Julia Alvarez’s butterflies are the four Mirabal sisters, whose code name in the revolutionary underground was Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly. These women, daughters of Don Enrique Mirabal, a landed merchant-farmer who became prosperous and socially prominent, and his wife, Doña Mercedes, referred to as “Mamá” throughout the novel, were born into a rising middle class.
In the early 1930’s, an ambitious military man, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, barely literate and from humble origins, rose to be Dominican Chief of Military Operations. He seized the reins of government precipitously, declaring himself president after instigating the downfall of his predecessor.
Trujillo’s meteoric rise to power had begun in the army. He advanced quickly as those in line before him mysteriously disappeared. As second in command, he assured his ascendancy to Chief of Military Operations by devious means. He knew that his superior was having an affair with another man’s wife. One night he learned where the illicit couple planned to rendezvous. He informed the husband, who, lying in wait, killed the lovers in a jealous frenzy.
Trujillo thus became the second most powerful person in the country. He arranged his final ascent by engineering an uprising against the sitting president, then failing to respond to calls for help from the palace. As president, Trujillo, from whose regime Julia Alvarez’s family fled to the United States in 1960 when she was ten years old, retained power in two major ways: He annihilated his opposition without conscience, and he spent public money in visible ways to create an illusion of civic progress.
Alvarez tells the story of the Mirabal sisters in the first person. Each division of the book is headed by the name of one sister and by one or more dates. This structural device permits rounded development of each character because each sister speaks for herself in the first person but is also revealed as others see and comment about her.
Alvarez’s use of time is essentially sequential, although in some cases, as in Dedé’s opening section, it involves two or more nonsequential dates, in the latter instance 1994 and 1943. This is necessary because Dedé, the sister who survives the atrocity that killed the other three, is being interviewed by Alvarez, who remains much in the shadows more than three decades after the murders around which the novel revolves.
The technique Alvarez has developed results in readers’ coming to know the Mirabal sisters intimately, almost as people know members of their immediate families. As this feeling of intimacy grows, knowledge of the story’s outcome becomes agonizingly wrenching.
The novel poses a number of universal social questions. Most obviously, it is a strident statement about human rights and human dignity. It also becomes a forceful feminist statement. Minerva, the most independent of the daughters, is a feminist in every respect. Dedé, a submissive wife until she joins the revolutionary movement, divorces her husband and, after the political troubles have died down, becomes an extremely successful insurance agent, something she could never have done in the Dominican Republic as Jaimito’s wife.
Whereas Patria wants only to be married—she gains her desire at an early age—and have children, Minerva, who does not marry until she is twenty-nine, insists on attending the university and taking a law degree. Dedé and María Teresa, generally called Mate, begin as passive, conventional Hispanic women beholden to their husbands, as Mamá has been to her husband, although, as Alvarez reveals, Papá is the weakest member of the immediate family. Only once in Enrique’s lifetime does Mamá, who has never learned to read, publicly assume the control of which she is fully capable, and that is when Papá’s (and the family’s) future is severely threatened.
Alvarez deftly develops the theme that demonstrates how a bit-by-bit erosion of freedoms eventually eradicates them...
(The entire section is 4,862 words.)