Dracula and Victorian purity – a different take

Standard

Here’s another one I really enjoyed… Christine Ferguson argues that:

It has become customary to enlist Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in support of what remains a dominant myth of the culture and popular fiction of late Victorian Britain: namely, that both were obsessed with the preservation of a pure, homogenous, and unchanging national identity increasingly under siege from subversive elements. While critical assessments of the nature of the menace or the success of narrative resistance vary, the essential terms of the debate—outside versus inside, dangerous dissonance versus healthy cultural stability—remain remarkably consistent. So common, indeed, is this approach it has earned its own sobriquet as “the anxiety theory,” an expression used by Nicholas Daly to describe the thesis whereby a particular fictional villain signifies a dissonant threat to an established social order. This article allies itself with recent critical attempts to challenge the overly anxious construction of the nineteenth century by showing how Dracula, long a seminal text in the mythology of Victorian paranoia, anathematizes the very values of conformity, sameness, and hierarchy it is said to engender. Nowhere is this process more evident than in Stoker’s treatment of language, a currency that becomes interchangeable with blood in Dracula and provides a primary tool for the vampire’s exclusion.

Once dismissed as unworthy of serious scholarly attention, Dracula has in recent years spawned an immense critical industry populated with increasingly ingenious modes of interpreting the identity and cultural resonance of the vampire. The Count has been identified with real historical figures—Henry Irving, Vlad the Impaler, and Charles Stewart Parnell—as well as a host of late Victorian social fears, including ones about same-sex desire, devouring female sexuality, monopoly capitalism, the New Woman, the Jew, reverse colonization, unruly democracy, and the contradictory nature of Anglo-Irish identity. The rich variety of these laudable critical interventions is somewhat negated, however, by the surprising dependence on the anxiety paradigm that so many of them share.” (p.229)

Regardless of the [-p.230] specific nature of the threat represented by the vampire,” Ferguson continues, “Dracula is described, time and time again, as anarchic disruption to some historically specific convention of bourgeois culture, to an order obsessed with the maintenance of order and purity. Anxiety—about the dangers of social and sexual change, about the replacement of social stability with chaos and mayhem—remains the dominant idiom of Dracula, and it is one long overdue for reconsideration. We must reassess our willingess to impute a horror of destabilization to a novel so deliberately fraught with wildly varied and often chaotically fractured forms of subjectivity and communication.
Far from being a spectre of transgression, Stoker’s Dracula is a victim of relentless limitations that render him even more ineffective, once his occult nature is understood, than a mundane petty criminal. Vampirism has given him supernatural strength and transformative powers, but has also subjected him to a series of prohibitions which often curtail these powers when they are most needed, such as at the moment of his death.” (pp.229-230)

“Dracula is no more able to assimilate Mina within his vampiric identity than he is to master and standardize the forms of language [-p.245] and linguistic transmission that she embodies.” (pp.244-245) …

“In sucking Mina’s blood and forcing her to suck his, he aims to bind her in a relationship of seamless communication whereby her thoughts will become transparent and his wishes may be planted directly into her mind, without need of an unreliable external medium. Telepathy seems to offer him the ultimate vehicle of linguistic control, far more stable and manipulatable than speech and writing. Yet what the Count fails to realize is that no form or act of communication with the living is wholly pure and controllable. At Mina’s request, the vampire hunters hypnotize her at daybreak when Dracula’s powers are at their weakest, and they thus obtain crucial information about his whereabouts. The failure to anticipate the reciprocality and volatility of their telepathic union, indeed, of all acts of communication amongst the living, proves to be the Count’s undoing. Using Mina as a sort of remote sensor, the hunters track down Dracula and slaughter him rather unceremoniously with a few knife thrusts. Dracula’s spectacularly anticlimactic physical death is no more than a footnote to the real triumph that has happened elsewhere, that of nonstandard and multimediated English against the deadly tongue of the vampire. The nation emerges triumphant not because of its purity or physical might but because of the mutable and diverse nature of its native language(s). 
Far from a dread of difference, we find in Dracula and other fin de siècle invasion texts a cultural fulfilment of the Darwinian ethos of variation. In The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin had praised the advantages of diversity, noting that “in the general economy of any land, the more widely and perfectly the animals and plants are diversified for different habits of life, so will a greater number of individuals be capable of there supporting themselves.” Simply put, vitality is the product of modification; the more varied a community, the greater its sustainability. For many of the late Victorian imaginative interpreters of this edict, the most privileged site of variation was not the body, but the one trait that seemed most definitive of and exclusive to humanity—language.” (p.245)

The argument is a really sound one – and very interesting to read.

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Ferguson, Christine (2004) Nonstandard Language and the Cultural Stakes of Stoker’s Dracula ELH, Volume 71, Number 1, Spring, pp. 229-249

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