"A chill goes through her, for she feels it in her bones, the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn't want to be the only one left to tell their story."Chapter 1, page 10
Dede feels this chill as her family moves inside from under the anacahuita tree, where they have been relaxing, after her father mistakenly mentions Trujillo's name in an unfavorable way. For Dede in 1994, this is "the moment she has fixed in her memory as zero," when the events that led to the deaths of her sisters began. Already there are spies who can report the family to Security for her father's negative comment. This quotation also foreshadows the known outcome of the family's history: earlier in the chapter, it has been established that Dede is, in fact, "the only one left to tell their story."
"And that's how I got free. I don't mean just going to sleepaway school on a train with a trunkful of new things. I mean in my head after I got to Inmaculada and met Sinita and saw what happened to Lina and realized that I'd just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country."Chapter 2, page 13
Minerva uses "free" to mean enlightened; at Inmaculada Concepcion, she realizes that the Trujillo she has believed in does not exist, and the seeds of a revolutionary are sown within her. This use of "free" fits with the idea of a liberating, "liberal" education. The cage metaphor recalls the theme of entrapment; because of the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, none of its citizens is truly free except in the way Minerva describes here. Thoughts, at least, are free. Also, her home had been a cage of rules, while the country is a cage of violence and authoritarian rule.
"We've traveled almost the full length of the island and can report that every corner of it is wet, every river overflows its banks, every rain barrel is filled to the brim, every wall washed clean of writing no one knows how to read anyway."Chapter 6, page 117
Minerva is driving back from the capital with her parents after Enrique Mirabal, now insane, is released from prison. The rainy weather is the physical incarnation of the metaphorical storm that began for the Mirabal family when Minerva slapped Trujillo at the Discovery Day dance: "And then the rain comes down hard, slapping sheets of it." It also represents Trujillo's power; the island is saturated in wetness as well as in the influence of the dictatorship. This quotation thus demonstrates the authoritarian theme that permeates the novel.
"Voz del pueblo, voz del cielo."Chapter 9, page 199
This means, "Talk of the people, voice of God," and it is an old proverb. Dede says it to Minerva as she tries to convince her that the rumors that Trujillo wants her dead are not silly. She takes it to mean that popular opinion is always right, and in this case, it is. Minerva refuses to listen to her sister, calling the talk "silly rumors," but this is a mistake and she is killed. Mama also uses this proverb to warn Minerva about traveling to visit Puerto Plata. This phrase also is the title of the last section of the last chapter of the novel, told from Minerva's point of view. It is as if this section serves as proof that rumors are usually true, that the people have a certain wisdom, and that one should take warnings seriously.
"She took both my hands in hers as if we were getting ready to jump together into a deep spot in the lagoon of Ojo de Agua. 'Breathe slowly and deeply,' she intoned, 'slowly and deeply.'
"I pictured myself on a hot day falling, slowly and deeply, into those cold layers of water. I held on tight to my sister's hands, no longer afraid of anything but that she might let go."Chapter 3, page 39
After Minerva tells Maria Teresa about the secret meetings she has been attending at Don Horacio's house, they have this experience together. It is the moment that Maria Teresa becomes part of the revolutionary movement, if only symbolically. By lying for her sister about their (not so) ill Tio Mon, she demonstrated her loyalty, but now she understands what she was lying about, and she is demonstrating her allegiance.
"What did I want? I didn't know anymore. Three years stuck in Ojo de Agua, and I was like that princess put to sleep in the fairy tale. I read and complained and argued with Dede, but all that time I was snoring away.
"When I met Lio, it was as if I woke up. The givens, all I'd been taught, fell away like so many covers when you sit up in bed."Chapter 6, page 86
It is interesting here that Alvarez has Minerva use the metaphor of a princess in a fairy tale, since Minerva, of all the sisters, represents a reversal in the traditional role of women. Lio, the revolutionary, inspires her and changes the course of her life. Waking up is representative of realizing how she can become involved in the revolution and bring about change in her own life, by having something to dedicate herself to instead of "snoring away," as well as representing how she can bring about change for the Dominican Republic.
"And on the third day He rose again ..."Chapter 10
Patria repeats this phrase as a mantra throughout Chapter 10. It is a reference to Jesus' rising from the dead on Easter, and it reflects the struggle Patria has felt throughout the novel to reconcile her heavenly self with her responsibilities on earth. She draws a connection between herself and Jesus; she is going through her own trials, waiting for her son, Nelson, to be released from prison. The theme of Trujillo trucking on Jesus' reputation is interlaced with her own connection to Jesus, for she prays to Trujillo every time she passes his portrait. She prays to him, "Take me instead, I'll be your sacrificial lamb."
Three brave revolutionary sisters are murdered in cold blood by an evil regime. Sounds like a myth or a fairy tale, right? But no—it's the hard truth of the 20th-century Dominican Republic. Julia Alvarez' 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies gives fictional voices to the real-life political martyrs, the Mirabal sisters.
The book is famous because it's the first English-language literary look at the infamous Trujillo era in the Dominican Republic. Rafael Trujillo was among the baddest of baddies, ruling the island nation with an iron fist and a creepy arsenal of scare tactics, including rape, murder, and downright terror. But Trujillo's name doesn't spring to mind for a lot of people listing off 20th century political Big Bads. In fact, for many readers, this novel may be the first time they're hearing about Trujillo and the US's involvement in the Dominican Republic.
Alvarez is a literary trailblazer: Nobel-Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa would write about the same dictatorship in his The Feast of the Goat in 2001 and Junot Díaz does the same in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007. Alvarez is not only the first in this line but also the first to write about the dictatorship in English. But Alvarez addressed the issue first: her quartet of sisters in In the Time of the Butterflies were the original literary heroines resisting Trujillo. And bonus—they were real people.
In the Time of the Butterflies was selected for the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read (really cool). Some grouchy reviewers don't think that it does a good enough job of building up the historical context, but we disagree. And hey—if you need more, just click through this study guide: we've got you covered on context.
And for those movie buffs out there, no need to fear. There is a movie version with a star-studded cast (Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos, not too shabby). For those who dig live action, the novel was recently adapted for the stage by Caridad Svich.
If you could have lunch with one historical figure, who would it be? Why would you choose that person? What would you talk about? Many of us choose inspirational characters, brave men and women who changed the course of history through their sacrifices, vision, and gumption.
We're willing to bet that by the time you finish reading In the Time of the Butterflies, you'll have a new trio of heroines: Patria, Minerva, and Mate Mirabal. The Mirabal sisters were fighters in the underground resistance movement, struggling against Trujillo's brutal dictatorship. Their bravery ended up costing them their lives, though. The sisters are inspiring in their heroism and courage—they made the ultimate sacrifice to try to effect change for their country.
But what's the difference between just reading about them in history books and reading the novel? Well, that's exactly why we think you should care about Julia Alvarez's take on their biographies. By recreating their diaries, letters, secrets, and memories, she gives the sisters personalities and voice. To put it briefly, she brings them to life.
The stories start when the girls are young children and adolescents and follows them from innocence, when they don't even realize that anything might be wrong in their society, to their political awakening and the different ways they arrive at their path as revolutionaries.
Each sister joins the revolution for her own reasons—interpersonal, values, faith—but they are all inspiring. The novel shows how things like boyfriends, sisterly bonds, and a desire to live a moral life all come together to spur the sisters to build bombs, run guns, and plot assassinations.
The sisters are heroic, but the novel also makes them into real people whose ideals are pure but whose motivations might be complicated. It's nice to realize our heroes are human beings, sometimes. It can give us hope, or even inspire us to fight against social injustices ourselves.