Oscar Wilde presented his own vision of the decadent femme fatalein his play Salome. Wilde first wrote the play in French, influenced by the symbolist and avant-garde theatre of Paris, and completed his translation into English in 1893. In the controversial play, Salome, the bloodthirsty virgin whore asks for the head of John the Baptist herself; Herodias does not instruct her to do so. Furthermore, Salome claims that John the Baptist took her virginity, furthering Bram Dijkstra’s forays into the theme of Salome as a virgin whore in his book Idols of Perversity. In effect, Salome is the consummate image of the femme fataleas she kisses the saint’s decapitated head because, as Dijkstra indicates, in this passage “Wilde directly equates semen and the blood with feeds man’s brain” (Dijkstra 398). The culmination of the play occurs when Herod demands Salome’s death. Dijkstra writes,

When Herod takes the step which will exorcise the demon [of the male sexual fantasy of humiliation] forever; when he turns to Salome and commands his soldiers to ÔKill that woman!’ we witness turn-of-the-century culture completing its long, fantastic, ritualistic indictment of woman for crimes she never planned, and for outrages she only committed in the skittish, nerve-wracked minds of economically ever more marginalized men (Dijkstra 398).

To all intents and purposes, this serves as Herod’s declaration of emancipation of all men from women. Thus Wilde’s Salome serves as a scapegoat for all the femmes fatales of fin de siècle art and literature.

Wilde accompanied his publication of Salome with a set of illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. The highly grotesque black and white drawings, complete with both transparent and ambiguous sexual references, form an erotic visualization of Wilde’s vision of Salome. In her book Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the fin de siècle, Elaine Showalter meticulously describes some of Beardsley’s drawings and calls attention to the fact that the illustrations have often been misinterpreted as conflicting with the text of the play. She writes that on the contrary, they “bring out all too powerfully the secret or unspeakable subtext of the play, especially its homoerotic and blasphemous elements” (Showalter 152). Wilde was certainly aware of Beardsley’s correct interpretation and depiction of his Salome seeing that he wrote in the edition he presented to his friend, “For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is and can see that invisible dance” (Showalter 152).

Salome, Judith, and Decapitated Men in the Fin de Siècle imagination


Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the fin de siècle. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.

Last modified 26 December 2006