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Essay on M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang


set the real boundaries between human beings…”

David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang wrote “a play about Western imperialism and Eastern deception”. Hwang takes a true story of spying and astonishing sexual misidentification and transforms it into a complex dealing of cultural, social, racial, political, and sexual issues that has surprised his audience with its extraordinary beauty.

It’s necessary to admit Hwang’s original way of writing and portraying characters in his works. Such cultural questions as race and gender relations, socio-economic inequality of society are asked in every Hwang’s work. His first play, “FOB” – an acronym for “fresh off the boat” – marked the beginning of his grow as a playwright.

Hwang was growing up in California as a Chinese American. It made him politically mindful; his deep attention to his Chinese identity, Chinese roots, and mainstream American culture is clear in the central conflicts of lots of his works. The issues that occur between East and West are skillfully illustrated in his works too.

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It is necessary to confess that “M. Butterfly” is a play about metamorphosis in effect. First, it is the metamorphosis of Giakomo Puccini’s well-known opera “Madame Butterfly” into a modern-day geopolitical disagreement for cultural understanding. Hwang discards the standart form and changes the setting from 19th Century Nagasaki to late 20th Century Beijing.

He shows, through an unbelievable love affair between a French diplomat and the male Chinese opera singer he believes to be a woman, how the failure to separate desire from reality can result in dishonesty and tragedy. Less obviously, “M. Butterfly” alludes to the literal metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Gallimard transforms Song from “just a man” into “the Perfect Woman” (Hwang 88, 4). Due to his uncertainty about his own masculinity, in order to feel male Gallimard needs to create Song in the image of the perfect Asian woman – exotic, sensual, and submissive. However, he seeks to lock up Song within the background of his fantasy, Gallimard`s helplessness and need actually “free Song by providing her with an outlet to flee the Orientalist representation of Asian people”. Gallimard transforms Song into a butterfly, but as an alternative of transforming him into “a butterfly who would writhe on a needle”, Gallimard is the one who finally ends up trapped by his own fantasy (Hwang 32). Through an analysis of Gallimard`s personal, sexual and cultural relationship with Song Liling, Hwang demonstrates that his behavior of Song is a reflection of the Western mentality toward the East, a philosophy that is in due course self-destructive.

“Orientalism” is a word that refers to the study of Eastern cultures, but according to postcolonial theorist Edward Said, “can also express the strength of the West and the Orient`s weakness – as seen by the West. The rape mentality of the West is a result of the idea of the domination of Western cultures. By playing into the racism and sexism inbuilt in Gallimard`s Orientalist belief system, it is not difficult for Song to trick him. According to Song, “The West thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine – weak, delicate, poor…the West thinks that the East, deep down, wants to be dominated” (Hwang 83). Song is from the East, that’s why he can never be male in Gallimard`s eyes. The point of this mentality is to serve as an imperialist prompt of the West`s dominance and a declaration of its power over the East. “If the West feels it is by nature masculine and that the East is feminine, its power is viewed as natural, real, and justified; in short, something that cannot be helped.” (Hwang 65) In a telling scene, Gallimard tells his colleague Toulon that the Asian people will always submit to the force of the greatest power (Hwang 46). Therefore, by submitting to him, Song has given Gallimard the right to power.

In a moralizing move, Song explains the colonial effects of Madame Butterfly. She asks Gallimard if he would think it was as beautiful an opera if it were a “blonde homecoming queen” who fell in love with and married a Japanese man who left her, passed up marriage to a Kennedy, and then committed suicide upon learning her husband no longer wanted her (17) It exposes the secondary role that details play. The author wants to make clear to the audience that colonization is bad, creates problems and hurts people and the thrash about colonization is a difficult, confusing and painful process.

Hwang represents the colonist as wounding and ignorant person. The underlying account is that all of the colonizers notions about the colonized are based on stereotypes. The colonizer doesn`t really know that he is dominating, and he doesn`t really care, because that would make the authority more difficult.

Gallimard wishes to realize and keep up a position of power. He is not respected, and he is unskilled and foolish. His co-workers don`t like him at first, he obviously isn`t truthful in love with his wife, and he wishes power. Hwang creates the connection between Gallimard and Puccini’s Pinkerton by having Gallimard transmit his affection for Madame Butterfly in the play. When Gallimard begins his affair with Song, he is already thinking she is a “Butterfly”. He begins calling her that and openly discussing his desire for the stereotype of the Oriental woman. Even at the end of the play, he holds onto the belief that somewhere there are real Oriental women who “want to be treated bad” (6).

Colonizers often romanticize the colonized, because they construct the dominated culture the wrong way. “If the colonizer holds drama and fiction as the basis of their notion of the colonized, it only makes sense that the passions and romance, sometimes melodrama, embedded in narrative art would work into the colonizer`s beliefs”.

It`s an idyllic dream of colonization. Hwang shows the same thing happening to Gallimard in M. Butterfly. His affair brings him power in the French embassy, and his commander, Toulon, compliments him on his success. He notes that, “Some of us have to be content with the wives of the expatriate community” (45), implying that it would be more attractive to have an Oriental mistress. When Gallimard is being shipped home, but before Song`s secret is discovered, Toulon jokingly asks for her phone number (69). Indeed, Gallimard`s enthusiasm to go along with Song`s “mysterious Oriental ways,” which allows him to overlook the fact that she is a man, suggests an attraction of the Orient.

However, this play is not about conflict, and the colonized are not relegated to passive roles. This play has colonized characters who do not hate the colonizer. Song is also attracted to Gallimard. She tells him of her “fascination” with Western men (22), and, while it isn`t clearly stated, “it can be inferred that she at least begins the relationship with Gallimard because of some fondness for him”. At the end of the play, when Song strips and reveals himself as a man, it is hard not to see the emotions he holds for Gallimard. He affirms that he is the same “Butterfly,” and that “the two of them could go away to be happy together” (88-90).

In the end of “M. Butterfly”, a complete victory over colonial oppression is not demonstrated. Rather, it presents some significant changes, and an unclear path ahead.
The conclusion of “M. Butterfly” is also unclear. At the play`s conclusion, Gallimard says, “Tonight I`ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality” (90). He implies that he realizes his misperceptions about the Chinese and Oriental women, but a couple of pages later he repeats “he has a vision of the Orient, and that vision includes his fantastic Oriental woman”. Song ends up dominating Gallimard, reversing the roles and possessing the power, but the only touchable effect of the victory is Gallimard`s suicide. The doubts in both of these conclusions could result from the unknown quality of the postcolonial world. “Colonization forces a culture to endure and incorporate another and what follows the period of colonization cannot be a simple return to native roots. The society that rises from the ashes of colonization will be a hybrid,” as Fanon suggests.

“M. Butterfly” is a memory play in which author David Henry Hwang easily switches time and place throughout the play in order to disclose a story. The play is constructed as an “evening” in the theater in which the speaker will take the viewers over his story until his “ideal audience” will come to envy him because he has been loved by “the Perfect Woman” (1936). Hwang (and Gallimard) suppose that the audience is something familiar with the outlines of the story. The opening conversations of the people at a party do not specifically state the case. Their remarks “could be understood by anyone who knew the story and would offer hints to those who did not”.

The character of Gallimard is sure to be a tragic figure, he does not wish to admit the actuality of his situation, but chooses rather to continue “living in his unreal world with his imaginary woman”. In the final, the conflict between Gallimard and Song is showed. He tells Song, “Tonight, I`ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy” (Hwang 90). Like Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San, who truly waited for three years without a word from Pinkerton, Gallimard`s most pathetic quality is “his dogmatic powerlessness to concede the clear truth”. “I knew all the time somewhere that my happiness was temporary, my love a deception. But my mind kept the knowledge at bay. To make the wait bearable” (88). Even after the truth is presented beyond a doubt, Gallimard knows he cannot live with the heaviness of the knowledge. In his final speech, Gallimard recalls his “vision of the Orient…of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils” (91). Like the tragic hero of “Madame Butterfly”, Gallimard chooses to die with the death of a dream rather than live on with the acceptance of fact.

Gallimard claims he dies for love, and to an extent, he is right – he does love the woman he believed Song to be. “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” (Hwang 92). However, Song is not Gallimard`s Butterfly, but rather “a strange man in Armani slacks wearing a cold chain and smelling of garlic” (Hwang 90). Hwang shows, through a geopolitical lens, that Gallimard’s affiliation to Song is a mirror image of the Western rape mentality. “The Orient of slim women in chong sams does not exist anywhere but in Gallimard`s fatally misguided imagination, and his faith in such a self-serving, chauvinistic paradigm impels Gallimard to lose grasp of reality and ruin himself”, he means.

“Orientalism set the real boundaries between human beings, on which races, nations, civilizations were constructed; it forced vision away from the common, as well as plural, human realities like joy, suffering, political organization, forcing attention instead in the downward and backward direction of immutable origins.” (233) – this phrase answers one of the most difficult social questions – the question of social, race, gender inequality and makes us change something in our mind and way of life.

To finish with, it is necessary to say the stories we tell each other make up our world. The “Madame Butterfly” fabricated characters that came to be as symbols of entire cultures. The power of stories is in their ideas, isn’t it? David Henry Hwang has made his audience see his dream of a beautiful world. The main idea of “M. Butterfly” is a beautiful life – free of dogmas and stereotypes. Life, when people can fly like butterflies. We are sure to be just caterpillars, but, the author believes, one day we’ll turn into wonderful, light and beautiful butterflies.

1. http://www.nycc.edu/library/;
2. Terras, D. M. M. Butterfly: the Song of D.H. Hwang;
3. M. Butterfly, Norton Critical Edition, “Background”;
4. Ogude, S. E. “Literature and Racism: New Essays by Black Writers. Ed. Mythili Kaul
Washington, D. C.: Howard University Press, 1997;
5. Lawrence, P. “M. Butterfly or Cio-Cio-San?” New York Times, May 11, 1996;

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