Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly, an opera by Puccini, provides the music for the play M. Butterfly and the justification for much of Gallimard’s behavior. References to Puccini’s work recur throughout the play. In the opening scenes of Act One, Gallimard’s imagination recounts Puccini’s plot. Gallimard calls Song his Butterfly and expects Song to behave like Puccini’s Butterfly character. Helga, Gallimard’s wife, hums Puccini’s music as she dances around. Puccini’s music also lifts Song and Gallimard to sexual ecstasy and welcomes their alleged offspring into the world. Gallimard even dies to one of Puccini’s tunes. The audio and visual references to Madame Butterfly signal that the world being portrayed is excessively emotional, riddled with clichés and improbabilities, and completely artificial. In other words, the world is an opera.


The story of M. Butterfly plays out in front of several audiences. There’s the real audience, the people watching the performance in the theater. Gallimard and Song directly address this audience many times during the play. In his prison cell, Gallimard is perversely proud of being a celebrity with an audience of autograph hounds and other curiosity seekers that reaches around the world. Song performs for Gallimard, an audience of one—even though Comrade Chin is technically always watching the performance from the wings. At the Chinese opera, Song performs for ordinary working people. Song also performs, under duress, in a film intended as propaganda for the masses. The audience for Song’s last public performance is the judge. The audience for Gallimard’s suicide is Song.


The rising action of M. Butterfly takes place in Peking, China, during the 1960s. China is now Communist, thanks to the success of Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution of the 1950s. Song repeats the propaganda claims of the Revolutionary government but expresses reservations in private. Comrade Chin parrots Party doctrines as a means to power and enforces Communist rule ruthlessly. By the 1960s, France has withdrawn from its colony in Vietnam, and the United States is conducting the Vietnam War. Fear of communism drives American policy in this conflict. Opposition to the Vietnam War leads to greater Chinese Communist influence in the West. When Gallimard returns to Paris, he suffers the indignity of having Maoist slogans shouted at him in French.