Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Catholic Vampire in Ireland?

Upon reading the first nine chapters of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, I think it is safe to say that the text is replete with social commentary on mid-19th century Irish culture. The character of Carmilla, a vampire dating back to the late 1600’s, is representative of the many changes Ireland was undergoing in the mid 1850’s. The text is a vessel to relate Le Fanu’s views on the awakening of female sexuality and the growing Irish Catholic culture of the mid-19th century.

The introduction to this text, written by Robert Tracy, offers good insight into Ireland’s circumstances and Le Fanu’s beliefs during the writing of Carmilla and 19th century Ireland -- if anyone is having trouble understanding the text, I highly recommend reading the introduction. Tracy begins by stating that “Sheridan Le Fanu’s chief interests were Ireland and the supernatural, interests which often coalesced” (vii). The interest in the supernatural is obvious throughout the first nine chapters of Carmilla, but it is interesting to examine the subtext in the Irish sense, rather than the universal stories that focus on British, French, or American ideas.

Tracy writes that “Political issues can be rephrased in supernatural terms when religion is intermixed with politics” (xx), most notably because these issues “aroused as the Catholic Irish began to assert themselves, especially in terms of the central issue of nineteenth-century Ireland” (xix). Much of Carmilla’s dialogue is suggestive of the Irish Catholic church’s teachings and beliefs, and Le Fanu‘s fear of their growing dominance over Irish society. An example of this is when Carmilla, in a discussion with Laura, says “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours … and you shall die -- die, sweetly die -- into mine. I cannot help it, as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others … but trust me with all your loving spirit” (263). This dissertation is reminiscent of the Catholic church’s teachings regarding the “holy trinity” and spreading the Catholic gospel. Carmilla asks for unquestioned trust, similar to religion, and the mention of becoming one is also quite similar to the Catholic view of the afterlife. This is also worth examining when contrasting the Irish Catholic view of eternal life and the archetypical vampire’s version of eternal life. It is also worth noting that Le Fanu’s letters written in the late 1860’s “show an increasing fear of Catholic power” (xxvi). Instead of blatantly writing out against the church‘s expansion, he projected his fears into an innovative vampire tale.

Le Fanu’s story also exudes the tension regarding sexual repression and awakening. With the broadening of the Catholic faith in Ireland and the changing culture regarding sexual repression, Carmilla must also be read as a rejection of the sexual repression of the time. I think that the best example of female sexual awakening can be found after Laura has the dream about the “monstrous cat” (278). Laura describes her encounter, stating that “Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep. The prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill which we feel in bathing, when we move against the current of a river. This was soon accompanied by dreams that seemed interminable … they left an awful impression, and a sense of exhaustion, as if I had passed through a long period of great mental exertion and danger” (282). This passage goes on to describe the caress of Carmilla, as Laura’s “heart beat faster, [her] breathing rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left [her] and [she] became unconscious” (282). This passage, although describing a supposed dream involving a vampire, can obviously be read in a sexual tone, an experience that Laura had only experienced before in a similar meeting with Carmilla. Tracy writes that “In the threat that Carmilla poses to Laura, we can see a fear of female sexuality which reappears in Dracula” (xxvi). The fact that the tale revolves around the feelings of two women is a great example of this, and the manner in which Carmilla serves as an “awakener” is quite symbolic of the fear of sexual awakening in Irish culture of the time.

I also find the whole metaphor of the bite, or the fact that Carmilla lives in part off of Laura, to be quite interesting. Great Britain was imposing its authority over Ireland at the time of this story, something that most Irish grew to detest. Although Tracy does not make much note of it, it is worth considering whether or not the fact that Carmilla drinks from Laura and uses the land could be symbolic of Britain’s occupation and “sucking” of Ireland. Tracy does note that Carmilla is “predatory” (xxiii) in her nature, something that could be said of the way that Britain implemented its will on the country of Ireland.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Carmilla and Laura, although I expecting Carmilla to share the same destiny experienced by Dracula and other vampires of the time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Psychic Vampire

A Psychic Vampire
(response to question #4)

After reading Wuthering Heights and Lakshmi Krishnan’s essay Why am I so Changed?, I completely agree with the assessment that Wuthering Heights should be read as a vampire novel. While not featuring any otherworldly monsters, Wuthering Heights presents duality, revenge, and passion in a way similar to a vampire novel. Although he might not suck the life out of his “victims” with his teeth, Heathcliff can certainly be considered a “psychic vampire” because of the way he drains the life from those around him.

Krishnan writes that “readings that view Gothic monsters as reflections, either of other characters, or of the readers themselves … [are] compelling, namely because of the prominence of doubling in Gothic fictions; as a literature that defines itself in opposition, it is appropriate for its creatures to be figures of contrast” (Krishnan 3). This statement alone provides a convincing argument that Wuthering Heights should be read as a vampire novel. Heathcliff’s loss and penchant for revenge provide a great example of this “reflection” (3) theory. I find it interesting that most of the binary oppositions found in this novel are found in the circumstances (rich / poor, educated / uneducated), rather than the characters. No one in the novel seems to represent a clear-cut opposition of good / evil. Similar to the archetypal vampire novel, there is no 100% “good“ or “evil.”

Bronte's Wuthering Heights echoes many of the same themes of classic vampire novels, such as passion, un-acted upon love, youth, revenge, and knowledge. Krishnan writes that “to decipher Gothic fiction, we must turn to its monsters, figures that embody its doubleness” (Krishnan 3). Throughout the novel, Heathcliff is referred to as a “fiend” (258), “villain” (254), and “wicked” (224). It is obvious that he is Wuthering Heights’ version of a monster -- not in the physical Shelley/Frankenstein or the Stoker/Dracula sense, but due to the fact that he dominates everything around him in misguided spite. With Krishnan’s statement in mind, I find it interesting that Linton claims that he would “rather be hugged by a snake” (258-259) when Cathy is being pressured to marry Linton. The duality between Cathy and a snake suggests the Adam & Eve myth, another example of passion gone wrong.

Heathcliff is described as the manifestation of a beast in a paragraph where he is engrossed in a fire. “Mr. Heathcliff paused and wiped his forehead … his eyes were fixed on the red embers of the fire; the brows not contracted, but raised next the temples … imparting a peculiar look of trouble, and a painful appearance of mental tension towards one absorbing subject” (273). Ellen “didn’t like to hear him talk!” (273), which only further exemplifies the duality of Heathcliff as a gothic monster. It is interesting that essentially every character that comes into contact with Heathcliff for an extended period of time ends up becoming ill. This is similar to what Lord Aubrey encounters in Polidori’s The Vampyre and what Harker, Lucy, Mina, and others endure in Brahm Stoker’s Dracula. The sicknesses portrayed in Wuthering Heights are suggestive of the loss of will to live. Catherine Earnshaw-Linton is as healthy as most young girls in London before Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights, yet upon his return, she feels “a sense of physical violence by the violent, unequal throbbing of her heart, which beat visibly and audibly under this excess of agitation“ (151) when in Heathcliff‘s presence. Her sickness coincides with Heathcliff’s increase in power, similar to the effect that a vampire has on its victims. Linton Heathcliff’s sickness is quite similar, as his father has, in essence, sucked the life out of him and refuses to help him -- it is all part of his plot. Upon Linton’s death, young Catherine remarks that he is “safe” (276) from Heathcliff, now that his father cannot make his life miserable any longer, yet Heathcliff has gained power from his loss of life.  Edgar Linton obviously wants to endure to make sure that his daughter is not corrupted by Heathcliff’s wishes. Edgar walks “feebly, and looked so pale” (245) throughout his final days, which is quite similar to the sickness that Aubrey endures and the effect that Dracula has over others.

Krishnan refers to Dracula as a “corrupter” (3), which is clearly what Heathcliff has become to Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff has a draining effect on everyone, although young Cathy is somewhat able to resist his inclinations as she rebukes him by stating, “Mr. Heathcliff, you’re a cruel man, but you’re not a fiend, and you won’t, from mere malice, destroy, irrevocably, all my happiness” (258). Much like the archetypical vampire, Heathcliff is only able to have effect on those who allow it. In a similar manner, Heathcliff himself feels a “torture” (272) from the loss of Catherine. While he “sucks” the life out of those around him, Catherine (or the lack of her presence) haunts and sucks the life out of Heathcliff.

While “there is no single, colossal vampire in Wuthering Heights” (Krishnan 8), I think that the effect that Heathcliff imposes on those around him is quite similar to those of a vampire. Instead of blood, he feasts on love and the lives of those around him. When he is not given love, he resorts to ruining the lives of those around him and, in essence, sucking the life from them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Thorns and Seasons in Wuthering Heights

Bronte’s descriptions of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are representative of the characters inhabiting them and their disposition at the time. The descriptions of the landscape, although not frequent in the first section of the novel, give an additional dimension to the characters, especially Heathcliff and Catherine, and also indicate that obviously there is much more to their pasts to be revealed.

Bronte’s first description of Wuthering Heights sets the tone for letting the reader into Heathcliff’s complex and tumultuous life, as she expresses her choice of words with “’Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather” (2). The appearance of Wuthering Heights during Lockwood’s visit is quite symbolic of Heathcliff and the despair that we do not yet know about. It is fitting that Heathcliff is described as “morose … some people might suspect him of a degree of underbred pride” (3). Lockwood describes a “grotesque carving” (2) at the threshold of Wuthering Heights, which also seems to be metaphoric of Heathcliff’s inner turmoil.

Later on in the novel, when Ellen is walking to Wuthering Heights, she describes a “weather-worn block … a hole near the bottom still full of snail-shells and pebbles, which we were very fond of storing there with more perishable things” (102). This is symbolic of Heathcliff on many levels -- the void in his life without Catherine, and possibly innocence or remnants of his early years still present in his mind.

During Heathcliff’s childhood, the Lintons’ occupation of Thrushcross Grange portrays the estate as a bit of a mystery. When Heathcliff peeks in the house, what he sees is “beautiful -- a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables … shimmering with little soft tapers” (43 - 44). The children are alone in a beautiful house, yet they are sad: “Isabella … lay screaming … Edgar stood on the hearth weeping silently, and in the middle of the table sat a little dog, shaking its paw and yelping” (44). While it may appear that the Linton children have wealth and nothing to be sad about, it is quite symbolic that wealth does not buy happiness.

I found Emily Bronte’s use of the weather and seasons to be quite interesting, similar to the way that Charlotte Bronte uses the seasons and elements in Jane Eyre. During Lockwood’s visit to Wuthering Heights, the weather is described as “misty and cold” (6). This is both foreshadowing of what he is about to experience and symbolic of the emptiness in Heathcliff’s life. Catherine’s longing for a different life are expressed when Bronte writes, “There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in darkness: not a light gleamed from any house, far or near -- all had been extinguished long ago; and those at Wuthering Heights were never visible -- still she asserted she caught their shining” (119). Before Catherine dies, “the scarcely perceptible wind fluttered its leaves at intervals” (148). She longs for Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff, as “[a]t Wuthering Heights [the bells] always sounded on quiet days following a great thaw or a season of steady rain” (148). The contrast of seasons, spring and fall, are contrasting what is about to happen to Catherine -- while her cycle is ending, her daughter’s is soon to begin. Additionally, after Catherine’s death, “the weather broke; the wind shifted from south to north-east, and brought rain first, then sleet and snow” (160). The turbulent weather is symbolic of what everyone feels -- the rain symbolizes a new beginning, and the beginning of winter is representative of the loss of Catherine -- life will not be the same for Heathcliff without Catherine.

I think that special attention should be paid to the use of thorns in the scenery and their use as a metaphor. Upon a re-read of the first descriptions of Wuthering Heights, I noticed a passage in which Bronte writes, “the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun” (2). This description is interesting when compared to a passage later on, after Catherine has gone to live at Thrushcross Grange. Bronte writes that Catherine living there “was not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn” (86). The fact that Catherine is referred to as a “thorn” certainly broadens the implications of the earlier description of Wuthering Heights, as it not only foreshadows her “haunting,” but it also seems to say that although Catherine was at Thrushcross Grange, her soul still remains at Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff.

I think that when reading the second half of the novel, it will be interesting to continue to pay attention to the descriptions concerning Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross grange, and to consider what feelings are being conveyed with the changes in seasons.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Before it was Cliche...

I found John Polidori’s The Vampyre to be an interesting, although somewhat cumbersome read, especially because so many of the events that occur were not cliché at the time of its writing -- this text was actually the “innovator” of what is now often considered the cliché vampire story. 

From what I remember of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, many of The Count’s characteristics are found within the character of Lord Ruthven, characteristics that have almost become stereotypical or comical in the “history” of vampires. 

This also coincides with Aubrey, as his character seems to be a mixture of Jonathan Harker and Mina’s suitors. Although Aubrey is not the narrator, The Vampyre generally consists of all of his experiences. This coincides with Dracula’s Jonathan Harker -- Harker records every event in his journal and letters, which is how the majority of Dracula is told.

I also found the sickness that Aubrey undergoes to coincide with Harker’s sickness upon meeting The Count. Polidori writes:
          Aubrey being put to bed was seized with a most violent fever, and was often
          delirious; in these intervals he would call upon Lord Ruthven and upon Ianthe--
          by some unaccountable combination he seemed to beg of his former
          companion to spare the being he loved. At other times he would
          imprecate maledictions upon his head, and curse him as her destroyer. Lord
          Ruthven, chanced at this time to arrive at Athens, and, from whatever motive,
          upon hearing of the state of Aubrey, immediately placed himself in the same
          house, and became his constant attendant. When the latter recovered from his
          delirium, he was horrified and startled at the sight of him whose image he had
          now combined with that of a Vampyre; but Lord Ruthven, by his kind words,
          implying almost repentance for the fault that had caused their separation, and
          still more by the attention, anxiety, and care which he showed, soon reconciled
          him to his presence. His lordship seemed quite changed; he no longer appeared
          that apathetic being who had so astonished Aubrey; but as soon as his
          convalescence began to be rapid, he again gradually retired into the same state
          of mind, and Aubrey perceived no difference from the former man, except that
          at times he was surprised to meet his gaze fixed intently upon him, with a smile
          of malicious exultation playing upon his lips: he knew not why, but this smile
          haunted him. (Polidori 13)

Although it has been a while, I remember Harker undergoing a similar sickness and fever, and Lord Ruthven’s actions are eerily similar to those of Count Dracula. Both Harker and Aubrey do not have complete recollection of their recoveries, which makes them unsure about their circumstances and their hosts. Yet what makes this scene different is that Harker is tended to by three females that attempt to seduce him and drink his blood.

Many of these same characteristics that Lord Ruthven portrays, although modernized, are prevalent in the works of today. While I have not read, nor seen the Twilight saga (thank you!), I have seen True Blood and several of the other “modern” depictions of vampires. It actually seems as if the depiction of the vampire has changed in the fact that the secrecy that Lord Ruthven and Count Dracula lived in are considered comical or over-used to the point of mimicry in modern works. I think it is essential to read works such as The Vampyre in order to fully understand the progression of the vampire from its inception.