I feel like many of us take our parents for granted. Even the very idea that the person who is taking care of you and raising you is not of your flesh and blood is a foreign idea to many of us, myself included. That’s part of why Roger Dean Kiser’s “Butterflies” is so interesting; it explores an aspect of childhood that is shrouded by mystery in many ways, and with mystery comes automatic intrigue. There are also a lot of long-winded sentences, which pull us in and don’t let go until we’ve accidentally read an entire page. And by that point, we need to have some kind of conflict resolution, so we read until the end. And even after the end, and even after we know how the story ends, it still grips us, and it still leaves us wanting more.
The sentence structure mentioned above felt very childish to me, but in the sense that it made the voice of the narrator more authentic. It also gives the story a very confused and flustered tone, which is what the narrator felt during this time in his life. He also brings up the house parent and the orphanage a lot. The orphanage is only portrayed as a place where people’s souls go to die, and people who live there become cruel and stone-like. The house parent is only shown as murderous towards the butterflies, which are the only thing the narrator casts in good light. There is no other hand, no concession. This is also characteristic of a young child who lacks the intellectual development to fully understand counterarguments, so it is believable to us that we would see a “biased” view of the institution and its workers. These techniques all help portray Kiser’s ultimate purpose, which is to symbolize the way that orphanages affect the lives of young children. This idea of the ruination of innocence and just general violence against those who cannot defend themselves is enough to drive strong emotions into anyone. This all sums up to a story that is poignant and shocking, and makes us reevaluate the way we view our parents. It serves to remind us that even when we think we are the most hopeless beings on Earth, there is always someone who is suffering worse.
This story had a great ending, one that wasn’t cheesy or melodramatic; it was just heartbreaking. I think writing something that is genuinely sad is very hard to do, because I often feel like the writer is too close to the emotion to know what it feels like to someone who has not experienced it firsthand. Kiser, I felt, did a wonderful job of making us feel empathy for this child who we did not know, who was growing up in conditions many of us have probably not experienced. That, the skill to write something truly tragic, is the main takeaway I have from this story. I also thought that the symbolism in this story was artfully done. It was subtle, and even when he said it outright, is was almost too subtle to catch. I think it’s really important not to be obnoxious to your readers, and heavy handed symbolism is a quick ticket to losing the audience. Kiser, however, teases us with these beautiful images and symbols and refuses to tell us what they mean in an obvious or unimportant way. That’s very admirable to me, and I think that it’s one of the story’s biggest strengths.
This story is structured somewhat chronologically with moments of reflection in the beginning and fifth paragraphs because it is a story about a specific event in the narrator’s life that changed the way he viewed the world. It gives us an idea of what his state of mind was at the time versus what he thinks now, and plants a seed in the back of our mind that asks, “What has crushed this man’s spirit?” while we read. He uses the image of the butterflies resting on his arms and head to show us that both he and the butterflies are spots of innocence in the narrator’s corrupted world, and also uses the image of the butterfly with the broken wing to show that destruction of innocence, be it by the narrator’s mistake or the house parent’s cruel hobby. There is also the powerful image of the boy being pounded over the head with the “butterfly pieces” (which I personally would have used as the title for this piece), which portrays that his innocence will be what does him in.
Ultimately, the narrator represents the orphanage’s destruction of who he was as a person through the death of the butterflies, paralleling their beauty and serenity to his own, and letting the audience know that for both him and the butterflies, the orphanage was a bad place to live.