In the Time of the Butterflies

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In the Time of the Butterflies focuses on the authoritarian regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, which lasted from 1930 to 1961. As a megalomaniacal dictator, Trujillo’s personality takes over every aspect of life, and he becomes the personal antagonist of the novel. Throughout the book Alvarez shows the various ways a dictator affects both politics and daily life, from the fear of saying Trujillo’s name in an uncomplimentary way, to being murdered in public for threatening him. She also links Trujillo to other, more globally famous dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. As a single person and also the head of the government, Trujillo can act as both a character – a man who tries to seduce Minerva, or who takes personal revenge by not letting her use her law degree – and as a constant looming force of oppression.

Trujillo first took power as the head of the nation’s army, helping to overthrow the former president Vasquez and then setting himself up as president. He ruled for 31 years after that, usually behind puppet “presidents.” Trujillo set up a “personality cult” around himself, calling himself the nation’s “Benefactor” and rewriting history books so that the peak of history was his birth. He renamed the country’s capital “Trujillo City,” statues of him were erected everywhere, and churches had to post the slogan “God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth.” Trujillo’s reign was a time of economic prosperity and stability, but most of this ended up benefiting Trujillo’s family and friends, and the cost of this stability was the loss of all civil liberties and a system of espionage, torture, and murder. The Mirabal sisters (the Butterflies) are then set as antagonists to this dictator, and the plot of the novel consists of their struggle against Trujillo’s pervasive presence as they try to both lead personal lives of their own and also bring down the brutal dictator.

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Dictatorship Quotes in In the Time of the Butterflies

Below you will find the important quotes in In the Time of the Butterflies related to the theme of Dictatorship.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“It’s about time we women had a voice in running our country.”
“You and Trujillo,” Papá says a little loudly, and in this clear peaceful night they all fall silent. Suddenly, the dark fills with spies who are paid to hear things and report them down at Security. Don Enrique claims Trujillo needs help in running this country. Don Enrique’s daughter says it’s about time women took over the government. Words repeated, distorted, words recreated by those who might bear them a grudge, words stitched to words until they are the winding sheet the family will be buried in when their bodies are found dumped in a ditch, their tongues cut off for speaking too much.

Related Characters: Dedé (speaker), Papá (speaker), Rafael Trujillo
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

This moment comes during Dedé's first happy memory of her family, back when she and her sisters were young (around 1943). The girls, Papá, and Mamá are all sitting around in the yard, talking. Minerva says that she wants to go to law school, but Mamá disparages the idea of "skirts in the law." Minerva responds with this statement.

This quote introduces Minerva as the "leader" of the sisters, and shows that she was always ambitious, outspoken, and politically minded even at a young age. Her own mother thinks that women don't belong in politics—subtly reinforcing her society's sexist ideas about her own gender—but Minerva asserts that "it's about time."

The second crucial part of this passage is Papá's throwaway remark: the first mention of Trujillo's name. Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic at the time, looms over the novel as both a personal antagonist and a vast, oppressive force. As we see in the ominous final paragraph, the mere mention of Trujillo's name transforms the scene's mood from one of happiness and relaxation to one of fear and suspicion. After this, the book starts to take a darker turn, as we see just what is being risked in any kind of resistance to Trujillo's regime. In a dictatorship with a secret police, even one's friends and neighbors can't be trusted, and without civil liberties even the smallest perceived infraction can lead to torture or execution.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Minerva (speaker), Sinita, Lina Lovatón
Related Symbols: The Rabbits
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

The family's rabbits aren't explicitly mentioned in this passage, but Minerva is still referring to her life in terms of various "cages." She "gets free" from one cage by leaving home and escaping Papá's overprotective presence, but once she learns the truth about Trujillo's dictatorship via her peers Sinita and Lina, Minerva realizes that she has only escaped one cage to "go into a bigger one." With this, Alvarez introduces the idea that the Dominican Republic itself is a kind of "big cage" under Trujillo's rule—no one is truly free, even if they aren't literally imprisoned by the oppressive regime. At the same time, this first level of liberation—mental liberation—is crucial for Minerva, and starts her on the path towards active political resistance and revolution.

When we got to school that fall, we were issued new history textbooks with a picture of you-know-who embossed on the cover so even a blind person could tell who the lies were about. Our history now followed the plot of the Bible. We Dominicans had been waiting for centuries for the arrival of our Lord Trujillo on the scene. It was pretty disgusting.
“All through nature there is a feeling ecstasy. A strange otherworldly light suffuses the house smelling of labor and sanctity. The 24th of October in 1891. God’s glory made flesh in a miracle. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo has been born!”

Related Characters: Minerva (speaker), Rafael Trujillo
Related Symbols: Portraits of Trujillo
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Minerva has few illusions left about the true nature of Trujillo's regime. So when she goes to school and receives new textbooks with Trujillo's face on the cover, she describes them in witheringly sarcastic terms—the propaganda here seems so blatant as to be almost humorous. Here we also see how Trujillo's "cult of personality" takes on distinctly religious language, as the dictator elevates himself to the level of a god, "God's glory made flesh in a miracle." The Dominican Republic is a primarily Catholic nation at this point, and in the textbooks that Minerva is describing here Trujillo highjacks the language of Catholicism (particularly describing the birth of Jesus, the "Word made flesh") in order to build himself up as a holy figure and make his birth the supposed high point of all Dominican history.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I see a guardia, and I think, who have you killed. I hear a police siren, and I think who is going to be killed. See what I mean?
I see the picture of our president with eyes that follow me around the room, and I am thinking he is trying to catch me doing something wrong. Before, I always thought our president was like God, watching over everything I did.

Related Characters: Mate (speaker), Rafael Trujillo
Related Symbols: Portraits of Trujillo
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrative now follows María Teresa's perspective, as she describes her life in her diary entries. The first sections from each of the sisters' perspectives essentially show how they all start out naive, having grown up indoctrinated with the dictatorship's propaganda, and eventually learn the horrible truth about Trujillo's regime. Mate is heavily influenced by Minerva, the older sister she idolizes, and so she also can't help picking up on some of Minerva's increasingly radical politics. At this point, Mate still thinks of Trujillo like a stern father, but also one that she is now disappointed in (because of what Minerva has told her)—she doesn't yet see the whole truth about him. In a crucial point revealed here, however, Mate also admits that previously she had thought of Trujillo as "like God, watching over everything I did." In this she refers to the family's portrait of Trujillo (a required accessory in every Dominican home) and the fact that it is placed next to a picture of Jesus. This is one many examples of Trujillo elevating himself to a Christian kind of godhood, and also of his real presence in the characters' minds as a kind of evil god, watching all his subjects through his systems of spies and secret police.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Minerva could tell. One day, we were lying side by side on the hammock strung just outside the galería. She must have caught me gazing at our picture of the Good Shepherd, talking to his lambs. Beside him hung the required portrait of El Jefe, touched up to make him look better than he was. “They’re a pair, aren’t they?” she noted.
That moment, I understood her hatred. My family had not been personally hurt by Trujillo, just as before losing my baby, Jesus had not taken anything away from me. But others had been suffering great losses…
I had heard, but I had not believed. Snug in my heart, fondling my pearl, I had ignored their cries of desolation. How could our loving, all-powerful Father allow us to suffer so? I looked up, challenging Him. And the two faces had merged!

Related Characters: Patria (speaker), Minerva, Rafael Trujillo
Related Symbols: Portraits of Trujillo
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Patria has been losing her previously strong faith after giving birth to a stillborn baby. She has also been influenced by Minerva, who at this point is almost entirely nonreligious, as well as growing increasingly radical in her resistance against Trujillo. Patria has kept her doubts about Christianity to herself so far, but in this passage it seems that Minerva has been able to read her older sister's mind—she "could tell."

This passage also brings up the symbol of Trujillo's portrait again, and particularly its proximity to the picture of Jesus in the Mirabal family's home. Patria explicitly connects Trujillo to God here, and sees that her own disillusionment with Christianity reflects Minerva's disillusionment with Trujillo. Patria is now able to recognize that because Trujillo's regime has not hurt her directly, she has been able to ignore others' "cries of desolation." But now that she is willing to "challenge" God for allowing such suffering, she also seems more willing to challenge Trujillo himself—and indeed, when she looks up, the faces of Trujillo and Jesus have merged, as if they are both different aspects of an oppressive, omniscient, patriarchal force.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Dedé could only shake her head. She didn’t really know Lío was a communist, a subversive, all the other awful things the editorial had called him. She had never known an enemy of state before. She had assumed such people would be self-serving and wicked, low-class criminals. But Lío was a fine young man with lofty ideals and a compassionate heart. Enemy of state? Why then, Minerva was an enemy of state. And if she, Dedé, thought long and hard about what was right and wrong, she would no doubt be an enemy of state as well.
“I didn’t know,” she said again. What she meant was she didn’t understand until that moment that they were really living – as Minerva liked to say – in a police state.

Related Characters: Dedé (speaker), Minerva, Virgilio Morales (Lío)
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Dedé has just read a newspaper article about a protest to her Mamá, and the article lists Virgilio Morales as a dangerous Communist and "enemy of the state." Dedé and Mamá are both shocked, as they had previously agreed with most of Lío's political ideas, but they have also been taught that all Communists are treacherous and evil. Dedé has even been in love with Lío, though she has always refrained from acting on her feelings (unlike Minerva). Furthermore, Dedé recognizes that if Lío is an "enemy of the state," then so is Minerva.

This is an important moment, one of several where Dedé is confronted with the truth—the fact that she really is living in a "police state," and that those people the government portrays as evil are often just trying to do what's right—and she doesn't yet know how to react. Dedé recognizes that if she "thought long and hard about what was right and wrong" she would probably reach the same conclusions as Minerva and Lío, but she is unwilling to even make this choice to fully confront reality. In hindsight, Dedé sees this as a sign of her cowardice, but it is also a very common mindset (getting used to one's "cage"), particularly for members of a populace living under a dictator or other corrupt power.

Chapter 6 Quotes

The floor remains empty as it must until El Jefe has danced the first dance.

He rises from his chair, and I am so sure he is going to ask me that I feel a twinge of disappointment when he turns instead to the wife of the Spanish ambassador. Lío’s words of warning wash over me. This regime is seductive. How else would a whole nation fall prey to this little man?

Related Characters: Minerva (speaker), Rafael Trujillo, Virgilio Morales (Lío)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Alvarez's projects in her novel is examining the nature of dictatorship and a "cult of personality"—essentially exploring how a "whole nation fall[s] prey" to a "little man" like Trujillo, as Minerva says here. There is a seductiveness to authoritarianism, Alvarez suggests. In some ways it is easier to give up one's autonomy to a "father figure," no matter how corrupt or cruel he may be, than to accept one's own independence and all the risks that it entails.

In this passage, most of the Mirabal family has been invited to a party thrown by Trujillo himself, with the implication that Trujillo has taken a romantic interest in Minerva. Minerva hates Trujillo, but she can't help feeling slighted when he doesn't choose her as his first dancing partner. Minerva isn't attracted to Trujillo, but she does want him to respect her and at least think about her—she wants him to see her as a worthy enemy, someone to be reckoned with.

“I hope you will reconsider his offer. I’m sure General Fiallo would agree” – General Fiallo is already nodding before any mention has been made of what he is agreeing to – “that a private conference with El Jefe would be the quickest, most effective way to end all this nonsense.”
Sí, sí, sí,” General Fiallo agrees.
Don Manuel continues. “I would like to bring you personally to him tonight at his suite at El Jaragua. Bypass all this red tape.” He gestures towards the general, who smiles inanely at his own put-down.
I stare at Manuel de Moya as if pinning him to the wall. “I’d sooner jump out that window than be forced to do something against my honor.”

Related Characters: Minerva (speaker), Manuel de Moya (speaker)
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Papá has been arrested because of Minerva's resistance to Trujillo's sexual advances. In this passage, Manuel de Moya, Trujillo's "secretary of state" (whose real job is finding pretty girls for Trujillo), visits Minerva and essentially tells her that Papá will be immediately freed if Minerva will just consent to a "private conference" with Trujillo in his bedroom. This quote shows Minerva's reckless courage, as well as the subservient and manipulative nature of Trujillo's surrogates.

When she was actually dancing with Trujillo, Minerva was to some degree seduced by his presence and forced to compromise her ideals in speaking with him. But as is shown here, Minerva has now reinforced her courage and refuses to give an inch of ground to Trujillo's demands—she would rather "jump out [the] window" than give in to him. Though this means continued imprisonment for Papá, and the start of a kind of "house arrest" for Mamá and Minerva herself, Minerva has now firmly taken a stand—she is Trujillo's enemy, and an equal and worthy rival even to the dictator himself.

Chapter 7 Quotes

There was a broadcast of a speech by this man Fidel, who is trying to overturn their dictator over in Cuba. Minerva has big parts memorized. Now, instead of her poetry, she’s always reciting, Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me!
I am so hoping that now that Minerva has found a special someone, she’ll setttle down. I mean, I agree with her ideas and everything. I think people should be kind to each other and share what they have. But never in a million years would I take up a gun and force people to give up being mean.

Related Characters: Minerva (speaker), Mate (speaker)
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrative returns to Mate's perspective here, as again she examines Minerva's behavior, both fearing for and idolizing her older sister. Minerva has grown even more radical by now, inspired by Fidel Castro's attempt to overthrow Batista, the corrupt dictator of Cuba at the time. Mate, for her part, seems to agree with Minerva's views, but also lacks the conviction to attempt to act on them. She wants people to "be kind to each other," but also sees that to actually force this to happen would involve "taking up a gun"—something she is still unwilling to do (and which even seems counterintuitive to her).

Here Alvarez juxtaposes the personal with the political, as Mate is growing more revolutionary herself, but is still primarily concerned with boys and romance. Mate then projects this worldview onto Minerva, and hopes that a man (Manolo) will make Minerva "settle down."

There were hundreds of us, the women all together, in white dresses like we were his brides, with white gloves and any kind of hat we wanted. We had to raise our right arms in a salute as we passed by the review stand.
It looked like the newsreels of Hitler and the Italian one with the name that sounds like fettuccine.

Related Characters: Mate (speaker)
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Mate describes her first day of class in "Trujillo City" (formerly Santo Domingo), where she and all her classmates are made to dress in white, march, and raise their arms to salute Trujillo. Mate compares the girls to "brides" showing themselves to Trujillo, a metaphor that is (as we have seen) grotesquely apt—as Trujillo has a tendency to seek out attractive students to seduce or rape. This idea could even extend to the whole country—all the women of the Dominican Republic are "fair game" in Trujillo's mind. This passage also links Trujillo to other infamous dictators of history, notably Hitler and Mussolini, emphasizing the horrors of Trujillo's regime despite its relative lack of international recognition, at least compared to these other more famous tyrants.

Chapter 10 Quotes

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.
Then another time, I came in from outside with my hands full of anthuriums. I looked up at him, and I thought why not. I set up a vase on the table right under his picture…
I don’t know if that’s how it started, but pretty soon, I was praying to him, not because he was worthy or anything like that. I wanted something from him, and prayer was the only way I knew to ask.

Related Characters: Patria (speaker), Rafael Trujillo
Related Symbols: Portraits of Trujillo
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage we see a further development of the symbol of portraits of Trujillo. Patria still associates Trujillo with God (partly because of the previous proximity of the portraits of Trujillo and of Jesus), though she considers him a kind of evil god now. And so in this passage, Patria finds herself beginning to even "pray" to Trujillo himself—asking him to release her family members from their wrongful imprisonment.

As usual, Patria sees things in a highly religious way, her faith affecting her entire worldview and experience of reality. Thus she naturally starts praying to Trujillo, because prayer is the only way she knows how to ask something from someone powerful. The passage also shows Trujillo being portrayed as both an individual, personal antagonist and an ubiquitous, godlike figure.

El Jefe entered in a wash of camera flashes. I don’t know what I thought I’d see – I guess after three months of addressing him, I was sure I’d feel a certain kinship with the stocky, overdressed man before me. But it was just 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! Goosebumps jumped all up and down my bare arms.

Related Characters: Patria (speaker), Rafael Trujillo
Related Symbols: Portraits of Trujillo
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

As stated in the previous quote, Patria has been "praying" to Trujillo, asking him to release her family members, and here she sees him in person for the first time in years. Patria has been struggling to try and forgive even evil people, and to see them merely as flawed humans, but in this moment she finds that she still can't see anything redeemable in Trujillo.

In Patria's religiously-oriented mind, Trujillo is again elevated to a godlike status, but this time it is as a kind of demon or anti-Christ. As Minerva's old textbook declared, Trujillo perhaps is a kind of god made flesh (like Jesus, the "Word made flesh"), but in this case Trujillo is the devil made flesh. If Patria was hoping to find something sympathetic about her enemy, she has failed, and is instead only confirmed in her convictions that fighting Trujillo is not only right but also the proper Christian thing to do.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Even in church during the privacy of Holy Communion, Father Gabriel bent down and whispered, ¡Viva la Mariposa!
My months in prison have elevated me to superhuman status. It would hardly have been seemly for someone who had challenged our dictator to suddenly succumb to a nervous attack at the communion rail.
I hid my anxieties and gave everyone a bright smile. If they had only known how frail was their iron-will heroine. How much it took to put on that hardest of all performances, being my old self again.

Related Characters: Minerva (speaker)
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Minerva and Mate have been released from prison and confined to house arrest. Ironically, Minerva now finds it harder to be brave and keep up her persona outside of prison—she no longer has something concrete and direct to struggle against, and so instead is faced with the subtler but arguably more difficult task of just maintaining a facade of strength and conviction. She is a human being, but must try to live up to her public role as a symbol.

We have seen Minerva in prison from Mate's point of view, but now that we get Minerva's narration her many doubts and internal weaknesses are revealed. This, again, is a crucial part of Alvarez's overall project in the book—showing the butterflies not as pure heroines or idealized revolutionaries, but as real, flawed women struggling to do what is right.

Epilogue Quotes

When we got to the SIM post at the first little town, I cried out, “Assassins! Assassins!”
Jaimito gunned the motor to drown out my cries. When I did it again at the next town, he pulled over and came to the back of the pickup. He made me sit down on one of the boxes. “Dedé, mujer, what is it you want – to get yourself killed, too?”

I nodded. I said, “I want to be with them.”

He said – I remember it so clearly – he said, “This is your martyrdom, Dedé, to be alive without them.”

Related Characters: Dedé (speaker)
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Dedé remembers the day she learned of her sisters' deaths. She grows reckless and enraged in her sudden grief, and directly accuses Trujillo's SIM of being "assassins"—a very dangerous thing to yell out, to say the least. Dedé then tells Jaimito that she wants to join her sisters in death, and so she feels no fear when she antagonizes their murderers.

In response to this, Jaimito delivers a surprisingly insightful statement, as quoted here. Dedé, too, is a martyr in her own way, though she is the only sister to survive. She must suffer life instead of death, seeing the good the butterflies bring about but also witnessing all the future suffering to come to her country, and forced to live alone without her beloved sisters. This will force Dedé to show, in her own way, the kind of extraordinary courage that her sisters exhibited more dramatically.

He was going to do all sorts of things, he told me. He was going to get rid of the old generals with their hands still dirty with Mirabal blood. All those properties they had stolen he was going to distribute among the poor. He was going to make us a nation proud of ourselves, not run by the Yanqui imperialists.
Every time he made one of these promises, he’d look at me as if he needed me to approve what he was doing. Or really, not me, but my sisters whose pictures hung on the wall behind me. Those photos had become icons, emblazoned on posters… And I started to think, maybe it was for something that the girls had died.

Related Characters: Dedé (speaker)
Page Number: 310
Explanation and Analysis:

After the deaths of her sisters, Dedé is left as a kind of "speaker" for the butterflies, here describing their legend and their elevation to the status of heroes. The narrative speeds up, briefly explaining how Trujillo was assassinated by some of his cronies, and was eventually replaced by a democratically elected president. This new president (Juan Bosch) is the one quoted here, and he seemed like the kind of president the butterflies might have liked—a worthy result of their sacrifice, as Dedé suggests—but he was soon overthrown in a coup that was supported by the Church, the military, and the United States (who was afraid of Bosch's left-leaning politics).

As we can see here, the butterflies have become martyrs and national symbols, exhibiting a kind of moral standard that the new president feels he must live up to. The dictatorship is over (for now), and the people of the Dominican Republic are free of Trujillo, but their struggles are far from over.

“The nightmare is over, Dedé. Look at what the girls have done.” He gestures expansively.
He means the free elections, bad presidents now put in power properly, not by army tanks. He means our country beginning to prosper, Free Zones going up everywhere, the coast a clutter of clubs and resorts. We are now the playground of the Caribbean, who were once its killing fields. The cemetery is beginning to flower…
Lío is right. The nightmare is over; we are free at last. But the thing that is making me tremble, that I do not want to say out loud – and I’ll say it once only and it’s done.
Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?

Related Characters: Dedé (speaker), Virgilio Morales (Lío) (speaker)
Page Number: 318
Explanation and Analysis:

Years later, Dedé meets Virgilio Morales again at a reception in honor of the butterflies, and Lio seems optimistic about the results of their sacrifice. The reception itself is portrayed as a reinforcement of the romanticized narrative increasingly being told about the Mirabal sisters—that their struggle consisted of three women against one evil dictator, ignoring the thousands of other people who both suffered and propagated suffering. Even Virgilio seems to accept this romanticized narrative at this point, and feels that "what the girls have done" is clear to see.

Dedé, however, has more doubts. The optimism she felt after President Bosch's visit has faded with his overthrow and the rise of new and corrupt governments in the Dominican Republic. Dedé admits that the country is free of Trujillo, and that her sisters played a large part in this victory, but she also sees that the country still isn't much better off than it was before—and it certainly hasn't achieved successes that might make her sisters' deaths seem "worth it" to her. In this passage, then, Dedé asks herself a tragic question, one central to the novel itself—was the death of the butterflies in vain? When faced with the reality that the Mirabal sisters were real, complicated women rather than one-dimensional heroes or martyrs, their sacrifice almost becomes more monumental, and it seems even more urgent that their successors try to live up to the moral imperative they have upheld.