Butterflies

Butterflies is a short story by New Zealand author Patricia Grace. It is quite an ambiguous text, where not a lot is said but subconsciously the reader automatically applies their own assumptions to it.

It presents two different world views about a simple creation- the butterfly. Or so it would seem. I think this text has been designed to get us thinking- what was that story actually about, anyway ?

To summarise the story: A young child who lives with her grandparents and is heading off to school. The grandparents seem to hold education in high regard, “Listen to the teacher.. Do what she say”. When the child arrives home from school she finds her grandparents in the garden, and they ask her about school. “You bring your book home ? .. You write your story ?” She reads her story: “I killed all the butterflies.. This is me and this is all the butterflies.” Then she tells what the teacher said: “butterflies are beautiful creatures.. You don’t kill butterflies, that’s what she said.” The grandparents are silent for a while, then finally the grandfather tries to make it right: “your teacher, she buy all her cabbages from the supermarket and that’s why.”

A few things about this stand out to me. The first is that the differing views about the butterfly reveal the two different realities of the teacher and child. Both parties act out of what they know without considering that the reality of the other is different (with the exception of the grandfather at the end).

The lack of names for characters is also significant- it allows us to fully place our assumptions on them as to who they are, where they live, what era it is. This text could be highlighting the differences between Maori and Pakeha, for example, or rural and urban living.

There’s a silence in this text, belonging to the child. She only speaks when spoken to. Is this a cultural thing ? She’s also left confused by the encounter with her teacher, who, without engaging with the child as to what is behind her story, pretty much tells her that her way of living is wrong.

I like that at the end the grandfather tries to make it right. He seems to really value education, perhaps because he wasn’t educated himself. He seems to be torn as well.. “they were silent for a long time..” He knew it was important to reinforce the authority of the teacher and her perspective of the world without reinforcing her opinion- this is possibly a critical point in the child’s own view of education.

I quite like this piece. It’s very well written and deliberate. Got me thinking !

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