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The protagonist of the play, Gallimard thinks of himself as ordinary, unattractive, and something of a wimp. Nevertheless, he dreams of obtaining the affections of a beautiful woman who will do anything he wants. Gallimard is heavily influenced by Western views of masculinity and male superiority, and he reads girlie magazines, watches peep shows, and cheats on his wife. Gallimard is also affected by his culture’s racist and colonialist views, especially toward Asian women. Gallimard does not distinguish between Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese people, and believes all Asian people will naturally submit to the strongest power. Despite his beliefs in his innate superiority due to his white, Western manhood, Gallimard is not particularly skilled in his marriage or at his job at the French Embassy.
Gallimard compensates for his low self-esteem by developing an extended fantasy based on his favorite opera, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In the opera, a beautiful Japanese geisha commits suicide after her American lover abandons and rejects her. Song Liling, the Chinese opera actor who plays the Japanese woman, hooks Gallimard by performing the opera’s death scene. Gallimard believes his fantasy has come to life, and Song becomes Gallimard’s Butterfly, his imaginary perfect woman. Gallimard’s “Butterfly” feeds his ego so well that Gallimard doesn’t notice he in turn is feeding Song classified government information. Song’s lovemaking is so skillful that Gallimard is convinced Song is a woman. Although Song does not behave submissively, Gallimard believes his Butterfly lives only for him, and he is too self-centered to be perceptive.
Gallimard seems to be changing after he returns from Peking to Paris. He divorces Helga because he realizes his heart is with his Butterfly, or Song, in China. When Song appears in Paris, Gallimard supports Song and the boy he believes to be their son and considers Song his wife. Gallimard’s affair with Song lasts for twenty years, during which he helps Song spy on the French government. The play says nothing else about those years, which leaves many questions about Gallimard unanswered. The audience hears the love story only through Gallimard’s memories, which he admits he constantly revises. When Gallimard deliberately chooses an operatic, suicidal end, the audience is left wondering if he acted from love or from madness.