Defence of the Colonized in “M.Butterfly” and “Death of the King’s Horseman”

Note: I wrote this essay for one of my undergraduate English courses at the University of Toronto.

Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman” and Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” are both postcolonial prose. Contrary to Hwang, Soyinka forbids the readers from reading the text as representation of “clash of cultures”. However, a closer analysis of the play suggests that it is in fact about clash of culture as well as about gaining an understanding of the idea of transition and its importance to the Yaruban culture. Both “Death and the King’s Horseman” and “M.Butterfly” are an attempt to conserve the importance and validity of the indigenous cultures. The texts achieve this purpose in two steps: 1) representation of the oppression of the indigenous culture; and 2) defence of the indigenous culture.  Whereas, “M.Butterfly” presents a bold defence of the Oriental culture, “Death and the King’s Horseman” presents a passive defence of the Yoruba culture. In this essay I’ll prove the above claim as follows: The endogenous race/culture is shown as oppressed through recurring themes of ethnocentricity, orientalism, alterity and colonial mimicry. Finally, the defence of the endogenous culture is presented directly and indirectly through dialogue and structure.

The theme of Orientalism is persistent throughout both of these texts. Orientalism refers to Western/White-centered belief that establishes racial “Others” as sexually exhausted, passive, feminine, and in need of civilization. This belief in the inferiority of the racial “Others” was used as an excuse by the European and English nations to colonize other regions. The colonists are represented as persistent in disciplining the indigenous culture. This persistent practice stems from the fact that they regard the natives as comparatively ignorant and in need of civilization and guidance: “You think you’ve stamped it all…lurking under the surface somewhere (pg.26)”. It is obvious that the colonizers consider it their responsibility to clean up the act of the Yoruban natives. Simon Pilkings, the district officer from “Death and the King’s Horseman”, shows no respect for their rituals and does not try to understand the significance of these rituals for the Yoruba people. He stubbornly tries to enforce British law on an African culture. Thus, the freedom of the natives is compromised under the colonial rule. As in “Death and the King’s Horseman”, Orientalism is evident in M. Butterfly as well. Haedicke has established the following translation of gender differences into political language: Male=West and Female=East (Ma, RuiQi, 1996). Madame Butterfly is Gallimard’s fantasy of a perfect woman who is submissive and feminine. Butterfly excites Gallimard because she gives him a false sense of security by allowing him to have power over her: “Song:…I have already given you my shame (pg.35).” It is obvious that Gallimard doesn’t really love Song but his fantasy, Madame Butterfly. He is excited by the idea of exercising power over his Butterfly: “Gallimard: ..writhe on a needle (pg.31-32).” Here, Hwang is metaphorically stating that West loves to exercise power over the East since this satisfies its fantasy of the passive East. The West loves the idea of power over weak nations and not strong ones because it gives it a false sense of security. This is obvious during Gallimard’s dialogue with the girl in Act 5. She deliberately removes her clothes in front of Gallimard. This terrifies him because such boldness challenges his power and authority over the female sex.: “Girl: Then slowly, I lift off my …Gallimard: No. She’s-why is she naked? (pg.11).”

Both of the plays allude to the political position of the East. However, they adopt different strategies. Soyinka directly represents the power of the colonists by allowing the readers to observe the relationship of Amusa and Joseph with Picklings and Simon’s attitude towards tribal rituals. Simon Picklings is shown to exert full influence over the natives. In contrast, Hwang employs extended metaphors to convey the same message. Song’s character is marginalized. We rarely come in contact with the real Song. Most of the time, its Madame Butterfly who demands our attention. Thus, Hwang is alluding to marginalization and subordination of females (East) in a patriarchal society ruled by men (West). Females are regarded as blank pages on which men can freely write the things they want such as submission and femininity (Ma, RuiQi, 1996). Thus, Hwang is alluding to how powerful imperialists set out to colonize relatively poorer nations, draw borders, and establish colonies wherever they will. Butterfly is played by a man disguised as a woman. A real female protagonist is missing, which reinforces the idea of marginalization of the female gender in a patriarchal society. In addition, Song enters the courtroom dressed as a male; and, thus the voice of females is completely removed from the courtroom arena (Ma, RuiQi, 1996). These extended metaphors reinforce the idea that Orient’s position in World Politics is considered to be weaker than that of the English. Thus, the theme of Orientalism is persistent throughout both texts on literal and metaphoric levels.

Additionally, both plays analyze how ethnocentric beliefs of the exogenous culture lead to oppression of the endogenous culture. Ethnocentricity refers to the practise of viewing other cultures and ethnicity in terms of one’s own. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, Elesin is captured by Simon Picklings because he plans to commit ritual suicide. Elesin’s downfall is mainly due to two reasons: 1) his love for material life (he delayed his ritual suicide since he preferred to be with his newly-wed wife during his last hours); and 2) Simon’s ethnocentric belief that suicide is wrong. If Simon would not have interfered, the ritual would have continued after the terms of marriage were fulfilled. Simon’s interference played a vital role in causing this Yaruban tragedy and thus lead to the oppression of the Yaruban natives. Similarly, in “M. Butterfly”, Gallimard’s downfall occurs because of his ethnocentric belief that his Butterfly is a modest and inexperienced Oriental maiden. The roots of his fantasy lie in the Western culture of that time as well as his weak sexual ego. During that time the Orientalist beliefs about Oriental men and women prevailed in the West. Thus, he, like many other Westerners, view Madame Butterfly as a passive and self-sacrificing female who is his “perfect woman”: “She is outwardly…It is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education (pg.27).”  He imposes conditions of passivity and inferiority on her. Song uses his ethnocentric beliefs to trick him into believing that she is exactly what he thinks she is, a submissive Oriental woman: “Gallimard:…She feels inferior to them-and to me (pg.31).” Hwang is again referring to how the West tends to impose conditions of passivity onto the East.

Ethnocentric views prevail because people usually perceive other cultures and nations through a cultural lens. They use a set of preconceptions to become familiar with the foreign culture. Ultimately when they come in contact with the foreign culture, these preconceptions may act as a barrier which prevents them from truly understanding the foreign culture. Ethnocentric views also persist because of alterity. Alterity is a term that describes the possibility that the beliefs, priorities, and actions of one person, group, and culture may not be understandable to an observer no matter how hard one tries. Thus, alterity alludes to the possibility that there will always be some gaps in the understanding between two unique individuals or cultures. Dialogical alterity is a type of alterity that affirm the “Otherness” of others, insofar as the other entails different histories, traditions, and range of experiences (Bouchard, L.D, 1990). Dialogical alterity is visible in both of the plays. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, Olunde engages in a conversation with Jane merely on the basis that he has received Western education and thus partially if not completely removed the distance between himself and the Westerners. Jane and Olunde are unable to understand each other fully because of dialogical alterity. Thus, they utter ethnocentric statements. Jane considers him to be a heartless person because he seems so cold about his father’s death. Olunde is very sarcastic about the ball since its taking place in the middle of a war: “Olunde: Others would call it decadence (pg.53).” It is obvious that British ways offend Olunde; but he doesn’t voice his thoughts clearly and instead chooses to ask sarcastic questions. He is adapting to the Western culture but is still sarcastic towards it; and, he tends to keep his Yaruban identity separate and distinct from his Western identity. Here, dialogical alterity does not classify Olunde as “Other” because he has been Westernized. He is adopting the ways of the British and this makes him one of them. In contrast, his father is jailed because he completely refuses to abide by British rules. Here, again dialogical alterity leads to oppression of the natives. Similarly, in “M.Butterfly”, dialogical alterity is responsible for Song’s oppression by Gallimard. His fantasy of Madame Butterfly is a result of dialogical alterity. Gallimard believes that Song is submissive. Thus in Scene 13, he forces her to admit that she is his Butterfly. It is clear that Song does not want to be called his Butterfly. She/he hesitates to admit that she/he is Gallimard’s fantasy. It should be noted that this scene is placed next to the one in which Gallimard gets promoted. By juxtapositioning Gallimards’s promotion with Song’s submission, the author is alluding to the fact that just because West is powerful it thinks that East should be submissive to it and obey it just like Song obeys Gallimard. Here dialogical alterity at the political level is presented metaphorically. Gallimard (West) is unable to understand Song/Butterfly (East). All he understands about her is how he sees her as his fantasy. Thus, real Song (East) is already established as “Other” and hence oppressed due to dialogical alterity. The West is following its set of preconceptions about East and is looking at it through a cultural lens. West falsely believes that East is powerless before it and no matter how hard East and West try to understand each other there will always be a gap between them. Thus, Song and Gallimard are unable to interact on a realistic level because of dialogical alterity. In Scene 7, Gallimard calls Chinese arrogant while talking to Helga. However, in front of Song/Butterfly, he hides his true feelings towards Chinese people. This could be because he does not want to hurt his Butterfly or because he thinks that Butterfly will not be able to understand why he feels like this towards Chinese people.

Furthermore, these plays present oppression of the endogenous culture in the form of colonial mimicry. Colonial Mimicry is defined as the desire for a reformed, recognizable “Other”, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite (Cheng, Annie-Anlin, 1997). This means that the dominant group is mimicked by the oppressed group: “The colonized subject must be disguised, mimed, as almost the same, but not quite. His/her incomplete imitation in turn serves as a sign…of the failure of authenticity (Cheng, Annie-Anlin, 1997).”  Thus, the colonized will always be viewed as the “Other” because his/her “reformation” can never be complete; i.e., he/she will always hold some of his/her own cultural views dear to heart despite assimilation into the dominant culture. Colonial mimicry thus is a result of oppression of the colonized. The colonized mimics the dominant exogenous culture, willingly or unwillingly, to ensure his/her safety. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, colonial mimicry is evident when the African servants are seen dressed in English clothes; e.g., in Act 3, Amusa is seen wearing knickers like English do. As Amusa and Joseph become subservient to the colonizers, they embody the traits of docility and intellectual confusion (Olakunle, George, 1999). This is obvious as we contrast Iyaloja’s and Elesin’s eloquent speeches with those of Amusa and Joseph. Speeches of Amusa and Joseph do not contain any beautiful metaphors and are not eloquent at all. Amusa, the sergeant, speaks least eloquently: “Amusa (commencing his retreat): We dey..we no warn you (pg.39).” The author seems to be pointing to the fact that the further a native gets from his culture, more docile he/she becomes. However, Olunde does not become docile by distancing himself from his culture. This is because he never really leaves his culture like Amusa and Joseph did. Unlike Amusa and Joseph, he intends to participate in Yaruban rituals. Moreover, Olunde doesn’t blindly mimic Westerners but rather tries to understand them in order to be one of them. Olunde, Joseph, and Amusa are hybrids (Olakunle, George, 1999). They have integrated Western ways into their life, but they still respect Yaruban rituals. Amusa is horrified when he sees the Picklings wearing egungun because he takes the value of the mask at the metaphysical level. In contrast, Olunde is not at all shocked to see Jane wearing the mask at the ball. This difference is due to Olunde’s Western education. His education allows him to understand that Jane would never wear the mask like natives do (Olakunle, George, 1999). Like Amusa and Joseph, Olunde is a hybrid because despite his Western education he still plans to follow the Yaruban traditions and rituals: “Olunde:…I would like to touch his body while it is still warm (pg. 56).”  Hybridity leads to disintegration of the self:

“By hybridity, I do not mean a condition where two discrete entities coexist or intersect in the same agent while at the same time retaining their distinct shapes and self-efficiency…I mean a situation where the two entities or identities are incommensurable and can therefore be entangled in the same subject…such hybridity functions ultimately as a result of deformation. (Olakunle, George, 1999)”

Since no one in their right mind would like to have a disintegrated/split self, hybridity and thus colonial mimicry are a result of oppression. Similarly, in “M.Butterfly”, Song represents colonial mimicry as an effect of oppression when he appears in the court wearing a suit. The only way to be recognized and respected by the French court is to appear like a Westerner and not a Chinese: “Song does not come to power in the end nor assume the success of his political critique by acquiring some authentic Chinese male identity…he does so by donning an Armani suit (Olakunle, George, 1999).”

Lastly, both of the plays present a defence of the indigenous culture. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, the Picklings are introduced while they were wearing the egungan. Metaphorically, this implies that Picklings, representative of English bureaucracy, are in reality not any different from the Yaruban natives. Thus, deep within the English are the same as Yaruban in that they have the potential to be equally savage. Simon is shown as a person who has no respect for his own religion.  Thus, the traits of hybridity (disintegrated self) are superimposed onto him. In Author’s note, Soyinka asks his readers not to interpret the novel as “clash of cultures”. In accordance with the author’s note, several critics are of the view that this novel is not about cultural clash. These critics maintain that Elesin’s failure to commit suicide was due to his longing of the material world and not because of Simon’s interference. However one cannot ignore the fact that if Yaruba was not colonized, then this ritual would have continued after the rights of marriage were fulfilled. Thus, this novel is essentially about “clash of cultures”. Then why state the opposite in author’s note? Soyinka’s strategy is to make the readers more focused onto the Yaruban culture and less on British ways and discourse. He prepares the readers to do so by inviting them to look at the play’s “threnodic essence” and not to think of it as “clash of cultures”. (Soyinka, 1975) He also foregrounds Yaruban myths, metaphors, and people. Only fragments of the Western lifestyle are shown, and the West is essentially set in the background: “Olunde (waves his hand towards the background). The PRINCE is dancing…give to that (Pg.53)”. Thus, this writing style allows a passive defence of the Yaruban culture and heritage. In contrast, Hwang defends the Orientals very boldly on literal and metaphoric level. On literal level, Hwang uses Song to voice his thoughts about Western Orientalist mentality: “The West…can’t think for herself (pg. 83).” Furthermore, Hwang metaphorically reverses the “gendering of ethnicity”. (Lye, Colleen,1995)  Song switches gender at a “real” level. However, Gallimard switches gender on a figurative level as he wears Butterfly’s kimono. His gender switching is a result of “ambiguous sexuality”. (Lye, Colleen, 1995)  Thus, Gallimard’s feminization serves as an extended metaphor to present the feminization of the West.

In conclusion, a thorough comparison of “M. Butterfly” and “Death and the King’s Horseman” leads one to conclude that these postcolonial proses serve as a voice of the indigenous culture. The authors successfully depict the oppression of the indigenous culture by depicting events that can be analyzed in terms of orientalism, ethnocentricity, alterity, and colonial mimicry. Both authors attempt to conserve the validity of the indigenous cultures by imposing negative qualities, which were originally directed towards the colonized cultures, onto the colonizers. Hwang’s gender switching metaphor and Soyinka’s foregrounding technique are good examples of how the authors manage to redirect the negative qualities onto imperialists. At the end of these plays, the readers realize that there is actually no real difference between West and East. Thus the readers view them at equal levels and identify the victims of oppression. Finally, the readers come to appreciate the beauty of the indigenous culture and the courage of the natives.


  1. Bouchard, L.D. (1990). Integrity and alterity: Death and the King’s Horseman in the theater of understanding. Morphologies of faith: essays in religion and culture in honor of Nathan A. Scott, Jr.  Scholars Press. Atlanta. pp. 217–43
  2. Cheng, Annie-Anlin (1997). The Melancholy of Race. The Kenyon Review. (19:1)  pp. 49–61
  3. Hwang, H. D. (1989). M.Butterfly Penguin Books USA Inc. New York, USA
  4. Lye, Colleen (1995). M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority discourse in an international frame. London: Minnesota UP
  5. Ma,RuiQi (1996). The Ideology of Cultural and Gender Misunderstanding in D.H. Hwang’s M.Butterfly. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. (23: 4) pp. 1053–63.
  6. Olakunle, George. (1999). Cultural Criticism in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Representations. (67). pp. 67–91
  7. Soyinka, Wole (1975) Death and the King’s Horseman. W.W.Norton and Company New York. USA

Copyright © by Arzoo Zaheer. All Rights Reserved.

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