A visual paradigm shift known to many: the rabbit-duck illusion. At first glance, the image is a rabbit, long ears unmistakable. A slight tilt of the head, however, and those characteristic ears morph into a beak—no longer a rabbit, but a duck. Indeed, this simple optical illusion parallels David Henry Huang’s characters in his play M. Butterfly. Although the author’s choice to model elements of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly seems clear cut at first glance, further inspection reveals that the characters are not what they seem. Hwang leads on the reader to believe that Gallimard is Pinkerton and Song is Butterfly; however, the opposite is true, and such a role reversal helps to deconstruct ideas of imperialism and masculinity so essential to Puccini’s work.
Near the beginning of the narrative, a delusional Gallimard paints himself as Pinkerton, but Hwang later reveals that Gallimard is in fact Butterfly—a comparison that dismantles Gallimard’s masculinity and his ideas concerning the East. Gallimard, acting out a scene from Madama Butterfly, assumes the role of Pinkerton, explaining that the naval officer is “not very good-looking, not too bright, and pretty much a wimp” who has “just closed on two great bargains: one on a house, the other on a woman—call it a package deal” (Hwang 819). The parallels between the two men are clear here: Gallimard, too, is unattractive, unintelligent, and cowardly. More concerningly, however, is the parallel between the two characters that Hwang does not explicitly list: their misogyny. Pinkerton and Gallimard both put a price on women and objectify them—as Gallimard refers to a “package deal,” in which he equates Pinkerton’s house and his Butterfly to objects. Despite these parallels to Pinkerton, Gallimard is in fact Butterfly—a fact epitomized by the final moments of the play, in which the protagonist dresses in a kimono. In the final monologue, Gallimard sets the tip of the knife against his body and says to the audience, “It is 1988. And I have found her at last. In a prison on the outskirts of Paris. My name is Rene Gallimard—also known as Madame Butterfly” (864). After this monologue, he commits suicide. Especially apparent here, Gallimard’s transition from Pinkerton to Butterfly effectively dismantles ideas of imperialism, masculinity, and sexism in Madama Butterfly. For one, the submissive East—epitomized by Butterfly—in which he had believed so strongly in was only in his mind. That is why he says he has found her in himself, why he proclaims himself Butterfly. Furthermore, through Gallimard’s suicide, Hwang makes a statement: harboring toxic beliefs like his protagonist did will certainly cause your demise. With his death, Gallimard’s harmful ideas die with him, and the author includes it as an example to others who may hold similar beliefs.
The opposite is true for Song: he seems to be Butterfly but is later characterized as Pinkerton, a character shift that Hwang uses to define the true spirit of the East: hardy and clever, rather than submissive. For the majority of the novel, Hwang presents Song as a woman, and although he is not, it is clear the author draws upon conventions of femininity and the stereotype of the “Chinese doll” to initially develop his character. In Act 1 Scene 13, Song admits that she is Gallimard’s Butterfly, and as he begins to kiss her she responds, “Please…it all frightens me. I’m a modest Chinese girl…I am your treasure. Though inexperienced, I am not…ignorant. They teach us things, our mothers, about pleasing a man” (837). In this scene, Song really epitomizes Butterfly. Primarily, she does not want to take off her clothes, epitomizing the modesty so often assigned to Eastern characters. Most importantly, however, she objectifies herself, calling herself a “treasure” and insinuating that giving men pleasure is a tradition, a commonality, something passed down from mother to daughter. Through these elements, Hwang paints Song as a commodity to be taken advantage of—a Butterfly to be captured. Later, however, the tables turn: Song is not Gallimard’s Butterfly, but rather Pinkerton, when he reveals his true sex. In the courtroom where Gallimard is being tried, Song gloats, “You think I could’ve pulled this off if I wasn’t already full of pride when we met? No, not just pride. Arrogance. It takes arrogance, really—to believe you can will, with your eyes and lips, the destiny of another” (860). In this scene, the roles are truly reversed, with Song standing over Gallimard as conqueror, as Pinkerton, rather than the conquered. Song’s tone drips with simultaneous condescension and pride, and through these lines, Song parallels his arrogance in his manipulation of Gallimard to the arrogance of the West in their attempts to manhandle the trajectory of the East. Through this clear mockery of the imperialist ideals that guide the West’s interaction with the East, Song expels the concept of a weak, submissive East—a tenet of Puccini’s opera.
M Butterfly effectively deconstructs the ideals so prominent in Madama Butterfly, and although the play focuses mainly around Asians and the East, Hwang makes an example of Gallimard as a call to dismantle all problematic beliefs. The play is really a warning to others who live in such a fantasy world as Gallimard, which is why the play is set in Gallimard’s mind—a mind filled with imagination, coupled with a distinct inability to see things as they are. Hwang maintains, then, that such troublesome beliefs will not only cloud one’s perception of the world, but also only exist within that mind. Outside of that mind, these ideas are simply untrue.