M. Butterfly is a play written by David Henry Hwang in 1988. The author is of Chinese-American origin; he was born in Los Angeles in 1957 and got his degree at Stanford University. The play M. Butterfly was very warmly accepted by critics and received A Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, the John Gassner Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play. It should be also mentioned that it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1989.
M. Butterfly is a “metatheatrical, metapsychological, metalinguistic” play that accumulates a number of interesting ideas and is aimed at ruining a large variety of stereotypes that are stamped in the minds of modern people (Haedicke 28). Therefore, the goal of this paper is to analyze the main character, Rene Gallimard, and show his significance in the author’s approach to common stereotypes about the West and the East, gender characteristics, and political stereotypes about power.
M. Butterfly ranks among Hwang’s best works anatomizing the conflicts between several pairs of opposites: the West and the East, males and females, imperialist countries and colonies. The plot of the play is of complex structure, but every act and scene is aimed at reinforcing and then ruining the above-mentioned stereotypes.
The first scene of the play shows the protagonist, Rene Gallimard, in a prison cell. He is thinking of his past and recalls everything that happened between him and his lover, a beautiful Chinese opera performer named Song Liling. Then the preceding events are shown. Gallimard is a low-level diplomat at the French Embassy in Beijing. His ideal of a woman is a submissive “Oriental” lady who puts man’s interests in the first place. He frequently visits Chinese opera and once sees Song Liling, who can be described as a gentle and self-sacrificing woman, skillfully performing the role of Madame Butterfly in Puccini’s opera. However, in fact, Song is not a woman, but a man called “nan dan”, an actor who plays female roles in traditional Chinese opera; besides, he is a Communist spy. After a while, their relations gradually develop into sexual ones. At the same time, Gallimard is asked for advice and information about the Vietnam War advocating very aggressive actions.
Meanwhile, Gallimard’s wife asks him to pass a fertility test as they are not able to have a baby. He strongly refuses. Song says “she” is pregnant and in some time returns with a little boy said to be Gallimard’s son. The advices given by the main character to the US diplomats proved to be unreliable and even false, so he is demoted and sent back to Paris. Song comes to Paris with “their” son and lives with Gallimard for about fifteen years, spying for Chinese communists. Then, when the espionage is revealed, they both are tried by the judge who cannot believe that Gallimard has been in sexual relations with Song for twenty years and did not find out that he is a man, but Gallimard still denies it. Song decided to get completely naked to shake Gallimard’s fantasies off. After that, the main character commits suicide, and Song in men’s clothes is laughing at his corpse.
These key moments of the play are of great importance in the following analysis of Rene Gallimard’s character as they focus the reader’s attention on the crucial scenes and dialogues. It should be also said that the abovementioned points of the play contain much information about the nature of Gallimard’s behavior.
One of the main topics reflected in M. Butterfly is the relations between the West and the East that have always been complicated due to the numerous reasons, which take roots in the ancient times. The character being analyzed, Rene Gallimard, is a Westerner, and his lover, Song Liling, is Chinese. Gallimard sees himself as extremely masculine and full of virility. The main feature he sees in Song is “her” being Oriental which means subservient, selfless, and hankering after Caucasian men. It must be highlighted that it is not reality, but Gallimard’s fantasy. His perception of the East is the same as of Song. He does not wish to see the inner world of the Chinese people; the only thing he cares is himself, his feelings and comfort.
Hwang makes Gallimard naive, gullible, and self-centered to show the ignorance of the majority of Westerners who come to the East to explore or even conquer it. Gallimard believes that “veni, vedi, vici” style of behavior is the best to deal with any eastern country, and it can be proved by his advice concerning the Vietnam War to American diplomats.
In fact, it is not possible to draw a clear dividing line between the binary of the West and the East as well as that of man and woman in Hwang’s play. It can be well-illustrated by the following Song’s words addressed to Gallimard:
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. ...You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. (Hwang 2866)
Such a character as Rene Gallimard demonstrates how powerful the stereotype about the week East can be and how harmful it may appear to clear vision of politics, diplomacy, and international relations.
The idea of the West and the East is closely connected to the binary of empires and colonies. On the one hand, there are plenty of similarities, but, on the other hand, in this case, it is more a question of power than the origin, background, or nationality. Post-colonial criticism abounds in the play, and Gallimard is the character chosen by the author to show all the shades of the negative impact of a limited imperialistic perception onto politics and communication between the two very different nations. The whole Gallimard’s life is based on the ideas of superiority and various practices of dominance which are quite similar to the behavior of France during the First Indochina War mentioned in the play.
The author of the play equals imperialism to certain aspects of sexism. Saal writes, “Hwang demonstrates that such colonial assumptions go hand in hand with machismo and normative heterosexuality” (629), the qualities Gallimard is so proud of. They remain essential elements of his way of thinking throughout all his life. They greatly affect his ability to clearly see and analyze the situation in China, because deep in his mind, he always treats this independent country as submissive to all European and American wishes. His analysis of the inner political trends in China is grounded only on self-delusions. Gallimard is awkward and clumsy both in politics and diplomacy.
Finally, we pass to the issue which has already been mentioned, but not analyzed extensively. It is the relations between genders that seem to lie on the surface of this play. With feminism gaining its popularity within the recent decades, the interpretation of M. Butterfly as the story of interactions between the man and the woman is one of the most relevant aspects. However, it is a lot deeper than it seems.
The image of a perfect woman which Gallimard “has constructed as the ultimate truth” (Hoffmann) is nothing more than a fantasy, an illusion. The relations between the man and the woman as the main characters seem to be an illusion although it turns out to be very difficult to destroy it in case of Gallimard.
Though Gallimard claims that Song has some sort of problems with his identity (Hwang 2866), it is Gallimard, not his Chinese lover, who faces difficulties in defining Song’s identity as for him Song has always been a quintessential Oriental woman of his dreams and fantasies. At the beginning of the play, there is the following dialogue that can prove the abov mentioned idea:
Rene Gallimard: You made me see the beauty of the story, of her death. It's, it's pure sacrifice. He's not worthy of it, but what can she do? She loves him so much. It's very beautiful.
Song Liling: Well, yes, to a Westerner.
Rene Gallimard: I beg your pardon?
Song Liling: It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man (Hwang 2826).
The gender issues here are not simple and straightforward. Even the title of the play M. Butterfly can be misinterpreted in terms of gender. The reader is usually under the stereotype that M. stands for Madame as in Puccini’s opera, but, in fact, it is Monsignor, which is rather surprising.
At the end of the play, during the dialogue at the court, the judge cannot believe that after so many years of intimacy Gallimard has not noticed that Song Liling was actually a man, not a woman. It is a very interesting point. Song gives a very simple explanation – “he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman” (Hwang 2863). Gallimard never saw Song completely naked, and it seems he never cared for real intimacy, but only for preserving the image of his perfect Butterfly. He was never completely open to his lover, and neither was Song towards Gallimard. He proves that with the following words: “Tonight, I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy” (Hwang 2867). Hwang keeps this line of sexism very strong and deep throughout the play. He pays significant attention to this issue from the first line till the last one.
Gender stereotypes of Gallimard were one of the most powerful reasons that lead to his eventual downfall at the end of the play. These stereotypical expectations and fantasies have made Gallimard susceptible to manipulation, total control by Song, and betrayal. They resulted in Gallimard’s suicide which he committed when he turned into Butterfly, that ideal woman he always thought to love.
To sum up, it is necessary to define the significance of stereotypes in the protagonist’s behavior and way of thinking. Gallimard is the person who lives with stereotypes without trying to destroy them. On the contrary, he takes care of them and does his best to enhance and reinforce them. "I am pure imagination," he says. "And in imagination I will remain" (Hwang 2868). Stereotypes can, to some extent, provide “reliable” orientation and “safe” truth that is thought to protect the person from the chaotic surrounding world. Stereotypes are the traps where Gallimard is caught time after time. These stereotypes belong to three spheres: the West and the East, the empires and the colonies, males and females. Gallimard is a striking illustration of all the above-mentioned fallacies of perception. He is so persistent in rejecting reality and holding on to the stereotypes that I can think he finds real pleasure in them. Being a weak man himself, he feels safe in this trap even taking into account that he becomes a victim, not the hunter. We may think that at the end of the play, Gallimard is a loser and Song is a winner. However, the real victory is actually in Gallimard’s hands as his aim from the first scene was to stay within the safe boundaries of stereotypes; he managed to do it no matter what was happening around him.
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