This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Gustave Flaubert’s “Herodias” is the last of the three stories that make up his Three Tales collection. It’s a rigorous, near-documentary retelling of the circumstances of the death of John the Baptist. Flaubert’s attention to every detail--every word, for that matter--is such that one cannot read it at the pace one normally takes in a prose story. It is as demanding a read as complex poetry, and it rewards one’s concentration. It doesn’t reach the heights of Flaubert’s best work; he doesn’t reconcile his trenchant view of the characters with a rendering of their more sympathetic aspects. But he dramatizes this classic story admirably well, and the narrative craftsmanship on display is all but unsurpassed. While Flaubert is acutely mindful of the cultural and political background of the events, his handling of the two central characters is perhaps of the most interest, and that is what I primarily focus on below.
The story begins on the morning of the birthday celebration of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. He is an unpopular king. In the view of the local religious leaders, he has embraced the Romans too eagerly; his adoption of their official displays of the emperor is felt to cross the line into the sin of idolatry. Others look on his marriage to Herodias, who divorced his brother to marry him, as an act of incest and deserving of the utmost contempt. The most vocal of those denouncing his marriage is John the Baptist. Herodias wants John dead for his insolence, and to placate her Herod has him imprisoned. The local people suspect what has happened, which has lowered their opinion of Herod even further. And to top everything off, Herod is facing a possible military challenge from the Arabian king, and he is doubtful of being able to rely on assistance from the Roman officials and troops.
Flaubert’s opening paragraphs are extraordinary--as evocatively ironic a use of locale as one may encounter in fiction. Every detail speaks of how fortified Herod’s castle is. It is not depicted as a place that could be easily breached by a foe, and descriptions of the surrounding landscape suggest that foes would have considerable difficulty even getting close enough to try. They would first have to get through the surrounding sea, desert, and mountains. But Herod takes no comfort from this; he cannot even take comfort from the beauty of the Jordan River. His insecurities are always at the forefront of his mind. From atop his castle walls, he sees an encampment of Arabs at the southern end of the Dead Sea, and he suspects his days are numbered.
The story’s portrayal of Herod as a weak-willed, indecisive, and paranoid ruler is just about flawless. He’s unworthy of his position--pushed and pulled every which way by local religious leaders, the Roman authorities, and even his wife. He will not commit fully to any course of action, which is both frustrating and reassuring for others; his spinelessness is annoying, but he does not pose any threat, either. The only thing that gives him even momentary confidence is flattery.
The depiction of Herodias is just as accomplished. It is easy to see what has attracted her to Herod. She’s an ambitious, narcissistic woman who easily spots his vulnerability to manipulation. With him she can be the power behind the throne, and she is capable of anything. Her desire to bolster Herod for her own ends is so shameless that even he finds it embarrassing, such as when she brags of seducing a man to assist with their ambitions. But there is one line she cannot get Herod to cross, and that is to execute John the Baptist, whose vitriolic attacks on her and their marriage have cut her vanity to the core. Herod clearly believes that John is the prophet who precedes the arrival of the Messiah; he knows deep down that to execute John is sacrilege. It is also a move that could permanently undermine him with his subjects, since they also see John as that prophet. Herodias, though, is so dedicated to John’s death that her shamelessness goes further than it ever has before: she sacrifices her daughter’s innocence to achieve her murderous ends.
To a certain extent, Flaubert builds the story around what he identifies as the tragic flaws of Herod and Herodias. Her vanity and his weak-mindedness play off and compound each other, culminating in the horrifying event of John the Baptist’s decapitation. Actually, the tragic culmination of things comes later for this pair: John’s execution will forever condemn them in the eyes of Christian history.
Flaubert is an astute enough craftsman to know to leave this last point implicit for the reader; he doesn’t go out of his way to flatter the reader’s contempt for Herod and Herodias. The conduct of the two is appalling enough without overkill. He makes just one nod to the story’s greater significance; he ends things with a small ironic reminder of its relationship to the story of Christ. And almost miraculously, it’s a note that’s remarkably true to the spirit of Christian narrative: tragedy and horror pave the way to a greater hope. Things end terribly, but Flaubert has one looking optimistically on what lies ahead. He can’t find the sympathetic side to his characters here, but he finds the positive long-term impact of their actions. As an achievement, it is not as rich, but one admires the sophistication nonetheless. In closing, “Herodias” isn’t one of Flaubert’s strongest efforts, but one cannot help but be impressed.
Reviews of other works by Gustave Flaubert: