In the Time of the Butterflies Essays and Criticism
by Julia Alvarez

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Alvarez's Stated Objectives in In the Time of the Butterflies

(Novels for Students)

In her postscript to In the Time of the Butterflies Julia Alvarez discusses her intentions in the novel. She says that she wanted to bring the story of Patria, Minerva, María Teresa, and Dedé Mirabal to the English-speaking public. All of the Mirabal sisters except Dedé rebelled against the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, and were murdered by Trujillo's men in 1960.

Alvarez seems to recognize that many people might take exception to her book, which fictionalizes the lives of the real Mirabal sisters. Alvarez is careful to point out that the work is not a biography. She says that the reader is not to perceive these characters and events as factual. Instead, she asserts that "what you will find here are the Mirabals of my creation, made up but, I hope, true to the spirit of the real Mirabals." She also contends that the reader will not find the "legendary" Mirabals who have become more myths than actual people. In fact, she intends for her novel to counteract such myths, which make people believe that the Mirabals' courage is inaccessible to ordinary people.

To accomplish her goals, Alvarez must maintain a difficult balance. She must convey her sense of the Mirabal sisters and their importance while not posing her account as anything but an imaginary reconstruction. Because this strategy has become more common with contemporary American novels, many readers are willing to accept the fictionalizing of factual events. Still, Alvarez must work to persuade readers that her version of events provides genuine insight. Therefore, she needs to "humanize" her characters without trivializing them, show their significance without glorifying them, and maintain consistent characters without relying solely on stereotypes.

Some critics believe that Alvarez has fallen short in these areas. Others, however, find her portraits compelling and inspiring. This debate revolves around Alvarez's narrative strategies and her ability to create characters. While the reader does not know if Alvarez conveys the spirit of the actual Mirabal sisters, her use of alternating first person narratives allows her to generate a sense of her characters' courage and the magnitude of their sacrifices, which, ultimately, seems her central aim.

Prominent reservations about Alvarez's novel involve her inability to create believable or engaging characters. For example, Barbara Mujica observes in her review for Americas that Alvarez's Mirabal sisters are "Smaller-than-life" and "are rather too formulaic and unidimensional to hold our attention." Isabel Zakrzewski Brown also comments in her article "Historiographic Metafiction in In the Time of the Butterflies" in the South Atlantic Review that Alvarez resorts to stereotypes in the novel. She reaches a somewhat different conclusion than Mujica, however, though her appraisal is still negative. Brown believes that Alvarez's stereotyped sisters "come together to form a perfect whole: the now legendary Mirabal sisters. Alvarez thus is unable to avoid the mythification process she had professed to elude." In his review "Sisters in Death," Roberto González Echevarría offers a criticism similar to Brown's in The New York Times Book Review, saying that Alvarez "did not escape the temptation to monumentalize" the Mirabals.

The degrees to which Alvarez stereotypes or glorifies her characters are valid concerns. One could contend, like Brown, that Alvarez reduces her characters to "the pious one, Patria; the pragmatic one Dedé; the rebellious one, Minerva; and the innocent one, Mate [María Teresa]." However, one must also take into consideration both Alvarez's own implicit commentary on such stereotypes and her efforts to show the characters' divergences from these patterns.

Alvarez uses Dedé's narrative, in particular, to show how the Mirabals have already been reduced to formulaic portrayals. While briefly describing her sisters to the American interviewer who visits her, Dedé employs a "fixed, monolithic language" that...

(The entire section is 4,678 words.)