American imperialism is an expression that is basically used to denote political, economic, military and cultural influence of the United States. This term is often used in reference to the urge by which the USA undertakes its expansionary ideas with an oblivious attitude as to what consequences might result from such expansion. In David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, this imperialism has been depicted in various dimensions.
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David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is a post colonial drama that is a rewritten version of Puccini’s opera, ‘Madame Butterfly’. Aime Cesaire’s play, ‘A Tempest’ is a similar post colonial play that was originally written by Shakespeare. Both of these plays have been rewritten but they have nevertheless retained the same characters and basic plot elements.
The original versions of the two plays had created symbols of other cultures which became household stereotypes. For instance, Puccini’s opera, ‘Madame Butterfly’ had attempted to symbolize the oriental woman as a butterfly, insinuating that they are indeed beautiful but of a fragile nature.
The use of the term ‘butterfly’ in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is a clear depiction of American cultural imperialism. I feel that also the invocation of such terms as ‘The Orient’ results to a symbolization of the Far East culture. By giving it such an endearing terminology, it prepares the USA citizenry to eventually view colonialism as a positive endeavor. The constant use of such terminologies in the realms of literal works is aimed at solidifying this imperialist notion even in the minds of the future generations.
Throughout the play, the American way of life has been depicted as most ideal. It has been depicted as a culture that upholds high moral standards while the other cultures have been found to lack in this. For example when Gallimard begins an illicit affair with Song, his perception of her is that one of a butterfly.
This is a stereotype that Puccini had created in the eyes of the Western world in reference to women from the Far East. It was supposed to depict these women as possessing physical beauty but on the other hand being weak. The weakness here is more to do with personality and character. This would want to imply that they are loose morally and men could have their way with them with little or no resistance.
Aime Cesaire has also clearly depicted how the colonialist’s view of the colonized people’s way of life is narrow minded often lacking proper understanding. For instance, his characterization of Prospero who was a foreign ruler of a certain Island and Caliban the only native of the said Island who resided there.
We see Prospero referring to Caliban as an ‘ugly ape’. This play highlights the manner in which imperialist carry out their dominance over the indigenous communities without really taking into consideration the feeling, aspirations and general welfare of the colonized.
This lack of empathy prevents any sense of guilt from surfacing hence maintaining the status quo. This insensitivity attitude towards the occupied people’s culture by the imperialists is misleading. This is because it leads to the imperialists adopting a romanticized view of the very culture they blatantly choose to ignore.
For instance, in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Gallimard’s affair with the mysterious oriental ‘woman’ Song brings him much closer to Toulon a Commander at the French embassy who goes as far as complimenting him by intonating that, “Some of us have to be content with the wives of the expatriate community” (45).
This illustrates a certain secret admiration and appreciation of the oriental women by the then imperialist. The commander is also seen to ask for ‘Song’s’ number from Gallimard when they are bidding each other farewell just before the latter is shipped back to France.
Similarly, the fact that Gallimard had appeared quite comfortable at being strung along by Song in complete ignorance that she was a man shows some naïve fascination by that which is foreign. In Aime Cesaire’s ‘A Tempest’, this imperialistic romanticism with the foreign culture has also been highlighted. For instance Gonzalo romanticizes on the idea of colonizing an island but places emphasize on the need to preserve the indigenous people’s way of life.
Not all the dynamics of Western imperialism in Asia bring about conflict. This has been illustrated in both David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Aime Cesaire’s ‘A Tempest’. In the former, song expresses her enthrallment with western men and it is also clear that she had great affection for him when at last she undisguised herself as a man, she assured Gallimard that she was still the same ‘butterfly’. In the latter play, Arial seems to harbor no ill feelings towards Prospero her colonizer.
She even dreams of a peaceful world where all could live in harmony. Neither of the two plays pronounces absolute triumph for either the imperialist or the occupied. Rather it turns out that subsequent events can be argued to lean towards either of the two sides. In the play ‘A Tempest’, we see that Arial was eventually set free by Prospero.
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This would seem to put emphasize on the need for the oppressed to co-operate with the oppressors in the sheer hope that all would turn out for the best. On the other hand, we see Calibo running away which can be perceived as a personal achievement towards the determination of self will.
Prospero also at the end of the play is left in self doubt when he confess that calibos has been the first man to have ever made him doubt himself. To put this in to context, it appears that imperialist conquest is founded on false hopes and sheer subjugation which when challenged by the occupied suffers sudden loss in confidence resulting into a massive crumble.
Similarly in M. Butterfly Gallimard confesses to have discovered the distinction between that which is fanciful and that which is real. This is a clear submission that earlier on his view of the oriental woman was miscued by the degree of romanticism that had formed in his mind due to earlier misconceptions and ignorance.
Power relations, stereotypes, east vs. west, and man vs. woman, race, and gender are some of the issues that can be studied in attempts to define the dynamics of Western imperialism in Asia with specific reference to David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.
It is clear that the imperialists and particularly Gallimard’s presence in Asia is prompted by greed and the urge to dominate and conquer. However, the secret fascination and admiration of the occupied population brings forth some interesting interactions between the imperialist and the occupied people.
It has shown that although the imperialists might possess financial and military powers to dominate other less fortunate societies, their failure to capture the aspirations, culture and ambitions of the conquered is not only self defeating but myopic in nature since it eventually misleads them to harbor misconceptions about the occupied people. This way, the occupier in the end ends up swallowing humble pie when they discover that whatever they had held close as truth was nothing but pure hog wash.
It is also my feeling that although the imperialist try very hard to impose their culture on those that they occupy, eventually the desired results are far from what was originally targeted. For instance, in Aime Cesaire’s ‘A Tempest’, we see Arial being set free by Prospero and Calibo running away to his freedom. Putting the two scenarios into context will reveal that in the end both the imperialist and the occupied will have inevitably borrowed something from each other.
Taking Calibo’s case into consideration, though he might have run away to get his freedom, his way of life would have changed significantly by having encountered Prospero. Similarly in M. Butterfly, the interaction between Gallimard and Song definitely influence each others’ view of the other and their subsequent cultures. The society that rises from the ashes of colonization will be a hybrid (Fanon, 2005).
Inasmuch as a lot of views have been expressed concerning the work of David Henry Hwang in M. Butterfly, I would personally not fully agree totally with the picture portrayed in the play during this time and age.
To echo the words of Fanon (2005) that ‘The society that rises from the ashes of colonization will be a hybrid, I tend to feel that there is a great disconnect in ideas between the earlier imperialist and the present day imperialist. With the advance in technology, I feel that most of the stereotypes depicted in the play have gradually been demystified .
Thus it would be inconceivable for today’s generation to go on carrying on just as their ancestors did. However, other new misconceptions are bound to crop up since any interaction initiated with imperialistic intentions is bound to embrace subjugation and dominance of others as a certain necessity. Since to dominate needs a complete lack of conscience, feelings of guilt are bound to be shrouded under a façade of stereotype and fabrication, thus it is a definite that new stereotypes have to emerge
“Comparing David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest.” Web.
David Henry, Hwang M Butterfly, Chicago; Gale Group Publishers, 2002.
Matt Stoltz, Gravity. 2002. Web.
Michael Meyer, Thinking and Writing About Literature, Connecticut; Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2000.