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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Butterfly

James M. Cain

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Butterfly

Title: The Butterfly
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1947
Length: 107 pages
Availability: in Three by Cain - US
The Butterfly - UK
in Three by Cain - UK
in Three by Cain - Canada
in Three by Cain - India
Butterfly - France
Blutiger Schmetterling - Deutschland
  • Includes a Preface by Cain
  • The Butterfly was made into the (notoriously bad) film Butterfly in 1982, directed by Matt Cimber and starring Stacy Keach, Pia Zadora, and Orson Welles

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Our Assessment:

B- : good, dark ideas and some decent dialogue, but not fleshed out enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Herald Trib. Book Rev. . 26/1/1947 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/1/1947 R.G.Davis
The New Yorker . 1/2/1947 Hamilton Basser
San Francisco Chronicle . 27/1/1947 J.H.Jackson
Time . 27/1/1947 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The sexual and murderous violence seems briefly real while it is happening. But it is so abrupt and grotesque, so meaningless and external that those responsible for it seem hardly human beings at all. The reader-spectator is left safely outside them, unidentified and irresponsible." - Robert Gorham Davis, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Author Cain's introduction is so spirited that readers are likely to start his new novel with respect and sympathy. Unfortunately, they will find that The Butterfly, despite its air of dealing frankly with the delicate and ancient Oedipus theme, is about as incestuous as Tarzan of the Apes." - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Narrator Jess Tyler lives alone on his small farm in a coal town where they stopped mining years ago. His wife, Belle, left him ages ago and he's been alone ever since -- until the beginning of this story, when he comes home to find a very forward nineteen year-old girl sitting on his stoop.
       She plays coy for a while, but finally lets him in on her secret: she's his daughter, Kady, whom he hasn't seen since she was small. "Your little girl. The one you like."
       He takes her in. Problem is, she plays more than just coy -- and Jess finds he likes his grown-up little girl in entirely new ways now. He's pretty good at resisting, for a while, despite her teasing, but he can't entirely resist her allure. When Kady takes a job in town he hatches a plan to keep her around again, and make a bit of cash to keep her happy with: they set up a moonshine operation.
       Jess rarely ventures into town, and leaves a lot up to Kady. She certainly knows how to handle herself -- a bit too well, he sometimes wonders. But there are a lot of things where he finds he doesn't want to dig too deeply:

But some things, I don't know where she could have bought them. For instance, the hydrometer she got, that you have to test the proof with, came in a long pasteboard box. And stamped on the box was "Property of Carbon City High School." I kept telling myself I had to ask her about it, but I never did.
       Complications ensue in their relationship. Kady had a baby, which comes into their lives. And the baby has a peculiar butterfly birthmark .....
       Kady means to marry the father of her child, but Jess interferes -- doing what he thinks is right, which, it turns out, might not be so right after all.
       Murder and confusion ensue. Jess and Kady wind up married, but that can't last -- but Cain at least twists things beyond the simple problem of a little incest (though he perhaps twists a bit too much).
       The closing isn't half-bad, but the melodrama along the way is a bit much. There's not enough meat to much of the story, and the characters aren't fleshed out enough to really make it all convincing. Only in some of the dialogue -- especially the risqué repartee between reluctant father and devil may care daughter -- does Cain really succeed.
       It's an entertaining story, but not entirely satisfying, trying to do too much at once. But it's short -- barely a hundred pages -- and certainly fairly gripping much of the way.

       Cain also offers a preface to the book, a piece that's more of biographical interest than anything else.

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Butterfly: Reviews: Butterfly - the film: James M. Cain: Other books by James Cain under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977) was, among other things, managing editor of The New Yorker and a screenwriter. He published his first novel when he was forty-two, and achieved great success with several hard-boiled classics.

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