Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
Bram Stoker was born in Ireland, to Irish parents, which made him automatically lower class as far as “real” English writers were concerned. He came to England after his marriage (he married Oscar Wilde’s girlfriend – more on this later), and entered into the world of the London stage, particularly the theater owned by Henry Irving, one of the great actor/managers of the time. Stoker eventually became Irving’s business manager. He was also his lifelong friend.
Henry Irving may well have also been the inspiration for the character Dracula – Irving was manipulative and demanding, and by all accounts Stoker was mesmerized by him. In fact, it’s probably not too much to say Stoker loved him.
How much did Stoker love him? That’s an interesting question. We’ve already noted Stoker’s friendship with Oscar Wilde; later in life, he would make a point of visiting Walt Whitman. And we can see clear homoerotic and homosocial themes in Dracula. It’s difficult to know if these are deliberately coded themes, or if Stoker – who is, let’s face it, is not too bright – has no idea what he was saying.
Vampires before Dracula – Historical Vampires were creatures of folklore, and not very threatening. In folklore, vampires are created when certain kinds of people die: people who commit suicide, children of incest, or children born on unlucky days. These sorts of vampires were easily defeated. One common remedy was to bury them at the crossroads, for instance – when they rose, they would be so confused by the multiple choice of roads that they would still be dithering when the sun rose, and – poof!
In the mid-19th century, the vampires we recognize are created – the Byronic vampire, in works such as Polidori’s The Vamypre and Le Fanu’s Carmilla. These vampires are Othered, but they are Romantic Others: outsiders, wounded, meant to be feared, but also attractive, admired, and possibly in the end embraced. The message of these mid-19th century vampire tales is that strangers can be, if different and sometimes dangerous, also interesting and valid in their own way.
If we’re thinking about popular-culture-as-metaphor, this mid-19th century vampire becomes interesting for what he says about the attitude toward the Other, the alien, the not-standard person – for instance, about women, or about LGBT people, or about people from foreign countries.
In the Victorian era (1837-1901), which was when these vampire stories were written, England was colonizing the world; and England and its people had an uneasy attitude toward the people they were colonizing, and toward anyone who was not a standard-issue English gentleman. By standard issue English gentleman we mean, of course, a white straight Church of England pro-Crown upper-class man born and raised in England. Any variation on these was suspect, and unacceptable. The more variations a person had, the more suspect and more unacceptable they were.
Thus, in Carmilla for instance, we have both a protagonist and a vampire who are suspect from the start. Laura, our main character, is upper class and English, but she is female – one strike – and has been born and raised in a romantic but foreign land. She’s also not straight, or at least not straight with vampires.
Same for Carmilla, who has the added problem of not being English, and also a vampire. Yet in this text, although Carmilla is dangerous, she is also attractive. She is the romantic vampire who comes down through literary history to us and survives in such characters as the Vampire Lestat, and Joss Whedon’s Spike – and probably Angel as well.
Sometime in the 1890s (his book was published in 1897), Bram Stoker creates the ultimate Victorian vampire in his novel Dracula. This vampire is the Evil Other, an outsider meant to be wholly rejected, feared, hated, and, ultimately, destroyed. Stoker’s vampire, though he does seem to attract his victims on a sexual level, is not otherwise attractive; and we are not meant to find him attractive. He is supposed to repulse us.
Stoker’s vampire tale does not want us to think about the romantic stranger, or whether someone different from us might be nonetheless interesting and attractive.
The message of Stoker’s tale is that we must kill the stranger or he will kill us. The strangers want only to colonize us, Stoker’s story warns. They want to steal our women, eat our children, suck us dry like the leeches they are, and turn our country into theirs. (Given that this is more or less what Britain is doing in the 19th century to the countries it is colonizing, we can sense a bit of anxiety and projection here.)
Thus Stoker gives his vampire the characteristics of some of the most hated groups in Victorian England: Dracula is a foreigner, and an Eastern foreigner, boasting of his ridiculous nobility; he is (possibly) a male homosexual; and he is a Jew.
The first is easy enough to see. As the book opens, Harker is traveling into Transylvania. From the start we hear a tension between Harker’s (Stoker’s) Romantic and his Victorian sensibilities. Partly Harker is attracted to this Other country and these Other cultures, with their new foods and their different ways of dressing and their different rules for behavior. He collects recipes (or says he will) and writes lengthy descriptions of the landscape, the architecture, and the people.
But partly he is gravely disapproving of this Other country and the way its people behave – their barbaric, idolatrous religion; the slutty way their women dress; the shockingly lax attitude toward schedules (can’t even run the trains on time!). Superstitious barbarians who can’t even speak English! Not to mention, they’ve got vampires.
Notice that one of the reasons Harker likes Dracula so much (at first) is that Dracula acts very English – at least at first, and at least once Dracula is in the castle. Dracula speaks English very well; he treats Harker (almost, and at first) as an English gentleman would treat a guest; he has the expected standard English books in his library; the food he served Harker is upper-class English food. The castle is, at least the parts that Harker first sees, furnished and decorated very much like an English castle might be. This Dracula, on first glance, might be an Other, but he’s an Other who knows how to behave (which is to say, like an Englishman).
However: as Harker becomes further acquainted with Dracula, the vampire’s true nature as an Other emerges.
This evil Other is revealed in three ways. One, as a foreigner who wants to conquer – to colonize – England. We get hints of this in the Jonathan Harker “Telemachy” section of the book.
For instance, we see that Dracula is buying property in England; that he is planning to immigrate there. We learn that far from being an assimilated English gentleman, he in fact locks up his guest, plans to kill him, eats infants, and has three “wives,” like those horrible foreigners always do.
WORSE: Not only do these wives lust after Jonathan Harker in some unspeakable fashion, Dracula himself does as well.
Here’s where the homoeroticism comes it. Stoker keeps the homoerotic elements very much in the subtext, so much so that unless we’re very careful readers we can miss it entirely. But first, notice how careful Dracula’s attentions are to Harker from the very first – he serves the young man (a very young man, we’re told, just entering onto his profession, just “grown to manhood,” as his boss puts it, and not yet married) with his own hands, listens to him, flatters him, asks his advice about questions he can’t possibly need answers to, breathes down his neck at one point.
Second, notice the scene where Harker pretends to be asleep, while the three hot vampire wives lust over him (and he hopes to be taken by one of them). Notice two things about this scene. First, it’s a reversal of the usual Victorian fantasy, in which a woman is sleeping (or dead) and a man comes upon her and “kisses” her. Harker is in the woman’s position in this particular fantasy. Second, notice that Dracula comes and chases the women away. And why? Because Harker is his.
When the vampire women challenge his right to Harker, they challenge him on the grounds that he shouldn’t get Harker because he can’t love him. Note what Dracula replies – he replies that he can love, and that they know that from their own past. In other words, he puts Harker in the same category as the women, and he will “love” them as he loved the women.
Later, we get a similar scene – toward the end of chapter four, Harker is locked in his room, waiting for these vampires (he seems to know their vampires now, although how could he?) to come for him. He hears the women laughing in the corridor, and he hears Dracula chase them away. In the version published in England, which had very harsh laws against homosexuality, what Dracula says is this:
“Back, back to your own place! Your time is not yet come. Wait. Have patience. Tomorrow night, tomorrow night is yours!”
What Dracula says in the America version is a bit different:
“Back, back to your own place! Your time is not yet come. Wait. Have patience. Tonight is mine, tomorrow night is yours!”
It’s what happens after that, however, which is really interesting. According to his journal, Harker retreats into his room, prays awhile, and falls asleep. Then the next day, he climbs down the castle wall, finds Dracula asleep – with his mouth bloody, and his body rejuvenated. Harker determines to escape, and apparently does.
No mention of Harker being fed upon by Dracula. And when we meet Harker again, no one seems to think he has been fed upon. None of the team of vampire hunters seem to think so – it doesn’t enter their minds.
And yet – does it make sense that Harker would just go to sleep, when Dracula and the other vampires are outside his door? Who did Dracula feed on, if not Harker? And if Harker has not been fed on, how does he know that Dracula, or any of them, are vampires?
Dracula as a Jew is a touch harder to see, since Stoker is working harder to keep that in the subtext. (In 1890 it was no longer cool to be an anti-Semite in Great Britain.)
· Dracula sucks blood (blood-sucker had been an epithet flung at Jews from the Middle Ages on)
· he hoards gold – his castle is full of it, and when he is cut later, by Harker, gold coins, not blood, spill from the wound;
· he lives in dirt (Jews were called filthy, though in fact it was probably their habit of regular, ritual bathing that prevented them from dying at the rate Christians did during the Black Death;
· he is pale and has a great hooked nose – Jews were stereotyped as having these characteristics
· he spends a lot of time reading and studying, like all Jews (another stereotype)
· despite his scholarship he is shown (scientifically) by Van Helsing to have a smaller brain and an inferior (child-like) intellect, claims also made of Jews through Western history
· he is compared (frequently) in the text to insects;
· he seduces and coverts to his evil, alien way of life the women that (ought to) belong to our Western heroes – Christians of the time believed that Jews wanted to proselytize Christians, or at the very least steal Christian women and children
He is also, interestingly, effeminate – another epithet flung at Jews from the middle ages on, due to their cleanliness, their habit of studying, their paleness, and their strange (to Western Europeans) dress. Dracula, though, is only effeminate in certain lights. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a top, not a bottom – he dominates Harker; he is supernaturally strong; he is an intellectual powerhouse. And, a serial seducer of women, he is more powerfully masculine than our four heroes – therein, of course, lies his threat.
Dracula as Colonizer: Once Dracula arrives in England, via Whitby and a ship on which he has devoured the entire crew (who nevertheless do not become vampires, just one of many holes in Stoker’s plot) he at once begins his main plot task, which is to act as a villainous threat against England.
Thus, instead of doing what you might expect any vampire who plans to dig into a country to do – that is, make at once for the land and house he has bought, and begin making fast his defenses there – Dracula instead hangs out in Whitby, for no very good reason, and feeding off a “sweet, pure,” and very blond English virgin girl, one who is in fact engaged to an upper-class English gentleman.
Lucy is a trifle suspect, first by virtue of being female, and second because she lives in a home without a father, and finally because she loves not just Arthur, Lord Godalming, but two other men. (This creates an interesting parallel to Dracula himself, with his three wives.) Need I say that proper English virgin girls don’t love even one man, much less three?
Still, she is pure and sweet, as Stoker is careful to tell us over and over, and she soon becomes Dracula’s prey. Her sweetness, her purity, her status as the future wife of an English Lord, all mark her – she is a symbol, more than a character. She is the English Woman whom Dracula will steal (convert, loot) away from English gentlemen in his quest to colonize England.
Thus, the struggle to win Lucy back – the four Englishmen who pour out their blood for her, in a literal sense – and who fight to save her, in various ways. And thus, when she falls to the enemy (when she converts to the alien way), the need to slaughter her, rather than to leave her in his power.
The scene in which the four men conspire to kill Lucy is one of the most horrifying in the text. We’ll remember that Van Helsing has been summoned by Dr. Seward, his protégé. Van Helsing, though not English, nor Church of England (he’s Catholic, which makes his desecration of the Host very odd) foreigner, and neither a gentleman nor upper-class. He is, however, educated (hyper-educated!) and mostly importantly a Patriarch. (He is married to a woman who is in an asylum for reasons never stated, and the father of a dead son.) In many ways, as we noted in class, he is a shadow character for Dracula. (More on shadow characters here, and here. )
It is Van Helsing who knows what is happening to Lucy and who, once Lucy dies, knows what will happen to her. Van Helsing haunts her tomb; Van Helsing brings the news that Lucy is – how like a foreign woman! – no longer nurturing children but eating them; Van Helsing convinces the rest of the men that Lucy-the-Vampire must be killed in order to redeem Lucy-the-Englishwoman.
As the patriarch of their vampire-hunter family, he assigns this task to Lucy’s
owner fiancé, Arthur Lord Godalming. The way
in which Lucy is killed in heavily freighted with symbolism – on what would
have been her wedding night, Arthur drives a giant phallic symbol, in the form
of a big round wooden stake, through her heart, while she writhes and bites her
lip and howls. Once she has been pierced by this husbandly rod, she is
transformed into a pure, sweet, English girl again – no longer the dark,
voluptuous alien vampire.
This is a species of honor killing, in other words. Lucy must die to restore not just her honor but the integrity of England.
Sadly our vampire hunters have not learned from their mistakes, and just as they left Lucy alone and vulnerable to Dracula on several occasions, so do they also leave the novel’s other pure, sweet Englishwoman, Mina Harker. They also set up their base of operations about a quarter mile from the house that Jonathan Harker sold to Dracula. And then, despite several of them, including Jonathan, noticing that Mina looks pale, and that she’s sleeping an awfully lot, it occurs to none of them that Dracula might be preying on her, too, until Renfield tells them he is.
This leads to the second most disturbing scene in the book – the scene when Van Helsing and the other vampire hunters (except for Jonathan Harker, who has for unstated reasons gone to bed early this night) rush upstairs to the Harker bedroom and break the door open.
Quincy hesitates before doing so. It’s not done to open the doors of women’s bedrooms without knocking. (Think about why this might be. What DON’T we want to walk in on?) Van Helsing breaks it open anyway – and they confront a version of what Freud has called the Primal Scene. Freud believed that every child, at some time or another, observed his parents having sex. The trauma of this event was so great, says Freud, that the child would both displace his anxiety – pretend he hadn’t seen what he had seen, but rather reshape the memory as daddy doing something violent to mommy – and then repress that memory. This primal scene shows up frequently in literature, as well as in commerical advertising. 😂
Thus, when Van Helsing and the other men open that forbidden door, they see the displaced version of the Primal Scene – “daddy,” or Dracula (the patriarch) doing violence to “mommy” in the form of Mina, who is covered with blood, and who is having her head “forced downward” – toward Dracula’s breast, according to what Dr. Seward reports, but given that this is displaced, we can assume otherwise. Jonathan Harker, who has already undergone his own “violent” encounter with Dracula, lies nearby, in the deep slumber that follows such an encounter. (Notably, none of them men, including Jonathan himself, will admit that Jonathan is having congress with Dracula.)
Mina, now that she has exchange bodily fluids with Dracula, if you know what I mean, is no longer “sweet and pure.” In fact, being touched with the consecrated Host burns her and leaves a mark like the Mark of Cain on her forehead; and as the narrative continues she becomes less and less an Englishwoman and more and more a vampire.
This half-converted state is what allows the vampire hunters to use her, as a kind of spy, to hunt Dracula and his brides down. Notably, when Dracula is found, he is not killed in the same way Lucy was – no stake for him, but rather, death by decapitation. But he too is purified by his death. This too, in other words, is an honor killing.
This is Stoker’s story. The Other, the Foreigner, those who practice Other Religions – they are dangerous. Women left out of our control are dangerous: they are conduit by which society is imperiled, by which the Other attempts to infiltrate and destroy our world. Women who leave our control, especially by exercising the sexuality, must be killed. Jews, foreigners, and Others are dangerous because they want to infiltrate and conquer, via conversion, our world; and they are especially dangerous to our women and children, whom they will attempt to steal and sacrifice in order to further this agenda.
This is one version of the Vampire that has come down to us in popular culture. It’s one story, one mythos we’ve been inculcated with: don’t trust the stranger, the immigrant, those whose religion is different from yours. And don’t trust our women and our children around these Others – they will be taken and converted and become our enemies. (Like the Zombies!) And if that Other infiltrates our country, it is our right, it is our duty to kill not just him but any of our women and children who have been tainted by him.
We do, however, have the other version of the vampire, the Romantic era Vampire from Carmilla. This version of the story is somewhat different.