Madame Butterfly: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

''Madame Butterfly'' explores the contact between Japan and the USA in the 19th century, and the consequences of this contact. In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at this famous story.

'Madame Butterfly'

When most people hear about Madame Butterfly, they often think about Puccini's famous opera that premiered in 1904. However, Puccini didn't write this story. The stage play was written by American playwright David Belasco. Belasco based his play on a short story, 'Madame Butterfly' (1898) by the American lawyer and author John Luther Long. This story itself was based loosely on an 1887 novel by French naval officer and author Pierre Loti, entitled Madame Chrysanthème.

Long's story, consisting of 15 short chapters, follows a young Japanese geisha who marries an American naval officer and is caught between clashing cultures. Japan, fiercely isolationist for centuries, had only opened to the Western world in the 1850s. Americans were fascinated by Japan and the perceived exoticness of Japanese culture. The short story became widely popular, and demonstrates an intriguing look into Japanese and American interactions at the turn of the century.

Characters

Before we get into the plot, let's get to know the major characters of Madame Butterfly:

  • Cho-Cho-San: A Japanese geisha known throughout most of the book as Madame Butterfly
  • Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton: An American naval officer who decides to take a Japanese wife
  • Suzuki: Cho-Cho-San's maid
  • Trouble: Cho-Cho-San's son with Pinkerton
  • Yamadori: A Japanese prince who is interested in Cho-Cho-San and has lived in the United States
  • Goro: A Japanese marriage broker
  • Mr. Sharpless: The American consul in Nagasaki, who comes to feel sympathy for Cho-Cho-San
  • Adelaide: Pinkerton's American wife

Plot

Madame Butterfly begins with American naval officer Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton at the dock in Nagasaki, having just arrived. His friend, Sayre, suggests that he get a Japanese wife, which Pinkerton at first rejects. Soon, however, Pinkerton has found a geisha for a wife and supplies her with a house and a maid.

Cho-Cho-San, Pinkerton's wife, attempts to understand her new husband and his American ways. Her family had unanimously supported the marriage, but Pinkerton distrusts them and forbids them from seeing Cho-Cho-San. As a result, she is disowned. That's a big deal, as being disowned means she can no longer be guided into the afterlife by her ancestors. Without ancestors, Cho-Cho-San feels lost but eventually falls in love with Pinkerton. He becomes her reason for living.

Pinkerton leaves when his ship sets sail, leaving Cho-Cho-San and her maid Suzuki alone. In this time, Cho-Cho-San gives birth to her and Pinkerton's baby, a boy with both Euro-American and Japanese features. In the Japanese tradition, she gives him a temporary name until Pinkerton returns: Trouble. Later, she decides that his permanent name will be Joy.

Cho-Cho-San, Suzuki, and Trouble
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Cho-Cho-San is still in love with Pinkerton and is convinced he will return. She keeps up the house, adopts Pinkerton's American mannerisms and etiquette when addressing her maid, and even insists that her infant son only babble in English. However, the marriage broker Goro comes to tell her that American men often leave behind Japanese wives and never return. At best, Pinkerton will return for the son, and take Trouble back to America without Cho-Cho-San.

Goro's solution is that Cho-Cho-San allows him to arrange a meeting with an eligible Japanese prince, Yamadori. Cho-Cho-San reluctantly agrees and meets with Yamadori. During the meeting, Yamadori is smitten with Cho-Cho-San and promises her palaces, but she does not reciprocate. Yamadori tells Cho-Cho-San that American sailors do not take marriages like hers seriously and that her child may end up destitute in an American orphanage. Furious, Cho-Cho-San has Suzuki kick Yamadori and the marriage broker out of the house.

Still, Cho-Cho-San has become worried, and asks about Pinkerton with the American consul, Mr. Sharpless. She eventually asks Sharpless to tell Pinkerton that she will marry Yamadori and take their son, in an attempt to convince Pinkerton to come back to Japan. Sharpless has become very sympathetic to Cho-Cho-San, but is uncomfortable with the lie. Cho-Cho-San spends much of her time obsessing over her appearance and beauty.

Cho-Cho-San observed herself in the mirror
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After weeks, Cho-Cho-San sees Pinkerton's ship in the harbor. Cho-Cho-San takes her son and hides behind a screen to surprise Pinkerton. However, he never arrives. Later, she sees him on a passenger ship with a blonde woman on his arm. Cho-Cho-San goes to Mr. Sharpless, who feels bad for her and lies, saying that Pinkerton was coming to see her but was called away on a mission to China. Just then, the blonde woman from the ship enters the consulate and asks that this message be delivered to her husband, Pinkerton: ''Just saw the baby and his nurse. Can't we have him at once? He is lovely. Shall see the mother about it tomorrow. Was not at home when I was there today. Expect to join you Wednesday week per Kioto Maru. May I bring him along? Adelaide.''

Adelaide sees Cho-Cho-San in the consulate, but doesn't know who she is and calls her a pretty ''plaything.'' Cho-Cho-San decides to commit suicide using her father's sword, the only thing she was allowed to keep when her family disowned her. Cho-Cho-San begins the ritual, but hesitates. Suzuki secretly places Trouble on the floor and pinches him so he'll cry, and Cho-Cho-San goes to him while Suzuki bandages the wound from the attempted suicide. The story ends by saying that when Mrs. Pinkerton arrived the next day, the house was empty.

Cho-Cho-San prepares for the suicide ritual
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