GradeSaver (TM) ClassicNotes: In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies Themes

by Julia Alvarez

Major Themes

Authoritarianism

Much of the action of In the Time of the Butterflies occurs during Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The novel portrays many instances of how the authoritarian state permeates life for the Mirabel sisters and the other characters. For instance, they must watch what they say since there are spies hiding outside their house. Even those citizens who are not suspected rebels are afraid to speak openly, since they cannot trust their own neighbors. In the first chapter, before the Mirabel family comes under any suspicion, their relaxing evening outdoors is ruined when Papa accidentally says Trujillo’s name in a less than flattering way. All of a sudden, “the dark fills with spies who are paid to hear things and report them down at Security.”

The authoritarian regime of Trujillo is linked to other dictatorships by Maria Teresa in Chapter 7, when she describes the march that she and the other women must participate in before the start of classes: “It looked like the newsreels of Hitler and the Italian one with the name that sounds like fettuccine,” namely, Mussolini. In Chapter 12, the theme of authoritarianism is clear when Minerva and Dede are brought into the police station in Monte Cristi. Minerva mentions that Captain Pena has given them permission to travel there, but a veiled threat is perceived in the officer who is questioning them: “The paroxysm of blinking made me pity the poor man. His own terror was a window that opened onto the rotten weakness at the heart of Trujillo’s system.” Though Minerva recognizes that the fear instilled in all the officers of the authoritarian regime is ultimately a “weakness,” for now it is what holds the regime in power.

Courage vs. Cowardice

Courage is valued among the characters, and they display it in varying amounts. The sisters are all aware of their cowardice as they perceive it, and while they sometimes fight for courage, in some cases they simply accept their cowardice. Dede in particular struggles with her cowardice. She acknowledges that it is a factor that prevents her from joining her sisters in their rebellious activities. She is afraid of losing her marriage and is afraid of losing her sisters. She does show courage, however, when she lies and says she is Minerva Mirabel.

Similarly, at the end of Chapter 9, when Dede lies in bed tempted to “just let go,” she means that she is tempted to stop trying to maintain her sanity. She talks herself out of it, however, thinking, “Courage! It was the first time she had used that word to herself and understood exactly what it meant.” For Dede, courage means staying strong for herself and her family instead of selfishly running away.

Entrapment

Under the reign of Trujillo, the entire country is trapped. The sisters also feel trapped by the expected course of their lives, including boarding school and then marriage, as well as by their religious and familial duties. The feeling of entrapment is expressed by Patria in Chapter 4 when she describes her birth: the midwife “lowered my arms the way you fold in a captive bird’s wings so it doesn’t hurt itself trying to fly.”

Minerva, too, feels trapped, and in Chapter 2 her situation is extended to the entire country. She considers herself trapped at home, so she views going to Inmaculada Concepción as a kind of escape. She sees her situation mirrored in that of the rabbits in their pens, but she realizes that she is not actually like a rabbit when the rabbit that she tries to let free refuses to leave the cage. She realizes, “I’d just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country.” (This point reflects the authoritarianism of Trujillo’s reign.)

In the epilogue, the theme of entrapment appears in Dede’s reaction to the telegram that Mama shows her on the morning after the girls’ death. The telegram says that there has been a car accident and that they should go to the hospital in Santiago, which suggests that the girls were alive and merely injured. When she says, “my heart in my rib cage was a bird that suddenly began to sing. Hope!” the reader understands that her heart, her love for them, despairs in its entrapment inside her body, a “cage,” from which certain feelings and thoughts are not allowed to extend. She has been trapped with her own fear. The reader sees in this metaphor the conceit of a cage around the whole nation of the Dominican Republic.

Heaven and Earth

Especially for Patria, who is more in touch with her religion than the other sisters, there is a deeply felt gulf between the divine and the human, between God’s perfection and earthly existence. The distinction is especially apparent in her view of Pedrito, whom she often compares to an animal and whom she calls “my earthly groom.” When he proposes, he pours a handful of dirt into her hand. This earth gives palpable meaning to her decision to get married to a man instead of figuratively to God as a nun.

When her house is burned down and Nelson and Pedrito are taken away by the police, Patria has a breakdown on her mother’s lawn. She tears up the ground in her hands and begins praying the Credo—with Dede’s help. In her earthly suffering she calls upon God to provide a link between heaven and earth.

Weaving and Thread

Throughout the novel, all of the sisters use the conceit of life having strings or thoughts that get knotted and must be sorted out, or strings that provide connections which bind people together. For instance, when Patria loses her unborn child, she “went over and over my life to this point, complicating the threads with my fingers, knotting everything,” confused about how this tragedy happened. Also, when Dede remembers watching her sisters as they approached her house, she says, “It was as if the three fates were approaching, their scissors poised to snip the knot that was keeping Dede’s life from falling apart.”

The imagery of woven threads as thoughts appears again in Chapter 6 as Minerva struggles with decisions about where her life should go: “Back and forth my mind went, weaving a yes by night and unraveling it by day to a no.” (This is also a reference to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who kept putting off her suitors by never finishing her weaving because every night she would undo the work she had done by day.) The yes-or-no question is whether she loves Lio; she cannot decide on this important life-changing question. The threads of her decision seem to fit together at night, but she feels torn during the day. Ultimately, the decision is made for her when he decides to go to asylum.

In Chapter 11, the symbol of threads as connections extends to both a personal level and a national level. When Maria Teresa discusses with Magdalena the connections between people, they decide, “There is something deeper. Sometimes I really feel it in here, especially late at night, a current going among us, like an invisible needle stitching us together into the glorious, free nation we are becoming.”

In Chapter 12, Minerva tries to get her old self back: “And so the struggle with her began. The struggle to get my old self back from her. Late in the night, I’d lie in bed, thinking, You must gather up the broken threads and tie them together.” Somehow the threads of life are worse than just being untangled and dissociated from one another; they are broken. She is trying to reinvigorate the “calm, courageous compañera” whom Manolo married.

The sisters also keep their lives together by literally using thread in their dressmaking business. “We couldn’t sleep nights, so we sewed. Sometimes Patria started a rosary, and we all joined in, stitching and praying so as not to let our minds roam.” Focusing on physical threads keeps them from dwelling on the distressing threads of their lives.

Trujillo and God

As the Mirabel sisters grow up, it becomes clear that the Trujillo reign permeates their lives. His authoritarian rule, with spies everywhere, suggests that he is trying to assume the role of a terrible God, always watching and ready to punish. In fact, a portrait of El Jefe is hung next to one of Jesus in the entryway of Mama’s house. In Chapter 4, while Patria lies beside Minerva in the hammock, they look at the pictures of Jesus and El Jefe side by side. Minerva notes, “They’re a pair, aren’t they?” This inspires Patria to remember the real difference between divine mercy and justice, on the one hand, and Trujillo’s rule, on the other. She asks why God would allow their country to suffer so much at the hands of Trujillo. Yet, when she looks up to challenge the picture of Jesus, “the two faces had merged!” This experience points out the godlike role that Trujillo has assumed Trujillo has taken up the rule of this part of the earth.

Later, Patria even finds herself praying to the portrait of Trujillo, offering herself as a sacrificial lamb in place of her sisters, their husbands, and her own husband. Moreover, Trujillo has created a slogan for himself, “Dios y Trujillo,” meaning “God and Trujillo.” With this slogan he suggests that God is on his side and has approved of his power. He practically deifies himself in the minds of his subjects, like so many dictators before him.

A similar merging of Trujillo with something of divinity occurs in Chapter 6. The paper fans, which the girls received at the party thrown by Trujillo, have the Virgencita on one side and Trujillo on the other. The combination bothers Minerva: “Sometimes it was El Jefe’s probing eyes, sometimes it was the Virgin’s pretty face I couldn’t stand to look at.”

In Chapter 10, Patria remembers the portraits of Jesus and Trujillo side by side and says, “Maybe because I was used to the Good Shepherd and Trujillo side by side in the old house, I caught myself praying a little greeting as I walked by.” She wants her family back from Trujillo, and “prayer was the only way I knew to ask.” Finally, however, Patria feels the distinction when she arrives at the capital for the release of Nelson. She feels no kinship toward the man—quite the opposite. “The more I tried to concentrate on the good side of him, the more I saw a vain, greedy, unredeemed creature. Maybe the evil one had become flesh like Jesus!”

Women in Politics and Public Life

The sisters often struggle with their perceived role as traditional women who do not take part in politics and public life. In the first chapter, Minerva’s frustration is apparent when Mama comments, “Just what we need, skirts in the law!” Minerva argues, however, “It is just what this country needs ... It’s about time we women had a voice in running our country.”

Similarly in Chapter 4, Patria worries about Minerva getting worked up about the government. She says to her little sister, “It’s a dirty business, you’re right. That’s why we women shouldn’t get involved.” The argument here is that it may be better to preserve one’s innocence and integrity by avoiding politics. Minerva again argues, however, on the basis of an equality principle: “women had to come out of the dark ages.”

Speaking to the female interviewer, Dede addresses a similar theme: “‘Back in those days, we women followed our husbands.’ Such a silly excuse. After all, look at Minerva. ‘Let’s put it this way,’ Dede adds. ‘I followed my husband. I didn’t get involved.’” She is aware that she is using tradition as an excuse for not having supported her sisters, something for which she still feels guilty.

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