Fear in Deviation: the Taboo in Dracula and Swinburne

Throughout Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale Dracula, much of the contemporary fear came from the novel’s deviation from accepted Victorian ideals of sexuality.  This fear also manifests in a similar manner throughout the poetry of Charles Algernon Swinburne, renowned for his taboo themes.  These parallels become particularly evident in his poem A Match, where the relationship between blood, death, and pain with love takes center stage.  Dracula, both by virtue of his undead nature and proclivity to blood as a vampire, fits the poem admirably, and the two works echo similar fears which would have scandalized “proper” Victorian readers.

The first stanza of the poem begins with a conditional view of love, imagining love as a rose, and the speaker a leaf.  While the rose, typically evocative of love and romance, comes also equipped to prick and harm one who comes too close with its sharp thorns.  However, Swinburne, in line 6, equates the green part of the rose (where the thorns would grow) with pleasure: “Green pleasure or grey grief”.  This lends the stanza the first indication of a sexuality which runs contrary to acceptable Victorian ideals.  Instead of finding pleasure in the beauty of the rose petals themselves, the poem equates the prick of the thorns with romantic desire- connecting pleasure and pain.  This follows with one of the central themes in Dracula, where the love three of the main characters feel can only be realized through the mixing of blood; in the pain of Lucy’s passing.  They all demonstrate love for her beauty, and all of them express a desire for her as such, but the closest they come to each other comes after her death, with the mixing of the blood.  This bridges into Swinburne’s third stanza, where love is death and the speaker is life.  This can be read either as the three suitor’s love for the deceased Lucy, or as Lucy’s enthrallment by the undead, by Dracula himself.  In both cases, there is a relationship between the living and the (un)dead, raising scandalous questions of necrophilia and forbidden desire.  Taking the Lucy/Dracula relationship further, the next stanza shows lovers as opposites yet again, both indentured to the other: “If you were thrall to sorrow, // And I were page to joy”.  Again, Lucy’s vitality and life can stand for the joy, enthralled to the Gothic gloom of Dracula’s sorrow.  The final stanza, perhaps the most obviously taboo to Victorian readers with its themes of S&M, offers yet another interpretation of the Lucy/ Dracula relationship.  Dracula, the innocent-ruining vampire invading England, takes the role of king of pain.   Lucy, meanwhile, becomes the queen of pleasure with her widely desired beauty and life.

What strikes as most interesting, however, is the vastly disparate receptions of the two works.  Stoker’s Dracula was widely loved, while Swinburne was labeled as taboo.  Yet both works deal with similar themes of attraction and sexuality.  In both works, pleasure/pain and life/death revolve around each other, yet one is loved and the other not.  It would seem expected that the poem would be better received, as one could simply excuse the themes as one interpretation and make believe there was another meaning.  However, Dracula also presents a solution to this challenging form of desire.  The protagonists kill off the king of pain, and put the queen of pleasure to rest.  The story ends with both halves of this taboo relationship unable to continue, and as such offers a reassurance to Victorian readers: this type of love ends poorly, England will not tolerate it.

Dorian Gray Across Mediums

When reading The picture of Dorian Gray, I couldn’t help but compare his character to the only other version of him which I had seen prior to reading the novel.  In the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the character Dorian Gray makes an appearance as one of the main characters, although he is drastically different in this story.  Instead of being the pleasure seeking high society socialite Wilde writes him as, Dorian takes the role of a dangerous gentleman figure in the movie, being shown instead as a capable fighter and ever confident character.  The greatest similarities revolve, of course, around the painting of Dorian, which in both works serves as his both his greatest strength and weakness at the same time.

While the creators of the movie clearly wished to make use of the creative supernatural circumstances regarding Dorian Gray’s youthful secrets, they obviously chose to ignore other parts of his character as well.  Even his physical appearance was altered in the movie.  Instead of a youthful figure with short, well-kept blonde hair, the movie adaptation of Dorian Gray possesses a long mane of immaculately brushed and styled dark brown locks.  This decision seems rather innocuous, and forces me to wonder as to why he was so changed.  The physical appearance never really becomes a plot point of importance, and there are other characters with short hair throughout the movie who also show themselves as refined gentlemen in much the same way as Dorian.  The only real usage of his hair, it seems, is that it stays styled even during his fight scenes- another change from Wilde’s character.  While Dorian Gray certainly murders in Wilde’s story, it is not a result of a refined combat confrontation, but rather a passionate and spur of the moment stabbing, devoid of the emotionless grace the movie Dorian exhibits.  Really, the only character trait seemingly retained from Wilde’s character is Dorian’s inclination to seek out beauty.  In the movie, Dorian seems drawn to the fatally attractive vampire Mina Harker, making his inclination to beauty a sort of nod to the original Dorian’s pursuit of sensory bliss rather than a defining character trait.  Interestingly enough, there seems to be little to no themes of homo eroticism in the movie as well, which makes the dynamics of romance almost entirely between men and women.  After looking at this almost entirely reimagined character, it seems that the movie sought only to capitalize on the immortal painting aspect of Wilde’s work, not caring whether or not they stayed true to the character in the slightest- and even with the painting a few key details were altered.

Specifically, Dorian’s method of death is altered in the movie.  In the novel, Dorian becomes unhappy with what the painting shows him to be, and finally attempts to destroy it.  In Wilde’s depiction, Dorian’s death doesn’t appear to be intended- he attempts only to destroy the representation of himself, perhaps in the hope that no one will ever be able to see the degenerated picture again.  However, he doesn’t take into account the reverse of the link to the picture, and damage to it applies to him instead, leaving him dead and decrepit.  In the movie adaptation, there is no need to stab the painting.  The mechanics of how it shows his consequences functions quite differently, with Dorian being unable to even gaze upon the picture without his life ending.  This mechanic is the largest difference between Wilde’s painting and the movie’s reimagining, and makes no sense at all.  There is no rule established which implies sight of the degeneration leads to Dorian taking its effects upon himself, and it makes no sense narratively.  Even in respect to Wilde’s novel, there is no indication that the effects become reversed until the painting is destroyed.  The movie could quite easily have required some sort of damage be done to the picture, as its reveal occurs during a fight scene between Dorian and Mina.  Looked at in sum, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen seems to pay no heed to the character of Dorian Gray as envisioned by Oscar Wilde, and instead simply hijacks his creative supernatural element for their own usage.  Nearly none of the defining traits are carried over, many of which could have made the character more engaging and interesting throughout the movie.

The Uncanny revisited: Victorian Gothic fears

Franco Moretti, in his article “A Capital Dracula”, examines the ways in which Dracula “liberates and extracts sexual desire” (Moretti, 439).  Without actually referencing it, Moretti establishes the repressed nature of sexual desire as something which should be unfamiliar and is not, and creates a perfect example of Freud’s notions of the uncanny.  While Moretti discusses this uncanny notion in relation to the unexplored sexual desires and the fear this creates in Victorian readers, he does not choose to view this as an extension of the Gothic themes throughout Dracula.

Stoker’s famous novel opens with incredibly overt Gothic themes, from the supernatural presence in the form of Dracula himself to the animism present in the count’s werewolf-esque features.  He even draws upon previously established Gothic forms and figures.  With Castle Dracula itself, Stoker draws heavily on the architecture described in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, with a physical example set by Walpole’s very own Strawberry Hill Estate.  In fact, the descriptions of Dracula’s estate seem to almost directly reference it: “…for one part is of stone immensely thick, with only a few windows high up…it looks like part of a keep” (Dracula, 25).  While Strawberry Hill certainly includes many more windows than Stoker’s description, the old, thick keep visual is spot on.

Additionally, Stoker references the 1796 Gothic classic The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, specifically in regards to Dracula’s physical appearance.  Stoker draws a figure reminiscent of Lewis’ Ambrosio, the once devout monk turned devil worshipper/murderer/rapist.  While the similarities are slight, the facial descriptions are comparable, with Dracula’s: “strong- a very strong- aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose… His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion” (Dracula, 20).  Lewis depicts Ambrosio in similar terms, focusing on his strong, high, brow and thick eyebrows.  While the comparison is relatively shaky, any Victorian reader familiar with The Monk would be quickly reminded of Ambrosio and his depraved sexual tendencies, putting them on alert for similar actions from Dracula.

As Moretti so succinctly details in his article, Dracula follows through with this.  Throughout the story, Dracula succeeds in ruling the English minds through an aversion to the sexual.  As Moretti describes, “Lucy is beautiful, but dangerous.  Fear and attraction one are the same”.  Earlier, he describes Jonathan’s ordeal in Transylvania as a “terrible experience (which was also sexual)” (Moretti, 439).  Stoker repeatedly associates sexual desire with danger, slowly building the reader to connect the two.  Lucy, both before and after her transformation, is much more sexual than any of the other main characters so far.  Before her transformation, however, she is sexually desired, as opposed to being more in charge of the desire post transformation.  And with this shift to her owning her sexual desires, comes also a shift in the danger presented.  She is no longer is danger from Dracula, it is instead the Englishmen who are in danger from her.  This sexual desire, always present and repressed within people, comes out and threatens the whole of Victorian society.  Once again, readers look at a character in Dracula and see that which is unfamiliar- but only because it is something familiar and repressed.  This repeated usage of the uncanny to further the fear of Dracula and his companions creates a sense of the Gothic which transcends the tropes of the genre, making it constantly relevant to its Victorian audience.  


An Evocation of the Uncanny- Dracula as the bridge between Man and Animal

The “Uncanny” – Sigmund Freud 1919

By reading the opening chapters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in light of Freud’s “The Uncanny”, the reader gains new insight into what exactly made this novel so riveting upon its release.  Specifically, looking at which parts of the opening narrative foreshadow the uncanny terror instilled by Dracula becomes clearer when using Freud’s understanding of the uncanny.  Freud immediately distinguishes what stirs this uncanny fear, noting that while it is always evoked by an unfamiliar element, the novel and strange aspect is never sufficient on its own to define the uncanny.  Instead, after much examining of Hoffman’s works and Schelling’s definition, comes to regard the uncanny as: “…in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old—established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression… the uncanny as something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light” (Freud, 13). Freud associates this repression of “which ought to have been kept concealed” with all manner of sexual oppression and childhood trauma, and yet we can tweak it only just so to fit the context of Dracula.

Right from the first page, Jonathan Harker mentions how he researched the country of Transylvania at the British Museum in order to become familiar with the area.  Immediately, Stoker establishes the idea that Harker should have some sort of established knowledge of his destination- he describes the countries location among other nations, some of it’s anthropological history, and so on.  However, when it comes to the location of Castle Dracula, Harker reaches a dead end.  Despite all of his research into the country, Dracula’s estate remains a mystery to him, as he can find naught but the nearby post town of Bistritz.  With this deficiency of information even in one of the most complete repositories of knowledge in the British Empire, Stoker plants the idea that the strange new locale of Dracula’s castle is unfamiliar, and yet should not be so unknown.  Without even realizing it, the reader begins to not only realize the mystery surrounding the castle, but more importantly, realizes that this should be known information- could it have been concealed in some way.  Through this simple hesitation, often brushed away by readers, Stoker also introduces the ever present supernatural element of the Gothic, laying a groundwork for his eventual grander supernatural occurrences.

The unknown surrounding Dracula’s castle is not enough for Stoker though.  When Harker first describes his host’s physical appearance in his journal, the description is rife with uncanny references most would prefer to ignore.  Published merely a year before, HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau left Victorian readers with a whole slew of questions regarding the differences between humans and animals, and the danger and visceral horror possible where the line between the two could be blurred.  It is with these already held beliefs that Stoker introduces his world renowned bestial monster- Dracula himself.

Scattered through the first paragraph of Dracula’s aesthetic are numerous references to animal appearance, mostly dealing with the profusion of hair so common to wolves- “bushy hair”, “heavy moustache”, to name a few.  This excess of hair, combined with the thin, harshly defined facial deatures (from his thin nose to his firm and thin cheekbones), rests atop a broad and powerful frame, creating a feral looking powerful man, with “astonishing vitality in a man of his years” (Stoker, 21).  Moving away from his exaggerated facial and bodily features, Harker touches upon a series of bestial characteristics, which serve to drive the final nail into the coffin of Dracula’s humanity.  Harker highlights, of course, the trademark sharp teeth, elongated fingers, and pointed nails of the vampire image, as well as the nausea Dracula evoked in Harker.  More important than reaffirming what present day readers associate with vampires, however, are the hands of Dracula, specifically the hairs grouped in the center of his palms- a trait typically associated with werewolves.  Stoker plays with the feral nature of folklore werewolves and vampires to great effect here, by placing these easily recognized traits in Count Dracula.  Vital to this decision is the well established tradition of these beasts being almost entirely members of lower classes.  Vampires traditionally came from the downtrodden and untitled members of society, with the aristocratic nobles rarely, if ever, being cast in these roles.  Vampires were not new to the audiences of the time, even if they were an unfamiliar character, separate from the reader’s humanity.  This deficiency of noble vampires made people aware of this familiar void.  And with this awareness, a sense of the uncanny began to emerge.  Not only did readers begin to question their own humanity in light of these bestial traits (so soon after the vivisection in Dr Moreau), noble vampires like Dracula would also give them reason to wonder after this void.  Why were there so few noble vampires?  What other secrets could this ever so respectable societal sect keep hidden?  Are these bestial trends and traits restricted to Moreau’s beastfolk and feral vampires, or do all people carry within them this feral taint?  Questions such as these begin to bubble under the surface of uncanny terror, forcing readers to wonder what about these figures caused their unfamiliar appearance to feel so familiar- what could possibly have been concealed for them to feel this way?

The Law and its Superficial Support

Playing very much on the hero worship cultivated during the end of the eighteenth century (The Victorian Age, 1068), H.G Wells presents Dr. Moreau as an omen of what such worship can lead to.  Becoming a symbol of rule and power for his fledgling society in much the same way that Victoria influenced England, Moreau’s reign is cut abruptly short, presenting a far bleaker scenario to warn readers with.  While the death of Victoria leads certainly to a degree of chaos and loss of purpose resulting in the decline of the British Empire, her people do not as a whole die out and run themselves into collapse in the way the beast people do.

Beginning with the the chapter “The Sayers of the Law”, Wells presents the blind dedication the beast people have towards the Law through Prendick’s less than subtle reactions to hearing it recited.  The “mad litany” as our oh so judgmental narrator terms it served its purpose, as: “a kind of rhythmic fervour fell on all of us; we gabbled and swayed faster and faster, repeating this amazing law” (Wells, 43).  Although Prendick first holds the belief that this recitation is inane, insane, and entirely disconcerting, he quickly changes his opinion on the matter.  Faced with a repeating list of stipulations and mandates of which he understands not the first cause of, Prendick soon finds himself taken up by the chanting, following along whether or not he believes the words himself.  However, Prendick does stipulate his participation by explaining it as a purely superficial action.  The important question becomes not whether or not he believed his own act, but whether his faith in the Law actually matters or not.

Whereas Prendick’s confided thoughts reveal him to be caught between laughter and disgust, his fellow practitioners of the Law cannot possibly suspect his infidelity to the tenets by which they abide.   As such, they have nothing but him professing his belief in the Law.  Were someone else to come along and ask him about his beliefs, it could be reasonably assumed that Prendick would once again support them, so as to superficially fit in.  If this newcomer was unsure what to believe, however, he may be swayed to take up the Law after Prendick’s support of it.  In such a scenario, Prendick’s closely guarded disregard for the Law becomes irrelevant, as only his open beliefs matter to the continuance of the society.

By way of this short and seemingly innocuous reaction to the saying of the Law, Wells manages to present a small scale scenario where the blind support of a law (even if the support is mere lip service) can be viewed with its consequences.  If one were to turn such support towards any nations laws and not share their disagreements, how then could flaws be addressed and amended?  And if the authority for this uncontested law comes to be rooted in a mortal figurehead, what is to be done when said figurehead passes on?  In Wells’ tale, this dissolution of authority leads to a reign of chaos and disorder which horrifies readers who can imagine their own society in such a way.  Through his extended parallels between Moreau and Victoria as mortal figureheads of their law, Wells presents the greatest flaw in such a system, giving grim warning to those who read his omen.