Dystopia is the common setting in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies and Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby paints a depressing picture of the corruption of the American Dream during the roaring 1920s. On the other hand, In the Time of the Butterflies is the story of the dire plight suffered by the Dominican Republic as it wallows at the feet of a dictatorship. The settings of both stories help us understand the canvasses upon which the authors paint their pictures and contextualize the actions of stories’ characters, they help explain the themes and move the plot without needless explanations.
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Knowing the setting in which the characters of a story are acting helps explain their actions. In the Time of the Butterflies fictionalizes the lives of the Mirabal sisters as they struggle in rebellion against Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. The setting is in an underdeveloped third-world Caribbean island wracked by the misrule of its dictator. The Great Gatsby is set in a dystopia of a different sort. Unlike the 1960s Dominican Republic where poverty and underdevelopment are rampant as a result of misrule, 1920s New York is a boomtown. There are many old rich families especially in the East Egg of Long Island. Among the old rich families are also mixed the newly rich families such as that of Gatsby who are rapidly overtaking the wealth of the old rich via shady deals and illegal businesses. While there are people who are growing wealthy in the boom of New York, all remain impoverished in the Dominican Republic. The country is poor and the people are wretched, their plight has not improved since the United States left the Dominican Republic in the 1920s. It was in the 1920s so-called the Roaring 20s where the United States is trying to come to grips with the results of the First World War. Conservative forces are pushing for a return to the old moral values as represented by the drive to prohibition. However in that same decade, Trujilo, a known rapist comes to power in the vacuum left by the United States withdrawal. Trujillo’s misrule is shown by the fact that he is a rapist and his attempts at Genocide against the blacks in the Dominican Republic. Thousands of black Haitian are killed and one of the Mirabal sister’s own friends is raped by the deprived Trujillo. Genocide and Rape are not part of the setting in The Great Gatsby but the story is full of people who have given up their morals in favor of making a quick buck such as bootleggers who smuggle liquor to a public that is thirsty for alcohol despite the laws prohibiting its consumption. In summary, this is the setting upon which the two stories are placed. By means of invoking the situation in those times, the setting contextualizes the characters and makes it easier for the character’s actions to be understood.
The opening of the books is important, the opener provides the first glimpse of the setting. Julia Alvarez begins her fictionalized tale of the Mirabal sisters with a narrative by Dede Mirabal, the only surviving sister. Nick Carraway, on the other hand, tells the story of the Great Gatsby as a form of a flashback. He recounts his own story against the background to the roaring 1920s. He speaks of his Midwestern patrician family and the fairly conservative roots that this gave him. How his upbringing and conservative background clash with the evolving standards of the times. Dede Mirabal, In the Time of the Butterflies, speaks of the depredations suffered by her people during the dictator’s misrule. She also lets us know that her sisters are dead just the latest among Trujilo’s brutality. Carraway describes himself as a not-so-wealthy because he owns an inexpensive cottage in contrast to the posh mansions of his West Egg neighbors. He also describes the conflict between the Old Rich and the New Rich as symbolized by the East Egg – West Egg divide. Finally, he describes his relationship with the main characters of the story. The settings of both books are unveiled using the method of flashback an effective technique because in doing so the reader is told what the end result is but is left to discover how the end came to be.
The elaborate painting of the setting at the beginning allows a better understanding of how the stories unfold overall. By way of example, the plot to overthrow Trujillo found in In the Time of the Butterflies would appear arbitrary and capricious if it were not for the evident corruption and misrule of Trujilo. If his brutality and depredations were not explained Trujilo would even appear to be the victim of the Mirabal’s anarchist behavior. Likewise, the Setting of the Great Gatsby contextualizes the actions of the people in the book. For example, the conflict between the old rich and the new rich of New York is the background upon which the conflict between Tom and Gatsby is founded. Tom is a member of the Old Rich the money-ed class thus he has the wealth and social standing to pay serious court to Daisy. By comparison, Gatsby who in the present is New Rich was poor and without status when Daisy was still a maiden. As a result, Daisy eventually marries Tom which Gatsby resents. This fuels the resentment that Gatsby feels for Tom while Tom disdains Gatsby not only for his adulterous thoughts about Daisy. The setting would reveal that this resentment is further aggravated by the fact that Gatsby is one of the New Rich trying to invade the province of the Old Rich by flaunting their new wealth and thus a target of the Old Rich’s ire. Just as the New Rich status of Gatsby fuels Tom’s resentment of him, The rape of Sonata becomes more horrid when placed against the background of Trujilo being a serial rapist. The outrage caused by this outrage is what eventually stirs the Mirabal sisters, who are initially cast as a conservative Catholic family, to action against their wretched dictator. Therefore, the elaborate setting allows the reader to understand the context behind the actions of the characters in the story.
The themes of the stories gain sympathy when viewed in the context of the background story. For example, the theme of Rebellion gains sympathy with the reader when it is justified against the mass murders perpetrated by Trujilo against his own people. Such brutality will later justify the aversion of the Mirabal sisters even after the Dictator pretends to show mercy when they are captured. A theme of rebellion is also seen in The Great Gatsby when one looks upon the behavior of Gatsby refusing to stay a poor man and striving hard on shady deals in order to join the ranks of the Rich. His own rebellion gains sympathy in the context of the disdain with which the poor and New Rich are treated. Therefore, the themes in the story become easier to accept when seen vis-à-vis the background story.
The setting explains the motivations behind the characters. The context of colonialism explains why the Blacks in the Dominican Republic are the targets of Trujilo’s ire. Victims of over four hundred years of colonial rule, the Dominican Republic as a whole has been corrupted by the views of its rulers and as a result, Trujilo considers Blacks unworthy and tries to purify his land of the stain caused by these people. Likewise, the rapid changes in the context of the roaring 20s have corrupted the morality of the people of New York. Against this backdrop of moral corruption, it is not surprising that Daisy, Myrtle, and Tom all carry out adulterous affairs. Married people should not have affairs with others period. However, they are made more disturbing by the fact that Tom and Daisy are from the Old Rich the so-called conservative upper class, and the so-called guardians of the old order in the 1920s. Therefore Tom, Daisy, and Trujilo’s actions are all justified under the ideal that they are protecting the old order of things. Cold logic is to someone who is reading the novels but logic enough for them to justify their actions.
Alvarez, J. (2021). In the time of the butterflies. Penguin Classics.
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Fitzgerald, F. S. (2003). The great Gatsby: The authorized edition. Simon & Schuster.