M. Butterfly

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Themes and Colors
Orientalism, Imperialism, and Cultural Conflict Theme Icon
Femininity and Male Ego Theme Icon
Memory, Imagination, and Self-Deception Theme Icon
Love and Cruelty Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in M. Butterfly, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Femininity and Male Ego Theme Icon

In a theme intimately tied up with that of Orientalism, in which Europeans often fetishize Asian cultures as not just exotic and passive but feminine, M. Butterfly explores the impact of such misogynist fetishization. Song constructs his female persona — who, though Song continues to use his real name while masquerading as a woman, Gallimard comes to call “Butterfly,” after the heroine in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly— to conform perfectly to the chauvinistic ideals of femininity Gallimard has inherited from Western culture. As Butterfly, Song sits at Gallimard’s feet when they talk, offers exaggerated praise for his intellect and influence, and agrees to submit to his will even when she claims it violates her ethical code and makes her unhappy. In all their most intimate moments, Butterfly presents herself as being highly vulnerable: sexually inexperienced, protective of her modesty, and desperate for Gallimard’s affection.

In these ways, Song feeds Gallimard’s ego and makes him feel invincible. The life-altering power of this feeling — completely new to Gallimard, who before meeting Butterfly is passive and mild-mannered — becomes evidence on the night he declares his love for her, when Gallimard credits Butterfly with helping him win the major promotion just awarded to him at work. The unflagging and totally undeserved devotion she expresses in her pleas to see him, and the feeling of power her desperation gives him inspire an “aggressive” confidence in shy, awkward Gallimard that wins him the respect of his colleagues and soon prompts Toulon to promote him to a position of leadership and influence. Because Butterfly seems so weak and harmless, and Gallimard feels so powerful in her presence, it is easy for Song to coax military secrets out of him—secrets Song then passes along to the Chinese government.

The ethnic stereotypes that influence Gallimard in his diplomatic interactions with the Chinese are intimately connected with other destructive stereotypes about women. Gallimard and his European compatriots — most notably his friend Marc — treat women as objects who exist for the pleasure of men. To justify treating Butterfly this way, Gallimard convinces himself that all women want to be dominated by someone stronger, and that male supremacy is the natural order of the world. As Song points out during his court testimony, this sexist assumption is identical to the stereotypes Westerners use to justify their exploitation of Asian countries. He suggests men like Gallimard imagine interactions between the West and East in the same way they imagine interactions between men and women: as a meeting between a strong force that wants to exert power, and a weak one that wants to be controlled. Westerners see all Asian people as feminine — which is to say, passive and easily dominated — regardless of their actual sex or gender. Because of this, Song argues, it was impossible for Gallimard truly to believe he, Song, was a man.

Following the reenactment of his court testimony, Song shows Gallimard his naked body for the first time. Song, who in the course of his false relationship to Gallimard has come to love him, believes this will force Gallimard to accept that love, to embrace Song as the person he is and their homosexual intimacy as a replacement for the intimacy Gallimard shared with Butterfly. But the opposite occurs: Gallimard drives Song from the stage and commits himself more passionately than ever to the fantasy of Butterfly, adopting her identity himself and then committing suicide. This act, in which Gallimard “protects” both Butterfly and himself from reality, illustrates the intensity of his commitment, both to his ideals of womanhood and to his own ego. Gallimard would rather reject reality altogether than admit it was unrealistic to believe an actual woman would ever idolize him as Butterfly did.

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Femininity and Male Ego Quotes in M. Butterfly

Below you will find the important quotes in M. Butterfly related to the theme of Femininity and Male Ego.
Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

You see? They toast me. I’ve become patron saint of the socially inept. Can they really be so foolish? Men like that — they should be scratching at my door, begging to learn my secrets! For I, Rene Gallimard, you see, I have known, and been loved by … the Perfect Woman.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Song Liling
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Onstage, both a party and Gallimard alone in his cell are shown. At the party, guests marvel at the thought that Gallimard continues to claim that Song is a woman, and that Gallimard must be foolish and inept to have believed him to be a woman for twenty years. They mockingly toast Gallimard for his social and sexual inadequacies.

In this quote, Gallimard embraces the toast, and states that he believes that telling his story will absolve him of all his supposed crimes and foolishness. In fact, he believes that he will eventually be envied by men, since Gallimard believes he was loved by the Perfect Woman--Song, whom he continues to choose to believe is a woman. 

Gallimard, as depicted by the various imagined scenes on the stage, is a man who firmly lives in his own fantasy land. By continuing to believe Song is a woman, he continues to play out the fantasy that attracted him to her in the first place--that he is a Western, dominant man who can control a submissive Eastern woman as he pleases. In fact, Hwang brilliantly subverts this stereotype by placing Song as the dominant man, and as a result, Gallimard is placed in the role of the submissive woman-figure. Like Madame Butterfly, he is now literally trapped in a jail of his own memories and fantasies, while Song is absolved of all crimes despite technically being the one to orchestrate the treason himself. By telling his story, Gallimard only serves to retreat further into his delusions, rather than bring clarity to his situation, as he believes himself to do. 


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It’s true what they say about Oriental girls. They want to be treated bad!

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

To illustrate the plot of Madame Butterfly--the Puccini opera which the play, and Gallimard, are influenced by--Gallimard and his friend Marc do a quick, crude rendition of the opera in colloquial language, rather than turn-of-the-century elegant Italian. In this quote, Gallimard, portraying Pinkerton, says that "Oriental girls" want to "be treated bad," crudely summarizing the sexist and racist treatment of Eastern women by Western men.

In the summary of the opera, Pinkerton consistently treats his Japanese wife horribly, claiming that it's his right to do so, despite the fact that it brings his wife immense pain to the point that she commits suicide. Though Gallimard doesn't explicitly support the notion that Eastern women want to be treated badly, he does, in practice, exemplify these ideals: he ignores Song so that she reveres him even more highly, and projects all of his fantasies on a woman whom he believes is allowing him to assert his dominance in the way he deserves. Of course, at the same time it is Gallimard who is being tricked, just like Madame Butterfly. Hwang illustrates the opera in the play in Gallimard's terms to show how, by the end of the play, it is Gallimard who is Madame Butterfly, and Song who is more like Pinkerton, despite Gallimard's belief to the contrary.

Act 1, Scene 5 Quotes

But as she glides past him, beautiful, laughing softly behind her fan, don’t we who are men sigh with hope? We, who are not handsome, not brave, nor powerful, yet somehow believe, like Pinkerton, that we deserve a Butterfly.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker)
Related Symbols: Madame Butterfly
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In the retelling of Madame Butterfly, Song appears onstage to play Cio-Cio-San. In this quote, Gallimard revels at her beauty, and notes that she is a fantasy that every man believes he deserves.

Though Gallimard condemns Pinkerton's actions towards Cio-Cio-San, he does not condemn the idea that every man--no matter how mediocre--deserves to dominate his fantasy woman. In the case of Gallimard's story, and also in the case of the opera, this is deeply tied into the colonialist perspective, wherein the West is seen as intrinsically dominant over the submissive East. When coupled with sexual politics, it leads to this philosophy that even the least-assertive Western man has, and deserves, sexual and political dominance over an intrinsically submissive Eastern woman. This is the philosophy that Gallimard essentially lives by, and is the reason that he refuses to acknowledge Song is a man: she is the Eastern woman he was destined to call his own, and he cannot fathom the concept that he was not given the chance to play out his true fantasy.

The sad truth is that all men want a beautiful woman, and the uglier the man, the greater the want.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Helga
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Gallimard marries Helga, whom he is fond of but who does not incite the passion that he has hoped for in a woman. He is faithful to her for the first eight years of their marriage, but in this quote, he expresses the desire of (supposedly) "all men"--and the uglier the man, the greater the desire--for a beautiful woman. Though Gallimard does not express this idea in the first person, it is clear that he, as a man who has not been considered particularly handsome or heroic, has a great desire for a beautiful woman.

Though Gallimard does not physically express the traditional masculine stereotypes (he is not handsome, aggressive, or assertive), he still internalizes these stereotypes as something that he, as a man, deserves and yet is lacking. He feels a kind of anger towards the world, and sees a woman as his prize for all that he has been deprived of in his lifetime. He does not see Helga as an adequate prize, and continues to desire a woman for whom he can embody all of these masculine ideals and more. Song, who plays out his every fantasy, is his Perfect Woman because he can be the Perfect Man when they are together. By refusing to deny that Song is a man, Gallimard, in his own mind, maintains his masculinity. 

Act 1, Scene 6 Quotes

It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man … Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen feel in love with a short Japanese businessman? 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.

Related Characters: Song Liling (speaker), Rene Gallimard
Related Symbols: Madame Butterfly
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

The fist time Gallimard meets Song, he mentions that he finds Cio-Cio-San's sacrifice for love at the end of Madame Butterfly to be beautiful. In this quote, Song vehemently disagrees, pointing out that he would find the plot to the opera completely ridiculous and implausible if the nationalities of Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly were reversed. Gallimard's belief that the sacrifice is beautiful, Song points out, is due to his racist and sexist Western viewpoint.

Gallimard, as a man who has not presented as a traditionally masculine Western man, does not believe himself to be racist or sexist since he has not reaped the rewards that someone like Pinkerton has. Here, however, Song points out that his point of view is intrinsically racist and sexist simply because he is Western, and the idea that Eastern women are submissive and powerless to the pull of a Western man is completely a Western invention. Song, like this "blond homecoming queen," has her own mind and ambitions, something that most Western men completely ignore as they project their fantasies onto women they deem as interchangeable and their passing playthings. As a French man, Gallimard has never been challenged to this extent by a woman, let alone a Chinese woman, whom he implicitly believes to be inferior to him. It is this challenge--and yet her subsequent revelation that she is seemingly powerless to his charms--that makes him obsessed with the idea that Song is the Perfect Woman that he deserves.

Act 1, Scene 9 Quotes

It’s an old story. It’s in our blood. They fear us, Rene. Their women fear us. And their men — their men hate us. And you know something? They are all correct.

Related Characters: Marc (speaker), Rene Gallimard, Song Liling
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gallimard first sees Song in performance at the opera, Marc visits him in a dream. In this dream, he encourages Gallimard to pursue Song, since she is the "prize" that he has supposedly deserved all of his life. In this quote, Marc emphasizes the idea that Song is powerless to Gallimard's desires because she is a Chinese woman and he is a French man. 

Though Gallimard has been faithful to Helga thus far in their eight-year marriage, he actively notes that he "settled" for her, and still wishes he could have the woman of his fantasies. Song, it seems, could be just that woman--beautiful, and submissive to his whims and wants. Gallimard has felt cheated his entire life because he has not been the masculine, dominating person that stereotypically commands the attention and desires of beautiful women. In this quote, Marc (here representing Gallimard's subconscious, as he speaks to Gallimard in a dream) urges Gallimard to seize what is rightfully his: a beautiful woman. He justifies this sentiment by saying that as a Western man, he can take whatever he wants because he is intrinsically more powerful than Easterners, whether men or women--essentially, sexual colonialism. Just as in Madame Butterfly, Gallimard convinces himself that by pursuing and conquering Song, he is simply playing out a part written for him in the stars.

Act 1, Scene 10 Quotes

Please. Hard as I try to be modern, to speak like a man, to hold a Western woman’s strong face up to my own … in the end, I fail. A small, frightened heart beats too quickly and gives me away. Monsieur Gallimard, I’m a Chinese girl.

Related Characters: Song Liling (speaker), Rene Gallimard
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

When Gallimard first visits Song's apartment, she changes into a gown, which he compliments. Song blanches at his comment, and deems herself too shy to accept compliments from a strange man she has invited into her home. Gallimard contradicts her claim that she is shy, but in this quote, Song states what Gallimard has always assumed: that beneath her bravado, she is really a meek woman.

When Song confirms Gallimard's suspicions, he is not surprised, but is rather satisfied that he was correct in his assumptions--as the Western man seeking the affections of an Eastern woman, his racist and sexist perspectives mean that he does not doubt his power over Song. Of course, in this instance, Song is in fact playing into the very stereotypes that Gallimard wants her to in order to secure classified French information for the Communist Chinese government. Hwang's subversion of the Eastern/Western and male/female historical power structure serves to make Gallimard the inferior one in this situation, and Song the superior. Her supposed submissive nature is used not to fulfill Gallimard's desires, but rather to exploit the power he believes he wields.

Act 1, Scene 11 Quotes

I stopped going to the opera, I didn’t phone or write her. I knew this little flower was waiting for me to call, and, as I wickedly refused to do so, I felt for the first time that rush of power — the absolute power of a man.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Song Liling
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gallimard visits Song's apartment, he purposefully ceases contact with her for eight weeks. Instead of going to the opera, he works late or finds excuses to stay at home. In this quote, Gallimard expresses his delight at being, for the first time in his life, able to assert the dominance and emotional violence that he associates with total masculinity.

Throughout his adolescent and adult life, Gallimard has felt an acute lacking in his manhood. With Song, however, he believes he is finally reaping the feminine reward he deserves, and is determined to assert his dominance over her to the fullest extent possible. Convinced that his Western masculinity renders her powerless to his charms, no matter how badly he behaves, he chooses to ignore Song in the belief that each passing week will make her more desperate for his company. Gallimard feels no qualms or worries about ignoring Song, and is completely confident that the silence will only boost his masculinity. Though Gallimard is timid and awkward in most aspects of his life, this is the one area that he feels most confident, based on his internalized colonialist perspective: he sees absolutely no world in which Song would deny him, a powerful Western man, no matter how horribly he treats her. Gallimard is determined to become the ultimate Pinkerton to Song's Butterfly. 

I am out of words. I can hide behind dignity no longer. What do you want? I have already given you my shame.

Related Characters: Song Liling (speaker), Rene Gallimard
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

After eight weeks of silence and ignored letters, Gallimard receives a note from Song with this quote. In this letter, she says that she no longer has any strength or dignity left--she is completely at Gallimard's mercy. This quote serves to show that Song now places her longing for Gallimard above her own self-respect, which is exactly what Gallimard hoped to result from this "experiment." She no longer has any of her "Western" bravado, only pure desire to be dominated by Gallimard. Thus she plays right into the stereotypes that Gallimard sees as intrinsic to Eastern women, and he believes that she is playing exactly into his powerful masculine pull. Of course, Gallimard does not know that he is the one being "played" by an Eastern man, completely subverting the stereotype with which he has governed this experiment. The Eastern man, who is believed to be "afraid" of Western men, uses the submissive feminine mystique to bring a Western man to his knees, showing the absolute artificiality of East/West and female/male stereotypes. 

Act 2, Scene 6 Quotes

Renee was picture perfect. With a body like those girls in the magazines. If I put a tissue paper over my eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. And it was exciting to be with someone who wasn’t afraid to be seen completely naked. But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too … masculine?

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Renee
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Gallimard begins an affair with a young Danish student who propositions him for sex during their first meeting at a party. Though Renee, the student, is sexually experienced, uninhibited, and as beautiful as the women Gallimard admired in magazines as a young boy, in this quote, he expresses his disdain for her boldness. Her confidence, he reasons, makes her too "masculine."

This quote illustrates the fact that Gallimard has formed a strong emotional attachment to Song and her demure, stereotypically feminine ways. Though Renee expresses her attraction to Gallimard from their first meeting, Gallimard is now more attracted to Song and her submissive nature. Renee's confidence and assertion somewhat frighten Gallimard, who much prefers being the dominant man in his relationship with Song. Of course, ironically, Gallimard criticizes Renee for being too "masculine" when Song, the woman he prefers, is really a man. With this inclusion of Renee, and Gallimard's ultimate rejection of her, Hwang further reinforces the artificiality and fragility of masculinity. 

Act 2, Scene 7 Quotes

Miss Chin? Why, in the Peking Opera, are women’s roles played by men? … Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.

Related Characters: Song Liling (speaker), Comrade Chin
Related Symbols: Madame Butterfly
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Chin visits to follow up on Song's gathering of classified information from Gallimard. Before she leaves, Song asks her why she thinks the Peking Opera might cast men in all roles, including the roles of women. Miss Chin theorizes that it is a remnant of patriarchal China, but in this quote, Song refutes her guess and says it is because "only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."

Song's seduction of Gallimard works because she acts as the Perfect Woman--that is, not a real woman. She is submissive to Gallimard's every whim, and grows only more attached to him the more cruelly he treats her. Few real women would act this way--hence the implausibility of Madame Butterfly--yet it is the masculine fantasy to have a woman who submits to these stereotypes, as the converse of such fantasies is the reinforcement of the cruel, dominant man as the Perfect Man. Here, Song reasons that men play the parts of women because they are not real women, but rather the fantasies of male composers and librettists, understood only by male actors who submit to the same stereotypes. Thus, Song, as a man, is perfectly cast for the role of the Perfect Woman. 

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

Okay, Rule One is: Men always believe what they want to hear. So a girl can tell the most obnoxious lies and the guys will believe them every time — “This is my first time” — “That’s the biggest I’ve ever seen” — or both, which, if you really think about it, is not possible in a single lifetime.

Related Characters: Song Liling (speaker), Rene Gallimard
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

On the stand, Song tells the judge that he knew how to act as the "perfect woman" to seduce Gallimard. The judge asks him to elaborate on his techniques. In this quote, Song replies that he knew exactly what to tell a man to make him feel special.

In his testimony Song invokes his mother, who was a sex worker whose clients were often white men. From her, Song learned what to say to Gallimard to make him fall in love with him (as evidenced in this quote). Thus, many of his tactics were rooted in colonialism--the submissive Eastern women sacrificing everything for the dominant Western man. Gallimard believed he had found the Perfect Woman because she subscribed to all of these stereotypes, but in reality, it was Gallimard who was the stereotype, because he fell for all of Song's tactics for manipulation. Thus, he was really the gullible Butterfly, rather than the assertive, dominant Pinkerton. Gallimard's quest to assert his masculinity ultimately only served, in terms of traditional stereotypes, to feminize him. 

The West has sort of an international rape mentality toward the East … Basically, “Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.” The West thinks of itself as masculine — big guns, big industry, big money — so the East is feminine — weak, delicate, poor … but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom — the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated — because a woman can’t think for herself.

Related Characters: Song Liling (speaker), Rene Gallimard
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In further explanation of the political and sexual relationship between the West and East, Song descibes a "rape mentality" in which Westerners pillage Eastern lands and people and claim that they wanted to be treated this way. This stems, Song summarizes, from a belief that the East, like a stereotypical woman, does not know how to think for itself and therefore wants and needs Western masculinity to take over and dominate it.

Hwang here summarizes the thesis of the play: that sexual and political stereotypes are dangerously linked, and that intimate relationships can represent larger cultural trends. Gallimard's treatment of Song, and Song's ultimate manipulation of Gallimard, becomes an allegory for the Vietnam War--a war in which the United States and other Western nations believed they were entering to fix a problem, and ended up losing thousands of men (and any sense of a moral "high ground") to Eastern Communists. Western stereotypes of Eastern men and women can become dangerous to the point of life and death. 

Act 3, Scene 3 Quotes

There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils. Who are born and raised to be the perfect women. Who take whatever punishment we give them, and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally. It is a vision that has become my life.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

After Song leaves the stage, dancers begin to dress Gallimard in the kimono left behind. He is transforming into Butterfly. In this quote, Gallimard echoes the themes of Madame Butterfly, explicitly stating that his fantasies and stereotypes of the East versus the West have consumed him to the point of becoming his entire life. 

As Gallimard told Song more than twenty years before this moment, what he found most beautiful in Madame Butterfly was Cio-Cio-San's sacrifice to atone for her love of Pinkerton. By dressing as Butterfly, Gallimard prepares himself to atone for his love of Song. In this quote, Gallimard is the "slender woman" who loved Song, a "foreign devil." The subversion of the stereotype is nearly complete: Gallimard is the submissive Eastern woman, Song is the Western oppressor. Yet, the incomplete correlation of the cultures remain--Gallimard is still French beneath his makeup, and Song is still Chinese. The inability for the stereotype to absolutely flip shows its implausibility and artificiality in real life. Thus, Gallimard, who is "pure imagination," lives in a fantasy land and never in true reality. 

My mistakes were simple and absolute — the man I loved was a cad, a bounder. He deserved nothing but a kick in the behind and instead I gave him … all my love … Love warped my judgment, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face … until I could look into the mirror and see nothing but … a woman.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Song Liling
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Gallimard continues to soliloquize while he is being transformed into Butterfly by the dancers. In this quote, he tells the audience that his blind love for Song ultimately transformed him into a woman.

Though Gallimard's transformation into Butterfly seems to suggest that he has developed empathy for the Eastern female experience, his words prove otherwise. He is still misogynistic in his view of others and even himself. For Gallimard, to have been manipulated is to be feminine, and to be dominant is to be masculine. Thus, because he proved to be the submissive one in his and Song's relationship, he is the "woman." This proves a stereotypical view of men and women deeply rooted in sexism and misogyny, one that not even deep reflection in a jail cell could root out of Gallimard. 

I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker)
Related Symbols: Madame Butterfly
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Gallimard continues to speak about his "vision of the Orient" as he transforms into Butterfly. In this quote, he tells the audience that he still envisions a "perfect Orient" in which men and women are in their traditional places, according to the sentiments put forth by Madame Butterfly

As previously stated, Gallimard now considers himself to be a woman, since his experience with Song has "feminized" him. In the fantasy world that he has chosen to live in, the men around Gallimard are woefully inadequate but desired by women, and the women choose to sacrifice their lives rather than sacrifice the illusions of their perfect men. Gallimard thus chooses a world in which illusions trump reality, and in which sexist and racist stereotypes are not the stuff of colonial politics but the fluff of dreams. This is the world that Gallimard wants to live in, and it is the world that will ultimately bring him to his death.