Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, Or The Return of Mina, Plus Others

So as the last novel we read for my Gothicism course, we chose Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, which is a work rich with allusions to Victorian literature, and because of its employment of famous literary characters, there is a great deal of Gothicism floating around.

First, and most obviously, we return to the exploits of Mina Murray from Dracula, now divorced, disgraced, and employed by a shadowy branch of military service. She returns here as leader of the League, a collection of various heroes and villains from Victorian literature: Allan Quatermain, the Great White Hunter; Captain Nemo, Scourage of the Empire; Hawley Griffin, Invisible Man; and Dr Jekyll, with Mr. Hyde in tow. Mina is the leader because she "has experience with monsters," i.e., the abhuman and the Other. Each of her subordinates, with the possible exception of Quatermain, has something specifically Gothic about them.

Furthermore the overreaching plot, especially the confrontation with Moriarty, brings to mind the human Gothic that we found in Bleak House and Northanger Abbey; we are confronted with a perfectly ordinary man as the antagonist, while the Others and the abhumans become the heroes of the work; quite a turn around from Dracula.

The Chinese Devil Doctor, however, relates to the sense of Orientalist fears to the east that plagued England during the Victorian era, as well as the sense of foreboding that permeates Dracula. That we find ourselves constantly in opium dens, crowded sidewalks, underwater, underground, and in the bat-like aerial ship seems a very codified use of the urban Gothic's restriction of space; meanwhile, the constant crush of people in the city street reinforces that element.

All right, so that wraps up the blog for the time being. I hope to continue on this summer, as I've just received a copy of Dracula: The Un-Dead, which is supposed to be the official sequel to the classic novel. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dracula or, So Totally About Mina, OMG, Did You Hear About Her?

So this week I read Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, which, I'm gonna level with you, is one of my favorite books of all time. It is, of course, the most important vampire book ever written--the most famous, the most adapted, and the most beloved of the genre. It is so famous that we encounter the same problems with it as we did with Frankenstein: we know "the story" so well that we neglect the novel.

But the story of Dracula isn't quite what we expect it to be. Even Nosferatu, the first film adaptation (even as bootlegged as it was) changes, subtracts, and re-imagines what the novel is about. The vampiric "rules" as we understand them, don't apply to Dracula. So every time that he appears in later works, he must be dealt with; in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he's adept a gypsy magic, in other works, he's just ancient.

There's a whole list of issues that Dracula brings up: the first, and arguably most accessible, is the issues with invasion and foreignness. We have the invasion of the Oriental danger--it's no accident that Dracula is from Eastern Europe, i.e., THE EAST--fought off by our stalwart and trusty Englishmen.

Then, we have issues of gender in Victorian, and arguably contemporary, society. Mina is ignored by the "big brave men" and finds herself under attack by Dracula--even though she's the one transcribing the damn novel.

Finally, we have issues of sexuality. The contemporary understanding of sexuality--Freud--leads the reader to some very awkward conclusions about Dracula's method of drinking--and sharing--blood. Mina's very erotically-charged encounter with Dracula makes for a lot of intellectual fodder.

All right, for serious lastly, Dracula remains one of the most pop cultural vampires. Why? The Victorians read the book as a purely adventure story, yet modern (and some contemporary) readers recognized the novel as a work of "literature". And even as the novel is read as literature, it enters the mainstream. Why? For one, it is a better telling of the Carmilla story (although, sadly, without lesbians), i.e., Overcoming the Monster. For another, Dracula's sexiness [even though he is sooo unsexy] calls out to both the Victorian sensibility and the Postmodern sensibility--that is, the era of Science is a fan of the un-scientific.

So, as a finale of sorts, next week, we will continue our exploits with Mina in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), which is a graphic novel starring many of our Victorian (and Gothic!) heroes,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray, or 'Twere Beauty, Killed the Beast

So this week, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), the only published novel of the great Oscar Wilde. Not only is it one of his most famous works, but a great many of his quotable quotes comes from this book, and the preface outlines his aesthetic and artistic theory. Nevertheless, for a work that defines art and beauty, the novel seems to be saying quite a few pointed things about Hedonism.

Dorian, of course, retains his outward, youthful appearance as his portrait shifts and alters with time, not only aging instead of Dorian, but also absorbing the ugliness that is the byproduct of sin. In removing the consequences of action, the portrait allows Dorian to act only in pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its effect on those around him. In doing so, Dorian both experiences the supernatural, Gothic element of the work, while allowing himself to become the abhuman figure--as monstrous inwardly as the portrait is outward.

Furthermore, though the novel contends that art must hide the artist to be successful, the underlying gay subtext of the novel leads me to conclude that Wilde is, in some ways, rather close to the surface. Not only does the adoration of Dorian by Basil and Harry seem at least homoerotic, the fact that the majority of lives ruined by Dorian are men cannot be overlooked. Even the description of Dorian's short friendships with other men calls to mind romantic interludes. The stereotypically dandyish behavior that Dorian exhibits doesn't help in this regard.

The novel is also greatly concerned with art and the meaning of art. Whether it is Wilde speaking directly in the preface, or the art theories espoused by Basil or Harry, or the vast differences between Sybil's acting abilities, the treatment of art as valuable for it's own sake is a foremost theme. Dorian's various obsessions in the midst of his societal prominence point toward the enjoyment of art for art's sake, rather than for a didactic or moralistic reason.

As for the Gothic, we again have the motif of the portrait showing the truth, something of a throwback to Otranto and the like. We have also an anti-hero figure; Dorian's slow, tragic fall, I would argue, prevents him from being a Byronic Hero. There is the supernatural element, coupled with a scientific reasoning. It is interesting that, as usual, the supernatural seems to come from a reality of angels and demons. We also have the corrupting influence of the city, albeit in a smaller dose than in Dickens. Rather than concerning itself with the horrors of the Victorian Age, the novel satirizes the upper class avoidance of the topic.

So next week, we'll be reading Dracula (1897), one of my all time favorite books, as well as viewing both Nosferatu and "Buffy vs. Dracula."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wuthering Heights, or Heathcliff is Such a Bastard, Amirite?

So this week I read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) and watched the Masterpiece Theater version from 2009. First off, there's literally only one worthwhile person in the whole book, and that's Nelly, our narrator. Every other character is either incredibly evil (Heathcliff) or spoiled (Cathy, Linton, Edgar, Isabella Cathy II...). And it becomes incredibly difficult to understand why Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship is so romanticized. I mean, she dies halfway through the book! It's hardly about her. And Heathcliff is such a terrible person that he can hardly be termed a Byronic hero at all. I mean, the Byronic hero is meant to earn redemption through his or his lovers actions, right? If we take Rochester as our quintessential Byronic hero (which he is) then Heathcliff doesn't count.

Which leads me to my next question: who is supposed to be the protagonist of this novel? Nelly? Lockwood? Don't get me started. They're the perfect narrators. And every other major character is only around for half the novel, or is Heathcliff. And while Heathcliff certainly creates conflict and makes the story unfold, those are hardly the actions of a protagonist, really. Villains act, while heroes react. But there's nobody to react against Heathcliff.

So Cathy, meanwhile, is a madwoman in the attic character. Even disregarding the fact that she literally goes mad, her obsession with Heathcliff--they're sharing a soul especially--is incredibly off-kilter. Furthermore, she is constantly being contained by the Grange or the Heights, both as a child and as an adult. Her daughter's cloistering amounts to almost the same treatment.

I think one of the major themes that runs through the novel is that evil begets evil. Everything that Heathcliff does (that anybody else does) is a reaction to the wrongs done to them by others. And given this theme, the very abhuman-human nature of Heathcliff should be examined in detail. More than once we have him described as a fiend or demon--his actions certainly correspond. The other abhuman-humans we've encountered (I'm thinking specifically of the vampiric Tulkinghorn from Bleak House) have corresponded to their Gothic roles even without the need of the supernatural.

All and all, though, this is a fabulous book. So long as you don't bring the baggage that Twilight would saddle you with. Next week, we'll talk Oscar Wilde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Vampyre and Carmilla, or We've Finally Gotten to Vampires. Geez That Took Forever. I Mean Really.

So this week I read two novellas about that most famed abhuman figure, the vampire. Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) is a literary relative to Frankenstein and both it and le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) are, obviously, ancestors to Stoker's Dracula. What I find most fascinating about the two works is the way in which each takes the time to explicitly spell out what, exactly, a vampire is. I mean, they obviously aren't new, per se, but Polidori and le Fanu are taking a figure of folklore and distilling it into a literary figure. Reading from a modern perspective, I'm again struck by how un-ironic the presentations are. I mean, yes, each vampire book spells out exactly what kind of vampire we're dealing with, but at least Polidori is making history with his description. From that moment on, we all know what a vampire is.

Furthermore, I'm also thinking about the very different way that these two works treat women in comparison to Dracula. Here, the women are again be acted on rather than acting. It feels like we're backsliding, even though we aren't, simply because we've just read Braddon and Alcott. Clearly, the discussion of the New Woman wasn't all one sided.

Speaking of gender, the discussion of sexuality presented in the two works is also fascinating, given that vampires are often analyzed as metaphors for sex. Carmilla's sapphism is especially interesting in the context of a Dracula/Jonathan subtext. If we were to explore vampires as the sexual Other, there's plenty to go on. The sexual-predatory nature of Lord Ruthven is clearly followed in other vampire fiction, i.e., Lestat, Angel, Edward, Dracula. And the use of the vampire as the Byronic hero (or villain) is well documented also.

So, things that these sire texts teach us about vampires: drinking blood with pointy teeth, damsels in distress, ennui and languidness, decapitation, tombs, sleeping in blood, crazy professor guy, aristocratic, shape shifting, moving through walls, etc. The entirety of vampire fiction rests on these two texts as foundation. The fact that Twilight moves us so far away from these traditional aspects is only possible in a postmodern literary world.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Long Fatal Love Chase, or It's Jane All the Way Down

So this week I read A Long Fatal Love Chase (1995) by Louisa May Alcott, famed writer of Little Women. In regards to this class, this novel is unique in many ways from the other novels that we're reading. First, it is an American novel, though American in the style of Henry James, and second, this novel was published for the first time in the 1990s.

In regards to other novels, however, Love Chase is hardly unique. There are great similarities to Jane Eyre in terms of the novels content--the criticism of the Byronic Hero, the theme of bigamy, and the feminism embodied by the protagonist. The constant flight and chase seems to parallel Jane's flight in the middle of her novel, as does the relationship with the priest (or the priest-like figure of St. John). There are, however, striking differences between the two novels. For one, this novel is a tragedy, ending in the death of our protagonist. There is no redemption allowed for the Byronic Hero--here, unlike Rochester, playing antagonist--and Tempest remains a selfish monster to the end. In this respect, Alcott seems to be calling on the characterization of Heathcliff--perhaps positing, in the way similar to fan fiction, "What if Jane had met Heathcliff instead?"

The striking feminism of the novel is also, at least partly, due to Jane's influence. For all the novel's faults, Alcott gives us an active, round protagonist that does things, rather than having things done to her. The constant leaving, the willingness to put principle over pleasure marks Rosamond as Jane's literary sister. This marks Rosamond as exhibiting characteristics of the Byronic Heroine: not content to be merely persecuted, as in Udolpho, nor locked away as a madwoman, even metaphorically, as in Jane Eyre. Rather, Rosamond occupies a characterization that mixes parts of the two, while adding a great deal of agency, much like, again, Jane does.

The religious aspect of the novel is also, arguably, more pronounced than in Jane Eyre. While Jane does believe in God, I'd be hard-pressed to call her a religious person, whereas a great deal of Rosamond's motivation is the belief that she should do as God would want. Rosamond acts from a religious impulse while Jane acts from one of personal pride. The equation of Tempest with a Satan figure, while fairly heavy-handed on the part of the author, underscores both Rosamond's motivation and the Gothic tone of the work.

All right, so next week we're reading two books: Polidori's The Vampyre (main character based on Byron) and le Fanu's Carmilla (lesbians! vampires!), and we return to the supernatural elements that have been rather under-represented since Frankenstein.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lady Audley's Secret, or The Byronic Heroine in the Madhouse

All right. We need to start by stating that Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is one of the best novels I’ve read in the preceding year. Braddon has definitely earned her place next to the Brontes and Dickens, and the fact that she is under-read is a testament to the unbalanced nature of the traditional Western Canon. It is a fabulous read.

That said, the novel does remain problematic for multiple reason that call out for discussion. First of these is the treatment of madness. We haven’t much discussed madness in this blog heretofore, so we’ll need to become serious for a moment. The appellation of insanity has no place in the psychologist’s office; it is a meaningless, legal term that does not act as a true barometer of a person’s ability to interact on a societal level. That said, Lady Audley does exhibit several sociopathic characteristics which may have necessitated her confinement in the masion de santé; that’s as may be. But the way in which Braddon characterizes her confinement is incredibly problematic, i.e., that she must be sequestered in order to protect society; I’d like to see a man in a similar situation be so treated.

Furthermore, Lady Audley’s character reflects certain classic elements of the Byronic Hero; so much so that I feel it fully justifiable to call her a Byronic Heroine, along the lines of Jane and Cathy. She is devious, secretive, with a dark past, ravishingly beautiful, possibly or partially mad, a bigamist (Rochester) and finally sort of evil (Heathcliff). Her actions, meanwhile, are no worse than theirs are; none of them directly kill another, for example. The way that the text treats her, however, seems somewhat misogynistic.

That said, I’d be hard-pressed to call this work anti-feminist. Yes, we have woman as our antagonist [if we posit that Robert is our protagonist] but the language that Robert uses in regards to women, the fully-fleshed characterization of the women, and the neutrality that the narrator maintains while Lady Audley enters the madhouse, all speak to the (possibly half-hearted) feminist elements of the text. Yes, the treatment of women in this novel is incredibly complex.

Our insight into the character of Robert, meanwhile, labels him as less of a Byronic Hero and more akin to a Pathetic or Anti Hero. I mean, the narrator has no compunctions about calling out his shiftlessness or laziness, yet he is fully prepared to act when given a good enough reason. Braddon has a talent for characterization.

All right. Next week, we’ll be discussing Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women Fame) and her work A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866/1995).