March 17, 2011

The many readings of a great work of Irish literature: Dracula


Bram Stoker, Irishman

Despite the irrationally exuberant popularity of literary bloodsucking I have never been tempted by the original of the genre, Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. But, until now, I didn’t know that Stoker was an Irishman.

Last Friday I received my newsletter from Oprah’s Book Club featuring “10 Irish Writers You Should Know.” Although today’s celebrations aren’t mentioned, I surmised that the piece was meant to be a bookish prologue to St. Patrick’s Day. I’m always keen to read about the Irish in popular media and to savor the uses made of stereotypes that are still confounding the politically correct (e.g. our Mayor Mike Bloomberg‘s recent gaffe) — stereotypes that today’s Hibernian festivities along 5th Avenue will no doubt blot out.

Author Melissa Hellstern (How To Be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life) disappoints on this score, however, supplying ten pithy précis of Irish writing lives with nary a whiff of Irish essentialism.

From Joyce to Heaney, with Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien representing the distaff, all are worthy and unsurprising choices — except, for me, Bram Stoker, a writer who is, the Independent reports, “acknowledged rather than celebrated” in his native Dublin.

On learning that Stoker was Irish my first thought was, “Could Dracula have been an allegory of Anglo-Irish politics?” And this has, of course, been anticipated and answered many times over while I slept. The results of Googling “dracula irish allegory?” reveal that for more than fifteen years “the debate …  has raged over Dracula’s Irish identity,” dragging in notable academics like Seamus Deane and Terry Eagleton, who calls Dracula “a text for modish postmodernists if ever there was one,”

Deane writes:

“Bram Stoker’s Dracula tells the story of an absentee landlord who is dependent … on the maintenance of a supply of soil in which he might coffin himself before the dawn comes…. but, landlord that he is, with all his enslaved victims, his Celtic twilight is endangered by the approach of a nationalist dawn, a Home Rule sun inexorably rising behind the old Irish Parliament…”

Maybe, but Deane and Eagleton are lectured for selective reading in a fascinating essay by Bruce Stewart which begins with the question: “How far is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) an Irish novel?”

“That Stoker’s best-known story is grounded in the social and political conditions of the day goes without saying. That it is grounded in the conditions of the Irish Land War —still raging at the date to which its ‘events’ are generally ascribed—is hardly less likely given Stoker’s proximity to the Anglo-Irish class whose place in Irish society was violently contested in the protracted struggle that supervened between the Famine and the Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 (in short, throughout his lifetime). Yet, however closely connected with a political context of that kind may be the germinal idea of Dracula, it is by no means certain that its author intended to reflect the events of the Land War as viewed from the standpoint of the victors—that is, the agrarian class which emerged from that struggle as the dominant political force on the island in the late-nineteenth century.  Not only is it unlikely that Count Dracula was inscribed as a portrait of the rapacious landlord of popular memory, it is more probable that the vampiric tendencies of the villain were designed to represent the kind of atavistic violence commonly attributed by members of Stoker’s class to Land League activists and, by implication, to Charles Stewart Parnell — whom they regarded as puppet-master of the agrarian agitators.”

In 2001 the University of Illinois Press published Joseph Valente‘s Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood which promises “An ingenious reappraisal of … Stoker’s novel as a subtly ironic commentary on England’s preoccupation with racial purity.”

And, according to the unattributed notes to the Pocket Books edition, published in 2003,  “the name Dracula is a pun on the Gaelic phrase, droch fhola, meaning ‘bad blood.'”

In “Was Dracula Irish?” authors Frances Devlin Glass & Bob Curran usefully summarize the scholarly debates concerning the possible Irish sources of Stokers tale, concluding:

“Dracula is a confused and confusing work which, for all its slippages and contradictions, stands as an intriguing study of conservatism and anxieties of all kinds—about sex, about the gender wars, about race, about modernity and its relationship to atavism, and also, it seems, about Ireland.”

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.