Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Struggle for Courage in the Face of Adversity
Throughout the text, Alvarez illustrates that the Mariposas became heroes not because they naturally had more courage than other people but because they struggled to be brave despite their fears. Each of the sisters moves through periods of courage and periods of struggle. Alvarez uses these struggles to depict the sisters as fully and inspirationally human, not saints whose deeds cannot be accomplished by ordinary people. Even Minerva, whose boldness seems the most innate, tells Dedé that her courage does not come naturally. At a time when her resolve wavers, she describes herself as living a double life: presenting herself as unafraid despite struggling internally. Alvarez shows how the sisters’ courageous acts are often inspired by a connection to others and a desire to join in their struggles. Patria finds courage as an extension of her devotion to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of the Dominican Republic. As Mary represents in Catholicism a spiritual mother to all humans, Patria sees her revolutionary work as an extension of her maternal devotion to first her own family and ultimately to all Dominicans. Mate has daily struggles with her fears while in prison, but when she hears the other women of the prison supporting Minerva by calling out that Mariposa belongs to all Dominicans, she feels her own courage grow. Although Dedé cannot find the courage to join the Mariposas while they are alive, she behaves bravely after their deaths, following their example and carrying on their work.
The Connection Between the Spiritual World and the Material World
Alvarez shows many connections between the material, everyday world of the novel and a spiritual world beyond ordinary life. The Mirabals and others have a strong connection to Catholicism, finding comfort and strength in its practices. All of the women seek a connection to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of the Dominican Republic, who is enough a part of everyday life that children have visions of her, and pilgrimages to her shrine at Higüey are commonplace. Alvarez depicts Patria as especially associated with Mary. Mary sometimes speaks to Patria directly, instructing her to turn her faith outwards and help the people of the Dominican Republic. At other times, Patria seems to speak for the Virgin herself, answering Mamà’s cry to Mary asking why she has forsaken her with “I’m here.”
The spiritual world in the novel is not limited to Christianity. Fela’s fortune telling, dream interpretation, spells, and posthumous communications with the Mariposas form a connection to spirits outside the church. While Mamà disapproves of fortune telling and Dedé claims not to believe in Fela’s spirits, in practice, the folk religious world is accepted by all as meaningful. Mate and others take Fela’s advice, and Dedé herself is visited by the Mariposas’ spirits at night. Even pious Patria strikes bargains with this world, placing daily offerings of flowers by Trujillo’s portrait in an attempt to influence the real Trujillo toward better behavior. Although the family’s official beliefs are Christian, they also believe in a world of spirits outside the realm of the church who can influence events in the real world.
The Humanity of Heroes
Throughout the novel, Alvarez takes care to present the Mariposas as real people, not perfect sainted martyrs. Emphasizing their humanity suggests that they are not innately exceptional and that all people are capable of great acts of heroism. While Patria’s great strength is her religious faith, Alvarez complicates her saintly image by making her sexuality an equally important part of her character. Her crises of faith and moments of challenging the Virgin Mary and God contribute to the sense of Patria as a dynamic, truly human character. Minerva struggles with traumatic memories after her time in prison, though she feels pressured by her fame to present a brave public image. Mate, as the youngest Mariposa, is in some way the most human, with her girlish delight in pretty things and risqué riddles.
Alvarez explores this theme through other characters, as well. In many ways, Sina is the first hero in the novel. Despite knowing first-hand how brutally Trujillo punishes dissent, she dares to use her time onstage performing their play to physically threaten the dictator. However, Alvarez introduces her first not as a paragon of strength but as an out-of-place little girl, worthy of pity, crying at night for her brother. As an adult in prison, Sina is brave and strong, surviving torture and resisting with Minerva when the guards take away their crucifixes. However, when Minerva asks after prison if Sina is still active in the resistance, Delia tells her Sina has left, seeking asylum. Through Sina’s story, Alvarez portrays another complex hero who is both courageous and human.