illustration of a young woman's silhouetted head with a butterfly on it located within a cage

In the Time of the Butterflies

by Julia Alvarez

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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

Introducing the Mirabal Sisters to North American Audiences: Once a refugee of Trujillo’s regime herself, Julia Alvarez writes in her postscript that she created the novel with specific intentions in mind. Among them, she wished to educate North American, English-speaking audiences about the profound impact the Mirabal sisters had on the history of the Dominican Republic during the mid-twentieth century. 

  • The Dominican Republic Under Trujillo: Located just 700 miles southeast of Miami, the Dominican Republic is a nation that sits on the eastern lobe of Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared with Haiti. During the mid-20th century, the Dominican Republic was dominated by one man: Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. Trujillo was born in 1891 to a lower-middle class family in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo. Having been educated by the US military, who occupied the Dominican Republic at the time, Trujillo became commander-in-chief of the Dominican army by the time he was 35 years old. When an internal revolt forced President Horacio Vásquez to resign, Trujillo took control of the government and ran without opposition in subsequent elections. Trujillo nationalized many industries and stabilized the nation’s economy at the cost of civil liberties and domestic freedoms. Over the course of his 30-year tenure, Trujillo amassed a personal fortune and became associated with a number of atrocities: the genocide of thousands of Haitians living along the border of the Dominican Republic and the use of police brutality to suppress domestic opposition. 
  • The Revolution against Trujillo: With support from Prime Minister Fidel Castro in Cuba and a wave of international criticism against Trujillo from the United Nations and the Catholic Church, revolutionaries in the Dominican Republic attempted to overthrow Trujillo on June 14, 1959. Trujillo’s agents discovered the plan and Trujillo’s military stopped the invasion. Though Trujillo arrested many associated with the plot, the resistance nevertheless gained strength. This garnered a violent response from the government. Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal were part of a group known as the Fourteenth of June movement that continued to work to overthrow Trujillo. The Mirabal sisters were assassinated by Trujillo on November 25, 1960. Some say that the domestic and international outrage at the killing of the Mirabal sisters is one of the causes of Trujillo’s assassination six months later. 
  • Political Refugee Turned Author: In 1960, at the age of ten, Julia Alvarez fled from the Dominican Republic when her father was discovered to be working on an underground plot to overthrow Trujillo. The Mirabal sisters, whose underground group was loosely connected to her father’s, were assassinated three months later. Being one of four sisters herself, Alvarez listened to her father’s stories of revolutionary bravery while growing up and was inspired to share the story of the Mirabal sisters with English-speaking audiences: “They became haunting figures in my imagination. My three sisters and I had made it. Three of those four sisters had not. I knew I had a debt to pay.” 

Reception and Publication History: Published in 1994, In the Time of the Butterflies was the first English-language literature to concern itself with Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. It broke ground for other writers, such as Junot Díaz and Mario Vargas Llosa, to deal with the same recent history. In the Time of the Butterflies earned recognition as a Notable Book from the American Library Association and was a 1995 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. It has been a Book of the Month choice and was selected as a Big Read by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

  • As an Example of Postmodernism: In the Time of the Butterflies concerns itself with one of the major stylistic and philosophical tenets of postmodernism: the inability to capture objective truth. With its nonlinear plot and shifting points of view, the novel forces readers to consider the social, political, and economic issues at play within the story from the shifting lenses and authorities offered by Dedé, Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa. 

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