The Japanese word for "butterfly" is pronounced "Cio-Cio" in Italian. The suffix "-san" is a Japanese suffix denoting respect. Cio-Cio, or Butterfly, is a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl from a respectable family that has hit some financial trouble. She accepts an arranged marriage with an American, scandalizing her family and friends, and converts to Christianity prior to the wedding. Abandoned shortly afterward, she gives birth to a son and raises him, remaining faithful to her husband in spite of the fact that he has always thought of their marriage as a fling.
Butterfly is the protagonist of the opera, a naive and desperate young woman who believes that her American husband is her key to escape from poverty and life as a geisha. She is often presented as fragile, delicate, and vulnerable, a characterization that proves very true when Pinkerton abandons her for his life in America. By the end of the opera, she can take control of her own destiny only by killing herself.
Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton
Pinkerton is a lieutenant in the United States Navy. He is stationed briefly in Japan and seeks to enjoy a young Japanese woman as his wife. He intends to marry her and then abandon her, believing that doing so will do no great harm. He is completely oblivious to the damage he is doing by making false promises to his Japanese wife, and is the antagonist of the story, a flawed and negligent man—the image of American colonial entitlement. He is also a coward, completely unwilling to break things off with Butterfly himself, and delegating other people to do it for him.
Butterfly's maid is an older woman who is one of the only people to remain loyal to her after Pinkerton's departure. She worries often about Butterfly's future and prays on her behalf throughout, but also tries to support Butterfly in her belief in Pinkerton.
Goro is the marriage broker who sets up the deal in which Butterfly marries Pinkerton. He profits financially from this, and essentially sells Butterfly to the American with the full knowledge that Pinkerton intends to abandon her. He actively participates in deceiving Butterfly, then also tries to marry her off to Yamadori, a man known for marrying and divorcing women.
Sharpless is an American working as the U.S. consul in Nagasaki. He tries to dissuade Pinkerton from marrying Butterfly, acting as a voice of reason for the thoughtless lieutenant. In Acts 2 and 3 he acts as a go-between, bringing Pinkerton's letter to Butterfly, but he has trouble delivering the actual news that he knows will devastate her.
Yamadori is a wealthy man who wants to marry Butterfly after Pinkerton leaves her. He has married (and divorced) many times before and it is highly probable that his marriage to Butterfly will end the same way. He is her only hope for financial redemption, but she rejects his proposal of marriage.
Butterfly and Pinkerton's son does not have a singing or speaking role in the opera but is a visible reminder of their marriage.
Madame Butterfly Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Madame Butterfly is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.