Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ordinary Women as Agents of Social Change: The Mirabel Sisters - The Butterflies


In Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Joan sits in her prison without helmet or sword.  The film portrays her as an ordinary young woman.  Dreyer humanizes her by filling the screen with close-ups of her face.  We see Joan wrestle under the pressure of the inquisition.  Her eyes show that she knows her path leads to being burned at the stake.  But, she maintains the conviction of her faith.  Stories have been written about heroic women such as Joan, but for the most part they come across as having super human qualities with helmets and swords unlike ordinary women.  The majority of women who have been agents of social change have been silenced because of this ordinariness

In the Time of Butterflies, Julia Alvarez writes a novel based on fictional events.  It is told through the different voices of the four Mirabal sisters (i.e., Patricia, Dedé, Minerva, and Maria Teresa) also known as Las Mariposas (The Butterflies).  Each sister tells their story of how they became involved in opposing the Dominican dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). In the end of the book, Trujillo ordered the assassination for three of the sisters on November 25, 1960 alongside a mountain road between Puerta Plata and Santigo.  The outcome of their death and the continued voice of Dedé, their surviving sister ultimately led the Dominican people to overthrow Trujillo.  Alvarez goes beyond this historic event by providing stories about their childhood, sibling jealousy and personal dreams.  Her use of multiple narrators gives voice to each sister showing they were unique and ordinary women, but not a mythic figure.  

            Alvarez is deliberate in separating the sisters’ voices by using different points of view.  We are introduced to Dedé as she is being interviewed about her sisters.  Written in third person, her actions emphasized she wants time for herself away from being care taker of her family’s legacy and underground movement’s stories.   She is blunt to the interviewer saying: “What is it that you want to know” (7).  Dedé wants the interview to be quick, but knows it can’t be.  Patricia story is written in first person internal monologue.  She is the most religious of the sisters and her voice brings forth her struggle with God.  Patricia’s story moves towards her death, it becomes her confession to the readers and God.  Maria Teresa shares her story through her diaries.  The first diary, a First Communion present, is written from a nine/ten year point of view.  There are short paragraphs with unending sentences.  These beginning entries include drawings like her new shoes and sister’s swimming suit (36) and her later diaries contain bomb making diagrams (144) and the prison layout (229).  She keeps a diary while in college and again during her imprisonment as a political prisoner.  The entries writing style changes as she grows older.  Maria Teresa is chosen to be questioned by the Organization of American States Committee on Human Rights Abuse in prison.  Trujillo believes she will be silent in order to save her family members, but she secretly passes her journal writings to the interviewers (254).  Minerva, the most political sister, writes in a personal essay format.  The essays are given a title such as: “What do you want, Minerva Mirabal? Summer” (84) or “House Arrest” (257).  Together her essay collection feels like a personal memoir by sharing events that have influenced her.  Alvarez use different point of view emphasizes the sisters’ different personalities. 

            The novel portrays the sisters’ personal struggles between work and romance are similar to contemporary women.  Patricia and Dedé choose a more traditional path for women.  They marry after graduating from high school and begin having children.  Patricia is a farmer’s wife while Dedé helps run both her father’s and husband’s business using her financial skills.  Minerva is hesitant to get involved with men.  She initially believes that men will interfere with her dream of being a lawyer and her leadership position in the resistance.  However, she finds and marries a man who respects and encourages these qualities, whereas Dedé’s husband becomes more restrictive in what she does.  Maria Teresa follows Minerva’s path by going to college and being involved in the underground.  However, Minerva meets a certain man in the underground and she sets out to win his heart.  Both women have children, like their older sisters.  When Minerva and Maria Teresa are in prison it is Dedé who returns to help take care of her nieces and nephews.  Ultimately, it is her that becomes a mother for all 10 children following her sisters’ deaths.  Alvarez shows that the sisters struggles with defining motherhood and work isn’t any different from what modern women experience. 

The strength of the novel lies in the different reasons why each sisters chose to become agents of social change.  Minerva writes in her essay “Complications” about her friend Sinita.  Sinita describes the assassination of all the men in her family and how the convent school has allowed her to attend for free.  Minerva writes, “I was shaking by the time she was through” (17).  It’s the first time she hears that Trujillo was anything more than the beloved President.  It is through Maria Teresa’s dairy we learn that 18 year old Minerva and several classmates have been attending resistance meetings.  Maria Teresa questions her sister wanting to be involved in something so dangerous; Minerva replies: “She wanted me to grow up in a free country” (39).  Maria Teresa joined the summer following Minerva’s graduation from law school.  Maria Teresa had witness compounding events that Trujillo inflicted against her family.  Specifically, he had tried to make sexual advances towards Minerva.  The family’s response led to the imprisonment of their father and his death.  The event that pushed Maria Teresa was at Minerva’s graduation from law school.  Trujillo let Minerva study law, but did not give her the license to practice (138).  Patricia joined after witnessing a massacre by the guardias (national army) during a religious retreat.  Patricia saw herself as a mother in the eyes of God.  When she witnessed a young boy seeking sanctuary of the church being shot, she saw her own sons and all Dominican sons.  Patricia and her husband joined with their sons to fight justice in accordance to God’s laws along with many Dominican Catholic clergy.  Dedé was last to join.  The assassination of her sisters gave Dedé the strength to stand up against her husband and finally become involved in the “trouble Minerva and the others were cooking up” (149).  She stood by her sisters’ caskets and at each military stop she would shout “Assassins! Assassins!” (308).  She became vocal advocate to speak the truth against the Trujillo regime and now is the care taker of the stories for us to remember.  Alvarez reinforces through the sisters voices that there are many reasons how people find the courage to speak out against injustices.

The Mirabel sisters are viewed in the Dominican Republic as martyrs for freedom.  In the Time of Butterflies, Alvarez shows us four ordinary women who lived under a dictatorship and why they each chose not to accept the way things were.  She does this by humanizes them and having each sister share their stories as a sister, mother, wife and daughter.  As multiple narrators, they bring different perspectives of how to work towards justice and become closer to us.          



Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of Butterflies.  1994. New York:Penguin Books, 1995. Print.

Harper, Rachel. “Rules of the relay race: Writing a novel with multiple narrators.” Spalding           University. Louisville, KY. 22 Nov. 2013. Fiction Lecture Fall Residency 2013.

Ink, Lynn Chun. “Remaking identify, unmaking nations: Historic recovery and the            reconstruction of community In the Time of Butterflies and The Farming of Bones.”    Callaloo. 27.3 (2004): 788-807. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.

“In the Time of Butterflies: Julia Alvarez.” Big Read. National Endowment of the Arts, 24 Nov. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer.  Société Gėnėrale, 1928. Film.

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