In the Time of the Butterflies Analysis
by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies book cover
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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.

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Analysis

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...

(The entire section is 7,590 words.)