Study Guide

In the Time of the Butterflies Memory and the Past

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Memory and the Past

Now after thirty-four years, the commemorations and interviews and presentations of posthumous honors have almost stopped, so that for months at a time Dedé is able to take up her own life again. (1.1.3)

After their deaths, Dedé is like the representative of her famous sisters. The simple fact that she is still alive makes her the automatic person to attend all of the different celebrations and remembrances that we human beings love to hold in order to remember the past.

Usually, if she works it right—a lemonade with lemons from the tree Patria planted, a quick tour of the house the girls grew up in—usually they leave, satisfied, without asking the prickly questions that have left Dedé lost in her memories for weeks at a time, searching for the answer. Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived? (1.1.17)

Dedé willingly serves as the representative of the Mirabal sisters, but she tries to deflect any attention onto her. The dead sisters are trapped in the past, so she can use the physical objects that they touched, like the tree and the house, as substitutes for them. She doesn't let anyone into her present, though.

"I'll tell myself, Dedé, in your memory it is such and such a day, and I start over, playing the happy moment in my head. This is my movies—I have no television here." (1.1.39)

The interviewer woman asks Dedé a difficult question—how she can live with such tragedy surrounding her all the time. Her answer is something we think we might try when we're feeling down—she copes by going back and replaying a happy moment in her head. Her memory is her refuge, even though it can also be the thing that makes her sad.

And when it doesn't work, she thinks, I get stuck playing the same bad moment. But why speak of that. (1.1.41)

Dedé, because of her famous sisters, is basically trapped in the past. She can't escape the years and moments leading up to Patria, Minerva, and Mate's deaths, and can't change the fact that she didn't save them or join them. It's almost like a way of punishing herself, getting stuck in the bad moments.

As Dedé is helping her father step safely up the stairs of the galería, she realizes that hers is the only future he really told. María Teresa's was a tease, and Papá never got to Minerva's or Patria's on account of Mamá's disapproval. 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. (1.1.68)

This moment seems very simple—of course someday the future will be the past. But the fact that Dedé is able to stop and recognize that she is at a turning point, just as it's happening, is actually really unusual and profound. Her father's prediction, that she would outlive them all, comes true and she recognizes immediately the loneliness inherent in her fate.

"Stop, please," I begged her. "I think I'm going to throw up."

"I can't," she said.

Sinita's story spilled out like blood from a cut. (1.2.68-70)

Even though it is hard for Minerva to listen to Sinita's story, her friend is unable to stop. The pain of the story is compared to a bleeding cut in a simile—her past is something that just flows out of her, a wound that won't heal.

Possessed by the spirits of the girls, can you imagine! People were coming from as far away as Barahona to talk "through" this ebony black sibyl with the Mirabal sisters. (2.5.4)

Dedé is trapped in the past through her memory, but Fela brings the past to the present by "channeling" the dead sisters, letting them speak through her. Dedé calls her an "ebony black sibyl," referring to the elderly oracles of Greek legend.

Minou's eyes flashed with anger, and Minerva herself stood before Dedé again. "I'm my own person. I'm tired of being the daughter of a legend." (2.5.16)

Dedé and her mother raised her sisters' children after they died, and Minou, Minerva's daughter, looks so much like her mother that it is eerie. But even as she grows angry and channels her dead mom, she protests, demanding that she be recognized as her own person with her own identity. She too, is trapped in the past.

Nonsense, so much nonsense the memory cooks up, mixing up facts, putting in a little of this and a little of that. She might as well hang out her shingle like Fela and pretend the girls are taking possession of her. Better them than the ghost of her own young self making up stories about the past! (2.5.90)

Dedé sometimes mixes up her memories, referring to the memory as though it were a chef creating crazy dishes. She even doubts whether she is remembering or inventing her own memories. That doubt makes her a vaguely unreliable narrator and also gives the author some license to make up stories rather than sticking to historical fact.

I had built my house on solid rock, all right.

Or I should say, Pedrito's great-grandfather had built it over a hundred years back, and then each first son had lived in it and passed it on. But you have to understand, Patria Mercedes was in those timbers, in the nimble workings of the transoms, she was in those wide boards on the floor and in that creaky door opening on its old hinges. (2.8.5)

Patria refers to the Bible, a parable by Jesus that says that anyone who listens to his teachings is like a wise man building his house on solid rock instead of sand. Religious Patria sees her husband's family's past as the solid rock that will keep her own family rooted and safe.

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