Dedé describes how after her sisters’ deaths, people would come to her and relay their memories of that last day. Through their testimony she can now imagine what happened on the mountain road. Rufino followed the truck for a while but then passed it. Eventually the truck driver caught back up to them, as their car had been stopped and the women were being led away by guards. Patria had broken free for a moment and yelled to the truck driver to tell her family what was happening. The truck driver had then kept driving, afraid of the soldiers.
Alvarez only describes the sisters’ deaths in this secondhand way, as in death, in their martyrdom, they move beyond personal characters and become historical figures. Alvarez also makes a choice to not show the sisters’ last moments from their perspective, leaving their deaths to history and the real Dedé’s memory.
A year after Trujillo’s death there were trials for the murderers of the Mirabal sisters. The defendants said that each man killed one woman, and one killed Rufino. They beat and choked them to death, put them back in their Jeep, and pushed it off the cliff so it would look like an accident.
Alvarez now moves into the realm of historical fact. No one believed the “car accident” story, and the brutal murder of the butterflies turned many more Dominicans against Trujillo.
The murderers were sentenced to twenty to thirty years in prison, but they were all released during the “spell of revolutions” following Trujillo’s overthrow. Dedé had raised the sisters’ children without ever mentioning the names of the murderers, as she didn’t want the children to grow up hateful.
Trujillo’s death is almost anticlimactic to the story, as the butterflies never live to see the change they affected. Even Trujillo’s overthrow only led to more violence and fear for many years.
After her sisters’ deaths, Dedé had avoided the news even when it was good. Trujillo was assassinated by seven of his former “buddies” a year after the Mirabals’ deaths. Manolo, Pedrito, and Leandro were freed. Back in the present, Dedé hears Minou, who is now a professor, getting ready for bed.
Minerva’s fears were correct, and Trujillo is only murdered by men just like him who cause no real revolution in the country. Alvarez jumps back and forth, contrasting this condensed, depressing history with the peaceful, relatively hopeful present.
Dedé remembers the day she first heard the bad news, when Mamá called her to her house. At first she thought it was a fire, but when she didn’t see her sisters Dedé panicked and screamed. At first the family was given a telegram that seemed hopeful – telling them to come to the hospital – but then they got a second telegram confirming the sisters’ deaths. Dedé cannot remember the details of what followed, but others said she was crazed with grief and pushed past the guards to the morgue. Dedé cut off Mate’s braid and kept it.
Dedé’s “martyrdom” is this intense grief for her sisters, the guilt that will haunt her for years, and the life she must go on to lead without her closest friends. In her grief Dedé achieves a wild courage, as she has no desire to live anymore without her sisters and so has no fear of being hurt or killed. Mate’s braid still rests at the sisters’ grave.
As Jaimito and Dedé drove the coffins home, people emerged from their houses. People had been told that it was a car accident, but everyone knew it was murder. People threw flowers onto the coffins as they drove past. When they passed the SIM office, Dedé screamed “Assassins!” Jaimito asked if she wanted to die too, and Dedé said yes, that she wanted to be with her sisters. Jaimito then said that her martyrdom was “to be alive without them.”
The Dominican people immediately know the truth, and Trujillo’s downfall is assured as more of his people turn against him. This is another touching, quiet tribute to the influence and power of the butterflies. Jaimito’s statement becomes a truth for the rest of Dedé’s life.
In the present, Dedé asks Minou about her baby Camila. Dedé then remembers talking to the sisters’ husbands. Manolo explained that they were transferred back to the capital on the day of the murder. They were then all gathered together with Johnny Abbes and some other torturers, who told them the news of their wives’ deaths.
In the present there is peace and hope – Minerva’s daughter is a politician and professor in a free Dominican Republic, and she has a child of her own. But in the past there is more evil and tragedy to be played out in Dedé’s memory.
After Trujillo’s fall, The government built a monument to the Mirabals, and one day the new president had dropped by to visit it. He had talked to Dedé and promised to make the nation proud, and to get rid of those who had overseen the sisters’ deaths. He had seemed to look at their portraits as he talked, as if asking for the butterflies’ approval. This meeting gave Dedé hope that the girls had not died for nothing.
This was president Juan Bosch, a leftist scholar and poet who held power for less than one year and was the kind of progressive leader the butterflies might have been proud of. His policies angered the church, the military, the upper class, and the U.S., however, and he was soon overthrown by a military coup.
There had then been another coup, though, and Dedé had stopped receiving visitors and avoided the news. Manolo had been a revolutionary hero, but he was driven into hiding in the mountains and eventually killed. Back in the present, Minou asks Dedé why she still gives her time to all the visitors curious about the sisters.
With Bosch’s overthrow the country showed that it was still deeply divided, and not ready to give up all the policies of the Trujillo era. Manolo was seen as the Dominican Castro, but he didn’t get the civilian aid he needed and he was killed in the same mountains where the butterflies died.
Dedé wonders to herself how she became the “oracle,” the one who tells all the stories of the Mirabal sisters for the world to hear. Sometimes she and her friend Olga have dinner, and Olga warns Dedé that she is living in the past, trapped in the same old house, surrounded by her sisters’ things. Dedé responds that she doesn’t feel trapped in the past, she has just kept its memory alive in the present.
Alvarez now starts looking towards the present and future, and focuses on Dedé as both the living memory of the butterflies and the storyteller for a nation in need of stories. Dedé seems physically trapped by her sisters’ legacies and loss, but this past is a crucial part of her life, and important for the future of the country.
Dedé decides about herself becoming the “oracle” – the talker instead of the listener. It was after all the revolutions and violence were over, and the Dominican people needed a story to believe in. It was then that Dedé started talking about the butterflies.
Fela claims to channel the spirits of the butterflies, but Dedé is their true oracle, keeping them alive and breathing into the present where they can still teach and inspire their country.
In the present Dedé looks out at the dark garden and hears Minou talking to her husband on the phone. She sounds just like Minerva did. Dedé remembers her own breast cancer of years before. She starts to make a list of losses, just as she used to list the inventory in Papá’s store. Manolo was killed three years after Minerva. Pedrito was restless, and soon married a young girl. Leandro left politics and became an architect, building many buildings in the capital.
Dedé’s basic personality hasn’t changed, but the tragic circumstances of her life have made her much stronger and braver than she was before. Part of her burden and gift is that she carries the weight of the complex past with her at all times, even in peaceful scenes like the one in the present.
Mamá lived for twenty years after her daughters’ deaths, and Dedé and Jaimito stayed together while Mamá was alive, but separated after that. Dedé and Mamá split up raising the sisters’ children. Dedé remembers when Minou first met her current husband, Doroteo. Mamá had advised her to stay in school and wait to marry, and Dedé had marveled at how her advice had totally changed from when Minerva was young.
Mamá fully changes her ideas with the times and her own experiences, and she goes from advising her daughters to marry early and not make trouble, to throwing bathwater on spies and telling Minou to go to college before getting married. In a practical way, Dedé carries on the butterflies’ legacy by raising their children.
Mamá died peacefully, and her death seemed almost unreal to Dedé because it came without violence or anger. Dedé now realizes that she is the next one to die. She tries to think of the “losses” as free people each going their own way.
Dedé has lived long enough to see that freedom isn’t always a perfect ideal. It can still mean more suffering and anger, and shouldn’t be so easily mythologized – like her sisters.
Dedé had met Lío once at a reception honoring the butterflies. Dedé dislikes these events, with everyone blaming everyone else for past evils, or else absolving everyone so they themselves will be forgiven, until everyone seems like “one big rotten family of cowards.” At this event Lío greets Dedé, who is shocked and hardly recognizes him. Lío has a young wife, and he catches up with Dedé. He reminds her of “what the girls have done,” the current state where there are free elections and rising tourism, where “the cemetery has begun to flower.”
These receptions are more examples of people both romanticizing the past and purposefully forgetting the difficult parts of it. The narrative they create is of three girls defeating one evil dictator, ignoring the thousands of other people involved in both the suffering and the propagation of suffering, and even the fact that the defeat of the dictator did not transform the country. Even Virgilio comes to accept this narrative.
As she drives home from the reception Dedé thinks about the current state of the Dominican Republic. It is certainly better than it was under Trujillo, but it still seems a disappointing result for the butterflies’ sacrifice.
Dedé alone feels burdened with the complex, difficult truth, and the loss of her sisters—the complicated women she knew and loved—still seems to outweigh the uneasy freedom and peace of the present.
Back on the night of the interview, Dedé helps Minou to bed and they discuss Minou’s child. Dedé feels that Minou’s happiness is a sign of her own success, teaching Minou not to grow up bitter and vengeful, but it still seems sad that Minou can be happy in light of her parents’ murders. Minou asks about Fela saying the girls are at rest, and Dedé says that they can perhaps let them go now.
Dedé’s life has been defined by her sisters and their loss, and so no matter how much freedom, peace, and future happiness their deaths bring about, it still never seems worth it for Dedé.
Dedé is an excellent life insurance salesman, and she has won a prize trip this year. As she lies in bed she thinks that maybe she will ask to go to Canada. She met a man in Barcelona (last year’s prize trip) who was from Canada, and he described the beautiful leaves in the autumn. He had said “it is the sweetness in them that makes them burn.” Dedé thinks about her sisters, and how this could describe them as well.
This day seems to contain an important revelation for Dedé, and she now feels able to move on with her life in a more direct way. This poetic phrase captures some of the power of the butterflies – that they were kind, ordinary women whose very decency drove them to righteous anger and revolution.
Sometimes at night Dedé thinks she can hear her sisters’ footsteps, but tonight all is silent. Dedé closes her eyes and can see the faces of her sisters and parents, and then she realizes that she is the one missing in her mental image – “the one who survived to tell the story.”
The silence of the sisters’ spirits is really a newfound peace for Dedé, as she recognizes that she has played her own part as Butterfly #4, carrying on her sisters’ legacies and continuing on with quiet courage and strength for a new era. Alvarez interviewed the real Dedé extensively, and dedicated the novel to her.