In the Blood (As published in the New Yorker)

Written on August 14, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Why do vampires still thrill?

by Joan Acocella

Part 5

That crisis is recorded in work after work of late-nineteenth-century fiction, but never more forcibly than in "Dracula." In the opening pages of the novel, Harker, on his way to Castle Dracula, has arrived in Romania. He complains of the lateness of the trains. He describes a strange dish, paprika hendl, that he was given for dinner in a restaurant. But he is English; he can handle these things. He does not yet know that the man he is going to visit has little concern for timetables—the Count has lived for hundreds of years—and dines on something more peculiar than paprika hendl. Even when the evidence is in front of Harker's face, he cannot credit it. The coachman driving him to Castle Dracula (it is the Count, in disguise) is of a curious appearance. He has pointed teeth and flaming red eyes. This makes Harker, in his words, feel "a little strangely." Days pass, however, before he forms a stronger opinion. The other characters are equally slow to get the point. When Professor Abraham Van Helsing, the venerable Dutch physician who becomes the head of the vampire-hunting posse, suggests to his colleague John Seward that there may be a vampire operating in their midst, Seward thinks Van Helsing must be going mad. "Surely," he protests, "there must be some rational explanation of all these mysterious things." Van Helsing counters that not every phenomenon has a rational explanation: "Do you not think that there are things in the world which you cannot understand, and yet which are?" Throughout the novel, these self-assured people have to be convinced, with enormous difficulty, that there is something beyond their ken.

According to Nina Auerbach, in "Our Vampires, Ourselves" (1995), Dracula's crimes are merely symbols of the real-life sociopolitical horrors facing the late Victorians. One was immigration. At the end of the century, Eastern European Jews, in flight from the pogroms, were pouring into Western Europe, thereby threatening to dilute the pure blood of the English, among others. Dracula, too, is an émigré from the East. Stoker spends a lot of words on the subject of blood, and not just when Dracula extracts it. Fully four of the book's five vampire-hunters have their blood transfused into Lucy's veins, and this process is recorded with grisly exactitude. (We see the incisions, the hypodermics.) So Stoker may in fact have been thinking of the racial threat. Like other novels of the period, "Dracula" contains invidious remarks about Jews. They have big noses, they like money—the usual.

At that time, furthermore, people in England were forced, by the scandal of the Oscar Wilde trials (1895), to think about something they hadn't worried about before: homosexuality. Many scholars have found suggestions of homoeroticism in "Dracula." Auerbach, by contrast, finds the book annoyingly heterosexual. Earlier vampire tales, such as Polidori's story and "Carmilla," made room for the mutability of erotic experience. In those works, sex didn't have to be man to woman. And it didn't have to be outright sex—it might just be fervent friendship. As Auerbach sees it, Stoker, spooked by the Wilde case, backed off from this rich ambiguity, thereby impoverishing vampire literature. After him, she says, vampire art became reactionary. This echoes Stephen King's statement that all horror fiction, by pitting an absolute good against an absolute evil, is "as Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit."

According to some critics, another thing troubling Stoker was the New Woman, that turn-of-the-century avatar of the feminist. Again, there is support for this. The New Woman is referred to dismissively in the book, and the God-ordained difference between the sexes—basically, that women are weak but good, and men are strong but less good—is reiterated with maddening persistence. On the other hand, Mina, the novel's heroine, and a woman of unquestioned virtue, looks, at times, like a feminist. She works for a living, as a schoolmistress, before her marriage, and the new technology, which should have been daunting to a female, holds no mysteries for her. She's a whiz as a typist—a standard New Woman profession. Also, she is wise and reasonable—male virtues. Nevertheless, her primary characteristic is a female trait: compassion. (At one point, she even pities Dracula.) Stoker, it seems, had mixed feelings about the New Woman.


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