Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly Literary Elements


Opera, Drama, Tragedy



Setting and Context

A hilltop house in Nagasaki, Japan, early 1900s

Narrator and Point of View

There is no narrator in this opera; however, each character reveals his or her thoughts and moods through song. The audience is therefore given a limited-omniscient point of view.

Tone and Mood

The tone is hopeful, from Butterfly's perspective, and then ultimately, very tragic.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Cio-Cio or Butterfly, a fifteen-year-old girl, is the protagonist. The primary antagonist is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy

Major Conflict

The big conflict in this opera occurs because Pinkerton marries Butterfly under false pretenses. He wants only a temporary "wife" to entertain him while in Japan, and fully intends to abandon her when he moves back to America. Butterfly, however, believes she is engaging in a proper and honorable marriage with an American, which will be enforced under American law. She commits completely to her new identity as an American woman and wife, and even goes so far as to convert to her husband's religion. This decision causes her relatives to renounce her.


The climax occurs when Butterfly commits seppuku, ritual suicide, after she learns that Pinkerton has married another and plans to adopt their son and take him away from her.


In the very first scene, Pinkerton's aria "E soffitto e pareti" ("And ceiling and walls") describes how he has leased a home for 999 years, with the option of canceling the arrangement monthly, and how he has contracted a marriage under the same terms. This foreshadows his abandonment of Butterfly. Another instance of foreshadowing is in Act 1 when Butterfly looks at the dagger that she will eventually use to kill herself.


"Suzuki," sings Butterfly, "you are so kind." The maid Suzuki has remained loyal to Butterfly even after Butterfly's own relatives have left her. She has tried her best to make Butterfly understand her husband is not returning, and she has helped her by serving tirelessly and helping to raise her son. Indeed, many of Butterfly's lines when she is in a delusional state about her marriage are examples of understatement.


The first notes of "Dovunque al mondo" ("Throughout the world") are the opening notes to "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is the national anthem of the United States of America. There are also subtle musical references to Japanese traditional music as well.


Butterfly orders the little house to be decorated with all the flowers, and that every flower be plucked and displayed to celebrate her husband's return. Flowers, a symbol of both fertility and virginity, fade and die when they are cut.


Butterfly commits completely to Pinkerton in the belief that her marriage is real. One of the things she does is to convert to Christianity, abandoning her ancestral religion. This decision, intended to bind her more closely to her husband, alienates her family, who renounce her. When her husband leaves, Butterfly is left alone. Thus, Butterfly paradoxically believes that she is ensuring the security of her future by converting to Christianity, when she is actually dooming herself to destitution.


Butterfly and Suzuki sing a duet together in which they are paralleled: one is a young and naive girl who is willing to commit herself to American-ness, the other an older and wiser Japanese woman who is more practical. Additionally, Pinkerton and Sharpless represent a parallel contrast, in that Sharpless is a voice of reason, while Pinkerton is naive about the magnitude of his sins. The maturity of Sharpless and Suzuki is reflected in their vocal range; both have lower voices than their respective companions.


There are many lines in the libretto that personify natural elements to reflect emotional ones.

Use of Dramatic Devices

There is a great deal of dramatic irony, and arias are often used to express the characters' inner thoughts.