In his book Orientalism, Edward Said defines orientalism as a system of ideas that has many manifestations. One is the style of popular and literary thought that makes a distinction between the “West” and the “East”: the east is everything other: feminine, sexual, lazy, evil, dark, non-Christian. Another is the academic discourse of “Oriental scholars” who seek to define and study “oriental” cultures and codify them for Western audiences.
Because Greece is thought the seat of “the occident,” or the West, the orientalization of Dionea shows how the unfiltered ancient Greek is now so “other” to British culture. The story takes place in Montemirto Ligure, near Genoa in northeastern Italy. Our narrator, Dr. De Rosis, is “a priest-hater and conspirator against the Pope” and writes in French, Italian, Latin, and English (Lee 4). He even denies Evelyn’s invitation to Rome on the grounds that he has become “a northern man,” (Lee 7). Though he is Italian, he remains apart from the people in the village and bears resemblance to an educated man of this English audience’s mileu. This serves to make him relatable and able to otherize both his village (because he is somewhat English-coded and high class) and especially Dionea.
Though the Italian villagers are foreign (they speak Italian and are superstitious), they are characterized as more rustic, whereas Dionea is truly alien. As De Rosis is our only narrator, he and his “northern” perspective alone construct Dionea’s foreignness. The “little brown mite” who washes up on the shore “is doubtless a heathen” because she has no cross around her neck and speaks “some half-intelligible Eastern jabber” with “a few Greek words embedded in I know not what,” (Lee 4). That last part is emblematic of Dionea’s whole existence to De Rosis: Dionea has flecks of recognizable Greekness, but contains something more foreign and mysterious.
When some of Lady Evelyn’s friends, Waldemar (presumably a German) and his wife, come to visit, they decide to use Dionea, representative of an older and more deadly version of Greece, as a model for a beautiful pale Venus statue a-la Venus de Milo. Waldemar attempts to Westernize, or Italianize, Dionea by making her white and marble, but eventually sets fire to the building with both of them in it. I think this was Dionea’s doing, as she has been known to make people do destructive, and Pagan, things in the past, such as buy her potions. Her influence makes him create a “votive pyre,” a dangerous part of Greek religion (Lee 26). Though “northerners” like Waldemar try to “Westernize” the rough and ancient Greece, the terrifying and “oriental” one lurks beneath. There are two Greeces: one Westernized and one Oriental. This Orientalized Greece has so much power because it is supposed to be the very origin of Western civilization, yet is actually sinister.
Here is my source, the first chapter of Said’s book: said orientalism