Compare and contrast the characters of Sharpless and Pinkerton.
Both Sharpless and Pinkerton are adult men from the United States of America. Both are members of an educated class, and both are extremely patriotic. Both serve their government: Sharpless as a member of the diplomatic corps and Pinkerton as a lieutenant in the Navy.
The two men diverge when it comes to their moral standards. While Pinkerton is blithely naive to the ways he is trampling on an innocent girl's life, Sharpless thinks about the consequences of the marriage more. Having lived in Japan for longer, Sharpless understands the culture and the people better, and he empathizes with Butterfly. He tries to persuade Pinkerton not to marry Butterfly (but does not try to stop the marriage or to warn the young woman). He also tries to convince Pinkerton to return to Butterfly or at least to support her towards the end.
Discuss the imagery related to blindness and darkness, which recurs throughout the opera.
Butterfly's blindness is not literal but metaphorical: she does not see—or refuses to see—that her marriage to Pinkerton is a sham. She ignores the warning of her cousin and of her maid Suzuki, and she sends Goro and his wealthy suitor away because even after Pinkerton has been gone three years she is steadfast in her belief that she is still married. She willingly abandons her religion and family simply because her wealthy foreign husband speaks kindly to her at one point.
At the end of the first act, night is falling. This is both romantic and ominous: Butterfly and Pinkerton are about to consummate a marriage that will result in Butterfly's ruin. In the final scene of the third act, Butterfly literally blindfolds her son and hides behind a screen to prevent him from seeing her commit suicide.
Explain the metaphor of the butterfly.
Throughout the opera, Madame Butterfly is compared to a butterfly, even going by the name of "Butterfly." In early scenes in the opera, Pinkerton and Sharpless discuss the fact that butterflies are beautiful and special, but also fragile and delicate. People often pin down butterfly's wings after catching them. Thus, the way they are coveted and special creatures justifies their demise. Butterfly's narrative arc matches this structure, in that she is presented as a special prize at the beginning of the opera, but by the end, she has been destroyed by her captor. She is as fragile and breakable as a butterfly.
Discuss the dramatic irony in the opera, with emphasis on the characters Goro and Sharpless.
The key dramatic irony in the opera is the fact that everyone but Butterfly knows her marriage is a sham. She, however, is so committed to it that she converts to Pinkerton's religion, abandoning her own and guaranteeing the alienation of her family. She burns bridges with her own family and culture in the hope of joining her husband's, which seems to her to be an appropriate thing to do. Yet it is this act that guarantees her complete dependency on Pinkerton, and when he inevitably leaves and does not return, Butterfly's family no longer speaks to her or supports her. Goro, who set up the marriage in the first place, is aware that he is effectively prostituting Butterfly. Sharpless, having spoken to Pinkerton, is convinced of his intention to abandon her. Either man is in a position to speak to Butterfly before the wedding, but neither does: Goro goes through with it for profit, and Sharpless believes it is inappropriate for him to interfere in another American's personal life. The dramatic irony is created by Butterfly's obliviousness to the danger she is in.
Why does Butterfly kill herself in the end?
After finally coming face-to-face with Pinkerton's new wife, an American woman, and learning that Pinkerton plans to take custody of their child, Butterfly is finally brought back down to earth from her delusions about their marriage. She realizes the ways that Pinkerton has betrayed her, and remembers who she is for the first time in three years. After having converted to Christianity to show her devotion to him, she realizes that this was all in vain, and returns to her Japanese religious beliefs, kneeling down to pray. She then reexamines her father's dagger, which is especially meant for seppuku, the Japanese practice of ritual suicide. Inscribed on the dagger are the words, "Let him die with honor who cannot live with honor." Butterfly's rationale for killing herself can be found in these lines; having been so dishonored by her fake marriage to Pinkerton, Butterfly finds that she has no choice but to take her fate into her own hands and die honorably. The fact that she is losing her son to Pinkerton and his new wife only makes the betrayal that much more destructive.