Gallimard talks about the first years after his return to Paris. He describes a comfortable, predictable life — though he notes that Communist sentiments were spreading among French students. In the middle of his speech, Helga appears, wet and calling Gallimard’s name. She tells him she was stopped in the street a Communist student protest, and that the police fired water cannons on the crowd. She asks him what is happening to France, and he says it is nothing that he cares to think about
Helga’s sodden arrival in Gallimard’s home shows that the political unrest sweeping through France has immediate consequences for Gallimard’s life. Yet he remains detached from the world around him, showing both his longing for China and Song and his fear of confronting the disorder in his home country.
Helga remarks on the smell of the incense Gallimard is burning in the house. She begins talking about China, and the resemblance between the increasingly violent protests in France and those that heralded the Cultural Revolution in China. Gallimard insists Helga does not understand China, and rails against her notion that the West is crumbling under Asia’s influence.
The threat that Communism poses to the established social order in Europe is profoundly difficult for Gallimard to face, both because the rise of European Communism would mean a cultural victory for the supposedly inferior Asian and Eurasian nations that are Communism’s champions, and because his own life would be considered deviant according to Communist values. Note how the views expressed by Helga directly contradict Gallimard’s earlier political advice that China was naturally weak and wanted only to be dominated.
Gallimard tells Helga, suddenly, that he wants a divorce. He confesses that he has had a mistress. Helga is unmoved by this information — she tells Gallimard she has known since the day she married him that he would eventually have an affair. She asks whether he wants to marry his mistress. Gallimard admits he can do no such thing, since Song is in China. Helga is stunned to realize her husband would rather be alone than with her. She tells Gallimard she has enjoyed the pretense of being his wife; though she always had a feeling that he was not who he pretended to be, she found pleasure in the lies they created together. She leaves, telling Gallimard she hopes everyone is mean to him for the rest of his life.
It has been apparent for most of the play that Gallimard has lived for years in a world of fantasy, and longs to return to that life. When Helga reveals that she is in a similar position — that she has overlooked obvious lies so she can preserve a life that makes her happy — Gallimard begins to seem less like an overgrown child, ill-equipped to cope with the pressures of adult life, and more like an average person, struggling in the face of many disappointments. People deceive themselves, in small and large ways, all the time.
Marc appears onstage, holding two drinks. Gallimard begins to tell him about the magnificent life he had in China, where Song’s love made him feel special and exalted. He says life in the West is a disappointment. Marc is clearly irritated by this sentimental rambling. He interrupts Gallimard multiple times, telling him he doesn’t want to talk about the “Oriental love goddess” and would prefer to drink in peace. When Marc leaves the stage, Gallimard complains to his audience about the pain of talking to people who don’t understand his experience. He has loved the Perfect Woman, but has nobody in his life who understands the magnitude of this experience.
Before Gallimard gained attention and respect among his peers at the embassy, he was a nobody who could not inspire interest or sympathy in anyone. Though he considers his affair with Song to be a profound experience — something that has changed him as a person and altered the course of his life — here with Marc he is once again caught in the role of the overbearing, boring friend. Gallimard tries to make his audience see Song in all her perfection, but that project is inextricably tied to his desire to be seen as a man who has lived a meaningful and worthwhile life. It is important that Song be a perfect woman, because that marks Gallimard as special for having had the love of a perfect woman.
Song appears onstage, wearing the wedding kimono from Madame Butterfly. Gallimard notices her, but is convinced for a moment that she is an illusion. When she touches his hand to prove that she is real, he says he never doubted she would return to him. Gallimard shows her the bedroom, which is already decorated according to her tastes, with her incense burner and a work of art she likes. He tells her that, since there was only so much room in his mind, he had to choose between remembering her and remembering the rest of the world — obviously, he chose her. Song asks Gallimard where his wife has gone, and Gallimard tells her that his wife is right beside him, at last.
The fantasy of Butterfly and the reality of life, with all its troubles, are completely incompatible. Gallimard had to detach himself from ordinary concerns in order to preserve his memories of Song, because the imperfections of the world compromise the believability of the fantasy she created for him. He cannot be powerful, happy and worthy of a perfect woman’s love, while at the same time being mediocre and dissatisfied with his unimpressive life.
Gallimard reaches to embrace Song, but she steps out of his reach. Song begins talking to the audience, but Gallimard interrupts her, asking her to help him show the audience their joyful, loving reunion. Song tells Gallimard she is not bound to follow his orders, even though she is a figment of his imagination. She tells him to leave her alone, because the time has come for her to “change.” Gallimard begs her not to change. Song insists she must, and tells Gallimard he cannot ignore the truth — he knows too much, at this point, to keep believing the lie. Gallimard exits the stage. Addressing the audience again, Song tells them her transformation will require about five minutes and invites them to take this opportunity to stretch their legs or have a drink. She sits down in front of a mirror and a water basin, and starts to remove her makeup.
The tussle between Gallimard and Song — his need to linger over moments of happiness, and her eagerness to move the story forward to its end — represents the struggle within Gallimard’s own mind. He is obviously eager to stifle and minimize his most distressing memories, but Song’s unsentimental insistence that he must confront the truth is a sign that he is losing touch with the fantasy he has defended throughout the play. Gallimard does not want to see Song for what she truly is, but he cannot remain willfully ignorant despite his best efforts.