Day of the Butterfly by Alice Munro
In Day of the Butterfly by Alice Munro we have the theme of isolation, commitment, connection, betrayal, appearance and friendship. Taken from her Dance of the Happy Shades collection the story is narrated in the first person by a female narrator called Helen who is looking back at a memory from her days as a sixth-grader. What is really noticeable about the beginning of the story is that Munro appears to be exploring the theme of isolation and commitment. Both Jimmy and Myra are on the outside (or isolated) when it comes to the other children in the school. Jimmy because of the shame that he is made feel due to the fact that he wets himself on occasion and Myra because she feels obliged to look after her younger brother rather than play with any of her classmates during break-time. What is also noticeable very early on in the story is the commitment that Myra shows Jimmy. At no stage does she abandon him or think of her own needs. Rather Jimmy is Myra’s primary focus and if anything she sees herself as his sole protector. There is also a sense that by having Helen describe both Jimmy and Myra as being ‘like small figures carved of wood’ and ‘with faces smooth and aged’ that Munro is suggesting that both Jimmy and Myra are different to the other children in the school. Something that becomes clearer to the reader later on in the story after Miss Darling tells the class to play with Myra. Though it is noticeable that rather than doing so the class led by Gladys Healey make fun of Myra. Which in turn only results in Myra (and Jimmy) being isolated further.
It is also interesting that Helen is at first hesitant about walking to school with Myra and Jimmy and her reluctance to do so seems to be based solely on appearance or how she will be perceived by the other children in the school should they discover that she has walked to school with Myra and Jimmy. If anything there is a sense that Helen is concerned about her reputation among the other school children should they find out that she has walked to school with Myra and Jimmy. It is also noticeable that when Helen does decide to walk with Myra and Jimmy she is doing so because she believes that Myra is, by her continual looking back at Helen, giving Helen (and her character) an importance that Helen may not necessarily deserve. Though is nonetheless willing to accept (being considered popular). However there is a redemptive quality to Helen particularly when she shares the box of Cracker Jack’s with Myra and Jimmy and lets Myra keep the butterfly brooch. If anything by allowing Myra keep the brooch Helen is in some ways connecting with Myra.
Miss Darling’s character may also be important because out of all the teachers in the school she is the only one who makes any attempt to make the other children in the school play with Myra, though as mentioned she is not successful in doing so. Another reason that Miss Darling is important is because it is through her character that the reader realises that Myra in all likelihood will not see her eleventh birthday (20th July) and as such Miss Darling organises for the class to visit Myra on the 20th of March instead to celebrate her birthday. It is also noticeable that none of the children when they visit Myra in hospital are aware of just how sick Myra actually is and don’t seem to realise that Myra, by going to another hospital in London, is doing so because it is in London where she can get the proper (or specialist) treatment for her illness.
If anything there is a sense of artificiality when the children are celebrating Myra’s birthday with her. Though it may also be important to remember that the children themselves are still young (10-11 years old) and may not have any concept of just how deadly leukaemia actually is. Just as the reader can sense the defeat that Myra feels at the beginning of the story, likewise when she is in hospital there is also an air of defeat. This time rather than it being a defeat as a result of being made to feel like a social outcast as Myra is at the beginning of the story. The sense of defeat that exists instead is more threatening with the possibility being that Myra is close to dying.
The end of the story is also interesting as not only does Munro further explore the theme of connection (and commitment) when Myra gives Helen the gift (and their hands touch again) but she also introduces the possibility of betrayal. By unwillingly accepting the gift and then telling the reader that she would let her brother break the gift. Rather than showing any commitment to Myra there is a sense that Helen is prepared to forget about Myra just as the other children may also be prepared to do. As to why Helen wishes to forget Myra is never fully explored and is left to each individual reader to interpret as they see fit. Though some critics do suggest that Helen, as she has previously been in the story, is more concerned about her reputation (or popularity) among the other school children than she is in developing a friendship with Myra. Just as a butterfly may have a short life span so too will Myra and Helen’s friendship and not just because Myra may be dying but because Helen may not necessarily be able to overcome her own insecurities when it comes to the other girls in her class. Placing an importance on how she is perceived by others as being more important than developing a meaningful friendship with Myra.