Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker is a young solicitor's clerk who travels to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula, who wants to rent a house in England. If he was just a little bit smarter, Jonathan would realise that this is a really bad idea. After all, the man's called Dracula. He may or may not be capable of turning into a wolf. All the local peasantry are terrified of the castle and its owner. He insists on Harker coming in of his own free will...and there are no servants in the dark and creepy old castle...and the Count doesn't appear in Harker's shaving mirror...and he seems to be awfully enthusiastic on the subject of blood...and he can crawl down walls...
Harker barely escapes this sinister castle, but by then the Count has signed the papers and set off for England, where Harker's lovely and talented fiancee Mina Murray begins to notice, with concern, that her best friend Lucy Westenra is suffering some strange ailment. Neighbouring doctor-for-the-insane Dr Seward sends for his old mentor, Van Helsing, who diagnoses Lucy at last with a serious case of vampire visitation. Unfortunately this news comes too late to save Lucy; broken-hearted, Mina, Jonathan, Dr Seward, Van Helsing, visiting American Quincey Morris and Lucy's fiance Arthur Holmwood determine to stop the evil Count once and for all.
I read Dracula, like so many other books, unthinkingly—in the hope that it would be an entertaining story. It was. I particularly liked the characters' reaction to the horrible revelation that an obscene monster had come to terrorise them, which was, “Let's kill it! Amen!”
In fact, I still like that attitude. After all, GK Chesterton says that, “A book with no bad characters is a bad book.” Evil exists; demons exist; and “the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.” Dracula is a vampire story, yes, but look at the vampire! He's demonic and disgusting and the characters call on the help of God before setting about his destruction:
“For so surely as we live, that scar shall pass away when God sees right to lift the burden that is hard upon us. Till then we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His Will. It may be that we are chosen instruments of His good pleasure, and that we ascend to His bidding as that other through stripes and shame. Through tears and blood. Through doubts and fear, and all that makes the difference between God and man.”
This is not Twilight, where the blood-sucking fiend is the romantic twinkly boyfriend, and losing your soul is preferable to losing him. In Dracula, evil is clearly evil, and must be fought, not dallied with.
Even though I enjoyed the let's-go-out-and-kill-the-bad-guy attitude, there's more to Dracula than meets the eye. Undeniably the novel is one of the traditional playing-grounds of psychoanalysts and postmodern literary critics, all sniffing eagerly after some guilty secret the book seems to be concealing. I did an arts course recently—it was called “Narrative and Genre” and I thought—ha, ha!--I thought I would learn something about narrative structure and the tropes of genres and how to successfully use them. Ah well...But the topic was Dracula one week and you would, I guarantee, be quite surprised at the things they managed to read into the book. The topic on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tried to show how a silly children's book contained classism, racism, capitalism, colonialism, and sexism; so, for example, in Dracula, Stoker was supposed to be suppressing his anxiety about independent women.
That the literary critics I had to read in university were barking up imaginary trees doesn't mean there isn't plenty of wood in Dracula's park. A few years ago, Douglas Wilson posted a series of quotations from a book called Monsters from the Id by E. Michael Jones:
As syphilis spread all over Europe, the horror at its unprecedented virulence spread with it. It was the sexual version of the black plague. As the descriptions of the doctors who first diagnosed the disease make clear, the advent of syphilis had much to do with the iconography of horror. The horrible faces in horror movies have a long history. More often than not, those faces have been derived from the symptomology of syphilis (p 116).
For instance, Coppola has Van Helsing mention the word syphilis, which is the book’s ultimate taboo, but the whole point of Dracula as monster is that neither Stoker nor Harker can mention syphilis. The monster is, in effect, the sign that neither Stoker nor Harker can bring themselves to face the true cause of their problems . . . Horror means that the real cause of evil has been repressed and replaced by a monster who points to the true cause by indirection, revealing and concealing it at the same time (p 113).
When I first read this, I strenuously disagreed. I thought Dracula was about the good guys beating the bad guys. Nothing wrong with that, right? But in wrangling with the modern literary criticism, I came to realise that there probably was something going on under the surface, and syphilis is a great explanation:
Vampire fiction in particular is all about syphilis, the great public health fiasco of Europe, spanning three centuries. You remember how whipped up we got over a decade of AIDs? Try to imagine how deep this older panic would have gone, and think of our panic as a square root of that. The guilty "infected one" would bring the curse to innocent wives, just like a vampire. Bram Stoker died of syphilis, by the by. --Douglas Wilson, “Vampires With Self-Control
If you think about it this way, the metaphor becomes startlingly obvious. Harker goes overseas, where he's attacked by foreign women carrying the curse of vampirism. He's saved in the nick of time, but his actions empower Count Dracula to come to England where he can begin snacking first on Lucy and then on Harker's own wife Mina. At night. In their bedrooms.
Almost as if Harker's a carrier for some horrid disease. E Michael Jones sums up:
It is a little like watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre over and over again and watching the hippies drawn inexorably to their doom in the uncanny house . . . that has become not a place of refuge, but of slaughter instead. That house is our culture. We are all being led into that house of horrors by a mysterious force over which we seem to have no control. That force is our conscience. The only way we can escape its clutches is by admitting that what it has to say about our guilt is true (p 279).
The calamities described in horror fiction are really repressed moral truths. Horror is morality written backwards; it is the moral order viewed through the wrong end of the telescope (p 59)
To understate it, Victorian men did not lead lives of the utmost virtue. Is it this guilt—the guilt of infidelity compounded by the guilt of passing on disease to the innocent—what lurks beneath the surface of Dracula? Is the characters' reaction to this crisis really the correct one? Is their resolution to fight, and their victory over the vampire a humanist day-dream of getting rid of the consequences of their own sins?
I haven't finished thinking this through yet, but so far I would say No. I don't think so. In the context of the plot, it makes no sense for the characters to repent, because they've done nothing wrong. This is part of what makes it a fruitless response to guilt: the characters can't repent--they are innocent victims, just like the men of Stoker's generation wish they were. But I think the flipside to that is that alone and divorced from its historical context, there's nothing particularly wrong with Dracula. It may be the symptom of a culture diseased both physically and morally, but all that is hidden far, far below the surface.
Or maybe I'm jaded...maybe I'm just thankful the vampire isn't the twinkly boyfriend!

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