Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review: In The Time of the Butterflies

In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez provides a window into the life of women in the Dominican Republic during the 1950’s. Outward appearances of the country were progressive, as women were given more control in politics and were able to attend the university, but underneath the sanguine surface, women were often manipulated by the men in power. Minerva, arguably the strongest character in the book, plays a crucial part in leading the underground revolution, and gives us a glimpse into the lives of women in the Dominican Republic who became heroes and died for their people at a time when not many men were willing to do such a thing. To illustrate the distinctive example of women in the Dominican Republic, I will explore a scene that takes place before Minerva is involved with the revolution, at the Discovery Day Dance. The situation is precarious as the power tips back and forth between Minerva and Trujillo. At times, Minerva can feel the power she holds over Trujillo, and then she is struck by how quickly she gives in to him.

The atmosphere is tense as the evening begins, and Minerva is continually given cues by her family not to drink anything given to her, which may contain a date rape drug. Minerva, however, is defiant in the face of these pressures, and takes a drink out of her glass in a toast. She observes Trujillo manipulating the women around him as he fondles the wife of a senator sitting next to him, yet she is disappointed when he asks the senator’s wife to dance the first dance instead of her, and is shocked at her own reaction. Trujillo seems to have a strange way of seducing women quickly, and they do not even try to resist him. Manuel de Moya, Trujillo’s so-called secretary of state, is so ceremoniously gallant to Minerva that she is disgusted by his attention. Minerva knows that Manuel de Moya’s real job is to collect pretty girls for Trujillo to “try out” (Alvarez 94). “Manuel de Moya is supposed to be so smooth with the ladies, they probably think they’re following the example of the Virgencita if they bed down with the Benefactor of the Fatherland.” (94) On the surface Trujillo and the men of his regime acted as if they treated women well, but underneath the tablecloth Minerva, who is enabled by a greater self-awareness than most women have or dare to have, can see through their gallantry to what they really are.

The evening comes to a climax as Minerva begins to dance with Trujillo. He speaks suggestively, and describes Minerva as a “national treasure” and a “jewel” (98). Ironically, his words will one day hold true to the people, but not to him. Trujillo treats her more as a plaything than as a person with a heart. At one point, he gives her the “indulgent smile of an adult hearing an outrageous claim from a child” (98) when she confesses that she wants to be a lawyer. However, Minerva begins to sense that she has a dangerous power over Trujillo, and finds her fear slipping away. She tries to influence him to help her attend the university by reminding him of all the wonderful things he’s done for women in their country, such as giving women the vote and founding a women’s branch of the Dominican party (98), stating, “You’ve always been an advocate for women” (98). Trujillo agrees with a mischievous smile. How much freedom, however, did the Dominican women truly have? Trujillo simply uses whichever women he wants, never questioning whether they desire the affair or not. All over the country Trujillo locks women alone and out of the public eye once he has used them as he wants to. He does not really care about Minerva’s passions, only about the fact that if she were to study at the university, she would be within his grasp.

When Minerva accidentally mentions Virgilio Morales, a friend of hers, her reckless words turn into a trap and she can feel her power slipping away. She will not admit that she personally knows Virgilio, and is ashamed of not standing up for herself. At this instant, she suddenly realizes how so many decent people end up enslaved by Trujillo’s regime: by giving in to little things, which slowly turn into oppressive chains. Whenever women don’t resist his charms and don’t stand up for themselves, even in seemingly diminutive actions like letting Trujillo scare them into not telling the truth, Minerva can see how these small steps can lead to big consequences, such as sleeping with Trujillo.

When Minerva seems to be more interested in the university than in Trujillo, he becomes impatient. He begins to exert his power by pulling Minerva close to his body. She tries to push away from him, but he pulls her closer. She angrily tries to shove him away, yet he yanks her still closer. Trujillo becomes openly vulgar, and after he hands his sash to an attendant so his medals won’t hurt her, he asks her if there is any other article of clothing she would like him to take off, and thrusts his pelvis at her. Minerva hardly realizes what she is doing as she slaps his face. He is caught off guard, and is surprised by her willingness to stand up to him. She is not like most other women who meekly give in to him. Minerva’s fated slap foreshadows the role she will later play in the rebellion which will undermine Trujillo’s power, and in this moment, she distinguishes herself from many of the other women who have fallen prey to Trujillo.

Although Minerva’s character gives us an insight into the lives of Dominican women, she also bravely set herself apart as a woman alone by the actions at the Discovery Day Dance and by the actions she later took to set the revolution in motion. Through these actions, beginning with her slap and ending in her death in an ambush planned by Trujillo, she took the opposite, more difficult road in defiance against Trujillo’s regime, and inspired many to rebel against the government. By refusing to give in as so many other women had done, Minerva inspired others to carry on her rebellion and defy oppression.

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