Subtext and Subversion

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More literary theory and the vampire.

Submitted: April 17, 2009

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Submitted: April 17, 2009



The last hundred years of human history have engendered swift economic and social changes within society. In the maelstrom of change that characterised the late Victorian age, Bram Stoker wrote his celebrated popular novel Dracula (1897). Literature is a product of our culture, and the same culture that produces the novel also consumes it. Although only seventy eight years separate Count Dracula from Lestat, Anne Rice’s vampire lives in a world where human knowledge and invention are spiralling out of control. We could argue that in The Vampire Chronicles themselves, the vampire is a metaphor for contemporary problems of adaptability and survival.

In modern times, of course, as the complexity of human society and the rate of technological advance constantly increased, the vampire must adapt faster and more radically than ever before’.1

The different modes of travel available, aeroplanes, cars and trains, reflect the speed at which humanity now exists, but, for the vampire, transport is a metaphor for anonymity. Vampire survival, like human survival, depends on adaptability. However, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula the humans, as a collective and collecting whole, serve as a metaphor for adaptation and technological advance. The vampire’s lifestyle mirrors that of the rich and famous, which bombard us from the pages of glossy magazines. Ken Gelder describes the new vampire as:

Global exotic’-- where the vampire functions as a kind of internationalised, cosmopolitan tourist, mobile (and leisured) enough to make the world ‘my own’ — and channelling that world through the kind of panoramic perception’2

Armand, one of the most conservative vampires, owns an island retreat which he shares with a mortal male partner. Travel for the vampire had become as common place as for humans. Many vampire fictions are concerned with travel and more importantly journeys. Jewel Gomez’s vampire Gilda, starts her journey as a hunted runaway slave and at the completion of the novel Gilda is once again a slave, hunted by the same wealthy powerful humans; these humans now want the use the vampire’s blood. To survive, as in previous times, slave labour was necessary to them for economic survival. In Jewel Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, vampires live in a symbiotic relationship with humanity, it's mortality which engenders predation of the other, the vampire.

We could also describe the polymorphic metaphor in vampire novels as a telescoped or complex metaphor and is described best in a phrase devised by I. A. Richards, tenor and vehicle. The vampire is the vehicle within the novel and the tenor is its unconscious meaning. It is the tenor of the metaphor which is fluid and it is the fluidity of the tenor that we are describing as polymorphic. That is to say, the metaphor of the vampire is static and singular, it is the meaning that is plural. It is the adaptability of the vampire as a metaphor for everything, from dieting to homophobia and feminism to the death of small town middle America, that requires us to think about why it works. Because it does work, in each new incarnation the vampire both gives us something new and remains unchanged.

Anne Rice’s successful novels The Vampire Chronicles introduce a different type of vampire from Dracula. Jules Zanger has argued that the vampire Lestat is too fully humanized to act as a metaphor and that now the ‘new’ vampire has shifted towards metonymy rather than metaphor.3 An argument for why Anne Rice’s vampire appears to be more human than Bram Stoker’s creation could be due to the fact that when she wrote the novel Interview with the Vampire (1975) Anne Rice had not read Dracula. Anne Rice had only encountered the cinematic version of the vampire Dracula. The cultural differences between the society in which the Dracula of the novel was produced and the Dracula of the cinema had already begun to erode the image of the vampire as alien other. The critical study of the literary vampire is a cultural study, because the language used, as well as the imagery revealed in the text of the novel, tells us about the society it was created within and that which consumes it. Although, Anne Rice’s vampires may have blurred the edges between human and other, she could not eradicate the main difference between vampire and human, death. The character of the vampire in modern fiction is the monster who is neither alive or dead in human terms. This point is clarified in The Tale of the Body Thief (1985).  In this novel, Lestat is conned out of his vampiric body. Once Lestat is fully human again, he is changed. The vampire experiences again, after three hundred years, the fear of death.

As you read vampire fictions try and identify the tenor of the metaphor for yourself.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Steven King’s contemporary American vampire novel Salem’s Lot share a common metaphor, the fear of outside corruption from the old world into the new world. Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles and Poppy Z Brite’s Lost Souls are the examples of post-structuralist critical theories of absence and quest. Recpetion theory is one way to understand why the literary vampire is still so popular.  Reception theory simply explained says that we, society, do not read in a vacuum.  Each person who reads a text reads something different, because we, as readers, bring a new element to each novel we read.  Reception theory explains the vampire as a metaphor for absence and quest.  We, as readers, superempose our own absences and our own quests into the vacant spaces within the text. In conclusion, an argument is proposed that reception theory is most applicable in understanding why the vampire as a metaphor is polymorphic. Much academic criticism has been written in recent years on the subject of the popular literary vampire. Much of the stigma attached to serious study of such a culturally marginalised subject has now been rejected. According to Franco Morreti:

Mass literature is not the undifferentiated and meaningless expanse most critics still say it is. It holds many surprises, and not just because of the meanings within it, but also because of the light it sheds on works of a different kind’4.

The literary vampire is a playground for theorists, mainly because it is a culturally metaphoric character.  When reading a new vampire novel, an awareness of the complexity of what we are reading isn't necessary, because we are all products of the same culture that has produced the vampire.  We are all unconsciously aware of the subtext and subversions that abound in the vampire novel.

1Carter, Margaret, L. “The Vampire an Alien in Contemporary Fiction”. Blood Read, The VAMPIRE as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1997. United states of America. (p.33).

2Gelder, Ken. Reading the Vampire. Routledge London and New York, 1994. London. (p.123).

3Zanger, Jules. “Metaphor into Metonymy: The Vampire Next Door”.

Gordon, Joan & Hollinger, Veronica. (Editor). Blood Read the VAMPIRE as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press Philadelphia, 1997. United States of America

4Moretti, Franco. Signs Taken for Wonders Essays in the Sociology of literary Forms. Verso, 1988. Great Britain. (p,15).

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