The Same in Name Only:
Polidori's Class Statement Vampire from "The Vampyre" Versus Stoker's Economically Imperialistic and Xenophobia Inspiring Vampire from Dracula
By Cash Melville
10 November 2005 — Mythological creatures have dominated cultures throughout the course of history. The Greeks had creatures like the cyclops, the Asian cultures have a myth about their first emperor being a dragon, and even in the present era, people still talk about the legends of Bigfoot, chupacabras, and the Loch Ness monster. The things that people do not understand always become sensational ideas and the feats that each creature is capable of change from one generation to the next. Some creatures actually are "invented" years before and their myth just continually grows and evolves with the changes in time and culture. No creature is a better representation of this cultural evolution than the vampire. Within these cultural revolutions, the vampire took on some of the unsavory characteristics of each period that the myth existed in. The connection between literature and the vampire was made when the gothic genre of literature became popular. As with most literary works in the nineteenth century, the subject matter was a commentary on the times. The interesting aspect of the situation of the vampire in literature is the different uses of the character in different time periods. In the year 1819, Dr. John Polidori published his short story, "The Vampyre" (Polidori, XXVII) and in 1897, Bram Stoker published the novel Dracula (Stoker, XV). Both Stoker and Polidori utilized the fantasy character of the vampire as central beings in their respective stories. Each author used the vampire as not only a character to inspire terror in the reader, but also used the monster as a commentary foil within the stories. The vampiric characters in both works, although from the same base character in name, symbolize completely different things. Polidori used his vampire, Lord Van Ruthven, to make a statement on the relationships between the classes in England at the time; Stoker used the vampire Count Dracula in an extended metaphor about the imperialism and xenophobia that was prevalent in Industrial Revolution-era England at the time. So, while the base of the characters may be the same, that is where the similarities end and the underlying messages from each character take over.
In order to understand how the vampire was used as a commentary piece, one must understand where the vampire came from and the basics of its evolution. The vampire has its basis in reality and fiction, with the lamia and with certain people and discoveries. Loggia describes the lamia as follows:
In Greek mythology, Lamia was the daughter of Libya and Belus. According to the legend, Zeus engaged in an affair with Lamia. Hera, furious that her husband had cheated on her yet again, punished the unfortunate Lamia. As a result of Hera's wrath, Lamia was compelled to eat her own children. The story takes and even uglier turn when we learn that the crazed Lamia then developed a taste for children. (Loggia, 1)
While holding onto that information, one can now see the lamia as a base character for the vampire. The nineteenth century idea of a vampire held onto the lamia as a base character and then hybridized the monster with real life people from the past who had aberrant behavior. Two of these people were Vlad Dracul and Erzabet Bathory. Bathory especially can be viewed as a "skeleton" of the vampire. Reportedly, Bathory was afraid of becoming old and losing her beauty. By pure chance, she became angry at a servant of hers and slapped her across the face, drawing blood. Some of the blood got on her skin and when she wiped it away, she thought that the skin in that area looked younger. The maid was then stripped and her blood drained into a vat, which Bathory then bathed in and ultimately, she wound up drinking the blood as well. Eventually, she was discovered, and when the authorities raided her house, they found a dead girl in the main hall drained of blood, one who was alive but pierced with holes, and then in the basement, more living girls were found (McNally, 158). These two people ultimately provided the link to the aristocracy that would continually pop up in most depictions of the vampire in literature and film throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Polidori's vampire was aristocratic, but lacked some of the characteristics that are seen in today's vampires such as the sharp teeth and the ability to turn into a bat. Once Stoker's novel was published though, the modern vampire was born. Stoker brought about the advent of the neck bites, shape-shifting, the destruction methods (wooden stake, cutting off the head, and stuffing the mouth full of garlic), as well as a few other modern vampire traits.
Along with using his short story "The Vampyre" as a backhanded shot at Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori also used the character of the vampire and the happenings in the story as a commentary on the social situation in England at the time. The vampire in Polidori's story is Lord Van Ruthven, an aristocratic male that lived in the London area. At the beginning of the short story, Polidori immediately uses one of the most distinguishing features of a vampire in the description of Ruthven, his coloring. Polidori says, "In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, either from blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful [...]" (Polidori, 1). To the modern reader, this is a trait of a vampire that is easily recognizable. The main idea that the reader has to pick up on is that Ruthven is an aristocrat and he had a certain charisma that drew women to him. With his entrance into London's aristocratic society, Ruthven meets the other main character of the story, Aubrey. Ruthven actually invites Aubrey along on a tour of the European continent and Aubrey accepts. During their travels, Aubrey and Ruthven encounter people, and whomever Ruthven befriends, the person winds up having something bad happen to them. Eventually, Aubrey breaks from Ruthven due to suspicions of the Lord being evil, but they wind up reuniting when the woman that he loved, but wouldn't stay with due to class differences (the girl was of a Greek peasant class), is killed by and Aubrey was attacked by a vampire. Ultimately, Ruthven is fatally shot and he forces Aubrey to swear an oath that he would not say anything about Ruthven dying for a year and a day. Aubrey makes the oath, and when he goes to bury Ruthven, finds that the body is missing. Ruthven returns and starts courting Aubrey's sister, but Aubrey himself can't say anything due to being bound by his oath. Not being able to speak the truth, Aubrey starts to have severe stress issues and bursts a blood vessel in his head, forcing him into a terminal illness. Aubrey was finally able to say something at the very end, but it was too late. Polidori wrote:
Aubrey's weakness increased; the effusion of blood produced symptoms of the near approach of death. He desired that his sister's guardians might be called, and when the midnight hour had struck, he related composedly what the reader has perused — he died immediately after.
Within the plot and numerous accounts of Ruthven's conquests, Polidori takes great care to mention that the people that Ruthven takes advantage of are of a lower class. They aren't always middle or lower class, but sometimes they are upper-middle class, just never on Ruthven's level. In the case of Ianthe one of the girls in the story that Ruthven actually sucks the life out of, Polidori made his point about her class level when he laid out Aubrey's reasoning for not marrying her the simple and deliberate manner that follows, "[...] while he ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl, still he found himself more and more attached to the almost fairy form before him [...]" (emphasis added) (Polidori, 10). The second girl that Ruthven goes after is Aubrey's sister. Polidori tells us that she hasn't been presented to society yet, so a deduction can be made that she is not yet, "of" high society. She is described by Polidori as follows:
The guardians hastened to protect Miss Aubrey; but when they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey's sister had glutted the thirst of a vampyre! (Polidori, 23)
Miss Aubrey had not that winning grace which gains the gaze and applause of the drawing-room assemblies. There was none of that light brilliancy which only exists in the heated atmosphere of a crowded apartment. Her blue eye was never lit up by the levity of the mind beneath. There was a melancholy charm about it which did not seem to arise from misfortune, but from some feeling within, that appeared to indicate a soul conscious of a brighter realm. Her step was not that light footing, which strays where'er a butterfly or a color may attract — it was sedate and pensive. (Polidori, 17)
Obviously, the behaviors of Miss Aubrey are not of someone who is an aristocrat. In a brilliant description, Polidori presented a person who was the opposite of Ianthe. Ianthe has the traits of an aristocrat, as described by Polidori:
[...] existed a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter wishing to pourtray (sic) on canvass the promised hope of the faithful [...] As she danced along the plain, or tripped along the mountain's side, one would have thought the gazelle a poor type of her beauties, for who would have exchanged her eye, apparently the eye of animated nature, for that sleepy luxurious look of the animal suited but to the taste of an epicure. The light step of Ianthe [...] and often would the unconscious girl, engaged in the pursuit of a Kashmere butterfly, show the whole beauty of her form, floating as it were upon the wind [...] (Polidori, 8)
So, with the descriptions of the girls, Polidori covers all his bases when it comes to Ruthven preying on the people who are of a lower class than him. He goes after people who are aristocrats who act and look like lower class individuals, but he also goes after the lower class that look and have the traits of someone of the higher class. At the time this was written, the writers of the time were starting to incorporate class struggles into their writing. During the Romantic period (1785 - 1830), the aristocracy was starting to lose their grip on power and people were starting to speak up more about it in literature as well as art (Abrams, 1314). The upper class had "preyed" upon the lower class for centuries in order to make and keep their money. In fact, the aristocracy survived on the "blood" of the lower class. Polidori either realized this or in his backhanded writing against Lord Byron subconsciously worked into the story this underlying theme. Lord Van Ruthven, an aristocratic vampire, survived off the blood of the people who were lower class and the people who didn't fit in with the upper class. So it went with the aristocracy in England at the time as well.
Stoker, on the other hand, used his vampire, Count Dracula in this case, as a means to get across a view on English imperialism and xenophobia. At the time of the publishing of Dracula, Great Britain was declining as a world power in numerous areas. They didn't have as much global influence and the growing power in the United States and Germany caused their goods to become less needed than ever before (Arata, 622). Due to not having a fast means of communication, foreigners were still sometimes viewed with fear and utter contempt. Because they could bring something to the table from another country that England had never seen, people from other countries moved into the country and started to dominate the economy, "sucking the life out of it" so to speak. Dracula was written two years before the Boer War in which Britain was working on gaining economic and political control of the Boer republics in South Africa, the country doing anything it could to maintain its independence of other nation's help (Abrams, 2272). Also at the time, immigrants were on their way over in droves from Ireland to the London area. In his essay, "Bram Stoker and Irish Gothic," Raymond McNally states, "Transylvania is at minimum a metaphor for Ireland, as both Transylvania and Ireland are frontier territories on the fringes of the empire, fought over often by foreigners [...]" (McNally, 16). Count Dracula himself is an excellent example of the imperialistic foreigner that people are afraid of. Stoker described Dracula, when Harker first met him in the dimly lit doorway, as, "a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere" (Stoker, 22). Obviously, Dracula could assimilate into English culture rather well, just by his looks alone. The real interesting thing to come out of this section though, is the description of the way Dracula spoke his English as, "excellent English, but with a strange intonation" (Stoker, 22). Later on though, the character of Harker takes a harder look and is able to notice the intrinsic differences in Dracula's appearance:
His face was a strong — a very strong — aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, [...] The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth, these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin [...] (Stoker, 24)
Now it can be easily seen why people would fear Dracula were he to enter England. He's a strange foreigner, who at first glance might seem English, but at a closer look, is most certainly not. The way that he combats this is by working during the night, when his facial features can't be completely made out. Later, Dracula even gets Harker to teach him how to speak English properly because he wants to be able to blend in with the society as much as possible. When Dracula finally does assimilate into the English culture, he does it with remarkable speed. Richard Wasson points out that Dracula:
[...] spreads the coffins (with the bloody dirt in which he must nightly lie) carefully around London and establishes contact with the mad Renfield. Moreover, he selects as his first victim Lucy Westenra (appropriately, as her name implies, she is the light of the West), a typical upper-middle-class woman who has known no evil. (Wasson, 21)
With this, Count Dracula does three different things: he sets up points around England in which he can hide and pick people off from, gets a human contact so that he can find out what is happening during the day-time, and also starts eating away at the upper-middle class of England with his first victim. By starting from the inside, once he turned one of the people in that class structure into a vampire, there will be a ripple effect and the growth of vampires would increase exponentially in the upper-middle class, eventually branching out to the upper class, and sucking England dry. The juxtaposition of this to reality is that the people who entered into English society from a foreign market in an economically imperialistic move worked in the same manner. According to Patricia McKee, around the 1880s, "capitalism shifted its aims, from the development of new and underdeveloped spaces to the reproduction of such spaces, providing theoretically limitless potential for growth" (McKee, 1). They usually employed someone who knew the territories around them. By infiltrating the upper-middle class, the person who was entering the country would be able to get a quick foothold on the market and slowly win over everyone else in that class. Ultimately, this would lead to an almost xenophobic reaction to foreigners by the native English people. Some of the added character traits and restrictions given to the vampire that Stoker came up with for use in the novel Dracula are used to reflect this fear. One thing that repulses a vampire is the sight of a Crucifix. Considering that Dracula is not from England and is from the region around Romania, it would make sense for the assumption to be made that he is almost barbaric in his ideology or of the Islamic faith. Back then (and even in today's society), people feared someone who believed differently than them. Ultimately, the economic imperialism that invaded England lead to the rampant xenophobia in England, just as the influx of the vampire into the England in Dracula to feed off the people in the country instilled fear in those around him.
Even though they were using the same base character of a vampire, Bram Stoker and John Polidori created completely different symbolic characters. Polidori used his vampire, Lord Van Ruthven, as a mythological representation of how the English aristocracy was preying on the people that were of a lower class than them. Bram Stoker created Count Dracula, a foreign aristocrat that moved into England and set up a base of operations from where he intended to prey upon the local population as a means of satisfying his own needs to live as a representation of how foreign economic imperialism into an economically hurt England was leading to xenophobia in England. William Hughes and Andrew Smith stated that, "Count Dracula may be read as a locus for representations both of power and of the disruption of power" (Hughes, 4). The same can be said of Lord Van Ruthven in "The Vampyre." Dracula seeks to disrupt the lives of English people for his own good... and he holds the power to do so; Lord Van Ruthven disrupts lives wherever he goes and holds a power over people with the fact that he can choose to let them live or die. So, as symbolically different the vampires in Dracula are from the vampire in Polidori's story... they are exactly the same on the surface.
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McKee, Patricia. "Racialization, Capitalism, and Aesthetics in Stoker's Dracula." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 36.1 (2002): 42.
McNally, Raymond T. "Bram Stoker and the Irish Gothic." The Fantastic Vampire: Studies in the Children of the Night – Selected Essays from the Eighteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ed. James Holte. Flordia: Greenwood Press, 1997. 11 – 21.
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Wasson, Robert. "The Politics of Dracula." Dracula: The Vampire and the Critics. Ed. Margaret Carter. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1988. 19 – 23.
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