Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

A central theme of M. Butterfly is love, the power of attraction between two people, and the descent into betrayal. If Gallimard’s love for Song is perfect, surpassing any attraction or experience he has ever known, then the perfection depends on Gallimard’s imagination. As long as Gallimard can keep his “Butterfly” in mind and as long as Song sustains the fantasy, Gallimard can live his dream. However, Song betrays Gallimard and destroys the illusion. The spying is part of the betrayal, but without the arrest, the perfection of the Butterfly would endure. With the arrest, Song’s male identity is revealed. Faced with this revelation, Song makes his betrayal worse by trying to convince Gallimard that the love relationship can continue, not as a relationship between Gallimard and his imaginary Butterfly, but as a relationship between two men. Gallimard rejects this suggestion. Having lost the Butterfly of his imagination, Gallimard turns to suicide.

Another central theme of the play is gender relations, reflected by the ongoing parallels between Hwang’s drama and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. As the love relationship intensifies, Gallimard is like Puccini’s Pinkerton, who abandons Cio-Cio-San and drives her to suicide. However, by the end of M. Butterfly, a role reversal occurs. When Gallimard is tried, convicted, humiliated, and stripped of his fantasy, he becomes the victim. Song compels Gallimard to face the fact that Song is a man. In response, Gallimard is ultimately like Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San, choosing death with honor rather than life with dishonor. The correspondence between the opera and the play shows that, in Hwang’s view, men prefer lovers who are submissive and obedient. The Eastern woman stereotypically fits this role. However, in the end, these stereotypical expectations make men susceptible to manipulation and betrayal.

Just as Pinkerton scorns his Japanese lover, the West scorns the East, insisting that Eastern nations be submissive to Western will, refusing to accept the worthiness of Eastern “manhood” or nationhood. Ironically, this Western attitude proves to be the downfall of the West. In the play, Song and the Chinese Communists exploit Gallimard’s pattern of love to acquire confidential information. In international relations, the West’s efforts to dominate Vietnam proved costly and ineffective.

Another main theme is Hwang’s exploration of the contrast between reality and fantasy. The play is based on an actual case involving a real French diplomat and a real Chinese opera star, and in the playwright’s notes that precede the text of the play, Hwang refers to an article in The New York Times about the case. The background involving the war in Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution in China is also real. However, Hwang’s staging is unrealistic, with actors playing multiple roles, with minimal props suggesting complex scenes, and with a grown man not recognizing his lover’s true sex for twenty years. By pitting historical reality against a nonrealistic production, Hwang compels his audience to review the contrast between reality and illusion.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1271

Race and Racism Hwang set out to write a play that would deconstruct the race and gender stereotypes that the West has adopted in its dealings with Eastern culture. First, he had to show these stereotypes in operation. Negative Western images of the Chinese occur frequently throughout the play. Gallimard complains that the Chinese are arrogant, a view which he learned in Paris, where, according to him, it is a common belief. He and his wife also appear to despise Chinese culture, and complain about how the Chinese value its great antiquity, as if age conveyed some special distinction. And Toulon, the...

(This entire section contains 1271 words.)

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French Ambassador, is quick to point out that although he may live in China, he does not live with the Chinese, as if to do so would be beneath him.

Deeper than these derogatory perceptions of a foreign culture, however, is the implication that Western cultural stereotyping of the East as passive, weak, and subservient is in part responsible for international conflicts such as the Vietnam war. Gallimard, who in his role as diplomat passes on his opinions to American decision-makers, expresses the belief that ‘‘The Orientals simply want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power.’’ Therefore America will succeed in Vietnam if it chooses to exercise sufficient force of will; the East will not resist. ‘‘The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East,’’ explains Song in the trial scene.

The playwright hardly needs to point out the irony of Gallimard's views, since everyone in the audience will be aware of the American debacle in Vietnam, in which superior technology and powerful weaponry did not result in victory, and the Vietnamese proved to be far from passive. But Hwang points this out anyway, showing Gallimard being dismissed from his diplomatic post for giving bad advice. The year is 1966, and the war is going badly for the Americans. But even then Gallimard still mouths the platitudes that the American government was also disseminating at the time, that ‘‘the end is in sight’’; it is only a matter of time before the Americans prevail. Gallimard cannot surrender the stereotype of how the East will respond to the West. This has been made plain earlier in the play when Song tells him that he cannot objectively judge his own Western values. Gallimard replies with rich dramatic irony, ‘‘I think it's possible to achieve some distance,’’ something he manifestly fails to do in any of his opinions, feelings, or actions.

The racism also works in the other direction. Westerners are referred to as ''foreign devils'' more than once in the play, and the term appears to be so common and well known in China that the Westerners even use it ironically about themselves. On the other hand, Hwang suggests that many Eastern women accept the stereotype supplied to them by the West—that Western men are powerful and most to be prized. For example, one scene in the play acts out a scene from the opera Madame Butterfly, in which Butterfly refuses the marriage proposal of Yamadori, a Japanese prince, with the words ‘‘But he's Japanese.’’ Suzuki, Butterfly's maid, rebukes her, reminding her that she is Japanese too. ''You think you've been touched by the whitey god?'' she says. (This exchange is not in Puccini's opera, but is created by the playwright.) Similarly, Song hints to Gallimard that the fascination with the paradigm of the dominant white male/submissive Oriental female is not confined to Western men. The fascination may be mutual. The implication is that blame does not lie entirely with the West. As Hwang himself said in an interview with John Lewis DiGaetani,

The colonial power ... has an attitude of condescension toward the East. But the East has played up to that to its short-term advantage without thinking of the long-term ill effects that reinforcing those racial stereotypes causes. I think both sides are equally guilty.

Sexism The theme of racial and cultural stereotyping is inextricably linked to sexism and gender stereotyping. At the heart of the play is the cultural sexism displayed in Puccini's Madame Butterfly, which Gallimard unthinkingly accepts. When he sees Song performing the death scene from the opera, he cannot separate her from the role she is singing, and so cannot relate to her as a real individual. Because he sees only through the lens of the cultural myth of the helpless, meek, self-sacrificial Oriental woman, he is ripe for both self-deception and deception by Song.

What Gallimard fails to notice is that when he first meets Song in his female guise, Song does his best to undermine the myth, perhaps before he has decided to dupe Gallimard. The story of Butterfly is "ridiculous," Song says. He then tells Gallimard, ‘‘It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.’’ He tries to point out to Gallimard how objectionable the stereotype might be for an Eastern woman by giving an example in which the roles are reversed:

What would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese business man? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful.

Although Gallimard then turns to the audience and says, ‘‘So much for protecting her in my big Western arms,’’ Song's deconstruction of the myth does not free Gallimard from the grip of the stereotype. He continues to admire Pinkerton, the callous betrayer in Puccini's opera, saying that although an opera audience might condemn Pinkerton, few men would pass up the chance to be Pinkerton, if such an opportunity came their way. This observation about male psychology seems to be confirmed when Toulon, the French Ambassador, expresses admiration of Gallimard's affair with Song. Gallimard takes Toulon's approval to mean that he has finally managed to join a kind of ‘‘good old boys’’ club, admission to which seems to be granted to those men who seduce whatever women they choose and then sit together smoking and bragging about their conquests.

According to Song's explanation at the trial, the reason that Gallimard failed to discern that his lover was a man can also be attributed to the cultural stereotype imposed by the West on the East. The West thinks of itself as masculine—''big guns, big industry, big money’’—while it regards the East as feminine, ''weak, delicate, poor ... but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom—the feminine mystique.’’ Just as the West expects the East to submit to military force, it expects Oriental women to be submissive to Western men. Thus, the themes of racism and sexism are explicitly linked. And because of this type of thinking, even Eastern men are feminized. As Song puts it, ‘‘being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.’’

At the end of the play, the playwright finally demolishes the racial and sexual stereotypes that he has been steadily exposing from the beginning. The roles of Gallimard and Song become completely reversed. Gallimard, exploited, loving, betrayed, becomes like Butterfly, while Song is revealed not only as a man but also as a calculating deceiver (like Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly) who was never what he appeared to be. The lesson for the audience is that stereotypes are not only dangerous, they are also false.


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