M. Butterfly

David Henry Hwang


Welcome to the enchanting world of M. Butterfly, a remarkable play that challenges perceptions, blurs the lines between truth and illusion, and delves into the complexities of identity and love 🦋. Penned by the talented David Henry Hwang, this play stands out as a provocative piece of literature that has captured the hearts and minds of audiences and critics alike.

David Henry Hwang, an American playwright, has a knack for exploring themes related to culture, identity, and the human condition, making his works deeply resonant and thought-provoking. M. Butterfly is no exception. Written in 1988, it swiftly garnered critical acclaim, clinching the Tony Award for Best Play among other honors.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War era, the play unfurls within the complex interplay of East-West relations, delving into issues of imperialism, gender, and the clash of cultures. It draws inspiration from the real-life story of a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer, weaving a narrative that’s as bewildering as it is captivating.

Genre-wise, M. Butterfly defies simple categorization. It is a drama that incorporates elements of espionage, romance, and tragedy, all while challenging societal norms and expectations. Through its intricate storytelling and character development, it invites the audience to question their own perceptions of gender, power, and identity.

Join me as we dive deeper into this extraordinary play, exploring its plot, characters, themes, and much more. M. Butterfly is not just a play; it’s a journey into the depths of human emotion and the complexities of the world we live in 🌍✨.

Plot Summary

M. Butterfly unfurls a tale that is as intricate as it is intriguing, charting the complex relationship between a French diplomat, René Gallimard, and a Chinese opera singer, Song Liling. The narrative takes us on a journey through love, deception, and the dismantling of illusions.

Exposition — The play begins in Paris, where René Gallimard is serving a sentence for treason. Through a series of flashbacks, we are introduced to his life and the events that led to his downfall. Gallimard’s fascination with Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly sets the stage for his own tragic romance.

Rising Action — Gallimard meets Song Liling in Beijing, and he is immediately captivated by her portrayal of the ideal, submissive woman, echoing the stereotypes perpetuated by Western opera. Unbeknownst to Gallimard, Song is actually a man and a spy for the Chinese government. Their relationship deepens, built on Gallimard’s fantasies and Song’s manipulation.

Climax — The turning point occurs when Gallimard’s blindness to the truth and his idealized love for Song are challenged. Song’s revelation of his true gender and intentions shatters Gallimard’s world, forcing him to confront his own vulnerabilities and the illusions he has lived by.

Falling Action — In the wake of this revelation, Gallimard is left to grapple with the reality of his situation. His career is in ruins, and he faces legal consequences for his unwitting involvement in espionage. The personal and political ramifications of his relationship with Song come to a head, leading him to question his own identity and the constructs of gender and power.

Resolution — The play concludes with Gallimard retreating into his own world of fantasy, where he finally accepts his role in the tragic love story he has authored. In a final act of identification with Madame Butterfly, Gallimard dons Butterfly’s costume and makeup, ending his life in a gesture that blurs the lines between reality and performance, east and west, masculinity and femininity.

Through its complex narrative structure and deep psychological exploration, M. Butterfly challenges audiences to reflect on the nature of love, the constructs of gender, and the dangers of fantasy unchecked by reality.

Character Analysis

In M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang crafts characters that are complex and multifaceted, challenging conventional notions of identity, power, and love. Here’s a closer look at the main characters:

  • René Gallimard — A French diplomat stationed in Beijing, Gallimard is the embodiment of the Western man blinded by Orientalist fantasies. Naive and longing for love, he falls for Song Liling under the illusion that she embodies the perfect woman, as depicted in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. His journey is one of self-discovery, as he confronts his desires, delusions, and ultimately, his own identity.
  • Song Liling — A Chinese opera singer and spy for the Chinese government, Song is a master of deception and manipulation. He plays into Gallimard’s fantasies, posing as the submissive and demure woman the diplomat desires, all the while gathering intelligence that would serve China. Song’s character challenges the audience to reconsider notions of gender, power, and the dynamics of East-West relations.
  • Helga — Gallimard’s wife, who represents the reality Gallimard seeks to escape from. Her character contrasts with that of Song’s, as she embodies the mundane and the real, juxtaposed against Song’s exoticism and illusion.
  • Marc — Gallimard’s friend, who serves as a foil to the protagonist. Marc’s cynicism and womanizing ways highlight Gallimard’s naivety and idealism. Through Marc, the play explores themes of masculinity and the societal expectations placed on men.

Character Analysis Summary:

CharacterPersonality TraitsMotivationsCharacter Development
René GallimardNaive, Romantic, IdealisticLongs for love and acceptance; driven by fantasiesMoves from blindness to self-awareness; accepts his own delusions
Song LilingCunning, Complex, ManipulativeSeeks to fulfill his mission; challenges gender normsReveals layers of deception; exposes the constructs of identity
HelgaPractical, Loyal, UnfulfilledDesires a conventional marriage and lifeRemains largely static, highlighting Gallimard’s escapism
MarcCynical, Opportunistic, ConfidentMotivated by self-gratification and societal normsServes as a contrast to Gallimard’s character, remaining consistent

Through these characters, M. Butterfly delves into the depths of human emotion, identity, and the constructs that shape our perceptions and relationships. The play offers a compelling examination of how cultural, gender, and personal illusions can lead to one’s downfall, inviting the audience to reflect on their own beliefs and biases.

Themes and Symbols

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang is rich with themes and symbols that challenge and engage the audience, encouraging a deeper understanding of cultural, gender, and personal identity. Here’s an exploration of the major themes and symbols present in the play.


  • East vs. West — The play scrutinizes the stereotypes and misconceptions between Eastern and Western cultures. Through Gallimard and Song’s relationship, Hwang exposes the Orientalist views that have pervaded Western consciousness, questioning the validity and impact of these cultural constructs.
  • Fantasy vs. Reality — This theme is central to the play, as Gallimard’s relationship with Song is built on a foundation of fantasy. Hwang examines how illusions can mask the truth, leading to destruction when reality finally breaks through. The play challenges the audience to consider how perceptions of others are often shaped by personal desires and societal expectations.
  • Gender and PowerM. Butterfly deconstructs traditional notions of gender, revealing how power dynamics are intertwined with gender roles. Song’s ability to manipulate Gallimard by embodying the stereotypical submissive Asian woman highlights the play’s critique of gender stereotypes and the power they hold in relationships.


  • Butterfly — The butterfly symbolizes transformation and the illusion of beauty and fragility. It reflects both Song’s deception and Gallimard’s metamorphosis as he embraces his role in the tragic narrative he has constructed. The butterfly also represents the play’s critique of Orientalism, where the East is often depicted as delicate and submissive, a notion that is both challenged and exploited.
  • Opera — Puccini’s Madame Butterfly opera serves as a critical symbol throughout the play, representing the West’s romanticized and ultimately destructive fantasies about the East. The opera foreshadows the doomed relationship between Gallimard and Song, while also highlighting the tragic consequences of living in a fantasy world.
  • The Prison Cell — Gallimard’s prison cell, where he narrates his story, symbolizes the confinement of living within societal and self-imposed illusions. It is a place of reflection and reckoning, where Gallimard confronts the realities of his actions and the fantasies that led him there.

Through these themes and symbols, M. Butterfly invites the audience to reflect on the complexities of cultural and personal identity, the dangers of stereotyping, and the power dynamics at play in relationships. Hwang’s play remains a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of the human condition, challenging viewers to look beyond the surface and question the narratives they accept as truth.

Writing Style and Tone

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is a masterpiece that employs a unique writing style and tone, deeply engaging the reader while challenging societal norms and expectations. Here’s a closer look at these elements of the play:

Writing Style:

  • Non-linear Narrative — Hwang masterfully utilizes a non-linear storytelling approach, weaving between the present and past through Gallimard’s memories and reflections. This style not only captures the complexity of the characters’ relationships but also enhances the thematic depth of illusion versus reality.
  • Intertextuality — The play frequently references Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, integrating elements of the opera into its narrative. This intertextuality enriches the story, drawing parallels between the opera’s themes and the play’s exploration of East-West dynamics, gender roles, and the nature of love and deception.
  • Dialogue and Monologue — Hwang’s use of dialogue and monologue is pivotal in revealing character motivations and inner turmoil. Gallimard’s monologues, in particular, offer deep insight into his psyche, unveiling the layers of his obsession and self-deception.


  • Reflective and Introspective — The tone of M. Butterfly is deeply reflective, with Gallimard’s introspection guiding the audience through his journey of self-discovery and disillusionment. This tone encourages the audience to ponder their own perceptions and biases.
  • Tragic and Ironic — There’s a palpable sense of tragedy woven through the play, underscored by a biting irony that highlights the absurdities of Gallimard’s delusions and the societal constructs of gender and race. Hwang’s ability to balance these elements lends the play a poignant yet critical edge.
  • ProvocativeM. Butterfly challenges the audience, provoking thought and discussion on complex issues such as cultural imperialism, gender fluidity, and the construct of masculinity. The provocative tone is not confrontational but rather invites contemplation and dialogue.

Through his distinct writing style and tone, David Henry Hwang crafts a narrative that is both captivating and challenging. The play’s structure and language invite the audience into a complex world where nothing is as it seems, prompting a reevaluation of preconceived notions about identity, love, and the power of illusion. M. Butterfly remains a compelling work that resonates with audiences, encouraging a deeper understanding of the human experience.

Literary Devices Used in M. Butterfly

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is a treasure trove of literary devices that enrich its narrative, themes, and characters. Let’s explore the top 10 literary devices used in this captivating play:

  1. Metaphor — Hwang frequently uses metaphors to draw parallels between characters and concepts. The most prominent metaphor is the comparison of the play’s characters to the opera Madame Butterfly, symbolizing themes of illusion, betrayal, and cultural misconceptions.
  2. Symbolism — Various symbols, such as the butterfly and the opera itself, are used to deepen the thematic complexity of the play. These symbols serve to highlight the contrasts between appearance and reality, as well as the dynamics of power and submission.
  3. Irony — The play is rich in both dramatic and situational irony, particularly in the audience’s awareness of Song’s true identity long before Gallimard realizes it. This irony underscores the themes of deception and self-delusion.
  4. Allusion — Hwang alludes to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly throughout the play, using it as a framework to explore and critique the fetishization of Asian women by Western men, as well as the tragic outcomes of such fantasies.
  5. Foreshadowing — Elements of foreshadowing hint at the play’s climactic revelation and Gallimard’s eventual downfall. These moments are subtly woven into the dialogue and action, building suspense and anticipation.
  6. Flashback — The use of flashbacks is pivotal in revealing Gallimard’s past and the evolution of his relationship with Song. This device allows the audience to piece together the narrative, understanding the depth of Gallimard’s delusion and the complexity of Song’s deception.
  7. Juxtaposition — Hwang juxtaposes Eastern and Western cultures, as well as male and female identities, to highlight the constructs and stereotypes that define them. This contrast is critical in examining the play’s themes of identity and cultural imperialism.
  8. Pathos — Through Gallimard’s monologues and the unfolding tragedy, Hwang elicits sympathy from the audience, engaging their emotions to reflect on the deeper messages of the play.
  9. Allegory — The play can be seen as an allegory for the West’s domination and idealization of the East, using the personal story of Gallimard and Song to comment on larger issues of colonialism and cultural fetishization.
  10. Paradox — The character of Song embodies a paradox, challenging traditional gender roles and cultural stereotypes. This paradox is central to the play’s critique of binary thinking regarding gender and culture.

These literary devices are integral to M. Butterfly‘s narrative structure and thematic depth, offering a rich, multi-layered experience that invites the audience to question their perceptions and understandings of culture, identity, and love.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s delve into examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, presented in table format for clarity.


Comparing Gallimard to Pinkerton from Madame ButterflyThis metaphor underscores Gallimard’s internalization of Western fantasies about the East, highlighting his role in perpetuating these harmful stereotypes.
Song’s portrayal as the “perfect” womanSong embodies the Western idealization of Eastern femininity, serving as a living metaphor for Orientalist fantasies.


The butterflySymbolizes transformation and the fragility of constructed identities. It also represents the illusion of beauty and submission that captivates Gallimard.
Opera glassesRepresent the way Gallimard views the world—distorted by the lens of Orientalism, seeing only what he wishes to see.


Gallimard’s belief in Song’s femininityDramatic irony is at play since the audience knows Song’s true identity, highlighting Gallimard’s blindness and the folly of his beliefs.


References to Madame ButterflyThese allusions enrich the narrative, drawing parallels between the opera’s story and the play’s exploration of love, betrayal, and cultural misunderstanding.


Song’s subtle hints about identitySong drops subtle clues about his true identity and motives, which foreshadow the play’s climactic revelation.


Gallimard’s recounting of his pastThe flashbacks offer insights into Gallimard’s psyche and the development of his relationship with Song, revealing the depth of his delusion.


Eastern vs. Western cultural normsThe juxtaposition of these norms critiques the binary oppositions and stereotypes held by Western society about the East.


Gallimard’s downfallHis tragic end evokes sympathy, encouraging the audience to reflect on the human cost of illusions and stereotypes.


Gallimard and Song’s relationshipServes as an allegory for the exploitative nature of colonialism and the West’s romanticized perceptions of the East.


Song’s dual identitySong’s ability to embody both male and female identities challenges the traditional, binary understanding of gender, highlighting the play’s thematic focus on the fluidity of identity.

These examples showcase how David Henry Hwang skillfully employs literary devices to deepen the thematic resonance and narrative complexity of M. Butterfly, making it a rich text for analysis and discussion.

M. Butterfly – FAQs

What is the main theme of M. Butterfly? The main theme of M. Butterfly revolves around the deconstruction of stereotypes and cultural misconceptions, particularly those related to East-West relations, gender identity, and the construct of love. It challenges the audience to question the nature of reality versus illusion and the harmful effects of orientalism and imperialism.

Who is Song Liling in M. Butterfly, and why is their character significant? Song Liling is a Chinese opera singer who spies on the French diplomat, René Gallimard. Their character is significant for embodying the complexities of gender and cultural identity, serving as a critique of Western stereotypes about the East. Song’s ability to manipulate Gallimard’s perceptions highlights the play’s exploration of power dynamics and the construct of femininity.

How does M. Butterfly critique stereotypes and cultural perceptions? M. Butterfly critiques stereotypes and cultural perceptions by presenting a relationship built on fantasies and misconceptions. Through the characters of Gallimard and Song, the play dissects the orientalist views held by the West towards the East, challenging the audience to reconsider their own biases and the impact of cultural imperialism.

What is the significance of the opera Madame Butterfly in Hwang’s play? The opera Madame Butterfly is significant in Hwang’s play as it symbolizes the romanticization and fetishization of Asian women by Western men. It serves as a framework for the narrative, paralleling the tragic love story while critiquing the stereotypes and power imbalances it represents. The opera underscores the themes of illusion, betrayal, and the consequences of living in a fantasy world.

How does David Henry Hwang use literary devices in M. Butterfly? David Henry Hwang uses a variety of literary devices in M. Butterfly, including metaphor, symbolism, irony, and allusion, to enrich the narrative and deepen the thematic content. These devices enhance the play’s critique of cultural and gender stereotypes, encourage emotional engagement, and provoke thought about the constructs of identity and reality.

Can M. Butterfly be considered a feminist text? M. Butterfly can be considered a feminist text insofar as it challenges traditional gender roles and the patriarchal constructs of power and identity. By deconstructing stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, the play contributes to feminist discourse, questioning the societal norms that define and constrain gender identity.

What impact did M. Butterfly have on contemporary theater? M. Butterfly had a significant impact on contemporary theater by pushing the boundaries of narrative and thematic exploration. Its critical examination of cultural and gender stereotypes, combined with its innovative use of narrative structure and character development, challenged audiences and critics alike, contributing to a broader understanding and appreciation of diverse narratives and themes in theater.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
What is the primary setting of M. Butterfly?Paris, FranceBeijing, ChinaBoth A and BNone of the aboveC
Who is the author of M. Butterfly?Arthur MillerDavid Henry HwangWilliam ShakespearePucciniB
What opera is central to the thematic development of M. Butterfly?CarmenThe Magic FluteMadame ButterflyLa BohèmeC
What does Song Liling reveal to Gallimard that changes the course of the narrative?Song is actually AmericanSong is a spySong is a manSong is moving to FranceC
What major theme is explored through the relationship between Gallimard and Song Liling?The power of true loveThe dangers of cultural stereotypes and fantasiesThe importance of political diplomacyThe resilience of human spiritB
How does Gallimard view himself in relation to the story of Madame Butterfly?As the heroic saviorAs the misunderstood villainAs the tragic loverAs an outside observerC
What literary device is predominantly used to reveal Gallimard’s past and inner thoughts?SymbolismMonologueIronyAllegoryB
What is the climax of the play?Gallimard’s promotion in the embassySong’s performance in Madame ButterflySong revealing his true identity to GallimardGallimard returning to FranceC
What symbolizes the illusion and fragility of Gallimard’s fantasies about Song and the East?The Eiffel TowerThe butterflyA pair of opera glassesThe Paris Opera HouseB
Which character serves as a critique of Western imperialism and the fetishization of Asian women?HelgaSong LilingMarcRené GallimardB

This quiz is designed to test comprehension of M. Butterfly, focusing on its plot, themes, characters, and literary elements. Each question targets key aspects of the play to ensure a deep understanding of its complexities and nuances.


Spot the Literary Devices

Read the following paragraph from M. Butterfly and identify the literary devices used. List them below the paragraph, and then check your answers.

“In the light of the sparse Chinese lamps, Song Liling appeared almost ethereal, a figure too delicate for the mundane world. Gallimard, trapped in his own web of fantasies, saw not the man before him but a vision of submissive femininity, a living embodiment of Puccini’s tragic opera heroine. The East, with its veiled mysteries and whispered secrets, seemed to unfold before him, an open book that he, and he alone, could read.”

Identify the Literary Devices:

  1. Metaphor: Comparing Song Liling to a vision of submissive femininity and an ethereal figure.
  2. Imagery: “In the light of the sparse Chinese lamps” and “a figure too delicate for the mundane world” create vivid images.
  3. Symbolism: The sparse Chinese lamps symbolize the exoticism and mystery of the East in Gallimard’s eyes.
  4. Irony: Gallimard’s belief that he alone could understand the East is ironic given his complete misunderstanding of Song Liling’s true nature.
  5. Allusion: Reference to Puccini’s tragic opera heroine, Madame Butterfly, alludes to the stereotypes and fantasies that Gallimard harbors.


  1. Metaphor – Correct.
  2. Imagery – Correct.
  3. Symbolism – Correct.
  4. Irony – Correct.
  5. Allusion – Correct.

This exercise helps in recognizing the nuanced use of literary devices that enrich the text, enhancing both its thematic depth and emotional resonance.