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

Start Free Trial

In the Time of the Butterflies Analysis

  • Alvarez divides In the Time of the Butterflies among the perspectives of each of the four Mirabal sisters, allowing the reader to understand the many ways in which it is possible to be a heroine.
  • The novel emphasizes how Rafael Trujillo leverages religious imagery and devotion as his dictatorship over the Dominican Republic gathers power.
  • The Mirabal sisters’ strong sense of duty and loyalty is depicted as the source of their ability to continue fighting Trujillo’s regime.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In the Time of the Butterflies is a work of historical fiction, and author Julia Alvarez takes special care to tell the personal stories of the Mirabal sisters with authenticity and grace. In dividing the chapters between the narratives of each of the four sisters, Alvarez intimately engages with their experiences as a means of showcasing their distinct personalities and contrasting strengths—and thus providing the reader with a nuanced and dynamic idea of what it means to be a heroine.

The novel paints a detailed picture of how the Trujillo dictatorship transformed the Dominican Republic’s history, and in portraying the lives of the Mirabals, Alvarez also elucidates how dictators rise to power. For example, during Minerva’s time at the convent, she learns from her friend Sinita that “Trujillo became president in a sneaky way.” As he rose through the ranks in the army, “all the people who were above him kept disappearing until he was the one right below the head of the whole armed forces,” whom he subsequently murdered.

Trujillo uses his military power to exhibit total control over Dominican citizens. The country turns into a “police state,” and each of the sisters details the increased regulations and decreased freedoms of Trujillo’s regime, in addition to the mysterious disappearances of Trujillo’s opponents. Also characteristic of dictatorships, the regime employs exploitative surveillance tactics to silence those who speak out against Trujillo’s injustices and otherwise question his leadership.

In exploring the role that religion plays for each of the Mirabals, Alvarez depicts how Trujillo’s messiah complex operates to enforce the public’s loyalty. For example, when the teenage Minerva captures Trujillo’s attention at an event and is forced to dance with him, she explains how easily he is able to manipulate people:

I see how easily it happens. You give in on little things, and soon you’re serving in his government, marching in his parades, sleeping in his bed.

Minerva describes how the country is “putting on a whole loyalty performance” for Trujillo, particularly while threats against his opponents accelerate. Trujillo thus cultivates fear and maintains power by representing himself as a god, henceforth rewriting Dominican history to “follow the plot of the bible” and promoting the idea that the citizens “had been waiting for centuries for the arrival of our Lord Trujillo.” María Teresa illustrates how she initially regards Trujillo like a god when she is a child, constantly feeling his presence both internally and externally.

Trujillo’s regime also implements aggressive patriarchal values that further motivate the sisters to fight for their freedoms. In particular, when he cruelly prohibits Minerva from practicing law even after granting permission for her to attend law school, she becomes mobilized to join the movement. Minerva’s refusal to allow Trujillo to break her spirit—despite being pushed to her furthest emotional and physical limits in prison—remains an emphatic force in the underground, thereby elevating her to the status of a heroine as a voice for freedom from the grips of patriarchy, authoritarianism, and brutality.

Throughout the novel, Alvarez communicates that activism like the Mirabal sisters’ can lead to profound change. Despite the ways in which dictatorships perpetuate ignorance among the public—such as when, early on, police describe Lío’s rebel organization as “a party for homosexuals and criminals”—and attempt to silence the opposition by implementing a “police state,” the continued fight for human rights and freedoms has invincible strength. At the end of the novel, when Dedé speaks with Lío at an event honoring her sisters, he declares that dictatorships are “pantheistic” because “the dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself” into the minds of those in his authoritative grasp. However, Lío also reminds Dedé that, despite their tragic murders, her sisters’ message of peace and perseverance to rebel against injustice changed the political landscape of the Dominican Republic from a brutal regime to a free and prosperous nation. Accordingly, Alvarez emphasizes the importance of advocating for progressive causes as a means to cultivate a prosperous nation for future generations.

In the Time of the Butterflies also explores how familial love, the sacred bond between sisters, and loyalty cultivate growth. As the title of the novel suggests, Alvarez uses butterflies—the nickname attributed to the Mirabal sisters—to symbolize the ideals of motherhood, liberty, and self-awareness. Dedé’s cherished butterfly orchids represent both her own growth and her ability to channel her grief into courage as she dedicates herself to carrying on her sisters’ legacy. Dedé later explains how her mother perseveres for twenty years after the deaths of Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria, as if waiting to die “until her granddaughters were past the dangerous stretch of their teen years before she left them to fend for themselves.” The following passage illuminates how the butterfly orchid is emblematic of this legacy:

I put the orchid I had brought the girls in her hands. I knew that, unless my journey was truly accursed and I survived my children, this was the last big loss I would have to suffer. There was no one between me and the dark passage ahead—I was next.

In placing the butterfly orchid in her mother’s hands, Dedé exhibits her growth and strength in facing the trauma of her past, as well as the pressure she feels as the sole survivor of her sisters. Dedé devotes herself to cultivating the same fierce love that her mother gave her to her nieces.

As the legacy of the Mirabal sisters exemplifies, bravery comes in many forms, and these four heroines powerfully demonstrate how courage, familial loyalty, and commitment to the ideals of freedom gave them the power to create meaningful changes in Dominican history.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Key Ideas and Commentary