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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The Making of a Revolutionary: The initial spark of revolution within the Mirabal family and the most incendiary of the sisters, Minerva is the first Mirabal to become a butterfly. Described from her own point of view and through the complicated eyes of her sisters, Minerva transforms from an innocent school girl to a national emblem of the fight for freedom. Her own motivation and attitudes are complex, and her belief in a better future for her country incites both the action within the novel and the revolutionary change that ended Trujillo’s regime after her death. Because of her affect on characters and events in the story, Minerva makes for an excellent character study. 

  • For discussion: Minerva’s passion can be described as idealistic. What ideals does she ascribe to at the start of the novel? Do those ideals shift in her life? How and why? When does Minerva act in accordance with her ideals, and when does she betray them? 
  • For discussion: Explore Minerva’s choices. For example, why does Minerva choose to stay in prison when she has the choice to be pardoned? Why does she both give a speech and write a letter in praise of Trujillo? 
  • For discussion: Engage students in a close reading of the scenes in which she interacts directly with Trujillo. What does she learn? What does she do to empower herself? In what ways does she subvert his authority? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast Minerva’s relationships with Lio and with Manolo. Why does she resist a romantic relationship with Lio, only to marry Manolo? 
  • For discussion: What are Minerva’s priorities? When is the nation more important than her family life, and when is her family life more important than the nation? 

Understanding the Butterflies as Character Foils: In the Time of the Butterflies offers an intimate exploration of the events and emotions that cause Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa to fight for a revolution in the Dominican Republic. In contrast, it explores the events and emotions that keep Dedé on the sidelines. Acting as foils for each other, the sisters reveal the different ways that social, economic, and political paradigms shape their four distinct choices and perspectives. The four characters also offer a varied glimpse into an oppressive society at the threshold of a crisis, asking readers to consider what they would be willing to risk for a free and just society. 

  • For discussion: Why do each of the Mirabal sisters choose either to participate in or avoid the revolution? Compare and contrast their motivating factors, and consider what their actions reveal about social themes in the text. 
  • For discussion: What do each of the sisters do to empower themselves over the course of the text? Do their social, political, or economic statuses change over the course of the novel? How so? Why? 
  • For discussion: To what extent were the Mirabal sisters successful in their revolution? What is the measure of their success? 
  • For discussion: Why do Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa ignore Dedé’s advice about the dangers of driving the dangerous road to visit their husbands? 

Sisters Against Patriarchy: From Papá’s disappointment in fathering four daughters to Trujillo’s “plucking” of young women from schools to be his personal companions, patriarchy pervades the social injustices at play in In the Time of the Butterflies. The Mirabal sisters, as well as the nuns who educate them, the female students alongside them, and the daughters they bear, all live within a social context that holds men supreme in political leadership, moral authority, and social privilege. 

  • For discussion: In what ways do the men in the text hold power over women? How is this power measured and enacted? What do the Mirabal sisters do to empower themselves? 
  • For discussion: What expectations to the Mirabal sisters face as women? When do they act contrary to these expectations? When and why do they fulfill their expected roles as wives and mothers? 
  • For discussion: When does femininity disempower the Mirabal sisters, and when are they able to use their gender to their advantage? Are there any examples of womanhood itself being an asset in the text? 
  • For discussion: How important is romance to each of the Mirabal sisters? When do they prioritize their romantic lives over their political lives? When and why do those priorities shift? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast the way Papá and Trujillo hold power over Minerva’s life. In what way are the roles of father and president similar, and how are they different? How does Minerva react to each? 

Interpreting Historical Fiction: Though Alvarez created much of the dialogue and detail in the text, her novel follows historical individuals as they carried out critical events in the Dominican Republic in the middle of the 20th century. The novel asks readers to consider not only the characters and events themselves but also the artistic license Alvarez took in writing her novel. 

  • For discussion: Ask students to fact-check the events and characters in the novel. What changes to the historical events did Alvarez make? What is fact, and what is fiction? 
  • For discussion: What effect does the shifting point of view have on the events of the story? Why did Alvarez have certain characters convey key events? In particular, what is the effect of Patria narrating the Fourteenth of June Movement? What is the effect of Mate informing readers that Papá dies? 
  • For discussion: How is the experience of reading the novel different from reading a book of historical scholarship? What unique understanding does reading the novel bring? 

The Injustices of Tyranny: In the Time of the Butterflies depicts the Dominican Republic as it existed during Trujillo’s dictatorship. While many of the dynamics in the story are unique to that place in time, other aspects of Trujillo’s regime are commonly seen in examples of tyranny throughout the 20th century, such as suppression of freedom of speech, maintenance of secret police for intimidation and coercion, and the disappearance of undesirable citizens. Studying the lives of the Mirabal sisters shows the effects of life under a tyrannical government and the power of single individuals to create national change. 

  • For discussion: How do each of the Mirabal sisters come to understand the nature of their government? What convinces each of them to risk their safety to change their government? 
  • For discussion: Is Papá complicit in Trujillo’s government? To what extent is he, and those benefiting from Trujillo’s government, at fault for the injustices in the Dominican Republic? 
  • For discussion: Based upon Dedé’s view in the Epilogue, was the revolution successful? How has political and social life in the Dominican Republic changed since the death of her sisters? Has the social change in the nation since been worthy of their sacrifice? 

Additional Questions for Discussion: 

  • What sacrifice does each sister make as a part of the revolution? Introduce students to the term “martyr” and ask them to consider the extent to which it applies to the Mirabal sisters. 
  • What does In the Time of the Butterflies suggest about human behavior in the face of oppression? How do those with power diminish others? What motivates citizens to risk their lives and livelihoods to act against those in power? 
  • What role does the Catholic Church play in the text? In what ways does Catholicism empower the citizens of the Dominican Republic, and in what ways is it another example of patriarchal, imperialist oppression? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

In the Time of the Butterflies Is Complex and Challenging: Told from multiple points of view across six decades, many students, particularly those unfamiliar with Latin American history, will struggle to follow and understand the events in the novel. 

  • What to do: Use study guides, timelines, and interactive reenactment activities to support students in understanding the events in the text. 
  • What to do: Discuss with students the implications of Alvarez’s authorial choice to divide the narration between characters. What attributes does each character bring to the events that they convey? How would the experience of the story been different if Alvarez selected one narrator or a third-person omniscient narrator?

The Ending Is Violent and Tragic: The novel culminates when Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal are assassinated by the Trujillo regime. 

  • What to do: Invite students to consider the author’s reason for writing: to share the story of the Mirabal sisters with North American audiences. What value do students gain from learning about their story? How do the Mirabal sisters compare to and contrast from revolutionary heroes in US history? 
  • What to do: Ask students to compare the social dynamics in their world to those the Mirabal sisters experienced. What would students do if they were in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s regime? Do the Mirabal sisters offer any lessons that are applicable to them? 
  • What to do: Remind students that reading tragic material is valuable as it allows them an opportunity to discuss such things. Further, it prepares readers to approach the tragedies of life. What lessons do the Mirabal sisters offer in terms of dealing with grief and trauma and in fighting social, political, or economic injustice? 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching In the Time of the Butterflies

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Focus on the male characters in the text. How do Papá and Trujillo reflect individuals that are actively and passively responsible for injustice in the Dominican Republic? How do the sisters’ husbands reflect different attitudes toward women participating in government and politics? 

Focus on class conflict. At the story’s start, the Mirabal family is comfortably positioned in the upper-middle class. How does their socioeconomic status, and the changes therein, affect the choices the sisters make? Compare and contrast the freedoms the protagonists have with the freedoms their half-sisters from Papá’s second family have. 

Focus on narrative structure and authority. Consider the relationship between plot and point of view as the novel progresses. Why is the Fourteenth of June conveyed through Patria? Why are Minerva’s early revolutionary actions narrated by Mate, who is more preoccupied with falling in love than the revolution itself? How does each narrator’s unreliability contribute to the construction of the text? 

Focus on the prevalence of violence. Political violence is a prominent motif in the text, used to intimidate, manipulate, coerce, torture, silence, and kill the people of the Dominican Republic. Conversely, the revolutionaries also use violence to try to overthrow Trujillo. To what extent is violence an effective political tool? How do individuals combat violence? Is violence an effective and just means of empowerment? 

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