I did not enjoy Salomé when I first read it. Something about it felt spare and maybe stilted compared to the other Wilde pieces we’ve been looking at this semester that come off as so quintessentially Wilde — it doesn’t tease and taunt the reader in the same way. Upon closer inspection, however, and after talking it over in class, Salomé does seem just as elusive and nuanced as other Wilde works. I especially appreciated the way our conversations about Orientalism and Wilde’s queerness intersected in this play, conflating the two ways of thinking about subversive or non-normative identities. Wilde taps into a particular, sexualized narrative of the biblically unnamed Salome, using tropes of the East to heighten her sexuality for the play, while also giving her a dark sense of agency. A lot of this hinges on her outward expressions of her desire for Jokanaan. In response to her advances, Jokanaan calls Salomé, “‘the wanton! The harlot! Ah! The daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and gilded eyelids’” (596). His attention to her gilded eyelids seems particularly significant here, as tied to her sexuality, as they suggest a sort of rich, outlandish otherness, resonant of other Orientalist descriptions of “heavy-lidded foreigners” and the like, a description that fits with the visual tradition and artistic representation that exists for this story, presenting similarly gilded Salomés as we looked at in class. The Beardsley illustrations go even further to solidify the engagement with these narratives of Otherness. Though made independently of Wilde’s influence, Beardsley’s illustrations also use styles and imagery from Eastern cultures (as an extraordinarily broad and nuanced grouping) to represent hyper-sexualized, gender-ambiguous, and bizarre figures as a response to Wilde’s text and narrative. The use of the exotic and the other allows both men a space to explore and represent the other in different ways, bending gender representations and sexual expectations.
It is interesting then to try to parse the ethics of such an engagement in Orientalism on Wilde’s part, considering his own multiple marginalized identities, being Irish and queer. Clearly a focus on the Other, and the pronounced difference and exoticism of Eastern cultures, allows Wilde access what he feels is a useful dichotomy for presenting other sorts of differences, a relationship similar to that which Kiberd articulates in his article, about the reciprocal constructing of Irishness and Englishness, defining the self as what the other is not — the same is happening in this play and is what allows us a queer reading of the narrative. However, just because Wilde can understand being the cultural or sexual other in England, does that give him the license to so egregiously use another Other, another binary, to think around the dynamics of his own marginalized identities? I do think there is a way to think about Wilde’s particular Orientalism, as informed by his own place amongst “others,” as different from those within an English heteronormativity doing the same, but that doesn’t mean his use of Orientalist tropes is in any way above critique (plus it happens in a lot of his other works, beyond just Salomé). Salomé still feels distinctly different from Wilde’s other plays, but it’s easier to see now how it functions in a particular way to allow him a different sort of identity exploration, one that hinges on constructions of the East.