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.
Love and Cruelty Theme Icon

Gallimard is powerfully in love with Song, and reveals that enduring love over and over again as he narrates the events of the play from his prison cell. However, despite his absolute devotion — which possesses him almost immediately after meeting Song (who appears to him as the feminine character he will come to call “Butterfly) and persists even after the truth of Song’s betrayal has been revealed — Gallimard often treats his lover cruelly during their twenty-year relationship. His abuses begin as experiments to test the limits of Butterfly’s submissiveness to him. As their affair develops, however, he begins to mistreat his mistress simply for the pleasure of watching her accept the abuse and forgive him.

When Song and Gallimard are first introduced, Song presents as a bold, modern woman. When Gallimard praises her performance, she criticizes him for his imperialist aesthetics and flirts with him shamelessly. In the early days of their courtship, she refuses to indulge Gallimard, allowing him to meet with her only briefly after each of her performances at the Peking Opera. As he becomes better acquainted with her and begins to fall in love with her, however, Gallimard becomes convinced that Song is “afraid” of him. This is the foundation of his love for Butterfly: he believes himself to have complete mastery over her.

As their courtship develops Gallimard launches an “experiment” to test the limits of Butterfly’s apparent confidence, ignoring her letters until her dignity falters and she begs for his attention. Explaining this experiment to his audience, he remembers a passage from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in which the heroine imagines herself as a captured butterfly whose heart has been pierced with a needle. As Butterfly’s letters devolve into increasingly desperate accounts of suffering and shame, Gallimard describes her in the same terms. When Gallimard first receives Butterfly’s heartbroken letter, it pains him to know that he has made her suffer. However, the combination of his unexpected professional success and Butterfly’s unquestioning willingness to take him back into her life make Gallimard more confident in his right to abuse her. As their relationship develops, those abuses become more flagrant: he carries on an affair with Renee for the pleasure of tormenting his lover, and asserts aggressive sexual dominance over her when he orders her to strip naked for him. Dominating Butterfly gives Gallimard the sense of possessing “the absolute power of a man.”

Gallimard makes it clear that the thing he loves most about Butterfly is her total acceptance of his superiority, and the confidence he feels that — despite the fact that he is not worthy of her — her devotion to him will continue no matter what terrible things he inflicts on her. Not incidentally, this inexplicable, unconditional love is also what Gallimard finds beautiful about Madame Butterfly. Puccini’s heroine is passionately in love with a man who is inferior to her in beauty, intelligence, and social position — “a sailor with dirty hands” who does not deserve the love of a woman like her. This, Gallimard tells Song in their very first meeting, is what makes the heroine’s death at the end of the opera so glorious: it is “a pure sacrifice” of her own existence on behalf of an unworthy man.

Ultimately, M. Butterfly expresses a highly pessimistic view of love. For all its romantic crescendos, the relationship between Song and Gallimard emerges as a power play between people who must either lie to themselves and each other to maintain harmony, or splinter in the face of the truth. Whatever sincere affection or warmth may have existed between them is compromised by the destructive influence of racism and sexism; as Song’s bitter testimony at Gallimard’s trial reveals, the power imbalances between them bred resentment and scorn in him even while he continued to perform the role of the doting Butterfly. In a sexist society, the love between a woman and a man must always be either a struggle or a domination, and in a racist society, love between people of different races must always grapple with the influence of oppressive ideologies. Unfettered love is not available when one person has been raised to dominate and dehumanize the other.

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Love and Cruelty Quotes in M. Butterfly

Below you will find the important quotes in M. Butterfly related to the theme of Love and Cruelty.
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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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

It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Song Liling , Renee
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Gallimard continues to keep up the affair with Renee, the young Danish student, while he still sees Song. He claims she did know of the affair, but does not confront him about it as a Western woman might. Instead, she weeps in silence. In this quote, Gallimard says that his affair with Renee's effect on Song was what actually excited him most. 

At first, Gallimard's excitement with Song is based on her infatuation with him and her appearance as the "Perfect Woman." As time goes on, however, Gallimard becomes drunk with power as Song apparently continues to fall deeper in love with him the crueler he acts. This is an exhibition of the "rape mentality," where Gallimard's racist and sexist point of view make him think that Song, as an Eastern woman, wants to be treated badly. Gallimard is gleeful over how his treatment of her makes her feel, yet she does not leave him--proof, Gallimard believes, of the irresistible masculinity he has always wanted and now finally has. 

No, Rene. Don’t couch your request in sweet words. Be yourself — a cad — and know that my love is enough, that I submit — submit to the worst you can give me … Well, come. Strip me. Whatever happens, know that you have willed it. Our love, in your hands. I’m helpless before my man.

Related Characters: Song Liling (speaker), Rene Gallimard
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Gallimard tells Song he wants to see her naked body, as he never has before, and she becomes distressed, citing her modesty and shame. In this quote, she tells Gallimard she is powerless to his wants and desires, and tells him to strip her. However, she is careful to note that "whatever happens, know that you have willed it." After this quote, Gallimard chooses to not strip Song, likely because of this line--deep down, Gallimard perhaps knows he will confront Song's maleness, and is not prepared to destroy his fantasy. He likes living in his world of illusions far too much to want to burst them on a whim of his own. This quote shows that the deception in their relationship was a product of both Song's cleverness and secret agenda and Gallimard's wish to continue living in his fantasy world with the Perfect Woman. Though Gallimard seeks to absolve himself in his jail cell testimony, it becomes clear throughout the course of the play that he and Song were often equally complicit in the charade. 

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. 

The love of a Butterfly can withstand many things — unfaithfulness, loss, even abandonment. But how can it face the one sin that implies all others? The devastating knowledge that, underneath it all, the object of her love was nothing more, nothing less than … a man.

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

Gallimard continues to soliloquize to the audience, wearing the Butterfly costume. In this quote, he posits that the most devastating thing a "Butterfly" can come to realize is that the person she loves is nothing more than a normal man.

In this quote, Gallimard finally admits that the person he deemed to be his Perfect Woman was really a normal, and rather sinister, man. Song used Gallimard for French political secrets, and in return, Gallimard believed he was reaping the rewards he always deserved as a Western man. Here, Gallimard posits that he believes one of the worst things a person can be is "nothing more, nothing less than...a man." Gallimard is coming to the realization that to be human is to err, and is to have wants and desires that are not fulfilled. Sometimes, a person is just a person--not someone to fulfill a destiny or a fantasy. Song was just a person, with faults and secrets like everyone else. Gallimard, too, is just a normal human being who has some successes and failures, but who lets his failures completely overcome him. He is nothing more or less than a man, a male human, just like Song. Neither of them are particularly special or star-crossed--they are just human. It is this lack of speciality in his life that emotionally and figuratively kills Gallimard.