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Degenerative Fears

January 03, 2022

Degenerative Fears

Contextualizing Dracula


January 03, 2022

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  1. Degenerative Fears Infection, Invasion, and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

  2. Apocalypse Now Like many fin de siècle works, Bram Stoker’s

    Dracula (1897) expresses a perverse fascination with degeneration. The oddly earnest work, which eschews aestheticism in favor of mass- media-ted transcription, literalizes the coming of the apocalypse in the landing of the Demeter. Once Dracula’s crates of earth are placed on British soil, he is able to bring a peculiar form of pestilence and famine to his new home. The Count’s bloody conquest is only narrowly averted by Van Helsing, Seward, Harker, Holmwood, and Morris, who wage a successful war against “the children of the night.”
  3. The Ambiguities of Social Darwinism As many critics have noted,

    Stoker’s “degenerate” work registers many late Victorian fears. The evocative text implicitly addresses debates over disease prevention, immigration control, the “New Woman,” and homosexuality in its rendering of cultural devolution. Although the conservative denouement has occidental rationalism triumph over oriental mysticism, the polyvocal text does not offer an unambiguous endorsement of western progress. The “bestial” Count nearly triumphs because he can quickly adapt his “primitive” powers to contemporary circumstances.
  4. Fighting Infection It is no accident that two out of

    four of Dracula’s antagonists are doctors. In order to take over England, the Count unleashes an invisible threat that thrives in dark, unsanitary conditions and causes its victims to rapidly waste away. The fact that Dracula can command rats further suggests that his unnatural form of contamination is actually a plague. This uncanny resonance is not lost on the cunning Van Helsing. Once he recognizes Lucy’s “disease” for what it is, he recommends that herbs be used to ward off further infection and urges that she be locked in until the danger has passed. Had Lucy’s mother followed the doctor’s advice, these medieval plague cures could have facilitated her daughter’s recovery.
  5. Miasmatic Contagion Like many Victorian medical doctors, Van Helsing and

    Seward actively investigate how a disease is spread so that they can ward off further infection. Although Stoker’s Gothic text is clearly no medical treatise, it does suggests that both the miasma and contagion theories are correct. Dracula’s victims have to be physically touched by the Count or one of his minions (thus experiencing contagion), yet this touching can only happen under cloak of darkness in close and “unhealthy” air (miasma). In this regard, it is quite important that one of the supernatural powers of the source of contagion (Dracula) is the ability to control atmospheric conditions (through the creation of storms or the generation of fog).
  6. Finding New Blood Interestingly enough, Van Helsing staves off Lucy’s

    deterioration by doing precisely what the Count does—finding new blood. He supplies the ailing heroine with multiple transfusions from Seward, Holmwood, Morris, and even himself. (A contemporary reader may marvel at the indiscriminate nature of these infusions, but Van Helsing was actually using the latest medical advancements. Blood types were not discovered until 1901.) As many critics have noted, the bedside transfusion scenes are racially as well as sexually charged. In order to keep Lucy from falling prey to the seductive powers of the despotic Count, she must be injected with the “pure” blood of western heroes.
  7. Imperial Gothic In Stoker’s text, western heroism is not synonymous

    with British power. Seward relies upon the expertise of his Dutch “master,” and the Harkers are ultimately saved by the sacrifice of the Texan, Quincey Morris. Although a select body of criticism cites Stoker’s seemingly deliberate undermining of British authority as evidence of a critique of Britain’s colonial mission, no reading has been able to fully refute Patrick Brantlinger’s claim that the text is an “imperial Gothic.” Even widely divergent interpretations agree that the novel of reverse colonization “expresses anxieties about the ease with which civilization can revert back to barbarism or savagery and thus about the weakening of Britain’s imperial hegemony.”
  8. The Monstrosity of Reverse Colonization In “The Occidental Tourist,” Stephen

    D. Arata argues that “Dracula enacts the period’s most important and pervasive narrative of decline, a narrative of reverse colonization. . . . In whatever guise, this narrative expresses fear and guilt.” Readers have little difficulty discovering the fear expressed in the text; the guilt, though, may need a bit of explanation: “In the marauding, invasive Other, British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms. . . . Reverse colonization narratives thus contain the potential for powerful critiques of imperialist ideologies, even if that potential usually remains unrealized.” Critics continue to debate what is “realized” in Stoker’s seemingly reactionary text.
  9. Rivers of Blood Unlike Ayesha, the terrible white queen of

    H. Rider Haggard’s She, Dracula does not state his intention to overthrow the British monarchy, but it is clear that the centuries old war-lord represents a significant threat to British law and order, particularly because he is savvy enough to use the legal system to his advantage. Well before the British government began to restrict immigration, and Enoch Powell crafted his infamous (and xenophobic) “rivers of blood” speech, Stoker’s novel literalized what might happen if “aliens” were allowed unrestricted access to British ports and left undifferentiated from “native” Britons under the law.
  10. The New Woman Of course, Dracula includes its fair share

    of internal threats, including that of the “New Woman.” Mina Murray is an educated career woman who rescues her fiancé and actually helps to save his life by marrying him. Her friend, Lucy Westenra, offers an even more glaring inversion of traditional gender roles. Ill as a result of her unchaperoned nocturnal wanderings, the seemingly chaste young woman ends up a polyandrous vamp. In order to restore social order, her grieving lover must defile the corpse of “the Bloofer Lady,” and thus destroy the unnatural and voracious desires that it represents.
  11. We ‘Other Victorians’ Affirming their own version of the repressive

    hypothesis, many critics work to uncover the “hidden” sexuality within Stoker’s novel and present their findings as necessarily “libratory” readings of the narrative. When these readings acknowledge the ambivalence of the tale, and admit that many late Victorian readers would recognize the polymorphous perversity of the text, they are useful. When they merely note what Victorians sublimated, they tend to oversimplify. Even the earliest readers noticed that Stoker’s work thematizes the dangers of unregulated sexuality.
  12. A Wilde Inversion Although Stoker is neither the first nor

    the last author to exploit the homoerotic nature of vampire filiation (after all, the first vampire novel in English was a thinly veiled portrait of the infamous bisexual, Lord Byron), he is the only acquaintance of Oscar Wilde to begin writing a vampire novel only a month after the celebrated wit was convicted of sodomy. In “A Wilde Desire Took Me: The Homoerotic History of Dracula,” Talia Schaffer offers compelling evidence that Stoker’s conflicted feelings about Wilde and his disgrace ghost the supernatural tale.
  13. The Fear of (Re)Generation By the end of the novel,

    the threat of infection, invasion and inversion (as well as personal affiliation) are seemingly averted, but the birth of Quincey Harker does not signal an unambiguously happy ending. The death of the Count may have erased the brand from Mina’s forehead, but a reader will never know if it removed all the contamination from her body. Not only was her vampyric possession almost coeval with her pregnancy, but the expecting mother was also the only victim to suckle at Dracula’s breast. Might the Count continue to live on in blood of his blood, kin of his kin?
  14. The End?