M. Butterfly

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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