In the Time of the Butterflies
Mirabal Martyrdom in In the Time of the Butterflies
The novel In the The Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, consists of a frame narrative told by the only Mirabal sister to survive the reign of Trujillo, Dede Mirabal. This story takes place in the Dominican Republic all the way back in 1938, leading up to the “present” time in 1994. At this time in the Dominican Republic, the country is being ruled by a man named Trujillo, and he is making their homeland an unsafe and horrible place. As young girls, the Mirabal sisters do not find Trujillo as any threat to them. They hear stories that he has many girlfriends and that Trujillo has people killed for him, but the ends did not seem to meet until after they grow up, get married, and have children. Patria Mirabal tries to put the rule of Trujillo deep in the back of her mind, but soon finds that as a child of God she should fight for what she believes in and put an end to the long list of sins Trujillo has committed. Patria uses her faith as a weapon to stay strong during the reign of Trujillo because she feels she has to fight for her son, husband, sisters, children, and the people of the Dominican Republic.
Patria has an unbreakable bond with God because she trusts His plans for her life even though she has suffered through many tragedies. Patria grows into a young woman and marries a man named Pedrito. She gets pregnant and as her due date arrives, a dead child arrives as well. At a time like this, Patria could lose her faith in God due to this miscarriage, but she does not. She tells her mother, “It is the Lord’s will” (53). Later on in Patria’s life at the age of twenty- four, she quotes God and says, “Build your house on a rock, do my will. And though the rain fall and the floods come and the winds blow, the good wife’s house will stand” (148).She then says, “I had built my house on solid rock, all right” (148). Here it seems Patria is content with what God blesses her with, but the true test to see if she if she has faith in Him is when she goes on a church retreat and comes out alive after a bombing by Trujillo near her retreat house. The bombs explode and Patria thinks, “…His Kingdom was coming down upon the very roof of that retreat house” (161). This shows the true way Patria feels at the time, an image of her Lord’s Kingdom falling down on her “crushing” her faith. Soon after she sees a young boy about her child Noris’s age get shot dead, she has a change of heart. Patria says, “Coming down that mountain, I was a changed woman…I was carrying not just my child but that dead boy as well” (162). Here, Patria’s faith is restored knowing that not only her and her unborn baby survives, but she knows God is sending her the message to fight against Trujillo and save His children.
The bombing on the mountain side during Patria’s church retreat helps her realize that she needs to fight for her country and family because she knows that is what the Lord put her on earth to do. Patria realizes after the bombing she is not going to let Trujillo kill innocent people and her family, so she says to God, “I’m not going to sit back and watch my babies die, Lord…” (162). This is when Patria decides to become a martyr against the reign of Trujillo, and she has confidence that the Lord put her here to do this because she says, “The minute I walked into that room, I knew something had changed in the way the Lord Jesus would be among us”(163). Patria has so much faith in God that she even makes her house the “motherhouse” of the Fourteenth of June Movement to overthrow Trujillo. She pleads Pedrito to join the movement and says, “…how can we be true Christians and turn our back on our brothers and sisters…” (166). Here Patria knows in her heart that God will keep them safe, so that is why she tries to get her loved ones involved. Her trust in the Lord is so strong she even goes against the government and has bombs built in her house because she feels as if it is her job as a Christian. Patria refers to her life as a house saying, “…I built it back up with prayer, hung the door on the creaky hinges, nailed the floorboards down…” (168). She has come to the conclusion that this is what she is supposed to do, and from all the bad she can create something good.
Patria is a martyr because she knows God will protect her and that it is her responsibility as a Christian is to protect the children of God. The SIM (police) find out about the plans for the revolution against Trujillo, and they come to Patria’s house and lock up her son Nelson and her husband. Patria proves she is a martyr when she pleads, “Take me instead, please. I beg you for the love of God” (195). This shows she is willing to suffer in jail and have her husband and son safe. Also, when the SIM ransack and burn her house down, she is still willing to undergo tragedies as a martyr because she knows that it happened for a reason- to fulfill her job as a Christian.
Many people today see the Mirabal sisters as heroines, and in many ways that is true. But being a heroine does not mean you cannot be an ordinary person. The Mirabal sisters are examples, as they all grow up with a desire for an education, to get married, and to have children. They too, like everybody else have their family problems such as having a father who cheats on their mother, having unknown half-sisters, and even dealing with death. During the Fourteenth of June Movement, there are about forty people to help with the revolution. Out of all of those people, the only ones to get recognized are Minerva, Patria and Mate Mirabal. The Mirabal sisters are just like all those ordinary people who helped to try to start the revolution, they were just the faces behind all the rebellion, determination, and faith. They just wanted their children and fellow Dominican Republicans to live a free and better life than they did. Patria Mirabal is a woman of strong faith, and without her belief in God she could have not accomplished what she did for the Dominican Republic today.
Patria’s Eternal Courage
Patria, of Julia Álvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, contrasts devastating acts of courage with moments of uncertain fragility. She lives in a time period when her country is ruled by the harshest of leaders, Raphael Trujillo. After gaining power, Trujillo established a secret police force that tortured and murdered the opposition to his rule. The Mirabel sisters overcome the regime of one of the cruelest dictators in history through their determination. Patria in particular indicates that she is mentally and morally prepared to surmount adversity. As the oldest of the Mirabel sisters, she uses her experience and religious beliefs to aid her in surviving. Throughout Patria’s journey, she depends on various characters to help her vanquish the challenges she faces. Although Patria encounters moments of weakness, she exposes the strength of her character by persevering till the end. Patria exposes her first example of courage when she shows concern for her sister Minerva. Minerva speaks out against the government because she has lost her religious faith. Through worrying about Minerva, Patria begins to question her own faith. Her confession comes as a shock. She describes it as, “[…] I admit it, Minerva’s talk had begun affecting me. I started noting the deadness in Padre Ignacio’s voice, the tedium between the gospel and communion […] My faith was shifting, and I was afraid,” (Álvarez 52). Patria feels confused and questions her own religious beliefs because she comes to the realization that it may not be a necessity to her life. Patria nearly gives up her faith, but then realizes it is an essential part of her life. She does not want to give up her religion because she is afraid; she has never lived as a secular person. Ultimately, she retains her religious faith because of her husband’s grief. Patria puts aside her own suffering to rescue him from his, and in doing so, realizes that religion is part of her. Patria’s mini-epiphany demonstrates that Patria not only cares immensely about her husband to put his needs in front of her own, but also that she does have courage to push through, even in the most difficult of circumstances. In addition, while listening to Brother Daniel speak about the Assumption, the mountainside is bombed and chaos immediately ensues. Patria reveals how drastically the incident has affected her when she says, “Coming down that mountain, I was a changed woman. I may have worn the same sweet face, but now I was carrying not just my child but that dead boy as well,” (162). Trujillo’s men bomb the mountainside and Patria watches an innocent boy die, scarring her memory. After his death, Patria struggles to reconcile her commitment to God, and she begins to question her identity and morality. Although this incident scars Patria for the rest of her life, it also strengthens her shattered morale. She is now able to tolerate more than she could before. In response to the bombing, Patria vows to help in the resistance against Trujillo and his men—a promise she bravely keeps. Patria utilizes religion in order to cope with the loss of her family. She also uses it to help her believe that one day Trujillo will be gone and her family can live in peace, “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 […] I wanted something from him, and prayer was the only way I knew how to ask,” (202). The theme of Trujillo being compared with Jesus is prominent for Patria throughout this chapter. She relies on praying to him because she desperately wants her family back from Trujillo. Her religious faith surfaces once more, but this time in a distressed manner. Patria’s religious beliefs are portrayed as the only way of achieving her ultimate goal of seeing her family again. Patria further uses religion to help her overcome the pain of her imprisoned son. The violent imagery that infuses all the sisters’ narrations persists throughout the latter parts of the novel. Patria suddenly comes to the realization that she can do something to stop Captain Peña’s madness, “That’s when it struck me. This devil might seem powerful, but finally I had a power stronger than his. So I used it. Loading up my heart with prayer, I aimed it at the lost soul before me,” (216). Patria visits Captain Peña in order to see if there is any way of him pardoning her son. When Peña tells her that this is not a matter that he can deal with, Patria is shocked and begins to cry. She quickly realizes, however, that even though Captain Peña has all the power, she has a power stronger than his—her belief. She refers to Captain Peña as a “lost soul” because of his empty character. Captain Peña refuses to see the situation from Patria’s perspective, which is what bothers Patria the most. She “aims” her prayer at Captain Peña’s “lost soul” hoping that he will come to the realization that he can in fact do something to help Patria. Although Patria is very optimistic, she also depicts her courageous morale. She never stops believing—a unique trait only Patria possesses. Patria indicates that religion is not the only important part of her life; she also cares very much for her family, “But Nelson found out about the letter from his blabbermouth aunt in the capital […] But I stood firm. I’d rather have him stay alive, a boy forever, than be a man dead in the ground,” (158). Patria sends a letter to the head of Nelson’s school requesting for Nelson not to be released from school unless he is coming home. Patria sends the letter because even though Nelson is very studious, he is not always in control of himself. Sending the letter is a testament to her love for Nelson and the good intentions she has for him. She only wants the best for her son. Furthermore, Patria continues to prove that she is very much a family-oriented person. She always puts her family before herself as seen when Patria shockingly tells Captain Peña, “‘Take me instead, please.’ Patria knelt by the door, pleading with Captain Peña. ‘I beg you for the love of god,”’ (195). When Captain Peña, head of the northern division of the SIM comes to take Mate, Patria boldly tells him to take her instead. Although Captain Peña does not end up taking Patria in place of Mate, offering herself only solidifies how caring of a person she is. She puts her own life at risk in order to protect her baby sister. The end of the novel signifies that Patria is a changed woman. She experiences many situations to which she is not accustomed. These incidents make her leave her comfort zone, and in doing so, Patria gains a wealth of knowledge and experience that shape her into a dignified woman who exhibits the traits of a courageous human being. Time and time again, Patria is put into a difficult situation, but she comes out each unharmed and as a stronger person. These incidents come to define the Patria we know at the end of the novel; she is a mature young adult who has survived the toughest of obstacles, and in doing so, she has not only helped herself, but the people that she loves the most.
Although this is an era when violence is frowned upon and war deplored, still the soldier has remained an esteemed figure. Even more appealing to the imagination are tales of tyrants and the courage of the underground guerillas that oppose them. Such almost mythic status has been conferred upon three sisters, nicknamed the Butterflies, who participated in the fight against the thirty-year dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. While heroic deeds take the spotlight, one may forget that even freedom fighters begin as children. That they learn as children and grow as humans, fallibly and inconstantly, is a fact remembered by Dominican novelist Julia Alvarez. In Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies, she uses several turning points in the life of Minerva Mirabal to define that character’s growth as a human being rather than a hero.Alvarez uses two turning points in Minerva’s childhood to show her potential for the life ahead of her, yet emphasize her childish innocence. In the beginning of the novel, Alvarez introduces Minerva to the reader with Minerva’s excitement that her Pap plans to send her away to school. School becomes Minerva’s first victory and step towards her life as a revolutionary fighter. This, Minerva says, “[i]s how I got free” (13). Alvarez uses Minerva’s departure for school and her excitement for it to signify Minerva’s early emotional divorce from the need for her parents’ approval and dependence on their value system, while demonstrating with this scene how independent and strong-minded Minerva is, as compared especially to her sisters. At school, Minerva experiences a prelude to what may be the biggest turning point in her life. For all her independence, she still believes in the propaganda that Trujillo and his administration have spread. Her good friend Sinita tells Minerva a story of Trujillo’s evil as they whisper under blankets late at night like the schoolgirls they are. Minerva says to Sinita, ” ‘Bad things?…Trujillo was doing bad things?’ It was as if I had just heard Jesus had slapped a baby” (17). Although Minerva does not fully accept the image of Trujillo as a tyrant, when she wakes up the next morning she finds that she has received her first period; Alvarez has made her a woman. When Trujillo seduces a classmate named Lina, she comes to realize his corruption, if not with the maturity of an adult, saying, “I felt sorry for him. Pobrecito! At night, he probably had nightmare after nightmare like I did, just thinking about what he’d done (24). Alvarez illustrates Minerva’s childlike faith in a world where guilt accompanies sin, and to such an extent as to draw pity. Here Alvarez places her in a position from which she may step into her new role as a rebel, while also demonstrating that she is currently too young for such responsibility.As Minerva grows older, Alvarez uses Minerva’s impulsiveness to allow her to realize her own strength. Minerva confronts Pap after finding that he has fathered illegitimate children, and “saw his shoulders droop…right then and there, it hit me harder than his slap: I was much stronger than Pap…He was the weakest one of all” (89). Alvarez led Minerva to discover her power by her own actions in order to justify her portrayal of the character as drawing strength from herself while also giving it to those around her. Minerva’s energy and conviction in herself and in her cause carries her into a role in the underground and then into and through La 40, a prison. Alvarez shows Minerva’s strength there through the admiring, if sullen, eyes of her younger sister and comrade, Mara Teresa, who, after crying, says, “Lord forbid Minerva should see me, or she’d give me another one of her talks about morale” (233). Minerva has assumed a motherly role in the uprising. However, after Trujillo grants Minerva and her sister release and puts them under house arrest, Minerva’s spirit takes a turn for the worse. She says, “[I was] shocked at what I was letting happen to me. I had been so much stronger and braver in prison. Now at home I was falling apart” (258). Her bravery becomes little more than a performance, and Alvarez emphasizes the change with the many acquaintances who lean close to Minerva to whisper, “Vivan las Mariposas!” Although many still look to Minerva for leadership and strength, she is not always able to provide it for herself.Alvarez, while she does not flinch from showing Minerva’s faults, also does not deprive the girl of the more heroic standing she has built towards. She does not allow Minerva to wallow in her sorrow for much longer, and another turning point comes when she and her sisters fear than their husbands will be executed. Minerva reflects that “By now in my life I should have known. Adversity was like a key in the lock for me. As I began to work to get our men out of prison, it was the old Minerva I set free” (269). The challenge gives Minerva reason to rise again. Although, due to the fact that she is tightly guarded, Minerva never again reaches the level of political activity she had as a free woman, she and her sisters do begin to investigate the state of their old underground once more. That Minerva’s spirit is whole and healthy again is clearly demonstrated by Alvarez near the very closing of the book. Even as Minerva and her sisters travel towards what appears to be an ambush, Minerva feels an air of excitement. She ventures, “I don’t know quite how to say this, but it was as if we were girls again, walking through the dark part of the yard, a little afraid, a little excited by our fears, anticipation the lighted house just around the bend – That’s the way I felt as we started up the first mountain” (297). Although Alvarez reports that Minerva felt excited as she and her sisters “started up the first mountain,” in reality, most of Minerva’s mountains have already been crossed. She begins as a naive child, encounters injustice, fights it, becomes depressed, and then after all this rights herself. Alvarez conveys through this that Minerva’s resurrection, while not the most revered of her acts or the one that earned her the love of her country, may be her most heroic stage of life; a hero must not only overcome threats to her country but threats to her spirit.Alvarez reveals the theme that a few people, while they may not cause an entire revolution, can provide inspiration and motivation for others. While the Butterfly sisters represent this motif of bravery for the Dominican Republic, Minerva likewise represents it for her family. Although each sister has her own inner strength, only Minerva has enough to both fortify herself and sustain others. She passes though many stages of life in the novel as her country’s political situation develops. Although it is ironic in the traditional sense of a hero’s unassailable person that both Minerva and her foe Trujillo are eventually brought down, and she much sooner than he, it is consistent with Alvarez’s depiction of Minerva as not a traditional hero, but a woman.
Altruistic Obsessions: Tragic Flaws in ‘The Boy in the Suitcase’ and ‘In the Time of the Butterflies’
The critical nature of modern society causes the people being judged to feel isolated, ashamed, and worthless. Due to this, contemporary individuals believe that they have to be perfect, in appearance and character traits, in order to conform with others. As a result, people spend tremendous amounts of time developing certain traits to make themselves more likeable. Unfortunately, they are missing vital information regarding the danger of possessing positive personality traits. Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, authors of The Boy in the Suitcase, and Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies, investigate the transformation of positive character traits into tragic flaws through their main characters. In their novels, the authors demonstrate that excessive devotion to noble personality traits leads to the characters’ undoing.
The main characters from both novels, the Mirabal sisters from In the Time of the Butterflies and Nina Borg from The Boy in the Suitcase, possessed noble intentions when carrying out their work. In addition, they were further encouraged to continue contributing to their causes by the support of other people. Maria Theresa, one of the Mirabal sisters, wrote in her diary about her feelings regarding the revolutionary movement in the Dominican Republic: “Something big and powerful spread its wings inside me. Courage, I told myself. And this time, I felt it” (Alvarez 238). When opposing the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo, the Mirabal sisters were largely guided by their courage and the desire to make a positive change to their lives. In a similar way, Nina Borg from The Boy in the Suitcase was guided by righteous intentions when attempting to return Mikas to his mother while saving him from Jucas; Nina “spends her spare time helping all the children, women, and crippled little men no one else in all of fucking Denmark seemed to care about” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 160). Being a Red Cross nurse and mother, Nina Borg felt that it was her duty to save the little boy from being a victim of child trafficking, which says a lot about the kindness of her character.
Having such noble intentions, the main characters from the two novels were also supported by people around them, which encouraged them to continue their work. The Mirabal sisters were encouraged by many people around the Dominican Republic. While the sisters were in prison, “everyone was beating on the bars, shouting, ¡Viva la Mariposa!” (Alvarez 238). Surely, the tremendous support from other people motivated the sisters to continue their opposition to Trujillo’s regime. Although Nina Borg did not have the same quantity of supporters as the sisters, she still had a few people who trusted her and helped her. While telling Nina to take the suitcase from the locker, her friend Karin noted, “I can’t do this… But you [can]. You’re always so keen on saving people” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 34). Through her words, Karin shows trust in Nina’s abilities and highlights Nina’s desire to save people. In addition to Karin, Nina’s colleagues show respect to her and value her contribution to the organization. In summary, the main characters from the two novels committed righteous actions because of their positive personality traits and the support they were receiving. At this point, it seems like the main characters dedicate themselves to their respective causes and become better people because of it. This, unfortunately, begins to change as the characters become more committed to their causes.
Guided by external support and noble intentions, the main characters from the two novels became obsessed with their causes, which jump-started the process of their destruction. Minerva, one of the Mirabal sisters, gave away her son Manolito to Patria so that she could focus on the revolution. When Minerva did this, Patria responded to her, “But Minerva, your own child.” Patria then saw that “it did hurt [Minerva] to make this sacrifice she was convinced she needed to make” (Alvarez 155). Determined to remove Trujillo from power, Minerva chose the revolution over her own family. Since Minerva made painful sacrifices to the cause, her shift from family loyalty to loyalty to the revolution signifies an obsession. In a similar fashion, the loyalty of Nina Borg to her family has always been below her loyalty to helping other people in the Red Cross. After calling Morten, Nina realized that “it had been her turn [to pick up Anton from child care], had to have been, and somehow she would have felt better about it, more secure, if Morten had thrown a fit… Morten had already forgotten she was there” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 70-71). Even before encountering Mikas, Nina often forgot to care for her own children, which is seen by the absence of a response from Morten, who is accustomed to her irresponsibility. She once left her five-month-old daughter with Morten while she travelled as a volunteer nurse to Liberia, all without telling him until she was at the airport. Being a nurse and helping other people began replacing other important things in Nina’s life, like her family.
Likewise, Minerva viewed many things in her life as distractions from the revolution. Before joining the revolution, María Theresa compared Minerva and Manolo’s relationship to her own with Leandro in her diary: “I would never be able to give up Leandro to some higher ideal the way I feel Minerva and Manolo would each other if they had to make the supreme sacrifice” (Alvarez 147). Minerva’s actions convinced Mate that the only thing on her mind was the revolutionary struggle. In fact, Minerva’s marriage to Manolo can be viewed as a revolutionary partnership because they spent most of their time partaking in the movement. Comparably, Nina’s marriage to Morten turned into a partnership as their relationship worsened. Nina’s rash behavior caused Morten to take care of the children on his own while she engaged in her work with the Red Cross. In a way, Nina used Morten in order to fulfill her dreams and her obsession. In summary, the noble causes of the Mirabal sisters and Nina Borg replaced other aspects of their lives and made them addicted. Although their efforts were genuine and were caused by their positive personal qualities, their minds were clouded by their goals. The amount of time they spent contributing to their respective causes directly correlated with the deterioration of their relationships with others.
Not only did the actions of the main characters induce their relationships with others to degenerate, but they also led to their downfall in the case of the Mirabal sisters and almost became the undoing of Nina Borg. In In the Time of the Butterflies, Patria and Mate soon followed Minerva in her revolutionary struggles against Trujillo. After Patria decided to join the revolution, she described herself: “…here in that little room was the same Patria Mercedes, who wouldn’t have hurt a butterfly, shouting, ‘Amen to the revolution’” (Alvarez 163-164). Minerva’s preoccupation with the revolution spread to Patria, making her almost as obsessed with it as Minerva was. Like the Mirabal sisters, Nina Borg lost her head over trying to find Mikas’s mother. When Barbara showed up at Nina’s door, Nina immediately thought that it was “Mikas’s mother, holding her hand and thanking her, as only one mother could thank another. Her happy ending. It was here, now” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 257). As Nina saw Barbara, she was instantly convinced that she was the genuine mother and mentally granted herself the title of a heroine. Nina’s obsession with helping people clouded her mind when she had the chance to have a happy ending and to fulfill her goal. As a result of her reckless actions, she let Jucas into her home, who battered her and left a bag tied around her head so that she suffocated. By pure luck, Nina woke up before she asphyxiated and managed to pull the bag away from her face. By clouding her mind, her obsession with helping people almost got her killed. Although initially righteous and harmless, Nina’s kind personality trait became her mania that almost made her perish. Unlike Nina, the revolutionary Mirabal sisters were not saved by luck. Dedé described what happened to her sisters: “They killed them good and dead… they put the dead girls in the back of the Jeep… they pushed the car over the edge” (Alvarez 303). Because of the revolutionary work the Mirabal sisters have done, Trujillo’s henchmen assassinated them and made it look like an accident. The dedication of the sisters to the revolution became their hamartia. In the novels, the Mirabal sisters died and Nina Borg came close to death because of their excessive commitment to their noble causes. Although guided by positive personality traits, these characters took it too far, and their obsession caused them to severely underestimate their abilities.
A positive personality trait becomes a tragic flaw when the person is obsessed with it and guided solely by it. Although the courage of the Mirabal sisters inspired others around them, it proved harmful to the sisters themselves. In Nina’s case, her kindness helped her save a child, but she almost died because of it. In addition, her relationship with Morten worsened due to her willingness to help others. Because of these negative effects of personality trait obsession, modern people need to be aware of the dangers of blindly following a single trait, even if it is a positive one. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” Likewise, when a person finds a passion in a personality trait, they instantly begin seeing opportunities where to implement that trait. As Thomas Jefferson said, the imagination of the person takes no notice of the reasons against the theory, or in the case of personality traits, reasons to not apply them to a situation. Of course, having a positive personality trait has its benefits, but efforts must be made to prevent it from governing one’s actions.
Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.
Kaaberbol, Lene, and Agnete Friis. The Boy in the Suitcase. Soho Crime, 2012.