Strange Butterfly: Fritz Lang's Harakiri (1919)

by John Mucci and Richard Felnagle
Part 2: Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème (1887)

Most sources credit the origin of the Butterfly story to the 1887 novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, a French naval officer and prolific novelist. His novels are filled with tales based on his temporary marriages and romantic flings in foreign ports. Madame Chyrysanthème was Loti's eighth published book, a sort of fictionalized journal in which he describes events that occurred while his ship docked for repairs in the treaty port of Nagasaki in 1885. Jonathan Wisenthal's 2006 book A Vision of the Orient: Texts, Intertexts, and Contexts of Madame Butterfly  includes his essay, “Inventing the Orient,” in which he gives this background on Loti's story:
“Last week,” [Loti] wrote to a friend back in France, “I was married to a young girl of seventeen. She is called Okane-San. We celebrated with a lantern procession and a tea party. The validity of the marriage is entirely at the whim of the two parties.” [ . . . ] Such temporary marriages were not uncommon in a port that was much visited by sailors from Western countries.

Wikipedia adds the following:

Originally written in French and published in 1887, Madame Chrysanthème was very successful in its day, running to 25 editions in the first five years of its publication with translations into several languages including English. It has been considered a key text in shaping western attitudes toward Japan at the turn of the 20th century.

The following discussion of Loti’s book contains excerpts taken from a public domain version in English available through Amazon .

The novel begins with a prologue, in which Pierre (Loti's fictional alter-ego) is standing on the bridge of his ship about to enter the harbor at Nagasaki. He is accompanied by his frequent companion Yves, and they are discussing their plans for their layover in Nagasaki. Pierre announces,

“For myself,” I said, “I shall marry at once.”

"Ah!" said Yves, with the indifferent air of one whom nothing can surprise.

"Yes—I shall choose a little, creamy-skinned woman with black hair and cat's eyes. She must be pretty and not much bigger than a doll. You shall have a room in our house. It will be a little paper house, in a green garden, deeply shaded.
Pierre Loti (pseudony of Julian Viaud) as portrayed in a caricature from an 1895 issue of Vanity Fair​.
Once on shore, Pierre loses no time in engaging the services of a marriage broker, and soon Pierre is married to Chrysanthème. But within a few days, Pierre becomes somewhat dissatisfied with his bride.

What thoughts are running through that little brain? My knowledge of her language is still too limited to enable me to find out. Moreover, it is a hundred to one that she has no thoughts whatever. And even if she had, what do I care? I have chosen her to amuse me, and I should really prefer that she should have one of those insignificant little thoughtless faces like all the others.

A few lines later, Pierre confirms that he is not in love with his bride:

After all, I do not positively detest this little Chrysanthème, and when there is no repugnance on either side, habit turns into a makeshift of attachment.

Eventually, Pierre’s friend Yves begins to spend a lot of time with Chrysanthème, and Pierre becomes a little jealous, but when Pierre confronts Yves, he denies trying poach Pierre’s wife.

Once repairs on the ship are complete, Pierre prepares to depart, leaving Chrysanthème a few silver dollars in fulfillment of the marriage contract. As he declared at the beginning, he wanted a marriage, not a love affair, and that's apparently all he got. In further novels, Yves continues to share Loti’s adventures in various foreign ports.

Photo showing Yves on the left, Loti on the right, and the actual girl Loti "married" in the center.
Today, the Butterfly story is probably best known through Puccini's opera (which we discuss further on), but Puccini's opera is not the only one based on this story.

Loti’s story actually inspired an earlier opera. In 1893, French composer André Messager premiered his Madame Chrysanthème in Paris—about nine years before Puccini would premiere Madama Butterfly.

Messager’s opera follows the plot of Loti’s book fairly closely, except that in the opera, Pierre seems genuinely to fall in love with Chrysanthème. (It’s an opera! What would you expect?) As in the book, Pierre grows suspicious that Yves has feelings for Chrysanthème, but the problem is resolved by the last chorus.

The opera is almost never performed today, but has been recorded.

In the meantime, a certain Philadelphia attorney became acquainted wtih Loti's story—and didn't like what he read.
Cover of the score for Messager's seldom performed opera.