M. Butterfly

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Orientalism, Imperialism, and Cultural Conflict 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.
Orientalism, Imperialism, and Cultural Conflict Theme Icon

The events of M. Butterfly occur during a time of turmoil in Southeast Asia, as imperialist European nations that had established colonies throughout Southeast Asia were facing threats to their imperial control by native uprisings. As a French diplomat living in China in the 1960s, Gallimard lives in the shadow of the Indochina War. During this war, Vietnamese military forces under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh successfully fought for independence from the French, who had installed a colonialist government in Vietnam in the late nineteenth century. By the time the Indochina War ended in 1954, the French had maintained colonies in Vietnam, and the neighboring nations of Laos and Cambodia, for almost seventy years. The three nations together were known as French Indochina. The Chinese government assisted the Vietnamese in their struggle for independence, supplying modern weapons from the Soviet Union that helped the Vietnamese resist the French more effectively. China was a Communist nation by this time, and invested in helping the Vietnamese partially because independence would lead to the installation of a Communist government in Vietnam.

Toulon, Gallimard’s superior at the embassy, describes the loss of French Indochina as a national embarrassment for France. As the Vietnam War begins, Toulon asks Gallimard to advise American military officials about the disposition of Asian people toward Western military and government power. Gallimard’s involvement with the war in Vietnam seems to be an effort to redeem this embarrassment and promote Western dominance in this former French colony. Gallimard’s job is to predict how the Chinese will react to an American invasion in Vietnam, and suggest ways for the American military to win public support among the Vietnamese people. Yet the advice Gallimard offers is disastrous and misguided, based on ignorant stereotypes about “Orientals” rather than real understanding of the Chinese or other Asian cultures. His diplomatic analysis is heavily influenced by what the literary theorist Edward Said termed “Orientalism” — the tendency of Western people to depict Asian and Middle Eastern countries as being underdeveloped, backward, exotic, passive, and feminine compared to the supposedly enlightened and powerful Western nations that seek to colonize them. Gallimard believes that Asians are passive and unable to protect themselves, and simply “want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power.” This Orientalist mindset is not unique to Gallimard. In fact, it influences nearly every Western character in M. Butterfly, as shown in Toulon and Marc’s willingness to support Gallimard’s oversimplified characterizations of Asian people and cultures.

These stereotypes originate in some of the most famous Western representations of Asians — most notably, for the purposes of this play, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, in which a beautiful Japanese woman throws her life away for love of an unworthy white sailor. As its title suggests, M. Butterfly tells a story that both references and revises Madame Butterfly and the Orientalist ideas it embodies. M. Butterfly critiques Orientalist stereotypes as pernicious lies used by Westerners to justify the exploitation and oppression of Asian people. By playing with the tropes exemplified in Madame Butterfly — for instance, the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman — M. Butterfly illustrates how these simplistic, demeaning ideas are destructive for both Asians and Westerners. Gallimard, in particular, is rendered weak and manipulable: he believes even the most implausible aspects of Song’s deception because they fit with his image of Asian women as being modest, obedient, and undiscerning in their adoration of their men, especially when those men are white. Gallimard’s personal obsession with Madame Butterfly illustrates how his attachment to these misguided ideas are products of his culture, which tends to fetishize and demean Asian people. He cannot see that Song is a man, or that their affair is politically motivated, because he has been raised to believe that Asian people are so passive as to make this kind of subversion totally unthinkable. Ultimately, rather than face the truth after Song’s deception is revealed, Gallimard chooses to adopt the persona of Butterfly and commit suicide in the same way Puccini’s heroine does. This final act suggests how Orientalist fantasy can become fatally all-consuming — just as it leads Gallimard to offer terrible political analysis to the Americans, it leads him to personal destruction.

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Orientalism, Imperialism, and Cultural Conflict Quotes in M. Butterfly

Below you will find the important quotes in M. Butterfly related to the theme of Orientalism, Imperialism, and Cultural Conflict.
Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

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.


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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.

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

In my heart, I know she has … an interest in me. I suspect this is her way. She is outwardly bold and outspoken, yet her heart is shy and afraid. It is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education.

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Song Liling
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

After their initial meeting at the opera, Gallimard attends the Peking opera fifteen weeks in a row. Each time, Song speaks to him for fifteen or twenty minutes after the show, but then cuts the conversation short. In this quote, Gallimard comforts himself that Song's coldness is a front to mask her intrinsic Eastern shyness.

Though Gallimard is taken with Song's boldness, this quote illustrates the fact that despite evidence to the contrary, he is firmly convinced that deep down she is a stereotypically shy and meek Chinese woman. Song has been educated in the West, which accounts for her challenging statements and excellent French language skills, but which Gallimard believes serves to exist at odds with her natural "Oriental" ways deep down. This is evidence of Gallimard's deep-seated racist and sexist beliefs, despite the ways in which he tries to depict himself as a sympathetic narrator. No matter how Song presents herself to him, he will never see her as the person she truly is, but rather as the person he most desires. 

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 13 Quotes

Are you my Butterfly?

Related Characters: Rene Gallimard (speaker), Song Liling
Related Symbols: Madame Butterfly
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

After receiving a promotion, Gallimard heads to Song's apartment to see her after eight weeks. Though she at first seems angry at him, Gallimard reminds her of the words she wrote to him--that she has "given him her shame"--and in this quote, asks her if she will be the Madame Butterfly to his Pinkerton.

Despite the fact that Song previously scorned the story of Madame Butterfly as an East vs. West colonialist fantasy, both Song and Gallimard here play into their respective roles in the narrative--Gallimard as the egotistical Pinkerton, and Song as the sacrificial Butterfly. In asking Song if she is his Butterfly, Gallimard is asking her to sacrifice everything for him, despite the fact that he has treated her poorly. In asking her to play this role, Gallimard is implying that he will be her Pinkerton--her shining Western knight, yet also one who feels less than tethered to their "marriage." When Song agrees that she is Gallimard's Butterfly, Gallimard realizes that he has walked right into the fantasy he has always wanted.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

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. 

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.