Violence in Salomé

Salomé is unique to Wilde’s other pieces in its non-English setting and characters but also in the prevalence of violence. The two significant instances of such violence are the beheading of Jokanaan and the crushing to death of Salomé, and from an anticolonial reading of the text, both hold greater significance than just their deviation from Wilde’s typical style. Wilde’s lectures in the US drew heavily on his mother’s depictions of the dangers of English authority in Ireland In “Anticolonial Wilde,” Deglán Ó Donaghaile describes Wilde’s views on English violence saying, “English conquest of Ireland could be discerned through the ‘trail of blood’ left in its historical wake. Speranza described the colonization of Ireland as a psychological exercise as well as a military one” (40). The fact that Herod slips in blood in the play is a foreshadowing of the violence to come but also a recognition of the violence that already took place throughout history.

First considering the beheading of Jokanaan, it is important to note that this element comes from the original biblical story, “John the Baptist Beheaded.” While this was not one of the many additions Wilde made to the original story, it is indicative of Wilde’s anticolonial messages in the play and his choice to reimagine this specific biblical tale. John the Baptist was originally beheaded by King Herod at his daughter’s request, who was instructed to do so by her mother and King Herod’s wife, Herodias. Herod and his family rule Judea, and he is depicted as a monstrous figure in the Bible, attempting to have the infant Jesus killed earlier in the New Testament. However, the inclusion of Salomé holding the head of Jokanaan is one of Wilde’s many additions to the tale, and it functions to highlight the fascination and horror of the colonized other represented that Salomé represents as she revels in the violent beheading. In his book, Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History, Joseph Lennon discusses the phenomenon of “Irish Orientalism,” a method by which the Irish people reclaim discursive agency in discussions of English imperialism through the representation of other colonized peoples, specifically from Asia and the Middle East. Through his over-exaggeration of the violence in the biblical story, Wilde works within the European construction of the violent and passionate Orient to critique cultural expectations and justify Salomé’s horrific request because she is first objectified and condemned for her desires.

         The death of Salomé holds multiple meanings as well. Herod condemns her monstrous desires, saying, “Kill that woman!” (Wilde 605). The soldiers then crush Salomé to death beneath their shields. By calling her “that woman” Herod re-inforces Salomé’s position as “the other” throughout the entire play. From a post-colonial perspective, especially considering the oriental tropes that surround Salomé’s character, her death by shield is symbolic of the violence against the “Celtic Other” by English imperial powers. Wilde portrays her as childish, unreasonable, and out of control, and the Irish people were portrayed by the English using similar descriptions which he refutes in his lectures in the United States. Rather than explicitly condemn the violence of English imperialism in the play, Wilde again works within stereotypes against colonized peoples to demonstrate that the dangerous and reductive construction of the “Celtic Other” is actually a greater reflection of the English than the Irish.

The Political Wilde

         This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about the public perception of Wilde. I came into this class never having read any of Wilde’s works before, and what little knowledge I had about him was in the context of his homosexual relationships. We discussed the public misconception of Wilde as a “gay icon,” and especially as I write my final paper on the anticolonial Wilde, I am realizing that his queerness was the least of Wilde’s concerns in the political sphere. Obviously gay rights were not a thing in Wilde’s time, but as we read sections from the trial transcripts in Kaufman’s Gross Indecency, Wilde was less concerned with defending his homosexual acts than he was with defending his art. I was surprised when we then read Wilde’s criticisms of the prison system in De Profundis. He said:

With us prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear. To revisit the glimpses of the moon is not for us. Our very children are taken away. Those lovely links with humanity are broken. We are doomed to be solitary, while our sons still live. We are denied the one thing that might heal us and help us, that might bring balm to the bruised heart, and peace to the soul in pain (1016).

His criticisms of prison are in the context of his own suffering but his use of “us” and “we” suggests that he speaks on behalf of all prisoners and that he calls not only for his own reintegration into society but essentially advocates for prisoners as a whole.

         In my research for my final paper, I found that during his lecture tour of the United States, Wilde was outspoken on the issues of British imperialism and the erasure of Irish history and culture. He was heavily influenced by his mother’s work in the Young Ireland movement. In his chapter on “Anticolonial Wilde,” Deaglán Ó Donghaile says Wilde “contradicted the calls for political and cultural containment [of the Irish people]… and challenged the normalization of British violence and countered representations of the Irish as both conquerable and commodifiable” (Im 33). Therefore, the “rebellious Wilde” is not necessarily a product of his queerness but his controversial opinions on prison and British imperialism as an Irishman in Victorian England. However, it is the queer Wilde that receives the most attention. While I doubt this will change, even as the study of Wilde’s works continues, I think that in looking at Wilde’s public perception alongside his works, we see that the personal lives of celebrities and ‘scandals’ are given priority in our collective memory.

De Profundis and Destiny

De Profundis is by far the most raw and emotional of Wilde’s works. The piece is unique in not only its emotional tone but the way Wilde discusses religion. In his scathing letter to Bosie, Wilde touches on many of the themes that occur in his poems and plays; he meditates on God, the meaning of art, the dangers of overindulgence, love, and most significantly, predestination. Out of all of these themes Wilde is the most consistent in his views of predestination. He criticizes Bosie for his abuse and the role he had in his financial ruin, but Wilde recognizes how his own flawed actions brought about his downfall. He says, “I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: that I ruined myself: and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand… Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still” (1017). Predestination is typically described in a religious context, as a sort of divine prophesy that all events are willed by God, but Wilde maintains the role one has in their own fate.

I found this to be especially interesting when considering the theme destiny and fortune telling in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House.” When discussing these two pieces in class, we talked about how Wilde emphasizes the class differences at play in one’s destiny. Particularly in the case of Lord Arthur, Wilde presents a commentary on the boredom of the upper class. The chiropodist reads Lord Arthur’s palms and foretells his future as a murderer, but Arthur’s ridiculous actions that follow as he attempts to get the act over with serve as a commentary on how he has control of his fate all along. This contrasts with “The Harlot’s House” where the people inside move like “strange mechanical grotesques” and “wire-pulled automatons,” lacking any autonomy or control over their lives (867). In terms of his class status and his views on free will, Wilde falls somewhere between the Lord Arthur and the figures in the poem. He recognizes his level of culpability in his downfall: “Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others… I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops” (1018). While Wilde condemns his former lifestyle of pleasure and decadence, he maintains many of his other life views and expands on his religious life. It’s fascinating reading perhaps his most revealing work and questioning if Wilde has really changed that much or if similar threads can be read in the rest of his works regarding religion and free will.

Doubles in Salomé

Since our discussion on Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, I have been thinking about the ways his interpretation of doubles in The Importance of Being Earnest could apply to Salomé. The Importance of Being Earnest explores the consequences of the double lives of Jack and Algernon. The theme of a double life can be interpreted as Wilde coding a play about homosexuality, but Kiberd instead reads the doubles in the play as symbolic of the relationship between England and Ireland. He says, “… the Double is a close relation of the Englishman’s Celtic Other. Many characters in literature have sought to murder the double in order to do away with guilt (as England had tried to annihilate Irish culture), but have then found that it is not so easily repressed, since it may also contain man’s utopian self” (Kiberd 42). In Salomé, the audience witnesses the absolute downfall of Salomé, and following Kiberd’s model, she can be read as the double of both Herod and Jokanaan. Salomé is the epitome of desire, both in her actions and how other characters view her beauty.

While Salomé is the “femme fatale” of the play, Herod is equally, if not more, morally corrupt. Kiberd says, “If the English were adult and manly, the Irish must be childish and feminine. In this fashion, the Irish were to read their fate in that of two other out-groups, women and children; and at the root of many an Englishman’s suspicion of the Irish was an unease with the woman or child who lurked within himself” (30). Therefore, Salomé is the Herod’s double in the sense that he villainizes the emotions and desires that she expresses because he recognizes the same desires in himself. She says to Jokanaan, “Jokanaan, I am amorous of thy body! …Let me touch thy body” (590). Her desire is parallel to the incestuous desire Herod expresses for her during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salomé represents the “Celtic other,” within Kiberd’s paradigm because of her femininity, childishness, and the orientalism associated with her character, and therefore, Herod represents her English double. He pleads with Salomé, offering her any gift in replacement for the head of Jokanaan. He says, “Your beauty has grievously troubled me, and I have looked at you too much. But I will look at you no more. Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks” (601). When Herod looks at Salomé he is essentially looking at a mirror, and what is reflected back is his own wicked desires; his mask of righteousness is removed, exposing his immorality.  

I believe Jokanaan serves as an English counterpart to the Celtic Salomé as well. Wilde’s writing constantly criticizes the rigid morality of Victorian English society, and Jokanaan is the voice of judgement in this play. He actually has very few lines in the play, but he constantly speaks of the wrath of God that will come down upon Salomé and Herod. He says, “He shall be seated on this throne. He shall be clothed in scarlet and purple. In his hand he shall bear a golden up full of his blasphemies. And the angel of the Lord shall smite him. He shall be eaten of worms” (598). Herod vehemently denies that this prophesy is about himself. Despite Jokanaan’s condemnation of the other characters, he suffers the most gruesome death as he is beheaded. What does Wilde suggest by giving the voice of religious judgement such a violent end? As Salomés seizes the head of Jokanaan, she says, “Art thou afraid of me, Jokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me…? Thou didst reject me. Thou didst speak evil words against me. Thou didst treat me as a harlot” (604). Returning to Kiberd’s paradigm, the English compulsion to annihilate their “Celtic other” is motivated by fear. As Salomé asks if Jokanaan is afraid of her, Wilde suggests that the English perhaps fear the Irish, the people on whom they project their emotions and immorality, because they represent a repressed side of themselves.

Wilde’s Prophesy in Salomé

After I finished reading Salomé, I wondered why we read it at this point in the semester. While we are focusing on Wilde’s plays right now, on first glance, it is very different from An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. For one, it is very light on the aphorisms, which I appreciated. More seriously though, the play explores the consequences of desire and the question of why there is evil in a world where there is a God. There are threads of Catholicism in many of Wilde’s works, but thus far, we have mainly seen Wilde using the more aesthetic elements of the religion and the ideas of mystery and predestination. In Salomé, Wilde’s characters discuss profound questions in theology. The instance that struck me the most was when the Jewish characters discuss who has seen God. A Third Jew says, “God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in everything. God is in what is evil, even as He is in what is good” (594). The other characters disagree with this, especially regarding God’s role in what is evil. In Wilde’s poems, An Ideal Husband, and even his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” he deconstructs moral binaries, describing wickedness as “a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). However, in Salomé, Wilde calls attention to the wickedness of his characters and their evil deeds.

            A case can be made for a queer reading of Salomé, especially building off our discussions in class this past week. We talked about the psychological and emotional consequences of constantly being told your desires and identity are immoral or “grossly indecent.” In Wilde’s case this is his relationships with men, specifically Bosie. However, Salomé and Herod experience this too. They are constantly told by Herodias and The Voice of Jokanaan that terrible things will happen to them, specifically that God will smite them, but they cannot stop themselves. This reminded me of how Wilde could not stop living his double life, even as he faced public scrutiny and was treated terribly by Bosie. We discussed in class how Wilde essentially prophesied his own death and destruction in his works, and this play is a prime example of that. The saddest part of reading Salomé from this perspective is that there is no resolution for Wilde. Parts of Wilde are in both Herod and Salomé, and as a result, Wilde accepts his own suffering and recognizes that much of it is self-inflicted.  

            In addition to the allusions to Wilde’s repressed homosexual desires in the dialogue of the play itself, the play was translated from French to English by Bosie. I am interested as to what other people make of this. Is the play addressing Bosie? Along these lines, this play is symbolic of how Wilde and Bosie’s secret lives and time abroad is mediated by Bosie to an English audience. Is it possible that Bosie’s translation changes the tone of Wilde’s original writing?

Wilde’s Female Characters

We saw a variety and depth in the female characters in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, specifically through Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley,but I did not find this to be the case in The Importance of Being Earnest. Granted, Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern drive much of the plot in their play, the supporting characters of Cecily and Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, are one-dimensional. Cecily and Gwendolen are the beautiful love interests of Algernon and Jack, respectively. Cecily is arguably developed more than Gwendolen, particularly in the scenes where she describes her diary entries about her engagement to Algernon, or ‘Earnest’. When he proposes to her, she exclaims, “Oh you have made me make a blot! And yours is the only real proposal I have ever had in all my life. I should like to have it entered neatly” (394). She takes her diary very seriously, but this aptitude for writing serves to emphasize her foolishness and absurdity. Both Cecily and Gwendolen are easily placated by their fiancé’s justifications for lying to them, and eventually come to call each other “sister,” like Jack predicted earlier on.

            A similarity between the women in the two plays is how they praise men. Specifically, Cecily exclaims, “How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us,” to which Cecily replies, “They have moments of physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing” (407). These lines reminded me of when Lady Chiltern finally accepts her husband’s role in the government and talks about how men’s lives are more valuable than women’s. Maybe my perspective as a modern reader is clouding my approach to these texts, but it seems ridiculous how these female characters praise the obviously flawed male characters, specifically in instances where they have wronged them. Is Wilde once again poking fun at the dynamics of the upper classes of society, particularly where women are involved, or does he subscribe to the idea that women are truly the inferior sex? I would also be interested as to what others think of Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism. How do they resist or uphold the gender dynamics presented by the other characters?

Threads of Keats’ “Lamia” in An Ideal Husband

This is the first of Wilde’s plays we have read, and I found the stage directions to be almost more interesting than the dialogue. While plays are obviously meant to be performed live, given the detail in the stage directions, I wondered if Wilde really wrote An Ideal Husband to be read. Most stage directions come to life through the set design, movement, and dialogue of the actors, but he notes, “HAROLD, the footman, shows Mrs. Cheveley in. Lamia-like, she is in green and silver. She has a cloak of black satin, lined with dead rose-leaf silk” (557). The “Lamia-like” point colored how I interpreted the rest of the play, and an audience would have missed this in a live performance unless the stage directions were read aloud.

            Keats’ poem, “Lamia,” is, at its core, a story of exposure. Essentially, Lamia is a serpent turned into a beautiful woman, which further connects to the snake brooch that Mrs. Chevely stole. Lycius falls in love with Lamia, and at their wedding, a blind prophet recognizes Lamia as the serpent. In the context of An Ideal Husband, the reference to this poem obviously reinforces Sir Robert Chiltern’s intent to find some secret about Mrs. Cheveley in order to protect himself. The threat of exposure extends beyond Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley to Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern as well. Lady Chiltern is the most interesting and puzzling character to make sense of when reading “Lamia” alongside the play. I expected, since Mrs. Cheveley represents the evil serpent, that Lady Chiltern is the most obvious beautiful and morally righteous counterpart. Sir Robert describes her as such: “She does not know what weakness or temptation is… She stands apart as good women do – pitiless in her perfection – cold and stern and without mercy. But I love her Arthur” (561). However, she ultimately turns into a different form of Lamia, threatened with the exposure of her letter to Lord Goring and attempting to end her husband’s career similar Mrs. Cheveley (578).

I think there is much more that can be done with Wilde’s use of “Lamia” in this play, but the main effect I walked away with was the deconstruction of morality. Even the morally righteous characters, like Lady Chiltern, have secrets, and despite her twisted approach, Mrs. Cheveley is really just in love with Lord Goring. Wilde explores morality in a lot of his works like “The Harlot’s House” and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but his exploration of morality in political and domestic spheres in this play is the most effective in proving that it is nearly impossible to label people as “good” or “bad.”

The Dangers of Exposing One’s Soul

I never read Dorian Gray before this class, and while I anticipated Dorian would psychologically deteriorate after Lord Henry’s remarks, I did not expect him to kill Basil. I think the fact that Basil was murdered by his greatest source of artistic inspiration is an interesting way for Wilde to explore the relationship between an artist and his muse, and more deeply, the dangers of putting one’s “soul” into a work of art. While Basil refused to exhibit the portrait because it exposed too much of his soul, it is really the portrait’s representation of Dorian’s soul that is the downfall of the two men. Wilde warns us in the preface about searching for meaning in art; he says, “to reveal art and conceal the artist is the art’s aim” (17). In considering Dorian not only a source of inspiration but a form of art itself, Basil reveals both himself and Dorian in the portrait. Given the fact that the portrait contains pieces of both men, it is significant that Dorian describes the portrait as motivating his violence: “Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips” (117). As I re-read this passage, perhaps this suggestion by the canvas is another layer of commentary on looking for meaning in art because clearly the portrait did not actually whisper in Dorian’s ear. The portrait simply reflects, and as a result, intensifies, what Dorian already thinks and feels, more specifically, the growing wickedness of his character.

            I finished this chapter with a few questions in mind. The first and more superficial is what will Dorian do with the body, but also how did the portrait change if Basil did not paint the grin in the first place? Is it possible that so much of the identities of Basil and Dorian are in the painting that they are hallucinating the same thing, and the picture is actually unchanged? I am suspicious of Lord Henry even though he is not a painter. Logistics of the painting aside, when I read the first few chapters, I thought this book could be read as a psychological study of the relationship between artist and muse and the toll that being one’s source of inspiration can take on a person. I think that element is still important, but in these last 50 pages, I’ve begun to think the novel could be read as a cautionary tale as well.

Searching for the Artist in the Art

I registered for this course never having read Oscar Wilde’s works, and my main association with Wilde was his queerness. My first introduction to Wilde was in the context of a critical piece on “the closet” and how “the love that dare not speak its name” is coded in literature. For the first few weeks, I could not help but look for clues to Wilde’s queer identity in all of the works we read, despite the fact that our modern understanding of homosexuality is anachronistic to Wilde’s time. However, it was only during Abby’s discussion on The Happy Prince short stories that I really recognized the complexities in looking for meaning, both personal and artistic, in Wilde’s writing. I’ve been reading Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney recently, and the same day we discussed Wilde’s short stories, I came across a passage that fit perfectly with some of the complexities of his authorship that we touched on in class. One of the four main characters of the book is an author who discusses the issues that arise with her growing notoriety. She asks:

 What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway? … what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralizing specificity? Nothing. It makes me miserable, keeps me away from the one thing in my life that has any meaning, contributes nothing to the public interest, satisfies only the basest and most prurient curiosities on the part of the readers, and serves to arrange literary discourse entirely around the domineering figure of ‘the author’ (Rooney 60).

While I do think there is value to studying an author alongside their work, this passage made me question how to read Wilde’s works without trying to find pieces of his personal life in them. Particularly in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H,” Wilde meditates on the relationship between two friends as the ultimate form of love describing, “the Platonic conception of love as nothing if not spiritual, and of beauty as a form that finds its immortality within the lover’s soul” (325). My first instinct was to read this passage as a hint of Wilde’s queer relationships, but when separating Wilde’s identity from this passage, it can instead be read as a reflection on sociology and how this platonic ideal of friendship was lost in Wilde’s time.

What are Wilde’s thoughts on predestination?

While reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime I struggled to make sense of Wilde’s commentary on predestination in relation to the ideas we already talked about in class, particularly in “The Harlot’s House.” When Lord Arthur hears of his destiny to commit a murder, he thinks, “Could it be that written on his hand, in characters that he could not read himself, but that another could decipher, was some fearful secret of sin… Was there no escape possible? Were we no better than chessmen, moved by an unseen power, vessels the potter fashions at his fancy, for honor or for shame? His reason revolted against it, and yet he felt that some tragedy was hanging over him…” (165). The image of all of mankind moving around the earth as chessmen controlled by some supernatural force reminded me of the mechanical descriptions in “The Harlot’s House.” The dancers are described as “wire-pulled automatons” and “clockwork puppets” (lines 13 and 19). In both passages, Wilde presents the human condition as one that is entirely out of our control.

While this passage in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime probes our understanding of free will and reason, I could not help but think that the short story as a whole makes fun of the idea of predestination. The plot was predictable, especially in the ways that Lord Arthur tried to rush his fate and complete the crime in order to marry Sybil. I have read quite a few murder mysteries and suspense novels, and poisoning is one of the least effective ways to kill. Also, poisoning is more commonly used by women in literature, and in real life according to The Washington Post. The failed bombing is comical as well. The letter from Jane reveals it to be an “ingenious toy” that “looked so ridiculous, that James and I went off into fits of laughter… when we examined it, we found it was some sort of alarm clock” (179). What does it mean that Wilde portrays predestination so differently between Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House”? When we discussed predestination last week in the context of the “The Harlot’s House,” one of the main points we made regarded class distinctions, the idea that the poor are unable to resist the force of destiny that pulls them into the harlot’s house, but the rich instead partake because they are bored. Lord Arthur is clearly of the upper class, and he hears of his destiny at Lady Windermere’s extravagant reception. In the last lines of the story, when Sybil, Lady Windermere, and Arthur discuss his belief in chiromancy, Arthur says, “I owe to [chiromancy] all the happiness of my life” (183). Why does the hand of fate provide happiness to the rich and suffering to the poor? Lady Windermere says Arthur’s faith in chiromancy is absolute nonsense, and this perfectly captures Wilde’s views on predestination in both the short story and poem. Given Lord Arthur’s social status, he would have married Sybil and experienced such great “happiness” had simply chosen not to listen to his fortune and murder the chiromantist, yet the same does not apply to the impoverished visitors of the harlot’s house. However, this distinction between the predestination of the poor does not necessarily mean that Wilde is sympathetic to the lower classes. In The Decay of Lying, he discusses the poor as subjects in literature. Vivian says, “Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration” (1077). Reading the “Harlot’s House” as in conversation with Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, the effect is an indifference to specific details of father and instead an emphasis on how one behaves as it looms overhead.