Each of the major characters in the opera can not only be slotted into each of the three topographic landscapes of Freud’s theory – Id, Superego, and Ego – but that the overall structure of the opera is representative of the entire model Freud is positing where there is a) desire, b) a mediating conscience, and c) an individual who must decide what to consciously pursue and what to repress.
One possible assembly of these pieces could consist of Pinkerton as the Id, Suzuki as the Superego, and Butterfly as the Ego. Here Pinkerton represents that which Butterfly desires to have: a husband who will give her life new identity and take her away from her previous, unsatisfactory life. However, Suzuki, who is always close at hand (much as we can’t ever escape our ever-nagging conscience) and whom is necessary for Butterfly to do pretty much anything in the home, represents the Superego who is attempting to instruct Butterfly that her decision to pursue Pinkerton is doomed. Finally, Butterfly is the Ego which must try to negotiate between the two, and on a few occasions verbally threatens Suzuki because Butterfly does not like being confronted with the painful advice being given when Suzuki tries to get Butterfly to really consider the consequences of her desire, or in other words to confront the possibility she is repressing her fear that this relationship is doomed.
Within this Freudian dynamic we can see the pleasure principle at work in Butterfly. She substitutes the pain she feels – the loss (lack) of Pinkerton’s physical presence, but also the pain of the repressed fear she has as to his actual intentions – with a reality she can control: a delusion of certainty that he is absolutely coming back (transference). Pinkerton’s absence is similar to the Fort-da game Freud describes in that Butterfly is processing this unusually long and painful separation as a sort of pressure gauge whose eventual relief will produce an even greater pleasure upon his return. In this sense she might believe Pinkerton’s absence is actually a voluntary renunciation she has control over because she tells herself it is her duty as the wife to support her hardworking husband even while he is away. She is, in her mind, the good American housewife who will be rewarded for her sacrifice.
Yet Butterfly’s separation (lack) from her desire (Pinkerton), the object she desperately needs in order to complete or at least maintain her constructed identity as a dutiful American housewife, is really a separation from a desire she can never really possess. For her Pinkerton is the key to her shedding the Japanese identity into the ideal American housewife, yet which itself is something she has almost no concept of other than what she imagines that to even mean. Probably she has never even met an American woman before and has based her identity on what Pinkerton has told her it could be like. Ironically, Pinkerton might not even know what the ideal American housewife is supposed to consist of!
It is in this misunderstanding that we can see Butterfly attempt to symbolize her desire through a sort of created language when she wears the American style dress and sets the house up with western locks (symbolic of her repressing her Japanese-ness). She’s trying to approximate a meaning to a system she’s practically ignorant of (American culture). And the further she commits to this reasoning the more she’s invested into it because the consequences would be shame and the ridicule of everyone in the village. How her family and the villagers see her drives her on to separate herself from that identity, in effect her identity is being influenced by the outside world, an influence she rebels against.
Butterfly is living a highly fragmented existance, she is neither her old self nor is she the self she desires to be, she’s become, in effect, the uncanny in that he looks like Butterfly, but she also no longer resembles Butterfly. Not to mention the name Butterfly being problematic itself. She is a prosthetic, what we call the Ideal-I, a being existing somewhere between the experiential I she is and the ideal person she can never be.
Lacan explains we can never really posses what we desire, yet Butterfly does wind up back in Pinkerton’s embrace, literally the embrace of her desire. Yet in the Freudian sense to completely indulge that desire, to let that animal nature we repress to fully embrace and nurture us (as Pinkerton does as he holds her like a helpless child as she dies from her wound), would be to strip away our humanity and figuratively cause our death, a psychic death dramatized in the opera as her suicide since that accepted embrace of the repressed desire (the animal nature) is a form of suicide. She has attempted to return to a sense of wholeness, but by accepting the embrace of this Ego, it is a perverted and unnatural act that strips her away of her ultimate identity as a living human being.