Carol A. Senf – A Response to “Dracula and the Idea of Europe” by Eleni Coundouriotis

A Response to "Dracula and the Idea of Europe" by Eleni Coundouriotis

Carol A. Senf

Published in Connotations Vol. 10.1 (2000/01)


While I don't agree with everything that Professor Coundouriotis says about Dracula in her essay, I am deeply appreciative of the fact that her reading of the novel within the context of the Eastern Question initiates a new way of reading Stoker's multi−faceted and enigmatic novel. All students of the novel will eventually owe her a debt of gratitude for a reading that both builds on existing criticism of Dracula and opens a new way of exploring the novel. The first generation of psychoanalytic readings opened up Dracula to serious scholarly attention and were continued by both feminist responses and science studies readings.1) Somewhat closer in spirit to what Coundouriotis is doing here are interpretations that examine the novel as a response to colonialism or to the sensational trial of fellow−Dubliner Oscar Wilde.3)

Although she is not the first to refer to the Eastern Question,2) Coundouriotis is the first to center her reading of Dracula on this issue. Quoting Michael Valdes Moses, who observes that "Dracula owes much of its mythopoeic power to the uncanny ability of its central figure to call forth a diverse and even mutually contradictory set of symbolic associations"4) Coundouriotis concludes her essay—correctly I might add—by noting that her reading "addresses what I perceive as an oversight in the many fine contextualizations of the novel (in terms of empire and Ireland especially) that overlook the more obvious historical context of the novel, the Eastern Question" (153).

[→page 48] Building on existing criticism, Eleni Coundouriotis develops a comprehensive reading of Dracula in terms of "the Eastern Question" and provides yet more grist for the Dracula mills that now seem to have almost as many incarnations as does the practically immortal count himself. She opens her essay by pointing out that our contemporary "interest in the politics of Dracula—whether they pertain to Ireland, class conflict, gender, or empire—acknowledges the historical relevance of the novel" (142) and by referring to her research into the problem. She recognizes that readings of Dracula "should not overlook the significance of eastern Europe" because Stoker's notes indicate that "he always had Eastern Europe in mind" (144).

Examining material in Stoker's life, Coundouriotis suggests a variety of reasons that Stoker would have been interested in Eastern Europe. Among these is his admiration for English Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, who wrote a pamphlet in 1876 on the Turkish massacres of Christians in Bulgaria, a pamphlet that reminded its readers of history. A second is the experiences of his brother George who served as a medical officer in the Russo−Turkish war of 1877−78. Perhaps most obvious, however, is the ongoing discussion of British policy in the decades preceding the publication of Dracula, a discussion that Coundouriotis summarizes for readers who ignore it because their orientation is toward Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere rather than toward the East. All of this information is important not only for our understanding of Stoker's novel but also because it demonstrates Stoker's awareness of a region that the West continues to ignore at its peril.5)

Among the obvious strengths of the essay is the author's awareness of the historical situation that confronted England during the years immediately before Stoker wrote Dracula. She goes on to argue that the "actual historical context of the novel informs its discursive de−legitimation of history" (144), an argument that she bases largely on Stoker's depiction of Dracula. It is at this point that I would like to suggest a slightly different direction or at least one that "reads" Dracula in a different way. Rather than identify the vampire as a [→page 49] hybrid "both Christian and Ottoman" and therefore "monstrous and ultimately incoherent, a source of history that … needs to be silenced" (144), I suggest that readers also look at Dracula as a remnant of a primitive and warlike past that was being replaced during Stoker's lifetime with something more scientific and democratic. Coundouriotis opens her essay with a quotation from Dracula ("… and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told") but ignores the passage that precedes it:

he warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told. (29−30)

Her essay also ignores numerous references to a past that seems entirely alien to the multiple narrators of Dracula. For example, Jonathan Harker's diary reminds the reader that Dracula is the paradigmatic hunter whose raised hand calms the wolves, and the civilized Harker describes the pleasure that Dracula takes in the hunt and in shedding blood, behaviors that are indicative of a more primitive culture. Indeed, Harker describes Dracula's dwelling as a "vast ruined castle" (14), a tangible relic of the distant past.

In addition, Coundouriotis's reading depends too much on drawing an "analogy between Dracula and the idea of Europe" (152) when it is unclear exactly how much Stoker actually knew of the historical Vlad.6) Coundouriotis also draws an unnecessarily specific connection between Dracula and a single historical figure "Grand Vizier Abdul Aziz who ruled from 1861 until May 1876 when he was deposed" (154) because he committed suicide after being deposed and folklore presents vampires as suicides. There are, however, numerous causes of vampirism, and Emily Gerard, one of Stoker's sources, lists a number of them:

More decidedly evil, however, is the vampire, or nosferatu, in whom every Roumenian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell. … The living vampire is in general the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons, but even a flawless pedigree will not ensure anyone against the intrusion [→page 50] of a vampire into his family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death.7)

There is no mention here of suicide.

My few quarrels with Professor Coundouriotis are not meant to detract from her interesting and informative essay, however, nor to deny that she has turned over a new leaf in scholarship on the novel. Certainly both her interpretation and the extensive bibliography on which it is based should encourage all readers of Dracula to consider the degree to which Stoker was influenced by the Idea of Europe when he wrote the novel.

Indeed, looking at the rest of Stoker's oeuvre confirms that Stoker was deeply concerned with Eastern Europe, an area to which he returned in The Lady of the Shroud (1909).8) The settings of Dracula and Lady are unlike the settings of his other novels in that they are not based on locations with which he was intimately familiar.9) While the majority of Stoker's fiction depends on his careful depiction of the geography and the cultural history of places where he had traveled or lived, such is not the case with the two novels set in Eastern Europe. Widely traveled in the United States, Western Europe, and the United Kingdom, Stoker had never been to either Romania or Albania.10) The two novels are thus anomalous works in many ways, their settings based not on close observation but on library research and imagination.

In The Origins of Dracula, one of the most informative studies of the research that Stoker put into Dracula, Clive Leatherdale observes:

Stoker never went to Transylvania. All the information on that country that appears in Dracula can be traced to the notes he made from the handful of books on his source−list. These books, in the main, were written by British official servants—soldiers, administrators, or their wives. The portraits they present share many features: implicit belief in British superiority; irritation at minor inconveniences; a patronising desire to effect change; and a degree of racism—particularly anti−semitism—that might take the modern reader by surprise. (97)11)

[→page 51] It is clear from his notes on Dracula that Stoker was thinking of Eastern Europe when he wrote the novel, and I am grateful to Arata for being the first to reveal to me the immediate political context, a context that I find far more relevant to Lady than to Dracula. In fact, I am inclined to agree with Judith Wilt's observations about Dracula:

It is interesting to think of Dracula as a kind of subterranean comment on, presentiment about, "The Eastern Question" in the last Victorian decades. But the truth is that Dracula is far more about religion and sex than about politics. (622−23)

Moreover, the Eastern Europe that Stoker imagines in Dracula is not the region of his own day. Instead, it is a mysterious regionan embodiment of the past, more mythic than real.12)

Twelve years later, however, Stoker presents a markedly different picture of Eastern Europe, a picture that conforms more closely to Arata's analysis of Dracula. While Lady opens with another vampiric figure, the novel rapidly abandons Gothic mystery to explore a technological Utopia complete with airplanes, submarines, armored yachts, and the most recent methods of wresting wealth from the earth. Ultimately, the novel concludes with the hopes for a Balkan Federation, which, if it had actually materialized, would have solved a number of the problems associated with that troubled region at the turn of the century and would have prevented the "Powder Keg of Europe" from erupting into World War I. Indeed Lady seems overwhelmingly committed to a vision of a technologically and scientifically sophisticated future, as Harry Ludlam noted in his biography of Stoker.13)

Even more important to his vision of a progressive Eastern Europe than the technological marvels is Stoker's political vision. For example, he makes Rupert a Constitutional monarch,14) a decision that may have been determined by his familiarity with the United Kingdom and its monarch, Victoria.15) While it remains for Rupert, as Constitutional monarch, to bring about a better future, Stoker reminds his readers of the region's immediate past. In fact, a letter from Roger [→page 52] Melton to Rupert specifically mentions the "Balkan struggle" of '90 (32)16):

Greece, Turkey, Austria, Russia, Italy, France, had all tried in vain. … Austria and Greece, although united by no common purpose or design, were ready to throw in their forces with whomsoever might seem most likely to be victor. Other Balkan states, too, were not lacking in desire to add the little territory of the Blue Mountains to their more ample possessions. Albania, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Servia, Bulgaria, looked with lustful eyes on the land, which was in itself a vast natural fortress, having close under its shelter perhaps the finest harbour between Gibraltar and the Dardanelles. (33)

The Land of the Blue Mountains is, of course, Stoker's ficionalized utopia, literally a "nowhere" but a nowhere that incorporated many of Stoker's hopes for the future. In fact, Glover notes that The Lady of the Shroud presents "Stoker's liberal utopia in its fullest, most developed form" (52). Glover also places Lady into the context of other fin−de−siècle literary utopias (53), suggesting that the difference in the two novels may be due to literary influence, with Dracula being a Gothic tale and Lady a utopian, a distinction that is confirmed by the fact that Dracula is shrouded in magic and mystery while Lady is full of technological detail.

Although Stoker may well have been influenced by other literary works, it is equally possible to assume that the differences in the two novels also stemmed from his political vision. There are, for example, remarkable similarities between Stoker's Ireland and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Just as Ireland had been dominated by England, Romania (and the rest of Eastern Europe) had been dominated by more powerful expansionist empires, including the Ottomans, Czarist Russia and the Hapsburg Empire. Like Ireland, Romania also differs from her near neighbors, being the only descendant of the Eastern Roman stock; the Romanian language, together with French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, is of course one of the major heirs of the Latin language. And both regions had suffered great violence over the centuries at the hands of their powerful neighbors. [→page 53] For example, Dracula describes to Jonathan Harker the world of medieval Transylvania:

Why, there is hardly a foot of soil in all this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men, patriots or invaders. In old days there were stirring times, when the Austrian and the Hungarian came up in hordes, and the patriots went out to meet them—men and women, the aged and the children too—and waited their coming on the rocks above the passes, that they might sweep destruction on them with their artificial avalanches. (21)

In Lady, Roger Melton writes to Rupert, explaining that the Land of the Blue Mountains had been subject to similar invasions:

For centuries they had fought, with a fervour and fury that nothing could withstand or abate, attacks on their independence. Time after time, century after century, they had opposed with dauntless front invading armies sent against them. This unquenchable fire of freedom had had its effect. One and all, the great Powers knew that to conquer that little nation would be no mean task but rather that of a tireless giant. Over and over again had they fought with units against hundreds, never ceasing until they had either wiped out their foes entirely or seen them retreat across the frontier in diminished numbers. (33−34)

Such conflict between a small invaded territory and a larger invading one is similar to the relationship between Britain and Ireland as it is described, for example, by Arata (119). Well aware of the diffe−rences between his primitive homeland and his technologically advanced adopted country, Stoker suggests in The Snake's Pass that English financial backing and technological sophistication could correct the damages done by previous invasions. In Dracula, invasions are brutally suppressed while Lady suggests that invasions are largely a thing of the past because the tiny Land of the Blue Mountains is capable of using technology to protect itself. Having repulsed the Turkish invaders, Rupert emphasizes the promise of a Constitutional Monarchy and a democratic federation, made even more progressive by advanced science and technology. Thus, unlike Dracula, where past and present are constantly at war, Lady presents the union of past and present, which is demonstrated in both the individual and the nation. [→page 54] For example, if Dracula embodies the primitive past, Rupert St. Leger manages to combine what is best from the past with the best of the present. This union is especially clear in his abilities as a warrior. Rupert manifests "the Berserk passion which he inherited from Viking ancestors, whence of old came 'The Sword of Freedom' himself" (149) and bears "himself as a Paladin of old, his mighty form pausing for no obstacle" (153).

Furthermore, instead of hoarding everything for himself and oppressing those who are weaker, as Dracula is inclined to do, Rupert plans to share both wealth and technological power:

My own dream of the new map was to make 'Balka'—the Balkan Federation—take in ultimately all south of the line drawn from the Isle of Serpents to Aquileia. There would—must—be difficulties in the carrying out of such a scheme. Of course, it involved Austria giving up Dalmatia, Istria, and Sclavonia, as well as part of Croatia and the Hungarian Banat… . Each of these integers would be absolutely self−governing and independent, being only united for purposes of mutual good. I did not despair that even Turkey and Greece recognizing that benefit and safety would ensue without the destruction or even minimizing of individuality, would … come into the Federation. (240−41)

Thus, The Lady of the Shroud ends with the promise of a brighter future and an image of an Eastern Europe that is freed of its primitive, warlike past.

Stoker's return to Eastern Europe in The Lady of the Shroud confirms that Eleni Coundouriotis is absolutely correct in focusing her reading of Dracula on the Idea of Europe, and that is a reminder that readers of Dracula should consider more carefully the social and political context of Stoker's world. I am grateful to her solid reading of the novel and to her exploration of the history of Eastern Europe in Stoker's day.

The Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, Georgia