Staring into Destruction: Analyzing the Association between Sight, Desire, and Death
In Salome, Oscar Wilde expresses a dangerous relationship between sight and sexual desire that leads to death. Throughout the play, the male characters look upon the females with a sense of voyeurism, stimulating a sensual desire for the other. In the same way, the female characters return the looks of the men, expressing similar desires that prove fatal. Additionally, while some characters attempt to shield their vision from one another, none can escape the illuminating gaze of the moon—a symbolic manifestation of Salome—suggesting that death is always a threat. Through the moon and the compelling gaze of each character, Wilde associates visual perceptions with sexual desires that lead to the characters’ demises.
In Salome, Oscar Wilde expresses a dangerous relationship between sight and sexual desire that leads to death. The play depicts a night in a royal court on which Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea, and his wife, Herodias, hold a dinner party for some Jewish officials. Herodias’s daughter Salome leaves the party and occupies the terrace, where she attracts the gaze of other male characters, while she herself becomes attracted to the prophet, Iokanaan. Her carnal desire for Iokanaan leads to his beheading, an act that brings her sexual gratification and leads her to kiss the lips of his severed head. Similarly, Herod comes to desire his step-daughter Salome, and, after persuading her to dance a highly sexualized dance, he is disgusted when she kisses Iokanaan’s lips and orders his soldiers to kill her. Throughout the play, the male characters look upon the females voyeuristically, in a way that stimulates sexual desire. In the same way, the female characters return the looks of the men, expressing similar desires that result in death: Salome has Iokanaan killed; and Herodias’ acceptance of Herod’s love results in the death of her first husband—Herod’s brother. Additionally, while some characters attempt to shield their vision from one another, none can escape the illuminating gaze of the moon—a symbolic manifestation of Salome—suggesting that death is always a threat. Through the moon and the compelling gaze of each character, Wilde associates visual perceptions with sexual desires that lead to the characters’ demises.
At the beginning the play, Wilde both connects the moon to Salome and establishes it as a menacing force that overlooks the Palace of Herod. Wilde seems to be following a tradition in Western literature that links the image of the moon to womanhood, femininity, and purity. In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye writes that “the moon [is] closely linked with the female or maternal aspect of sexual imagery” (200). Well-versed in Classical literature, Wilde would have been cognizant of the association in Greek myth between the image of the moon and Artemis, the goddess of the moon, the hunt, and chastity. However, the moon also connotes insanity, as is made clear by the derivation of the English word “lunatic,” derivable to the French word “lune,” meaning “moon.” The dual meanings of the moon become more apparent as the play progresses. After the opening line, in which the Young Syrian comments on the beauty of Salome, the Page of Herodias immediately notices the strange, deadly nature of the moon, describing it as a feminine character: “Look at the moon. How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from the tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things” (3). Here, the Page of Herodias answers the Young Syrian’s comment with one of his own as he personifies the moon, such as eyes and a consciousness to look for the dead. The Young Syrian also prescribes feminine personifications to the moon, as he sees her to be an image of purity, much like he sees Salome: “She is like a princess who has little white doves for feet. One might fancy she was dancing” (3). By describing the moon as a female with white doves for feet, the Young Syrian draws out the virtue and virginity of Salome; the dove connotes purity by its association with the Holy Spirit in Christian tradition, and its whiteness expresses a sense of innocence. Yet, there is a danger lurking in the Young Syrian’s comment, as he images the moon to be a dancing girl, like Salome, whose “dance of the seven veils” (37) will initiate Iokanaan’s death as well as her own.
Similar to the moon, the Young Syrian’s constant watch upon Salome prompts the first death of the play, as he kills himself due to his unfulfilled desire for her. After looking at her, continually commenting on her beauty, the Young Syrian is reprimanded by the Page of Herodias, who accuses him: “You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen” (4). From this warning, the Page reveals his recognition of the danger of becoming enraptured by another’s physical appearance, and he attempts to prevent the Young Syrian from committing such a mistake, an attempt which anticipates Herodias’ warning that Herod not look lustfully at Salome. Yet having been so engulfed by her physicality, the Young Syrian notices a paleness coming upon her, seeing her as “the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver” (4), and, later, as “a dove that has strayed” (8). As his gaze persists, the Young Syrian looks upon Salome as having declined from a white, dove-footed princess to a strayed dove, and the shadow of a white rose, rather than the rose itself. Also, by employing the image of the mirror, the Young Syrian imparts another function onto moon, that of reflection and even exploitation of the inner state of a viewer—a notion that parallels the moon’s reflection of the sun’s rays, which are often symbolically illuminations of truth. When he first sees her purity, the Young Syrian is not only describing Salome, but also himself, as they are both pure individuals, innocent and chaste. Wilde emphasizes the character’s innocence by pointing it out through his name—the Young Syrian. However, since the Young Syrian continues to be enthralled by Salome’s physical appearance, he begins to corrupt his own purity through Salome’s increasing physical and moral paleness, which the moon reflects onto him. By describing Salome’s pallor, he also exposes his own deterioration, as he allows his own life to be sucked out due to his captivation with Salome. So, when Salome eventually ignores him, expressing her desire for Iokanaan, the Young Syrian—realizing his physicality and love were insignificant to her—attempts to reclaim control over his own physicality, as well as her gaze, by making a spectacle out of his body through its destruction. Yet the Young Syrian dies for naught, as Salome disregards his death and focuses instead on kissing Iokanaan.
Upon seeing the prophet, Salome transitions from a seemingly innocent and chaste being to a voyeur whose desire for carnality leads to death. Entering the terrace, Salome conveys a purity that is untainted by sexual desire, as she has not yet seen Iokanaan. Her innocence even borders on ignorance because she does not even know the existence of the prophet: when she hears him speak, she asks, “Who was that who cried out?” (9). Her purity is again reinforced as she is unable to recognize the lustful and incestuous gaze of Herod: “Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mole’s eyes under his shaking eyelids?….I know not what it means” (8). Moreover, when gazing at the moon—a mirror, and a representation of herself—Salome sees a purity that reflects her innocence:
How good to see the moon! She is like a little piece of money, a little silver flower. She is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin. She has the beauty of a virgin. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses. (9)
From this description of the moon, Salome suggests that she imagines herself to be just as uncorrupted as the moon, which reflects her inner purity like a mirror. However, when she learns of the prophet, Salome develops a strong desire to see him, and even forces her servants to bring him out of the cistern. Trapped within the cistern, Iokanaan had thus far escaped the dangerous glares of both Salome and the moon. Having once been led out for Salome to see, Iokanaan inadvertently draws out her passion simply through his physicality. Although she initially describes Iokanaan using white and pure images, Salome changes her depictions, describing his body as being “horrible” (16), like “the body of a leper” (16). Yet, as she persists in looking at him, she develops a desire “to kiss [his] mouth” (17), which demonstrates a carnal impulse that Iokanaan finds threatening and so he protests her advances. As the moon alters into “a strange aspect” (13), reflecting Salome’s perversion, Iokanaan senses the threat of death that has arisen from her passions. He hears the wings of death looming over him, like the moon, and remarks that “I hear in the palace the beating of the wings of the angel of death” (16), an image which foreshadows both his death and that of Salome.
While her kiss is meant to be an expression of her desire, Salome’s ultimate fulfillment of her sexual craving manifests itself through Iokanaan’s beheading. Throughout the story, Salome takes steps that lead her to kiss Iokanaan, but the progression reaches a climax during the execution scene, rather than the final kiss. She forces the guards to defy their orders by bringing Iokanaan out of the cistern, and she makes a deal with Herod, intending to have the prophet killed. She dances the dance of the seven veils; and she listens intently for the executioners to kill her beloved. Following the execution, the final kiss serves as a realization of the disappointing end of carnality, but comes after her climactic release from the beheading. Leading up to the prophet’s execution, Salome only sees the physicality of Iokanaan, which is evident through the way in which she separates the pieces of his body visually and mentally, as she focuses her gaze upon his black hair, red mouth, and leprous skin. In a sense, she anatomizes him on a somatic level, in a fashion that resembles a dismembering of his body and anticipates his beheading. By viewing the prophet in his way, Salome resembles Godmar in William Morris’s “The Haystack in the Floods,” who attempts to fulfill his lustful desire for Jehane by beheading Robert, after initially disassembling Jehane’s physicality:
This were indeed a piteous end
For those long fingers, and long feet,
And long neck, and smooth shoulders sweet;
An end that few men would forget. (110-113)
Through these images of bodily fragmentation, Morris conveys a sense in which Godmar is slowly tearing apart Jehane’s body for his own sexual gratification. Similarly, during the beheading scene of the play, Salome expresses her building anticipation toward a climactic conclusion as she continuously shouts at Herod, who tried to avoid the prophet’s beheading, “Give me the head of Iokanaan!” (42). Furthermore, Salome again anatomizes Iokanaan’s body, focusing on his eyes, eyelids, and mouth. The scene culminates with Salome’s carnal desires being brought forth through her speech as the executioner, Naaman, beheads Iokanaan: “There is no sound. I hear nothing. Why does he not cry out, this man?….Strike, strike, Naaman, strike, I tell you….Ah!” (43). Here, Salome’s passion grows with each time she yells at Naaman to strike, ultimately ending with her orgasmic release, which is expressed through her final scream, “Ah!” (43). However, her sexual experience was not how she initially imagined. At the beginning of her final climax, she wonders why the prophet does not take pleasure in the experience, like herself, since he remained silent throughout the execution.
After the beheading, she proceeds to talk to herself and kiss Iokanaan’s lips in an attempt to understand the love she thought she felt: “There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood?…Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love” (45). Her inability to distinguish whether she felt love suggests her naïveté, as she does not even comprehend her emotions upon kissing him. Yet by gazing upon Iokanaan, Salome developed dangerously sensual desires to kiss him, and her desires led directly to Iokanaan’s beheading.
In addition, Herod expresses a lustful and incestuous desire to be with Salome, which results in her death. Even before Herod steps onto the stage, his presence is felt through the strong gaze he directs at Salome, a gaze that resembles “mole’s eyes under his shaking eyelids” (8), an image suggesting a glare full of lasciviousness and carnality. Moreover, by looking at her from afar, Herod establishes a connection between the voyeur—himself—and the spectacle—Salome, who initially returns his looks in confusion, not realizing that he has a libidinal desire for her. When Herod enters the play, he is immediately warned by his wife, Herodias, not to look at Salome, for doing so is dangerous: “You must not look at her! You are always looking at her!” (20). Herodias’ words echo those of the Page of Herodias who also cautioned the Young Syrian not to be fixated upon Salome. However, Herod holds his stepdaughter in his sights and even orders his men to light the torches so that he can see everything more clearly, especially Salome. With the terrace brightened, Herod perceives a change in the moon’s complexion, noticing that it is now like a “mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked too….She reels through the clouds like a drunken woman” (20). Here, the moon’s symbolic associations with insanity emerge more clearly. Through Herod’s description, the moon not only exhibits the drunken lustfulness that Salome expresses towards Iokanaan, but it also reflects Herod’s own state, as he is overcome by his lust for her. From this point, Herod continues to look at Salome, eventually asking her to dance for him in exchange for anything she demands. By continuously gazing upon her, Herod calls forth the fatal dangers of his own voyeurism, as he senses the anticipating wings of death, just as Iokanaan sensed impending death when Salome looked at him:
There is an icy wind, and I hear…wherefore do I hear in the air this beating of wings? Ah! one might fancy a huge black bird that hovers over the terrace. Why can I not see it, this bird? The beat of its wings is terrible. The breath of the wind of its wings is terrible. It is a chill wind. Nay, but it is not cold, it is hot. (35)
Here, archetypal images of Death appear again, serving as another warning to Herod that he is too concerned with Salome’s physicality. However, unlike Iokanaan, Herod is unable to recognize Death’s warning, and simply thinks it is a black bird whose wings stir up a cold wind. Despite the warning, Herod continues to fixate upon the physical, as he offers Salome beautiful jewels, stones, and animals in order to avoid granting her the wish of the prophet’s head. When his offers are rejected, and he sees Salome kissing the lips of Iokanaan’s severed head, Herod comes undone and orders the guards to kill her.
The association between sight and death, as being one of dangerous desire, is reinforced in that others characters find safety while out of the gaze of others. The Second Soldier reveals that Herod’s elder brother was actually the first husband of Herodias, but Herod stole Herodias from him, and locked the elder brother up in a cistern for twelve years. However, the elder brother never died in the cistern and ended by being strangled by an executioner. Similarly, Iokanaan was locked up in the same cistern, and was safe from harm until being discovered by Salome. By residing out of the view of others, like Salome, both Iokanaan and Herod’s elder brother were safe from danger, since they did not draw the passionate gaze of another person. They were also shadowed from the gaze of the moon, which is representative of Salome and feminine lust, and thus they are secluded from any threats of danger. After the Young Syrian’s death, the Page of Herodias supports the notion that one may find protection from death by avoiding the moon’s rays:
Well I knew that the moon was seeking a dead thing, but I knew not that it was he whom she sought. Ah! why did I not hide him from the moon? If I had hidden him in a cavern she would not have seen him” (18).
Through these lines, the Page of Herodias suggests that if he had concealed the Young Syrian from the moon’s view, as was Iokanaan and Herod’s elder brother, then the Young Syrian would have been unable to become enveloped in the sensual desires brought about by physical appearances.
In the same regard, despite constantly gazing upon Salome, Herod protects himself from experiencing the same misfortunes as the Young Syrian, Iokanaan, and Salome, as he shields himself from witnessing potentially dangerous situations. After he slips on the blood of the Young Syrian, Herod, fearing that slipping on blood is an omen, asserts that he will not look upon the blood or the body: “I will not look on it” (20). Here, Herod suggests that merely by averting his vision he can avoid punishment and death. Similarly, as the executioner presents the severed head of Iokanaan, Herod hides his face behind his cloak and orders his slaves to put out the torches that illuminate his view of the terrace. By removing his gaze from Salome and the prophet’s head, Herod not only shields himself from the threat of death, but he also prevents himself from perceiving any guilt from the events that occurred. Moreover, by having the torches put out, seemingly cloaking himself in the darkness of the night, Herod protects himself from the deadly gazes of both Salome and the moon.
In closing, Wilde suggests that the image of the moon, which reflects the characters’ inner desires and the carnal sexuality manifested through their gazes, leads to death. While the moon is representative of Salome, it also functions as an object that sheds light onto the terrace, exposing everyone to the threat of death. Throughout the play, the characters also exchange glances, producing a mutuality between the seer and the seen that ends in despair. First, the Young Syrian develops a sensual longing that goes unreciprocated and results in his suicide. Then, both Salome and Herod express desires for another person—Salome wants to kiss Iokanaan; and Herod craves Salome—and in both cases the objects of their gaze die. While some characters attempt to hide in darkness, invible to the eye, none can escape the rays of the moon, which shines over them in a deathly glare, anticipating destruction: “Ah! look at the moon! She has become red. She has become red as blood” (36).
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.
Morris, William. “The Haystack in the Floods.” The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle. Ed. Cecil Y. Lang. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. Salome. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.