Throughout the opera, Butterfly holds out hope that Pinkerton will return to her, and the sight of his ship becomes the primary symbol of his faithfulness to her. She studies every ship that enters the harbor, hoping to catch a glimpse of the American ship that is carrying her husband. The ship also symbolizes their international romance, the fact that she is Japanese and he is American.
Springtime, when the trees blossom and the birds nest, is a recurring motif throughout the opera. Pinkerton marries a very young woman who, in the springtime of her life at age 15, becomes pregnant almost immediately after the wedding. He leaves, promising to return again when the robins nest in the spring. When he returns, Butterfly and Suzuki, her maid, fill the house with flowers they pick from branches outside. Springtime represents Butterfly herself, her fertility and youth, as well as the abuse she suffers from Pinkerton; after flowers are plucked from the branch, they wither and die. Springtime does not last forever.
Honor recurs as a theme in the opera. First, Butterfly is thought to have dishonored her family by marrying Pinkerton and converting to Christianity when her uncle, a Buddhist priest, shows up at the wedding and renounces her. In this moment, honor is about loyalty to her country, her family, and her religion. Then, at the end, when Butterfly realizes that she has been betrayed by Pinkerton, she returns to her Japanese religion, prays, and commits ritual suicide as a way of reclaiming her sense of self, her heritage, and a sense of honor. Inscribed on the dagger are the words, "Let him die with honor who cannot live with honor." Because Butterfly has been so dishonored in life, she feels she has no choice but to honor herself through dying. Thus, the suicide is symbolic of her taking her legacy and "honor" into her own hands.
Madame Butterfly has earned this nickname because she is seen as so fragile and delicate, beautiful and innocent, but also easy to hurt or break. The image of the butterfly and the way that Madame Butterfly is compared to one is a near-constant motif in the opera, meant to highlight the doomed quality of the character's life, the fact that, while she is beautiful, she will meet a terrible fate, crushed by the thoughtlessness of another.
The Child (Symbol)
Pinkerton and Butterfly's child is a symbol of their affair, explicit evidence of the marriage that Pinkerton would rather leave in the past. It is also symbolic of the ways that the burden of their relationship has fallen on Butterfly. Left in Japan with their son, Butterfly has no choice but to be reminded of her marriage to Pinkerton, and the child symbolizes the confusion and ambiguousness of their union.
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.