Sunday, October 5, 2008

October Reading

How about a little break from all that election business, hmm? Let's take a break for something less distressing and more relaxing, like say, Victorian Gothic literature!

Now that it's October, I hope at least a few of you have read (the Wikipedia page for) The Canterbury Tales. October is when things (well, leaves) start to die, and we celebrate this by hanging little plastic leaf-ghosts in our trees, or in some cases, by planting extravagant overpriced decorations bought at Wal-Mart on our lawns. Fun! And of course, what goes better with scaring the shit out of small children than feeding them large quantities of sugar? If you ask anyone under the age of 16, nothing.

Myself, I'm pretty into the whole Halloween thing. I love costumes and ghost stories and parties with candles shaped like eyeballs. I lament the days when making construction paper turkeys at school segwayed into making construction paper witches' hats. Luckily, although I am too old to get the same kick out of construction paper that I once did, age has opened up a new door to getting a kick out of literature.

Therefore, since literature must replace both construction paper crafts and tons of free candy for us grown-ups, I present my Halloween literary choice: Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Quick: what is Dracula about? Vampires? Nope, guess again. The correct answer is sex. To be more specific, female sexuality and sexual mores during the Victorian era. Now, I don't know if this is pure hermeneutics of suspicion or if Bram Stoker one day decided, "I think I'll write a gothic novel that contains heavy themes of sexuality as it is seen by society today," or something to that effect. Let's all be relativists for a moment and look at context.

Bram Stoker (1847-1912) was born in Dublin, had a childhood, got married, had a kid, etc etc. His contemporaries included Oscar Wilde and Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle. Gothic literature was also popular around the time Stoker was writing. He wrote a handful of other novels (mostly adventure) but they weren't as good and no one cares about them anymore.

You can certainly see the adventure themes in between the sex and Christian moralism in Dracula. The men all but shout "This is no place for a woman!" as they march off to stand strong against vampire hussies together (compare: King Soloman's Mines, everything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, the Hardy Boys).

One of the more interesting things about Dracula however is its undertones of suspicion regarding modernity. Stoker was writing around the time that the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam, and people were understandably suspicious about all this sciencey stuff. One of the morals you could draw from Dracula is "All the doctors in the world won't prevent your turning into a scary vampire hussy." Of course, we need the crazy foreign doctor Van Helsing (who, surprisingly enough, is nothing like he was in the moderately successful 2004 film Van Helsing) to tell us all this. Those crazy Dutch -- they'll believe anything!

In that same vein, apparently Christian paraphernalia is a weapon. Count Dracula is the pure and unquestioned embodiment of evil, yeah, I accept that. And apparently the Christian God and the paraphernalia thereof is the only one he recognizes. Wait, what? Not even a tip of the hat to anyone else? Well, maybe, but we don't know how the Jews or Muslims fared up against Dracula. In fact things are not even looking too bright for the Protestants. Wait, wasn't Stoker Irish and -- oh yeah. Apparently, it's not the faith you have in your crucifix or your communion wafer, it's how you wield them.

The mix of gothic versus modern certainly is interesting. You get your fill of gloomy castles and graveyards and innocent damsels in distress, but then it invades your nice, clean, modern, happy London! What's a band of guys who are in the process of losing a prospective finacée to do? Read Dracula to find out, obviously.

But, let's talk about the sex. (Spoiler alert) Lucy, not Mina, is the one who actually becomes a vampire. She is the obvious choice since she is a total slut who briefly contemplates the idea of marrying three men. Read the bit where Lucy gets bitten for the first time over again -- does it not sound like a really scary Victorian version of a girl losing her virginity? Vampires, whores, they're all bad for society and dangerous to men. When garlic flowers don't work, just move straight on to the wooden stake. Mina, of course, is the model of Victorian womanhood and therefore manages to resist Dracula's advances. She's such a good little Victorian wifey that she inspires a scene absolutely made of cheese towards the end of the novel when -- well, I won't spoil it that much. Also, check out the vampire vixens that Jonathan meets during his séjour with Count Dracula. Voluptuous seems to be one of Stoker's favourite words here. What does voluptuous actually mean?

• adjective 1 relating to or characterized by luxury or sensual pleasure. 2 (of a woman) curvaceous and sexually attractive.
— DERIVATIVES voluptuously (adverb) voluptuousness (noun).
— ORIGIN Latin voluptuosus, from voluptas ‘pleasure’.

(Thank you, AskOxford!) Now, Stoker is using this term in a negative way, remember. Because as we all know, sexual pleasure is for whores and rakes. Now lie back and think of England.

Okay, so Stoker doesn't treat sex in quite the same way that Chaucer does. Try not to be disappointed though. Dracula's still more fun than a barrel of vampires, and if you like getting into the Halloween spirit, totally appropriate. If you are into the Halloween spirit but maybe not vampires and sexual symbolism, try some Edgar Allen Poe (his poetry is great for reading out loud!) or perhaps Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. If, on the other hand, you can't get enough of this whole mixing-Victorian-sexual-morals-with-the-supernatural business, I suggest you check out Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market.

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