(House Arrest: August and September) Minerva is the narrator again, beginning just after her release from prison. All her life she has wanted to escape her family’s house, but now she is put under house arrest and it seems like a blessing in disguise. Nothing seems better to her than to be with her sisters and mother, raising her children.
We have seen the outside perspectives on Minerva and how she has become the nation’s heroine, a symbol of courage and strength, but the real Minerva still has moments of frailty, and is growing weary of constant struggle.
At first it is hard for Minerva to adjust to life at home after spending so much time in solitary confinement. She often goes to her room to be alone, and feels herself falling apart. She is surprised at how much braver she was able to be in prison.
The “rabbit cage” now seems almost comforting to Minerva after prison, and she seeks even more privacy within the family home. Her courage comes out best in the face of direct adversity.
She and Mate are only allowed to go out twice a week – once to visit their husbands in prison and once to go to church. Minerva is a celebrity now, and even the priest whispers “Viva la Mariposa!” to her as he gives her Communion. Ironically Minerva feels weaker than ever at this point, but she puts on a brave face, knowing that her performance as her “old self” is important to the public.
“Viva la Mariposa” (long live the butterfly) has become the slogan for Trujillo’s enemies, in opposition to the constant chants of “Viva Trujillo.” Minerva’s struggle after prison is more subtle and difficult for her personally – the struggle to suppress her inner turmoil and put on a brave face without a direct struggle to contend with.
Minerva is especially disturbed by Peña’s visits, and she tries to hide from him until Mamá fetches her. The children get used to Peña and start calling him “Uncle.” One day Peña gathers everyone and says that Trujillo is planning a visit to the province, so it would be nice if the sisters wrote him a letter thanking him for releasing them from prison.
After what she has experienced at the hands of the SIM, Minerva is unnerved by watching her children call a SIM captain “uncle.” Minerva is again made to flatter Trujillo in order to preserve her own safety.
After Peña leaves the sisters argue about the letter – Minerva doesn’t want to do it, but eventually she is convinced by the other sisters. Mate has started standing up for herself much more. Minerva signs the letter but angrily demands that they take some kind of action. That night she goes out and complains to the guards and spies outside the house for being too loud. As she leaves they say “Viva Trujillo!” and after a long pause Minerva makes herself say it too.
Minerva puts up her act even with her sisters, but gives in more easily than she might have done otherwise. This is combined with the fact that Mate no longer always follows Minerva’s lead, but has grown into her own strong person. Minerva takes the only small action available to her, but even then she is reminded of how powerless she is.
Minerva talks about her old friend Elsa, who had married a journalist assigned to the National Palace. He had once been put in prison for printing a picture showing some of Trujillo’s bare leg, and once for accidentally calling a “eulogy” for Trujillo an “elegy.” Elsa and her husband had originally declined to join the underground, but now Elsa visits Minerva whenever possible.
Elsa is one of Minerva’s original three friends from the convent school. In her husband’s stories we see more examples of how a dictatorship affects every aspect of life, and how closely guarded Trujillo’s public image is.
One day Elsa brings news that the OAS has imposed sanctions on Trujillo’s regime. Many American countries, including the U.S., have broken off relations with the Dominican Republic. Elsa is excited about this, and she talks to Minerva about Trujillo’s overthrow. Elsa wants to reminisce, but she retells the story of their school play so that it was Minerva shooting the imaginary arrow at Trujillo, not Sinita. Minerva reminds her of the truth, but Elsa brushes it off. Elsa continues to praise Minerva for her bravery, but inside Minerva feels weak and cowardly.
This is a major blow to the regime and will cripple the economy, but Trujillo continues to cling to power even in the face of the world’s disapproval. Minerva is already becoming a legendary figure, and her personal history is being reimagined to fit her current role as revolutionary leader. Even her old friend now sees her as almost superhuman.
The sisters get dressed up to visit their men in prison and tell them the good news about the sanctions. Dedé tries to guilt them into not going, saying that they are asking for an “accident” by all going together, but the sisters laugh at her melodrama. As they drive off she sobs “I don’t want to have to live without you.”
Dedé is right, and this is tragic foreshadowing of the sisters’ future “accident.” Indeed, Dedé’s martyrdom is to have to live without them.
Everyone is hopeful at the prison, but Manolo looks less excited than the rest. Some of his teeth are broken off. He asks Minerva for information about the resistance, but she has no news to give him, as she is just as cut off as he is. She has to put on her “performance” even for Manolo, and pretend that she is still involved.
Under house arrest and being constantly spied upon, the butterflies are reduced to a domestic life. And yet even Minerva is vaguely comforted by this, as she has gotten tired of constant struggle.
Minerva believes that Trujillo will fall soon, as almost everyone has turned against him now, but Trujillo instead seems to use his lack of accountability to act out even more. Some young men distribute leaflets about an uprising, and the SIM capture all of them. The sisters also have their visiting rights to the prison inexplicably revoked.
Trujillo is nearing the end of his reign and he starts acting out desperately. Unfortunately this means more fear and random violence for the country under his power.
When the sisters finally get to visit their husbands again, Manolo tells Minerva that “it’s over.” Many male prisoners have been killed lately, and Manolo has no hope for his own survival. He insists on saying goodbye to Minerva. On the drive home the driver comments that “the butterflies are sad today,” which makes Minerva suddenly regain her courage and fierceness. She discovers that adversity is what gives her strength, and she starts working to save the men.
Trujillo has no façade of human rights to present to the world anymore, so he can treat his prisoners as badly as he wants. Minerva realizes what was made clear in her past experiences – that she falls apart without a cause to fight for. The sisters’ codenames are now common knowledge and part of their mystique.
(Saving the Men: October) It is a few weeks later, and the sisters (including Dedé) are riding with their favorite driver, Rufino. They are going to visit another “political,” a doctor named Delia, and Dedé is very nervous about it. Delia is nervous too when they arrive, but they pretend that they are there about their “cycles.” Minerva talks in code to Delia, and is shocked to hear that the old resistance cells are dead and Sina has abandoned the struggle. The only active member Delia can name is Dr. Pedro Viñas.
Rufino is working for the government as a driver, but he is sympathetic and friendly to the sisters and will ultimately join in their martyrdom. The regime continues to underestimate and misunderstand women, but here Minerva uses this to her advantage. The Fourteenth of June Movement’s hopes and plans have all crumbled.
When they get home Peña gets angry at them for leaving without his permission, but he eventually agrees to let Minerva see Dr. Viñas, who is a urologist and not known as a political. Patria and Mate drop her off at a house where the doctor supposedly works. Dr. Viñas and his maid all use cutesy diminutives when talking, which makes Minerva shudder, but when Dr. Viñas is finally alone with Minerva he becomes serious.
Dr. Viñas’s blend of cutesy and revolutionary is reminiscent of someone like Mate – another ordinary citizen driven to take extraordinary measures. All of Minerva’s old comrades have either been arrested, killed, or have given up the struggle, even the militant Sina (Sinita), who first made Minerva hate Trujillo as a girl.
Viñas says that the “picnic” was almost ready, but then the Americans pulled out because they were afraid the revolutionaries were Communists. The Americans distrust any idealists, and would prefer a Trujillo to a Castro. They are now working with some of Trujillo’s “old cronies” who want to overthrow El Jefe. Their only ideal is money, so the Americans feel that they can control them. Minerva is displeased at this solution, but Viñas says all she can do is keep up her hope and be a good example to the country. Hopefully the revolutionaries can step in after Trujillo is killed.
Minerva and Manolo’s idealistic hopes for the revolution have failed, and Trujillo’s overthrow has been co-opted by men similar to Trujillo himself. The U.S. was particularly paranoid about Communism at this point in history, so they would prefer an inhumane capitalist dictator to a Communist government. And the U.S. has the money and weaponry, so they control the real revolution.
Minerva visits Manolo and tells him the news, and he too is worried about the Americans taking over the revolution and the country. Minerva feels that she is so desperate to get rid of Trujillo at this point that she doesn’t care how it happens. Manolo’s mother offers to buy their old house so they can return there when things settle down, but soon afterward the SIM seize the property.
Minerva focuses only on Trujillo and doesn’t look forward to the personal work that will follow his overthrow (like the other sisters do). The problem is that there will still be violence and oppression even after Trujillo. The U.S. occupied the country before Vasquez, so there is a real fear that it will happen again.
Minerva and Dedé take the trip to go retrieve Minerva’s possessions from her property. Minerva is pleased to have some alone time with Dedé, and to convince her that the roads aren’t full of murderers. Suddenly they are stopped by guards and ordered out of the cab. Dedé immediately says that she is Minerva Mirabal, trying to protect the real Minerva.
The sisters and Rufino are taken to a guardhouse. An official explains that they need an escort, for when the local townspeople heard that Minerva Mirabal was coming they planned “some sort of commotion.” The man asks which one is Minerva, and Dedé admits that she was only trying to protect her “little sister.” Minerva decides that the official is a frightened man at heart, so she mentions Peña’s name confidently. His resulting terror is like a window into the “rotten weakness at the heart of Trujillo’s system.”
Minerva has become so famous in the country that the regime fears a show of opposition wherever she goes, as she is now a symbol and inspiration. Minerva’s insight about the official shows an important fact about dictatorships – they are built up almost entirely on fear, and so they are doomed to fail once enough people decide to stop being afraid.
After that they reach Minerva’s house without trouble, and gather up her things. It is heartbreaking for her to go through her old belongings – a book Lío gave her, Mate’s souvenir from the Discovery Day dance, and a picture of Lina Lovatón.
This is like a brief trip through the more innocent past, when the sisters weren’t directly involved with Trujillo and constantly in danger.
When she leaves the house, Minerva sees over a hundred people dressed in black in the town square. Suddenly trucks of guards roll in. Minerva walks silently into the square, and after a moment the crowd disbands. Minerva goes back to the house and is surprised to see Dedé outside with a frying pan, ready to fight if need be.
This is a quiet, subversive gathering that shows both support for the butterflies and confuses the regime. Dedé again shows her new courage when it comes to protecting her sisters.
When they return home, Mate is upset because she has had her old nightmare about Papá’s death, but with Leandro, Manolo, and Pedrito in the coffin. That same night their uncle arrives and says he has been to a reception honoring Trujillo, as El Jefe finally visited the province. At the reception Trujillo had told his admirers that he had only two problems: “the damn church and the Mirabal sisters.” Their Uncle Pepe says that this was a warning to them, and they should consider not going out at all for a while.
Mate’s dream reaches a fever pitch as she worries about all the men in her life, who are all in constant danger of death. The dream now seems less sexual and more like a poignant stress dream. This is the closest Trujillo comes to appearing in person in the second half of the novel, as he aims an oblique threat at the sisters.
The next day the sisters make their required stop at SIM headquarters, and Peña asks to see them. He makes a lewd proposition that infuriates Minerva, but Patria defuses the situation. Peña informs them that their husbands are being transferred from the capital to a prison in the North. The sisters are angry, but Peña says it will be less distance for the “butterflies” to go. Minerva realizes that she can’t even save herself, much less the men.
Minerva is again reminded of her powerlessness in the face of the regime’s brutality and sexism, and she lashes out angrily. She doesn’t know that she will find real freedom and power as a martyr and symbol of courage. This transfer of the men to the northern prison is actually part of the plot to have the butterflies murdered.
(Talk of the people, Voice of God: November 25, 1960) Minerva now describes their fourth trip to visit the men in the northern prison. Rufino is driving, and they have to take a deserted mountain road to get there. On the way they pick up a young soldier who is hitchhiking. He claims to be on his way to meet his newborn son.
This is the last day of the sisters’ lives, and the climax the whole novel has been leading up to. Alvarez now focuses in on one day, building up the suspense to an ending that we know is coming.
As they drive Minerva laments how the “butterflies” have fallen from their old dreams of fighting and revolution. Now they are all scared of the mountain road and the rocks below. Minerva talks to the young soldier, who seems nervous. He says he has heard a rumor that the two “politicals” in the northern prison will be shipped back to the capital soon.
These “politicals” are indeed Manolo and Leandro, and they will be shipped back to the capital after the butterflies are killed. They were only moved to the north as a trap, to get the sisters to drive on this lonely mountain road.
A storm starts up, and the sisters ask if Rufino wants to stop driving, but he reassures them that he is fine. The young soldier affirms this with “God and Trujillo willing.” This is the first time all three sisters have ridden together, as Pedrito is still at the capital so Patria usually doesn’t come along. Before they left Mamá and Dedé had warned them of the danger of all three traveling together, but Minerva had laughed off their worries.
Minerva and Mate have made this trip three times before, but this is the first time Patria comes along, so they are in special danger by being all together. Dedé is right in her warnings, but the butterflies still believe that even Trujillo couldn’t be so stupid and evil as to murder three unarmed, beloved women.
The sisters take a brief detour to get sewing supplies, as they have started a sewing business from their home. They splurge and each buy a new purse too. The salesman recognizes them and warns them about going over the mountain pass today. He puts his business card in Minerva’s purse as she takes it.
The sisters have been pursuing a kind of alternate life since their house arrest, acting like the domestic housewives they might have been if not for Trujillo. The salesman is sympathetic to the butterflies, and tries to warn them.
They keep driving, and then see Peña’s car and fear an ambush. Patria starts to pray, but Minerva tells Rufino to keep driving. To keep themselves calm the sisters methodically transfer the contents of their purses, but then Minerva sees that the salesman’s business card says “avoid the pass” on it. She suddenly realizes that they are about to be ambushed, and that the young hitchhiking soldier is a plant.
Minerva’s reckless courage of earlier seems foolish to her now, and she has the real sense that she is about to die. The sisters again calm themselves with a repetitive, mundane activity, and the transferring of old objects into new purses implies hope for the future.
They keep driving but there is no incident, and Minerva feels more optimistic. The sisters tell jokes and riddles, and finally they reach Puerto Plata, the town where the prison is located. They visit the men and Manolo looks better, but he hasn’t heard anything about being moved back to the capital. He urges Minerva not to go back tonight, but she is reassured by the weather clearing. They say their goodbyes and the men are taken away.
The sisters get many warnings and have many opportunities to avoid their fate, but we know the history and so the outcome of this trip is sadly inevitable. Minerva feels brave again, having dodged death once more.
On the way back they stop at a gas station and Minerva tries to call Mamá, but the line is busy. They delay and keep trying, and Minerva and Rufino have a beer. Minerva tries one last time, but the line is still busy. Patria is worried about going on, as the road looks especially deserted, but Minerva wants to keep going. Patria is finally reassured by seeing a Public Works truck drive ahead of them – at least they won’t be alone on the road.
Throughout the novel Alvarez has moved quickly through time and summarized events, but now she lingers on these last moments, building suspense and reminding us of the real humanity of the butterflies. They aren’t just martyrs and symbols, but also real women who try to call their mother for some comfort.
The sisters decide to drive on, and they feel optimistic with the truck in front of them. Minerva feels almost as if they are girls again, “a little afraid, a little excited by our fears,” and they make their way up the first mountain.