The Herod in Par Lagerkvist’s Herod and Mariamne is the Herod of Biblical notoriety. The novella is a love story of sorts. Herod is a monstrous ruler who derives satisfaction from killing and torturing his perceived enemies. He falls in love with the innocent Mariamne. She agrees to marry him but only because she thinks she may be able to temper his violent urges. She succeeds temporarily, but Herod resorts to his former cruelties when he realizes Mariamne doesn’t return his love. His rage at being spurned by the only woman he has ever loved fuels his resentment, and he eventually has her killed. He dies years later, a decrepit old man, alone, despised, and calling out to Mariamne with his last breath.
This is an engaging novel, simply told and written in Lagerkvist’s style of unadorned language. Lagerkvist’s portrayal of Herod is convincing. He is a cruel man consumed with self-importance, an inflated ego, and is paranoid to top it off. When he finds himself passionate about someone other than himself, he demands full reciprocation. His love turns to resentment and then to a seething anger aimed at the woman who deigns to withhold her love.
Lagerkvist’s portrayal of Mariamne is not so convincing. She is a woman of flawless internal and external beauty, a selfless creature totally devoted to sacrificing herself to save others. She tolerates Herod’s indiscretions and his cruelties with an unnerving patience. She goes about living her life as if she is not of this world. In short, Mariamne is barely human.
The portrayal of Mariamne reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s description of the Angel in the House in her Professions for Women. Woolf describes her encounter with the Angel while writing a review of a male-authored novel:
“I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all — I need not say it —-she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty — her blushes, her great grace.”
Virginia Woolf comes to the realization she has to kill the Angel in the House if she wants to survive as a writer. Her action is based on self-defense: “Had I not killed her, she would have killed me.”
Mariamne shares the qualities of Woolf’s phantom Angel. And it is those very same qualities that cause Herod to act in a murderous rage against her. Perhaps if she had been a little more human, thrown a few tantrums of jealousy here and there, argued with him, revealed she had needs and desires of her own, shown her weaknesses, she may have survived his onslaught.