Dracula and Theory: A Bite-Sized Introduction to Critical Theory for A Level: Having Nightmares about Literary Theory? Gareth Calway Invites You to Confront Your Demons through a Series of Readings of Bram Stoker's Dracula

Article excerpt

A vampire is stalking the citadels of English literature. And it's alive. Critical theory. No text, writer or reader is safe! No context is immune. No exam paper is free of its mark. But don't run for sanctuary quite yet. This article may yet provide the modern teacher and student with the requisite garlic, stake and crucifix.

First, arm yourself with two complementary bibles of the craft--Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory and Bennet and Royle's Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. (David Lodge's anthology Modern Criticism and Theory is another). Eagleton's is the definitive evaluative history, placing each theory deftly in its social context (though tending to bring in the Marxist cavalry to save them all from themselves at the end, and intriguingly low on actual texts.) Eagleton re-reads many of the other theories as well: Freud's 'unconscious' is socially created (the invisible internalisation of parental/social attitudes from birth) not the usual 'bourgeois' private property of the individual. Bennet and Royle is more student-friendly, compiling a comprehensive sequence of engaging short chapters with headings like 'Queer', 'God', 'Pleasure' 'Character' 'Desire' 'The End' etc. Among the texts explored are The Yellow Wallpaper and The Turn of the Screw which have the virtue of being manageably short (in the context of already packed A Level schedules) while famously 'open' to many different readings. Maybe arm yourself with these too.

And now we are ready to track the creature down.

Why Dracula? Because, starting--like the latest critical theory--with the reader, most readers will know a version of Dracula (a summary of Bram Stoker's original is provided in the box on this page) and because the differences in the wide range of critical theories may emerge most clearly when applied to one text.

A Marxist interpretation of Dracula

Count Dracula represents the dead, decaying aristocracy in his mouldering castle on the mountain: he sucks the blood of those living in the economically productive modern village below, living in the past but off the present. Lord Arthur Holmwood is his British equivalent, a feudal relic. He is also named after King Arthur who, like Count Dracula, is a long dead, phantom, present-diminishing aristocratic hero-myth bleeding life from real history and the present. The castle ladies--their nobility is explicit--are all vampires who prey upon the living Harker (connected to his friend by the name chime with 'Arthur' but also to Dracula by another name chime) in a necrophiliac parody of life and love. Lucy the pale society coquette is also--like Holmwood--economically dead, a brood mare of noble stock from a dead age, seeking matches with three modern suitors, 'strong men' whose transfused blood she will later receive to no effect--and who stays 'alive' by sucking the life from babies. Mina by contrast represents both the dynamic, forward--looking, new middle-class proto-suffragette and the essential, life-supporting 'little woman' of the Victorian era, full of present energy and drive, embodying the revolutionary/reactionary contradictions of the new capitalist middle class, and the 'heart of heartless world'. It is she who will provide Dracula with his love object and nemesis.

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Marx himself regarded literary texts, once made, as independent of the social and economic conditions that produced them. Marxist literary theorists now read texts as constantly in flux. Marx remains a brilliant psychologist of how individuals and societies reify actions into states, the processes of governance into institutions. Applying his theory to the aristocrat Count Dracula here, we see how society is petrified by institutions long since dead or outmoded.

A Freudian interpretation of Dracula

The novel bristles with repressed eroticism, active at night--in dark, dreamy, unconscious states and places. …