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Time Of The Butterflies Essay, Research Paper

In the Time of the Butterflies

By Ryan Cohen 3rd Period English

In the opening chapter of Julia Alvarez’s second novel, a woman receives a caller in the countryside of the Dominican Republic. The visit is an awkward obligation, a meeting between a Dominican survivor of the Trujillo regime and a younger Dominican-American woman who wants to know more about Las Mariposas the Butterflies as they are known in the history of the country. The visitor has come to research the famous Mirabel sisters Patria, Minerva, and Mar?a Teresa. These three young woman were killed in 1960, victims of Trujillo’s oppression and an “accident” that was actually their brutal murder at the hands of the dictator’s thugs. Three decades later, it is the surviving Mirabel sister, Dede, who dutifully but wearily answers questions that probe her personal loss. It is Dede who begins the story once again.

This is how, in 1994, the remaining sister approaches another round of bearing witness:

She Dede, bends to her special beauty, the butterfly orchid she smuggled back from Hawaii two years ago. For three years in a row Dede has won a trip, the prize for making the most sales of anyone in her company. Her niece Minou has noted more than once the irony of Dede’s ‘new’ profession, actually embarked upon a decade ago, after her divorce. She is the company’s top life insurance salesperson. Everyone wants to buy a policy from the woman who just missed being killed along with her three sisters. Can she help it?

The slamming of the car door startles Dede. When she calms herself she finds she has snipped her prize butterfly orchid. She picks up the fallen blossom and trims the stem, wincing. Perhaps this is the only way to grieve the big things in snippets, pinches, little sips of sadness.

But really, this woman should shut car doors with less violence. Spare an aging woman’s nerves. And I’m not the only one, Dede thinks. Any Dominican of a certain generation would have jumped at that gunshot sound.

Dede’s grief, manifest in the small experiences of everyday life, offers a glimpse into the history of the three martyrs, and into the burdensome fortune of survival. Overall, it is through Alvarez’s powerful fiction, graced with evocative detail and insightful characterization, that las Mariposas emerge from history to become lives as well as legend.

This novel shifts its point-of-view and time to characterize four sisters’ distinct voices. In the Time of the Butterflies is a deeply human realization of complex themes: the dynamic between the personal and the political, and individual struggle in the face of oppression. It is, however, foremost a story of women’s lives.

Alvarez interweaves these thematic patterns deftly and vividly, and with great intimacy and care. She creates voices and moments that stir intense feeling, and not simply singular emotion. Within a passage, a character can express such genuine humor, fear, hope, and longing that text becomes an encounter with a person, rather than merely a profile of a political victim or historical figure.

What was it like to grow up under the dictatorship of Gen. Raphael Leonidas Trujillo? How did each of these four lively, intense young women develop a sense of self under conditions that threatened individual expression? How did girls raised under several levels of patriarchy with brute force predominating become women whose independent wills and convictions motivated them to confront hardship and danger, becoming not feminine ornaments but significant political leaders?

The answer is, quite simply, that they lived but also that their lives were extremely complicated. As they emerge from Alvarez’s narrative, the Mirabel sisters grow up with a duality of experience personal and political that is often deeply expressed in layers of imagery.

When Minerva recounts her convent school days in the late 1930s and early 1940s, she tells of passing along the secrets of sex to young a classmate who does not understand the nun’s vague lecture on periods. The schoolmate, Sinita, return with a secret of her own to share with Minerva: that Trujillo is corrupt, violent, and that he had Sinita’s brother killed. The “facts of life” become entangled with the secrets of death and reality under the rule. As Minerva’s life continues, she encounters more of this complicated reality. She confronts her father’s infidelity, and singled out for Trujillo’s lewd attention, she slaps the dictator in the face. She goes to law school, becomes active in the resistance, and later goes to prison.

Maria Teresa is represented in diary form, each entry compellingly human in its attention to worldly matters of clothing and romantic ramblings which become close with larger questions of identity and her life’s purpose. Her scribbled drawings illustrate the shape of her life, contrasting the girlish pictures of new shoes with the resistance-related diagram of a bomb, and still later, the floor plan of her communal prison cell. Yet this painful personal record begins with a First Communion gift from Minerva, the “Little Book” Mar?a Teresa will have to surrender the next year to hide its mention of a political contact. She writes a tender farewell to the diary, and on another level not yet fully clear to her, to the means of an inner life of her own direction:

It won’t be forever, my dear Little Book, I promise. As soon as things are better, Minerva says we can dig up our treasure box . . . .So, my dearest, sweetest Little Book, now you know.

Minerva was right. My soul has grown deeper since I started writing to you. But this is what I want to know that not even Minerva knows. What do I do now to fill up that hole?

For Patria, the need to address spiritual matters draws her to religion. Urged to enter the order by the nuns who taught her, she prays to know her calling. When she falls in love and marries, Patria realizes that her faith is bound up with earthly matters of family and government. For the rest of her life, she finds that this reality of life and faith is a complicated vocation. As a mother raising a strong-minded son while worrying about Trujillo’s notorious secret police forces, Patria encounters a reality that compels her to stand up even to the will of God. In the midst of a retreat, as a priest talks of the Assumption of Mary, fighting breaks out. Patria sees the dead soldiers as her children, and ultimately, she is unwilling simply to open her arms to the dead in a passive, obedient Pieta-like embrace of suffering. She stands up to her husband and turns their home into the “motherhouse” of the underground movement.

As Patria continues to live and mother her children in the face of the dictatorship, she begins to see a different face in the portrait of Trujillo that by law has been on display in the family’s residence. “It was from raising children I learned that trick. You dress them in their best clothes and they behave their best to match them,” she explains, “So, I thought, why not? Treat him like a spirit worthy of attention, and maybe he would start behaving himself.” Thus for Patria, the devoted mother and religious woman living under political oppression, the sources of authority government and God are brought within her own means of feminized power.

In the end, Minerva, Mar?a Teresa, and Patria drive off in a Jeep to visit their imprisoned husbands. Dede warns them not to go. We know what happens, finally, but not completely. For what happens as the sisters and their driver set out on the final ride along a deserted mountain road is not merely the outcome, but the experience. This Alvarez depicts in moving detail: the sisters, on impulse and for good luck, detour to buy purses. A shop assistant slips them a warning on a business card, but they continue. They visit the men, struggling to calm their fears and to say good-bye. On the way home, they stop for cold drinks, try to call home, and debate whether to keep travelling that day. They drive on. In such tender description that fuses the short-lived and the extraordinary, life seems both as powerful and fragile as a butterfly’s wings.

The rest is history and story. As Alvarez tells it, Dede remains to mourn and to endure the public memorializing while trying to get on with her life. At times she counts the losses, and wonders if she should mourn: “We went our own ways, we became ourselves. Just that. And maybe that is what it means to be a free people, and I should be glad?” Still, at other times, Dede’s character looks at her country’s prosperity and distant sense of the troubled past, and asks, “Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?”

Both history and story invite such questions, but too quickly history grows distant, prompting another generation, or another culture, to forget events that shaped and claimed lives. Julia Alvarez has written a work of fiction that is immediate and searching. In the postscript, the author asserts, “A novel is, after all, not a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.” In the Time of the Butterflies is such a journey, demanding and courageous in the way of those sisters whose travel inspired its telling. Fortunately, the novel arrives.

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