Is Greece a social construct? How Dionea Orientalizes Greece

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

5 thoughts on “Is Greece a social construct? How Dionea Orientalizes Greece”

  1. I like the connection between Orientalism and Dionea. Typically, we see orientalism discussed in the terms of colonists attitudes towards Asia/middle east areas but, I like how you flipped this on its head. This makes me wonder how protagonists in other texts we’ve read have “westernized” themselves to make anything outside of them seem strange or even fetishized.

  2. I think this is a very well explored piece focusing on the complications within Dionea. I really liked how you incorporated scholarly work, I thought it fit in seamlessly to your points and helped build a strong argument – one I could see being taken further and possibly across texts we have read so far in this class. I wonder how much of these ideas on “oriental” could be applied onto Dracula and Transylvania to make connections on how the British “other” other cultures and places.

  3. This is an interesting connection between Dionea and the work of Edward Said. Clearly, the prejudice towards Dionea throughout the story comes from a place of xenophobia, though whether this is indicative of the constructs of Orientalism is complex. You appropriately indicate that Greece and Italy are very close to the border of what divides the “Orient” from the “Occident”, but I would love to hear more about how Said’s understanding and argument in relation to this divide can give meaning to the setting of Dionea. Also, a lot of Said’s work in Orientalism is involved in conversations of post-colonial studies, so I think it could be interesting to look at the Lee’s story from that lens, as well.

  4. Dear A Wilde and Crazy Guy,
    Bravo! Your reading on exoticism through the lens of Orientalism is so fascinating and 100% right! I think my favorite line of yours is: “they decide to use Dionea, representative of an older and more deadly version of Greece,…” Its so interesting that you point this out because the concept of Love in Greek tragedies is that it is an inevitable force comparable to a disease to which even the gods fall victim.
    However, I would like to offer an alternative reading to the section where you state, “Waldemar attempts to Westernize, or Italianize, Dionea by making her white and marble,…” While this is such a fascinating interpretation, I saw this to be similar to the statue of Galatea from the myth of Pygmalion; Waldemar is so struck by Dionea’s beauty that he HAS to make a statue of her. This resonates with Pygmalion as both Galatea and Dionea are sculpted by their respective male artists as the ideal of womanhood. This ideal is very much materialistic, focusing only on the physical exterior of beauty. But there is something sinister to be said about capturing a subject through the eye of the beholder.
    Both Pygmalion and Waldemar become obsessed with their subject yet they go about it in different ways. Pygmalion literally worships his statue with riches and realizes he wants no other woman because he has crafted his idea of the perfect woman. Waldemar, however, takes it too far when he borrows the pedestal of Aphrodite from Dr. De Rosis which he uses to presumably sacrifice his own wife. I think its possible that Waldemar, upon creating and looking upon the statue of Dionea, realizes just how perfectly beautiful Dionea is that his own wife becomes unbearable and he attempts to bring to his own Galatea to life by sacrificing his wife.
    Just some food for thought 😛

  5. I’m ALL OVER THIS. I read Said for a previous English course, so using him as a source makes complete sense when talking about Dionea. I think this can even be pushed further outside the story of Dionea, and even say that her story is representative of the fin de siecle as a whole. Throughout most of our texts, there as been forms of othering that use nationality as a means to determine who is pure from those who are “little brown mites”. This self awareness of identity is prevalent throughout many of our texts, and I wonder if you could make a paper from it. Amazing.

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