Introductory Lecture and Objectives
Written by Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies is an account of the lives of the four Mirabal sisters, women who lived under the political regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic during most of Trujillo’s 31-year reign. The work is a novel, the story of the sisters told through fiction, but it is rooted in historical accuracy and the author’s own past. Three of the four sisters became involved in the underground that worked to overthrow the brutal dictator, and all three were murdered after a plan to depose him was exposed. In Julia Alvarez’s compellingly imagined version of their lives, we follow the sisters’ loss of innocence, disillusionment about their country, and gradual awakening to what they can do to fight back against Trujillo’s oppressive regime. Over the course of the narrative, we get to know each of the four sisters’ motivations, how the sisters differ, and why three of them decide to join the underground movement to oust their leader. While Minerva wants to fight for justice, Patria eventually joins because she feels a Christian obligation to her fellow citizens; María Teresa gets swept up in the cause because she falls in love. Dedé alone does not participate; considered the sensible sister, she remains unmoved by ideological fervor. Although the sisters are quite different, they ultimately come to symbolize the strength and power of family loyalty.
A multilayered narrative of politics, family, religion, loyalty, morality, courage, regret, and the power of women, In the Time of the Butterflies is simultaneously the intimate story of a tight-knit family and a broader depiction of a country living under a ruthless dictatorship. It is a powerful example of the deeply personal nature of politics and of passivity as complicity in the perpetuation of tyranny; freedom and justice, the novel suggests, are achieved only through the courage of individuals. Alvarez’s fictional story of the Mirabal sisters establishes the terrible truth of life in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s regime far more clearly than it can be presented in historical reports and political analyses of the period. In the novel, the truth of it is found in feelings as well as in historical facts, and political oppression is revealed for what it is—not only a means to preserve the power of the state but also an institutionalizing of corruption and brutality. Although the setting of the novel may seem foreign to students, the narrative is haunting, and they will find much to consider in it: the conflict between compromise and the defense of principles; the relationship between religion and government; the loss of innocence; the nature of courage; the obligation to one’s country; and the struggle when tested to define one’s deepest values.
One of the most brutal dictators of the twentieth century, Rafael Trujillo ran the Dominican Republic with an iron hand from 1930 to 1961, when he was finally assassinated. During his long reign of terror, he put in place a vast, pervasive network of secret police to control the population of the country; countless thousands who opposed his regime were tortured and killed. Completely caught up in self-deification, he renamed the capital Ciudad Trujillo, rewrote the history books, and maintained a vise-like grip on media, all to create and preserve a glorified image of himself. In the 1950s, an underground network of dissenters tried to oust the dictator; several plots were uncovered, and the participants were tortured, imprisoned, or murdered. In 1961, Trujillo was finally assassinated on a dark road outside the capital by men from his own armed forces. Today, Dominicans call his assassination an ajusticiamiento —adjustment—a word that indicates his death is considered a form of justice.
Julia Alvarez was born in the Dominican Republic and lived there until 1960. Her family was forced to flee the country because her parents had participated in one of the unsuccessful plots to overthrow Trujillo. The real Mirabal sisters were among the other participants in the plot. Instead of writing about her own experience, Alvarez chose to focus her story on the sisters. She explains in the postscript that by writing a fictionalized account of them, she hoped to “immerse [her] readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that [she] believe[d] could only finally be understood by fiction, only finally redeemed by the imagination.” As she writes poetically, “A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.” Judging by the book’s immense success since its publication in 1994, it is clear that Alvarez succeeded in her desire to bring the depth of the Dominican Republic’s suffering under Trujillo to light.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Describe Rafael Trujillo and his policies and explain how his political regime impacted life in the Dominican Republic.
2. Explain how men and women are depicted differently in the novel, how women treat each other, and what role women play in society.
3. Describe the mercurial nature of power (official power, unofficial power, political power, and power in relationships) and the dangers of exploiting it.
4. Explain the appeal and the danger of compromise and the relationship between passivity and complicity.
5. Define and describe the nature of courage and discuss how and why various characters display courage.
6. Describe the loss of faith, disillusionment, and new understanding that each sister experiences.