M. Butterfly Summary

In M. Butterfly, Rene Gallimard becomes infatuated with Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer he believes to be female. Unbeknownst to Gallimard, Liling is a Communist operative who has been using him to collect valuable information about the Vietnam War. Eventually, Gallimard loses his position in Vietnam and is sent back to France. Living follows him there to gain more information, and is revealed to be male.

  • Gallimard enters into an affair with Liling, who's famous for her performance in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Gallimard continuously denigrates Liling, forcing her to say that she's his "butterfly."

  • Gallimard lets his prejudiced idea about race and gender get in the way of his work, and he's sent back to France. Liling gets sent to a labor camp, but is later released so that she can travel to France and continue spying on him for the government.

  • Later, it's publicly revealed that Liling is a man, and the dynamic between Gallimard and Liling changes. Gallimard becomes subservient, and Liling becomes dominant.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)
M. Butterfly cover image

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 because “there are no homosexuals in China.” Eventually, the Communists send Liling to France to reestablish his affair with Gallimard. When Gallimard is caught and tried for espionage, it is publicly revealed that Liling is a man. Liling now changes to men’s clothing, effecting a complete role-reversal between Liling and Gallimard. Liling becomes the dominant masculine figure while Gallimard becomes the submissive feminine figure. Preferring fantasy to reality, Gallimard becomes “Butterfly,” donning Liling’s wig and kimono, choosing an honorable death over a dishonorable life.

M. Butterfly demonstrates the dangers inherent in living a life satisfied with shallow stereotypes and misconceptions. Gallimard’s singular desire for a submissive Oriental woman was fulfilled only in his mind. It blinded him to every truth about his mistress, refusing even to accept the truth about Liling until he stood naked before him. It first cost him his career, then his wife, then his dignity, then his lover, and finally his life. Even when he is confronted by the truth, Gallimard can only respond that he has “known, and been loved by, the perfect woman.”

M. Butterfly Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 performer from the role. In conversation, Song scoffs at the Butterfly character’s self-sacrificing pandering to Western male egotism, but Gallimard persists in admiring Song/Butterfly. Gallimard frequents the Peking Opera to see Song, and they regularly take tea in Song’s apartment, Song projecting the image of an Oriental maiden awed by white virility. The French ambassador promotes Gallimard, assuming that he has begun keeping a Chinese mistress and therefore possesses inside knowledge about the Chinese. After receiving this promotion, Gallimard hastens to Song’s apartment to realize his superior’s assumption, and the two consummate their affair accompanied by a duet from Madame Butterfly.

After their consummation, Gallimard and Song build a love nest for themselves. Meanwhile, the French embassy (and Gallimard) are asked by the Americans for advice about the Vietnam War. Gallimard, extrapolating from his conquest of Song, declares that “Orientals” submit to forcefulness, so the Americans should allow the dubiously elected president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, to be assassinated and allow a military junta to conduct the war. Gallimard also shares these views with Song, who is actually spying on him for the Chinese Communist government. Moreover, Song is not a woman but a nan dan, a man who plays women’s roles in Chinese theater.

Gallimard has a brief affair with a liberated Danish student named Renée, but he is soon put off by her aggressive sexuality. This experience convinces Gallimard that Song’s (apparently) submissive femininity is the ideal of womanhood. Later, when Gallimard’s wife, Helga, wishes to have a baby, the couple tries unsuccessfully to get pregnant. Helga consults a doctor, takes a fertility test, and passes. She wants Gallimard to do likewise. Gallimard balks at this calling of his virility into question. He complains to Song, demanding to see his lover nude, something Song had avoided up to that point, pleading Chinese modesty. Song then announces “her” pregnancy, thereby reassuring Gallimard’s sense of virility and distracting him from the need to see “her” naked. After a few months’ absence from the city, Song returns with a blond, blue-eyed Chinese “son.”

In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong unleashes the Cultural Revolution, turning Chinese society upside down for a decade. Intellectuals and artists such as Song are branded counterrevolutionaries and undergo forced “reeducation” by hard labor in the Chinese hinterland. Meanwhile, the aggressive, “masculine” military policy advocated by Gallimard of bombing the Vietnamese fails, and he is demoted and returned to Paris (which is also experiencing upheaval through student riots and workers’ strikes). Unhappy and nostalgic for the perfect woman he loved in China, Gallimard asks Helga for a divorce. Then, magically, Song shows up in Paris. Gallimard is elated, but, as the curtain descends on act 2, Song tells the audience in an aside that he will make a costume change during intermission.

Unlike the usual backstage costume change, however, Song’s occurs onstage, visible to the audience. As he sheds his wig, makeup, and kimono, the audience sees the transformation of a woman into a man. Song and his son arrive in Paris in 1970 and live with Gallimard for fifteen years, spying on the French. Eventually, however, the espionage is detected. The pair are tried and jailed by a judge who is incredulous that, throughout twenty years of intimacy, Gallimard believed that Song was a woman. Song ascribes this gullibility to Gallimard’s (and Western men’s) orientalizing romantic fantasies about Asian women. To shatter this fantasy for Gallimard, Song strips completely, showing his manhood. Gallimard, however, steadfastly rejects reality and preserves his fantasy by donning Song’s wig, kimono, and makeup and committing suicide, ironically in the same romantic manner as Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

M. Butterfly Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 synopsis seems to him useful to making sense of his own parallel situation of love and betrayal. In actuality, the Puccini scenario, which relies heavily on racial and sexual stereotypes, is parodied and deconstructed by Hwang’s story. While the plot lines in the opera and in the play may be mirror images of each other, the images are garishly reversed. Because of that reversal, themes and identities are shockingly and inexorably confounded. Symbolic of the deceits and transformations, the ambiguous “M.” of the play’s title signifies “Monsieur” in the male protagonist’s language; Hwang thus transforms the gender of Puccini’s heroine into its opposite.

When Gallimard first sees Liling, the singer is performing Puccini’s opera, which Gallimard, in dazed admiration, proclaims to be his favorite. Liling claims to despise it. As is increasingly obvious throughout the play, Liling repeatedly and completely shatters the mold of the shy, subservient Asian woman. Between acts 2 and 3, Liling goes through a costume change onstage and is literally transformed into a man. Liling explains that, even in their most intimate moments, Gallimard never suspected Liling’s true sexual identity, primarily because Gallimard chose to believe what he wanted to believe. Gallimard, unmanned, his illusions blown apart, has no choice but to retreat from reality into the “Butterfly” of his imagination, donning Liling’s kimono and Butterfly wig. This mutation, however, produces an unnatural creature, and Gallimard must annihilate it by seppuku. Liling swaggers above Gallimard’s corpse with strength, insouciance, and power, the dominant race and gender, as the play ends.

M. Butterfly Summary

Act I
Scenes 1-3
M. Butterfly opens in present-day Paris. Rene Gallimard is in a small prison cell. He describes...

(The entire section is 1343 words.)

M. Butterfly Summary and Analysis

M. Butterfly Act I, Scenes 1-6: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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.)

M. Butterfly Act I, Scenes 7-13: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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.)

M. Butterfly Act II, scenes 1-7: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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.)

M. Butterfly Act II, scenes 8-11: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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.)

M. Butterfly Act III, scenes 1-3: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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.)