Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Vampires, Class, Colonialism, Discourse

Note: The purpose of this post is more analytical than evaluative. Therefore it assumes familiarity with the plot of the novel and includes a reasonable amount of spoilers. The Coppola movie keeps quite close to the original story, so if you have seen it you can consider yourself immunized against spoilers.

There have been more than enough reviews of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this post is not yet another one. Rather, in it I want to focus on some textual aspects of the novel that captured my attention and convinced me in its greatness. Yes, Dracula fully deserves its place among the classics, not merely for having spawned a whole genre of writing, but for its literary merits. Who would want to read a book about vampires that is over a century old, some might ask, it surely must be so old-fashioned. Well it is and there is so much beauty in that. Dracula is an epistolary novel and thanks to that it has preserved its appeal over the decades. While narrative structure, authorial function and point-of-view techniques have evolved tremendously in the last century, a letter or a diary entry from 1897 will always be authentic and a fictional document from the period will always retain the same amount of verisimilitude. So yes, Dracula is old-fashioned but in a very good, window-into-another-time kind of way.

Enough with the evaluation and back to business. I’m sure my observations are nothing new under the sun, many have probably developed these arguments (and their counterarguments) in greater detail and more convincingly. However, class stratification operates on many levels and I guess that process would put me somewhere in the intellectual middle class, which is not a bad place to be in the current circumstances.

Dracula is mightily concerned with class issues, even though it doesn’t explicitly put them in focus. One could read the book at its face value, as a vampire story, and a great vampire story it is, but I think such a reading is ignoring a lot of interesting strands of meaning. The excavation of those requires attention from the reader, but not that much really, just enough to extract the structure that scaffolds implicit relations. Critics sometimes employ distinctions such as metaphoric vs. metonymic and paratactic vs. hypotactic writing when discussing works of fiction. While the first distinction should be clear, the second one might require a brief gloss. Very simply put, paratactic writing, not in the sense of how you construct complex sentences but in the sense of what logical connections are established within the work of literature, exposes gaps between fictional or poetic elements. Syntactic parataxis means conjunction, i.e. clauses and phrases are put beside each other (from Greek para). Literary critics make a similar distinction among types of writing. Images that occur close to one another in literary space without a mutual relation made explicit constitute a kind of paratactic writing. Haiku is often given as a relevant example, another one probably is folklore tales where natural symbols often don’t make much sense within a superficial reading. In paratactic writing filling the gaps is left to the reader. On the other end of the spectrum is hypotactic writing, which relies on explicitly outlining the relations between literary elements (from Greek hypo “beneath), i.e. making the causal structure as clear as possible.

I am not trying to argue that Dracula is solely para- or hypotactic, metaphorical or metonymical. Most works of fiction are all of that simultaneously, striking some kind of unique balance. Bram Stoker’s novel certainly weighs heavily on the hypotactic/metonymic end with its meticulous portrayal of the characters’ lives and environment. The vampire story itself is told with a great deal of care for details. For example, the Count goes to great lengths in order to stage his attack on England, he contacts solicitors, buys local properties, studies the language of the country for months and even kidnaps a native to exercise his verbal skills in his presence. The author obviously tried to make the story highly believable, and that means leaving as few logical gaps as possible, making the metonymical chains and hypotactic skeleton as sturdy as he could. In fact, this almost documental pursuit of precision and full exposure of facts lies at the heart of the novel, which is very much about knowledge, its mining, preservation, sharing and application.

There is, however, another side to Dracula, a subtext or subtexts whose gaps are not to be found so much at the logical but rather at the imagistic and semiotic levels. This is a novel propelled by powerful and intricate metaphors, no matter whether that was Stoker’s intention or not. It is precisely the highly realistic depiction of the world (note that I am not using the word “plausible”, which is a whole different thing) that allows these metaphors to take off – the richness of the source domain (the face value of what is happening in the story) provides ample structure for the target domain (the metaphorical, implicit meaning, to be discovered by the reader).

There is a lot of hidden subtext in Dracula, but here I want to focus on a particular complex of topics: class, colonialism, discourse. Vampires and the Count in particular serve as a focal point for the oblique commentary on these issues in the book. On the surface of it Vlad Tepes is a supernatural creature of evil and the novel tells the story of the protagonists fighting against him. A little deeper, though, it is about other things as well.

The human mind is very good at picking up structural similarities, at pattern recognition. This is why we have metaphors – because the mind likes to compare things and group them in useful categories. Unpredictable women have nothing in common with fire, physically speaking; nevertheless, they share behavioral characteristics that justify the psychological validity of such a comparison. These shared patterns had probably been observed by millions of individuals over many years in order for the metaphorical coupling to emerge. A novel is read in the span of hours and is supposedly more polyvalent when it comes to the interpretations it encourages. However, the attentive reader learns to expose this kind of resonances and to figure out possible mappings between them, such that they would open up new veins of meaning in the body of a work of art.

Apart from undead, Vlad Tepes is also a hereditary nobleman, a warrior and a ruler. He is in a way a colonizer, as his predecessors came to rule their lands in Transylvania after conquering them (as narrated by the Count). He is an aggressor and colonizer once again when he carefully plans his assault on England and mercilessly carries it out. He treats the Transylvanian locals as inferior, keeps them in a state of fear and hires mercenary gypsies to enforce his will; he apparently doesn’t have a much higher regard for Englishmen.

None of this depends crucially on the supernatural nature of the count. History offers plenty of examples of cruel tyrants – mad or perfectly sane. Nevertheless, this complex of information is strongly coupled with the count’s vampirism, the two are inextricably linked to one another; one could argue that they feed deterministically into each other like a ouroboros, without a beginning or end, like an infinite state of sin. Certainly we have seen that kind of pairing, it is central to a large part of the vampire genre, what’s the big deal? Well precisely that. Is there a deeper meaning to it or is it just chance that bent Stoker’s mind that way and then most of the writers within the genre? The resonances between the two domains (aristocracy, colonialism +/– vampirism) are certainly present in the text and I suspect in collective psychology as well, for vampire fiction and the vampire as a character to have developed so powerfully. There have been modifications to the inter-domain mappings, certainly, and different generations of readers have probably felt different psychological chords pulled by that class of monster. The market itself, when properly developed, has probably shaped the vampire image to a great extent, but it is a fact that it has not lost any of its integrity and vitality since it was popularized by Stoker.

What are the vampire’s characteristics, though, that align him with tyrannical aristocracy and malevolent exploitation? Let me start with a few physical traits that provide plausible mappings between the two domains. When imprisoned in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan Harker observes the Count climb easily up and the down the stone walls of the building. For any mortal this exercise would probably conclude with death. Compare that to the freedom of social mobility available to people from different social classes, as well as to the opposition of colonizers versus colonized. Vertical mobility is a given for aristocrats and colonizers, they can interact freely with the lowliest of the low should they wish to do so; they can just as easily return to their high towers, unreachable for those occupying the baser levels of the hierarchy. In fact, to escape captivity Harker does climb along a stretch of the wall and into the Count’s bedroom, in order to obtain his key. He does that as move of desperation and with great difficulty. Later in the novel Harker moves along the vertical in the metaphorical sense as well, when he inherits the business of his employer and guardian. Dracula is also able to negotiate heights by turning into a bat, this is the method through which he enters Lucy’s bedroom. And in the daylight he rests in a tomb, a symbolical interment of sorts, going underground.

Contrasting with this facility for vertical movement is the Count’s difficulty when it comes to horizontal travel. His journey across the sea requires careful planning and contains significant risks. Throughout much of its duration the vampire is immobilized in his coffin and easy prey to his hunters. They in turn are much more mobile horizontally – they manage to intercept the Count’s coffin on its way to the castle in Transylvania and to kill him in his sleep; they also traverse England with ease, using the railway system, which is itself a symbol of modernity. It is even emphasized that Mina knows by heart the train timetables and can quickly plan the frequent itineraries of herself and her friends.

In addition to that, entering a person’s home presents another obstacle to Dracula – he needs permission to cross that threshold between public and private space. This can be equated to another form of horizontal movement in the target domain of social structure. An empowered figure can order somebody to do something but cannot share the private discourse of that same person without having been invited into it and taught its principles of operation. While the humans opposing the Count are vertically less mobile than him (Mina, for example, is glad that her husband has secured for himself a financially stable future, that is obviously an important and rare thing) they are much freer in their interpersonal movement. The very diversity of their group is indicative of this kind of mobility: an woman, a doctor, a nobleman, a Dutch professor, an American traveler, etc.  They interact strongly with one another, make acquaintances that quickly evolve into very intimate and honest connections, etc. They are actually strongest when information travels unobstructed between them; trying to keep secrets from Mina nearly results in her loss. On the contrary, when dealing with the horizontal the Count prefers to turn an open plane into a prison, barring horizontal transition between spaces whenever possible:

“Doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner.”

Another, much more obvious mapping is the relation of predator-prey between the vampire and its victims and between the ruling and the serving class. Health and strength in the former result in the inverse in the latter. “He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion,” is how Jonathan Harker describes the resting vampire. Vertical hierarchies of power operate by this very principle; colonial exploitation even more so. A chief point in the justification of aristocracy and colonialism in the past was the belief that people on the lower rungs of society are actually inferior, in the case of colonized peoples they were considered even savages, and it is the task of the nobleman to rule them for their own good. Even the Count is not as smug to delude himself about the goodness of his intentions but he does treat humans as lowly creatures, to be taken advantage of. Curiously enough, he has some sort of telepathic power over speechless beasts (like wolves) and the Transylvanian villagers in Harker’s journal are described as not too far advanced above that.

Which leads us to the role of language and discourse in Dracula. Professor Rabkin mentions in one of his online lectures within the Fantasy and SF course on Coursera that the vampire hunters in the novel always use technology to their advantage over the Count and that language is the greatest piece of technology available to them. Apart from the fact that it is not purpose-built, human-designed and at present times artificially replicable, language is very much like technology. And just like the railway, when used to its fullest potential, it allows the protagonists to communicate faster and more effectively, which is how they defeat Dracula at the end. Written language too is a technology, although one invented later in historical terms. The novel itself is a collection of written documents: letters, journal and diary entries, transcribed phonograph records, newspaper articles. It is more than simply a collection of writings, it is a collection with a purpose.

This is an even more advanced technology that only came with modernity: the freedom of individuals to construct their own discourses and to analyze them. The fear of the villagers which insulates Dracula in his home Transylvania is mainly supported by oral legends and folklore; those are mutable, a rare resource and because of that easily subjected to distortion. Written communication, on the other hand, is more reliable and easily replicable, it is that which allows the hunters to figure out how to beat their adversary. But even more important is their ability to negotiate in, out and between different discourses, to communicate with people speaking very different dialects, languages, cultures and even logics in the case of Renfield the madman. Language, when flowing freely and horizontally between the members of the crew of light and when imbued with their mutual sympathy, becomes a weapon deadlier even than Quincey Morris’s Winchester rifle.

The human protagonists exist in multiple discourses and shift between them according to the context. More importantly, they are capable of learning the rules of new discourses and thus adapting to the world. Even the vampire story embedded in the apparent realism of the novelistic world is a kind of discourse which has to be mastered by the humans if they are to defeat the Count. Here is how Van Helsing prepares Dr. John Seward before plunging him in that otherworldly and incomprehensible reality:

“I heard once of an American who so defined faith, ‘that faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.’ For one, I follow that man. He meant that we shall have an open mind, and not let a little bit of truth check the rush of the big truth, like a small rock does a railway truck.”

Faith here is employed as a discourse bridge, a tool of the man of reason to escape dogmatism and the too narrow confines of present knowledge. It is not the blind faith which forms its own imprisoning discourse. By sharing these multiple discourses the protagonists reveal things that are not immediately clear and thus empower themselves against the Count. Dracula, on the other hand, moves within his own discourse and knows no other. He is physically strong and wields powerful magic, which allows him to do as he likes, and that is essentially the discourse he moves within. At the end it turns out feebler and more inadequate than the combined and flexible character of the human posse. Because the Count moves only within one discourse he is practically invisible to himself, he cannot see his figure from outside and analyze his weaknesses, curb the over proportionate self-confidence that is blinding him. I have always wondered why vampires are not reflected in mirrors. There probably is a more immediate explanation, but I quite like this one.

Lastly, there is an idea in Dracula that change and death are natural states, whereas immutability and un-death are not. Here is an excerpt that illustrates this more eloquently than I could:

“The tomb in the daytime, and when wreathed with fresh flowers, had looked grim enough, but now, some days afterwards, when the flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns, when the spider and the beetle had resumed their accustomed dominance, when the time-discoloured stone, and dust-encrusted mortar, and rusty, dank iron, and tarnished brass, and clouded silver-plating gave back the feeble glimmer of a candle, the effect was more miserable and sordid than could have been imagined. It conveyed irresistibly that life, animal life, was not the only thing which could pass away.”

Power structures and discourses also wither away and die and their unnatural perpetuation is as unholy (speaking in the spirit of the book) as the existence of an undead creature. That is what the hidden gap in the text is telling me when I focus on this particular interpretation.

Whether Stoker deliberately put something of the sort there, I don’t know. It is very probable that he didn’t. A genetic structuralist or some such sort of critic might argue that the textual homologies reflect the fact that great art articulates group consciousness and gives it coherence. I only point out that to me these homologies are there. Not objectively there, of course, but there in the conceptual and aesthetic spaces constructed by our modern reading minds.

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One comment on “Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Vampires, Class, Colonialism, Discourse

  1. Class issues are definitely prevalent yet shrouded. Dracula is, after all, a Transylvanian count, and as such, has a certain class level above that of the villagers. This of course continues once he arrives in England, next door to the asylum which now houses Renfield, the real-estate agent turned slave who sold the count his British property in the first place.

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