“Day of the Butterfly” is the eighth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (click here for links to reviews of the other stories in Dance of the Happy Shades).
In this story, which was first published in Chatelaine in July 1965, Munro examines the dark side of human motivation among a group of girls. When the story begins, our narrator, Helen (who is telling this later when she has reached adulthood), introduces us to Myra Sayla, a schoolmate who had probably been in her class for three years but whom she only remembered from the “last” year. That was the year Myra’s younger brother Jimmy started first grade.
Poor Jimmy is shy and uncertain and would come to Myra if he needed to use the restroom. Sometimes he did not make it to Myra in time for her to take him to the restroom, and he would wet his pants. As carefully as possible, Myra would ask her teacher if she could take Jimmy home. Regardless of her discretion, everyone knew what happened. Jimmy was an outcast, and Myra, apparently never really remarked upon, would stand with her brother at recess. Where they stood is interesting. At the school, there was a Boys’ Side and a Girls’ Side. Myra and Jimmy honored this rule and stood alone and conspicuously on the porch between both sides.
Set apart and visible to all, they felt even more like the “other.” However, Munro presents them almost as religious objects, things to be used, inanimate objects upon which we cast our own guilt and oppression.
Over their dark eyes the lids were never fully raised; they had a weary look. But it was more than that. They were like children in a medieval painting, they were like small figures carved of wood, for worship or magic, with faces smooth and aged, and meekly, cryptically uncommunicative.
Their teacher, Ms. Darling, thinking she can fix this situation easily suggests to the other girls, the girls Helen plays with, that they should be kind to Myra. This only instigated a fresh round a heightened cruelty.
We had not paid much attention to Myra before this. But now a game was developed; it started with saying, “Let’s be nice to Myra!” Then we would walk up to her in formal groups of three or four and at a signal, say together, “Hel-lo Myra, Hello My-ra!” and follow up with something like, “What do you wash your hair in, Myra, it’s so nice and shiny, My-ra.” “Oh she washes it in cod-liver oil, don’t you, Myra, she washed it in cod-liver oil, can’t you smell it?”
Helen, though she couldn’t articulate it at the time, was highly aware of the cruelty in which she played a part. It terrified her that someday she herself might become the object of ridicule — she was poor, lived out of town, and wore rubber boots in the spring which clearly showed the mud she had trudged through to get to school (“I felt a little danger, on account of this; but I could not tell exactly what it was.”) — and she knew that her best chance for survival was to make sure the current object of ridicule remained the object of ridicule.
One day, as she walked to school, Helen found herself walking not far behind Myra and Jimmy, and she saw Myra look back and almost hesitate. It terrifies Helen; she cannot be seen walking with Myra. Nevertheless, and perhaps only because it gave her a sense of superiority that might become handy, Helen decides to call out to Myra. They walk to school together that day and Helen says, “I felt a great pleasurable rush of self-conscious benevolence”; she “felt magnanimous.”
When looking online at other responses to the story, it seemed a lot of readers interpreted this as the signs of a burgeoning friendship, a rather conventional tale of becoming free, “like a butterfly,” of the superficial restrictions in which we find ourselves; in other words, a tale far to contrived and clichéd for Alice Munro.
Helen does question the boundaries a bit (“I thought, I can come early and walk with her other mornings. I can go and talk to her at recess. Why not? Why not?“). But she is very pleased that Myra does not put on the butterfly brooch Helen gives her (a prize from the Cracker Jack she shared): “If someone asked her where she got it, and she told them, what would I say?”
Helen may not know why she is frightened, but she is all too aware that she cannot aford to take Myra’s place.
Perhaps there is a bit of relief, then, when Myra doesn’t show up to school again and finds herself in the hospital with leukemia. This object of ridicule that made it possible for many of the girls, surely not just Helen, to protect themselves, becomes something else for these girls:
Perhaps it was because Gladys Healey had an aunt who was a nurse, perhaps it was the excitement of sickness and hospitals, or simply the fact that Myra was so entirely, impressively set free of all the rules and conditions of our lives. We began to talk of her as if she were something we owned, and her party became a cause; with womanly heaviness we discussed it at recess . . . .
As the story comes to a close, Munro again refers to Myra’s role as an object “to be set apart for legendary uses.” For these girls and Helen, she has been a repository of their cruelty, their guilt, their fear, their false notions of magnanimity.
And Helen could use Myra as a source of redemption. She could say that, in the end, she was Myra’s friend, despite the danger. I think many of us do this kind of thing all the time. But, though Myra seems to hope she’s found a friend in Helen, even in her youth Helen recognizes in herself the capacity for betrayal, tainting any ideas of friendship these girls might have. She recognizes that Myra will die, that her own life will go on, fickle, following the whims of the other girls, all in a legitimate effort to survive. Sadly, she realizes it would be the same whether Myra survived or not.
“Day of the Butterfly” suggests the idea of a butterfly living only a day, fitting for a story about a girl dying of leukemia (and isolation). Also, if you reverse the order it becomes butterfly day, similar to the birthday in the story, and suggestive of hol(y)day. In keeping with this elevated atmosphere, the girl-speaker telling the story says of the immigrant girl and her brother:
They were like children in a medieval painting, they were like small figures carved of wood, for worship or magic, with faces smooth and aged, and meekly, cryptically uncommunicative.
I.E., they were like saints.
Now, whether or not Myra and Jimmy Sayla were immigrants is not clear, but of course, the origins of people who suddenly appear in a community are never clear. Sayla is not a common name at all, and is, in fact, the name of a town in India; Myra is a strange name also — being a town in Turkey or a name with no biblical or legendary origin. Certainly Myra’s father was strange, sitting in his store with his shirt open to below his navel. And Myra, despite her excellence in math, has difficulty with spelling and grammar. To clinch her marginality, Myra wears strange clothing, made out of her mother’s old dressy dresses. “Even in mid-winter among the plaid skirts and serge tunics, she glimmered sadly in sky-blue taffeta . . . .”
Myra’s holiness has to do with her utter patience. She is her little brother’s protectress — he seems to be developmentally delayed, and she stays with him on a back porch, in a no-man’s land between the boys’ and girls’ side on the playground, so that the boys won’t beat him up. As a result, she doesn’t play with the other girls at all. Instead, she stands with Jimmy on that porch, as if on an altar.
Accidentally, our girl-speaker runs into Myra on the way to school one morning, and this is the true “day of the butterfly.” The two sixth-grade girls make a real connection, first, because Myra is daring enough to slow down for the speaker, and second, because the speaker is daring enough to talk with her. They are alone, after all. Myra nails this connection when she asks, “Do you read Steve Canyon in the paper?” The two girls then share more, because not only do they both read Steve Canyon, they also read Rip Kirby, Orphan Annie, and Betsy and the Boys. They share a literature. (I was touched by this. I read Steve Canyon and Rip Kirby as a girl, too.)
The girl-speaker suddenly offers Myra some Cracker Jack, and in taking some, Myra gets the trinket — a tin butterfly decorated with blue stones — and admires it, and our girl-speaker offers it to her. With that, Myra disappears from school shortly thereafter, sick in the hospital with “akemia” and getting blood transfusions.
The teacher takes a group of girls to make an early birthday for Myra (the parents all realizing the meaning — that Myra is dying). The visit is a strange success, and Myra, at the last minute, offers a present to our girl-speaker, as a keepsake until they meet again.
But our girl-speaker realizes the meeting will never occur. She feels Myra’s “future, in which she had found this place for me, turn shadowy, turn dark.” Perhaps she has a sense of Myra’s certain death. But perhaps, she also has a sense of her own certain betrayal if Myra lives — that she would never honor Myra’s invitation, never visit Myra at her house.
As she leaves, she sees Myra’s face, “immune to treachery.” The grammatical construction of the last sentence is awkward, intended, I think, to defuse the proclamatory tone of the last phrase — that Myra was “set aside for legendary uses, as she was even in the back porch at school.”
The girl-speaker’s heroism, so to speak, is her ability to acknowledge her true self — that she contains, almost side by side, the capacity to befriend and betray, almost in the same breath. That she can be Judas.
What makes the story resonate, of course, is that she never uses the word Judas, never says good Samaritan, that she never exactly acknowledges that the real shadow of death is not in the disease, but in her capacity for betrayal.
Just a note on the narration: the story is told by an adult about an incident in her childhood. There is a distance thus created and a legitimately frozen quality to the scene. There are a series of scenes remembered, and the narrator, older now, comments quite cryptically. The cryptic nature of the telling, of course, mirrors the fear the narrator has of her own behavior, mirrors her reluctance to admit her own capacity to cause harm.
Myra’s bravery is legendary in its scope. In contrast, the girl-narrator’s betrayals are ordinary.
Is the story successful? I found it dismal the first time through. I find that it has more of a “clear carrying sound” the second time through — the way the girl-narrator hears the truth about herself in the sound of someone playing outside. It calls to her, the fun, the snow. She understands her own betrayal in that call.
So is it worth it? If one can be good for only a day? Does any goodness we can be last any longer than the “day of the butterfly”? It’s interesting to note that part of the goodness springs from the girls sharing a little literature, even if it’s only “Steve Canyon.”
Munro explores survival, especially the means girls have to ensure their own survival. There is Myra’s patience, and then there is the narrator’s seeing her as godlike; there is the incident, and there is the writer’s willingness to have a go at honesty. Is this how girls survive? Myth and literature? Louisa May Alcott would say so, but she would be up front about the philosophy, whereas Munro must deal with our disdain for polemics; hence our comfort with the way she makes myth with understatement.