Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the Harem, 1800-1875
Joan DelPlato

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Centered on disparities between East and West, Orientalism is a mind-set wherein emerges an Orient of languorous women, dangerously seductive men, Ali Babas, brutish (or helpful) native servants – in short, an Orient that doesn’t really exist. So observed the renowned post-colonial theorist Edward Said (1935-2003) in his seminal Orientalism (1978). Asserting that non-Western cultures were constructed through differentiation, Said wrote: “The Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.” Thus, the meaning of Orientalism as “a style of thought based up on an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” serves as a starting point for many of the texts discussed here.

The publication of Said’s Orientalism spawned numerous metatheoretical explorations of Orientalism, of exoticism, of models of cultural identity, and of the representation of peoples colonized during Europe’s imperial enterprise, profoundly altering the subsequent development of cross-cultural studies in the humanities and social sciences. Seeded by this paradigmatic study, and undeniably stimulated by current political shifts in the region (and by Said’s death in the year of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Orientalism's publication), fresh interdisciplinary appraisals of Orientalism and its methodological challenges have appeared, with more than a dozen titles published since 2000. Taking paths of narrowing focus, bordered by Said’s theoretical cautions, this latest cluster contributes significantly to the landscape of Near Eastern and Western interchange. As Frederick Bohrer has observed: “The study of Orientalism, then, confronts us with an aspect of the nineteenth century that is in many ways still present, indicating something of the stakes involved in writing today on the representation of places and peoples colonized by Western powers.”

Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the Harem, 1800-1875 is an ambitious and complex study of the harem and its representations in nineteenth-century France and England. Joan DelPlato guides the reader through analyses of some 170 pictures along with impressions of the harem and slavery recorded by politicians, feminists, abolitionists, writers, and travelers such as John Ruskin (1819-1900), Harriet Martineau (1802-76), Gérard de Nerval (1808-55), Victor Hugo (1802-85), George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Edward William Lane (1801-76), and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Along the way, we discover interpretations of harem culture by anonymous authors from the Victorian press and such eighteenth-century writers as Lady Mary Worley Montagu (ca. 1689-1762), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), and Montesquieu (1689-1755). As DelPlato notes in her preface, her methodology responds to Said’s call for “critical studies which insist on relating art production to the complex needs of imperialism.” Thus, she analyzes the dialectical contexts of harem representations to “develop a fuller understanding of how these pictures functioned to both delight their original viewer and obfuscate political events taking place at home and overseas” (p. 13). Even today “they might move us aesthetically, but they continue to obscure how they served as tools of cross-cultural compulsion, contributing to the ongoing conception of art’s history as a parade of beautiful masterpieces and art history as a disinterested chronicle of aesthetics” (pp. 13-14). DelPlato probes these impressions of the harem as simultaneously expressing the values of the representations’ interpreters: “My study is based on the assumption that the harem trope provided the means for the British and French to construct their political and psychosexual self-images…Thus the harem texts to be examined in this study can be correlated to one or several of the attitudes outlined here by analyzing their narrative emphases and intertextual references, using written reactions to these pictures and to the harem more generally.” These representations “were intertwined with several other political issues of the day, including the abolition of slavery (harem and nonharem alike); the Woman Question and one of its correlatives, the newly developed cult of domesticity; [and] the Eastern Question and international political position-taking” (p. 24).

The historical, visual, and literary sources in Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures foreground “power relations of various kinds””: “Gender politics is at issue in critics’ commentary when masculine and feminine roles are read as part of the narrative fiction of the harem picture or in the presumed interactions of depicted female and the fictive (male) spectator. Class politics are inevitably played out in all representations of the harem…A third locus for power relations which the images suggest is in the constellation of issues evoked by the concepts ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ cultures” (p. 13). Buttressing DelPlato’s interpretations are considerations of “high art” (with many works analyzed in great detail, such as Eugéne Delacroix’s [1798-1863] Women of Algiers in Their Apartment [1834; Musée du Louvre, Paris] and the Orientalist paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme [1824-1904] and John Frederick Lewis [1805-76]) and popular imagery (with more cursory consideration given to popular English and French illustrators).

An introductory chapter (pp. 19-22) builds a foundation for chapter 1, “The Colonial Contexts for the Harem Representation” (pp.30-57), in which DelPlato probes links between public and private discourse “to show that notions of the harem affected governmental decisions about international politics which in turn contributed to French and British thinking about the harem.” She considers the complex interrelation between the center of political life and its construction of the margins. “Western European identity is formulated as it constructs the harem space and its inhabitants as peripheral. The perception of the harem as outré marriage custom must be dislodged through my remapping.” Analyzing literary and artistic perceptions, DelPlato traces how these cultural identities were drawn and what those viewpoints entailed. Using a trope of links between geography and a woman’s body, she concludes: “An association between land and women, the public and private spheres, is fundamental to the formation of a modern western identity: the Self, whether at the psychological, sociological, or national level, cannot be defined without constant reference to an Other” (p. 30).

In chapter 3, “Depictions of Slavery and the Making of the Harem” (pp. 58-109), DelPlato explores the political and moral links between slavery and harem inhabitants in the imagery and literature of the period, furthering her analysis of cultural identity and difference. Of particular interest here is her breakdown of representations into types: the “happy slave” in or bound for the harem (pp. 67-73); the slave market and scenes of unveiling (pp. 90-103); the “open window” and the “closed harem” (pp. 103-8); and images of freed harem victims (p. 108).

Chapter 4, “Setting the Stage: Harem Props as Fetishized Accoutrements: (pp. 110-61), analyzes the symbolic adaptation of the harem in contemporary theater, followed by a persuasive discussion in chapter 5, “The Harem Fetishized: Harem Women as Immoral” (pp. 162-201). Numerous visual and literature texts render harem occupants voraciously sexual: “Images of the immoral harem woman abound in print and pictures as she is transformed into any one of a number of undesirable female stereotypes. These include: the adulterous wife, the negligent mother, the perverse lesbian, the gossip, the indolent sensualist, the narcissistic prostitute, the jealous rival, the extravagant consumer, and the sexually precocious child” (p. 162). DelPlato discovers a general softening of attitudes later in the century, as detailed in chapter 6, “The Harem Fetishized: Muslim Women as Moral: Angels in heaven and the House” (pp. 202-29). One contemporary author observed, for example, that “‘[t]he Mohammedan worship has many virtues, and I love this people, for it is the people of prayer’”(p. 202), sentiments that DelPlato likens to those voiced by Thomas Carlyle (1795)-1881) in the 1840 lecture “The Hero as Prophet.” DelPlato concludes with discussions of preimpressionist modern harem paintings by Édouard Manet (1832-83), Jean Frédéric Bazille (1841-70), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and with fading and more formulaic harem representations that, she notes, reveal that, by 1870, “the harem institution itself has declined, as has Ottoman slavery more broadly” (p. 320).

Ambitious in intellectual scope and coverage of primary materials from a variety of disciplines, while cognizant of the pitfalls inherent in its project, Joan DelPlato’s Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures is a major contribution to nineteenth-century studies. While sometimes hamstrung by her own caution to avoid the inevitable misrepresentation of the larger “truth” of the harem subject, DelPlato offers a highly readable analysis that reveals much about how perceptions of the harem underscore social and political discourse in nineteenth-century Europe.


--Phylis Floyd, Orientalism Redux

Nineteenth Century Studies (2005)

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Photograph courtesy of Louise Dell-Bene Stahl © 2001



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