Monday, September 27, 2010

Dracula III

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897 at the height of cultural anxiety over changing sexual mores and the social role of women. During the 19th century, a major debate raged over the social role of women, their legal and political rights and their sexuality.

The novel captures some of the ambiguity with which the so-called “new woman” was viewed. While Lucy is almost entirely a damsel in distress, at Dracula’s mercy and completely dependent on others to save her from him, Mina becomes an active participant in the quest to hunt down and defeat Dracula, at least up to a point. Lest her active participation cause too much anxiety, at a certain point her role is diminished, and then, she, in turn becomes Dracula’s victim. As such, it is the men who finally take over the role of saving her and destroying Dracula, except that, under hypnosis (a semi-conscious state), Mina is able to connect with Dracula psychically and provide information on his whereabouts.

Thus, while the novel presents the image of an active, intelligent, capable woman, able to take care of herself and others, it reverses itself and reduces her role before it concludes, as if to reassure its late 19th century readers of women’s traditional role. Similarly, those readers, while titillated by women’s sexuality, needed to be reassured about female modesty and innocence.

One of the most anxiety-producing dimensions of the 19th century debate over the “new woman” had to do with women’s sexuality. “Victorian” women of good reputation were not supposed to have sexual feelings. Sexual desire was reserved for men and for “low” women. Dracula disguises its sexual content by substituting the oral exchange of blood for the genital exchange of semen.

The female vampires who swarm Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle are seductive sexual temptresses, like those “low” Victorian women, who the respectable Harker resists.

Lucy, Dracula’s first victim in London, is portrayed as a more refined and proper temptress who strings several suitors along before choosing one. Dracula attacks her in her sleepwalking state, a symbolic rape, functioning as a displacement of Lucy’s own repressed desire, which can only be expressed while she is an unconscious victim.

The more responsible and capable Mina, while vulnerable to Dracula’s power, is more resistant, suggesting either a weaker sexual desire or a stronger conscious control or both. Ironically, the more traditional woman character is portrayed as more sexually receptive, more akin to the “low” woman, than is the “new woman.”

In any case, woman’s sexuality is thus able to be openly represented but only through indirect means, which displaces it to the monster outside instead of the desire within, thus reassuring us of women’s innocence. Significantly, both women spend much of their time in the novel in a less than conscious state, Lucy asleep and Mina under hypnosis.

The vampire can be traced back to the “incubus” figure in ancient mythology, a supernatural being that rapes women in their sleep. The female “succubus” similarly seduces men as they sleep. These mythical creatures provide an explanation for sex dreams and/or orgasms during sleep, an explanation that conveniently removes responsibility from the sleeper. Perhaps our anxiety over human sexuality is universal.

Then again, perhaps it is both universal and specific to our own historical time and place. Why the upsurge in popularity of the vampire figure during the 1980’s? Could it have had anything to do with the AIDS crisis and increased anxiety over contact with bodily fluids? Why the recent popularity of the Twilight series among teenagers? Again, could it have anything to do with the post-sixties reaction to sexual promiscuity and the rise of abstinence-based sex education programs? The vampire boyfriend who loves you so much he won’t bite your neck is a substitute for the real life boyfriend who loves you so much he won’t ask you for sex.

In all its many variations the vampire seems to speak to our human fear of ourselves.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dracula II

The gothic form represents a melodramatic struggle between good and evil. It is no coincidence that it rose to prominence in Western culture during the 18th century, the so-called Age of Reason in Europe and America, when science, facts, logic, and rationality were held up as authoritative guides to truth and action. As a species, our future progress was unlimited if we would only be led by our rational nature, which takes its place within a rationally ordered universe.

Easier said than done, claims the gothic tale. What if the universe is not rational; what if our human nature is not rational?

Instead of a universe ruled by the supernatural powers of religion (which the Age of Reason presumably had debunked), gothic writers projected a universe in which secular forms of the supernatural—ghosts, monsters, etc.—and (in anticipation of the Freudian Id) a fundamentally irrational human nature assert power over the rational surface of the world.

The classic gothic tale leaves us in terror, not only of the supernatural threats that might be “out there,” but also of the irrational forces “in here.” The detective story, on the other hand, reassures us that rationality, in the form of the carefully observant, thoroughly logical detective, can overcome those dark, destructive forces of nature both within and without. (See previous post.)

Dracula, published at the end of the 19th century, continues both traditions—questioning the power of rationality while at the same time asserting it and thereby capturing the continuing cultural anxiety over the nature of our universe and ourselves. Though their sources and methods are hardly scientific in modern terms, Dr. Seward and Professor Van Helsing are the knowledge experts, who use their expertise to overcome Dracula, but, of course, they cannot protect all of us from all the irrationality that stalks the earth, including the irrationality within our own psyches.

The continuing popularity of the vampire figure testifies to our ongoing cultural anxiety over the power of rationality to save us and over our own human nature. It is notable that in the gothic tradition, the battle between good and evil is presented, not in religious or moralistic terms, but rather in terms of the rational and the irrational. Religious morality has been replaced by more intellectual, psychological, and practical approaches to good and evil.

Nowhere does this create more anxiety than in the realms of human sexuality and the changing roles of women. (See next post.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dracula I

This blog began with the gothic genre (August, ‘09) and several posts on Frankenstein. A year later I found myself reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) because it came as a free e-book on my Barnes & Noble Nook.

Frankenstein is more true to the original gothic form because the “monster” escapes after leaving a trail of destruction. Dracula is himself destroyed in the end of his novel and thus aligns with the detective story, which was invented by Edgar Allen Poe earlier in the 19th century. The gothic tale, of course, was also a favorite form for Poe.

Both forms typically begin in a familiar (if perhaps ominous) setting in ordinary reality. Then there is an encounter with the irrational—a crime, monster, supernatural event, violent act, or other frightening, unexplainable occurrence—followed by a suspenseful struggle between the forces of the rational “good” and the irrational “evil.” The gothic “horror story” typically ends with the rational protagonist barely escaping destruction or ending up either dead or insane. In either case, the irrational “evil” is still at large. In the detective story, the rational detective solves the crime and the irrational perpetrator is captured, punished, or killed.

Dracula is finally destroyed, not by a “detective” in the classic sense but by a group of well-meaning men, including a vampire expert and a doctor, who, like the classic detective, eventually outsmart him and track him down. One of the young men dies in the struggle, however, and his wife has already been turned into a vampire and herself destroyed by the band of vampire hunters, including himself.

Though Dracula is destroyed, the world is hardly free of vampires, so, while the novel ends with the defeat of one irrational “evil,” there is still a lot more of it lurking out there, as in the traditional gothic form. The reader is thus left with an unsettling combination of reassurance that there are “experts” who can destroy “evil” and terror that they can never put a final end to it.

Both the gothic tale and the detective story pit the irriational against the rational, and both forms embody an ongoing debate over human nature. Are we rational animals, whose higher thinking ability can save us from our destructive irrationality? Or, will our lower, animal nature always reassert its power over our rational selves? (see next post).