In the Time of the Butterflies

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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.
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In the Time of the Butterflies revolves around the Mirabal sisters, women living in a very patriarchal, “macho” society. Their personal struggles are part of the power of their story, as they stand not only as symbols of rebellion against Trujillo, but at the same time as loving, independent women with husbands and children. Alvarez shows how the resistance against women in politics can even be propagated by the women themselves, as both Mamá and Patria initially express sentiments that women are inferior to men, or else are somehow “purer” and so shouldn’t dirty themselves with politics. In talking to the interview woman in the present day, Dedé says that women “followed their husbands,” but she knows that this is an excuse, as she is the only sister who actually did this. We also see sinister aspects of sexism in how the Trujillo regime treats women, as the “secretary of state’s” real job is picking out pretty girls for Trujillo to seduce or rape.

One of Alvarez’s goals for the novel is to portray the “butterflies” as real women and not just legendary martyrs, and she does this by showing the personal lives of the Mirabals as they go through traditional coming-of-age rites: menstruating, falling in love, Mate obsessing over clothes, and eventually all of them getting married and having children – all while they fight against Trujillo and become national heroes. The butterflies are icons of Dominican culture, but Alvarez also humanizes them as normal women who overcame obstacles and struggled against oppression.

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Women ThemeTracker

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Women 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 Women.
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 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.

I admit that for me love goes deeper than the struggle, or maybe what I mean is, love is the deeper struggle. 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. And so last night, it touched me, Oh so deeply, to hear him say it was the same for him, too.

Related Characters: Mate (speaker), Minerva, Manolo Tavarez Justo, Leandro Guzman (Palomino)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Mate has now become a revolutionary as well, following in Minerva's footsteps and becoming "Butterfly #2" in the resistance group. Yet Mate is still very much her own person, and here she admits that she still leans more towards romance than revolution. She assumes that Minerva and Manolo would be willing to give each other up for the "struggle," but Mate feels that she could never sacrifice Leandro, even for a higher ideal (and she is overjoyed to hear that he feels the same way). Thus this passage shows a different kind of bravery, one that is not the straightforward, reckless courage often portrayed in idealized revolutionaries. Instead it is a courage in love as well as politics, and in struggling on whatever one's "deeper struggle" might be.

Here again Alvarez shows how the butterflies were not ideals or one-dimensional heroes, but real women with real complicated emotions and reservations about their actions.

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.

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.

Patria closed her purse with a decisive snap. “Let’s just go.”
We moved quickly now towards the Jeep, hurrying as if we had to catch up with that truck. 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, anticipating the lighted house just around the bend –
That’s the way I felt as we started up the first mountain.

Related Characters: Patria (speaker), Minerva (speaker)
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes the moment before the butterflies' assassination—arguably the book's climax, but also an event Alvarez doesn't describe. The language of this scene, which is ironically tragic in its optimistic imagery, calls back to the first memory of the book, with the sisters as little girls in the dark yard of their house, as yet mostly untroubled by dictators, revolutions, and violence. The story thus comes full circle, and Alvarez lingers on the sisters' final moments before their tragic end.

As she emphasizes the mingling of fear and excitement in this passage, Alvarez again makes the point that the butterflies were ordinary women—once just girls "walking through the dark part of the yard"—who were not superhumanly brave or strong, but who simply made the choice to do extraordinary things.

Epilogue Quotes

“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.