Introductory Lecture and Objectives

In the Time of the Butterflies eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

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. 

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

Student Chapter Guide

• The Chapter Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Chapter Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.

• Chapter Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.

• Before Chapter Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.


(The entire section is 434 words.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think the author chose to structure the narrative in the way that she did, from the perspective of each of the four sisters? What are the advantages of this structure? How would the book have been different if it had been told from an omniscient perspective or from the point of view of only one of the sisters?

2. Loss of innocence is a recurring theme throughout the narrative. Each of the girls becomes disillusioned in her own way. What are the different episodes that lead each sister to view the world around her differently?

3. When she is in prison, María Teresa writes about Minerva, “Everything’s personal to me that’s principle to her.” What is the difference between being...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Chapter One


circumscribed: restricted, constricted range of activity

clairvoyance: an ability to see into the future

emblazoned: conspicuously displayed

gullible: naïve, overly trusting

impertinent: rude

monolithic: massive, solid

mythologizers: those who elevate reality or truth to a mythical or legendary status

obligatory: required

sired: fathered

veritable: genuine, true, authentic

Study Questions

1. Describe the setting (both time and place) of the novel as it begins.

The novel opens in 1994. As the story begins, Dedé is at her home in the countryside in the Dominican Republic, waiting for...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Chapter Two


beholden: indebted to, thankful to

blithely: in a carefree manner, lightheartedly

centennial: hundredth anniversary

epistle: a letter or missive

exodus: a mass departure

specter: a ghost

Study Questions

1. What does Minerva mean when she says, “I realized I’d just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country”? Why is this a milestone in her development?

As a child, Minerva felt constrained by all the rules imposed on her. When she went away to school, she learned about the world beyond her family home and discovers the truth about her country’s political situation. Although she...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)

Chapter Three


pilgrimage: a journey to a sacred place or shrine

reflect: to think, consider

resolve: to decide, to firmly determine to do something

Study Questions

1. Describe María Teresa in some detail.

María Teresa is the innocent, somewhat fragile, spoiled darling of the Mirabal family. She is well loved by all. She often does the best work in her class, but she cares more about having the other girls like her than about excelling. She is aware that it “doesn’t help with the other girls if you are best all the time.” She loves pretty things—clothes and shoes, in particular.

2. How does María Teresa feel about...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Chapter Four


admonish: to warn, to reprimand

aversions: strong distastes, intense dislikes

beatific: blissfully happy, saintly

catarrh: excessive mucus in the nose or throat resulting from inflammation of the mucous membranes

composure: a state of calm and control

decorously: properly

desisted: stopped, ceased

diligently: conscientiously, industriously

estranged: no longer close or affectionate; alienated

lilting: a cheerful, pleasant manner of speaking

manifesting: showing or demonstrating

mantilla: a lace or silk scarf worn by women over the hair or shoulders

mortifications: the subjection and denial of bodily passions and...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Chapter Five


cédula: Spanish permit

girding: encircling with a belt or band, securing or fastening, surrounding

imperialists: those who impose power over another nation

obscure: little known, indistinct

regime: a form of government, often used in reference to an authoritarian system

reticence: reluctance

stave: to break something by forcing it in

subversive: with a desire to undermine or ruin the established power or system

travesty: a false or distorted representation

wariness: watchfulness, cautiousness

weary: tired

Study Questions

1. Who is Fela, and what does she do to incite...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Chapter Six


barrios: neighborhoods

cajoling: coaxing, persuading by flattery

caravel: a small, historic Spanish ship

cleaving: adhering to firmly and loyally without wavering

dissipating: scattering, dispersing

foiled: thwarted, prevented from successful completion

homage: an expression of high regard, a tribute

inanely: stupidly

incriminating: showing proof of a crime

ingenuity: cleverness

perturbed: disturbed, upset

pervasive: present everywhere

predicament: a dilemma, a problem

premonitions: forebodings, presentiments

vehemence: intensity in displaying strong feelings

wily: crafty, sly


(The entire section is 971 words.)

Chapter Seven


absolve: to pardon, to forgive

beneficent: generous, kindly, charitable

bourgeois: middle-class

kindred: a person with whom one shares common beliefs, attitudes, and feelings

Study Questions

1. How do María Teresa’s and Minerva’s feelings about their father’s other family differ?

Entirely driven by her emotions, María Teresa is furious at her father for taking a mistress and having children with her. She doesn’t care at all about the well-being of her father’s other family and comes to the conclusion that she hates all men. Minerva, however, views the situation differently. She doesn’t blame her father’s mistress for...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Chapter Eight


deference: reverence, respect

imminent: impending, about to happen

intone: to recite with a particular tone or modulation

liturgical: relating to public religious worship

patrimony: heritage, legacy

sacristy: vestry, a room in a church

stanch: to stop from flowing

temporal: secular and earthly (as opposed to spiritual), temporary as opposed to eternal

travail: laborious effort

Study Questions

1. Why do Minerva, Manolo, Leandro, and Nelson show up at Patria’s house in the middle of the night? What is the relevance of their news?

They arrive with the “triumphant announcement” that Fidel...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Chapter Nine


adamant: stubborn, inflexible

conflagration: extensive and destructive fire

deflated: emptied, discouraged

desecrated: violated or corrupted

inflammatory: arousing anger

militancy: aggressiveness, belligerence

perforce: by necessity

tenuous: weak, fragile

Study Questions

1. Why is Dedé unhappy in her marriage?

Dedé’s husband Jaimito has become completely self-absorbed and pays no attention to her. She describes him as a “bossy, old-fashioned macho,” and as a result, she has not been “her old lively self.” She realizes that “she had hoped to give love and to receive it, in full measure, in...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

Chapter Ten


banns: notice given in the church of an intended marriage

blustery: in a threatening or bullying manner

elated: overjoyed

empathic: kind, sensitive

indifferent: uncaring

indiscretion: a thoughtless, imprudent act or remark

miffed: annoyed

sacrilege: a violation of something sacred, a desecration

stooge: one who plays a compliant role, a puppet

Study Questions

1. To whom does Patria start praying? Why?

Patria begins to pray to the portrait of Trujillo that is in the hall. She realizes it makes no sense for her to pray to the man who is responsible for all of her unhappiness, but she knows how...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Chapter Eleven


arraigned: charged in court with a crime

ascertain: to determine, to establish

cardinal: principal, primary

Study Questions

1. How do María Teresa’s feelings about the “nonpoliticals” with whom she shares her prison cell change over time?

María Teresa initially thinks that the nonpolitical are beneath her, but she comes to realize that many of them are good people who have suffered a great deal. She learns not to judge them based on their appearance and grasps that “what matters is the quality of a person. What someone is inside themselves.”

2. Contrast Minerva’s and María Teresa’s attitudes while in...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)

Chapter Twelve


adversity: misfortune, difficulty

atrophied: wasted away, declined

bruiting: spreading (as in spreading a rumor)

congregate: to gather, to assemble

cronies: friends, companions

demoting: reducing in rank, lowering in position

elegy: a poem composed for a dead person

eulogy: a speech full of praise for someone who has died

furlough: a leave of absence, especially from the military

genial: friendly

imperious: domineering, haughty, overbearing

kempt: neat, tidy, well-maintained

leniency: mercy, generosity

ominous: sinister, threatening

paroxysm: a violent expression of emotion

sanatorium: a...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

Epilogue and Postscript


deification: the act of treating a mortal like a god

dissenter: a nonconformist, one who disagrees

oracle: a person or shrine with prophetic powers

pantheistic: characterized by the worship of all gods

peremptory: imperative, definitive, allowing no contradiction

polemics: the art or practice of argument

Study Questions

1. Why does the truck driver not help the sisters during the ambush? How does he feel about his actions?

The truck driver is too frightened to get involved. Afterward, when he is relating the events to Dedé, he bows his head, suggesting that he is ashamed he did nothing to help her sisters....

(The entire section is 679 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. As the novel opens, whom is Dedé expecting to arrive?

A. Minou

B. Fela

C. an unnamed interviewer

D. Peña

E. her mother

2. Who is Lina?

A. Minerva’s best friend at school

B. María Teresa’s favorite teacher

C. Patria’s daughter

D. Trujillo’s wife

E. a beloved student who becomes Trujillo’s mistress

3. What becomes of Lina?

A. She marries Trujillo.

B. She becomes an anarchist rebel.

C. She becomes pregnant with Trujillo’s child...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. Describe the different characters of the four sisters, how their personal motivations and core principles shape their choices, and how each changes over the course of the novel. Include evidence from the text in your discussion.

Dedé is the most sensible of the sisters. When Dedé is a child and her father gives away items from the store, Dedé chastises him for his unbusinesslike actions. As he says, “Every soft foot needs a hard shoe.” Dedé is that hard shoe. Guided by common sense and practicality, she believes in living life by the rules, and this, of course, determines her fate. Too scared to break the rules, even for the greater good, she is the one sister who chooses not to participate in the revolution....

(The entire section is 3459 words.)