In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the lives of the four Mirabal sisters, real women who lived in the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo, three of whom became the country’s most famous martyrs to the cause of overthrowing his regime. Alvarez uses the form of the novel to investigate the question of how the Mariposas found the courage to devote themselves to the resistance movement. The plot grows around two major conflicts: the conflict between the Mirabals and Trujillo, and the conflict within each of the four main characters between living under the regime and actively working against it. Alvarez structures the novel to alternate chapters between the four sisters’ points of view, allowing the reader to experience the story’s development from each of their perspectives. Even as each of the sisters struggles within herself to determine how to respond to the regime, Trujillo himself stands as the central antagonist for all threads of the plot.

The Mirabal family begins the story under the shadow of Trujillo but not in direct conflict with him. Papá counsels them to stay out of trouble rather than to oppose the government outright. As the novel develops, this policy proves impossible. Those who do not actively join the regime inevitably find their way into conflict with it. For the Mirabals, the growing conflicts develop first through headstrong Minerva. Minerva’s friendship with Sinita puts her into conflict with Trujillo during the performance of their skit, when Sinita holds him at the point of her arrow. From that moment, the tension between the family and the state rises, as Mate lies to cover up for Minerva’s revolutionary connections while at school, and Dedé and Minerva become involved with Lío. When Minerva refuses Trujillo’s sexual advances and slaps him at the Discovery Day Dance, the conflict reaches a point of no return. From then on, the family and Trujillo are locked into battle. The two sides take action against each other at an increasing pace. The government arrests Papá, leading to his death. The Mariposas, one by one, join the revolution.

Alvarez uses a parallel structure to simultaneously tell the stories of each of the four sisters’ struggles to find courage. Each experiences a series of events that function as rising action in their stories, increasing the tension until a recognition of their connection to the people of the Dominican Republic pushes them to join the revolution. Minerva’s timeline most closely matches the experiences of the family as a whole. She begins the book already bold and somewhat naturally rebellious, mostly against the authorities over her daily life: Papá and the nuns at school. Her friendship with Sinita, her observations of Lina Lovatón, and her involvement with Hilda begin to direct her rebellion against Trujillo. However, she is not truly committed to opposing him until she meets Papá’s illegitimate daughters. Despite her anger at Papá, she feels compassion for her half-sisters and their mother. That feeling of unity then extends to the men she sees in the fields and roadsides, giving her the strength and certainty of purpose to support her countrymen by openly opposing Trujillo throughout the remainder of her life.

Patria and Mate’s internal plotlines develop later in the book. Patria spends her younger years subsumed by a private world of faith, home, and children. Only later, during her pilgrimage to Higüey, does she turn that faith outward towards the people of the Dominican Republic. The stillbirth of her third child inspires that journey, breaking the purely personal relationship to faith that Patria has had until that point. Her courage grows as she sees her family join the movement. Her worry over the risks Nelson, Minerva, and Mate face as activists increases the tension between her desire to care for her family and the growing sense that she cannot keep them safe. Patria’s turning point comes during her retreat to the mountains when she sees government forces kill a boy of Nelson’s age. Like Minerva, she sees at that moment that the people of the Dominican Republic are all her family and that the only way to reconcile her internal conflict is to join the movement.

Mate first joins in revolutionary activities out of a desire for personal connection with Minerva and later Leandro. While she helps Minerva lie to the nuns and later smuggles guns and builds bombs, she is not devoted to the movement in the way Minerva is. She does not truly find her own motivation until much later when she is already in prison for revolutionary activity. Although Mate follows Minerva’s lead, joining her hunger strike and refusing to be pardoned, she does not feel genuine courage of her own until she sees the women of the prison cry out in support of Minerva. As they claim that Minerva, or “Mariposa,” belongs to all of them, Mate finally understands herself to be part of the broader Dominican people and commits to the movement internally as well as externally.

All the plotlines except Dedé’s conclude at the death of the Mariposas. Their murder does not come as a surprise. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear they will not survive their conflict with Trujillo. Alvarez’s framing device of the Interviewer’s visit to Dede sets up the question of why Dedé survives. Dedé alone does not develop their sense of shared identity beyond the family or her own sense of courage during the main action of the book. Although her loyalty to her family creates tension with the government, her relationship with Jaimito pulls her back into passivity. Even when she believes she has made up her mind to leave him, she cannot find the courage to risk losing her sons, and she admits to Minerva and Manolo that she is not brave enough to join the movement. Her story is different from those of her sisters as she faces the moment of conflict and chooses what she views as cowardice.

Dedé finds her own courage when the Mariposas are killed, redeeming her failure to join their cause. When the guards deny her entry to the morgue holding their bodies, she finally finds the courage to stand up to a representative of the regime, telling them she is going in even if they kill her. From that point on, Dedé devotes herself to the movement in the form of her sisters’ memories, accepting the stories of those who come to tell her about their final day, turning their house into a museum, organizing the creation of a monument, and acting as their representative left on earth without them, a position Jaimito defines as her own martyrdom. In this way she becomes like her sisters and moves beyond private life to join the larger community of the nation. Over the course of the novel, Alvarez traces the conflict between the Mirabals and Trujillo and also the internal conflict of each sister between courage and safety. At the novel’s end, these conflicts reach a final resolution thanks to Dedé, who ensures her sisters’ legacy of courage and sacrifice are celebrated long after Trujillo has been overthrown.