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The Tragedy of Altruism: Comparison of The Discourses of The Boy in The Suitcase and in The Time of The Butterflies

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The critical nature of modern society causes the people being judged to feel isolated, ashamed, and worthless. Due to this, contemporary individuals believe that they have to be perfect, in appearance and character traits, in order to conform with others. As a result, people spend tremendous amounts of time developing certain traits to make themselves more likeable. Unfortunately, they are missing vital information regarding the danger of possessing positive personality traits. Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, authors of The Boy in the Suitcase, and Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies, investigate the transformation of positive character traits into tragic flaws through their main characters. In their novels, the authors demonstrate that excessive devotion to noble personality traits leads to the characters’ undoing.

The main characters from both novels, the Mirabal sisters from In the Time of the Butterflies and Nina Borg from The Boy in the Suitcase, possessed noble intentions when carrying out their work. In addition, they were further encouraged to continue contributing to their causes by the support of other people. Maria Theresa, one of the Mirabal sisters, wrote in her diary about her feelings regarding the revolutionary movement in the Dominican Republic: “Something big and powerful spread its wings inside me. Courage, I told myself. And this time, I felt it” (Alvarez 238). When opposing the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo, the Mirabal sisters were largely guided by their courage and the desire to make a positive change to their lives. In a similar way, Nina Borg from The Boy in the Suitcase was guided by righteous intentions when attempting to return Mikas to his mother while saving him from Jucas; Nina “spends her spare time helping all the children, women, and crippled little men no one else in all of fucking Denmark seemed to care about” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 160). Being a Red Cross nurse and mother, Nina Borg felt that it was her duty to save the little boy from being a victim of child trafficking, which says a lot about the kindness of her character.

Having such noble intentions, the main characters from the two novels were also supported by people around them, which encouraged them to continue their work. The Mirabal sisters were encouraged by many people around the Dominican Republic. While the sisters were in prison, “everyone was beating on the bars, shouting, ¡Viva la Mariposa!” (Alvarez 238). Surely, the tremendous support from other people motivated the sisters to continue their opposition to Trujillo’s regime. Although Nina Borg did not have the same quantity of supporters as the sisters, she still had a few people who trusted her and helped her. While telling Nina to take the suitcase from the locker, her friend Karin noted, “I can’t do this… But you [can]. You’re always so keen on saving people” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 34). Through her words, Karin shows trust in Nina’s abilities and highlights Nina’s desire to save people. In addition to Karin, Nina’s colleagues show respect to her and value her contribution to the organization. In summary, the main characters from the two novels committed righteous actions because of their positive personality traits and the support they were receiving. At this point, it seems like the main characters dedicate themselves to their respective causes and become better people because of it. This, unfortunately, begins to change as the characters become more committed to their causes.

Guided by external support and noble intentions, the main characters from the two novels became obsessed with their causes, which jump-started the process of their destruction. Minerva, one of the Mirabal sisters, gave away her son Manolito to Patria so that she could focus on the revolution. When Minerva did this, Patria responded to her, “But Minerva, your own child.” Patria then saw that “it did hurt [Minerva] to make this sacrifice she was convinced she needed to make” (Alvarez 155). Determined to remove Trujillo from power, Minerva chose the revolution over her own family. Since Minerva made painful sacrifices to the cause, her shift from family loyalty to loyalty to the revolution signifies an obsession. In a similar fashion, the loyalty of Nina Borg to her family has always been below her loyalty to helping other people in the Red Cross. After calling Morten, Nina realized that “it had been her turn [to pick up Anton from child care], had to have been, and somehow she would have felt better about it, more secure, if Morten had thrown a fit… Morten had already forgotten she was there” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 70-71). Even before encountering Mikas, Nina often forgot to care for her own children, which is seen by the absence of a response from Morten, who is accustomed to her irresponsibility. She once left her five-month-old daughter with Morten while she travelled as a volunteer nurse to Liberia, all without telling him until she was at the airport. Being a nurse and helping other people began replacing other important things in Nina’s life, like her family.

Likewise, Minerva viewed many things in her life as distractions from the revolution. Before joining the revolution, María Theresa compared Minerva and Manolo’s relationship to her own with Leandro in her diary: “I would never be able to give up Leandro to some higher ideal the way I feel Minerva and Manolo would each other if they had to make the supreme sacrifice” (Alvarez 147). Minerva’s actions convinced Mate that the only thing on her mind was the revolutionary struggle. In fact, Minerva’s marriage to Manolo can be viewed as a revolutionary partnership because they spent most of their time partaking in the movement. Comparably, Nina’s marriage to Morten turned into a partnership as their relationship worsened. Nina’s rash behavior caused Morten to take care of the children on his own while she engaged in her work with the Red Cross. In a way, Nina used Morten in order to fulfill her dreams and her obsession. In summary, the noble causes of the Mirabal sisters and Nina Borg replaced other aspects of their lives and made them addicted. Although their efforts were genuine and were caused by their positive personal qualities, their minds were clouded by their goals. The amount of time they spent contributing to their respective causes directly correlated with the deterioration of their relationships with others.

Not only did the actions of the main characters induce their relationships with others to degenerate, but they also led to their downfall in the case of the Mirabal sisters and almost became the undoing of Nina Borg. In In the Time of the Butterflies, Patria and Mate soon followed Minerva in her revolutionary struggles against Trujillo. After Patria decided to join the revolution, she described herself: “…here in that little room was the same Patria Mercedes, who wouldn’t have hurt a butterfly, shouting, ‘Amen to the revolution’” (Alvarez 163-164). Minerva’s preoccupation with the revolution spread to Patria, making her almost as obsessed with it as Minerva was. Like the Mirabal sisters, Nina Borg lost her head over trying to find Mikas’s mother. When Barbara showed up at Nina’s door, Nina immediately thought that it was “Mikas’s mother, holding her hand and thanking her, as only one mother could thank another. Her happy ending. It was here, now” (Kaaberbøl and Friis 257). As Nina saw Barbara, she was instantly convinced that she was the genuine mother and mentally granted herself the title of a heroine. Nina’s obsession with helping people clouded her mind when she had the chance to have a happy ending and to fulfill her goal. As a result of her reckless actions, she let Jucas into her home, who battered her and left a bag tied around her head so that she suffocated. By pure luck, Nina woke up before she asphyxiated and managed to pull the bag away from her face. By clouding her mind, her obsession with helping people almost got her killed. Although initially righteous and harmless, Nina’s kind personality trait became her mania that almost made her perish. Unlike Nina, the revolutionary Mirabal sisters were not saved by luck. Dedé described what happened to her sisters: “They killed them good and dead… they put the dead girls in the back of the Jeep… they pushed the car over the edge” (Alvarez 303). Because of the revolutionary work the Mirabal sisters have done, Trujillo’s henchmen assassinated them and made it look like an accident. The dedication of the sisters to the revolution became their hamartia. In the novels, the Mirabal sisters died and Nina Borg came close to death because of their excessive commitment to their noble causes. Although guided by positive personality traits, these characters took it too far, and their obsession caused them to severely underestimate their abilities.

A positive personality trait becomes a tragic flaw when the person is obsessed with it and guided solely by it. Although the courage of the Mirabal sisters inspired others around them, it proved harmful to the sisters themselves. In Nina’s case, her kindness helped her save a child, but she almost died because of it. In addition, her relationship with Morten worsened due to her willingness to help others. Because of these negative effects of personality trait obsession, modern people need to be aware of the dangers of blindly following a single trait, even if it is a positive one. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” Likewise, when a person finds a passion in a personality trait, they instantly begin seeing opportunities where to implement that trait. As Thomas Jefferson said, the imagination of the person takes no notice of the reasons against the theory, or in the case of personality traits, reasons to not apply them to a situation. Of course, having a positive personality trait has its benefits, but efforts must be made to prevent it from governing one’s actions.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.

Kaaberbol, Lene, and Agnete Friis. The Boy in the Suitcase. Soho Crime, 2012.

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