In the Time of the Butterflies: Summary, Characters & Character Analysis

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

'In the Time of the Butterflies' by Julia Alvarez is a work of historical fiction about the resilience and determination of the Mirabel sisters, who became national heroes in the Dominican Republic. We are with them every step of the way in their efforts against the dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

About the Author

Julia Alvarez was born in New York City, but her parents moved back to the Dominican Republic when she was still an infant. Her father became involved in the resistance movement, in an effort to rid the country of the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo ruled with an iron hand from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, and he tortured anyone who opposed his plans. When Julia was ten, her father took the family back to New York because he feared for their safety.

Julia grew up hearing about 'The Butterflies' from her father, and she needed to know more. When she did the research, she found stories, but there was little she could establish as fact. She allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps and help define the story.

Meet the Sisters

There are four Mirabel sisters, and each plays an important role in the story, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. We need to get to know each of them to understand how important their roles were in the unfolding of the story.

  • Patria is the eldest and most religious of the sisters. She longs to be a nun, but gives that up and marries Pedrito at the age of sixteen. She holds out joining the underground for quite a while, but finally, when she witnesses a massacre of young rebels, she joins without looking back.
  • Dede is the second in line, and she is the only sister who does not join the movement. She falls in love with a young revolutionary, Virgillo, but it comes to nothing. She eventually marries Jamillo, who is not political in any way. Dede wants to join her sisters, but she lacks the moxie to become a revolutionary.
  • Minerva is the rebel. She is the first of the sisters to join in the fight to rid the country of Trujillo. Minerva has many reasons to want Trujillo out of the country. She and her husband, Manelo, become quite militant.
  • Maria Teresa, or Mate, as she is sometimes called, follows her sister, Minerva, into the revolution. She helps stockpile weapons, and she is imprisoned with her sister Minerva.

Rafael Trujillo
Rafael Trujillo

The Mirabal Sisters' Story

The story begins in 1994 when Dede Mirabel is being interviewed about her martyred sisters, known as 'The Butterflies', who were a part of the underground movement against Trujillo. They are national heroes for their efforts to bring Trujillo's actions to light, and Dede is left behind to tell their story.

School Girls

Alvarez lets the story unfold through each of the sisters' voices. In the first section of the story we see the girls in Catholic school, and this is the catalyst for all that follows. Minerva meets Sinita, and from her she learns about the evilness of Trujillo, who killed Sinita's family.

Sinita's hatred is ignited in Minerva. Minerva brings Mate into the circle, telling her of the horrid things Trujillo has done and will likely do. Now, both Mate and Minerva are filled with hatred toward this dictator who takes what he wants. Patria, the eldest of the sisters, finds her role in the revolution a bit later when her faith in God is shaken because of a miscarriage.

Trujillo knows nothing of these sisters until Minerva puts on a play that celebrates life before Trujillo comes into power; a life that is free. Toward the end of the play, Sinita, who plays Liberty, turns her attention to Trujillo, who is sitting in the audience. She points a bow with an imaginary arrow at him, and that event changes everything. Trujillo now is fully aware of who Minerva is, and he is not pleased.


Minerva's political activism crosses the path of an activist named Virgilio (Lio) Morales. When Lio is forced to leave the country, Minerva leads the campaign against Trujillo, publicly speaking out against Trujillo's dictatorship, and this worries her family.

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