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).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bleak House 2, or the Victorian Horror

All right, so to continue from last week, we're discussing Charles Dickens's work Bleak House and the ways in which it forms a part of the Gothic canon. We're a day late because I'm currently in New Orleans, so please bear with the (somewhat) lessened reading experience.

I think, again, that the major underlying theme of Dickens's work is the necessity of taking responsibility; rather than foisting problems onto other people (Skimpole/Tulkinghorn), other circumstances (Richard), or the past (Lady Dedlock), Dickens is encouraging his readers to take action instead of remaining passive about the social problems that plague them and others. This is, of course, Dickens's M.O.; indeed, part of the issues that keep Bleak House from being a Great novel is the obviousness of Dickens in the text--he is never far from the surface of the novel.

Nevertheless, the urbanization of the Gothic that is present in this novel has a direct tie to our modern understanding of the genre. Not only does the Urban Supernatural genre exist in its own right, the increased industrialization of the West means that the physical isolation felt in the early Gothic works is paired with an isolation in an urban setting: not alone, but lonely.

Furthermore, the Victorian elements of the novel--the discussion of the issues of industrialization especially--point toward the understanding of the Gothic as arriving from the horrors of the everyday. Dickens simply skips making a supernatural metaphor in order to examine real-world problems. This is similar to the Brontes' exploration of patriarchy, given that the supernatural elements arguably play side-line or ancillary roles in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Rather than using the Gothic as a metaphor, Dickens is using it as figurative language--more along the lines of a literary mode than a genre. Dickens uses the rhetorical Gothic as an attempt to emphasize the horrors of reality.

This approach is clear in the death of Krook by spontaneous combustion, arguably the most (if not only) supernatural event in the book. Rather than focusing on the event or describing it in detail, however, Dickens only gives us the aftermath and its consequences. This is probably the exact opposite of what "Monk" Lewis would have done; rather than writing a story about the Gothic, Dickens uses the Gothic as a lens to explore the social order.

So next week, we'll be reading Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.