In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies Summary and Analysis of Part I - Chapter One: Dede, 1994 and circa 1943

It is March 1994, and Dede is arranging an interview with a "gringa dominica" to talk about her sisters. The only thing unusual about this interview is that it is taking place in March, not November, which is the anniversary of her sisters' death and when most interviewers come calling. She has given the woman directions to her home, and they plan to meet there that afternoon. As Dede tidies up the appearance of her garden, the reader learns that she became a successful insurance salesperson after her divorce ten years ago.

At three o'clock, she hears a car door slam as the interviewer arrives. Dede gives her a tour of the house where she and her sisters grew up. They stop in front of three pictures of the sisters when they were young, and Dede realizes that she misses her own young self more than she misses her sisters. Her picture is not there, and she explains to the woman, "I have this hallway just for the girls." The woman reveals that she knows hardly anything about the family when she asks where Dede comes in the birth order. This is a relief for Dede, since now she can spend the time talking about "the simple facts that give Dede the illusion that hers was just an ordinary family, too."

She describes her sisters in brief sound bites as if she is "pinning [them] down with a handful of adjectives." These brief descriptions provide a first, basic look at each of her sisters. When Dede asks the interviewer what she wants to know, the interviewer answers, "Tell me all of it." Then she comments on how "open and cheerful" Dede is, and she expresses wonder about how Dede manages to keep from letting "such a tragedy" take her under. Dede explains that she tells herself to focus on the happy years, and she plays over the happy memories in her head, like a movie.

Dede's mind "is already racing backwards, year by year, to the moment she has fixed in her memory as zero." Now it is circa 1943 on "a clear moonlit night before the future began." The whole family is out in the front yard under the anacahuita tree, relaxing and telling stories. Papa, Enrique Mirabal, is drinking rum and getting a bit drunk while the others drink guanabana juice. A campesino comes by, begging for calmante and tobacco; Papa gives them to him, as well as a few mints for his godchildren. When Dede teasingly scolds him for giving everything away, he predicts that she "is going to be the millionaire in the family."

Maria Teresa, age eight, asks about her own fortune, and her father tells her she will make "a lot of men's mouths water." When Patria asks him, "What of me?" Enrique enlists the help of his wife, Chea Mirabal, but she scolds him, reminding him that "fortunes are for those without faith." Minerva points out that their father is not doing anything wrong, since "Padre Ignacio condemns fortunes only if you believe a human being knows what only God can know." Maria Teresa joins in, defending Minerva, and mentions that she played with a Ouija board with Padre Ignacio and her cousins Berto and Raul. It predicted that she would become a lawyer, which is what Minerva actually wants to be.

Mama playfully comments that they don't need "skirts in the law," but Minerva jumps in and says that it's about time women had some say in how the country was run. Papa says, "You and Trujillo," and immediately the mood becomes tense as they realize he has mentioned Trujillo's name outdoors in the quiet night. Spies could be lurking anywhere, though there is not yet any suspicion about the Mirabal family. They all hurry inside.


Unlike those of her sisters, Dede's chapters are narrated in third person. However, Alvarez uses the technique of rhetorical questions to imply that the reader is, at times, inside Dede's head, with access to what she is thinking or wondering. For instance, when Dede questions why the woman is coming to interview her in March, not in November like most interviewers, she thinks, "Doesn't she have seven more months of anonymity?" When the narrator explains that everyone wants to buy insurance from her because she is famous, she asks, "Can she help it?"

As Dede describes her sisters for the interviewer, she feels as if she is pinning them down "with a handful of adjectives." She is spouting out the usual descriptions that must be used to talk about them in biographies and articles, removed from who they really were. But during her interview with the woman, she can be transported back to the time when they were alive, remembering them as actual people rather than just as myths. That is also what Alvarez does with In the Time of the Butterflies, making the sisters into developed characters rather than just heroes.

In this first chapter, Enrique Mirabal is characterized as a drinker. Alvarez uses indirect characterization; Dede does not simply tell the interviewer that her father drank too much; rather, in her memory, she "hears the clink of the rum bottle against the rim of his glass." Similarly, as he attempts to tell their fortunes later, "Papa burps, slurring his words." Enrique also is characterized as generous when he gives the begging campesino medicine, cigars, and mints for his godchildren. Dede comments that she does not know how they continue being so well off when he gives everything away. Maria Teresa and Mama are characterized by their own words and by Dede's comments in hindsight.

Maria Teresa's admiration of Minerva is already apparent in this first chapter, as Dede remembers them talking of the future. She "defends her adored older sister," insisting that predicting fortunes is not a sin. She says, "I asked the talking board what I would be when I grew up, and it said a lawyer." She is imitating her older sister, since Minerva actually is hoping to go to law school.

When Mama scolds Papa for telling fortunes, Dede thinks, "Ay, Mama, ease up a little on those commandments. Work out the Christian math of how you give a little and you get it back a hundredfold." The violent imagery that permeates the entire novel is apparent already in the first chapter, as Enrique Mirabal jokes about how quickly he had four daughters: "Bang-bang-bang, their father likes to joke, aiming a finger pistol at each one, as if he were shooting them, not boasting about having sired them." The joke is about their births—with a bit of phallic imagery added in. The violent side of the imagery foreshadows their deaths.

The chapter also ends with foreshadowing as the family goes inside. Dede remembers, "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." The reader knows already that Dede is the only one left, and that she is telling the story to the interviewer. This is repetitive foreshadowing since it does not reveal any new information but shows the emotional power of the events in Dede’s mind.