To those who know the story from the Bible, there is nothing really special or new about this novella save for its perspective: Flaubert wrote the story from the point of view of both Herod-Antipas and Herodias, the tetrarch of Galilee and his wife. There is nothing preachy or religious about this story. It would pass more as a historical fiction than a religious tale. John executed. As with Madame Bovary, Flaubert gives a study of a woman in Herodias who needs to assert her rights and correct the wrong that has been done to her regardless of the consequences. Flaubert writes a detailed and difficult analysis of the events and characters.
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It was built upon a conical peak of basalt, and was surrounded by four deep valleys, one on each side, another in front, and the fourth in the rear. At the base of the citadel, crowding against one another, a group of houses stood within the circle of a wall, whose outlines undulated with the unevenness of the soil.
A zigzag road, cutting through the rocks, joined the city to the fortress, the walls of which were about one hundred and twenty cubits high, having numerous angles and ornamental towers that stood out like jewels in this crown of stone overhanging an abyss. Within the high walls stood a palace, adorned with many richly carved arches, and surrounded by a terrace that on one side of the building spread out below a wide balcony made of sycamore wood, upon which tall poles had been erected to support an awning.
One morning, just before sunrise, the tetrarch, Herod-Antipas, came out alone upon the balcony. He leaned against one of the columns and looked about him. The crests of the hill-tops in the valley below the palace were just discernible in the light of the false dawn, although their bases, extending to the abyss, were still plunged in darkness. A light mist floated in the air; presently it lifted, and the shores of the Dead Sea became visible.
The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert, and illuming the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the early dawn. En-gedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame; and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.
The tetrarch turned his gaze from it to contemplate the palms of Jericho on his right; and his thoughts dwelt upon other cities of his beloved Galilee,—Capernaum, Endor, Nazareth, Tiberias—whither it might be he would never return. The Jordan wound its way through the arid plains that met his gaze; white and glittering under the clear sky, it dazzled the eye like snow in the rays of the sun.
The Dead Sea now looked like a sheet of lapis-lazuli; and at its southern extremity, on the coast of Yemen, Antipas recognised clearly what at first he had been able only dimly to perceive. Several tents could now be plainly seen; men carrying spears were moving about among a group of horses; and dying camp-fires shone faintly in the beams of the rising sun. This was a troop belonging to the sheikh of the Arabs, the daughter of whom the tetrarch had repudiated in order to wed Herodias, already married to one of his brothers, who lived in Italy but who had no pretensions to power.
Antipas was waiting for assistance and reinforcements from the Romans, but as Vitellius, the Governor of Syria, had not yet arrived, he was consumed with impatience and anxiety. Perhaps Agrippa had ruined his cause with the Emperor, he thought. Philip, his third brother, sovereign of Batania, was arming himself clandestinely.
Under the pretext of celebrating his birthday, he had planned to bring together, at a grand banquet, the chiefs of his troops, the stewards of his domains, and the most important men from the region about Galilee. Antipas threw a keen glance along all the roads leading to Machaerus. They were deserted. Eagles were sweeping through the air high above his head; the soldiers of the guard, placed at intervals along the ramparts, slept or dozed, leaning against the walls; all was silent within the castle.
Suddenly he heard the sound of a distant voice, seeming to come from the very depths of the earth. His cheek paled. Although emaciated, and somewhat advanced in years, he was a giant in stature, and on his hip he wore a cutlass in a bronze scabbard.
His bushy hair, gathered up and held in place by a kind of comb, exaggerated the apparent size of his massive head. His eyes were heavy with sleep, but his white teeth shone, his step was light on the flagstones, and his body had the suppleness of an ape, although his countenance was as impassive as that of a mummy.
John the Baptist. Had he been allowed to see the two men who had asked permission to visit his dungeon a few days before, and since that time, had any one discovered for what purpose the men desired to see him? Then they departed towards Upper Galilee, saying that they were the bearers of great tidings. Do not allow any one else to see him. Keep the gates shut and the entrance to the dungeon closed fast.
It must not even be suspected that he still lives! Their temple on the Mount of Gerizim, which Moses had designed to be the centre of Israel, had been destroyed since the reign of King Hyrcanus; and the temple at Jerusalem made the Samaritans furious; they regarded its presence as an outrage against themselves, and a permanent injustice.
Mannaeus, indeed, had forcibly entered it, for the purpose of defiling its altar with the bones of corpses. Several of his companions, less agile than he, had been caught and beheaded. The sun, now fully risen, shed a dazzling splendour on its walls of snowy marble and the plates of purest gold that formed its roof. The structure shone like a luminous mountain, and its radiant purity indicated something almost superhuman, eclipsing even its suggestion of opulence and pride.
Mannaeus stretched out his powerful arm towards Zion, and, with clenched fist and his great body drawn to its full height, he launched a bitter anathema at the city, with perfect faith that eventually his curse must be effective.
Antipas listened, without appearing to be shocked at the strength of the invectives. When the Samaritan had become somewhat calmer, he returned to the subject of the prisoner. But the tetrarch was weary of pondering on this troublesome matter. The mountain peaks surrounding the palace, looking like great petrified waves, the black depths among the cliffs, the immensity of the blue sky, the rising sun, and the gloomy valley of the abyss, filled the soul of Antipas with a vague unrest; he felt an overwhelming sense of oppression at the sight of the desert, whose uneven piles of sand suggested crumbling amphitheaters or ruined palaces.
The hot wind brought an odour of sulphur, as if it had rolled up from cities accursed and buried deeper than the river-bed of the slow-running Jordan.
These aspects of nature, which seemed to his troubled fancy signs of the wrath of the gods, terrified him, and he leaned heavily against the balcony railing, his eyes fixed, his head resting upon his hands.
Presently he felt a light touch upon his shoulder. He turned, and saw Herodias standing beside him. A purple robe enveloped her, falling to her sandaled feet. Having left her chamber hurriedly, she wore no jewels nor other ornaments. A thick tress of rippling black hair hung over her shoulder and hid itself in her bosom; her nostrils, a little too large for beauty, quivered with triumph, and her face was alight with joy.
Agrippa has been imprisoned! Murder and outrage were to be expected in the management of political intrigues; they were a part of the fatal inheritance of royal houses; and in the family of Herodias nothing was more common. Then she rapidly unfolded to the tetrarch the secrets of her recent undertakings, telling him how many men had been bribed, what letters had been intercepted, and the number of spies stationed at the city gates.
She did not hesitate even to tell him of her success in an attempt to befool and seduce Eutyches the denunciator. For thee, my lord, have I not done more than that? Did I not even abandon my child? Until that moment she had never spoken to Antipas of her daughter.
He asked himself the reason for this sudden display of tenderness. During their brief conversation several attendants had come out upon the balcony; one slave brought a quantity of large, soft cushions, and arranged them in a kind of temporary couch upon the floor behind his mistress. Herodias sank upon them, and turning her face away from Antipas, seemed to be weeping silently.
After a few moments she dried her eyes, declared that she would dream no more, and that she was, in reality, perfectly happy. She reminded Antipas of their former long delightful interviews in the atrium; their meetings at the baths; their walks along the Sacred Way, and the sweet evening rendezvous at the villa, among the flowery groves, listening to the murmur of splashing fountains, within sight of the Roman Campagna.
Her glances were as tender as in former days; she drew near to him, leaned against his breast and caressed him fondly. But he repelled her soft advances. The love she sought to rekindle had died long ago. He thought instead of all his misfortunes, and of the twelve long years during which the war had continued. Protracted anxiety had visibly aged the tetrarch.
His shoulders were bent beneath his violet-bordered toga; his whitening locks were long and mingled with his beard, and the sunlight revealed many lines upon his brow, as well as upon that of Herodias.
The mountain paths began to show signs of life. Shepherds were driving their flocks to pasture; children urged heavy-laden donkeys along the roads; while grooms belonging to the palace led the horses to the river to drink. The wayfarers descending from the heights on the farther side of Machaerus disappeared behind the castle; others ascended from the valleys, and after arriving at the palace deposited their burdens in the courtyard.
Many of these were purveyors to the tetrarch; others were the servants of his expected guests, arriving in advance of their masters.
Suddenly, at the foot of the terrace on the left, an Essene appeared; he wore a white robe, his feet were bare, and his demeanour indicated that he was a follower of the Stoics. Mannaeus instantly rushed towards the stranger, drawing the cutlass that he wore upon his hip. The two men stood motionless for an instant, then they descended the terrace, both taking a different direction, although they kept their eyes fixed upon each other.
His attacks upon Jerusalem would gain them the allegiance of the rest of the Jews. The tetrarch replied that there was no haste about the matter, and expressed his doubt that any real danger was to be feared from Iaokanann even affecting to laugh at the idea. And she retold the story of her humiliation one day when she was travelling towards Gilead, in order to purchase some of the balm for which that region was famous.
Standing on a hillock, a strange man was speaking to the gathering. As soon as he saw me, he launched in my direction all the maledictions of the prophets. His eyes flamed, his voice shook, he raised his arms as if he would draw down lightning upon my head. I could not fly from him; the wheels of my chariot sank in the sand up to the middle; and I could only crawl along, hiding my head with my mantle, and frozen with terror at the curses that poured upon me like a storm from heaven!
When he had been seized and bound with cords, the soldiers were prepared to stab him if he resisted, but he had been quite gentle and obedient. After he had been thrown into prison some one had put venomous serpents into his dungeon, but strange to say, after a time they had died, leaving him uninjured. The inanity of such tricks exasperated Herodias. Besides, she inquired, why did this man make war upon her?
What interest moved him to such actions? His injurious words to her, uttered before a throng of listeners, had been repeated and widely circulated; she heard them whispered everywhere.
Against a legion of soldiers she would have been brave; but this mysterious influence, more pernicious and powerful than the sword, but impossible to grasp, was maddening! Herodias strode to and fro upon the terrace, white with rage, unable to find words to express the emotions that choked her.
She had a haunting fear that the tetrarch might listen to public opinion after a time, and persuade himself it was his duty to repudiate her. Then, indeed, all would be lost! Since early youth she had cherished a dream that some day she would rule over a great empire. As an important step towards attaining this ambition, she had deserted Philip, her first husband, and married the tetrarch, who now she thought had duped her. I found a powerful support, indeed, when I entered thy family!
Herodias felt the blood of the kings and priests, her ancestors, boiling in her veins. My forefathers were the conquerors of thine! The first of the Maccabees drove thy people out of Hebron; Hyrcanus forced them to be circumcised! Take her back!
Gustave Flaubert, Hérodias : résumé
She is very loyal, and easily lends her affections to the two children of her mistress, Mme Aubain. She gives entirely to others; although many take advantage of her, she is unaffected. She has no husband, no children, and no property, and is reliant on her mistress to keep her; she is uneducated; her death is virtually unnoticed. Despite her life being seemingly pointless, she has within her the power to love, which she does even when she does not receive it in return. She also carries within her a yearning, a majestic quasi-religious sensibility which finds its apotheosis in the deification, as she dies, of her pet parrot who floats above her deathbed masquerading as the Holy Ghost. She lives a simple, unexamined life. Note that the story has nothing to do with the Order of Hospitallers, despite the similarity of the names.
Flaubert - Hérodias (19e siècle)