‘‘Day of the Butterfly’’ is told from the perspective of Helen, and begins with Helen’s memories of Myra, a young girl with whom she attended grade school. Though Myra had attended the same school for a couple of years, Helen only remembers the last year, the year they were both in Grade Six. In Helen’s recollections, Myra is responsible for taking her younger brother, Jimmy, to the bathroom. After Jimmy wets his pants one day, Myra and her brother become the focus of school bullies. Jimmy is unable to go to the playground, since other boys will chase him and beat him with tree branches. The playground at school is divided into separate boys and girls sections. Because Myra protects her brother, she cannot enter the playground to play with the girls. Instead, Myra and Jimmy stand together and watch the other children playing.
When the teacher, Miss Darling, notices that Myra seems alone and lonely, she asks the other girls in the class to be nicer to Myra. The girls have no respect for their teacher, who is young, inexperienced, and unsure of her own authority. Soon the girls, led by Gladys, the most popular girl in Grade Six, begin to ridicule Myra and tease her. The girls approach in groups of three or four to tease Myra about her hair or the way she smells. Myra smells of rotten fruit because her parents run a small fruit store, where her father sits chewing garlic all day, while her mother waits on the customers.
One day as Helen is walking to school, she sees Myra and Jimmy walking ahead of her. Helen thinks that Myra is walking slowly, hoping that Helen will catch up to her and walk with her. Helen understands this loitering behavior, since she has herself engaged in it when there has been a popular girl walking behind her as she trudged up the hill to the school. Helen decides to walk with Myra and offer her some of her Cracker Jack treats. As they walk, Helen makes an effort to befriend Myra, drawing comparisons between their lives and asking and answering questions about school and their classes. Myra reads and enjoys the same comics in the newspaper as Helen does, which surprises Helen, who urges Myra to keep the prize in the box of Cracker Jack. Myra gratefully accepts. When the two girls touch hands, Helen seems surprised to discover that Myra’s skin feels just like her own. This is also the first place where Helen mentions that Myra’s skin is brown. Her race or ethnic origins are never explicitly revealed, but her race or ethnicity might play a role in why she has become the class scapegoat. The two girls exchange information about their birthday months, but as they part, Helen worries that someone in school will learn that she has given Myra the prize from the Cracker Jack box.
Myra disappears from school soon after this walk. About a month after Myra disappears, Gladys tells everyone that Myra is in the hospital. Myra has leukemia, although Gladys is unable to articulate the actual name of the disease. Gladys has learned of Myra’s illness from her aunt, a nurse at the hospital. Miss Darling has the entire class write a letter to Myra, in which they tell her that they hope she will soon be well. Miss Darling decides that some of the students should go to the hospital and give Myra a birthday party. It is March and Myra’s birthday is in July, but Miss Darling is insistent on an early celebration, in spite of Helen’s objections. The class becomes focused on planning the birthday party and conveniently forgets that they previously did not like Myra.
When Miss Darling and Myra’s classmates show up at the hospital, laden with gifts and ready to celebrate her birthday, Myra looks at them as she did when she stood apart from them at school, as an outsider. She is suspicious and insists that her birthday is in July, not March. She is pleased, though, at the attention and opens her gifts, thanking each of her classmates as she does so. The air is one of celebration, although Myra is not as happy as her classmates. The party atmosphere transforms the girls in Myra’s class from bullies to caring classmates, although their air of concern is designed only for the celebration that have spent so much time planning.
When visiting hours end and the girls and their teacher file out, Myra calls Helen back into the room. She wants to give Helen one of the gifts she has received and chooses a small grooming case that Helen has admired. The gift is a bond between them, as Myra makes clear, when she tells Helen that after she returns home from the hospital that Helen should come and play with her. For Helen, the toiletries case represents danger. Furthering her friendship with Myra would put Helen’s own social status at risk. Helen hears the sounds of children playing outside as winter turns to spring. These sounds are a reminder that Myra might not live to come home for the next change of season. When the nurse returns and shoos Helen from the room, she is relieved to be gone and leave Myra behind.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Alice Munro – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.