Race theory draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts, helping us to understand ethnicity and cultural ‘otherness’. The concept of race theory is based upon a hierarchical system which categorizes people into groups and races, with the white race being seen as superior. (Bennett & Royle, 2004, p. 209) ‘Others’ – those who are not part of the white race – are therefore deemed inferior.
It was only in the 19th Century that people started to be described in terms of their race (their shared physical characteristics, such as skin or hair colour). However, between 1850 and 1950, issues of colonisation and immigration affected how race was perceived, and the idea of race became very important in British popular culture. This interest in ‘the other’ was consolidated when, in 1877, Queen Victoria was given the title ‘Empress of India’ following the formal incorporation of India into the British Empire – a title that continued to be bestowed upon the Monarchy until India’s independence in 1947.
By 1900 a quarter of the world’s population were British subjects, born in Britain or in some part of the British Empire (Family Records, no date, online). Many of these colonial subjects subsequently settled in Britain, to be joined at the end of the 19th Century (and again during the 1930’s) by Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and Germany by the supposedly superior Aryan race (ibid). The term, ‘Aryan’ refers to a model of racial identity that was prevalent in Europe during this period and theorises that North European ‘Nordic’ people constitute a master race. Nazi ideologists went to extreme and violent measures to maintain the purity of the race, subjecting Jews, gypsies, and other minority groups to the atrocities of the holocaust. Following World War 2, however, any anti-Semitism that there may have been in Britain was lessened, as white people wanted to distance themselves from the abominations inflicted upon the Jews and ‘others’ during the holocaust.
The influx of migrating peoples from around the globe during that period proves that immigration is not just a contemporary issue. Race can therefore be understood as a historical phenomenon which has had widespread repercussions into the 21st Century.
Far from being a marginal concern of English Literature, racial difference is central. Bennett & Royle (2004) assert that
Questions of race, slavery and racial violence are everywhere, and…they pervade even the most apparently ‘innocent’ literary works (p. 209).
For example, in Jane Eyre (1994), the incarcerated Bertha is a white Creole woman from the West Indies, and indeed, Jane’s eventual fortune is implied to have come from the profits of slavery. In Mansfield Park (1985), the slave trade is more subtly alluded to, with Sir Thomas Bertram’s English estate being sustained by the exploitation of his slaves (whom we never meet) in Antigua. This occlusion of ‘otherness’ serves to support the idea that the Westerner is more important than the nameless and faceless ‘other’.
In stark contrast, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (2002) brings back the distinction of the ‘other’, in its use of language. The terms ‘nigger’ and ‘savage’ litter the novel, serving to dehumanise the African, and reinforce his difference.
The notion of race is a vast and hugely complex issue to emerge from the nineteenth century. Various writers and theorists have sought to understand its concept, but for the purpose of this essay, I would like to concentrate on the work of Edward Said in his groundbreaking essay, ‘Orientalism’ (2003).
Palestinian-born Edward Said (1935-2003) was a leading professor in literary theory, and an outspoken activist for the Palestinian cause. In his famous work, ‘Orientalism’, Said looks at how the West has constructed its own idea of the Orient, and identifies a European cultural tradition of Orientalism as a way of identifying the East as ‘other’ and inferior to the West (Barry 2002). This ‘Eurocentricity’ has a tendency towards excluding, marginalising and oppressing racial ‘others’. Said explains Orientalism as
a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience (Said, 2003, p.1)
The ‘Orient’ refers to the study of the east, as opposed to the ‘Occident’ which is the study of the west. As an actual geographical entity, ‘the Orient’ is a fantasy, but the term is widely used to describe those countries that are a part of Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India and Western Asia.
Orientalism inaugurates postcolonialism, which judges literature by a single, universal standard, regardless of cultural, regional or national differences (Barry, p. 192). Postcolonial literature discriminates against the East by generating fictional representations of Orientals that stimulate white superiority. This asserts the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to take advantage of these ‘others’ and is one way of justifying colonial exploitation.
Said claims that “the Orient has helped to define…the West as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Said, 2003, pp 1, 2). Traditionally, the West has considered the East to be an exotic, sensual, mystical realm of bazaars, incense and flying carpets; a place that is ‘backward’ compared to ourselves. Furthermore, its people are generally seen as an emotive race. Its men are a paradox, depicted both as feminine and weak, but with a fiery temperament that poses a threat to western civilisation; its women, on the other hand, are considered exotic and sensual, available to be bought in the market place and eager to be dominated. These images have, no doubt, been enhanced by advertising which propagates an exotic image of the East in its marketing of products as diverse as chocolate and soap, and by Hollywood’s treatment of such Eastern icons as Cleopatra who appears in the guise of a heavily made up Elizabeth Taylor!
Rudyard Kipling famously said that ‘East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. (Kipling,1892). However, opposites are mutually dependent upon each other, so in ascertaining the differences between East and West, we must also ascertain their likenesses. In this way, we can understand Williams and Chrisman’s claim that any discussion of ethnicity is also, by implication, a discussion of gender and sexuality (cited Bennett & Royle, 2004, p. 210). In looking at how Orientals differ from Westerners, we also need to take into account their similarities – like, for example, gender and sexual orientation – so that we can then undertake a more complete comparison of, for instance, women from two diverse cultures.
Said contends that
…the basic distinction between East and West (is) the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind’, destiny and so on (Said, pp 2-3).
This gives rise to the notion that certain literary works are best understood when subject to an Orientalist reading. Such works include
biblical texts, and other texts relating to the bible lands, the spice trade, and the British Empire. For the purpose of this essay, I want to look at how Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s version of the biblical story of the death of John the Baptist, can be read in an Orientalist context.
Salomé, which was originally written in French, was conceived whilst Wilde was frequenting the Symbolist circles of late 19th century Paris. The text was later revised and translated into English by Wilde’s second son, Vyvyan Holland. By the end of the nineteenth century, the legend of the Princess who dances for the head of John the Baptist had experienced a tremendous revival in the arts, and Wilde was more influenced by the theme as depicted in paintings than by the biblical text itself (Holland, 1988, p. 139) This probably included Gustave Moreau’s then contemporary masterpiece, Salomé Dancing Before Herod (1876)
The sexuality and the sumptuousness of Wilde’s Salomé clearly marks it out as a ‘decadence’ text. It is crammed full of aesthetic ideas, of which Wilde himself was very fond, and even mentions his own trademark green carnation, which is depicted as a gift from Salomé to Narraboth the young Syrian (p22). Alongside this obvious aestheticism, Salomé raises questions of racial difference and particularly asserts the Victorian fantasy of ‘otherness’, which is stereotypical in its treatment of ‘others’.
In the following passage, the play’s exoticism is highlighted by the Second Soldier who interjects a conversation about how well Salomé and her mother, Herodias look
The first (wine) comes from the Island of Samothrace and is as purple as Caesar’s cloak…the second is a Cyprian wine, and it is as yellow as gold…the third comes from Sicily, and is as red as blood (pp. 14-15)
In describing their colour and land of origin, the list of wines maps out the exotic setting of the play and evokes a sense of its trappings of wealth and power. In acting as an interjectory to the main topic of conversation Wilde is asserting Herod’s wealth and hegemony. Coming, as it does, as the precursor to a conversation about the gods of Naaman the executioner, and of the Cappadocian, this dialogue also makes claims on Herod’s god-likeness.
The portrayal of Herodias is a stereotypical depiction of the exotic Eastern woman as immoral. Wilde represents her as an incestuous adulteress, a danger to men, and the accomplice to a murderer.
The Tetrarch’s elder brother, the first husband of Queen Herodias, was imprisoned there [in the cistern] for twelve years. And he did not die. In the end they strangled him (pp16-17).
This gives currency to the Western view that Eastern women are mysterious and sensual, available to be bought by the highest bidder (in this case the King, Herod), and eager to be dominated.
Wilde’s Salomé is a paradox. On the one hand she is depicted as promiscuous in respect of her relationship with the young Syrian, and she unashamedly makes advances towards Iokanaan, “Iokanaan! I am enamoured of your body…Let me touch your body!” (p. 28). She also agrees to prostitute herself to King Herod, who urges her to dance for him, pleading “Anything will I give you, even unto the half of my kingdom, if you will dance for me” (p. 46). On the other hand, she is compared to the moon, and Wilde uses the white symbols of roses, hands and butterflies to hint at her virginity.
Salomé’s subsequent Dance of the Seven Veils is further evidence that she is an Eastern ‘femme fatale’, a lusty ‘bad girl’ who engages in an erotic dance to please her step-father. During the dance, she takes off all the veils until she reveals her body, naked save for her jewellery. This further enhances the stereotypical notion of the exotic East.
We come to learn that Salomé has fallen in love with John but when he rejects her, her revenge is his death. In this respect, the text therefore attributes John’s decapitation to unrequited feminine desire, and once again enhances the reputation of the Eastern Princess as a passionate, yet dangerous, fantasy object. This notion is further cemented when, after Iokanaan’s head is presented to Salomé, she announces that she has committed the necrophilic act of kissing the dead prophet’s mouth. The rich language of the play augments the myth of an exotic Orient which is comprised of beautiful ornaments and luxurious commodities.
Overall, this is a play about illicit sexual desire, and it is portrayed from a westernised viewpoint. Although the tale is set at the time of Jesus, the Jews (‘others’) are depicted as beast-like, and predisposed to irrelevant discussion and argument (p. 14). Furthermore, the women are depicted as sexually immoral and Salomé herself is also an exhibitionist. Herod is a voyeur, a bully and a weak, ‘feminine’ man who gets others to do his dirty business for him; once his sexual gratification is complete and he realises the extent of his folly, he orders Salomé’s execution. As his feminine side comes to the fore, he is unwilling and unable to kill her himself, but cruelly gets his henchman to carry out the act (p. 62).
In conducting a race reading of Salomé I have sought to highlight the fact that such a reading is prone to distortion and inaccuracy (Said, 2003, p. 8). It also pays homage to stereotyping. The exoticism of the text intensifies the ‘otherness’ of the main characters, and the Western reader can fool himself into believing that white people would not behave in such a way! Salomé therefore becomes a loose woman; Herodias, the wanton, incestuous harlot of Iokanaan’s prophecies doubles as a proud and unsympathetic queen; and Herod becomes a barbarian, his command to kill Salomé provoked by the instinctive emotion of fury and terror rather than by any conscious choice or decision.
As a Western author, therefore, Wilde reinforces the assertion that ‘Oriental’ women are exotic and sensual and ‘Oriental’ men are weak and ‘feminine’, but with a propensity towards cruelty which poses a threat to western civilisation, and especially to women. Here he continues in the Western tradition of stereotyping the East as an inferior, barbarian race of fiery women and weak men.
As the biological carriers of race (via their mitochondrial DNA), women occupy a primary and complex role in representations of ethnicity. A woman’s exercise of her sexuality is often acknowledged as a major concern underlying those representations (Williams & Chrisman, cited Bennett & Royle, p. 212). Salomé’s flirtations, both with Iokanaan and with the young Syrian, represent some concern, in that sexual activity outside of her race runs the risk of diluting that race.
A common weakness attributed to Orientalist readings is that no time is given for the East to respond to the West. It therefore becomes a monologue coming out of one culture, consisting of its preconceived ideas of another. As such the Orientalist reading is limited in its construct and biased towards a Western point of view.
Despite its shortcomings, however, Orientalism does have some very worthwhile attributes. Said asserts that
The fact that, as an idea, the Orient has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary, has given it reality and presence in and for the West (Said, p. 5).
This awareness of the reality of the East in the minds of the West was recently outworked, when, following the Asian Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, the Disasters Emergency Committee reported an unprecedented level of response to their appeal, which raised over £350 million (Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), 2005, online). Furthermore, positive images of the ‘Orient’ as a place of mystery and culture has boosted tourism, which in itself leads to an improvement in race relations. The World Tourism Organisation reports that
Intercultural awareness and personal friendships fostered through tourism are a powerful force for improving international understanding and contributing to peace among all the nations of the world (WTO, 8 December 2005, online).
As we have seen, race is a contemporary issue, with Orientalism playing an important part in assessing how the West constructs the East. We have seen how Oscar Wilde reinforced the stereotype of the exotic ‘other’ in Salomé, but are his representations still valid in 2005? I would like to argue that things are changing, albeit slowly. Our multi-cultural nation is here to stay, so we need to learn, not only to ‘tolerate’ those who we consider to be ‘others’, but also to understand their culture and make space for it within our own. In her first novel, Anita and Me (1997), Meera Syal tackles the issue of race in a funny, yet sympathetic way, which encourages the reader to consider the cultural climate prevalent in Britain today, and to embrace it, rather than simply tolerating it.
Syal’s semi-autobiographical tale tells the story of Meena, a young Indian girl growing up in an ex-mining village in the West Midlands during the 1970s. Meena enjoys the village life of which she and her family are a part, and is building relationships with her white friends in the village. She prefers fish fingers and chips to curry and chapatti, and likes to flirt with all the local boys rather than listening to her extended family reminiscing about India. Syal uses the text as a platform to assert the fact that Meena is just a teenage girl – she is no different to her white friends – and that skin colour need not be a cultural divide. In fact, her friends barely notice that she isn’t white. It is only as they grow up and her friends gain an awareness of racial difference that Meena is forced to reconsider her friendship with the beautiful Anita, and to question the fabric of the society of which she is a part. Syal reinforces the fact that, if we are to co-exist in harmony with those of a different culture to ourselves, we need to set aside our preconceptions of race, and get to know these ‘others’ for who, not what, they are. Where race is concerned, ignorance is not bliss, it is dangerous, and can lead to such tendencies as the ‘Islamphobia’ which has swept Europe and America in the wake of 9/11.
Although Orientalism is a useful tool in contextualising the East, there is a danger in that stereotyping people can lead to us becoming bigoted in our own attitudes towards those who are racially different from ourselves. In extending our knowledge of the Orient and its peoples, we can challenge the way that the West visualises the East and be better placed to embrace a Cosmopolitan society. A multi-racial Britain is, one could argue, like an Oriental carpet, its beauty being achieved through a multiplicity of shapes, colours and patterns that enhance rather than detract from that beauty.