Symbols and Interpretation in Salomé

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As he attempts to persuade Salomé to dance for him, Herod lapses into a moment of commentary on reading and interpretation: “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. It were better far to say that…. But we will not speak of this” (225). Despite his view that the interpretation of textual “symbols” is dangerous, Herod’s remark simultaneously invites interpretation of its meaning and metaphors. This push-and-pull effect can be found throughout Salomé, making the analogous activities of interpretation and reading subjects of serious inquiry.

The concept of textual interpretation is enmeshed in Salomé’s structure and plot. On a linguistic level, individual words and even full sentences recur with only slight changes, spoken by a variety of characters; as a result, they seem to transcend their immediate contexts and take on symbolic meanings, calling for analysis in order to be understood. The images of doves (195), flowers (200), and “a woman who is dead” (195) reappear throughout the text, referring both to Salomé and to other characters and entities (for instance, the moon); likewise, the various characters’ admonitions to one another “not to look at” Salomé are repeated so often that they are nearly hypnotic (200). To match this writing style that seems to beg for interpretation, many episodes within the play can be viewed as exercises in literary analysis, seeking to interpret yet never achieving consensus or clear understanding. One example is that of the Jews, who fail to reach an agreement on whether “God is…hidden” and “how God worketh,” instead offering multiple conflicting “readings” of an opaque, text-like deity (215).

The play’s characters likewise serve as symbols to be interpreted and artistic objects to be analyzed, doubling as independent texts situated within the larger text of Wilde’s play. Like Wilde’s language itself, they both demand interpretation and push it away; other characters clamor for an almost authorial knowledge of these character-symbols, seeking to understand their words and “see” them fully (199), while the character-symbols recognize their allure as textual objects and manipulate it in their interactions with others. Jokanaan represents the unreadable written word, the enigmatic symbol that deliberately rejects attempts at interpretation. The First Soldier notes early in the play that “it is impossible to understand what [Jokanaan] says” (199), quickly establishing Jokanaan as an object of failed analysis; later, Jokanaan himself rejects his potential “reader” Salomé’s efforts to understand his words, stating that “[i]t is not to her that [he] would speak” (206). Yet if Jokanaan denies the possibility of a reader understanding a symbol, Salomé deliberately tempts her prospective “reader” with the false promise of knowledge. Playing on her position as an eternal object of sight, she persuades Narraboth to do her bidding by assuring him that she “will look at [him] through the muslin veils,” bridging the gap between symbol and interpreter and offering him the personal understanding he seeks (203).

If these characters, linguistic features, and plot events typically demand interpretation only to reject it, I wonder if it might be possible to link the protagonist’s death at the end of the play to her upending of this paradigm. Although Jokanaan refuses to provide his potential “readers” with the ability to interpret or comprehend his language, his death grants Salomé full power over his body. Consequently, she gains a nearly authorial control over this previously inscrutable textual symbol. Not only can she “do with it what [she] will” (234), but she can project her own thoughts and predictions onto it: “If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me” (236). In doing so, she usurps Jokanaan’s intentionality as a “writer” of his own symbolic self and gains an unprecedented level of power as a reader and writer within the play. I’m curious whether it might be this new power that makes her “monstrous” in Herod’s eyes, and which leads him to order her death (236).


Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé. Trans. Lord Alfred Douglas. 1894. Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose. Ed. Karl E. Beckson. 2nd ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1981. 194-237.


Word Count: 678

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