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Dark speculation into human identity was not new to the Victorians. The late-nineteenth century rise of criminology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology and degeneration theory articulated anxieties over the possibility of atavistic intrusions into the empirical world, which fuelled popular literature such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895), to name a few. But nowhere are these concerns so explicitly directed toward the undermining of scientific and technological progress as in Bram Stoker's Dracula(1897). Through Dracula's unique epistolary structure, Stoker depicts an anti-dialectical model through which the old becomes the new, and through which patterns of negation and synthesis are disrupted by the paradoxical category of the un-dead. As Dracula reduces premise and conclusion to an incessant cycle through which atavisms threaten to subsume scientific and technological supremacy, the un-dead emerge from the shadows of speculation to destabilize the very footings of Victorian culture.
The extent to which Dracula achieves its thrilling horror derives in part from its epistolary transcription. Dracula, which lacks an omniscient narrator, emphasizes the present tense by means of documentary media, such as the type-writer, the phonograph, the telegraph, and the Kodak (Belford 261). According to one 1897 review in the Spectator, Stoker's "story would have been all the more effective if he had chosen an earlier period. The up-to-dateness of the book — the phonograph diaries, typewriters, and so on—hardly fits in with the medieval methods which ultimately secure the victory for Count Dracula's foes" (qtd. Senf 60-61). This concern with the disjuncture between late-Victorian technology and medieval methods suggests the discomfort with which many Victorians saw the resurgence of old-world superstition destabilizing scientific and technological progress. In fact, the novel's narrative lacunae may be read as representing such destabilization — signifying fissures in scientific and technological progress through which speculation threatens scientific authority — as the use of religious and folkloric symbolism escalates in the latter plots [For a discussion of the epistolary novel's similarity to a mosaic, see Janet Gurkin Altman's Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form]. The most overt reference to the epistolary structure occurs in Seward's 26 September diary in which Van Helsing accuses his ex-student Dr. John Seward of being "satisfied to let from premise to conclusion be a blank" (Stoker 159). Through the epistolary model of the text, Stoker enacts and questions scientific inquiry, a gesture which could itself elicit interest in a readership whose faith in science largely sought to objectify and make transparent the empirical world (Rait 120). [Here, it is important to note that Stoker uses the empirical method in documenting the events].
This response to the correspondence of the historical past with scientific and technological advancement opens our discussion to much more than Stoker's mere tinkering with chronology. For instance, the controversial Spiritualist debate, which reached its height in the 1860s (Noakes 23), offers insight into the opposition of vampire and scientist. In "Spiritualism, science and the supernatural in mid-Victorian Britiain," Richard Noakes distinguishes between mainstream Victorian scientists' embrace of enlightenment and the marginalized Spiritualists' conjecture (24). Noakes cites the 1853 Illustrated London News, which expressed anxiety of the "matter of fact people of the nineteenth century [who were] plunged all at once into the bottomless deep of Spiritualism" (qtd. 25). Again in 1872 this distinction was publicly expressed in letters to The Times by Henry Dirks, the co-inventor of the Pepper's Ghost, in which he states that science "always brings its miracles to the light of day," whereas Spiritualism "shrouds itself in dark chambers . . . and shuns the light" (qtd. 28). Despite the immense Victorian popularity of Spiritualist exploration of the afterlife, the basic metaphorical similarity is clear: both are shrouded in darkness and are marginalized according to Western scientific tradition. Moreover, this opposition explains the hatred and loathing felt by the Count's foes, who bind together against him to "be stranger [than if] some of [them] were in the dark" (Stoker 185).
The metaphor of darkness is applicable on an historical level, referring quite literally to the Spiritualist movement (the popular séance typically took place in dark spaces) and pre-enlightenment supernaturalism. But in terms of structure, Dracula carries the metaphor much further. That is, the epistolary frame which contains the transcriptions produces the very darkness in which Dracula's horror gestates, suggesting that the blank between premise and conclusion spoken of by Van Helsing is the darkness within enlightenment. Darkness is a common Victorian metaphor for the inability or unwillingness to see that which is not immediately explainable [For instance, when Sherlock Holmes founders he and Watson repeat idioms involving the shedding of light and being in the dark]. We may then identify within this structure the attempt to relate the truth of the events through the illusion of continuity created by the chronological ordering of its parts.
Continuity is important to common conceptions of scientific and technological advancement, and here accompanies the rational depiction of truth. But we must remember that these recordings are not presented as being original; rather, they are removed from the actual events through their transcription. Furthermore, Stoker's vampire paradoxically embodies both continuity and cataclysm, while the individual letter is both an eruption and a contribution to a sequence. Van Helsing, the metaphysician-scientist-philosopher, embodies precisely this concept as he interposes scientific positivism and the supernatural, Seward and the vampire, in his obsessive hunt for the Count. Ironically, Van Helsing taps into this supernatural vein to stabilize the scientific position. In Seward's diary of 26 September, Van Helsing relates his eclectic approach to science:
Ah it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but old, which pretend to be young. [Stoker 159]
Importantly, Van Helsing's fixation on the Count points directly to the accumulation of intellectual power which is characteristic of science: "[The Count] is of cunning more than mortal, for his cunning be the growth of ages" (Stoker 197). Here, we see Stoker's depiction of the nineteenth-century scientific position seemingly threatened by an anachronistic resurgence of this once "alchemist" and student of the "Scholomance" (251): "A year ago which one of us would have received such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, skeptical, matter-of-fact nineteenth century?" (198). The problematic factor is the rational conception of time. The Count's experience in alchemy is key to understanding Van Helsing's anxieties. As "the Count was the highest development of the science-knowledge of [the] time" (251), he threatens to displace Van Helsing's position not only as "master amongst men" (266), but as "one of the most advanced scientists of his day" (94). The Count is himself a quasi-scientist, who instigates within the Victorian paradigm a rebirth of its past—quite literally, the Count represents a haunting forefather of Victorian science.
Clearly, the novel in part draws its horrific power from the ambiguous combination of epistolary spaces, which, as the narrative progresses, draws the team of science backwards, both technologically and scientifically. This reversion is represented in epistolary terms as the team enters the low technological context of the East. Seward, the technologically dependant documenter, who earlier carries an empty phonograph cylinder to the Westenra house so he "can complete [his] entry on Lucy's phonograph," on 24 October opens his diary: "How I miss my phonograph! To write a diary with a pen is irksome to me; but Van Helsing says I must" (279). Further, Van Helsing describes the Count's escape aboard the Czarina Catherine as a "dreary blank" (263). Again Van Helsing's allegation that Seward ignores the blank between premise and conclusion is critically important to the relation between the scientific and the epistolary because the Count inhabits the very spaces that enlightenment can not illuminate.
Jonathan Harker's self-reflexive final note states "that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing" (Stoker 315). This misrepresentation, which the reader is asked in the prefatory note to interpret as fact, is a metaphor for the scientific discourses Stoker seemingly advocates in the figures of Seward and Van Helsing. Like Stoker's presentation of technological advancement, the prefatory note promises a linear progression from skepticism to belief. But as an anachronistic, un-dead and possibly superior being, the vampire represents a state of stasis or anti-synthesis, which contravenes death as the narrative progresses. With the help of the metaphysician/physician Van Helsing, the myth of progress is drawn backward to embrace a supernaturalist position in the battle against the Count. Rather than reaching or even allowing the possibility of an end, Stoker's vampire incessantly begins.
Dracula's epistolary transcription creates an atmosphere of horror as the dread of the supernatural challenges assumptions of scientific and technological omnipotence. Narrative omnipotence is similarly replaced by an ambiguous and problematic editorial arrangement, which eludes any point of departure or end. The reduction of the collection to a "mass of material (Stoker 315) acts out the Count's cyclical rejuvenation as the events which occurred seven years prior are revisited through "vivid and terrible memories" (315). Moreover, the once accurate recording technology seven years later has become obsolete, while the subsequent ordering of parts, which are to "stand forth as simple fact" ("Prefatory Note"), are reduced to so "wild a story" (315).
We are left with the paradoxical and seemingly incessant cycle of premise and conclusion, which revolves around the dark spaces of the un-dead. Like the vampire myth, Dracula transcends both time and culture through its survival as the definitive vampire novel. Surviving technology and tradition, Dracula and Dracula resemble the characters' belief in the atavistic survival of Quincy Morris in the Harkers' child, whose "bundle of names links all [their] little band of men together" (Stoker 315). Through the veil of the fragmented and temporally distorted epistolary structure, Stoker's vampire emerges in a destabilizing gesture through which atavism finds a conduit to the present, and to the immortal realm of progress.
Noakes, Richard. "Spiritualism, science and the supernatural in mid-Victorian Britain." The Victorian Supernatural. Nicola Bown et al eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 23-43.
Raitt, Suzanne. "Freud's Theory of Metaphor: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Nineteenth-Century Science and Figurative Language" Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis 1830-1970. Helen Small and Trudi Tate eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
"Review of Dracula." The Critical Response to Bram Stoker. Ed. Carol A. Senf. London: Greenwood Press, 1993.Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. David Rogers. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000.
Last modified 30 April 2008