A rose is not a rose until it opens its petals. In the same manner, a caterpillar fulfills its destiny when it becomes a butterfly. For these living organisms there is no single turning point in their lives. If the conditions are appropriate, they will reach their destiny. For humans, it is not that easy. First of all, because people do not have one single identity. Knowing who we are is a complex quest that has to come to an end when we decide our raison d'être. It is more than soul searching. It is the process of acknowledging the elements that constitute our identity, achieving consciousness of the way in which we developed such distinct personalities. From this act of self discovery comes transition, decisions are made and changes can be accomplished. The final goal is defining our path, our purpose in life. When we arrive at this state it becomes clear how we are going to conduct our efforts in the years to come, for our personal growth never ends.
In literature, the passage from youth to adulthood is often portrayed in the narrative genre known as Bildungsroman, whose origin dates from 18th century Germany. It is a novel of education which endeavors to reconcile the need for individuation or self-fulfillment with the requirements of adaptation to a certain society, or socialization (Rau, 2002). The characteristics of a female Bildungsroman, a variant of the genre, can be traced and identified in the novel by Julia Alvarez, In the Time of The Butterflies. It is based on the lives of the Mirabal sisters, three women who participated in a subversive plot against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Related from the point of view of the sisters, Dede, Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Patria, the story covers in general terms their adolescence and the beginning of their education at Inmaculada Concepcion. It accounts their vicissitudes concerning love, marriage, and motherhood and, parallel to these stories, their respective participation in the social movement opposing the dictator.
We are first introduced to the societal context of the Mirabal family life through a view back in time by Dede, during an interview given in 1994. Their members "are sitting in the cool darkness under the anacahuita tree in the front yard" (In the time, p. 8). This image resembles a portrait of a society where family ties are very important. In this scene are also revealed the gender roles of men and women. It is the Mirabal girls' mother who gives us the clue to understanding that they live in a machista country, when she says "Just what we need, skirts in the law!" (In the time, p. 10) as soon as her little daughter, Maria Teresa, states that a Ouija board predicted that she would become a lawyer. It becomes obvious to the reader that opportunities are not the same for men and women, and that this situation is accepted by some women like Mrs. Mirabal. We also have a glance at the poverty of the peasants when a man interrupts the gathering asking for a painkiller and some tobacco, given to him in charity by Mr. Enrique Mirabal, the head of the family. Religion also makes its appearance in the conversation that takes place that night as remembered by Dede. Two members of the family, Patria and her mother, are devoted to their Catholic faith. Finally, the political scenery is set. When Mr. Mirabal speaks the name of Trujillo, the fear over the dictator's oppressive regimen and his spies, "paid to hear things and report them down at Security" (In the time, p.10), overwhelms the family. Trujillo's authoritarianism is evident and overt.
As mentioned before, a person's identity is a composite of multiple factors related to cultural and family background, politics, religion, and education, among others. In a Bildungsroman, "Society becomes the locus for experience and to some extent the antagonistâ€¦ This is because the protagonist's experience of the social and cultural environment depends on several interrelated factors such as genre, class, race, and ethnicity, all of which determine and complicate the individual's position vis-à-vis the social context" (Eysturoy, 1996, as cited in "Introduction: Bildungsroman", 2007). Although a person may embrace the traces of personality acquired from their societal upbringing, they can also reach a point during their formative years in which they confront those attributes of character that derive from cultural imposition. This internal fight manifests externally when individual choices are made. In the family night described above, the daughter who expresses her individuality is Minerva. When her mother implies with her commentary, that women have no business in the lawyer's profession, she states strongly that "It's about time we women had a voice in running our country" (In the time, p. 10). She has already made up her mind concerning her fate; this would not be dictated by anyone but herself. She has stood up against society.
While the German Bildungsroman relates more to the "society as a somewhat destructive force" (The Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century, 2010), the English variant is "more concerned with the theme of religious doubt" (The Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century, 2010). Patria Mirabal is the sister who deals with an existentialist crisis of faith. Although she seemed very determined to become a nun, she is troubled when she begins to experience sexual desires. She struggles to maintain her commitment to God, but when she meets Pedrito Gonzales she changes her life direction and marries him. She redirects her faith trough her marriage. Then, when she miscarries her third child she loses her faith, which she recovers during a pilgrimage to Higuey and feels that the Virgin speaks to her.
Other important elements in a Bildungsroman are the rites of passage or significant events that "mark the transition from one phase of life to another" (O'Neil, 2007). In the female variation of the genre, these are "depicted either as the adolescent protagonist's coming of age, or as the mature woman's awakening to the reality of her social and cultural role as a woman and her subsequent attempts to reexamine her life and shape it in accordance with her new feminist consciousness" (Eysturoy, 1996, as cited in "Introduction: Bildungsroman", 2007). The personal story of Minerva has the distinction that both forms of a rite of passage converge at the same moment. The day right after Sinita, a friend from school, tells her that her uncles, father and brother, were killed by command of Trujillo, she starts menstruating. In a short period of time, Minerva's life changes considerably. As her period announces that her body is blossoming into a woman's figure, she also discovers the cruel actions of Trujillo's government.
In the Time of the Butterflies exemplifies how finding ourselves is the most important step toward freedom. The social, educational, religious and political elements in the Dominican Republic society described in the book can be traced in other Latin American countries past or present. We can draw many parallels between Mexico and the Dominican Republic, concerning issues of poverty, government propaganda of manipulation (recalling Trujillo's mandate of hanging his picture in every home), and female discrimination. As individuals, Mexicans have a certain degree of freedom, derived from the social freedom provided by the whole of the social and political structure of the country. Our responsibility, in order to secure and expand that social freedom, is first to obtain our personal freedom.
In the Time of the Butterflies is an example of how that freedom is achieved, through a process of self growth and awakening to a state of consciousness. It serves its purpose as a Bildungsroman, and like any other piece of literature, confronts the individual with their inner self. The direction taken by the Mirabal sisters, Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa, may not be ours. They fought against the government and it cost them their lives, but they lived as they wanted to live. In spite of the adversities, they went after their dreams, they loved, they overcame great losses, and they fulfilled their purpose. And that is their message to us: follow your own direction.