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October 22, 2006


This week I have been reading Dracula for the class I'm teaching. I am embarrassed to admit that I haven't really gotten into it. Everyone in my department who hears I'm reading Dracula responds with, "I love that book!" which makes me extra-ashamed of my inability to quite dig it. I should love it, given that I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but maybe that is the problem. Buffy was too good and the original can't measure up. Plus, Buffy is all about female power and empowerment, while Dracula is one of the most sexist novels I have ever read. Furthermore, and I hate to admit this given my pretensions to being a historian, I just don't have much patience for nineteenth-century literature. Don't tell my dad -- he is an English professor!

As someone who took the bare minimum of English classes in college, I don't really feel comfortable teaching a novel. I guess the whole point, though, is that this isn't an English class -- it is a history class -- so I need to teach Dracula as a primary source. One of the things that I'm liking about it is that it is an epistolary novel; it unfolds as a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings, rather than as a story told by an omniscient narrator. This allows Stoker to use many different voices and to let the reader see the action from a variety of perspectives. This also makes it a series of fake primary sources. After all, what do historians do? We read other people's letters and diaries to find out what their lives were like. In a sense, the novel encourages its readers to do the same kind of detective work that historians do as part of our profession.

The professor with whom I'm teaching assigned Dracula because, as she says, everything in late-nineteenth-century Britain shows up in this novel: sex, gender, science, anxiety, immigration, madness, class politics, and so forth. One of my students has a critical edition of the book, whose editor claims that the whole novel is an allegory for the system of land tenure in Ireland. When I heard this, I thought I had failed as a GSI: I'm the teacher -- if the book is about Ireland, I should have figured it out! As I researched this concept, however, I found that the "Irishness" of Dracula was first argued in 2002, by Joseph Valente in Dracula's Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood. Previous scholars had read Dracula as feminist, antifeminist, nationalist, antinationalist, colonial, anticolonial, and Marxist, which suggests to me that, in true poststructuralist Death of the Author fashion, readers have read much more into the novel than is actually there. This is a pulp novel, and prominent Dracula scholars have argued that its historical references are garbled and vague at best. My edition has an introduction by Leonard Woolf, who says that Dracula was penned without much though, and then developed a life of its own. This seems particularly apropos for a novel about rising from the dead!

The problem with teaching Dracula as a primary source is the fact that it has been read in so many different ways by so many different people at so many different times. This layering of meaning makes it particularly difficult to empathize with the reader of 1897, to try to understand how she might have read it and understood it, and how the novel might have jibed with and shaped her worldview.

Posted by eklanche at October 22, 2006 09:17 AM


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