Superstition, immigration and corruption
Throughout the Gothic genre, rationality and reason are set against folklore and superstition, past is pitted against present, and the geographical boundary between East (the ‘Occident’) and West (the ‘Orient’) is blurred. The genre interrogates anxieties of the influence of the past on the present – the vampire (a common archetype) threatens to return organised Western society to a state of primitivism, where the individual is not governed by reasoning but instead by their atavistic sexual desires and impulses. Furthermore, the very existence of such a creature would have posed a threat to contemporary science, since its state of being both dead and alive had the potential to disprove all hitherto prevailing theories of evolution and human psychology that had only recently been discovered by the likes of Darwin and Freud.
In what was later referred to as ‘invasion literature’, novels such as Dracula, which featured infection, disease and ‘corruption of the blood’ as prominent themes, played upon late-nineteenth Century fears of unbridled immigration from Eastern Europe. Political campaigns of the 1890s spoke of immigrants from Bulgaria, Romania and Poland stealing the livelihoods of domestic workers, and threatening to overcrowd cities with their large, ever-growing uneducated and ‘un-British’ families. In a similar way, Stoker’s titular character in Dracula threatens to supersede British values and enter, disease-like, into country where there is no place for Transylvanian culture. Such threats would resonate with the contemporary reader, with the Britain as they know it becoming corrupted and stained by a foreign entity, much like how human blood is tainted by a vampire’s bite.
The ‘New Woman’
Rowena Mohr writes that the Gothic novel “anxiously defends the social, political and sexual ideals of a conservative, masculinist ideology”, especially those in the late-Victorian era. The structure of Victorian society was unequivocally patriarchal, with the domesticated female acting as the ideal to which women should adhere. Therefore, the ‘New Woman’, a term used to refer to women who took advantage of newly available education and opportunities to work in order to transcend the restrictions imposed upon them by a male-dominated England, was seen as a danger to the existing social order. The female vampire, as some argue, is a satirical and hyper-sexualised parody of the ‘New Woman’, and so plays on such patriarchal fears of female empowerment. In Dracula, Lucy must be staked not just to save her soul from corruption, but also to protect the homosocial community that her latent sexuality brought into crisis.
Karl Marx famously likened capitalism to a vampire in his Das Kapital, since by its very nature it is compelled to acquire, living off the livelihood of others. Marx went on to link it to the relationship between classes – the bourgeoisie is forced by the capitalist system to exploit the proletariat, just like the vampire is forced by its bestial appetite to feed on its victims’ blood. It is unclear as to whether this is a fair comparison to make, since, unlike the vampire, the capitalist system has its benefits.
In terms of the social and economic fears of the Victorian era, there is evidence to suggest growing hostility towards conglomerate integration and emergent monopoly capitalism in 1890s England. The development of huge brands and companies brought about a sense of fear of dependency, as individuals felt incredulous towards all their money being given to one corporation. In the same way, as critic Franco Moretti writes, “the vampire, like monopoly capitalism, destroys the hope that one’s independence can be brought back”, suggesting that the vampire is a threat to individual sexual liberty (and a monopolistic market is a threat to individual economic liberty).
Therefore, with such socio-economic anxieties being confronted in Gothic texts, especially those at the turn of the century, we must question whether we should expect to see a similar literary movement today. As Trump becomes the most powerful man on the planet, as we leave the European Union and as political conflict continues across the globe, there are certainly a range of cultural fears upon which a Gothic novel can be based.
Contributed by Greg Tucker, Economics Editor