunning, charming, and very lavish when he showers his attentions on a woman he admires (such as Lina Lovatón ). At the same time, he is petty, crude, and insecure and requires constant allegiance. He likes to seduce and rape young women. His pattern of conduct, and the sisters’ personalities and initial response to it, are also established in the novel’s initial chapters.

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Summary and Analysis Part II: Chapters 5–8