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.