‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker (1897)

When Dracula was published in 1897, its timeless tale of vampirism became an instant hit, making it a kind of ‘best-seller’ of its time.  As with Mary Shelley’s best-known novel, the monstrous literary creation has since been embraced by popular myth and immortalised through its various adaptations on film.  However, it has not been until relatively recently that critics or scholars have given credence to Dracula as a literary work worthy of their attention.  Fantasy fiction (especially that of horror) was considered by many to occupy the margins of respectable, canonical fiction.  Despite this critical attitude, Dracula has remained constantly in print since its publication, as Craig Holte has observed:

Stoker’s story of Transylvanian vampirism assaulting Victorian England has become, primarily through the medium of film, one of the central metaphors of modern culture, and the figure of Stoker’s most famous vampire, complete with cape, evening dress, and fangs, is one fo the most widely recognised visual symbols in the world.

The cultural and historico-political circumstances under which Dracula was published, comprised of a simmering tension in the British bourgeois population.  The year Dracula was published, 1897, was the year designated by Lenin for the apogee of imperialism, but Britain was undergoing a fundamental shift, becoming a parasitic rather than a competitive economy, living off the remains of the world monopoly.  As this decline set in, competition from abroad mounted, particularly from nations like Germany and America, and in literature, the appearance of the ‘foreign’ scapegoat became more regular, indeed xenophobia and racism can certainly be traced in Dracula.

The literary tradition from which Dracula is derived was also reflective of another anxiety – in the late nineteenth century there was a feeling that something gigantic was gnawing away at Christmas confidence.  Accordingly, an enormous appetite existed in this era for crime, ghost and horror stories.  These imaged various kinds of social and psychic disturbance into existence, only to happily impose upon them closures invoking some sort of order (based on the classic triad of: order, disorder, order restored).  Dracula embraces the motifs of this Gothic genre, just as it embraced itself as a product of the time in which it was produced and all the anxieties inherent in this (Stoker also places particular focus of scientific devices and new technology in his novel), recognising and then explaining the fin de siècle angst for all readers.

Despite Dracula‘s literary heritage in the fantasy novels of detective fiction, ghost stories and gothic horrors, and despite of the vampire tales which appeared before 1897 (such as Polidari’s The Vampyre in 1819, James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre in 1847, or Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla in 1872), the most relevant literary antecedent for Stoker’s sexually charged vampire theme, appears to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Shelley had already developed in 1818 at least two distinctive Gothic motifs that are essential to Stoker’s anxiety-ridden novel.  One concerns gender, the other is about the threatening nature of monstrosity itself.  In Frankenstein, the scientist-hero fails dismally to save his wife on their wedding night from the resentful monster of his own creation.  Similarly, the men of Dracula are constantly thwarted in their attempts to defend Lucy and Mina from the attentions of the Count.  In both novels, the motivation for destruction coincides, it is born from a fear that these ‘monsters’ will multiply and threaten the survival of humanity.  However, whereas the putative race of Frankensteinian monsters is merely an ‘external’ threat to humanity, the menace of the vampire is that it threatens to infect humankind with a permanent ‘Otherness’, allowing the darker side of human nature to reside over our bodies and souls permanently, imbuing our deepest desires with the lust for power and domination.  For Dracula‘s posse of protectors of Christian civilisation, the price of failing to destroy the vampire is not merely the threat of more vengeful monsters, the dread is that they themselves will become bloodthirsty vampires.  As Van Helsing puts it, “… we henceforth become foul things of the night like him.”

The categorisation of Dracula by some critics as a Gothic romance allows this aspect of fin de siècle Otherness to be explored more fully.  As Devendra Varma has written, the typical Gothic romance involves a beautiful, young woman being pursued by a wicked, dark and usually Italian male, whose intentions are totally dishonorable.  Her flight takes her to a series of dark and dangerous places, but as the woman is usually well-bred and sensitive, she deserves a better fate than a rampant Italian and so is rescued by a handsome, but sexually unthreatening, young man with whom, as the book closes, she settles down to live with happily ever after.  The conventions of the Gothic romance permitted writers to explore the more sinister side to human nature – specifically as related to violence and sexuality – in a popular and culturally acceptable format, it is, like its descendent the horror novel, a morality play in which vice can be examined and enjoyed for a time, before it is punished and virtue is ultimately rewarded.  The form allows readers to indulge in forbidden behaviour at least at a distance, and to escape from the limitations and obligations of the real world.  Gothic novels, like much of Romantic literature sought to explore this shadier aspect of human nature, or the ‘other’, emphasising intuitive, emotional, non-rational elements of humanity.  Indeed, psychoanalytical readings of the novel have revealed Count Dracula as a representative of the evil father who wants to keep all the women in the novel for himself, while Van Helsing is the good father who leads the four young men to defeat his iniquitous ‘other’.

Such issues surrounding fin de siècle anxiety over Otherness, are inextricably entwined with those of gender and sexuality, as in a male dominated society, the most ready scapegoat was always provided for in the form of womankind.  Sprenger and Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1482, has been cited by some critics as a source for Stoker’s novel and as a catechism it deals with the supernatural and witchcraft.  The witch craze of the late sixteenth century and the early seventeenth centuries, sees the development of a general feeling that women are the weaker sex, more open to advances from the devil and other evil forces, as Sprenger and Kramer claimed: “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.”  This paranoia surrounding the mysteries of femininity manifested itself in an antagonistic mix of fear, loathing and fascination.  Indeed, the terror that haunts Stoker’s work most persistently is a male fear of, yet desire for, sex:

The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating.  There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal … Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat … I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two soft teeth, just touching and pausing there.  I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with a beating heart.

This lingering account of a feared, yet deeply desired, sexual encounter was aimed primarily at a male readership.  Its soft-pornographic content is but a mild example of the much cruder versions to be found in numerous other productions catering for the male-Victorian and Edwardian pornography market.  Comparisons have been drawn here with Coleridge’s Christabel.  Richard Holmes has described Geraldine, the poem’s seductress, as an ’embodiment of pure sexual energy’ and states that within the poem is a sense of passionate emotion, which constantly fighting for release, is always denied and contained.  This also describes exactly, the tone of Harker’s quivering account of his first experience of wonton vampire sexuality above.  Freud’s notion that the ‘regression of the libido without repression is a source of perversion’ also has some relevance here.  Taboo and repression were intensified so much during this time, that in some individuals it fractured, resulting, more especially in Prenger and Kramer’s time and up until the eighteenth century, in a pleasure in watching the dying or dead female body.  Rowlandson’s sardonic sketch penned in 1780, of an anatomist ogling and fondling the leg of a dissected and naked female corpse was an early comment on the fellowship which sexual prurience and death were henceforth to enjoy.

If a current of male sexual terror runs through Dracula, it is far from being so passive as Rowlandson’s anatomist.  Count Dracula’s violent bloodsucking and Renfield’s greedy consumption of insects and small animals can easily be read as obsessive, sadistic substitutes for sexual gratification.  There is also something wild and frantic about Arthur’s ‘staking to divine oblivion’, his Dracula infected bride-to-be.  If there were any final proof needed that sex was the monster Stoker feared the most, it is evident from an article he wrote on censorship published in The Nineteenth Century and After in 1908.  In it he launched an all out attack on literary works of ‘shameful lubricity’ that were in his opinion, corrupting the nation.  In the article, he apparently finds nothing unnatural in sexual desire itself and claims that it is because it is only as natural for a man ‘to sin as to live’ that the ‘force of evil’, as he euphemises, needs to be contained.  To identify sex as the impetus that made Stoker write so anxiously, is a crucial step in understanding the novel as an exploration of fin de siècle anxiety around issues of gender, sexuality and Otherness.  However, as G. Legman wrote: “That men are afraid of women is not – despite the headlines – news” suggesting that there might be something else laying behind Stoker’s writing.

Leonard Wolf has argued that much of Dracula‘s artistic strength comes from the intensity with which Stoker ‘evades what he guesses’, whilst repeating safer Christian truths.  The ‘thing’ which Stoker both guessed and persistently evaded seems to have had something to do with the compulsive yet ambiguous regard he felt for his employer, the actor Henry Irving.  Indeed, the importance of the erotic element to the vampire myth cannot be overstated, as with the rare exception of vampires that prey on children or animals, vampires combine sexual and blood hungers.  Pam Keesey argues in her introduction to Daughters of Darkness: Lesbian Vampire Stories, that the penetration of the victim with phallic teeth is obviously sexual, as is the ecstasy produced by the actual blood taking.  There has always been room for sexuality of all kinds among the undead, so that when Dracula saves Harker from the ravishes of the three female vampire by declaring, ‘This man belongs to me,’ the homoerotic element cannot be ignored.  It is via this quotation that Christopher Craft has identified another of the novel’s anxieties, derived from Dracula’s ‘hovering’ interest in Harker.  Craft takes the view that the central sexual threat which the novel evokes, manipulates, sustains, but never finally represents, is that Dracula will ‘seduce, penetrate, drain another male.’  He argues that throughout the novel, the homoerotic impulse is stifled and displaced and thus confined to achieving representation as a ‘monstrous homosexuality’.

This presents a different slant on the fin de siècle anxiety around gender, sexuality and Otherness, as rather than focusing on the woman as a source of corruption and evil through her simultaneous desirability and repulsiveness, the real sexual tension in the novel (and therefore in fin de siècle culture), was actually a covert homosexuality.  However, the two arguments simultaneously contradict and support one another.  In the late nineteenth century, sodomy was still illegal and one only had to look to other notable literary figures such as Oscar Wilde (a contemporary of Stoker) to see what happened to gay men at the turn of the century.  Thus, homosexuality can be read as a kind of Otherness, the side to a person which that person does not wish to be (or is unable) to make obvious (and indeed this would have been considered the darker side of human nature in the time in which Dracula was written).

Another alternative reading of the novel is that it is concerned primarily with religion and religious parables, and the correlation between Christian morality and the horror novel has been recognised earlier on in this essay.  Such an analogy is made even more apparent in Dracula, with the lines drawn so clearly around good and evil.  Stoker was a Protestant Irishman belonging to that powerful socio-cultural group known as the Anglo-Irish and that he felt keenly the importance of a religious life is also made very clear not only in Dracula, but in his other writings and in his treatment of women within these.  Religion is also important in the wider genre of the fantasy or Gothic novel, and Julia Kristeva has written of the strong link between horror and religious belief:

Love of self and others is set up, only to catch a glimpse of the abyss of abjection with which they are underlaid … For abjection, when all is said and done, is the other facet of religious, moral and ideological codes on which rest the sleep of individuals and the breathing space of societies.

This represents the kind of fin de siècle uncertainty that people were experiencing in the wake of the erosion of religious certitude, which had been growing from the Renaissance with each new scientific discovery.  It also presents one with a new reading of Stoker’s novel.  Dracula was not, then, concerned so much with the issues of identity and sexuality, but with the role set aside for religion and its capacity to provide for us after death, perhaps the vampire theme is more to do with not wanting to enter an uncertain death, but with wanting to remain ‘undead’ and safe from the unknown.

Abnormal psychological states and hypnotic trances also have a significant role within Dracula.  The novel is told in narrative fragments that seem to refuse to tell its story from one reliable viewpoint, which displacing, evasive quality is a characteristic of the Gothic novel.  The threats to mental stability that are repeatedly voiced throughout the book by the principal male character begin early on, when Harker finds himself alone in Dracula’s carriage.  As in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the appearance of the moon accompanies and reveals the presence of threatening evil.  Gothic and Romance literature, alert to uncontrollable emotional eruptions but unable to characterise them as the work of the unconscious, had ever used the guises of nature, crime, madness and death as figurative substitutes that permitted the writer to textually ‘fix’ the unfixableness of unconscious desires and experiences.  It is somehow appropriate that the plan of a campaign to thwart and destroy Dracula had its headquarters in a lunatic asylum, and it seems no mistake that Stoker locates this madhouse next to Dracula’s ancient chapel, for in the novel as a whole, the threats of madness and death constantly hover together, perhaps, as Maurice Hindle has argued, most chillingly in Seward’s bland statement that, “‘Euthanasia’ is an excellent and comforting word!  I am grateful to whoever invented it!”

To conclude then, it could be argued that the novel is entirely reflective of the kind of uneasiness which plagued people at the turn of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.  Dracula embraces and illustrates all that was felt and feared in society at this time; economic and political worries as well as less tangible, older fears concerning identity and sexuality.  Alternative readings of the novel, however have uncovered other anxieties which seemed to concern Stoker and his contemporaries, such as the importance of leading a good, Christian life and the difficulty of doing so in an increasingly modern, uncertain world.  Furthermore, the disquiet caused by the contradiction of homosexual feelings and the place for such feelings in the Bible.  Finally (and perhaps as a result of this irreconcilable dilemma), there is a definite theme of madness and mental illness running though the novel.


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