“This Terror”: Happily Never After (Essay on Dracula)

This is the English final that got a five percent deduction for lateness. I didn’t include the references because I’m a huge sass, and also because I don’t want people copy-pasting this for their own devices. Anyway, it was really fun to write, though by no means is it a perfectly edited and crafted piece. (Seven pages doubled-spaced, 12-point font)

“This Terror”: Happily Never After

In almost all cultures, children are raised listening to stories. Life becomes one story after another, weaving each thread together to create reality for the future generation. Many of us grew up with fairy tales, stories of magic and wonder, lands where the righteous prevailed and lived happily forevermore, while the wicked were doomed to suffer. One story weaver in particular, Bram Stoker, wrestled with the notion that sodomy could possibly keep one from ever reaching happily ever after. It was through writing Dracula, the gothic horror novel, through creating a subtle and sensual relationship between Count Dracula and Jonathan Harker that Stoker delved into the matter and revealed his true feelings on it. By studying the relationship between Jonathan and Dracula, we can interpret Stoker’s opinion on whether homosexuals can ever truly experience their happily ever after, or if walking that road can only lead to destruction.

First we must understand the context in which Stoker was writing. In the modern world, we are making large strides to reach a point where non-heteronormativity is as acceptable as its straight counterpart, and yet there is still persecution against those who identify as anything but heterosexual. However, today is decidedly a better time than the Victorian era to experience same-sex attraction. At the turn of the century, Britain “criminalized all male homosexual acts with draconian penalties” (Adut 214). These penalties often entailed death for the culprit. The times required a certain level of subtlety if one’s romantic inclinations were anything short of heterosexual. It was preferred that those committing crimes of sodomy went undetected, so as to avoid a scandal. The Victorians believed that “the publicity of homosexuality contaminated third parties and the public sphere as a whole” (Adut 241). One man’s publicized homosexual act could tarnish the reputation all those in the surrounding community. Sexuality in general was avoided as a topic, as they believed that “any open discussion of sexuality debased the public sphere and defiled its participants, the members of the middle and upper classes” (Adut 241); therefore, discussion of bedroom experimentation was prohibited. Silence was golden for homosexual men at the time; for the most part, if they could keep their sexual sprees a secret, they could remain safe from the law. Reticence (meaning remaining silent in Latin) was “the paramount principle of the 19th‐century English public sphere” (Adut 222-223). It was by practicing this form of secrecy that Bram Stoker was able to protect himself from the persecutions of the day.

Stoker seems to have lived and died within the closet, having never revealed to the public eye his sexual preferences. Even Stoker’s married life suggests that he was heterosexual: he got married in 1878 to Florence Balcombe, childhood sweetheart of the well-known Oscar Wilde. This betrayal of friendship caused a rift in Stoker and Wilde’s relationship for a time, but ultimately “the two men had an intimate and varied history lasting for at least twenty years” (Schaffer 381). The two men approached their homosexuality differently; while Stoker took great care to hide his homosexual feelings deep in his writing, Wilde “favored revealing secrets (those of his own and of others), instead of keeping them” (Genç). It could be argued that “Dracula explores Stoker’s fear and anxiety as a closeted homosexual man during Oscar Wilde’s trial” (Schaffer 381), and that Wilde resembles Count Dracula himself. Indeed, Wilde had come to represent the deviant parts of European culture, much as Dracula does in the novel. They both represent “the other” their given settings; both of them breaking social norms and writing their own moral rulebook. Both men were deeply captivating to audiences, whether for shattering accepted social codes or for their infamous reputations. And as Stoker created a character to wield the notorious reputation of Wilde, he needed to create the counterbalance: a character to represent his own girlish inclinations.

Stoker wrote an effeminate male character into Dracula: Jonathan Harker, a young English lawyer, comes to inhabit Dracula’s castle by the vampire’s underhanded scheme. The plot reads like a generic gothic romance, wherein “the heroine is captive by an aggressive masculine figure who proclaims to wish her well but whom she sees as a threat to her integrity” (Kuzmanovic 415). Jonathan plays the part of the threatened heroine, the maiden helpless against the villain’s malicious whims. But Jonathan is not comfortable in the environment and manner by which Dracula keeps him. One day he roams the castle and happens upon a room that he suspects was once occupied by ladies. He writes, “Here I am, sitting at a little oak table where in old times possibly some fair lady sat to pen, with much thought and many blushes, her ill-spelt love-letter” (Stoker 59-60). This brings to mind a very woman-like appearance of Jonathan writing in his diary and blushing. Perhaps another man would feel uncomfortable with this image in his mind, as if a bygone blushing lady would threaten his masculinity, and cause him to leave. But not so with Jonathan. Tired of his “gloom-haunted room,” he chooses to sleep in this new sanctuary, writing that at one time “ladies had sat and sung and lived sweet lives whilst their gentle breasts were sad for their menfolk away in the midst of remorseless wars” (Stoker 60). Perhaps as Dracula continues to leave the castle in the night, much as a man would leave to fight in a war, Jonathan feels his own breast ache for his absent masculine half.

It is in this discreet writing that Stoker embeds a “recognizable code that was, perhaps, designed to be broken” (Schaffer 381) regarding the relationship between Jonathan and Dracula. Stoker described himself as naturally secretive to the world. His homoerotic desires were “imprisoned in cryptic texts; his private life undecipherable through thick layers of transference” (Genç). One could read much of Stoker’s work, including Dracula, and never wonder about his sexuality. However, sometimes his true intentions slip through; the code can be cracked. He wrote in Greystones in August of 1871, “Will men ever believe that a strong man can have a woman’s heart and the wishes of a lonely child?” Besides being deeply poetic and soulfully written, this question highlights Stoker’s own yearnings. Unlike others, he is willing to question society’s beliefs about manhood and what it means to be masculine.

In reading Dracula purely for entertainment, readers may miss the subtle yet passionate relationship between the Count and the lawyer. Indeed, we understand that Jonathan has recently been engaged to a woman named Mina, whom he writes to and about consistently with clear love and respect. And as for Dracula, he is a rich and powerful man with what could be considered a secret harem of wives. Both men seem satisfied in their significant others. However, what both the readers and characters don’t seem to expect is exactly what comes to pass: a same-sex, mutually satisfying cohabitation is born. One piece of textual evidence of this relationship is Dracula’s possessiveness over Jonathan while they reside in the castle; in fact, Dracula never stalks any of the novel’s other male characters, though they greatly outnumber the females. This indicates that Dracula finds Jonathan special.

One of the greatest scenes in this romance is when Jonathan discovers Dracula’s three vampire wives. They set upon him with their “brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips” (Stoker 61), kissing him and wishing to drink his blood. Dracula enters the room and wrenches away the vampire kissing Jonathan’s throat. With blazing eyes and a deathly pale face, Dracula hisses, “How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me!” (Stoker 62) When his wives question his ability to love, the Count pauses to look attentively at Jonathan’s face, and then whispers, ““Yes, I too can love… I promise you that when I am done with him you shall kiss him at your will. Now go! go! I must awaken him, for there is work to be done” (Stoker 62-63). At this point, Jonathan swoons, as women often do in such moments of high emotion, and “the next thing he is aware of is awaking in his own bed and realizing that Dracula must have carried him there and undressed him” (Kuzmanovic 417). Despite this tender act on Dracula’s part, the situation smacks of one partner who acts, and another who is merely acted upon. If Jonathan Harker had been a woman, then Dracula could be seen as the Victorian era precursor to Fifty Shades of Gray, a modern-day, popular romance that focuses on power play; in both stories we have a sexual interest between two characters: a captivating masculine figure with higher social standing and a fetish for control, and a feminine figure who allows themselves to be the victim of their master’s entertainment, though we get the sense that the victim derives some pleasure nonetheless.

But we mustn’t forget about Jonathan’s other romantic responsibilities. Jonathan is a happily engaged man to an upstanding woman of the Victorian era. Any feelings Jonathan has for Dracula must be filtered through his sense of morality and feelings of love for Mina. Jonathan writes in his journal of his letters to Mina: “To her I have explained my situation, but without the horrors which I may only surmise. It would shock and frighten her to death were I to expose my heart to her” (Stoker 65). He doesn’t feel that the horrifying story of his imprisonment or his impending doom would scare her; he worries that the content of his heart would shock and frighten her to death. It is true that she would likely be “shocked to learn that her fiancé’s identity may not be unambiguously heterosexual, masculine, and monogamous” (Kuzmanovic 418). Earlier in the novel Jonathan admits that he feels his thoughts are unlike the thoughts of others in his words, “I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul” (Stoker 43). This is possibly a stirring in his heart that causes him to seek comfort from the ladies of old, perhaps unlike the other men in the novel would do. He even grows to feel trustworthy of the Count. He writes that “surely it is maddening to think that of all the foul things that lurk in this hateful place the Count is the least dreadful to me; that to him alone I can look for safety” (Stoker 60). He feels his heart opening to his captor, and it horrifies him. This is the point where Stoker solidifies Jonathan’s position on the character’s feelings for Dracula, and in many ways his own feelings about himself. He admits that he feels most comfortable as a feminine man, and he longs for the company of men; and yet, he disgusts himself. His own feelings are maddening. He believes his feelings, though pleasurable for a moment, are intrinsically wrong.

By the end of the novel, the battle in Stoker’s heart has reached a climax. Jonathan and the others begin the vampire hunt with the intention of destroy the apparent source of their pain and loss. It is possible that when Jonathan and Dracula cohabited the castle, as their relationship was just developing, that Jonathan believed it could end happily for them. But time has passed, blood has been shed, friends have been lost, and he realizes that it can never be. He grows cold and bitter, half-believing that if he could end the life that he had come to treasure, then perhaps he could right so many wrongs. To Mina he confesses that if he “could send his soul for ever and ever to burning hell [he] would do it!” (Stoker 306) Taken aback, she responds, “I pray that God may not have treasured your wild words, except as the heartbroken wail of a very loving and sorely stricken man” (Stoker 307). It is possible she suspects Jonathan’s true reasons for wanting Dracula dead, and yet she seems to have hope for his soul; she is merciful in her judgement of both Dracula as a monster and Jonathan as a loving man, and she sends up prayers to God on Jonathan’s behalf.

But this hopeful note is not what Stoker ended his novel on, nor his life. Indeed, he had given up on ever realizing a happy ending as an active and “out” homosexual. Whatever his reasons, be it the culture and laws of the Victorian era, his own moral code, his disgust at his own feelings, or what have you, at the time of his own death, “Stoker was so fiercely homophobic that he went so far as to demand imprisonment of all homosexual authors in Britain—a group to which he, inevitably, belonged” (Genç). This hopelessness, this fist shaken hatefully at the sky, reflects in Jonathan’s own desperate words to Van Helsing, “Have you felt the Vampire’s lips upon your throat?” (Stoker 348) Then, turning to see Mina’s marked forehead, and perhaps considering all the pain that had apparently been caused by his natural predispositions toward femininity and homosexuality, he throws up his arms and cries, “‘Oh, my God, what have we done to have this terror upon us!’ and he sank down on the sofa in a collapse of misery.”
“This terror” does not refer to Dracula, nor to any man Stoker admired. In Stoker’s mind, “this terror” was his uncontrollable sexual preference. He felt attracted to men and he even entertained the thought of what an accepted cohabiting relationship with one might look like, but deep down he never truly accepted himself and his orientation. By the end of Dracula, Jonathan and Mina are happily married with a son of their own, living the only happily ever after life that Bram Stoker ever truly believed in, despite his secret dreams.

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