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A Structural Approach to What is Signified in Vampire Novels.


This article is part of the work I did for my dissertation at uni. Great if you like literary theory I will not be offended if you don't read it.


Submitted: April 16, 2009

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Submitted: April 16, 2009



In the search for a literary theory which explains the vampire as a polymorphic metaphor within the literary text, it is structuralism, with its almost scientific approach that closely parallels the scientific approach taken to defeat the vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The 1960's saw the peak in literary structuralism although it is based on the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure whose work dates back to the early twentieth century. Structuralism looks not at the whole work, or the culture which produces it, but at a series of signs revealed within the text and their linguistic relevance to the underlining meaning. According to Raman Selden;

‘At the heart of structuralism is a scientific ambition to discover the codes, the rules, the system, which underlie all human social and cultural practices. The disciplines of archaeology and geology are frequently invoked as the models of structuralist enterprise’. 1

It is the ‘codes’ which reveal our cultural preoccupations rather than the other way around. This theory mirrors on of the central metaphorical theme in Dracula; the use scientific solutions to dispel superstition. The most effective weapons the human protagonist have against the threat of the vampire is knowledge and in the late Victorian era, technology has gone beyond the point where its use can predict it effect on the future.

‘It was almost impossible to believe that the things which we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths. Every trace of all that had been was blotted out[....]We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing’ (Dracula: p.326).

This note at the end of the novel removes any doubt, that the destruction of Dracula, has destroyed the any pretensions to scientific writing. At the end the text itself declares it own existence as a work of fiction.

David Glover suggest that the structure of Dracula is like for of narrative made popular by Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone in so much as it is ‘quasi-legal’ the reality in the text is produced by the type of person giving testimony in the novel. Raman Selden give Roland Barthes view of structuralism as:

‘Writers only have the power to mix already existing writings, to reassemble or redeploy the; writers cannot use writing to ‘express’ themselves, but only to draw upon that immense dictionary of language and culture which is ‘alway already written’ (to use a favourite Barthean phrase). It would not be misleading to use the term ‘anti-humanist’ to describe the spirit of structuralism. Indeed the word has been used by structuralists themselves to emphasise their opposition to all forms of literary criticism in which the human subjects is the source and origin of literary meaning’2.

This anti-humanist approach to literature is problematic when discussing vampire literature, where the metaphor is often used by humanist criticism to reveal human anxieties about our society. However Glover goes on to suggest:

‘A flawed modernity, a modernity still struggling with the powers of the past, even when equipped with phonographs, telegrams, cameras, newspapers, and typewriters, a world of mechanical and electronic reproduction’3

The human protagonists Mina Harker uses a typewriter and Dr Seward records his notes on a phonograph, however his scientific method of keeping notes has an unforseen drawback. Dr Seward cannot retrieve specific information, his audio record like speech is transitory, his work must be written; his words will then gain authority.

‘You see, I do not know how to pick out any particular part of the diary.’ Even while he was speaking an idea dawned upon him, and he said with unconscious simplicity, in a different voice, and with the naivety of a child: “That’s quite true, upon my honour. Honest India!” I could not but smile, at which he grimaced. ‘I gave myself away that time!’ he said. ‘But do you know that, although I have kept the diary for months past, it never once struck me how I was going to find any particular part of it in case I wanted to look it up?’ By this time my mind was made up that the diary of

a doctor who attended Lucy might have something to add to the sum of our knowledge of the terrible Being, and I said boldly:--

‘Then, Dr Seward, you had better let me copy it out for you on my

typewriter’ (p.196)

This extract from Dracula chapter XVII is from Mina Harker’s Journal another form of language is exposed. Dr Seward speaks with simplicity in a ‘different voice’, a child’s language. This simplistic language reveal the flaw in the human protagonists use of technology. Dr Seward’s diary is useless as the is no way access the information contained in it. Before Mina typewrites his audio diary and legitimises it a part of the text. In this extract Dr Seward and Mina’s forms of recording, Mina uses shorthand which can only be read by herself or Johnathan Harker, signifies the problematic nature of scientific advancement: its veracity depends on the spoken discourse of the scientist being understood.

However Mina’s character it that of author, her position within the text is a collate information into a readable narrative form. Roland Barthes make the following argument in “Science Versus Literature”, he argues the language in literature has always had an important role in understanding society:

‘Science will become literature, to the same extent as literature, growingly subject as it is to an overturning of the traditional genres of poetry, narrative, criticism and essay, already is and always has been a science. What the human sciences are discovering today, in whatever field it may be, sociological, psychological, psychiatric, linguistic, ect., literature has always known. The only difference is that literature has not said it, but written it. In contrast to the integral truth of literature, the human sciences, belatedly formulated in the wake of bourgeois positivism, appear as the technical alibis proffered by our society in order to maintain within itself the fiction of a theological truth proudly, and improperly, free from language’.4

To be of any use in the future Dr Seward’s oral account must be transformed in the tangible physicalised form, writing. And it is in this written rather than spoken language that the structuralist critic looks for signs. Dr Van Helsing and Dr Seward express the ‘bourgeois positivism’ that Roland Barthes talks about in “Science Verses Literature” in their ‘other’ scientific words for things. This language excludes outsiders, Van Helsing in chapter X is specifically stating that doctors do not and should not inform patient about their illnesses. However, Mina is fully knowledgeable about her condition and its treatment when she is infected by Dracula. Dracula uses the knowledge gain from book the understand England. Like many wealthy Englishmen he has a varied knowledge gained from books.

‘The books were of the most varied kind— history, geography, politics, political economy, botany, geology, law— all relating to England and English life and customs and manners’ (Dracula: p.25).

Dracula knowledge of England and the English language comes only from books, he lures Harker to the castle to learn how to communicate in English. The scientists believe the can defeat death by through knowledge and as the doctors knowledge increases so does that of the layperson’s. In chapter X Van Helsing remark to Dr Seward:

‘You were always a careful student, and your casebook was ever more full than the rest. You were only student then; now you are master, and I trust that good habit

have not fail. Remember, my friend, that knowledge is stronger than memory’ (Dracula p.112).

Both Dr Seward and Dracula are good students. In Sussarian theory of the signfier and the signified, Dr Seward’s phonograph could be described as a signifier of science search for a modern method of communication, while what is signified is the thoughtlessness of the scientist not in the production of knowledge but how it can be utilised. When Van Helsing returns to Amsterdam after Lucy’s first transfusion for his books, his search for knowledge is to be found in language rather than observation of the patient. This is the opposite to Dr Seward approach to the Zoophagous patient at the asylum.

The deference in language is shown in chapter X, Dr Seward’s Diary by Van Helsing’s use of the English language. The first words Van Helsing to Dr Seward on his arrival are: ‘Have you said anything to our young friend the lover of her?’ Here Van Helsing refers to Arthur and Lucy, but whereas he describes Arthur as belonging to their kind, male, and Lucy only by the impersonal pronoun ‘her’. Rosemary Jackson describes this process as:

‘The kind of substitution of name for thing, or of part of a thing for the whole, opens up possibilities for a linguistic study of fantasy as working through metonymic and synecdochic processes of elision and substitution, as well as reinforcing the argument by Mark Nash as to the centrality of a play up on pronoun functions in the fantastic’.5

According to Rosemary Jackson the substitution of Arthur and Lucy’s names is linguistically significant. The structualist approach to this is that the text in the form of Van Helsing use of the English language has encoded Lucy as an outsider.

When later in chapter X Van Helsing is talking to Arthur he once again uses a pronoun in substitution for a thing. When Van Helsing refers to him in context of new blood it is implicit in the code that the cure for Lucy’s illness is an infusion of masculine blood. However, the text also implies the pronoun ‘him’ is the vampire and that Lucy is pining for him.

‘Young miss is bad, very bad. She wants blood, and blood she must have or die. My

friend John and I have consulted; and we are about to perform what we call transfusion of blood—to transfer from full veins of one to the empty veins which pine for him. John was to give his blood, as he is the more young and strong than me’-- here Arthur took my hand and wrung it hard in silence— ‘but, now you are here, you are more good than us, old or young, who toil much in the world of thought. Our nerves are not so calm and our blood not so bright than yours!’ (Dracula: p.p. 113-114).

Here Lucy is not described as ill as one would expect a doctor to say, but as bad: at this point in the novel Lucy has not yet taken her role as a metaphor. Young miss and bad are still inhabiting the same semantic field. The fact the Lucy is still alive according to Jules Zanger’s interpretation of metaphor and metonymy precludes Lucy’s character from metaphoric meaning at this point in the novel:

‘When we say “the woman is an angel,” we are producing a metaphor, since in Western though “woman” and “angel” belong to different semantic fields, one natural, the other supernatural. When, however, we say “the lady is a tramp,” our construction is metonymic, since “lady” and “tramp” belong to a single human semantic category’6

Using Zanger’s argument Lucy occupies the same semantic field as bad. Nevertheless the fact the Van Helsing does not use her name has dehumanised Lucy. Metonymy is grounded in realism: this passage works on two levels of language within the text. When Van Helsing begins speaking to the Hon. Arthur Holmwood he refers to ‘transfusion of blood— to transfer from full veins of one’, Van Helsing starts his explanation in realist scientific speech to a more metaphoric language ‘to the empty veins which pine for him’, here the text through Van Helsing quaint use of the English language is revealing a message to us, a code, to the reader. For Lucy is indeed pining, lusting and languishing for him, Count Dracula, the vampire. This is the code in the text as explained by Gerard Genette:

‘Structuralist method as such is constituted at the very moment when on rediscovers the message in the code, uncovered by an analysis of the immanent structures and not imposed from the outside by ideological prejudices’.7

The structuralist approach, and more specifically Saussure’s theory of the signifier and signified, “young miss” and “bad” occupy different semantic fields. It could be argued that “young miss” signifies Lucy as a virgin, a young unmarried woman, juxtaposed with this image is the word “bad” rather than more appropriate words such as sick, ill or unwell. The organic metaphor of “young miss” is symbolic and the tenor of this vehicle is static. However, the telescoped metaphor of “bad” the vehicle becomes the tenor for the vehicle of the vampire. The female vampire is a signifier and that wanting and badness are arbitrary signs.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula the character of Lucy is a metaphor for New Woman and the New Woman signifies the degeneracy of women and the corruption of future generation through disease. Thus the character of Lucy as a Vampire is a telescoped metaphor as the vehicle, Lucy, becomes the tenor of another metaphor; the meaning changes for sexual degeneration to race degeneration. Because, although the vehicle of the metaphor is fixed, Lucy’s state is not. Lucy is still alive in some respects, her heart still beats, so she is no truly one of the ‘undead’. Lucy is both vampire and human, hence Van Helsing’s description of her as bad.

From the perspective of structuralism, having identified the codes within the text we then ignore the surface meaning and look for a deeper meaning. This view is expounded by Terry Eagleton:

‘The method is analytical, not evaluative [....] Structuralism is a calculated affront to common sense. It refuses the ‘obvious’ meaning of the story and seeks instead to isolate certain ‘deep’ structures within it, which are not apparent on the surface. It does not take the text at face value, but ‘displaces’ it into a quite different kind of object’.8

Here the question to ask oneself is what do vampire novel have to do with common sense? The simple answer is nothing, but structuralism doesn’t need great works of literature, it is as applicable to Bram Stoker’s Dracula as it is to Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmoore. The meaning a structuralist could discover in Dracula is the meaning of communication and non-communication. From the very beginning of Dracula language is important, Johnathan Harker’s ‘smattering of German’ (Dracula: p.9) because it allows him to communicate in the Carpathians. Nonetheless all communication is taken away from Harker when the landlord ‘pretended that he could not understand my German’ (Dracula: p.12). When Dracula writes to Harker he signs the letter: ‘Your friend Dracula’ (Dracula: p.12) just as Van Helsing refers to ‘our friend’ when he speaks of Arthur.

1Selden, Raman. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Second Edition. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. Great Britain. (p.66).

2Selden, Raman. (p.51).

3Glover, David. Vampires, Mummies and Liberals Bram Stoker and the Politics of Popular Fiction. Duke University Press, 1996. United States of America. (p.44).

4Barthes, Roland. “Science Verses Literature” (p.98). Newton, K. M. (Editor) Twentieth Century Literary Theory A Reader. Second Edition. MacMillan Press Ltd, 1997. United States of America.

5Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy The Literature of Subversion. Routledge, 1995, Great Britain. (p.p.85-86).

6Zanger, Jules. (p.20).

7Genette, Gerard. “Structuralism and Literary Criticism”. (p90).

8Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996. Great Britain. (p.83).

© Copyright 2016 Vamplit. All rights reserved.

A Structural Approach to What is  Signified in Vampire Novels. A Structural Approach to What is Signified in Vampire Novels.

Article by: Vamplit

Status: Finished

Genre: Non-Fiction


Article by: Vamplit


Status: Finished

Genre: Non-Fiction



This article is part of the work I did for my dissertation at uni. Great if you like literary theory I will not be offended if you don't read it.

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