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MadamaButterfly

1904 poster for the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly by Leopoldo Metlicovitz.

"Madame Butterfly" is a short story by the American writer John Luther Long. It was first published in the Century Magazine in January 1898. The story was loosely based on a real-life story Long's sister Sara Jane Correll had heard while staying in Nagasaki, Japan with her missionary husband.

The title character is a young Japanese girl who is married off by her family to an American sailor named Pinkerton. Although Pinkerton's ignorance of Japanese culture causes her to become an outcast, Butterfly remains devoted to her husband. Even after he sails away, she refuses to remarry, believing that he will return one day.

Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan by David Belasco, a one-act play adapted from the story, premiered in New York in 1900. The famous Italian opera Madama Butterfly (1904) by Giacomo Puccini is based on the Belasco play and the original short story.

Plot

Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a sailor in the United States Navy, is unhappy. He has just been reassigned from the Mediterranean to the Nagasaki station in Japanese. His friend Sayre who had previously served in Japan comforts him and suggests he finds himself a Japanese wife as other sailors have done.

Pinkerton hires a marriage broker to find a wife and a house in Japan. He tells his young wife Cho-Cho-San[1] that the house is leased for 999 years, giving her the impression that he means to stay with her forever. He does not bother to tell her that he has the option to cancel the lease at any time. Pinkerton does not understand Japanese culture and, being of a whimsical nature, does not seriously think about the consequences of his actions. First he has locks installed on doors, which is unusual in Japan. He then tells Cho-Cho-San that she cannot have her relatives come visiting, which is quite unheard of in Japan. Cho-Cho-San is distressed at first, but she quickly develops a liking for Pinkerton and his American lifestyle.

Pinkerton finds Cho-Cho-San beautiful, charming, and amusing, and he enjoys Westernizing the young and impressionable girl. He does not realize how attentively she listens and how seriously she takes everything he says. She even goes to a missionary, secretly in order not to offend her family, to learn about Christianity. Cho-Cho-San's family appeals to Pinkerton but he refuses to change his ways. Consequently, they decide to disown Cho-Cho-San. Although she is now an outcast, Cho-Cho-San is not bothered by her isolation because, cut off from the old "backward" traditions, she is now considered modernized and "up-to-date" by her husband. She declares herself the happiest woman in Japan. Pinkerton is pleased by her enlightenment.

The newlyweds live whimsically and happily for a little while, but then Pinkerton's ship is ordered away. After he sails off, unbeknownst to him, Cho-Cho-San gives birth to a blonde, blue-eyed baby boy. She calls the boy Trouble, a temporary name until Pinkerton returns to give him a permanent name. Pinkerton had told her as he was leaving that he would return "when the robins nest again," and she has taken it literally.

Spring has come, and Cho-Cho-San is looking forward to Pinkerton's return. She speaks to her maid Suzuki in English in order to keep in practice as she waits for her husband. She hopes he will take them all to the United States with him. They are running out of the money he had left them. Cho-Cho-San jokes that her husband may return to find them playing shamisen[2] and singing on the street to make money.

Suzuki thinks Cho-Cho-San should remarry because abandonment is considered a divorce in Japan. Since her husband has been gone for some time, the marriage broker has been trying to get the beautiful Cho-Cho-San to marry a Japanese husband. Cho-Cho-San is uninterested. She explains that husbands do not abandon wives in America. She says, repeating what Pinkerton had told her, that American marriages last forever, and a man wanting a divorce must go to court and risk getting jailed. She assures Suzuki that Pinkerton will return since he left them a lot of money and a house to live in for 999 years. Cho-Cho-San then tells Suzuke her plan. They will watch for his ship from the house which is on a hill overlooking the harbor. They will decorate the house with flowers. When they see him coming up the hill, they will hide behind the shoji,[3] making holes in the paper screen for peeping. They will make him believe they had left, then rush out to surprise him. The two women act out the plan and have a good laugh.

Goro the marriage broker comes to talk to Cho-Cho-San. Cho-Cho-San insists she is still married. Goro explains to her that Japanese law will prevail because the marriage took place in Japan. Cho-Cho-San shows him the baby boy and says Pinkierton will surely be back to see their child. Goro thinks Pinkerton is more likely to take the baby away from her. He asks if she will at least consent to meeting his client, Yamadori. Cho-Cho-San agrees to do so to help Goro earn his commission.

Yamadori, a rich prince, has been married and divorced twice. Cho-Cho-San acts her part perfectly, sitting still and looking emotionless and beautiful, to be inspected by her suitor. She allows Yamadori to discuss her with Goro as if she were not present. Then she serves tea and plays the charming hostess, subtly teasing Yamadori. Yamadori is enchanted and declares he will give her a castle with a thousand servants. Cho-Cho-San asks Goro in a whisper if they have earned the commission. Soon, however, Yamadori makes a mistake. He tells Cho-Cho-San that a sailor has a girl in every port, and that neither the title of a "wife" nor having a child will mean anything serious to him. He talks of children deserted and orphaned in America. Cho-Cho-San quickly dismisses him.

Yamadori's stories of abandoned children has put a doubt in Madame Butterfly's mind. She goes to the American consul. The vice consul recognizes her. She first asks him when robins nest in America. She thinks they must nest later there than in Japan. The consul, who does not know much about birds, agrees with her. She then asks if people stay married in America. He tells her that they do, and also confirms that divorces go through courts and can take a long time. She asks if people like having nice babies. The vice consul, a proud young father, tells her that he likes having his fine boy. Cho-Cho-San is delighted to have all her beliefs confirmed.

The consul knows Cho-Cho-San has been outcast. He advises her to mend her relationship with her family. She explains that her family has disowned her for being married to an American. She says her family is poor because her father killed himself. She had become a dancer to earn money, but it was not enough so the family married her off for Pinkerton's money. They came to scorn him afterwards, but she loves her husband and has chosen him above them.

Cho-Cho-San tells the vice consul about Pinkerton's promise to return when the robins nest again. Because Pinkerton is always joking around, she thinks it will be funny if the consul told him that she grew tired of waiting and married Yamadori. The consul realizes the harm Pinkerton has done. He wants to have nothing to do with this business, but he finds Cho-Cho-San's innocent enthusiasm and absolute trust very charming. He tells her that Pinkerton's ship is expected in Nagasaki in early September. Cho-Cho-San is overjoyed. She asks the consul if he believes Pinkerton will come to see the baby and take them all to America. The consul, angry with Pinkerton now, advises her to consider marrying Yamadori. Cho-Cho-San is offended at first. Seeing the sincere regret in his face, however, she grasps his hands and calls him the nicest man in the whole world.

Cho-Cho-San watches every ship coming into the harbor with her telescope from the house on the hill. Finally on the seventeenth of September, Pinkerton's ship arrives. With Suzuki's help, Cho-Cho-San dresses up and decorates the house with all the flowers from the garden. They then dress up the baby and hide behind the shoji screen, making peep holes in the paper. Hours pass with no sign of Pinkerton. Night falls and Suzuki lights the lanterns. They watch and wait in silence all night. They continue to wait all day the next day, then for days afterwards, eating and sleeping very little and doing nothing but watch for Pinkerton. They spend the last of their money replacing flowers and candles each day.

A week later, a passenger ship arrives. The following day, Cho-Cho-San spots Pinkerton on the deck with a blonde woman. By the next morning, Pinkerton's ship has gone. Hoping that he had remained behind, Cho-Cho-San goes to see the consul, leaving her son behind with Suzuki.

Cho-Cho-San looks very ill, and the consul looks at her with pity. He tries to give her the money Pinkerton left for her "in remembrance of the past" but Cho-Cho-San will not take it. He tells her that Pinkerton wishes her happiness, hoping she will understand that her husband does not intend to return. She does not understand him. She believes that the consul told Pinkerton she married Yamadori. Seeing her desperation, the consul decides to lie. He tells her that Pinkerton was upset as she had thought he would be. He says that Pinkerton wanted to rush back to the house, but he was not allowed to leave due to navy business before his ship was ordered away suddenly. He then tells Cho-Cho-San that Pinkerton will be back one day. Finally relieved, Cho-Cho-San staggers. The consul helps her into a chair.

The consul hears someone coming and draws a screen to give Cho-Cho-San some privacy. A blonde woman enters and asks for Mr. Sharpless the consul. The woman wishes to send a telegraph to her husband in Kobe. Sharpless asks for her husband's name. She answers "Lieutenant Pinkerton." Horrified, the consul looks over and sees Cho-Cho-San shake her head to signal silence. The blonde woman, Adelaide Pinkerton, dictates her message: she has seen the baby and wants to talk to the mother about taking it at once. Moving further up towards the consul's desk, Adelaide finally sees Cho-Cho-San. She openly admires the lovely girl and calls her a "pretty plaything." Clearly unaware of any feelings on the part of Cho-Cho-San, she says she does not blame the men for falling in love with her then hurries off.

Cho-Cho-San rises and staggers towards Sharpless. She hands him a few coins, the last of the money Pinkerton had given her, and asks him to tell Pinkerton she wishes him happiness. She thanks the consul and once again calls him the nicest man in the whole world.

Suzuki knows right away that her mistress has seen the woman. Cho-Cho-San comforts the crying maid and asks her to leave so she can rest. Knowing her mistress too well, Suzuki hesitates. Cho-Cho-San gently leads her out, bidding farewell to her faithful companion.

Cho-Cho-San waits till dark then lights a lantern. She sits down with her father's sword in her lap. Its blade is inscribed "To die with honor when one can no longer live with honor." She puts makeup on herself then presses the blade against her neck, watching the blood run down. Quietly, Suzuki puts the baby into the room. Cho-Cho-San drops the sword and begins to pray and weep. The baby crawls into her lap. Suzuki enters and dresses the wound.

The following day, Adelaide Pinkerton comes to the house and finds it deserted.

Footnotes

  1. Cho-Cho (or Cho) means Butterfly in Japanese. "San" is an honorific. The name is likely a stage name taken by the girl when she worked as a geisha. The real-life girl about whom Long's sister had heard, a tearoom entertainer named Maki Kaga, had used the stage name of Cho-San.
  2. Shamisen is a three-stringed, long-necked traditional Japanese lute.
  3. Shoji is a sliding door with translucent paper in place of glass.

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