In the Time of the Butterflies

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Freedom and Imprisonment Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Dictatorship Theme Icon
Freedom and Imprisonment Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Courage vs. Cowardice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in In the Time of the Butterflies, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Freedom and Imprisonment Theme Icon

The idea of imprisonment or entrapment pervades both the Trujillo regime and the lives of the Mirabal sisters in the novel. The Dominican Republic as a whole is basically imprisoned by Trujillo’s police state, and Minerva describes leaving home as leaving “a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country.” No rival political parties are allowed to exist, and political prisoners and executions number in the thousands. The Mirabal sisters and their husbands are almost all imprisoned by Trujillo at some point, and even when they are released, Minerva and María Teresa are still kept under house arrest.

There is also a more personal kind of imprisonment for the sisters, as they are at first trapped by their restrictive home life, where they must ask their father permission to do anything, and then by the expectations of society to get married and settle down. Minerva feels this imprisonment the most, and she compares herself to the family’s rabbits in their pens. But unlike the rabbits, who fear to leave their comfortable cages even when Minerva tries to set them free, Minerva and her sisters desperately long for freedom. This struggle against “cages” is fought with weapons and words against Trujillo, and also within the hearts of each Mirabal sister. All of them except for Dedé end up joining the resistance movement against Trujillo, and they become national symbols of freedom. The sisters themselves find freedom only in death, but their martyrdom helps bring about Trujillo’s downfall. Dedé, the only survivor, still seems trapped by the memory of her sisters and their growing fame, but she also lives to see the freedom they helped bring to the Dominican Republic.

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Freedom and Imprisonment 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 Freedom and Imprisonment.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Sometimes, watching the rabbits in their pens, I’d think, I’m no different from you, poor things. One time, I opened a cage to set a half-grown doe free. I even gave her a slap to get her going.
But she wouldn’t budge! She was used to her little pen. I kept slapping her, harder each time, until she started whimpering like a scared child. I was the one hurting her, insisting she be free.
Silly bunny, I thought. You’re nothing at all like me.

Related Characters: Minerva (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Rabbits
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Though the family's rabbits (and Minerva's thoughts about them) only appear in this passage, the rabbits are an important symbol for the novel overall. At this point (1938) Minerva still feels trapped at home, where she has to ask Papá permission to do anything, and so at first she here compares herself to the rabbits in their cage—she feels trapped and helpless just like them.

One day, however, Minerva decides to set a "half-grown doe" (a female rabbit, and so perhaps especially relatable to Minerva) free, but the rabbit is afraid to leave her pen, even when Minerva slaps her to get her to run away. Minerva then thinks about how the rabbit is actually "nothing at all like" her. Minerva would give anything to be free (whether from Papá's overprotectiveness or Trujillo's tyranny), despite the relative safety of her "cage" at this point. Thus the rabbits more come to symbolize many of the Dominican people—trapped in the "cage" of Trujillo's police state, but also afraid to leave or fight against the only home they have ever known.


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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.

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

“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."

Chapter 8 Quotes

That room was silent with the fury of avenging angels sharpening their radiance before they strike.
The priests had decided they could not wait forever for the pope and the archbishop to come around. The time was now, for the Lord had said, I come with the sword as well as the plow to set at liberty them that are bruised.
I couldn’t believe this was the same Padre de Jesús talking who several months back hadn’t known his faith from his fear! But then again, here in that little room was the same Patria Mercedes, who wouldn’t have hurt a butterfly, shouting, “Amen to the revolution.”
And so we were born in the spirit of the vengeful Lord, no longer His lambs.

Related Characters: Patria (speaker), Padre de Jesús
Page Number: 163-164
Explanation and Analysis:

Thus far Patria has tried to stay out of the struggle against Trujillo, instead focusing on her faith and her family. After witnessing the violence of the fourteenth of June, however, Patria, Padre de Jesús, and some other devout Catholics and priests decide to form their own resistance group. The members of this group decide that the earthly government of the Church has been too slow to act against Trujillo's atrocities, and so they will obey God's law on their own—overcoming both their fear and their natural pacifism to fight for freedom against the dictator. Alvarez shows how each of the sisters experiences their own epiphany that leads them to become a "butterfly" (or not), and this inspiring passage, which is threaded with Patria's usual religious language, shows Patria embracing her more courageous, idealistic side and finally deciding to take a stand for what is right. Furthermore, she finds that this "revolution" doesn't go against her faith, but is rather affirmed by it.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“The husbands were in prison,” she adds, for the woman’s face registers surprise at this change of address. “All except Jaimito.”
“How lucky,” her guest notes.
“It wasn’t luck,” Dedé says right out. “It was because he didn’t get directly involved.”
“And you?”
Dedé shakes her head. “Back in those days, we women followed our husbands.” Such a silly excuse. After all, look at Minerva. “Let’s put it this way,” Dedé adds. “I followed my husband. I didn’t get involved.”

Related Characters: Dedé (speaker), The Interview Woman (speaker), Minerva, Manolo Tavarez Justo, Leandro Guzman (Palomino)
Page Number: 171-172
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Dedé is explaining herself to the interview woman. Dedé continues to use the same excuses to explain her refusal to become a "butterfly," though she knows how hollow these excuses sound in light of all that has happened. Though Dedé parrots the traditional idea that "we women followed our husbands," she then immediately compares herself to Minerva, and acknowledges that there were certainly many women who didn't do this—it's just an excuse for Dedé to try and ease some of her guilt. While she recognizes the essential emptiness of her excuse (that she had no choice, and couldn't go against Jaimito's wishes), Dedé also seems to see that the nature of this explanation just reinforces the same sexism and complacency her sisters were fighting against.

And she knew, right then and there, her knees shaking, her breath coming short, that she could not go through with this business. Jaimito was just an excuse. She was afraid, plain and simple, just as she had been afraid to face her powerful feelings for Lío. Instead, she had married Jaimito, although she knew she did not love him enough. And here she’d always berated him for his failures in business when the greater bankruptcy had been on her part.

Related Characters: Dedé (speaker)
Page Number: 184-185
Explanation and Analysis:

Dedé, usually so meek and accommodating, is considering taking extreme action in her life—leaving Jaimito and joining her other sisters in their revolutionary activities. Here, she goes to town to try to talk to a priest and get advice, but then she realizes that Padre de Jesús, the priest she sought out, is a revolutionary too. In this moment, then, Dedé realizes that she is quite simply afraid. She is afraid both of leaving her overbearing husband and of risking her safety to fight Trujillo.

As with her sisters, for Dedé questions of romance are intricately tied to questions of politics. The decision to leave Jaimito is impossible to separate from the decision to become a "butterfly" (particularly as Jaimito has forbidden her to join her sisters), and so Dedé arguably has the most difficult choice of all the sisters—she must throw away everything she is used to (including, potentially, her children), and risk that the world outside her "cage" will be worth leaving the secure but oppressive cage itself. And in this moment, Dedé decides she cannot do it—she is not a coward, but she recognizes her limits and her own nature, and makes a decision once and for all.

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.

Chapter 11 Quotes

It happens here all the time. Every day and night there’s at least one breakdown – someone loses control and starts to scream or sob or moan. Minerva says it’s better letting yourself go – not that she ever does. The alternative is freezing yourself up, never showing what you’re feeling, never letting on what you’re thinking… Then one day, you’re out of here, free, only to discover you’ve locked yourself up and thrown away the key somewhere too deep inside your heart to fish it out.

Related Characters: Mate (speaker), Minerva
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Mate and Minerva are both in prison, and dealing with all the struggles and suffering that come with their situation. As we only learn about this period from Mate's point of view, we again see Minerva as her younger sister sees her—someone almost impossibly strong, courageous, and firm in her convictions. In the case of this passage, however, it becomes clear that Minerva isn't just a superhuman revolutionary leader—she also understands the psychological pressures the other women are undergoing, and thus becomes an advocate for mental freedom even within the confines of the prison itself. As both Minerva and Mate suggest here, there is a bravery not just in "sucking it up" but also in "letting it out"—adding further nuance to Alvarez's exploration of the different kinds of courage.

Where does that sister of mine get her crazy courage?
As she was being marched down the hall, a voice from one of the cells they passed called out, Mariposa does not belong to herself alone. She belongs to Quisqueya! Then everyone was beating on the bars, calling out, ¡Viva la Mariposa! Tears came to my eyes. Something big and powerful spread its wings inside me.
Courage, I told myself. And this time, I felt it.

Related Characters: Mate (speaker), Minerva
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Mate again describes Minerva's "crazy courage," and we also see the legend that is already growing around the sisters. Minerva is labeled "Mariposa" (butterfly) by the other prisoners, and becomes a larger-than-life figure in their defiant chant—someone who "does not belong to herself alone," but stands for all of "Quisqueya" (in this case, another name for the Dominican Republic itself).

We don't see Minerva's perspective here, and so can't tell if she really is feeling the "crazy courage" Mate projects onto her, but we do see Mate becoming a "butterfly" herself in this inspiring moment. She feels "wings" spreading out inside of her, a kind of liberation and bravery that she finds even in her imprisonment. As is shown throughout the book, for all of the sisters courage is often more an act of will than a feeling, but in this moment, Mate has the good fortune to actually feel it, inspired by Minerva's actions and the prisoners' call to arms.

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

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.