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When Butterflies Die: Alvarez and Her Idea of Death Essay

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Updated: Jan 7th, 2022


Because of the specific understanding of death which Alvarez suggests same to the reader, passing away does not seem the same mournful event anymore. The peculiar philosophy of the author makes the reader imbue his/her mind with the idea of passing which death is in Alvarez’s vision. Unless one comes through a tunnel of losses and sorrows to the final stage which implies transition to the other dimension, one will not be able to unlock the universal wisdom of life.

According to Alvarez’s philosophy, losses are inevitable; moreover, the author persuades that these are integral parts of our lives. Enriching people’s should and minds with another portion of the experience, losses make people stronger and wiser; perhaps, losses even help people to evaluate their lives better. Considering a loss as a chance to take a closer look at ourselves, Alvarez interprets the old idea of drinking the honey and throwing away the bee, applying it to people’s subconscious and suggesting to make it a people’s life principle.

Something Scarier than Death: Why People Fear Losses?

Despite the European tradition to mourn the people who are leaving this world, Alvarez claims that death is not merely rotting in a coffin. This allows her to stretch the idea of death to grasp the notions which relate to the feeling of mourn. The pain of loss can come even more tangible than a wound, shifting the pain of physical suffering somewhere in the background, Alvarez says. Contrasting the blood spilled during the notorious revolution, she contrasts the wounds of the fight on the battlefield with the wounds within people’s souls. The latter proves to be the most painful and dangerous, Alvarez warns. However, she also claims that this is the pain that can be stifled: “I don’t know how it happened that my cross became bearable.” (200)

Since people saw the purport of their unceasing battle, their hearts could not help aching for their families and their country. Feeling the fire burning inside them, the people managed to keep their struggle; otherwise, they would have ended up in a cowardly surrender long before.

Butterflies Which Slowly Pass away: Making Memories Fade into Nothing

Despite the pain and the suffering which the book is shot through, the story persuades that pain takes people one step closer to victory. Making the readers feel the pain of the losses with every inch of their skin, Alvarez deliberately takes them through the hellfire of her characters’ life and finally drives them to the obvious conclusion: pain motivates people to act. If the world knew not what a loss or death is, people would have never climbed this high:

And I see them all there in my memory, as still as statues, Mamá and Papá, and Minerva and Mate and Patria, and I’m thinking something is missing now. And I count them all twice before I realize–it’s me, Dedé, it’s me, the one who survived to tell the story. (321)

One of the most touching passages from The Time of the Butterflies, this passage can answer a lot of questions. Dede, counting the losses which the revolt brought to his life, actually makes a summary of people’s lives and deeds. With these simple and almost meaningless words, Dede destroys the effect of the revolt in a moment. Because of the memories which these things brought back to him, he feels no longer deprived of something vitally important.

On Winners and Losers: Where Does the Chain of Losses Lead?

It is doubtless that the losses in The Time of the Butterflies create the chain which is supposed to drive the lead characters to some idea, a summary of what had happened to them. Unless they had suffered all the woes, they would have never understood what they should treasure as the most important part of their lives. Considering the remark made by Alvarez herself, the novel was designed for people to travel through the make-believe and understand the true value of life and loss; perhaps, even to evaluate one’s own life and see the misfortunes as a chance to improve something. As Dede said,

And it helps, I’ve found, if I can count them off, so to speak. And sometimes when I’m doing that, I think, maybe these aren’t losses. Maybe that’s the wrong way to think of them. The men, the children, me. We went our ways, we became ourselves. Just that. And maybe that is what it means to be a free people, and I should be glad? (317)

Another idea which Alvarez conveys in the book is the cyclic nature of people’s lives and whatever happens in those lives. Another “death”, whether it is the grief of a sudden loss or the nagging anguish, will soon shift to another phase of calm. Interchanging and intertwining, these feelings help people to acclimatize to the new environment and manage their lives the new way:

A chill goes through her, for she feels it in her bones, the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn’t want to be the only one left to tell their story. (10)

The future lying unwrapped in front of Dede scares her, and she wants intuitively to escape the weird atmosphere and not to part with the people around. Yet she feels that changes cannot be stopped and that the certain moment of passing to another environment, “the little death”, will finally happen. Moreover, the child feels that the sequence of “the little deaths” is the toll that life takes on children for growing up. Achieving another stage of progress, becoming adults, people have to lose something as a token of their “initiation”, according to Alvarez. Her logic is impeccable; Dede’s conclusion summarizes the results of the struggle, making it clear that another loss is another step into the future.

Thus, Alvarez considers the losses taken as the way to achieve the desired liberty – the liberty of adults. The haunting atmosphere of death serves as a means to show the recurrence of life. Switching from the tempest of a revolt to the calm after the storm, Alvarez shows that whatever happens, life resumes its normal course thereafter.


Creating the tragic story of a make-believe world, Alvarez suggested her interpretation of what happened to the Dominican Republic in the distant past. In her interpretation of the historical facts, the losses which had been taken were well worth suffering, for they had brought the long-desired victory and liberty to the people. While there is nothing in the world more precious than freedom, the death of some butterflies is merely a price for a better life.

No matter how much pain it takes to achieve the goals which have been set once, people have to strive for them, and the losses on their way are the size of droplets compared to the great goal. Since butterflies are the essence of beauty, they have to be sacrificed to be reborn in the new wonderful world. Due to the cyclic nature of the world, and the recurrence as the main feature of the universe, the ruined will be finally renewed; it only takes a step to realize the importance of the losses taken and their necessity. This is the lesson that must be learned.

Although butterflies suffer when dying, their death will mark another stage of their development. Death as passing, not cessation, is what Alvarez suggests. With this wisdom of the winners, people will be able to bear suffering and take a positive look into the future.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2010. Print.

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