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Dracula: a novel of fin de siècle fear?

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Introduction

Dracula: a novel of fin de si�cle fear? It is only in the latter half of the twentieth century that Dracula has begun to receive serious critical attention instead of being dismissed as lightweight sensationalist Victorian popular fiction. It has become apparent that the novel is not simply a conventional work of Gothic horror but, as with its contemporaries Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, this revival of a genre typical of the earlier half of the nineteenth century has some significance with regard to contemporary events. Dracula is less a straightforwardly titillating story of adventure and mythical monsters than a study of the undermining of the psychic and social categories upon which the security and comfort of the Victorian middle-class world depended. This resurgence of the Gothic came at a time when the boundaries which had previously seemed so unshakeable were beginning to crumble, when the general self satisfaction and supreme confidence in the age was being eroded by troubles both at home and further afield within the Empire and thus it is hardly surprising, as David Punter observes, that the period saw a 'burst of symbolic energy as powerful as that of the original Gothic'1. The Gothic tradition is interested in the forbidden, it seeks to explore the desires and fears that society represses in order to maintain stability, it deals with the blurring of certainties and above all with transgressions of the norm, and all of these are clearly relevant to the late Victorian crisis of faith in previously indisputable beliefs. ...read more.

Middle

In the first part of the novel Harker's situation and the experiences he endures threaten his sense of manhood, for not only is he at the mercy of a tyrannical older man, but his encounter with the three sister vampires places him in an unmistakably feminised position. They advance upon him, whilst he lies quietly 'looking out from under [his] eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation' (p.38) and then, at the end of the scene, overcome with horror, he faints, in the manner of a Victorian heroine. He subsequently suffers a nervous breakdown and does not return to the narrative until van Helsing validates his experiences and thus his manhood for this makes a new man of me. It was the doubt as to the reality of the whole thing that knocked me over. I felt impotent, and in the dark, and distrustful (p.222). Later Dracula returns to undermine his masculinity by effectively cuckolding him in the ambiguously sexual scene in which the vampire forces Mina to suck the blood from his chest. It is noticeable that the female vampires, including Lucy, prey upon children in a mockery of their traditional maternal role. Mina by contrast is placed upon a pedestal at the end of the novel for her ready acceptance of the proper position of wife and mother, the other women having not only flouted their maternal duty but also decent feminine decorum in their wanton, predatory voluptuousness. This clear fear about feminine sexuality seems to be directly related to the appearance of a new female stereotype to disrupt gender roles in late Victorian society -that of the New Woman. ...read more.

Conclusion

Although contemporary critics complained that Dracula would have been 'all the more effective if he had chosen an earlier period'8 it is exactly its up to date detail and the clear rooting of fin de si�cle psychological fears specifically within their late Victorian social context that makes the novel so effective as an expression of contemporary social and psychological dilemmas, and thus so much more than simply a Gothic horror story. Dracula is certainly a novel about fear, but it is far closer to home than its mythical subject matter would suggest. 1 David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day, London 1980, p.239 2 Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, London, 1986 3 Sally Ledger, The New Woman and the crisis of Victorianism in Cultural Politics at the Fin de Si�cle, ed. Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken, Cambridge 1995, p.22 4 Bram Stoker, Dracula, London 1897, edition used throughout Oxford 1998 5 Carol A. Senf, Dracula: Stoker's response to the New Woman in Bram Stoker, Dracula, ed. Nina Auerbach and David Skal, New York, 1982, p. 423 6 Daniel Pick, Terrors of the Night: Dracula and 'degeneration' in the late nineteenth century in Reading Fin de Si�cle Fictions ed. Lyn Pykett, London 1988 7 Stephen D. Arata, The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the anxiety of reverse colonization in Bram Stoker, Dracula ed. Nina Auerbach and David Skal, New York, 1990 8 Spectator, 31/7/1897 ?? ?? ?? ?? ...read more.

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