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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Critical Overview

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Since its release in 1994, In the Time of the Butterflies has received largely positive reviews. Most critics praise Alvarez for bringing the Mirabal sisters' story to an American audience unfamiliar with their lives, struggles, and deaths. In their reviews of the novel, critics such as Janet Jones Hampton, Brad Hooper, Rebecca S. Kelm, and Kay Pritchett also comment on Alvarez's ability to effectively portray her characters' personal and domestic lives. Hampton, Hooper, and Pritchett commend Alvarez's focus on the political elements of her story. Pritchett, for example, contends in World Literature Today that Alvarez adeptly balances "the political and the human, the tragic and the lyrical." She also lauds Alvarez's style, which she says "seems to emerge from the core of woman's experience, passion, and grief."

Not all critics view the novel so favorably, however; Barbara Mujica and Roberto González Echevarría, for instance, find many areas of weakness in the work. Mujica asserts in Americas that Alvarez actually goes too far in humanizing her characters, making them "ssmaller-than-life." She also believes that the characters "are rather too formulaic and unidimensional to hold our attention," which may hinder readers from reaching the more compelling passages in the latter stages of the book, areas in which "Alvarez has much to tell us about the strength of the human will."

In his important review in The New York Times Book Review, González Echevarría views Alvarez's characterizations differently. He believes that Alvarez "did not escape the temptation to monumentalize" the Mirabal sisters, which hurts the novel. In addition, he characterizes the Mirabal sisters as "reactive and passive," saying that Alvarez portrays them "as earnestly innocent and vulnerable, but that diminishes their political stature and fictional complexity." The world that Alvarez creates, according to González Echevarría, also includes "far too many misdeeds and misfortunes" while still failing to make the reader aware "of a broader, more encompassing political world."

Other significant reviews disagree with González Echevarría's evaluation of the novel. Ilan Stavans commends the book in Nation, and, unlike González Echevarría, he does not see the Mirabal sisters as passive. Instead, they offer a potent challenge to their society. Stavans asserts that Alvarez takes a unique approach to the Trujillo era by examining "the martyrdom of these three Dominican women as a gender battlefield." The sisters are raised in a chauvinistic society, confront the limitations this society places on women, and are killed by a dictator who must constantly demonstrate masculine power. For Stavans, though, the prominence of the Mirabals is balanced by the overarching presence of Trujillo, who is such a pervasive figure that Stavans says, "It seems to me he becomes the central character."

In The Women's Review of Books, Ruth Behar also comments on Alvarez's feminist approach to her topic, Behar believes that Alvarez joins other Latina writers "in the feminist quest to bring Latin American women into the nation and into history as agents," not merely as passive figures under male dominance. Behar also examines Alvarez's portrayal of the power of dictators to assert themselves in everyone's lives. She also considers Alvarez's treatments of history and revolution in the book. Behar holds that "this is a historical novel in which forgetting wins out over remembering. Alvarez offers a paradox: her novel bears witness to the urgency of her quest for memory, but for her characters healing comes only through forgetting." She criticizes Alvarez for not fully considering the corruption of revolutionaries turned dictators, but ultimately she compliments her for "showing that although revolutions turn sour, they matter."

Two critical articles have been printed on the novel. The first is "Recovering a Space for a History between Imperialism and Patriarchy: Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies" by Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, and the second is "Historiographic Metafiction in In the Time of the Butterflies" by Isabel Zakrzewski Brown. As do Stavans and Behar, Martínez compares Alvarez to other contemporary Latina and Chicana writers who focus on gender conflicts and represent Latin American history through women's lives. Martínez contends that like other Latin American women writers, Alvarez portrays the two sexes joined together in a common struggle, not separated by individual agendas. She also praises Alvarez for humanizing the Mirabal sisters while still constructing a political message that criticizes other nations, including America, for complicity with the Trujillo regime.

Brown also examines the feminist issues in the novel. Her approach, however, is historical. She treats the novel within the context of "historiographic metafiction," a term coined by critic Linda Hutcheon to describe the self-aware uses of history in contemporary novels. A significant portion of her article is dedicated to comparing Alvarez's fictional representations with the existing biographies of the Mirabals, detailing Alvarez's transformations of fact. She ultimately criticizes Alvarez for fashioning the Mirabal sisters into stereotypes and being "unable to avoid the mythification process she had professed to elude."

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