Strange Butterfly: Fritz Lang's Harakiri (1919)

by John Mucci and Richard Felnagle
Part 3: John Luther Long’s “Madame Butterfly” (1898)

John Luther Long, a Philadelphia lawyer, apparently became familiar with Loti’s story of Madame Chrysanthème and became incensed. The lack of any consequences for Lucky Pierre’s dalliance with his seventeen-year-old bride did not ring true to Long, whose sister had spent some time in Japan as the wife of a Methodist missionary. She had seen a different side to such temporary marriages, and Long was inspired to write a kind of rebuttal in the form of a short story called “Madame Butterfly,” first published in Century Magazine in 1898.

Long's story begins in a very similar way to Loti's novel. B. F. Pinkerton is standing on the bridge of his ship and discussing the possibility of a temporary marriage while their ship is in port. Pinkerton tells his friend that he isn’t interested, but a paragraph later . . .

Pinkerton not only got himself married; he provided himself with an establishment, creating his menage in quite his own way and entirely for his own comfort. With the aid of a marriage-broker, he found both a wife and a house in which to keep her. This he leased for nine hundred and ninety-nine years. Not, he explained to his wife later, that he could hope for the felicity of residing there with her so long, but because, being a mere “barbarian,” he could not make other terms. He did not mention that the lease was determinable, nevertheless, at the end of any month, by the mere neglect to pay the rent. Details were distasteful to Pinkerton; besides, she would probably not appreciate the humor of this.
John Luther Long, author of the short story "Madame Butterfly."
Pinkerton then sets about trying to “Americanize” his wife, Cho-Cho-San, by encouraging her to convert to Christianity, a move which eventually causes her family to ostracize her.

But after three pages in the printed magazine version, Pinkerton’s ship has sailed, and Long then picks up the story well after Pinkerton’s baby, Trouble, has come into the world. For years, Cho-Cho-San has been waiting for Pinkerton's return, which will occur, as he jokingly told her, when the robins return to their nests.

Eventually, Cho-Cho-San goes to visit the American consul, Sharpless, who tries to explain that Pinkerton was joking about the robins. Sharpless urges Cho-Cho-San to remarry, and subsequently, she listens to the proposal of a rich man named Yamadori, who has been to the United States twice already and both times has been married and divorced. (The implication is that he is Pinkerton’s doppelganger—doing the same thing, only in America!) To no one’s surprise, Cho-Cho-San rejects his proposal.

Eventually, Pinkerton's ship does return to the harbor. Cho-Cho-San and her maid Suzuki prepare the house for his return. However, days pass, and Pinkerton doesn’t show. Then, Long tells us:

In a week a passenger steamer came into the bay. They [Suzuki and Cho-Cho-San] took no interest in her [the steamer]. But the next day, quite by accident, they saw him for the first time. He was on the deck of the strange ship. A blonde woman was on his arm.

And on the following morning the warship had disappeared from the harbor.

Apparently, though, the steamer had remained in port.

Illustration appearing with the original publication of Long's story in The Century Magazine, Volume 55 Issue 3
​(January 1898), pp. 374-393.

Cho-Cho-San then goes to the see Sharpless again. Long doesn't explain directly, but the implication is that while Pinkerton's ship was in the harbor, Sharpless had at least one interview with Pinkerton and tried to make him reconcile with Cho-Cho-San, but Pinkerton was not willing because of his acute embarrassment (and cowardice) and because his American wife would be arriving soon by steamer. Sharpless then gives Cho-Cho-San an envelope containing money, a gift from Pinkerton. Cho-Cho-San, nearly overcome, collapses into a chair.

Then follows an immensely cruel scene: Adelaide, Pinkerton's wife, bursts into the consul's office unannounced and demands,

“Can you reach my husband at Kobe—by telegraph?”

“I think so. Who is your husband?” He took up a writing-pad as he spoke.

“Lieutenant Pinkerton of the — ”

“One moment, for God's sake!” It was too late. The eyes of the little woman in the chair were fixed on his.

They even tried to smile a little, wearily, at the poor result of his compassionate lying. She shook her head for silence.

“I beg your pardon; I’m—I'm—ill,” said the consul, roughly. Insufficient as the explanation was, he made no other. “Proceed.”

Understanding what has just happened is crucial. Sharpless had never met Adelaide before, so he had no idea before that moment that she was Pinkerton’s wife. He yells out, “One moment, for God's sake!” in a vain attempt to stop Adelaide from saying anything else in Cho-Cho-San’s presence. But it's too late. Cho-Cho-San gazes at Sharpless silently—she understands her predicament, but she doesn't want Sharpless to say anything to Adelaide. Then, it just gets worse.

“I should like you to send this telegram: 'Just saw the baby and his nurse. Can’t we have him at once? He is lovely. Shall see the mother about it tomorrow. Was not at home when I was there to-day. Expect to join you Wednesday week per Kioto Maru. May I bring him along? ADELAIDE.'”

As she advanced and saw Cho-Cho-San, she stopped in open admiration.

“How very charming—how lovely—you are, dear! Will you kiss me, you pretty—plaything!”

“No,” said Cho-Cho-San, staring at her.

“Ah, well,” laughed the other, “I don’t blame you. They say you don't do that sort of thing. I quite forgive our men for falling in love with you. Thanks for permitting me to interrupt you. And, Mr. Sharpless, will you get that off at once? Good day!” She went with the hurry in which she had come. It was the blonde woman they had seen on the deck of the passenger steamer.

Scene from the 1915 Mary Pickford film. Butterfly goes to visit Mr. Sharpless, the American consul.
After Adelaide departs, Cho-Cho-San returns the envelope containing Pinkerton’s money, and she also gives Sharpless the last of the money Pinkerton had left with her originally. She then goes back to her house and takes down her father's knife:

She sat quite still, and waited till night fell. Then she lighted the andon, and drew her toilet-glass toward her. She had a sword in her lap as she sat down. It was the one thing of her father’s which her relatives had permitted her to keep. [ . . . ] On the blade was this inscription: “To die with honor When one can no longer live with honor.”

The knife itself has not been mentioned previously in the story, but earlier, when the nakodo (marriage broker) has brought Yamadori to meet Cho-Cho-San, the following dialogue occurs. Yamadori asks,

“And her father, you say, was in the Satsuma rebellion on the emperor’s side?”

The marriage-broker satisfied his client to the last particular of her father’s bloody end.

That is the only history of the sword Long provides, but he then describes her attempt at suicide in gruesome detail:

Then she placed the point of the weapon at that nearly nerveless spot in the neck known to every Japanese, and began to press it slowly inward. She could not help a little gasp at the first incision. But presently she could feel the blood finding its way down her neck. It divided on her shoulder, the larger stream going" down her bosom. In a moment she could see it making its way daintily between her breasts. It began to congeal there. She pressed on the sword, and a fresh stream swiftly overran the other- redder, she thought. And then suddenly she could no longer see it. She drew the mirror closer. Her hand was heavy, and the mirror seemed far away. She knew that she must hasten. But even as she looked her fingers on the serpent of the guard, something within her cried out piteously. They had taught her how to die, but he had taught her how to live—nay, to make life sweet. Yet that was the reason she must die. Strange reason! She now first knew that it was sad to die. He had come, and substituted himself for everything; he had gone, and left her nothing.

The maid softly put the baby into the room. She pinched him, and he began to cry.

“Oh, pitiful Kwannon [Goddess of Mercy]! Nothing?”

The sword fell dully to the floor. The stream between her breasts darkened and stopped. Her head drooped slowly forward. Her arms penitently outstretched themselves toward the shrine. She wept:

“Oh, pitiful Kwannon!” The baby crept cooing into her lap. The little maid came in and bound up the wound.

So, Butterfly apparently changes her mind before it's too late, deciding that she has a higher duty to care for her child, and the last line of Long's story is his final rebuke to Pinkerton (and Loti): “When Mrs. Pinkerton called the next day at the little house on Higashi Hill it was quite empty.”

Does Cho-Cho-San live or die? The ending is ambiguous. Simply because Suzuki “bound up the wound” does not mean that Butterfly survived, but it is slanted enough toward that outcome, so we choose to believe so.

However, a certain American producer and playwright thought that was the wrong ending.

Illustration depicting Butterfly moments before her suicide attempt from the book version of Long's story (1903).