Black arrives at Butterfly’s door; they embrace and Black tells Butterfly that he has come in friendship, and he wishes to see Butterfly’s work. Black also wishes to ask a question, but the question is omitted from the narrative. Butterfly’s answer is that greed and corruption are bound to increase while money and fame play a role in the lives of painters, although Butterfly silently admits that he doesn’t believe in this answer. He then tells three parables about style and signature.
The fact that Black’s question is left out from Butterfly’s narrative draws attention to the fact that Butterfly is a biased and possibly unreliable narrator. This in turn provokes the question of whether other narrators are also unreliable. Part of the mystery of the novel is created by the intertwining of so many dubious narratives.
The first parable tells the story of a young Khan (nobleman) in Herat who was “fascinated” by painting and was in love with a Tatar woman in his harem. The couple were so happy that they wanted to live forever, and found that the closest they could get to doing so was gazing for hours at paintings by the old masters, which had the effect of making time stand still. One of the royal miniaturists then painted a scene from Shirin and Hüsrev, but replaced the mythical figures with the Khan and his lover. However, the miniaturist then began to paint more and more in his own individual style, and the Khan, horrified at the image of the Tatar woman painted in this unorthodox way, had sex with another woman. As a result, the Tatar woman hanged herself, and the horrified Khan blinded the miniaturist in punishment.
The first parable emphasizes the theme of the dangers of art—dangers that lie within art’s relationship to mortality. The Khan and his lover achieve a sense of immortality by looking at the paintings by the old masters, suggesting that these paintings override God’s power over life and death. Furthermore, the individualist style in which the miniaturist paints the Tatar woman has the effect of bringing her to life. Yet in an ironic twist, it is by bringing the representation of the Tatar woman to life that the miniaturist causes her death.
The second parable describes an elderly Sultan who lived happily with his beautiful Chinese wife until his son from a previous marriage fell in love with the wife. Not wanting to upset his father, the son devoted himself to painting, and the passion of his frustrated love made him an exceptional painter. The Sultan’s wife persuaded the son to sign his paintings, so that as time passed people would know he was the one who painted them. The first painting he signs is a scene from Shirin and Hüsrev which depicts Hüsrev’s son, Shiruye, stabbing his father with a dagger. After signing it, the son was overcome by a feeling that the painting contained a flaw, and then he became convinced that the painting depicted reality rather than a myth. Shortly after, he stabbed the Sultan in the exact same manner as Shiruye did to Hüsrev.
The second parable further emphasizes the idea that art has a supernatural, dangerous power over people. Even though the Sultan’s son is well-intentioned and does not want to harm his father, the painting of Shiruye stabbing Hüsrev influences the son’s behavior in an almost demonic manner. Crucially, the son is moved to stab his father because he witnesses a flaw in the painting, which convinces him that the painting is real. This may seem paradoxical, but it makes more sense in light of the fact that flaws are connected to individuality, and thus to individualist, realist styles of painting.
The third parable takes place 250 years before, when manuscript illumination, calligraphy, and illustration were celebrated as the best of the arts. The Shah who reigned at the time had a powerful empire but no male heir, so decided to marry his daughter to a respected miniaturist. He held a painting competition to choose the husband, and each of the candidates painted the same scene in the style of the old masters. In the first round of the competition, one candidate was eliminated for leaving a signature on his painting, and in the next round a candidate was eliminated for including a small stylistic variation. However, when the day of the wedding came, the Shah’s daughter told her father that miniaturists who are in love paint some trace of their lover’s likeness in their paintings, and that her husband—who painted so faithfully in the style of the old masters—clearly did not love her. Thus the Shah cancelled the wedding.
The third parable appears to contain a slightly different message to the others. While the first two parables expressed the idea that there is something dangerous about artistic flaws, individual style, and signature within painting, this parable suggests that there can be a positive side to these variations. Faithfully imitating the style of the old masters to an absolute degree suggests that the painter has an inability to love. Although this parable does not necessarily suggest that it is better to paint with individualist touches, it does indicate that being a perfectly faithful miniaturist and being a good lover are incompatible.
Butterfly explains that together, the three parables explain that “style” is nothing more than imperfection, and that “signature” is a way of congratulating oneself for imperfection. Butterfly goes on to tell the reader that he is the best of the miniaturists, and that he recently married “the most beautiful maiden in the neighborhood.” However, he tells Black that being too good a miniaturist will have a bad impact on one’s marriage, and vice versa, even though he secretly thinks this is a lie. Black asks to see Butterfly’s recent work, and Butterfly shows him some pages from the Book of Festivities. Black then asks Butterfly if he knows where Elegant is, and Butterfly, offended, replies that he doesn’t. Black goes on to ask if Butterfly has considered that Elegant has been killed by the Erzurumis, and Butterfly—who is somewhat sympathetic to the Hoja of Erzurum—believes Black is asking if it was Butterfly himself who killed Elegant. Black looks around Butterfly’s workshop, while Butterfly reflects on the rumors that have been spreading about Elegant’s disappearance. Butterfly notes that he is the best miniaturist because he makes the most money, and he adds that painting is a form of ecstasy because “the world itself is ecstasy to those who truly see.”
Butterfly keeps telling Black stories and statements that he does not believe himself, which creates the impression that the miniaturists’ world is filled with dishonesty and deception. In contrast to Black’s anxiety (about Elegant, the secret book, religious intolerance, and his love for Shekure), Butterfly has a relaxed and boastful attitude. He considers himself to be the best miniaturist because he earns the most money, and thus he evidently does not follow Enishte’s belief that the desire to make money from art is indicative of corruption. At the same time, he also expresses sympathy with the Hoja of Erzurum, a sentiment that contradicts his casual attitude toward dishonesty, greed, and boastfulness, all of which religious fundamentalists denounce as sinful. Overall, Butterfly appears to be a deliberately provocative and contrarian character with little interest in moral seriousness.