Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
M. Butterfly is David Henry Hwang’s fictionalized account of a real French diplomat who carried on an affair with a Chinese opera singer for twenty years, only to discover she was actually a man. Hwang’s compelling drama examines themes of sexual and racial stereotyping, Western imperialism, the role illusion plays in perceptions, and the ability for one person to truly know another.
M. Butterfly contrasts Rene Gallimard with Pinkerton in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (produced, 1904; published, 1935). Gallimard sees himself as awkward, clumsy at love, but somehow being blessed with the utter devotion of Song Liling, a beautiful Oriental woman. Hwang uses the word “Oriental” to convey an exotic, imperialistic view of the East. Gallimard becomes so absorbed with his sexist perception of Asian women that it distorts his thinking. He tests Liling’s devotion by neglecting and humiliating her, ultimately forcing her to admit she is his “Butterfly,” a character she has publicly denounced.
Unknown to Gallimard, Liling is a Communist agent, manipulating him to extract information about the Vietnam War. At the embassy Gallimard finds increased status because of his Oriental affair. When his analysis of East-West relations, based entirely on his self delusions, prove wrong, Gallimard is demoted and returned to France. His usefulness spent, Liling is forced to endure hard labor, an official embarrassment...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
René Gallimard is in a prison cell in 1980’s Paris, listening to an audiocassette player. He recalls the skill with which his Chinese Communist lover, Liling Song, performed in traditional plays at the Peking Opera, as well as in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904; Madame Butterfly)—a thematically important juxtaposition of Eastern and Western cultures. Gallimard flashes back to his days in Beijing, reliving the events that led to his imprisonment.
In the 1960’s, Gallimard is a rather nondescript, low-level diplomat at the French Embassy in Beijing, China, at a time when France and the People’s Republic of China are establishing diplomatic relations. He has come to China harboring several stereotypes about “Oriental” women. Gallimard’s stereotype of Oriental women as beautiful, submissive, self-sacrificing, and hankering after white men was formed through his exposure to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In this opera, the American naval lieutenant Pinkerton lures a beautiful, loving Japanese woman, Butterfly (Cio-Cio San), into a fake marriage. They set up house, she becomes pregnant, and he sails off with vague promises to return. Butterfly gives birth to a son and loyally awaits Pinkerton’s return, rebuffing the courtship of a wealthy Japanese admirer. After some years, Pinkerton does return—accompanied by his new American wife, who is childless and wishes to take Butterfly’s son. Butterfly obligingly commits suicide. As Gallimard listens to Puccini’s music, he fantasizes himself as Pinkerton and constructs his stereotypical ideal of a selfless, loving Asian woman.
Gallimard’s susceptibility to this fantasy is partly due to his unsatisfactory sexual experiences with Western women. As a teenager, Gallimard’s pal Marc called him a wimp when he declined to go skinny dipping with some eager girls. Gallimard also seemed to be more voyeur than participant when he watched an exhibitionist girl undressing and remained flaccid. His deflowering was a joyless experience with an athletic girl who adopted the superior position and pounded his loins. His marriage was a dispassionate career move, his father-in-law being the French ambassador to Australia.
At a soirée in Beijing, Gallimard meets Liling Song, an opera singer who performs Madame Butterfly’s death scene. Gallimard is predictably entranced, unable to disentangle...
(The entire section is 983 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In an intriguing use of “found” material, Hwang used a newspaper article for the basic story line of M. Butterfly: A French diplomat falls in love with a Chinese opera singer, and they have a twenty-year love affair before the singer is shockingly exposed as both a spy and a man. The play begins with Rene Gallimard in his prison cell, musing and reflecting about the “perfect woman” as he utters the opening lines, “Butterfly, Butterfly,” which give rise to flashbacks that piece together the story. The play closes with Song Liling, Gallimard’s “perfect woman,” tersely and almost disdainfully questioning, “Butterfly? Butterfly?” after Gallimard has committed seppuku, ritual suicide.
Irony and ambiguity saturate the play. Things are not as they seem, and stark reality becomes, for Gallimard, impossible to accept. The title is a direct borrowing from Puccini’s opera, which tells the story of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a callous and selfish American naval officer stationed in Japan, who woos and leaves a fifteen-year-old geisha girl named Cio-Cio-San (her name means “butterfly” in Japanese), who bears his son and pines for his return. Three years later, when Pinkerton comes back with his American wife to claim the child, Cio-Cio-San kills herself.
Hwang’s protagonist, Gallimard, summarizes at extended length early in the play the plot of Puccini’s opera; he says that relaying the...
(The entire section is 486 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scenes 1-6: Summary and Analysis
Rene Gallimard: The 65-year-old protagonist and narrator, who is incarcerated and identifies with Pinkerton, the character from the opera Madame Butterfly.
Song: Gallimard’s lover, who he never realizes is a Chinese man who is only dressed as an exotic Eastern woman.
Man 1: A society figure who discusses the Gallimard affair.
Man 2: A society figure who discusses the Gallimard affair.
Women: A society figure who discusses the Gallimard affair.
Marc: Gallimard’s friend from student days who also adopts the role of Sharpless from the opera.
Girl: The ideal woman from a girly magazine.
Suzuki/Comrade Chin: The...
(The entire section is 2386 words.)
Act I, Scenes 7-13: Summary and Analysis
Ambassador Toulon: Gallimard’s boss at the Beijing embassy.
Scene 7 opens with Gallimard and his wife discussing the arrogance of the Chinese in general and specifically Gallimard’s recollections of Song.. Helga points out the contradiction in this woman performing as a character she hates and believes false.
His curiosity piqued by his wife’s questions, Gallimard attends a Chinese opera in which Song is performing in scene 8. He is the only Westerner in the opera house, and Song addresses him derisively. The two exchange aggressive, straightforward dialogue. Gradually the conversation turns towards what white (imperialists) want....
(The entire section is 1447 words.)
Act II, scenes 1-7: Summary and Analysis
Chin: This actor played the part of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s assistant, in the portrayal of the opera, but now she appears as Song’s comrade and intermediary with China.
Renee: A young Western woman with whom Gallimard has a brief affair.
In his cell, Gallimard repeats and dismisses some perfunctory commentary on Puccini’s opera. In his opinion, very few men would pass up the opportunity to be a man like Pinkerton.
Scene 2 opens with a flashback to newfound domestic bliss. According to Gallimard, he and Song have set up a nice flat. During a glimpse of their domestic life, the audience sees how Song asks pointed questions to...
(The entire section is 1580 words.)
Act II, scenes 8-11: Summary and Analysis
Gallimard is completely lovesick after the news that Song is pregnant. Song tries to explain to him why divorcing his wife and marrying her is not a viable option. During the conversation that ensues, Song continues to get the upper hand by emphasizing the meek qualities that reinforce the Oriental female stereotype. She is “not worthy.” Of course, she also doesn’t want him to do anything that would endanger his position in the embassy and thus her source of pertinent information.
The two continue to discuss the plans for the child, whom they assume will be a boy. Song insists on raising him in China. The conversation ends with an aside by Gallimard to the audience in which he...
(The entire section is 1070 words.)
Act III, scenes 1-3: Summary and Analysis
Judge: The man who oversees Gallimard’s trial.
Song’s transformation, which began at the end of the last act, is complete. No longer the Butterfly, he is dressed in a well-cut suit and is in a Paris courthouse. It is now 1986, the year in which the French espionage scandal mentioned in the playwright’s notes hit the press.
The audience is finally treated to Song’s interpretation of events; the action is no longer flashbacks in Gallimard’s mind, but actual courtroom testimony. Song tells the judge how he came to Paris, how Gallimard supported him and how he manipulated Gallimard to apply for positions where he would be handling...
(The entire section is 1746 words.)