What Are You Doing Not Reading Dracula?

Before I sat down with it a year ago, I was led to believe that Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be a schlocky read. It was a great revelation when I found that the trashy B-movie reputation surrounding the world’s most famous bloodsucker belies the novel’s heavyweight literary value. Critics and other readers have picked apart the multitudinous messages in what’s already a well-written, highly entertaining horror mystery.

I think you ought to read Dracula for pleasure even if for nothing else, but the book can be mined for some serious cultural/philosophical gold. So if you’ll allow me to get all academic, here’s a rundown of what’s in there.

The Eastern European “Other”
I’ve read critics who have gone so far as to say Stoker’s novel contains anti-Soviet sentiment. Wacky, sure, but the “russophobia” aspect they bring up is not. For those living west of the future Iron Curtain, Dracula was the dark representation of the mysterious occult and perceived savagery of the Other Europe.

The role of technology in the novel is key in seeing this. With the civilized world’s typewriters, phonographs, repeater rifles, etc, not to mention advances in science and medicine, turn-of-the-century England probably felt pretty confident in her understanding of the world and mastery thereof. And then along comes this demonic immortal… thing… from the dark exotic reaches of the Carpathian mountains that cannot be explained, let alone vanquished, by all this technology.

What you have then is a horror story that’s about more than just a monster. Dracula was a very cultural fear, among other things.

A Feminist Take

This is anchored mostly in the comparisons between heroine Mina and her lusty, fiery-haired friend Lucy. Mina is written to be a pretty damn perfect female companion, yet she’s not the one who has three men in love with her. When she’s still human, Lucy pushes the limit of appropriateness with her coquettish nature, but I think the point is driven home (pardon the pun) when Lucy’s vampiric transformation exaggerates her sensuality to a dangerous level. Also, there’s something very weird about how all the men must band together to keep her alive with their blood (through transfusion), and later team up to put her down.

Even after Lucy’s out of the picture (Dracula’s first main victim not unlike how the busty slut bites it quickly in modern horror flicks), there’s plenty to discuss over the concept of female purity/corruption as it affects Mina later on.

Mina’s also a remarkably strong Victorian heroine, by the way, and is as integral to hunting Dracula as her role will allow her. When the male characters pile on praise of how wonderful and strong she’s being, though, it becomes oddly patronizing…

A Freudian Take
Phew! …can I save some time and say that all the stakes are penises?

Sexuality

The funniest part of Dracula, if you ask me, is when Harker is set upon by Dracula’s harem. It’s really just the situation of an Victorian English solicitor getting clawed and gnawed by a trio of buxom bimbos that does it. And I’m sure it wasn’t meant for laughs, but all throughout the novel exists this tension between the facade of Victorian sexlessness and teeth-gnashing lust of vampirism—the clash of two ridiculous extremes. It’s as if the plague of the vampire presents not just the threat of death but of the sinful allure of a sexed-up existence (which remains our favorite thing about vampires).

My two favorite examples of the Victorian attitude toward sex:

  1. The legs of a household piano were often covered with fabric so they would not be found by guests to be inappropriately arousing.
  2. An especially inexperienced Englishman once threw his newlywed wife out of the house when he discovered in horror that she, like a man, had pubic hair.

Now I won’t vouch for the truth of them, but stories like these do inform our modern opinion of that period’s prudery. And when you consider this, the fact that Dracula got published in 1897 seems mind-boggling. It’s hard to read the novel without feeling its carnal force heaving beneath the sheet of Victorian morality.

There’s so much more that I won’t bother getting into, but the point is that the book’s depth is unmistakable.

Dracula’s a fun read. It’s a (very) English lit novel I recommend even to people who won’t go near English lit. Spend some time with it—you’ll better understand why it is that vampires just won’t die.

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5 thoughts on “What Are You Doing Not Reading Dracula?

  1. In the second half of the nineteenth century, you get something called Invasion Literature: the English were obsessed with the idea that their country was about to be invaded RIGHT NOW.

    Dracula is an interesting amalgam of both Gothic and Invasion literature. And what I find the most interesting about my beloved Victorians is the transference that’s going on. England, throughout the 1900s, is just going apeshit with the colonization; and generally, these are countries that were doing just fine before the introduction of afternoon tea. So to watch this aggressively powerful country sublimate its awfulness in its own rape fantasies seems poetically fitting if it wasn’t sort of upsetting that England never was invaded by, say, Transylvanian undead.

    I disagree with your first Victorian anecdote: it’s not true about them at all. In fact, it was the English who said that about the stuffy Americans. (There’s a so-so-ly written book called Inventing the Victorians which takes care of that bit of urban legendry.)

    The second one, about the pubic hair, is about John Ruskin and his wife Effie Gray. And yeah: it’s true. He was horrified by his wife’s naked body. The main theory is that almost all of the nude women Ruskin had seen were statues — which give all female nudes the hairless contours of an 8-year-old. When Effie, who wasn’t known for her Brazilian strip, shucked off her petticoats and slipped off her knickers, it was incredibly distressing for poor John. (If you’re at all interested in this story — and really, why wouldn’t you? — I highly recommend Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives.)

  2. Ah, so the piano legs thing was us Yanks? Somehow even less surprising.

    But now that you flesh out the Ruskin incident, it’s got me thinking: modern Americans don’t even have the benefit of statues. Lads today instead have their first conception of the female nude from the thrown-out Hustlers behind the 7-11, which, and perhaps by no coincidence, also carry a standard of what one might call the Southern Deforestation.

    And the Venus di Milo (even counting the armlessness) is still ten times more representative of what real women actually look like as opposed to a Barbie doll or whomever is this month’s centerfold. My thought is, if John grew up in our times, would he have to be much more sheltered to have that same misconception of the female anatomy?

    Just one of the things that makes me wonder why we point to the Victorians and say they’re the nutters.

  3. “Lads today instead have their first conception of the female nude from the thrown-out Hustlers behind the 7-11.”

    I read a theory about how young men have a harder time with monogamy because of the instant access they have to Internet pornography. Once upon a time, when a young man’s fancy turned to nekkid ladies, he’d have to steal a magazine from his dad or the corner store. His access to t&a was limited, so he developed longer-term relationships with those images.

    I don’t know. It could be as true as any of the other eleventy million theories about sexuality.

    I think a lot about the Victorians, and one of the conclusions I’ve reached is that they’re just about as prudish as we are. They just wore more complicated clothes.

  4. I agree with your conclusion, and so would my lady: if she ever had to write a master’s thesis, she’s said, it would argue that in many respects we never left the Victorian age. Very interesting.

  5. I especially love the Victorians’ sense of “our better angels” — something our current generation is afflicted with, too. While policy seemed to dictate this incredibly rigid moral code, what with the weird Poor Laws and Property Acts, you’ve got guys like Wilkie Collins living pretty openly with two different women (he never marries either of them, and fathers several children with the fuglier of the two); Charles Dickens trying to use the pages of his magazine to justify why he’s leaving his wife for a much younger actress; George Eliot and her sad situation with George Henry Lewes (she would walk with him several miles to a party, only to have to turn immediately around and walk home unaccompanied; as an unmarried woman living in sin, she wasn’t allowed in the houses of respectible people. They’d read her books, of course, but come on; there are limits…); and Mary Elizabeth Braddon and her big ol’ bag of crazy with her unmarried lover, with whom she had something like nineteen children.

    Point is: a loooooooot of fucking is going on, a lot of it is freaky, and Charles Dickens feels entitled to a lot of it.

    Oh — and that Dacre Stoker crap? s’truth, that’s bad.

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