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Day of the Butterfly

Exploring and analyzing famous and admired Canadian author Alice Munro's short story, Day of the Butterfly.
by

Lydia Canfield

on 14 October 2012

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Transcript of Day of the Butterfly

Day of the Butterfly Exploring and analyzing famous and admired Canadian author Alice Munro's short story, Day of the Butterfly. Alice Munro is a talented and much-loved Canadian author who was born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario. She attended the University of Western Ontario, but dropped out because of her marriage, at the age of twenty.
Munro has produced and published ten exceptional collections of short stories including: Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), and Open Secrets (1994). The art of the short story is her true medium, and she has proclaimed her preference for "The story that will zero in and give you intense, but not connected, moments of experience." Meeting our Author... Now let us discover and unfold the concepts of this short story. CHARACTERS Miss.Darling Myra Jimmy Gladys Helen Helen is the short story's protagonist and also the narrator. Helen tells the whole story from her point of view. She explains and describes how everything in the story proceeds. We do not reveal too much information about Helen, because she tells us about other people and what is going on in the story for the most part. At one point in the story she tells us that she lives on a farm outside of the town, in which she attends school. Helen is somewhat different from the other girls. She wanted to make Myra (a girl from school who was considered an outsider) feel more included, and one day built up the courage to do so. Helen could be considered the type of girl who has a kind heart and an open mind; yet because she knows Myra is different from other girls, she is embarrassed to confess or display the fact that she wants to include her. Myra is the short story's second protagonist and is much different from the other girls. She is sick with leukemia, which is a type of cancer of bone marrow diseases involving an uncontrolled increase in white blood cells (leukocytes). This disease is life-threatening and caused Myra to act differently and even get left out by the other girls at school. THE STORY'S PLOT Munro bases her story around a young girl named Helen and her school life. The story is narrated by Helen, who is the main character. Helen attends an elementary school that is in a town a fair portion away from the farm she lives on, so she must commute to school each day by getting a drive into town and walking for a bit. ''I lived about half a mile out of town, on a farm, and I should not have been going to the town school at all, but to a country school nearby...'' -Helen, page 236. The whole story is being told from Helen's perspective. Later on it is revealed that there is a girl in Helen's class named Myra, who is sort of odd. Myra has a younger brother named Jimmy whom she must take care of and monitor each day at school during recess. ''Jimmy Sayla was not used to going to the bathroom by himself and he would have to come to the Grade Six door and ask for Myra and she would take him downstairs.'' -Helen, page 234. We soon find out that Myra is excluded from the groups of girls at school, which introduces a sense of conflict within the story. The other girls at school often tease her too, based on her appearance and family social status. One of the stuck-up girls at school is named Gladys. Gladys and Helen are friends, however Helen is not as rude nor vocal as we find out Gladys is. One day Miss.Darling, a teacher at the school, requested for the girls to make an effort in talking to and including Myra in their recess time. However, this did not turn out too successful, as the attempt to 'include' her turned into more of a game. The girls would run up to her, and instead of asking her to play they would say things like ''Hel-lo Myra, hello My-ra!'' (page 236), then giggle and run off with each other. PLOT CONTINUED... One morning while Helen was walking to school, she noticed Myra and her younger brother Jimmy walking together. She built up the courage to then approach the two siblings and start a conversation. The conversation gradually became better and the two girls in way befriended each other. Helen even gave Myra the prize that was left in the bottom of her Cracker Jack box. Later on Helen explains to us that a few days after this occurrence, Myra suddenly stopped attending class. ''It was the day after this, or the week after, that Myra did not come to school...For a week, then two weeks, her desk was empty.'' - Helen, page 238. Miss.Darling then confronted the students in Helen's class and had to explain to them that Myra was sick and in the hospital. She made all the students write Myra a letter, and even planned a day where the girls in the class could go visit her in the hospital for her 'birthday'. When the girls visit Myra in the hospital, they give her gifts and treat her like a princess- they now contain a bit of an understanding of what she's going through. When the birthday party is over, Miss.Darling calls the girls out and they all say goodbye to Myra. Just as she is about to leave, Myra calls Helen back into the room, and asks Helen to take one of her gifts home. At first, Helen refuses to take something, insisting that they are her birthday presents so she should keep them all. Finally Helen accepts one of the gifts and the two girls say goodbye, unaware that it could be their last. The whole short story takes on many roles revolving around children and their understanding and innocence. Helen explained Myra and her brother Jimmy as this: ''Whenever you happened to look at them their heads were slightly bent, their narrow bones hunched in, quite still. They had long smooth oval faces, melancholy and discreet- dark, oily, shiny hair...Over their dark eyes the lids were never fully raised; they had a weary look.'' (Page 235). Later in the story we find out more about Myra's personality; that she is a quiet but caring, independent and responsible young girl who really loves and cares for her younger brother Jimmy. Jimmy is Myra's younger brother, who is a few years younger than her. We don't hear much about Jimmy, only from Helen at the very beginning of the story. Jimmy was often bullied by other boys in his grade. He would need assistance from Myra when going to the washroom or else he would wet his pants and be forced to go home. ''Everybody knew of Jimmy Sayla's shame and at recess (if he was not being kept in, as he often was, for doing something he shouldn't in school) he did not dare go out on school grounds, where the other little boys, and some bigger ones, were waiting to chase him and corner him against the back fence and thrash him with tree branches. He had to stay with Myra.'' - Helen, page 234. Jimmy was a tormented child, although he did misbehave in school quite often. His older sister Myra took good care of him and protected him. Miss.Darling was another character we learned about in the short story. She was Helen's teacher and played a role in the story by first off, informing the girls that they needed to include Myra. Miss.Darling was a caring and empathetic teacher who just wanted the best for her students. The second big impact Miss.Darling had on the children was the fact that she allowed them to visit and spend time with Myra when she was in the hospital with leukemia. Her respectfulness was portrayed, too, when she requested for the children in her class to all write a letter to Myra expressing thoughts on wishing she would get better soon. Gladys is a girl who attends the school that Helen and Myra go to. She is friends with Helen, however Gladys' personality is more different than that of Helen. Gladys could be described as 'loud-mouthed' or 'vocally bold.' Gladys came from a wealthier home, as we find out when Helen says: ''Mr.Healey (Gladys' father) ran a Dry Goods and Ladies' Wear, and his daughter's leadership in our class was partially due to her flashing plaid skirts and organdie blouses and velvet jackets with brass buttons, but also her early-maturing bust and the fine brutal force of her personality.'' (Page 236). Gladys could be considered the main bully or the one who mostly excludes Myra in the group of girls. She believes she is too good for her. This is displayed when Miss.Darling asks the girls to include Myra, and once she left the playground Gladys sneered to the other girls: ''I don't care if it rains or freezes.'' (Gladys, page 235). fast fact: ''I don't care if it rains or freezes'': was the opening line of the song ''Plastic Jesus'' variously attributed to Ernie Mars (1932-1998) and others. The song became well known through its use in the film 'Cool Hand Luke' (1967). Conflicts The conflict of the short story circulates around the conflict of the children misunderstanding their surroundings. Helen, Gladys, and other children at their school do not understand: Why Myra is sick Obviously, the children do not understand the fact that Myra is sick with leukemia and is dying. She takes care of her younger brother Jimmy, and keeps to herself a lot of the time because she is different from the others. Why Myra takes care of her younger brother The children also don't quite get why Myra is taking care of Jimmy because he wets himself and gets bullied. Perhaps she just wants to spend time with him and protect him, because she loves and cares about him. We are not given certain information in the story of why Myra spends so much time with Jimmy, but we can also infer that it could be because she has limited time left with him. Each of these misunderstood ideas lead to even more conflict... Myra is being excluded and bullied Most children get along with each other when they are younger, but as they grow older, they start to distinguish between people who are normal, and people who are different. Helen, Gladys and the other girls all decided that Myra was an outsider, and then decided to treat her differently. ''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 washes it in cod-liver oil, can't you smell it?'' -These were some of the words spoken to Myra when the girls were attempting to 'include' her. (Page 236). The girls at school judge Myra Another conflict that arises in the story is that the girls at school judge Myra, based on her family's social status and her appearance. ''And to tell the truth there was a smell about Myra, but it was a rotten-sweetish smell as of bad fruit. That was what the Sayla's did, kept a little fruit store...Her (Myra's mother) hair was crimped in black waves and she smiled with her full lips held together, stretched as far as they would go; she told you the price in a little rapping voice, daring you to challenge her and, when you did not, handed you the bag of fruit with open mockery in her eyes.'' - Helen, page 236. This idea that Myra was different and from a less-fortunate family than others in the town, lead to her being considered an 'outsider' and left to be judged because of her differences. Myra was left out and bullied, based on what others thought of her appearance and how they judged her life styles. Little did they know what was really going on in her life. RESOLUTIONS Throughout the short story, we observed a few resolutions that occurred which helped sort out the conflicts in some ways. These resolutions all started with one person willing to make a change. Let's look into them now... First Resolution The first resolution of the story happened when we read that Helen decided to approach Myra (and Jimmy) when she was walking to school one morning. Before this occurrence, Myra had no friends and talked to no one at school. When Helen first talked to Myra, Myra was shy and didn't seem like she wanted to keep the conversation going. But once the conversation escalated, the two girls really got to know things about each other that they never thought they would. ''I realized the pledge as our fingers touched; I was panicky, but all right. 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?'' - Helen, page 238. Helen realized after her conversation with Myra, that she was really a nice girl and they even had a lot in common. All Helen had to do was open up to her and get to know her. Helen even gave Myra the prize out of her Cracker Jack box, which was a small butterfly brooch. Second Resolution The second resolution occurred when the children at school were informed that Myra was sick in the hospital; and they had the chance to visit her and make her feel a bit better. Myras's birthday was in July, but because she was dying, they celebrated it in March. Helen knew that Myra's birthday was in July, because when she walked to school with her that one morning, they exchanged knowledge on each other's birthdays. In this way, Helen was confused on why they were celebrating so early; she was not aware that Myra was dying at this point. The birthday party brought the girls in Myra's class and Myra together. They understood that she was very sick and felt sorry for her, they all even brought her presents. This brought understanding to the girls of why Myra was so different. The birthday party made Myra feel special and loved. "Myra did not look at us but at the ribbons, but at the ribbons, pink and blue and speckled with silver, and the miniature bouquets; they pleased her, as the butterfly had done. An innocent look came to her face, a partial, private smile." - Helen, page 240. Third Resolution The third resolution of the story happens when the girls from Miss.Darling's class go to visit Myra at the hospital. At the end of the party, when all the gifts have been opened and all the birthday cake has been eaten, the girls make their way through the door and out of Myra's room. Helen is just about to exit the room when she hears a voice call behind her; it is Myra, requesting for her to come back into the room. Once Helen entered the room, Myra asked Helen if she would take one of the many gifts that she had received. And so Helen did, accepting the one that Myra offered to her. This action from Myra displayed a sign of friendship; it showed that Myra wanted to give Helen something in return, to show that she thought of them as friends. This also resolved the fact that Myra had no friends and was left out before; we now are assured that she has a friend in Helen. Myra knew she was dying, but because she considered Helen a friend, she wanted what could be her last goodbye to end on a positive note, without Helen knowing. The two girls quickly became friends that one morning in which Helen decided to take a stand in including Myra. SYMBOLS Butterfly Brooch The first symbol that we come across in the short story is Helen's box of Cracker Jack. The box of Cracker Jack represented conversation; it was a way for Helen to start talking to Myra, by offering her some of her Cracker Jack. Helen's box of Cracker Jack ''Myra! Hey, Myra, wait up, I got some Cracker Jack!'' - Helen, page 236. ''And I opened the box and held it out to her. She took a little.'' - Helen, page 237. Using the box of Cracker Jack was a useful method for Helen to begin to talk to Myra, as it was a kind gesture and brought more conversation and friendship towards the two girls. Another important symbol in our story was the butterfly brooch, which was the prize that came from the bottom of Helen's Cracker Jack box. This butterfly brooch symbolized friendship, as Helen offered it to Myra at the end of their short walk, and Myra was very pleased with it; it made her feel special. "Myra looked into the box. 'There's a prize in there,' she said. She pulled it out. It was a brooch, a little tin butterfly, painted gold with little bits of colored glass stuck into it to look like jewels. She held it in her brown hand, smiling slightly..." - Page 237. "You keep it," I said. "Finders keepers." - Helen, page 238. Not only does this butterfly represent friendship; it also relates to the title of the story "Day of the Butterfly." The butterfly plays a big role, symbolizing freedom, beauty and innocence. All of these attributes are displayed when Myra and Helen become friends, something so precious and wonderful to them that should be treasured. The Birthday Party An event that could be considered a symbol is the birthday party that was thrown for Myra. This birthday party symbolized bringing people together; it symbolized childhood and the fact that even though Myra is very sick and dying doesn't mean she can't celebrate her birthday and have a good time, even if her birthday was really five months after the celebration. This birthday party also brought a sense of knowledge to the girls; they found out that they could actually enjoy their time and have fun with Myra. They didn't know before that she was really a nice and fun girl who they could relate to; they found out that they shared interests with Myra like many young girls do. The Leatherette Case When Myra called Helen back into the hospital room, she decided to give Helen one of the many gifts she had received from her birthday party. This gift was a small leatherette case that contained a comb, nail file and lipstick. This case represented that Myra wanted to continue her and Helen's friendship; so she gave her a gift in return. "When I come back from London," Myra said, "you can come and play at my place after school." - Myra, page 240. After Myra performed the kind gesture of giving Helen one of her birthday presents, she then remarked that Helen should come over after she gets better; a sign that Myra enjoyed and appreciated their friendship, and wanted it to continue. Fast Fact: "When I get back from London..." - Myra, page 240. London: Munro is actually talking about the city in Ontario, Canada, in this sentence from Myra. Therefore we know that Myra is going to attend a hospital in Ontario soon; not one in London, England. CLIMAX The climax of the story took place during two occasions, so there were two notable climaxes throughout the story. The First Climax: The first climax occurred when Helen first went up to Myra during her walk to school and boldly decided to talk to her. This was a bold move for Helen, because she knew in her mind that Myra was different and not really the most popular girl in school, yet she wanted to make a change in that; she wanted to include her. This was a good climax, because the reader was not expecting it to happen at all. "I did not know what to do. I could not afford to be seen walking with her, and I did not even want to- but, on the other hand, the flattery of those humble, hopeful turning was not lost on me. A role was shaping for me that I could not resist playing. I felt a great pleasurable rush of self-conscious benevolence; before I thought of what I was doing I called, 'Myra! Hey, Myra, wait up...' " - Helen, page 236. The Second Climax: The second climax took place when the girls were all gathered in the hospital for Myra's birthday, after they all gave her the gifts and were heading out of the room. This climax started when Myra called out Helen's name, asking her to come back into the room so she could giver her a gift. ``But at the door I heard her call; she called, 'Helen!' Only a couple of the others heard; Miss.Darling did not hear, she had gone out ahead. I went back to the bed. Myra said, 'I got too many things. You take something.' 'What?' I said. 'Its for your birthday. You always get a lot at a birthday.' 'Well you take something,' Myra said.'' - Page 240. From reading this section in the story, the reader was not expecting for Myra to call Helen back into the room, and give her one of her birthday gifts for that matter. It was an important scene and gave the reader knowledge that Myra wanted to seal their friendship with a gift in return. There are many themes that shine throughout this short story, but three main and important ones stood out the most to me. THEMES Theme of Misunderstanding The children at Helen's school misunderstood a lot of things that had to do with Myra and the way she acted. This theme ricocheted through the whole the story, displayed in many ways. The children at school did not understand why Myra spent so much time taking care of Jimmy, or why she was just plain different. They misunderstood what was really going on in Myra's life simply because they never got to know her or never understood that she was sick. The children also did not understand and were not aware that Myra was actually dying in the hospital. Helen knew from talking to Myra that her birthday was in July, so when they celebrated it in March, Helen did not understand. "I said, 'Her birthday's in July.' 'I know,' said Miss.Darling. 'It's the twentieth of July. So this year she could have it on the twentieth on March, because she's sick.' 'But her birthday is in July.' 'Because she's sick,' said Miss.Darling, with a warning shrillness." - Page 239. Theme of Judging a Book By It's Cover Another theme that stood out to me was that the kids at Helen's school (including Helen) judged Myra based on her appearance and the way she kept to herself, without even getting to know her. You know the saying, "Don't judge a book by it's cover." Well this saying applied to the story very well. Without even talking to Myra, the kids at her school decided for themselves that she was an outcast; someone who nobody wanted to be seen with. Near the beginning of the story, we learn that even Helen wasn't too sure about walking and talking with Myra, because she knew other kids thought she was weird. "I did not know what to do. I could not afford to be seen walking with her..." - Helen, page 236. But once Helen made up her mind to talk to Myra, she found out that she was a likeable and very kind girl; that she might even be considered one of Helen's friends. Judging a book by it's cover is the worst decision someone could make when coming in contact with someone new, because you never know what they have to offer in terms of talent, character attributes or just plain friendliness. Theme of Childhood & Butterflies The third theme that comes into the story is the theme of childhood. Childhood plays a huge role throughout the entire story, as it is based on children and told from the perspective of a child. We know that children lack in knowledge on serious topics, so they did not quite understand why Myra was so sick and needed to be in the hospital, which made them think of her as different. This is all a part of being a child, though, not knowing everything about someone. This leads to the fact that the children left Myra out because she was different. They didn't want to be seen with her, because it was all about being around people who were 'normal' and people who these children felt comfortable with. The whole novel revolves around the life of children, and explores the theme of youth. This theme of childhood and youth, and Helen's life can also be related to the life cycle of a butterfly. The life cycle starts out with eggs. Once the eggs have been hatched, out comes this squirmy, gross little caterpillar. Before, when Helen judged Myra, she was too, like this little caterpillar. She had an ugly heart, sort of how the butterfly was once ugly like the caterpillar. The other girls in Myra's class were like a caterpillar too, before they really knew what was going on in Myra's life. The day that Miss.Darling informed the children that Myra was sick in the hospital; was the day that the girls really realized they needed to change. They had no idea Myra was so sick, and now felt horrible. This is like the ugly caterpillar making it's way into the cocoon, or chrysalis. The caterpillar is now ready for a change; hopefully ready to become something beautiful. The children in Miss.Darling's class were then asked to each make Myra a get-well-soon card, and some of the girls in the class were asked to go visit Myra in the hospital for her birthday party. "Myra can't come out with us, Miss.Darling. Myra has to look after her little brother!" - Gladys, page 235. The girls didn't even think to go and include Myra in their recess time when Miss.Darling asked them to, mostly because they just didn't want to, and they knew she was taking care of Jimmy. The last stage in the butterfly's life cycle is in fact, the beautiful butterfly itself. When the girls realized how mean they were to Myra, they felt a change in heart; becoming beautiful butterflies. Before they went to visit Myra in the hospital, they even decided to each buy her a gift more expensive than they had planned on before. "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, and decided twenty-five cents was too low." - Helen, page 239. The girls, especially Helen, each became a butterfly when they decided to attend Myra's party and buy her a gift; to make her feel special. It was a lesson they learned, to never judge someone based on their appearance or how they come across, because you never know the things about them you could be missing out on. Each girl that day found out just how beautiful and free Myra was, just like a butterfly. By: Lydia Canfield
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