Similarities between Salome and La Tentation de Saint Antoine

As I was reading Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, I noticed several scenes and patterns that reminded me of similar situations in Gustave Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine. The scene in Salomé that first reminded me most clearly of La Tentation de Saint Antoine was when the five Jewish people are discussing religion. First, this reminded me of La Tentation de Saint Antoine simply insofar as these five people are disagreeing on what seem like rather fundamental elements of their religion, much as the Christian characters in La Tentation de Saint Antoine argue over various fundamental religious doctrines. More specifically, certain arguments that are made in this scene reminded me of Antoine’s conversation with the Devil in Chapter VI of La Tentation de Saint Antoine. In this conversation, the Devil carries Antoine far up into the sky so that Antoine can perceive the infinity of space. At one point, the Devil says,

“And yet thou dost pretend to move [God]! Thou dost speak to him—thou dost even adorn him with virtues,—with goodness, justice, mercy,—in lieu of recognizing that all perfections are his! To conceive aught beyond him is to conceive God above God, the Being above the Being. For He is the only being, the only substance” (Flaubert 167).

Antoine weeps at the thought that his prayers and his sufferings have been for nothing, arguing that there must be “a Father whom [his] heart adores and who must love [him]!” (168). The Devil responds that Antoine “dost desire that God were not God;—for did he feel love, or anger, or pity, he would abandon his perfection for a greater or a lesser perfection. He can stoop to no sentiment, nor be contained in any form” (168). The conversation continues with the Devil reminding Antoine again and again of the infinite nature of God and of the universe. In the scene I have mentioned in Salomé, the “Third Jew” and the “Fifth Jew” espouse similar doctrines. First, in response to “Another Jew” saying that the prophet Elias might have seen only the “shadow of God,” the “Third Jew” argues that “God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in everything. God is in what is evil, even as He is in what is good” (Wilde 594). This is an echo of the Devil’s discussion of the infinite nature of God and of how God is in everything, and so to give God certain virtues or even to try to distinguish between good and evil is to doubt God’s power. The “Fourth Jew” goes on to say, “That must not be said. It is a very dangerous doctrine,” a reminder, though with different reasons, to Antoine’s refusal to accept and difficulty to listen to what the Devil tells him. Then, the “Fifth Jew” says that “[n]o one can tell how God worketh… We must needs submit to everything, for God is very strong. He breaketh in pieces the strong together with the weak, for He regardeth not any man” (594). This statement reminded me first of the part of Antoine’s conversation with the Devil when Antoine says, “…I prostrate, I crush myself beneath [God’s] mightiness!” and then of the part shortly after when Antoine first realizes that God might not have heard or cared for his prayers and sufferings (Flaubert 167). The “Fifth Jew” calls into question God’s relation to people in much the same way that the Devil does in Flaubert’s novel. In this way, this short scene in Salomé seemed to me like a very condensed representation of the religious discussion in La Tentation de Saint Antoine, both in some of the content and in the nature of the discourse.

Another important similarity between Salomé and La Tentation de Saint Antoine seems to be the pattern of three that can be found in both stories. This recurring number is both religiously and culturally significant, as it is frequently associated with the Christian God and is considered a complete, whole number in much of Western culture, as demonstrated in its use in fairy tales. In La Tentation de Saint Antoine, patterns of three are seen in instances such as Antoine rejecting the Queen of Sheba, which he does three times, and Antoine calling on the help of God three times during his conversation with Apollonius. The pattern of three seemed more prevalent in Salomé, where ideas are quite frequently presented in three related sentences, such as when Tigellinus says, “The stoics are coarse people. They are ridiculous people. I myself regard them as being perfectly ridiculous” (592). More specifically, Jokanaan rejects Salomé three times, as Antoine rejects the Queen of Sheba three times. Also, Salomé says, “Give me the head of Jokanaan” three times (602-603). This reminded me of Antoine’s appeals to God during his conversation with Apollonius insofar as both Salomé and Antoine are calling on something powerful in an effort to fight against the temptations of someone else. For Antoine, who calls to God, this seems to be more of a struggle. For Salomé, the repeat of this sentence is like a reminder of her strength and her solidity. In saying it again and again, she reminds both herself and Herod, who is trying to change her mind, of her power. Though these appeals are directed in starkly different ways, both occur in a pattern of three and both are used to give or ground the characters’ strength.

These are certainly not the only similarities to be found between La Tentation de Saint Antoine and Salomé. However, these seemed particularly significant to me in that they reaffirmed the nature of religious discourse and the importance of religion itself in the stories. These recurring ideas and patterns might be, given that Salomé was published after La Tentation de Saint Antoine, indication of some of Flaubert’s influence on Wilde and his works.

-M.P.

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Filed under Week 8 reviews: Wilde's journalism, Wilde's Salome

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