In the Time of the Butterflies Style, Form, and Literary Elements
by Julia Alvarez

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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alvarez’s most pervasive theme is that heroism exists side by side with the mundane, that extraordinary courage can be a part of ordinary life. To emphasize this, she intertwines the story of the sisters’ political lives with stories of their courtships, motherhood, and concerns about daily trivia. On the day of their deaths, she has them gleefully splurge on new purses; one of their last acts is to make a stop for beer and lemonade.

In Dedé, she also explores themes of personal memory versus public remembrance and of the obligations of the living to the memory of the dead. After Trujillo’s regime, Dedé sacrifices her personal identity to become the living repository of her sisters’ memory. For thirty-four years, she faithfully attends events honoring the Butterflies and answers endless questions about them. She says she does this to return hope to her people by helping them to make sense of their past. Her life as their representative also seems to redeem her former noninvolvement. At times, Dedé yearns for the day when she can be her own self again. Even her career, she knows, she owes to her sisters, for many want to own life insurance sold to them by the sole surviving Mirabal sister. Yet she knows the value of keeping the memory of her sisters’ heroism alive, and she is not ready to set aside her duty.

Dedé also is still trying to manage her personal grief over the loss of her sisters. She plays back memories of their lives together. These memories honor Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa not only as patriots and martyrs but also as sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers. As the story ends, Minerva’s daughter Minou arrives to visit her aunt, and she tells Dedé that Fela, the Mirabals’ elderly servant who claims to be in contact with the sisters’ spirits, was unable to talk to the martyrs today. Dedé knows this is because the sisters were with her all afternoon, but she tells Minou that the sisters would not come because they have finally achieved peace. Readers know that it is Dedé who needs and is seeking peace.

Alvarez portrays all four Mirabals as ordinary young girls and women, not as the larger-than-life heroes of Dominican lore. Her choice makes their courage and political resistance seem possible for anyone, without diminishing its remarkable nature, and the Mirabals emerge as inspiring and forceful role models.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The story is broken into four parts in each section with each part told from the point of view of one of the four sisters. María Teresa tells her part of the story through her diary entries. Patria Mercedes' point of view accentuates her strong religious beliefs. Minerva is the leader, her principles upheld with each decision she makes. She lives her beliefs, whether at home or in prison. She does not allow her inner fears to change her decisions or her actions, standing up for what she sees as right. Each of the sisters is strengthened by the use of her personal point of view. Stavans wrote, "We have a quatrain of novellas, only one of which doesn't end in tragedy." Dedé's novella may not end in death, but tragedy is there nonetheless.

Alvarez adds richness and depth to her characters by using many Spanish words and phrases in the text. Stavans commented that "when you ask somebody what's up and no easy reply can be found, people are likely to say, 'Entre Lucas y Juan Mejia.'" '"Between the devil and the deep blue sea' isn't the right equivalent in English," Alvarez added, "because you aren't describing the sensation of being caught between a pair of bad alternatives.…" What are you caught between? How did you get there? And how does it feel to be there?

He went on to say that Alvarez...

(The entire section is 943 words.)