M. Butterfly

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Memory, Imagination, and Self-Deception Theme Analysis

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.
Memory, Imagination, and Self-Deception Theme Icon

Gallimard presents his story to the audience as a memory, told from his prison cell — where he is sequestered following his very public conviction for treason — long after the affair with Song has ended. Song, in the form of a memory in Gallimard’s mind, enters at regular intervals through the play to tell his version of events, or add information to which Gallimard was not privy when the events themselves were happening. Gallimard often tries to coopt these interjections and force Song to tell events as he remembers them. He urges Song to leave Comrade Chin out of the story, and hides when Chin appears onstage; he tries to prolong the story of his loving reunion with Butterfly in Paris, and to stop Song from removing his Butterfly costume at the end of Act Two. He never succeeds in masking the truth, however. The characters Gallimard encounters on the stage are figments of his imagination, and their interactions happen almost entirely in Gallimard’s own or imagination, but he still cannot control any of them, and especially cannot control Song. This is a metaphor for the ways in which reality inevitably undermines the self-deceiving narratives human beings construct to comfort themselves.

During his court testimony, Song explains his belief that Gallimard never realized he was a man simply because Gallimard did not want to believe this was true. Song suggests men will always believe a person who tells them what they want to hear, even if the things that person is saying are absurd lies. Time and time again during their relationship, Gallimard accepts his lover’s suspicious “eccentricities” — like Song’s insistence on remaining totally clothed while they have sex — without question, and avoids situations that might force him to sacrifice his illusions. Recounting the night he ordered Butterfly to strip naked for him and then rescinded that order, Gallimard confesses his fear that he may have known the truth about Butterfly all along and simply shielded himself from confrontation of that truth in order to protect his own happiness.

After Gallimard finally sees Song naked — another imaginary sequence that mirrors the internal process of recognizing truth for the first time — he is forced confronts all that has happened to him, and processes his thoughts in a conversation with Song and in a monologue just before committing suicide. In both these moments of reflection, Gallimard suggests that the great pain and disappointment of his relationship with Song was not simply the fact that Song was a man — in fact, he tells Song multiple times that he would gladly take him back if Song would simply agree to inhabit the role of Butterfly again, suggesting Gallimard is not troubled by Song’s biological sex — but the fact that Song is an ordinary man. Butterfly, the fantasy he loved, was a product of Gallimard’s imagination who fulfilled his needs and desires as no living person could have. Confronting the fact that the person he adored was not a miracle of beauty and devotion, but an ordinary person with faults and secrets of his own, is more devastating to Gallimard than realizing he has been duped.

Though Song commits himself to deceiving Gallimard, his final exchange with Gallimard reveals how the character of Butterfly has also been an instrument of Song’s self-deception. Song comes to believe that Gallimard is fundamentally in love with the person who Song is—that Song and Gallimard share a love that transcends the “character” of Butterfly—and that Gallimard will continue to love Song even when Song reveals Butterfly to have been a fiction. When Gallimard elects instead to immerse himself in the world of fantasy — becoming Butterfly himself through the act of donning Song’s costume and committing ritual suicide — it is the ultimate gesture of rejection. He refuses to love Song, despite all they have shared, and confirms through that refusal that his love was always based in ideals rather than interactions, that he loved Butterfly the character and not Song the person. In the final lines of the play, when Song can be heard calling out “Butterfly? Butterfly?” while Gallimard lies dead in Butterfly costume, Song appears destitute in the same way Gallimard does at other points in the play. It becomes clear that, though Song believed himself to be in control of Gallimard, he was every bit as delusional in his assumptions about what they shared.

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Memory, Imagination, and Self-Deception Quotes in M. Butterfly

Below you will find the important quotes in M. Butterfly related to the theme of Memory, Imagination, and Self-Deception.
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 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 2, Scene 6 Quotes

Did I not undress her because I knew, somewhere deep down, what I would find? Perhaps. Happiness is so rare that our mind can turn somersaults to protect it.

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

Gallimard ignores Song during his affair with Renee. When he finally goes to see her, she has been drinking to numb her pain in his absence. In her drunken state, she tells Gallimard to undress her, but Gallimard does not. In this quote, he acknowledges that perhaps he does not do so because, deep down, he suspected she was not the Perfect Woman.

By this point, Gallimard's entire world depends on his dominance of Song. For his whole life he has felt inadequate due to his perceived lack of masculine features and attitude. Song, however, seems powerless to his pull, and proves even more desperate to him when he is cruel to her. Gallimard himself then becomes drunk with this power, and refuses to believe that anything can get between him and his fantasy--even when he must know, somewhere inside, that his fantasy submissive woman is actually a manipulative man. Gallimard exhibits an extraordinary ability to play into an illusion that everyone else can see is manipulation, just like Madame Butterfly. As the play progresses, Song plays more into the role of Pinkerton, as Gallimard himself transforms into his Butterfly. 

Act 2, Scene 11 Quotes

This is the ultimate cruelty, isn’t it? That I can talk and talk and to anyone listening, it’s only air — too rich a diet to be swallowed by a mundane world. Why can’t anyone understand? That in China, I once loved, and was loved by, the Perfect Woman.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Song Liling , Marc
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In Gallimard's fantasy, Marc and Gallimard share a drink in his cell. Gallimard complains to Marc of the inadequacies of the West compared to the East, and Marc tells him to stop complaining. In this quote, Gallimard tells the audience how difficult it is to have experienced something so profound, and to have no one to share it with.

Gallimard is so intent on making others see how special is his experience with Song--The Perfect Woman--because, by proxy, it means that he, too, is special. Marc, by contrast, is a womanizing playboy who has always seemed special in Gallimard's eyes because he seems to have conquered the masculine stereotypes, and by extension, women, without the agony that Gallimard has endured. Gallimard wants very badly for society to acknowledge his and Song's love, because it will serve to reinforce his participation in the masculinity he believes he is supposed to embody. By saying that Song is not who she claimed to be, Gallimard, by extension, is not who he believes himself to be. 

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. 

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

You, if anyone, should know — I am pure imagination.

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

After Song taunts Gallimard, Gallimard orders Song to leave so that he can have a date with his "Butterfly." Song accuses Gallimard of subscribing to stereotypes of men and women, and therefore to be "lacking imagination." In this quote, Gallimard tells Song that he is "pure imagination." 

Gallimard admits that he knows who Song truly is, and Song's nakedness in front of him represents his inability to deny Song's maleness any further. However, he still firmly maintains that he prefers his illusions of Song as the Perfect Woman, because in that fantasy, Gallimard remains the Perfect Man who has lived the Perfect Life. Thus, as he tells Song here, Gallimard himself is "pure imagination"--he convinces himself that he lives a life that doesn't exist, and that he is someone who in reality he is not. By telling Song he wants to have a date with his "Butterfly," he tells Song that he still prefers his idea of the woman he fell in love with, rather than the actual human who served as the vessel for this fantasy. 

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. 

My name is Rene Gallimard — also known as Madame Butterfly.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker)
Related Symbols: Madame Butterfly
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

At the conclusion of the play, Gallimard is finally in full Madame Butterfly regalia. He is given a hara kiri knife by the dancers, and speaks this quote before plunging it into his body and killing himself. 

Onstage, Song is depicted in men's clothing, while Gallimard is dressed as Butterfly, completing the reversal--Song as Pinkerton, Gallimard as Butterfly. The only world in which Gallimard is happy is one in which he is special according to the tenants of his fantasy, where he loved and is loved purely to the point that he is willing to sacrifice his life for love. Deep down he knows that his fantasy has been an illusion, as has the last two decades of his life. Unable to bear the truth, he decides to fulfill his sacrifice and complete his transformation into Butterfly, performing the end of the opera--this time in reality, not fantasy, by killing himself in ritual Japanese fashion. The suicide is the one aspect of his life Gallimard realizes he has complete control over, and he seizes this control to overcome the manipulations and realities that he can no longer bear.