Dracula in Criticism

By | November 8, 2012


DraculaDracula
has
attracted the attention of a remarkable breadth of critical and theoretical
approaches over the past 50 years. These range from the most orthodox of 1970s
Freudian interpretations to the acerbic historicist rejections of psychoanalysis
characteristic of the 1990s, and encompass the intellectual shifts that have
blurred the boundaries between feminism and gender studies, and between
literary criticism and cultural studies. As a practice, Dracula criticism
is intensely self-referential. It is arguably as preoccupied with earlier critical
commentary upon the novel as it is with the actual content of Dracula itself.
There is no linear pattern of evolution or development in criticism of Stoker’s
novel, where, for example, cultural materialism might be seen to succeed
psychoanalysis, or feminism to yield to a broader approach through gender
studies. Like the vampire, Dracula criticism defies time and chronology:
it is simultaneously anachronistic and contemporary, in the sense that new
interpretations of Stoker’s novel tend to explicitly parallel, supplement or
commentate upon their predecessors while never enforcing a satisfactory closure
upon the influence of those earlier critics.

As evidence for this, one need only
consider two statements made almost 40 years apart, by Maurice Richardson in
‘The Psychoanalysis of Ghost Stories’ (1959) and Robert Mighall in ‘Sex,
History and the Vampire’ (1998), respectively. Writing at the very beginning of
Dracula criticism, Richardson contends that the novel must be
read ‘From a Freudian standpoint’ because ‘from no other does the story make
any sense’. The vampire, and thus the novel, in other words, represent nothing
more than the coded expression of a repressed, unspeakable sexuality. Mighall,
no doubt mindful of rhetorical closures such as this, is fully prepared to concede
that ‘Modern criticism’ insists upon the presence of ‘some “deeper” sexual
secret’ behind the ‘supernatural phenomena’ of Dracula. That ‘“deeper”
sexual secret’, though, is for Mighall not Victorian but wholly
twentieth century: the preoccupations of post-Freudian criticism, in other
words, are being read in the place of anything that the vampire might have
meant to a Victorian reader. Perversely, while it seeks to dispel the currency of
psychoanalytical or sexual interpretations of Dracula, Mighall’s own rhetoric
perpetuates their influence. Simply by naming critics committed to exposing the
alleged, coded sexuality vested in the Count, Mighall ironically lends them a
semblance of authority, intruding their supposedly anachronistic presence into
his critical present, and perpetuating their place in the canon of Dracula criticism.
Arguably, a reader in the twenty-first century is as likely to find Richardson
and his psychoanalytical successors within a recent critical study of Dracula
as he or she is to encounter Mighall and his contemporaries.

Bram StokerThe enduring intensity of this critical
cross-referencing is largely a consequence of the manner in which the early
criticism of Dracula deployed the novel’s incidents and components. More
recent critics are for the most part careful to locate Dracula within
historical, cultural, generic or documented biographical contexts. The earliest
critics of the novel, however, frequently took its incidents and perceived symbolism
almost in isolation, reading them often simplistically as, for the most part,
timeless, self-sufficient and obvious signifiers of a repressed sexuality. The
result was an undue reliance not merely upon sexuality as the apparent ‘key’ to
Dracula, but also a critical concentration upon a relatively limited
number of evocative scenes within the novel. These scenes – and, often, the
sexual interpretations and the critics first associated with them – have
subsequently come to be deployed as evidence even where sexuality is not the
critical focus.

To recall but one, very obvious, example,
the evocative substance that is blood in Dracula has attracted a
phenomenal range of symbolic interpretations. Many of these, of course, are
avowedly sexual. Maurice Richardson, for example, is an orthodox Freudian in
his suggestion that blood is an unconscious symbolic substitute for semen in Dracula,
where Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle’s suggestion, in The Wise Wound:
Menstruation and Everywoman
(1978), that the fluid subliminally recalls
menstrual discharge may be seen as a logical development from the
phallocentrism of early psychoanalysis. The influence of Richardson is, not
surprisingly, evident in C. F. Bentley’s influential 1972 study ‘The Monster in
the Bedroom: Sexual Symbolism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, even though
that work’s theoretical orientation veers away from the psychoanalytical
dogmatism of ‘The Psychoanalysis of Ghost Stories’. However, even where the
literal – rather than symbolic – implications of blood form the focus of
analysis, sexual symbolism and critics of sexuality appear to be necessarily
invoked as a reference point. In a 1989 article otherwise concerned with the
physiological processes of blood transfusion, for example, David Hume Flood
seems compelled to acknowledge Bentley. Again, in Beyond Dracula: Bram
Stoker’s Fiction and Its
Cultural Context (2000), William Hughes
acknowledges the sexual interpretations advanced by several other critics in a
reading of how blood may function as a signifier of linage, family and race. Neither
of these works is preoccupied with sexuality. Thus, as Christopher Craft
observes, ‘Modern critical accounts of Dracula . . . almost universally agree
that vampirism both expresses and distorts an originally sexual energy’, so
that, in the words of Jennifer Wicke, ‘It is not possible to write about Dracula
without raising the sexual issue.’

All of these critical studies, to a
greater or lesser degree, deploy a common range of incidents as evidence, as
indeed do many others less concerned with the symbolics of blood. There is a
tendency in Dracula criticism, in other words, to reinterpret the same
material from the novel rather than to develop new focuses for criticism – and Dracula
criticism will be richer when critics consider at length and without
prejudice the minor characters and less-explored scenarios of Stoker’s work.
For the moment, the only satisfactory way to adequately demonstrate the variety
and breadth of critical commentary upon Dracula is to take the scenes
customarily regarded as being central to criticism and view them in all their
critical plurality. These central scenes are, in order of their appearance in
the novel: the depiction of face of Count Dracula, as observed by Jonathan
Harker (chapter 2); the attempted ‘seduction’ of Harker by the three female vampires
(chapter 3); the staking and ‘death’ of Lucy Westenra (chapter 16); the Count’s
attack upon Mina Harker (chapter 21); and – more disparate, in that it is
scattered across the extent of the novel – the cohesion of the coalition against
Count Dracula. Though often cited and quoted, these scenes do not exist in
isolation. Rather, in criticism they have become the central reference points
for other events intimately related to their implications, perceived symbolism and
narrative consequences. Thus, Jonathan Harker’s account of Count Dracula’s face
is intimate to Mina Harker’s ‘scientific’ reading of the vampire’s character in
chapter 25, just as Lucy’s trance existence, before and after her conversion to
vampirism, is relevant to the Count’s attack upon Mina. These four specific
scenes, and the concept of the alliance against the vampire, are, as it were,
the staples of Dracula’s critical repertoire – and the pre-existing
foundations upon which new interpretations have so often been raised.

Bram Stoker's Dracula– The extract above was taken from our Reader's Guide to Bram Stoker's Dracula by William Hughes. As it's Bram Stoker's 165th birthday today we've made the entire book available to read online (for free) for one day only! You can read it by clicking on this link. We are also going to be giving away a copy via our twitter account – follow us to take part.

Jenny Tighe

4 thoughts on “Dracula in Criticism

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