Madame Butterfly syndrome

By News Desk
May 30, 2024

While America’s geopolitical dominance is clear in the modern world, its reliability as an ally is increasingly questioned. A recent viewing of Puccini’s operatic masterpiece ‘Madame Butterfly’ evoked thoughts on the similarities of its storyline with the experiences of nations such as Pakistan in their relationship with the US. Madame Butterfly is about a fifteen-year-old geisha Cio Cio-San (Butterfly) whose family has fallen on hard times. In seeking a path to a new life, she renounces her family and religion and gets married to Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an officer serving on the US Navy ship Abraham Lincoln. But for Pinkerton, this is a temporary arrangement of convenience and after a short while, he goes back to the US, leaving Butterfly with a small son he never knew. She believes that her husband will return but Pinkerton marries a ‘real American wife’ and reappears only to claim his son. The end of the opera shows the suicide of Butterfly, who realizes that she has lost everything that she loved – her family, her husband and now also her son. She stabs herself with her father's sword that bears the inscription: "To die with honour, when one can no longer live with honour”.


The opera explores themes of cultural imperialism, the collision of Eastern and Western values in relationships, and the devastating consequences of deceit and betrayal. Pinkerton’s character embodies the reckless, indifferent attitudes often associated with Western colonial powers, while the tragic heroine’s fate underscores the human cost of exploitation of the weak. This dynamic can be seen as a critique of how imperial powers often disregarded and disrespected the cultures they dominated, leading to profound personal and societal disruptions. Viewing ‘Madame Butterfly’, one can’t miss a sense of similarity between the operatic theme and the embrace and abandonment in the history of Pakistan’s relationship with the US. Many other post-colonial nations have had similar experiences and even though the contexts may vary, the fundamental features of the mismatch of expectations and outcomes are common. The Madame Butterfly Syndrome is a risk vulnerable nations must be cognizant of when seeking a close relationship or entering a geopolitical alliance with the US.

Dr Rashid Jooma