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Journal of Theatre and Drama * Vol.

7/8 * 2005 161

Medusa is no longer laughing: Oscar


Wildes Symbolism in Salom 1

Jennie Tabak
Department of English and Comparative Literature, Goldsmiths College,
University of London

All art is at once surface and symbol.


Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
(The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray)2

On the surface, Oscar Wildes Salom may appear to be a misogynist play,


emblematising the male authors condemnation of the expression of female
sexuality and depicting the heroine as a classic femme fatale. The story of the
young Jewish princess who devises the decapitation of her resistant love-object
has indeed invoked many critical readings of this kind.3 However, by acting
against Wildes own warning and reading the symbol, I wish to suggest a contrary
view, arguing that it was actually through his portrayal of the plays heroine that
Wilde expressed his sympathy with the feminist cause of his time and launched a
fierce attack on Victorian norms of dealing with female sexuality.4
Wildes decision to address a subject that was almost a taboo at the time of
writing led to the play being banned for production by the censors.5 This is not
surprising, considering Wildes irreverent reworking of the Biblical story into
what I consider to be a social manifesto meant for the attention of his
contemporaries. The pro-feminist theme of Salom has been recognised prior to
this study and discussed in detail, mainly by Jane Marcus.6 Yet, while important
and useful in its own right, Marcuss study is undercut by the authors excessive
attempts to champion Saloms cause through idealising her. At the beginning of
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her article, Marcus notes Wildes subversion of Victorian artistic notions of


characterising women:
Late nineteenth century painting, from the Pre-Raphaelites to the
Decadents, Mannerists, and Symbolists, has presented either the virgin or
the whore as its image of woman [...] Wilde deliberately creates a contrary
image of Salom or rather, he de-mystifies the image, and makes her into a
real person. The image-making process itself was a way of dehumanising
woman.
(96)
However, she later suggests that Wilde converts [Saloms] image to its opposite,
transforms her from sinner to saint (99). In ascribing saintly as opposed to
sinful characteristics to Salom, Marcus creates anew a dichotomised division,
contrary to her earlier suggestion that Wilde worked against this kind of
judgmental perception of women.
An overview of Wildes canon would show that his manner of characterisation
disallows a simplistic moral judgement of his characters as he often creates them
so that seemingly contradictory traits co-exist within the same character.7 This was
one of the techniques Wilde uses to convey his unconventional moral perspective
and his tongue in cheek attitude towards Victorian social norms.8 As most of his
famous plays were comedies, it is likely that the members of the audience did not
attach great importance to incongruities of character in them. In Salom, however,
the three major characters complexity and ambiguity, combined with the tone and
resolution of the play, force the viewers to reconsider their pre-programmed
notions of good/evil and moral/immoral. The logic is that if the moral-system
upon which people in general and women specifically are judged is at best
dubious, then the conclusions drawn by using it may also be questionable. Thus,
Wilde ensured that the criticism of the socio-sexual subjection of women
underlying Salom would not be taken lightly by the audience.
Wilde conveys this criticism in various ways throughout the play. One of his
main methods is to deconstruct the virgin-whore dichotomy to which Marcus
refers, a dichotomy that has been discussed and analysed by, among others, Nina
Auerbach.9 These definitions of women are applicable to an analysis of Salom,
since throughout the play Wilde reacts to and modifies them. While Herods and
Jokanaans attitudes towards Salom represent the two aspects of the virgin-
whore dichotomy respectively, in Salom herself Wilde refutes the binary model,
offering a female character who rejects all male attempts to classify her sexuality
so as to gain control over it.10 This leads to a feeling of disempowerment among
the male characters, as their inability to control her arouses their anxiety to the
point that they feel obliged to eliminate Saloms presence both symbolically
Medusa is no longer laughing 163

(Jokanaan) and physically (Herod). Yet, the dualities that Wilde constantly weaves
into the fabric of the play result in a subversion of the expected attitude towards
the plays characters, making Salom the character that most arouses our empathy.
While the stage directions at the beginning of the play seem to present a
masculine/martial setting: the palace of Herod [...with] soldiers [...] leaning over
the balcony (552), the first line of speech directs the readers attention to the
heroine. The play opens with The Young Syrians exclamation: How beautiful is
the Princess Salom to-night (552), presenting Salom as the object of male
desire from the very beginning. In characterising her, Wilde portrays Salom
throughout the play as multi-faceted, cleverly manipulating different aspects of her
personality to work against each other, while he constantly and deliberately blurs
the borderlines between the innocent girl and the sexually-aware woman.
Saloms first speech in the play provides an initial indication of this mixture of
chastity and sexual awareness: Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while
with his moles eyes under his shaking eyelids? [...] I know not what it means. In
truth, yes I know it (555). While rejecting Herods display of desire and
attempting at first to protest her innocence with regard to sexual lust, Salom
certainly knows enough about it to recognise the nature of Herods gaze.
Salom proceeds to describe the moon as cold and chaste. I am sure she is a
virgin [...] She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men,
like the other goddesses (555). Correctly perceiving her positioning as the object
of Herods desire, Salom projects onto the moon her own sentiments and wishes.
At this point she is still powerless against Herod and so she celebrates the moons
detachment, her inapproachability and her alleged sexual purity. Attempting to
achieve power by identifying herself with the moon, Salom conveys her own
attributes, her virginity, to it, in an effort to escape her physical body, the object of
Herods unwanted desire, and to become as unattainable as the moon. The moon
thus becomes at this early stage in the play a central image of the symbolic layer
that enhances the plays ambiguity. Wilde uses the plays symbolism to further
convey his criticism of prejudiced views in general, and of those regarding women
in particular, and so, like the other images of the play, the moon suggests a dual
meaning. On the one hand, it is an independent, removed object, seemingly
irrelevant to the plays progression, but on the other hand, with every character
narrating it differently throughout the play, it becomes very personal and
idiosyncratic. With the sole exception of Herodias, who refuses to perceive hidden
meanings in the moon and says the moon is like the moon, that is all (561), all
the characters attempt to find symbolic meaning in it. Strikingly, all references to
the moon throughout the play use female imagery and the moon is, almost without
exception, addressed as she. Most of the images associated with the moon
reflect on the characterisation of Salom. For example, Herods description of the
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moon-She is naked, too. She is quite naked. The clouds are seeking to clothe her
nakedness, but she will not let them (561)-conveys his desire towards Salom.
However, though both the moon and Salom become the objects of different
individual projective interpretations, no one interpretation accounts for all their
possible aspects, since each of these constructions is subjective and for the most
part one-dimensional.
Subjectivity in perceiving objects outside oneself, as exemplified in the
different characters perception of the moon, relates to two other important themes
of the play: the power of the gaze, initially alluded to by Saloms rejection of
Herods gaze, and peoples projection of their own views on others. Sigmund
Freud argued that scopophilia, or pleasure in looking, derives from turning others
into passive sexual objects by subjecting them to ones gaze.11 Using similes to
describe perceived objects in the play (Jokanaans body is like ivory, the moon is
like a dead woman, for example), each of the characters actually projects his or her
own views onto the seen object. By this Wilde suggests that perception is always
subjective and that what is thought of as seeing is merely an extension of ones
own emotions and thoughts.
Saloms reaction to Jokanaans first speech in her presence may serve as
another example of projective perception. Without seeing him, Salom hears
Jokanaans disembodied voice from within the cistern in which Herod imprisoned
him, as an inner voice. Immediately following Saloms own reference to the
moon as a virgin, Jokanaans voice is heard, commemorating, as Christopher
Nassaar suggests,12 the power of Christ to banish all signs of sexuality: The Lord
hath come. The son of man hath come. The centaurs have hidden themselves in
the rivers, and the sirens have left the rivers, and are lying beneath the leaves of
the forest (555). As at this stage they both speak of chastity, Jokanaans words
may be interpreted as signifying Saloms own chaste self. Thus, Salom begins
to see in Jokanaan a potential ally, one who might bolster her limited ability to
fight against Herod. Indeed, Jokanaans initial appeal for Salom is that he seems
to be He of whom the Tetrarch is afraid (555). Salom is attracted to Jokanaans
alleged power over her despised stepfather, whom she cannot, at this point,
similarly master or intimidate. However, in one of Wildes ironies, Salom soon
begins to perceive her potential brother in arms in her fight for chastity as a
potential lover. This is a turning point at which she stops being a mere sexual
object and gradually becomes aware of the power with which her sexuality
endows her. Yet, her newly gained power is a double-edged sword. While
suddenly recognising how she may profit from being objectified herself (i.e., that
she can manipulate the men who desire her into doing her will), Salom is also, to
a certain degree, mastered by her own strong attraction to Jokanaan. She thus
exercises her charm on The Young Syrian, leading him finally to disobey Herods
Medusa is no longer laughing 165

orders, risk his own life and allow Jokanaan out of the cistern at her request.
On first seeing Jokanaan, Saloms response betrays her dual attitude towards
him. If Jokanaan may be read as signifying the aspect of Salom that conforms to
Victorian societys norms of proper behaviour in women, at this stage her
fascination with him, and by implication with her own chastity, is already
countered by an initial resistance. When Jokanaan emerges from the cistern,
Salom steps slowly back  from him (557), but does not retire completely. She
says of him: But he is terrible, yet soon after describes his eyes as: black lakes
troubled by fantastic moons (558). This line indicates the symbolic association
that Salom makes between herself and Jokanaan through the moon imagery.
Echoing the former association she made between herself and the moon, Salom
projects her own self-identity on her love-object, and sees herself (as the moon)
reflected in Jokanaans eyes, yet she recognises that the sight troubles him. This
identification is further enhanced by Saloms later remark: I am sure he is chaste
as the moon is (558), repeating almost verbatim her former description of the
moons, and thus of her own, chastity. In a seemingly paradoxical reaction, while
identifying with Jokanaans chastity, Salom also becomes increasingly desirous
and possessive of him.
Having already succeeded in charming The Young Syrian into doing her will,
Salom attempts to use the same seductiveness on Jokanaan. But now her position
is weaker as she is mastered by strong emotions and real desire. In a subversion
typical of Wilde, he has Salom attempt to seduce the one character in the play
who signifies suppressed desire and the Victorian social rejection of female
sexuality. This starts a series of repulsion-attraction reactions from both sides that
can be traced in Saloms as well as in Jokanaans words. Nassaar argues that
Iokanaan [...] has thrust the evil and lust in himself into his subconscious [...but]
his words continually betray the lust and evil that he has hidden from himself
(94). Jokanaans reaction to Salom is extreme. He asks
Who is this woman who is looking at me? I will not have her look at me.
Wherefore doth she look at me with her golden eyes, under her gilded
eyelids? I know not who she is. I do not wish to know who she is. Bid her
begone.
(558)
Nassaar reads this passage as evidence of Jokanaans desire for Salom. He argues
that Jokanaans
panicky vehemence [...] betrays him by its very intensity [...] As Salome
woos him, his repeated rejections of her are so exaggeratedly violent as to
suggest a great fear of her, a tremendous effort to prevent his repressed
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longing for her from erupting forth into the open. He succeeds, Salome is
rejected [...] His desire for Salome remains repressed, lurking in his
subconscious, destined never to see the light.
(99-100)

While my interpretation of the play does not coincide with Nassaars general
reading, in which he argues that Salom reflects Wildes view of humanity as
corrupt and of Salom herself as the emblem of this corruption,13 I agree with his
interpretation of Jokanaans reaction to Salom. Indeed, it is too strong to be taken
literally. Considering the First Soldiers earlier description of Jokanaan as very
gentle (554), Jokanaans severe castigation of Salom invites speculation as to its
reasons. Jokanaans condemnation of Herod and Herodias may be more easily
explained, since the two have been engaged in an incestuous relationship, made
possible by Herod having murdered his own brother (Herodias first husband) to
facilitate his relationship with Herodias. Saloms only sin at this stage is that
she desires Jokanaan. As the seeming representative and advocate of Christian
morality, Jokanaan might be expected to display greater tolerance towards Salome.
I therefore read Jokanaans declamations, such as Let there come against her a
multitude of men. Let the people take stones and stone her (565), as extreme
denials of his own feelings. Jokanaan wishes Saloms destruction so that he will
not be tempted by her.
With her courtship of Jokanaan, Salom now has to fight an inner battle as well
as an external one, and she is clearly distressed. On the one hand, her desire has a
powerful hold on her and she wishes to act upon it, but on the other, her own
notions of chastity prevent her from doing so. Salom turns to Jokanaan as a
spiritual mentor, asking him for guidance: Speak again, Jokanaan, and tell me
what I must do. Jokanaan answers her query: Daughter of Sodom, come not near
me! But cover thy face with a veil, and scatter ashes upon thine head, and get thee
to the desert and seek out the Son of Man (558). Marcus explains the dynamics
between the two characters as follows:
[Salom] is willing to become [Jokanaans] disciple, but his narrowness of
vision will not expand to include the daughter of Herodias among the
worshippers in his new religion. This defines him as merely a precursor of
the Christ, who, when he comes, does not say Touch me not to Mary
Magdalen.
(102)
My reading of the play suggests that Saloms inner conflict represents a struggle
against Victorian societys positioning of women as well. Thus, her refusal to be
characterised as a whore who requires repentance assumes the additional
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meaning of social rebellion. However, since at this stage she has not achieved the
power of unrestrained sexuality that will later enable her to act upon her desire,
she can only express it verbally. Her words of praise/denunciation of Jokanaan
prove her continuing inner struggle: while he denounces her from the very
beginning, Salom denies her former words of praise with every rejected attempt
to approach him, only to have them replaced with other accolades immediately
after.14 Salom seems to be struggling with her own desire, but ultimately chooses
to act upon it. Her last words to the living Jokanaan are: I will kiss thy mouth
(560).
Herods repeated attempts to approach her drive Salom to finalise her
decision. While at first rejecting his constant appeals to her, Salom eventually
responds to Herods offer: If you dance for me you may ask of me what you will,
and I will give it to you (568). Just as she previously used The Young Syrians
lust towards her to achieve her aim, Salom now employs Herods desire for her
against him and for her own benefit. She requests Jokanaans death in order to
annihilate both aspects of her sexual subjection: Jokanaans positioning of her as
whore has already been shown, while Herods perception of her as desired virgin
is brought to an end only at the moment in which Salom reacts to Jokanaans
decapitation. With the destruction of his physical body, Jokanaans death brings
about the annihilation of his symbolic presence as Saloms chaste/abstinent self.
Herods emotional destruction is an additional consequence of Jokanaans death.
Issuing the command for the prophets death, Herod says:
Let her be given what she asks! [...] Oh! surely some evil will befall some
one [...] Ah! Wherefore did I give my oath? Kings ought never to pledge
their word. If they keep it not, it is terrible, and if they keep it, it is terrible
also.
(573)
Seized with a premonition of doom, Herod no longer seeks to seduce Salom.
Thus, with the second aspect of her sexual positioning (as a desired virgin)
eliminated, Salom is finally a sexually liberated woman.
Wildes adaptation of the Biblical story presents a Salom who is no longer a
ventriloquist-puppet speaking in her mothers voice when demanding Jokanaans
head. Richard Ellmann describes Wildes perception of the traditional Salom:
He complained about the docility of the Biblical Salom, who simply obeys
Herodias, and once she receives the head conveys it to her mother.15 By re-
envisaging Salom as an independent person whose only submission is to the
demands of her own desire, Wilde accords Saloms character a depth that her
Biblical counterpart lacks and turns her into a deeply paradoxical character.
Indeed, as Salom celebrates her sexual power, Wilde has her suddenly realise that
168 Jennie Tabak

she has lost Jokanaan forever. This is possibly the most difficult speech in the play,
but in it lies the key to understanding Saloms real conflict and the essence of her
character. Saloms use of cruel and ironic language may seem at first self-
congratulatory and triumphant, yet her speech indicates a feeling of deep pain at
Jokanaans rejection of her. On receiving Jokanaans head, Salom says:
thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it
now [...] I said it. Did I not say it? [...] But wherefore dost thou not look at
me, Jokanaan? Thine eyes that were so terrible, so full of rage and scorn,
are shut now [...] thy tongue [...] says nothing now, Jokanaan, that scarlet
viper that spat its venom upon me. It is strange, is it not?
(573-4)
As the speech proceeds, it conveys Saloms dualistic emotional state: though
supposedly in control now, she is still subject to her own deep feelings. Jokanaans
rejection has wounded her and made her vengeful-thou wouldst have none of me,
Jokanaan. Thou didst reject me-and, significantly, she focuses on Jokanaans
denunciation of her due to her alleged promiscuity: thou didst treat me as a
harlot, as a wanton ( 574). While asserting that she is now the one in power:
well, Jokanaan, I still live, but thou [...] art dead, and thy head belongs to me. I
can do with it what I will-Salom still feels utterly helpless. She says: Jokanaan,
thou wert the only man that I have loved, and appeals for instruction from the
severed head of the man whose destruction she has herself ordered: I am athirst
for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor fruits can appease
my desire. What shall I do now, Jokanaan? (574). Still speaking to the severed
head, Salom says: I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I
was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire (574). When considered
together with Saloms former reference to Jokanaans treatment of her as a
harlot, the real source of Saloms anger and vengefulness emerges. Although
Jokanaan has not actively seduced her, on a symbolic level he has indeed taken
Saloms virginity, or her innocence and purity, by invoking in her formerly
unfamiliar sexual desires and emotions, only to condemn her expression of them,
thus emblemising Victorian socio-sexual norms.16
At the plays close, Salom finally acts upon her desire, and her final words in
the play are I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan (575). Saloms ultimate
denouncement of her virginal self coincides with Herods realisation that his desire
for her has enabled Salom to maneuver him into committing a sin whose
consequences he is only now beginning to grasp. As the allegedly authoritative
male, Herod approved of Saloms sexuality while she was under his control as a
passive sexual object. Yet now, guilt-ridden at Jokanaans murder as he is and
feeling that Saloms shift into an active sexual subject has overpowered him,
Medusa is no longer laughing 169

Herod becomes utterly revolted by her and, rather than take the blame for
succumbing to his desires and recognise his own villainy, feels obliged to destroy
what seems to him the real source of evil. In the climactic last line, he orders his
soldiers to Kill that woman (575). Saloms death thus becomes for Wilde a way
of tipping the scales one last time, as she dies the type of death characteristic of
the classic tragic hero:17 on the one hand, she is punished for her evil deed, and yet
just before her death it becomes apparent that she was herself as much a victim of
the life-circumstances that limited her full expression as a free person, as she was
an initiator of Jokanaans murder. In addition, the play takes its title from her
name, making Salom, rather than Herod or Jokanaan, the main tragic character,
while the final stage directionThe soldiers rush forward and crush beneath
their shields SALOM, daughter of HERODIAS, Princess of Judaea
(575)emphasises her status and fall from a high position.
In order to further understand Wildes depiction of Salom, I wish to investigate
a central aspect of the symbolic layer underlying the play. Although not once
mentioned by name, the Medusa image constitutes another way in which Wilde
suggests a dual image of Salom. The association between Salom and the figure
of Medusa is suggested initially by the recurrent warning: Do not look at her. At
the beginning of the play, The Page of Herodias tells The Young Syrian: You are
always looking at her [Salom]. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look
at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen (553). The Pages
warning is reiterated several times throughout the first part of the play, only to be
echoed later on by Herodiass reproach to Herod: You must not look at her! You
are always looking at her (561). Indeed, both viewers are later destroyed. While
the enamoured Young Syrian, unable to accept Saloms infatuation with
Jokanaan, commits suicide, the danger inherent in looking at Salom is ultimately
recognised by Herod as well. Towards the end of the play he says: It is true, I
have looked at you all evening [...] I have looked at you too much. But I will look
at you no more (571). However, he has already looked at Salom, has become
enchanted by her, and has been tempted to utter the oath that will bring an
emotional catastrophe upon him.
The theme of looking and sight suggests throughout the play that things are not
what they seem and that one may look and still not see. This may be exemplified
in Herods blindness to the fact that it is he who is the subject of the prophets
reproach. Responding earlier to Herodiass words: You hear what he says about
you, Herod claims: It is not of me that he speaks. He speaks never against me
(567). Only at the end of the play does Herods fantastic and idealised picture of
reality (Caesars supposed love of him, the stability of his kingdom) begin to
shatter, as he starts to realise the horror of his present life. At this point, responding
to Saloms long address to Jokanaans severed head, he tells Herodias: She is
170 Jennie Tabak

monstrous, thy daughter, she is altogether monstrous (574). Nassaar suggests that
the image Herod has of Salom may be seen as a projection of his own self. Herod
knows what he is looking at [...]Salom reveals his soul to him (93-4), and he is
thus appalled by her as he is by himself. In denouncing Saloms sins, Herod
recognises his own, and his sense of guilt becomes apparent in his reaction as he
retreats into the palace fearing that Gods vengeance will fall upon him: I will not
stay here [...] surely some terrible thing will befall [...] Let us hide ourselves in our
palace, Herodias. I begin to be afraid (574).
Jokanaan is the only man who ostensibly resists Saloms charms and avoids
looking at her. Aware of her power, Salom argues: If thou hadst looked at me
thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me... (574). A
powerful Medusa figure, Salome has managed to cause the ruin even of the one
person who seems able to resist her charms. While to some degree adhering to the
Biblical account of the story, according to which John the Baptist was decapitated
at Saloms request,18 Wilde, as I have shown, felt free to alter this account in
other respects. One may thus interpret Jokanaans death as Wildes punishing
him for alienating himself. Although he feels superior to the other characters, he is
in fact no better than any of them. The only difference is that, as shown earlier,
Jokanaan has attempted to avoid his own emotions and desires, a vice that Wilde,
who denounced the hypocrisy of Victorian sexual norms, may have seen as worse
than acknowledging ones desires and acting upon them. The fact that Salom and
Herod manage to destroy Jokanaan shows that he, too, is vulnerable and subject to
exactly the same conditions as everyone else. Ironically, Jokanaans suppression
of his own desires, resulting in his rejection of Saloms, leads to the fateful
conclusion in which the prophet who fails to prophesy his own death becomes a
victim of sexual desire. Thus, though undoubtedly shocking, Jokanaans death is
coloured by Wildes subversive irony. Saloms and Jokanaans respective modes
of death enhance the symbolic association between them, in both instances
evoking the Medusa imagery. The fate of Salom, crushed to death by the soldiers
shields, is a variation on that of Medusa, who Perseus decapitates while using his
shield as a mirror, thus avoiding looking directly at her.19 Further, Perseus later
offers Medusas head to Athena as a decoration for her shield.20 Richard Ellmann
mentions Wildes initial plan to name the play The Decapitation of Salom
(325) and to depict her death in these terms, a plan that may be read as further
evidence of Wildes perception that Salom and Medusa share certain character-
istics. Marcus accounts for this idea, arguing that Wilde meant to equate the two
deaths (Saloms and Jokanaans) (97). Indeed, Jokanaans decapitation, as well
as Saloms description of his hair first as clusters of grapes [...] that hang from
the vine-trees and later as a knot of black serpents writhing round thy neck
(559), suggest that the Medusa allusions are applicable to him as well. This is
Medusa is no longer laughing 171

strengthened by the mythological story, according to which Medusas power


derives from her being repulsive and attractive at the same time. Hope Moncrieff
describes her face as fearfully beautiful... as well as horrible (79). The Medusa
allusions have two main functions then, both leading to a subversion of the good
versus evil categorisation of the plays characters: the first is to associate the
alleged villainness of the play with the one character who is supposed to be pure
and virtuous, reinforcing the inherent ambiguity underlying the play as a whole;
the second function is to further enhance the dualism in Saloms character.
Wilde could not have chosen a better symbol to represent his Salom than
Medusa. The mythological Medusa, like Salom, embodies the duality of the
sexually assertive woman: the enchanting, yet terrifying power of female
sexuality. Annis Pratt argues that the Medusa [...] myths [...] were [...] created
only to express masculine responses to powerful women (5). She further notes
that the combination of Medusas external beauty with her repulsive inner aspects
made her a useful symbol of female sexuality in nineteenth century poetry.
According to Pratt, the poets recognised that splitting up [...] feminine beauty
from feminine sensuality [...is] a trend [which is...] disruptive of natural human
instincts. Therefore, they were led to describe it in terms of the enraged and
dangerous Medusa buried under the mien of any lovely woman you might meet
(14-15). Clearly, Salom is a Medusa figure, whose sensuality both attracts and
repulses Herod and Jokanaan. Yet, before mistakenly concluding that Wilde
simply echoed his societys denigration of sensuality in women, a central aspect of
Medusas story, her victimisation should be noted. Pratt recounts how
Medusa, in some archetypal narratives [...] was an especially beautiful
priestess in the temple of Athena, until she made love to or (in some
accounts) was raped by the sea god Poseidon. Then Athena, in her fury or
jealousy, turned her into an ugly Gorgon.
(15)
Pratt maintains that in various rewritings of Medusas story, nineteenth-century
poets offered their pity, and sometimes even their outrage, at her fate (18-19).
These poets appropriated a much earlier myth to explore the problems in their own
societys moral system that caused Victorian women to suffer a daily re-enactment
of Medusas victimisation. Indeed, Pratt suggests that
although the enormous power [...] in the wounded Medusa would have been
recognised in all periods as representing the [...] threat of female revenge,
only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries does this rage become
directed against norms denying sensuality as a natural attribute of women.
(40)
172 Jennie Tabak

In this context, Hlne Cixouss treatment of Medusa in her article The Laugh of
the Medusa21 comes to mind. Alluding to Freuds analysis of the Medusa myth as
symbolic of the allegedly castrated mother and the castration fear that threatens the
son if he engages in a sexual relationship with her,22 Cixous argues:
But isnt this fear convenient for them? Wouldnt the worst be, isnt the
worst, in truth, that women arent castrated, that they have only to stop
listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its
meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And
shes not deadly. Shes beautiful and shes laughing.
(885)
Once we recognize that the ambiguous symbol of Medusa lies at the basis of the
play, the empathy-arousing aspects of Salom become much more apparent, as do
Wildes intentions in characterising her as he did. Salom, like Medusa, is punished
for her sexuality. For attempting to break the conventions restricting her, she is
punished by Herod who, once Jokanaan dies, becomes the new representative of
Victorian sexual morality, abandoning, as shown earlier, his formerly lascivious
attitude towards Salom in favour of denouncing her and withdrawing from the
world. Herods behaviour at the plays close, considered together with the fate of the
semi-Medusa-like Jokanaan and the fate of the Medusian Salom, implies that the
condemnation of female sexuality may be hazardous for both sexes, as both become
victims of Victorian socio-sexual norms. Analysing poetry written by Victorian
female poets, Pratt argues that they often perceived themselves as split identities
resulting from the clash between their natural desires and the sexual norms of their
time.23 It is to be expected, then, that women are likely to resent and blame men for
inventing these norms and for forcing women to subjugate their sexuality to the
control mechanism of social propriety. This is indeed the essence of the play:
recognising the danger that the feminist struggle might lead to violence and
extremity when womens rage at their sexual subjection through social conventions
is acted upon, it also identifies the source of feminine rebellion in the symbolically
equally violent male attempts to dominate and control female sexuality.
Accordingly, as The Laugh of the Medusa suggests:
There have been poets who would go to any lengths to slip something by at
odds with tradition-men capable of loving love and hence capable of loving
others and of wanting them, of imagining the woman who would hold out
against oppression and constitute herself as a superb, equal, hence
impossible subject, untenable in a real social framework. Such a woman
the poet could desire only by breaking the codes that negate her.
(879)
Medusa is no longer laughing 173

In Salom, Wilde has done exactly that. In treating the issue of feminism in a
typically Wildean manner, he deconstructed the conventional Victorian perception
of women while refraining from offering a neat solution, leaving his readers to
choose for themselves where they stand with regard to the feminist pledge. After
all, as Wilde wrote to his friend Ada Leverson, God and other artists are always a
little obscure.24

NOTES
I wish to thank Prof. Bill Freedman of Haifa Universitys English Department and Dr. Sos Eltis of
Brasenose College, University of Oxford, for their kind advice and assistance in the process of
writing this paper, and the editors of JTD, Prof. Avraham Oz and Glendyr Sacks, for their helpful
comments during my pre-publication revision of it. My thanks also to the University of Haifas
School of Graduate Studies for their award of a research prize for this paper.
1 A shorter version of this paper was presented at the Annual Colloquium of Haifa Universitys
th
English Department on 9 May 1999.
2 In The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994, p. 17. All
further references to Wildes texts are from this edition and will be marked by page number in
parenthesis.
3 For examples of such studies, see Victoria White (1998), pp. 158-165, and Norbert Kohl (1989),
pp. 176-193.
4 For accounts of Victorian feminists engagement with female sexuality see, for example, Barbara
Caine (1992), Philippa Levine (1987), June Purvis (ed.) (2000), especially chapter 8: Women and
Sexuality, pp. 193-216, and Susan Bassnett (1986), Chapter on Britain, pp. 132-169.
5 Richard Dellamora (1990) explains the sanctions against the play as follows: When English
censors in 1892 decided to prohibit the staging of Wildes play, they found it offensive [...] because
Salom asserts her desire as a woman (p. 247).
6 Jane Marcus (1974), pp. 95-113.
7 Although there are many other examples, Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermeres Fan may serve as the
perfect model for this mixture of traits: an apparently selfish mother who abandons her daughter
only to come back and save her at the moment when she most needs motherly assistance, she
relinquishes the role of the protective, self-sacrificing mother as soon as her duty is done, without
ever revealing the motives for her actions. Is Mrs. Erlynne a sinner or a saint? Perhaps neither,
perhaps both?
8 See Sos Eltis (1996), for a detailed study of Wildes approach to Victorian social issues.
9 Nina Auerbach (1982).
10 In his characterisation of Salom, Wilde almost anticipates Lacans theory of female sexuality,
which regards it as beyond male definition. See, for example, Lacans Guiding Remarks for a
Congress on Feminine Sexuality in Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds.), 1985, pp. 86-98.
11 Sigmund Freud (1991), pp. 69-70.
12 Christopher S. Nassaar (1974), p. 95.
13 Nassaar, pp. 80, 86 and 92.
14 See the dialogue between Salom and Jokanaan in Complete Works, pp. 558-9.
15 Richard Ellmann (1988), p. 325.
16 My reading coincides with Kaarina Kailos description of Saloms state of innocence [as] best
understood [...] in a non-moral meaning of in-no-sense (p. 123), focusing on the psychological
rather than the physical aspects of sexual innocence. See Kaarina Kailo (1993), pp. 119-136.
174 Jennie Tabak

17 See Aristotles Poetics (1951), pp. 302-333.


18 See The New Testament, Mark 6, 14-29.
19 See A. R. Hope Moncrieff (1994), p. 79.
20 See Annis Pratt (1994), p.19.
21 See Hlne Cixous (1976), pp. 875-93.
22 See Sigmund Freud, Medusas Head (1957), pp. 273-4.
23 See Pratt (1994), pp. 8-14.
24 From a Letter to Ada Leverson, Early December 1894, in Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.), 1962, p. 379.

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