Exploitation and Orientalism in Salome

When we were discussing Salome’s character in class, I did not see her agency as much as I saw her exploitation and sexualization. The added conversation about approaching this story through a post-colonial Orientalist lens also made me think about the construction of the piece and the intentions of Wilde behind it.

As we discussed, Orientalism is the production of a romanticized version of the “East” that is not accurate and more of a projection of Western views on the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It isn’t a true representation. There is a heavy focus on tropes and stereotypical or projected traits. It is shown in works of art and literature as barbaric, violent, sensual, exotic and emotional. 

The story of Salome, who we know is a young girl, was not inherently sexual in the Bible. As we read in class, her asking for John the Baptist’s head was her mother’s idea, not her own. She was not even named. Her dance could have been out of celebration, or spiritual in nature. I do think that this lack of information on Salome and her unnamed presence made her story attractive for Wilde and other artists to reimagine, as we connected it to the story of W.H. Perhaps she was an opportunity for Wilde to tell his own story, to represent himself in literature and history. 

However, Wilde made Salome into a femme fatale, a sexualised and seductive character who was killed for expressing such sexuality and villainized for having John the Baptist killed, although Herod was really the one who had the power to kill him. I think this is more exploitative of a young girl who did not have these traits in the original story. Her dance of the seven veils changes the nature of her dance into something more sexual, and her desire to kiss the lips of John the Baptist makes her the villain who was responsible for his death.

Thinking about how her story was changed by Wilde’s reinterpretation, and knowing the nature of Orientalism, I feel like the first thing that jumps out at me from Wilde’s version is Salome’s exploitation. Perhaps Wilde was acting on his own desires, wanting to create a popular story, or not thinking about the consequences of this characterization, but I don’t think it was a just choice to Salome.

Responses to Prophecy

In Salomé, the prophet Jokanaan prompts strikingly different reactions in his listeners, showing how the beholder inserts themselves and their presumptions into the words and actions of others.  When we are introduced to Jokanaan, we are told by a soldier that “He is always saying ridiculous things.”  They, along with Herod, are fearful of his words.  This seems to be due to a fear of speaking the truth.  Herod in particular, though he indulges in the prophet’s speeches, wants to hide Jokanaan from others because of the truth he speaks about Herodias.  The truth is unpleasant and dangerous to consider.  Yet Herod remains curious about what the prophet has to say, questioning what the future has in store for him (and often spinning what Jokanaan says in a favorable light, when others consider the words to be against him).  Herodias has no curiosity and is merely enraged by the prophet.  This points to her impatience and selfishness, but more importantly it points to her desire to maintain her public image.  She revolts against the words being spoken against her, and frequently returns to the topic of how she and Herod must treat their guests well by returning to the dinner party in order to preserve high opinions of them.  Herodias wants to maintain a façade of a happy marriage, though beneath the surface there is tension on account of her original marriage and her current husband’s apparent attraction to her daughter.  Salomé’s response to the prophet is the most complex.  She is fascinated by his words and by his appearance, and becomes obsessed with seeing him, hearing his voice, and touching him.  Salomé’s desire grows so strong that she needs to fully possess Jokanaan, which she can only do in his death.  I wonder whether one of the causes of Salomé’s downfall was that she was poisoned by Jokanaan’s beautiful words.