Around the turn of the century, there was widespread fear throughout Europe, especially in Ireland, about the consequences of race mixing and the rise of lower classes over the aristocracy in control.
In Ireland, the Protestants who were in control of the country began to fear the rise of Catholics, which threatened their land and political power. Two Irish authors of the period, Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats offer their views on this problem in their works of fiction. These include Stoker’s Dracula and Yeats’ On Baile’s Strand and The Only Jealousy of Emer, and these works show the authors’ differences in ideas on how to deal with this threat to civilization.
Stoker feels that the triumph over this threat can only be achieved by the defeat of these demonic forces through modernity, while Yeats believes that only by facing the violent and demonic forces and emerging from them could Ireland return to its ancient and traditional roots and find its place in society.
The vampire was a common metaphor used by many authors in an attempt to portray the rising lower class and foreign influence as evil and harmful to modern civilization. The Irish Protestant author Sheridan Le Fanu uses vampires to represent the Catholic uprising in Ireland in his story Carmilla.
Like much of Gothic fiction, Carmilla is about the mixing of blood and the harm that results from it. When vampires strike, they are tainting the blood of the pure and innocent, causing them to degenerate into undead savages who will take over and colonize until their race makes up the condition of the whole world. This was the fear the Protestants had of the rising Catholic class. They were seen as a lowly people, and the fear was that they too would colonize and degenerate Ireland, and perhaps the rest of Europe, back into a primitive land of savages.
This fear of the breakdown of civilization by dark forces is also what Dracula is about. In Dracula, Stoker sets up the heroes and victors of the novel as civilized people, while the foreign villain is ancient and demonic. The book begins with the journal of Jonathan Harker, a stenographer from London who is sent to Transylvania to close a land deal with the mysterious Count Dracula.
From what is written in the journal, it is clear that Jonathan is very civilized, logical, and organized. His journal is written in shorthand, which is a sign of modernity and efficiency. He is a stenographer, which means he is well-versed in the legal system, also a sign of a civilized person. Harker also mentions that he had visited the British Museum and library in preparation for his trip to this strange land, once again showing that he is well-organized and resourceful. Stoker makes sure to give the reader this impression of his protagonist as a rational individual because he will later combat the savage forces with common sense and logic.
Harker’s detailed account of his journey into Transylvania shows the contrast between the West and the East. As he travels farther east, the land becomes more primitive and wild. As he writes in his journal, “I had to sit in the carriage for more than an hour before we began to move. It seems to me that the further East you go, the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?” (9). Here, the reader sees that as Jonathan goes east, technology begins to break down a bit, and things are a lot less orderly.
Jonathan also finds that he is beginning to lose command over the language, as he writes, “They were evidently talking of me, and some of the people who were sitting on the bench outside the door… came and listened, and then looked at me, most of them pityingly. I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for there were many nationalities in the crowd” (13).
Harker’s inability to understand the language is one of the ways in which he loses control as he travels east. Back in the modern world of the West, even in foreign countries, Jonathan can understand what is being spoken and therefore has a sense of control over his situation. In the East, however, he has lost this control. If he were able to understand what the people are saying, he might realize the danger that lay ahead of him in Transylvania before it is too late, but because of the Eastern dialect, he is oblivious to the warnings.
When Jonathan reaches his easternmost destination, Count Dracula’s castle, he soon realizes that he has lost all control of his situation. He writes, “I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit.”
The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner! (39). As the reader can see, the farther he travels east, the more broken down civilization becomes and the more control he loses over his situation. This idea that the uncontrolled savagery of mankind lies in the East is all part of the philosophy that was shared by many Western Europeans at the time.
Stoker makes it clear to the reader that the vampire, or the practice of mixing races, is demonic and anti-Christian. He does this by offering perversions of Christianity in the novel. The first of these occurs with the character of Renfield, a fifty-nine-year-old madman who comes under the influence of Dracula. The character of Renfield foreshadows the social disruption and insanity that will accompany Dracula’s descent upon England, or, in other words, modern civilization.
Before most of the characters experience the wrath of Dracula, Renfield begins to act wild and speaks of the arrival of his lord. This is one of the perversions of Christianity that Stoker employs to show the demonic nature of the vampire. Dr. Seward notes in his diary, “All he would say was: ‘I don’t want to talk to you; you don’t count now; the Master is at hand.'” The attendant thinks it is some sudden form of religious mania that has seized him. (132). It is here that Renfield acts as a demonic form of John the Baptist. Just as John the Baptist prepared people for the coming of Christ, Renfield prepares people for the coming of his lord and master, Dracula.
Another example of a perversion of Christianity is Lucy Westenra. After her blood has been drained several times by the Count, she finally dies on September 20th. An article in the Westminster Gazette dated September 25th reads: “During the past two or three days, several cases have occurred of young children straying from home or neglecting to return from their playing on the Heath. In all these cases, the children were too young to give any properly intelligible account of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had been with a ‘blooper lady.’ . . Some of the children, indeed all who have been missed at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat” (229).
The newspaper article indicates that the first cases of missing children were reported around September 22nd or 23rd. The reader can infer that the “blooper lady” is Lucy Westenra, and this would mean that she rose three days after death. This is a perversion of the Christian Resurrection, and it reminds the reader of the evil from the East that is spreading westward into modern civilization.
The modern, civilized group of people is the only one that can stop Dracula from infecting their society. They all have qualities that show they are participants in the enlightened modern world. Harker is a rational and well-organized stenographer, Lucy is an assistant schoolmistress, Seward is a doctor, Morris is from the rapidly growing United States, and Dr. Van Helsing has an M.D., a Ph.D., and a D. Litt., as well as being an attorney. All of these civilized characters join together to defeat the demonic vampire who harks from the primitive lands of the East.
Stoker creates a story that is similar to Le Fanu’s Carmilla and other gothic fiction in that it uses vampires to represent the common fear of race-mixing and the uprising of the lower classes throughout Europe. While Stoker believes that the best solution to this is to suppress and destroy the violent and demonic energies that many feel threatened by, Yeats shows a different philosophy in his works.
“On Baile’s Strand” shows Yeats’ opinion that foreign threats should not be simply suppressed or killed by modern society. In fact, Yeats feels that modern society has its flaws and has the potential to cause more tragedy than the threats themselves. There are two characters in the play who represent conflicting energies.
Conchubar is the wise elder and is considered superior to Cuchulain, and he represents obedience, law, and enlightenment. Cuchulain is the ancient war hero who represents the strong, heroic, and violent energies upon which Anglo-Ireland was founded. Cuchulain is a wild individual who is king over a certain area of land, and Conchubar pays him a visit to try to convince him to pledge his obedience to his lord and nation. After some time, Cuchulain agrees to recognize Conchubar as his lord and thus subscribes to the rules of society.
One may think that Cuchulain’s pledging allegiance to Conchubar would be beneficial for him and his lord, as explained by Conchubar in his attempt to gain Cuchulain’s allegiance: “Will you be bound into obedience and so make this land safe for them and theirs? You are but half a king and I but half; I need your might of hand and burning heart, and you my wisdom” (29). Conchubar’s argument sounds reasonable, but as the reader finds out, Cuchulain’s pledge leads him into despair.
Unknown to Cuchulain, he has a son whose mother is Aoife, a fierce warrior and leader of a rival nation. Aoife has trained her son to kill Cuchulain because she is angry that the boy’s father abandoned them. The Young Man, Cuchulain’s son, comes to his father and challenges him. Cuchulain does not want to battle him because he feels a bond between them, as he says, “Put up your sword; I am not mocking you. I’d have you for my friend, but if it’s not because you have a hot heart and a cold eye, I cannot tell the reason” (34).
Despite the Young Man’s challenge, Cuchulain wants no part of the fight, at least not until the boy is older and has more experience. Conchubar, however, reminds Cuchulain of his pledge, as he says, “He has come hither not in his own name but in Queen Aoife’s and has challenged us in challenging the foremost man of us all. . . You think it does not matter, and that a fancy lighter than the air, a whim of the moment, has more matter in it. For, having none that shall reign after you, you cannot think as I do, who would leave a throne too high for insult” (35).
Because Conchubar views this challenge as an insult to the kingdom to which Cuchulain has pledged his allegiance, the heroic warrior is obligated to accept the challenge and avenge the insult. Even though Cuchulain has a natural bond with this foreigner, he eventually accepts the challenge and unwittingly kills his son. He soon learns the identity of the stranger, and as a result, he goes insane and drowns while attacking waves in the ocean.
If Cuchulain had not pledged allegiance to civilized society, he would have been able to follow his natural energies and feelings, which would have kept him from murdering his son and going mad. Through this tragedy, Yeats states that by suppressing or killing the natural, instead of facing it or even embracing it, one can indeed become a member of a civilized society, but this is ultimately a tragic condition, as the Fool observes while describing Cuchulain’s death to the Blind Man: “There, he is down! He is up again. He is going out into the deep water. There is a big wave. It has gone over him. I cannot see it now. He has killed kings and giants, but the waves have mastered him, the waves have mastered him!” (43).
In The Only Jealousy of Emer, Yeats further expresses his idea that suppressing or avoiding the demonic is not a way to solve the problems facing Ireland. He feels that Ireland is trying to lift itself out of its natural form and create an image of itself as an imaginative modernist society, but doing so will simply delay the inevitable and lead it into more despair and violence. Only by facing and experiencing the violent and demonic forces that threaten it can Ireland emerge triumphantly over such challenges.
The play continues from the end of On Baile’s Strand, and Cuchulain’s body has been retrieved from the water. His wife Emer and mistress, Eithne Inguba, are sitting at his bedside. Emer is confronted by the spirit of Bricriu, a demon whom Cuchulain will face in the afterlife. Bricriu explains that Emer can bring Cuchulain back to life if she renounces his love forever. At first, Emer refuses to do this, but she finally does renounce his love because she cannot bear to let Cuchulain go into the hands of the demons.
In renouncing his love, Emer loses the only thing she ever had left: the hope of someday being reunited with her husband. When Cuchulain is revived, he states that Eithne Inguba is his true love, and Emer’s life is filled with nothing but sorrow.
If Cuchulain had faced the demons and suffered their wrath, he would have become a legend that would live on forever, but instead, he is lifted out of the afterlife and lives with false passion toward Eithne Inguba. Just like this story, Ireland will likewise lose all hope if it avoids the demonic threats instead of going through and emerging from them.
Even though Cuchulain’s life is restored, he will not become the legend that he could have been, and he will have to face the demons eventually, as Bricriu says to Emer: “He’ll never sit beside you at the hearth or make old bones, but die of wounds and toil on some far shore or mountain, a strange woman besides his mattress” (119). Yeats is saying that Ireland must eventually face and live through the dark forces that threaten it, and removing itself from these forces, in addition to simply delaying the inevitable, will only lead to further tragedy.
The works of these two Irish authors are fine pieces of fiction that effectively employ the elements of horror and tragedy, which are common in Gothic literature, but they also serve as valuable insights into the philosophies that were shared by many Europeans during these times of anxiety and change.
It is difficult to say which philosophy is superior to the other. Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, while Yeats’ works were written later, with The Only Jealousy of Emer written in 1919, giving him the advantage of witnessing the Easter Rising of 1916.
The turmoil of the period was not as simple as modern versus primitive or good versus evil, and certainly, not everyone in Europe shared their views or anything close to them, thus making it virtually impossible to judge the superiority of one philosophy over another. While readers may not agree with either of the authors, these works are still entertaining and serve as a testament to the power of literature as a platform for social and political opinion.