The Power of Objectification in Salome
In Salome, Oscar Wilde’s short drama, the protagonist Salome is objectified into an idealized sex symbol by her male admirers. To see how, a reader must consider descriptions of Salome as an ethereal body, expressions of lustful desire directed at her, and the illumination of her entire body in the final scene. Through the depiction of her body as a glorified jewel, Salome accepts her innate sexual power and becomes the embodiment of carnal wants, allowing her to manipulate her father into presenting her with the head of the play’s antagonist, Iokanaan.
The character of the Young Syrian describes Salome like a treasured object through recurring celestial diction and an allusion to the moon. When first introduced to readers, Salome is described by the Young Syrian, “Never have I seen her so pale. She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver…She is like a silver flower” (Wilde 4). Salome is portrayed as being extremely pale, which readers can infer as an allusion to a corpse. Contrastingly, she is compared to a flower, a common literary archetype for beauty. By having both the essence of death and beauty, Salome is depicted as somewhat supernatural in looks. The “white rose in a mirror of silver” creates an image of the rose, a pale object of beauty, standing in the reflection of itself. This can be extended to Salome and her own reflection, acting as an embodiment of vanity and her cold, mystic beauty. The only colors are white and silver, causing an achromous effect over the picture of Salome. This, when combined with the repetition of the color silver, establishes the lack of warmth in her character. Like a silver object, she is gleaming in allure, but is equally cold. Her coldness can be perceived as a direct effect of her objectification; because she is viewed as purely a physical delicacy, she can no longer be fully human, and therefore she loses her human-like warmth to become a strange, yet beautiful, shadow of a person. She must find her identity through her body alone because it is the quality of her regarded with most value. Following this description of Salome’s character, the audience is informed of the moon as looking like “a little silver flower. She is cold and chaste” (Wilde 9). The reference to the flower and the cold is seen again here, connecting Salome’s strange beauty to the moon’s. The moon is referred to as a “she”, furthering this representation of Salome’s body as a celestial entity. Salome’s essence is inhuman from the perception of her admirers, represented by this recurring comparison to the moon. She has been epitomized as a sacred jewel for the eyes of those around her. By describing her body in a worshiping fashion, Salome is objectified as symbol of supernatural beauty, thus causing her to accept an identity as an embodiment of other’s earthly wants.
Through her father’s expression of sexual desire for Salome, she continues to be characterized as an object of lust, thus learning to accept this role and use her ability to kill the play’s antagonist, Iokanaan. Salome questions her father’s incestuous demanding of her to dance: “It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that. I know not what it means. Of a truth I know it too well” (Wilde 8). She cannot escape the carnal craving in the eyes of the people who watch her. Even Salome’s stepfather perceives her as solely a sexual being. She is accustomed to this, shown by the phrase “Of a truth I know it too well”. She is too familiar with her own objectification; by being recognized purely through physicality, she is forced to find identity as a sex icon. She manipulates other’s erotic desires to her own advantage, viewing her sexuality as an innate power. This is seen through her agreement to dance for her father’s entertainment in exchange for a promised favor. “I will dance for you, Tetrarch” (Wilde 34), she says. “I ask of you the head of Iokanaan” (Wilde 39). Salome is manipulating her stepfather’s incestuous lust to her own advantage in order to seek the item she desires most: the head of Iokanaan. By dancing, she exploits her sexuality to achieve control over her father, thus epitomizing herself as the ultimate sexual object in order to gain power.The decapitation of Iokanaan elicits a sexual response in Salome, emphasized by the illumination of her entire body just moments before the drama’s end.
Upon receiving his head, Salome exclaims, “I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan” (Wilde 43). She reacts with a sexual fervor in comparing her kiss to biting “a ripe fruit”. It is voracious in tone, representing an extraordinary hunger in her lust. She chooses to “bite it with my teeth”, creating an animal-like quality in her desire. Through a beastlike desire, it is shown that Salome loses her human identity outside of her sexuality. She repeats the phrase, “I will kiss thy mouth” several times throughout the section, showing her fixation on obtaining Iokanaan’s kiss, whether dead or alive. She is almost possessed in eroticism; by becoming completely enthralled in her sexuality, Salome accepts her position as an objectified idol. In the play’s final lines, the moon illuminates Salome while she holds the severed head. Wilde writes, “A ray of moonlight falls on Salome and illumes her” (Wilde 45). The glowing effect of the moonlight on Salome creates heavenly imagery. It can be perceived as a halo-like brilliance that showcases her body as a divine being. Again, a celestial tone overarches the scene through the returning lunar reference.
In this moment, where Salome has exhausted her sexuality the most, her entire body is highlighted to show the divinity with which her body is regarded by both herself and others. As she basks in the moonlight, it becomes apparent to the audience that Salome learns to accept her own objectification, using this as advantage to get her way. Here and elsewhere, Salome’s ethereal diction, expressions of intense lust, and illumination of the body depict Salome as the ultimate objectification, teaching her to use the power in her sexuality, and allowing her to control the drama’s plot in decapitating Iokanaan.
Female Protagonists and Masculine Traits: Destructive Tendencies in Antigone and Salome
Author Shannon Alder once said, “Often those that criticise others reveal what he himself lacks.” Essentially what Alder is saying is that the things we find fault with in other people are really the things that we do not have and therefore desire. In their works, Salome and Antigone, authors Oscar Wilde and Sophocles, respectively, use this theory to show how women wield power over men. Both female protagonists in their stories are criticized for their masculine characteristics – forceful lust, strength, and independent thought, among other things. It is these criticisms that result in the men unknowingly giving their power up to the women, as the women embodying certain masculine characteristics threatens the power of their male opponents. However, by attacking their male rivals with the same qualities the males use to attack others, these women become victim to the same fatal flaws that their opponents are victim to, leading to their demise.
In both stories, Antigone and Salome both gain power by exhibiting traditionally masculine characteristics, and wield this power over the men who are threatened by women breaking the gender binary. Antigone has the power of free thought, which is something that is traditionally not a feminine characteristic. At a time where women are supposed to be submissive to men and base their behavior and decisions on what a man tells her, Antigone defies the gender binary and therefore gains power because of her ability to think independently. When Antigone is talking to her sister Ismene about burying her brother even if it means she has to disobey the law, she says “Creon is not strong enough to stand in my way” (Sophocles, 191). The simplicity of her language as well as her blatant tone are very uncharacteristic of a stereotypical woman during that time period. She speaks with such conviction and confidence, which is much more typical of a man. This proclamation by Antigone shows that even from the second page of the play, she is defying gender norms and intends to be as powerful if not more powerful than the King himself. Antigone does exhibit traditionally masculine characteristics, but it is the consequence of her behavior that is the most noteworthy. By challenging gender stereotypes and calling into question the stability of Creon’s empire as well as his authority, she is able to wield power over him and even take it away from him. This is shown when Antigone exercises her power over Creon by demoting him to less than a man due to his questionable morals: “And yet, as men’s hearts know, I have done no / wrong” (226). As explained in my previous essay on Antigone, the juxtaposition between “men” who would know that she did not sin, and Creon, who believes she has sinned, shows Antigone’s defiance of Creon’s power. A big part of his power comes from his belief that he is a man and is therefore inherently superior to women, but Antigone invalidating his claim to manhood gives her power and takes away his.
Similarly, Salome behaves in certain ways that are traditionally masculine. In romantic situations, women are supposed to be meek and flirty, while men are supposed to be ravenous and act upon their desires. Salome embodies the masculine characteristic of forceful lust in her interactions with the prophet Iokanaan. She says to him, “I am amorous of thy body, Iokanaan… I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth” (Oscar Wilde, 16-17). The erotic and assertive tone of this quote reveal Salome’s expression of traditionally masculine stereotypes regarding lust and eroticism. This inappropriate and impulsive exclamation by Salome to the prophet shows her defying gender norms and taking away power from Iokanaan by figuratively disrobing him, and stripping him of his dignity, like men might stereotypically do to women. Like in Antigone, it is the implications of Salome’s masculine behavior that is the most important. King Herod is used to getting what he wants as King, and what he wants is Salome. However, by being unchaste and sensual rather than compliant, she takes away Herod’s power and does not allow him to get what he desires. She takes away a key component of his manliness by taking it for herself. When Herod commands Salome to drink wine with him, eat fruits with him, and sit with him, she responds consistently, “I am not thirsty, Tetrarch…. I am not hungry, Tetrarch…. I am not tired, Tetrarch….” (Wilde, 22-23). Her unwavering disobedience of Herod’s request to spend time with him hints at her rejection of his desire for her, and the power that she is able to wield over him by embodying a traditionally masculine characteristic and using it against him. Overall, both Salome and Antigone are able to use masculine characteristics against the men in their lives, but are different in which characteristics they embody and what specific threat they pose to masculine authority.
Antigone and Salome are both hypocrites, however, because they embody the very masculine characteristics that they are fighting against and criticizing, which in the end, results in them losing power. Antigone aims to challenge Creon’s power and not let him control her just because he is a man and she is a woman. However, in speaking out against the state and politics, she embodies the very language of the state that she is rebelling against, as my partner, Johnny Armenta, pointed out to me. When asked if she will confess to the crime, she says “I deny nothing” (Sophocles, 208). By not denying her crime nor explicitly admitting to it, she is practicing traditional laws, such as not incriminating herself. Johnny pointed out that by using the rhetoric of written state law, Antigone defies Creon using his rules of the game and his playbook, and in doing so, is hypocritical. While fighting against Creon, she literally uses the same diction and style of speaking that he would in governing Thebes. Similar to Antigone, Salome also exhibits hypocrisy. Salome gets mad when Iokanaan doesn’t desire her, but then doesn’t want to be desired by Herod. Salome looks at Iokanaan, but gets mad when Herod looks at her. In this sense, she adopts the same body language as Herod, and is hypocritical for objectifying Iokanaan like Herod objectifies her. As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, Salome rejects all of Herod’s invitations to spend time with him, which shows her disapproval and dislike of Herod’s desire for her. However, she is hypocritical because she does to Iokanaan exactly what Herod does to her. At the end of the play, Salome complains: “Thou wouldst / have none of me, Iokanaan. Though rejectedst me” (Wilde, 43). Her somber tone shows Salome’s dissatisfaction with her relationship with Iokanaan because he did not want her like she wanted him. However, this is ironic because she refused to satisfy Herod in the same way that Iokanaan refused to satisfy her. Overall, both Salome and Antigone are hypocrites in the ways that they embody the language – whether literal language or body language – of the authority figures they are fighting against.
Though they are both similar in their masculine traits and their hypocrisy, they are different in that Antigone has personal power and the strength to rebel but Salome only gains power from Herod. This is shown through the nature of each woman’s death, suggesting that though using other people’s weaknesses to bring them down is a way to gain power, the only true way to be powerful is through personal power. Antigone dies through suicide, as demonstrated in the quote: “She had made a noose of her fine linen veil / And hanged herself” (Sophocles, 240). Although she ends up dead, she died with her power intact and with the power of personal choice, which Creon didn’t have. He chose to have her killed, but she took the power away from him by killing herself. Unlike Antigone, Salome never had personal power. She only had power because of Herod’s desire for her, and the only time she exercised her power was when Herod gave her one wish if she would dance for him. This shows that Salome’s only exercise of real power came from denying Herod. Her death represents this, as well. Unlike Antigone who took control over her own destiny and maintained her power, Salome gets killed by Herod and loses control over her fate when Herod yells “Kill that woman!” and Salome is crushed beneath Herod’s soldiers’ shields (Wilde, 25). Salome’s loss of power over herself and her future in her dying moment suggests that not having personal power really means not having much power at all. All throughout her story, Antigone’s power and decisions are made independent of what other people think, but Salome’s actions and wielding of power are based on other people’s actions and reactions.
In the end, both Salome and Antigone use traditionally masculine characterics to gain and wield power over their male rivals. By defying gender stereotypes, they subdue their male rivals by using the same techniques that the males would generally use to subdue other people. In doing so, they do gain power, but at the same time, become hypocritical. In using masculine traits to invalidate the masculinity of their opponents and to gain power, they bring negative punishment to each of their male rivals, but ultimately, bring the worst punishment upon themselves: death. Antigone dying with her power intact and Salome dying powerless suggests that though schadenfreude as a method of gaining power can be temporarily efficient, it is power from within that brings about the strongest and most permanent power. Though this is a satisfying and sensible conclusion, the death of both women who attempt to defy gender norms and wield power over men calls into question the consequences of women wielding power. While it is admirable that both women are able to wield power over men and cause the men to question their authority, death should not be an ideal outcome for women who want to prove themselves against men. Their deaths, though meaningful and symbolic, are still horrible and tragic, which makes one wonder if their deaths are really a victory, or if women should be allowed to express power without dying as a consequence.
Herod’s “Dance Monologue”: The Manifestation of Sexual Neuroses through Symbolic Language
The monologue of King Herod just preceding the Dance of the Seven Veils (Wilde, 50-53) demonstrates the depth of the King’s desperate neuroses. While his intention is to implore Salome to dance for him, Herod ends up delivering a capricious, repetitious, and intensely self-conscious monologue. He leaps between symbols, similes, metaphors, and occasional puns, and he takes on a tone that is alternately panicky and desperate. Furthermore, his rambling address touches on a variety of topics — including ominous symbols and the King of Cappadocia — tied together by the King’s nervous paranoia and his goal of successfully entreating his stepdaughter. The structure of this monologue and the symbolism and wordplay involved define Herod’s position in the play as a neurotic, ineffectual person constantly in fear of the perceived symbols and omens around him. These fears and the style of the monologue are inextricably linked to Herod’s desire to see Salome’s dance and his psychoneurotic nature caused by this fetish.Herod’s “Dance Monologue” follows a conversation among he, Herodias, and Salome in which certain topics Herod focuses on during the monologue were first mentioned: the King of Cappadocia, Salome’s dancing, and Iokanaan’s verbal prophecies. The rhythm of the monologue follows the rhythm of Herod’s dialogue in this earlier conversation. Herod is very repetitious: he mentions certain topics at multiple junctures in his monologue, and he uses parallel structures at specific areas. Herod mentions Salome’s dancing in at least two unconnected points, often cutting abruptly into the matter following a discourse on a fully unrelated subject. On page 51, Herod cuts from a comparison of blood to rose-petals to the matter; on page 52, he describes the gruesome demise of the King of Cappadocia, and then says, “Well! Wherefore dost thou tarry, Salome?” Certain symbols are repeated or referenced multiple times in the monologue as well. The color red as an omen is discussed on page 51 and again on page 53. On page 51, Herod frets over a “huge black bird”; later, on page 53, he takes comfort in Salome’s “little feet like white doves,” a very clear counterpart to this original symbol.Herod’s jerky dialogue and the abrupt nature of the content of his address present him as absentminded and nervous. His repetition of certain topics makes him seem effete, as if he, a king, cannot decide a matter or affect an event immediately. His parallel sentences and his repetition of certain exact words and phrases more directly influence these rhythmic effects. At the start of his monologue on pages 50-51, Herod repeats the two phrases “half of my kingdom” and “passing fair as a queen” within three consecutive sentences. On page 51, he says about a bird, “The beat of its wings is terrible. The breath of the wind of its wings is terrible” [Emphasis added]. The words “wind” and “wings” appear three times apiece in this section of the monologue. Within sentences, he dramatically repeats certain phrases, such as here, on the same page: “It is my garland that hurts me, my garland of roses” [Emphasis added]. On page 52, he repeats phrase in a similar manner: “But Caesar will crucify him when he comes to Rome. I know that Caesar will crucify him” [Emphasis added]. On page 53, he uses parallel similes: “Thy little feet will be like white doves! They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees.”The rhythm of this piece gives off a strong tone of desperation and, consequently, an implication of a lack of self-confidence. By repeating phrases such as “Caesar will crucify him” (52), “dance for me” (52), and “half of my kingdom” (50, 52), Herod is essentially verbally reassuring himself of these things. He wants Caesar to crucify the King of Cappadocia, yet by repeating with certainty this statement that Caesar will do so, Herod merely gives the impression that he is uncertain about the matter. When repeating “dance for me,” and “fair as a queen” (50-51), Herod sounds like a child begging for Salome, as opposed to a king commanding her. When repeating “half of my kingdom,” the King seems to absentmindedly marvel at the large cost he is willing to pay for Salome’s dance. Finally, Herod is nervous. He seems to fear that he is wrong about Caesar crucifying the enemy king. He also repeats certain omens, particularly “terrible wings” and the color red.The repetition of the Caesar line on page 52 is particularly noteworthy because the severity of the monologue briefly shifts in this block of text. Herod almost seems to soliloquize here as he introduces a very hopeful and graphic hypothetical about his opponent’s death. The darkly extreme nature of Herod’s aspersions and fantasy contrasts with his hopeful, frivolous desire for Salome, and his paranoid, dramatic fear of omens. Herod delivers this portion of the address with an ironic certainty, repeating, “Caesar will crucify him” and saying that the “prophet has prophesied” his enemy’s death, when in fact Iokanaan had prophesized the demise of Herod. Herod seems to be talking to himself here, and this noticeable departure in tone ultimately leads the viewer to cast doubt on Herod’s mental stability. The rambling nature of this portion furthermore implies Herod’s desperation.Herod’s monologue twists back and forth between joy and fear very capriciously. He begins on page 50 begging Salome to dance; he then becomes frightened by a bird and panics on page 51; at last, he asks Salome to dance one more at the bottom of that page. On page 52, Herod praises his honor, then cruelly disparages that of the King of Cappadocia, then asks Salome to start dancing. On the next page, he is pleased by her “naked feet,” then immediately horrified by the blood on the floor. There is, ultimately, a sense of instability about his character that can be gleaned from this. Herod seems easily distracted by symbolism and history. Furthermore, his condition is quickly and dramatically ameliorated when he thinks of Salome dancing.The fact Herod focuses on Salome and begs her so strongly to dance is a very erotic aspect of his monologue. The primary qualities of the interaction between Herod and Salome are that he bribes her, that he reiterates his request throughout, and that he juxtaposes ominous signs and painful thoughts with his desire. The first two aspects enhance the eroticism of Herod’s monologue. Herod essentially bribes Salome, he purchases a physical act from her — as if she were a prostitute — using half his kingdom: an intimate possession for a king. The idea of a king pleading for a girl in a clearly subservient position to dance for him heightens the suspense of the monologue and, consequently, the scene’s erotic complexion. Herod’s constant echoing of his request dramatizes the matter.Herod, in repeatedly desiring to see Salome dance immediately after he is threatened by an omen or bad feeling, acts in a highly infantile manner. The King is essentially turning to Salome to cope with the ominous things that he perceives around him: blood on the floor, a black bird, Iokanaan, etc. Herod is a sort of psychoneurotic. He perceives symbols and bad omens all around him, he constantly and desperately repeats what he says, and he is, in many ways, a finicky, cowardly hypochondriac. He is bothered by the chilly wind and noise from a black bird he cannot see, then he says, “Nay, but it is not cold, it is hot. I am choking. Pour water on my hands. Give me snow to eat. Loosen my mantle. Quick! quick! loosen my mantle. Nay, but leave it” (51). Herod then tears off his garland of roses and inexplicably compares the color of these flowers to blood. Herod also deludes himself into thinking Iokanaan’s prophecy is for a king other than he, one to whom he claims to be superior. Yet Herod, in boasting, “I know not how to lie” (52), sounds insecure and inaccurate by this point in the monologue. He calls the King of Cappadocia a coward, yet Herod comes off as a true coward in the scene.Freud writes in Dora “All psychoneurotics are persons with strongly marked perverse tendencies, which have been repressed in the course of their development and have become unconscious” (43). Herod’s perverse tendency is, perhaps, to see Salome dance. He offers her half his kingdom not for sex, but simply to watch her dance. Barthes writes that a striptease is, itself, a separate erotic “barrier” from the nude female body: “There will therefore be in striptease a whole series of coverings placed upon the body of the woman in proportion as she pretends to strip it bare” (84); also, “Contrary to the common prejudice, the dance which accompanies the striptease from beginning to end is in no way an erotic element” (85). According to Freud (as qtd. by Williams), “Aversion from the real female genitals, which is never lacking in any fetishist, also remains an indelible stigma of the repression that has taken place” (104). The fetish is, says Williams, paraphrasing Freud, “a substitute phallus created in the unconscious of a little boy who does not want to surrender the belief that his mother has a penis” (103). Herod’s desperate desire for Salome’s dance appears to supersede all else in the monologue. He fetishes the dance, in the way that he fetishes her feet:HERODAh, thou art to dance with naked feet! ‘Tis well! ‘Tis well! Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees… (53)As Herod begs Salome to dance and fulfill his desire, he reacts in the neurotic manner described above, inexplicably fearful of omens, and constantly repeating and contradicting himself.The “Dance Monologue” features a considerable array of explicit symbols. As earlier, Salome’s dance itself is a symbol, one of Herod’s desire, and his kingdom is essentially a symbol of the power he’s willing to mortgage in order to fulfill this desire. Herod, as a neurotic, constantly sees auguries of ill fortune around him. The colors white, red, and black all illicit strong emotional responses from him: Salome’s white feet are soothing (53), a black bird inspires terror (51), and the color red is ominous (51, 53). Herod reacts insanely to the garlands of rose petals around his neck, saying, “They are like stains of blood on the cloth” (51). Herod tries to relieve himself by rationalizing his use of symbolic language: “It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life too full of terrors. It were better to say that stains of blood are as lovely as rose-petals” [Emphasis added] (51). By merely twisting the simile around, Herod is able to calm himself. However, the reordering of a simile is a very arbitrary change, and Herod even seems mentally unstable at this point in his monologue. It is clear that the symbolic language in Herod’s mind that flows through this monologue has an intense effect on his mental health. Herod is, essentially, in bondage to not only his desire to see Salome dance, but also to symbolic language, the kind that Iokanaan had wielded to such great effect. He says explicitly, on page 52, “I am the slave of my word, and my word is the word of a king.” At first glance, the first part of this statement is a metaphor; however, it is clear in the context of Herod’s monologue, that the entire statement is literal: Herod is a slave to his words, and to his imagination. Herod is, ultimately, trapped by symbolism. He is bounded by Salome’s dance, itself a symbolic gesture, one that, according to Barthes, “establish[es] the woman right from the start as an object in disguise” [Emphasis his] (84). The King is, also, bounded by his own language, his propensity to invent ominous things. He is stressful and neurotic, and his desire to see Salome merely dance has come into the open in his monologue. The strange and idiosyncratic qualities of Herod’s monologue — his desperate repetition, his unstable feelings, his apprehensive symbolism, and his nervous and childlike tone — all serve to reinforce the notion that he cannot escape his desire, and that he is stuck between his fetish and his fear. Works CitedBarthes, Roland. “Striptease.” Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. 84-87.Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.Wilde, Oscar. Salome. New York: Dover, 1967.Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1989.