Salome The Fin-de-Siècle Femme Fatale

Bram Dijkstra, in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, notes the proliferation of representations of Salome around 1900 as artists registered an increasing concern with the danger of women's potential agency. He characterizes the problem as women's "narcissistic autoerotic self-sufficiency." Salome was one of several types of femmes fatale--dangerous or "fatal" women--that emerged in the art of the period. The late 19th-century obsession with femmes fatale, according to Dijkstra and similar theorists, served to displace and manage a cluster of British anxieties about the unknown in the midst of sexual, imperial, and economic upheavals. In particular, images of Medusa, Circe, Judith, Delilah and Salome circulated through art, with the latter figures functioning as biblical counterparts of antiquity's murderous Medusa. Each a headhuntress of sorts, the Fatal Women of Judeo-Christian mythology articulated the dangers of looking and decapitation explicit in the Medusa allegory. The substantial artistic dialogue on Salome, Dijsktra explains, was particularly indicative of the turn-of-the-century concern with classifying and limiting the unknown.

Dijkstra traces an evolving obsession in the period with Salome as the epitome of "the inherent perversity of women: their eternal circularity and their ability to destroy the male's soul." As Salome evolves over the latter half of the 19th century in the art of Moreau, Friedman, and Klimt (see image), and in the writings of Flaubert, Mallarme, Huysmans, and Symons, she acquires an increasing centrality and (fatal) sexual autonomy in her own story. Her mother, Herodias, who in the stories of Mark and Matthew motivates and entirely orchestrates the decapitation of John the Baptist to satisfy her own vengeance, is increasingly marginalized; her desire for John's head becomes Salome's own, and it is a goal she secures with the erotic spectacle of her dancing. Continually revising the original details of the Salome narrative, the artists of Wilde's time thus refigured the Hebrew princess as a femme fatale of the Medusan order. In doing so, they established her (in Dijkstra's words) as "the true centerpiece of male masochistic fantasies" of late Victorian culture.

More emphatically than his predecessors, Wilde distinguished mother and daughter by presenting Herodias as seeking to prevent Salome's dance performance, instead of suggesting and encouraging it. Accordingly, Wilde emphasized Salome's desire for John as entirely independent of, and different from, that of Herodias. In fact, he highlights Salome's desire as a departure from the previous representations of it: to Herod's accusation, Salome responds, "It is not my mother's voice that I heed. It is for mine own pleasure that I ask the head of Iokanaan in a silver charger." Further modifying the biblical source in favor of a Salome with agency and foresight, Wilde presents Herod's decision to grant his stepdaughter a wish as preceding, rather than following, the infamous dance. In Wilde's text, as in no others of the time, Salome's dance is part of an exchange with Salome as the cunning and willing vendor, exchanging access to the erotic spectacle of her body for the decapitation of the prophet who resists her. In this way, Wilde's Salome stands out among representations of the biblical narrative as a "wholesale manipulation of the image of woman as aggressor" (despite the role of Salome's mother in the original text). Wilde helped establish the figure of Salome in such a way that her name "[became] a household word for pernicious sexual perversity."