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 III: Chapters 9–12 and Epilogue

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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, Minou arrives in her car before the interviewer leaves. Minou tells Dedé she has gone to see Fela for a fortune-telling, but the deceased sisters didn’t have anything else to say, that they must be at rest. Minou asks Dedé why she didn’t join in with her sisters and so Dedé tells her the rest of the tale.

Dedé recalls the year 1960, when her sister Patria came and asked if she could bury some boxes behind Dedé’s and Jaimito’s home. Dedé said she would have to ask Jaimito and that it was unlikely. Patria asks her why she can’t decide without Jaimito, and Dedé admits she doesn’t have “that kind” of marriage. Patria asks what sort of marriage she does have and Dedé bursts into tears. When she did ask Jaimito, he told her she was to say no and also to avoid her sisters.

Her three sisters come to visit her later that year and tell her “the goat” (code for Trujillo) will be killed within three weeks, and that action groups are galvanizing. They invite her to a meeting at Patria’s. Dedé finally confesses that Jaimito has said he’ll leave her if she joins. Dedé decided she will go to the meeting, and that she will leave Jaimito. Minerva indirectly encourages her by telling her she can hear Virgilio on the radio late at night if she chooses to tune in. Dedé worries about leaving Jaimito, especially since she has three sons and she fears Jaimito would try and keep them if they separated.

Dedé goes to see a minister to talk about her marriage one last time before she leaves Jaimito. This is in defiance of Jaimito who tells her she is going “over his head.” While she waits to see a minister, she overhears the ministers talking about the movement. This causes her to realize that the movement is more widespread than she had ever thought. When she comes home, Jaimito and the boys are missing. Dedé gets a ride to his mother’s, where everyone is visiting. The sisters tell an angry Jaimito that Dedé is not part of the movement, and Manolo encourages Dedé and Jaimito to take a “honeymoon” vacation. They do, and they reconcile rather than split up, despite Dedé’s plan.

A week later, the family is slowly rounded up by the SIM, Trujillo’s police. Leandro was arrested, and they had come for Pedrito and Nelson, who escaped into the hills. The SIM ransacked and set fire to the family home, which brought Pedrito and Nelson down from the hills and led to a beating and arrest. Dedé calls Minerva to inform her of what is happening and realizes that, though she has not “joined” the movement, her fate is bound up with that of her sisters. Minerva has tuberculosis and has to borrow money from Dedé. Dedé drives off to provide it, thinking that her marriage has shifted for the better.

Their mother has been shielded from the arrests but learns of what is happening when...

(This entire section contains 3505 words.)

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the SIM come to her house and collect Mate—and then they arrest Minerva. Dedé sees the bushes rustle and understands that their mother’s home has been bugged. She remembers that Minerva is wanted dead by Trujillo.

Chapter ten switches to the months between January and March of 1960, and is told from Patria’s voice. Now that she has no home, she lives at her mother’s and shares a room with Mate until Mate is arrested. A SIM captain named Peña regularly visits the family to monitor them. He tells Patria that Pedrito must really love his children because the SIM made him an offer that was refused. She asks what the offer was, and Peña said it involved Pedrito gaining his freedom in exchange for divorcing his Mirabal wife.

The sisters are located at a prison. This is a good sign, since prisoners who can’t be located are often killed. Patria also is given hope when she attends a religious service in Salcedo and the ministers lead the congregation in talks against the Trujillo regime all day. The SIM eventually comes, though, and the next Sunday Trujillo’s regime sends hired people—prostitutes—to take communion and disrupt the service.

One day, when Patria is at home alone, she gets a visit from a caller who identifies herself as Margarita, a pharmacist who can convey messages to her sisters in prison in the town of La Victoria. They prepare and send a package to the sisters. Patria realizes that her father’s “other family” would be her family’s agent of salvation. She also learns that Dedé is very unhappy with Jaimito and that the family’s home is bugged.

Patria asks neighbor Don Bernardo, an aging man with an elderly wife who has entered dementia, if he will give her a ride to Santiago to see Peña. There Patria asks if she can get Nelson pardoned. She also makes it clear she knows he has allowed the family land to be taken and that she will pray for him. After several weeks, Peña comes to tell her that he has visiting passes and Nelson will be pardoned soon. Apparently Mate and Minerva were offered pardons but refused them.

Nelson’s pardon is finalized, and Patria goes to the National Palace with Noris—whom Trujillo fancies, to Patria’s horror. He asks her what sort of ice cream she likes and there are photos in the paper the next day of Patria’s gratitude at the pardon.

Mate narrates the months from March to August 1960 in chapter eleven, when she is imprisoned and sharing a cell with Minerva and other women inmates. Some of these are “politicals” and some are garden-variety criminals. A guard, Santicló, helps them by delivering packages from home. But Mate worries about their fate—she is aware of the torture room, known as La 40.

Minerva and Mate are in a cell with twenty-four women, and the “politicals” gather in a corner for the “little school,” a practice that mimics something Castro did in captivity They all take turns looking out the window to get an idea of what is happening outside, and the cell has its own social politics. Mate’s favorite cellmate is Magdalena, a woman who is very giving and also a mother. She and Mate discuss the true connection people have to one another, and the rest of the cell chimes in, deciding the bond is the independent nation that the Dominican Republic could become.

The prisoners periodically weep and break down. They buy snacks and privileges from the guards, a practice known as “throwing water on the turtle.” They are all periodically taken out for questioning, especially Minerva, who chides Mate about her morale. The sisters have refused a pardon on the grounds that that would mean they believe they have done something wrong and criminal. The prisoners are told they can’t wear crucifixes or sing hymns—which have now become revolutionary songs due to the church’s support of a Trujillo overthrow. Minerva is sent to solitary for failing to comply. Mama and Patria visit Mate, and give her news of Nelson’s liberation and the men.

Mate realizes she is pregnant and has miscarried. This fact makes a torture experience under the SIM physically easier to bear, along with the nursing kindness Magdalena shows her. Mate has been to La 40 and tortured, but can’t bear to verbally describe what happened there, so she writes it in a statement. She is taken into the chambers and stripped of most of her clothes, then Leandro is brought in. He is emaciated and also half-dressed. They tell him they want her to “help” him. He says he won’t talk unless she’s released, then she watches as they beat him. They ask her to talk and she won’t, so they tie her down and they shock her. Then Leandro cries out he’ll do something, whatever task or request they have asked of him.

She and Minerva are arraigned, but at their trial, they are told they will be sentenced to five years in jail. Mate finally tells Minerva what happened to her, and Minerva tells Mate she should recount the story to the OAS (Organization of American States) when and if they intervene in the country’s politics. The OAS is paying a visit, and so the prisoners are receiving new, positive treatment because the OAS will interview prisoners about human rights violations.

The sisters discover they can hide things in Mate’s thick braid. They are able to use her braid to smuggle around an article about the Trujillo regime’s attempt to kill Venezuela’s president. Meanwhile, Mate has a somewhat sexual encounter with Magdalena after the two of them discuss their lives outside of prison. Magdalena was expected to sleep with an employer as part of a nanny job and became pregnant with his child, then was imprisoned when she tried to reclaim the child. As the two confide, they become intimate.

The OAS arrives and interviews prisoners from each ward. Mate is chosen, but Minerva says it’s because they believe she won’t say anything of consequence. They agree to type a statement and hide it in her hair, since the conversation will be bugged. Finally, in August, Mate and Minerva learn they are to be released.

The story switches to Minerva’s perspective and traces the time from August to November 25, 1960, when the Mirabal sisters were under house arrest. Chapter twelve opens with Minerva at home from prison, exhausted and suffering from pneumonia. Ironically, Minerva observes that she spent her childhood trying to leave home and now wishes to stay there, both for fear of being out in public and because of pressure to live up to the image of “La Mariposa” (the butterfly, her movement nickname) who leads the underground. She doesn’t feel like herself anymore.

Peña visits and tells the sisters to write a letter to Trujillo thanking him for releasing them. Minerva resists, but eventually agrees, in part because she hears the noisy spies sitting around their house. The family gets little bits of news about the revolution but are forbidden from interacting with other known politicals. They can leave only to go to church or to see their jailed husbands. One of Minerva’s friends, who is married to a journalist, picks up news from South American countries, noting they have broken relations with and imposed sanctions on the country over political differences.

The sisters visit their husbands, and Manolo asks Minerva about the status of the old “cells” (or revolutionary teams). She realizes how far afield she’s drifted from her former status as a revolutionary. While the sisters are under house arrest, a group of men distribute leaflets against the government, and all of the men are arrested. Manolo tells her the men are headed for execution, a sentiment Patria and Mate also hear.

In October, the three sisters dedicate themselves to saving the men. Patria, Mate, and Minerva manage to visit a doctor, Delia, who tells them who in the movement remains free. Minerva goes to see the man Delia mentions, Pedro Viñas, and she tells the SIM that that is where the doctor referred her. Minerva learns there’s not a lot of hope for the men, that outside help between gringos (foreign countries) and the revolution is unsteady and that new alliances are underway to topple Trujillo. It doesn’t matter who does it, Pedro Viñas says, as long as the job gets accomplished. Leadership can be sorted out later, he says.

Minerva and Manolo must give over their former home in Monte Cristi to SIM, who want to put a new office there. Mate has her recurring bad coffin dream and sees the bodies of her sisters’ husbands lying inside of it. Their uncle comes to talk to the sisters and says that Trujillo said, within earshot of him, that his two problems are the church and the Mirabal sisters. He believes it’s an idle threat, designed to scare them but having no basis in reality. Minerva has an eerie feeling she is already dead.

The next day the sisters learn their husbands have been transferred to Puerta Plata, a city further away that will involve treacherous driving over mountain passes. They are told they can visit more often than before. On November 25, they set off on their fourth trip for that city despite Dedé’s warning that they are sitting ducks for a SIM attack. Rufino lets them pick up a young soldier who is hitchhiking and he seems very nervous. A rain storm erupts—it is hurricane season. They stop and buy purses, a sign of good luck, they all decide. They see SIM cars outside one of Trujillo’s homes en route and are very afraid they will be ambushed, but travel on without incident.

After their visit, they continue back home against Monolo’s suggestion and stop at a gas station café. They debate staying the night with a couple they know, but Minerva can’t get a phone call through and knows the couple is under SIM scrutiny so their visit wouldn’t help politically. They begin home, following a truck up the first mountain.

The story’s epilogue, told in the first person from Dedé’s point of view, recounts how the sisters were confronted by SIM guards and murdered. Dedé remembers how, just after their murders, different Dominicans who had seen them that last day would come forward to talk to her. These Dominicans displayed tears and sentimentality and offered her tidbits of information about what they had done in Puerta Plata or on the road that afternoon.

The sisters and Rufino left for home at 4:30, and their Jeep passed the truck as they ascended the mountain. The truck driver came upon the roadblock and saw SIM officials leading the sisters to a car. One sister, Patria, ran to him and told him to inform the Mirabal family of Salcedo that the SIM were trying to kill them. Dedé says the story emerged in the murderers’ trials, a year after Trujillo was ousted. There were five men. One stood guard, and the others killed one person apiece from the Jeep.

Dedé recalls how the family received a telegram that reported “there has been a car accident” and requesting they come to a hospital in Santiago, then news that they don’t have to. Lost in her memories, Dedé’s story slips into present tense. Dedé insists on going to the morgue. Jaimito tells her that her martyrdom (in the revolution) will involve remaining alive without her sisters. The sisters’ jailed husbands don’t learn of the deaths until a few days later, when drunk and cheerful SIM guards laughingly tell them the news.

Time passed and Dedé recalls learning to feel some hope. Trujillo was ousted, but so, too, was the incoming president. Manolo took to the hills with a rebel group, but they were all shot. Dedé realizes that, after her sister’s deaths, she had transformed from the person who always listened to the person who is always talking. Her job will now be to make sense of things and explain what happened in the country. The rest of the husbands die, and she sees Lío at an event honoring the Mirabal sisters. He points out the progress the country has made. At the end of the novel, Dedé reflects on the house she still lives in and all that has happened there, but also looks for the first time to the future. In particular, she considers the possibility of romance for herself.


The novel’s third and final sequence of chapters launches with a chapter told from Dedé’s perspective, but this time she speaks to Minou, Minerva’s daughter, rather than to the American interviewer. This fact changes the context of the Dedé’s place in the novel, for now Dedé narrates the past for the sake of setting the family record straight, rather than the public record sought by the reporter. Minou asks Dedé why she wasn’t involved with her sisters in the revolution, and Dedé is forced to confess that she first hid behind her husband when her sisters invited her to get involved during the final weeks before an attempt on Trujillo’s life. By the time she had decided to “go over Jaimito’s head” and join in with them, it was too late and her sisters were already jailed.

The novel’s final chapters, set in 1960, show a concentrated account of the consequences of the sisters’ involvement—or, in Dedé’s case, lack of involvement—in the movement to overthrow Trujillo. The sisters’ husbands are jailed, and then Mate and Minerva are jailed, too. The SIM ransack and burn Patria’ and Pedrito’s property, and the Mirabal household begins to function under constant surveillance. Meanwhile, Minerva and Mate are imprisoned. While in jail, their belief in the revolution and notoriety for associating with it grow. Mate discovers she is pregnant and miscarries both due to malnutrition and to prison torture, while Minerva puts on a front of confidence but secretly begins to lose her resolve.

During the imprisonment, Minerva and Mate lose contact with their former cells and with their husbands and families. Alvarez here shows the effects of a totalitarian regime in this total loss of physical as well as mental freedom, the freedom to communicate and think. Upon their release, the sisters and family live under surveillance by one of Trujillo’s captains, and spies lurk openly on the property, listening to easy-to-spot wiretaps. Minerva, the sister most opposite to Dedé in terms of character within the Mirabal family, begins to inch closer to an appreciation for and interest in family life, even as Dedé inches closer to an appreciation for the movement. As the novel winds to a close, Alvarez shows characters growing in relation to one another. Dedé’s mere interest in the movement, though never enacted, helps her to become more assertive and improve her relationship with Jaimito.

The novel’s final chapters also make good on Minerva’s earlier observation that something she and her family can’t stop has been set in motion. At Manolo’s request, Minerva resumes trying to navigate within the Movement, despite government orders against interacting with other “politicals.” Minerva learns that international countries have become aware and are involved in work to change politics in the Dominican Republic. But unlike the Fourteenth of June movement, which was designed to work from within, other hobbled revolutionary efforts are awaiting external assistance. Minerva sees both the good and the bad of the situation. The revolution has sparked substantial attention from outsiders who could help, but the help will be long in coming and may not happen fast enough to save the lives of her husband, the men, or her and her sisters.

The final chapters also show Trujillo’s weak attempts at intimidation, long-rumored but now understood by the family. His messages, delivered through captains, and the captivity of the sisters’ husbands work to manipulate their fears and emotions. Trujillo shows his tendency to make rules easy for himself, transferring two husbands to a jail set on the far side of a mountain pass, knowing all three will travel to see the men. He offers them unlimited visits, creating an environment in which their murder is convenient to orchestrate, since the roads are treacherous and it is the rainy season—a time of frequent wrecks. Neither the blockade nor the murders of the sisters is really a surprise.

The nation, however, is aware of the Mirabal sisters’ influence on their history, and when Dedé rides in the back of the truck with their coffins, people acknowledge the sisters and their positive role in helping the nation. The epilogue traces the nation’s progress and allows Dedé to pause a minute before moving forward with the rest of her life. Minou tells her that Fela, the maid-turned-mystic, has said that the sisters have nothing else to say, and wonders about that. It is as if Alvarez is saying that Dedé has delivered their story and the sisters can now rest in peace.


Summary and Analysis Part II: Chapters 5–8