Sociopolitical Philosophy in the Works of Stoker and YeatsAround the turn of this century there was widespread fear throughoutEurope, and especially Ireland, of the consequences of the race mixing that wasoccurring and the rise of the lower classes over the aristocracies in control.
In Ireland, the Protestants who were in control of the country began to fear therise of the Catholics, which threatened their land and political power. TwoIrish authors of the period, Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, offer theirviews on this problem in their works of fiction. These include Stoker’sDracula and Yeats’ On Baile’s Strand and The Only Jealousy of Emer, and theseworks show the authors’ differences in ideas on how to deal with this threat tocivilization. Stoker feels that triumph over this threat can only be achievedby the defeat of these demonic forces through modernity, while Yeats believesthat only by facing the violent and demonic forces and emerging from them couldIreland return to its ancient and traditional roots and find its place insociety.
The vampire was a common metaphor used by many authors in an attempt toportray the rising lower class and foreign influence as evil and harmful tomodern civilization. The Irish Protestant author Sheridan Le Fanu uses vampiresto represent the Catholic uprising in Ireland in his story Carmilla. Like muchof gothic fiction, Carmilla is about the mixing of blood and the harm thatresults from it. When vampires strike, they are tainting the blood of the pureand innocent, causing them to degenerate into undead savages who will take overand colonize until their race makes up the condition of the whole world. Thiswas the fear the Protestants had of the rising Catholic class. They were seenas a lowly people and the fear was that they too would colonize and degenerateIreland, 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 Draculais about.
In Dracula, Stoker sets up the heroes and victors of the novel ascivilized people, while the foreign villain is ancient and demonic. The bookbegins with the journal of Jonathan Harker, a stenographer from London who issent 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 verycivilized, logical and organized. His journal is written in shorthand, which isa sign of modernity and efficiency. He is a stenographer, which means he iswell versed in the legal system, also a sign of a civilized person. Harker alsomentions that he had visited the British Museum and library in preparation forhis trip to this strange land, once again showing that he is well-organizedresourceful. Stoker makes sure to give the reader this impression of hisprotagonist as a rational individual because it is he who will later combat thesavage forces with common sense and logic.
Harker’s detailed account of his journey into Transylvania shows thecontrast between the West and the East.As he travels farther east, the landbecomes more primitive and wild. As he writes in his journal, I had to sit inthe carriage for more than an hour before we began to move. It seems to me thatthe further East you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they tobe in China? (9). Here the reader sees that as Jonathan goes east, technologybegins to break down a bit and things are a lot less orderly. Jonathan alsofinds 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 onthe bench outside the door. . . came and listened, and then looked at me, mostof them pityingly. I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, forthere were many nationalities in the crowd (13). Harker’s inability tounderstand the language is one of the ways in which he loses control as hetravels 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 ofcontrol over his situation. In the East, however, he has lost this control. Ifhe were able to understand what the people are saying, he might realize thedanger that lay ahead of him in Transylvania before it is too late, but becauseof the Eastern dialect, he is oblivious to the warnings.
When Jonathan reaches his eastern most destination, Count Dracula’scastle, he soon realizes that he has lost all control of his situation. Hewrites, I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view Iexplored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. Inno 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 readercan see, the farther he travels east, the more broken down civilization becomesand the more control he loses over his situation. This idea that theuncontrolled savagery of mankind lies in the East is all part of the philosophythat was shared by many Western Europeans at the time.
Stoker makes it clear to the reader that the vampire, or the practice ofmixing races, is demonic and anti-Christian. He does this by offeringperversions of Christianity in the novel. The first of these occurs with thecharacter of Renfield, a fifty-nine year old madman who comes under theinfluence of Dracula. The character of Renfield foreshadows the socialdisruption and insanity which will accompany Dracula’s descent upon England, or,in other words, modern civilization. Before most of the characters experiencethe wrath of Dracula, Renfield begins to act wild and speaks of the arrival ofhis lord. This is one of the perversions of Christianity that Stoker employs toshow the demonic nature of the vampire.Dr. Seward notes in his diary,Allhe would say was:- I don’t want to talk to you: you don’t count now; the Masteris at hand.’ The attendant thinks it is some sudden form sudden form ofreligious mania which has seized him. (132). It is here that Renfield acts asa demonic form of John the Baptist. Just as John the Baptist prepared peoplefor the coming of Christ, Renfield prepares people for the coming of his lordand master, Dracula.
Another example of a perversion of Christianity is Lucy Westenra. Afterher blood has been drained several times by the Count, she finally dies onSeptember 20th. An article in the Westminster Gazette dated September 25threads:During the past two or three days several cases have occurred of young childrenstraying from home or neglecting to return from their playing on the Heath. Inall these cases the children were too young to give any properly intelligibleaccount of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had beenwith a bloofer lady.’. . Some of the children, indeed all who have been missedat night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat (229).
The newspaper article indicates that the first cases of missing children werereported around September 22nd or 23rd. The reader can infer that the blooferlady’ 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 readerof the evil from the East that is spreading westward into modern civilization.
The modern, civilized group of people are the only ones who can stopDracula from infecting their society. They all have qualities that show theyare participants in the enlightened modern world. Harker is a rational andwell-organized stenographer, Lucy is an assistant schoolmistress, Seward is adoctor, Morris is from the rapidly growing United States, and Dr. Van Helsinghas an M.D., a Ph.D., and a D. Litt., as well as being an attorney. All ofthese civilized characters join together to defeat the demonic vampire who harksfrom the primitive lands of the East.
Stoker creates a story that is similar to Le Fanu’s Carmilla and othergothic fiction in that it uses vampires to represent the common fear of race-mixing and the uprising of the lower classes throughout Europe. While Stokerbelieves that the best solution to this is to suppress and destroy the violentand demonic energies that many feel threatened by, Yeats shows a differentphilosophy in his works.
On Baile’s Strand shows Yeats’ opinion that the foreign threats shouldnot be simply suppressed or killed by modern society. In fact, Yeats feels thatmodern society has its flaws and has the potential to cause more tragedy thanthe threats themselves.
There are two characters in the play who represent conflicting energies.
Conchubar is the wise elder and is considered to be superior to Cuchulain, andhe represents obedience, law and enlightenment. Cuchulain is the ancient warhero who represents the strong, heroic and violent energies upon which Anglo-Ireland was founded. Cuchulain is a wild individual who is king over a certainarea of land, and Conchubar pays him a visit to try to convince him to pledgehis obedience to his lord and nation. After some time Cuchulain agrees torecognize Conchubar as his lord and thus subscribes to the rules of society.
One may think that Cuchulain’s pledging allegiance to Conchubar would bebeneficial for him and his lord, as explained by Conchubar in his attempt togain Cuchulain’s allegiance. Will you be bound into obedience and so make thisland safe for them and theirs? You are but half a king and I but half; I needyour might of hand and burning heart, and you my wisdom (29). Conchubar’sargument sounds reasonable, but as the reader finds out, Cuchulain’s pledgeleads him into despair.
Unknown to Cuchulain, he has a son whose mother is Aoife, a fiercewarrior and leader of a rival nation. Aoife has trained her son to killCuchulain because she is angry that the boy’s father abandoned them. The YoungMan, Cuchulain’s son, comes to his father and challenges him. Cuchulain doesnot want to battle him, because he feels a bond between them, as he says, Putup your sword; I am not mocking you. I’d have you for my friend, but if it’snot 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 challenge, atleast 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 challengedus 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 init. For, having none that shall reign after you, you cannot think as I do, whowould leave a throne too high for insult (35).
Because Conchubar views this challenge as an insult to the kingdom thatCuchulain has pledged his allegiance to, the heroic warrior is obligated toaccept the challenge and avenge the insult. Even though Cuchulain has a naturalbond with this foreigner, he eventually accepts the challenge and unwittinglykills his son. He soon learns the identity of the stranger, and as a result hegoes insane and drowns while attacking waves in the ocean. If Cuchulain had notpledged allegiance to the civilized society, he would have been able to followhis natural energies and feelings, which would have kept him from murdering hisson and going mad. Through this tragedy Yeats states that by suppressing orkilling the natural instead of facing it or even embracing it, one can indeedbecome a member of a civilized society, but this is ultimately a tragiccondition, as the Fool observes while describing Cuchulain’s death to the BlindMan. There, he is down! He is up again. He is going out in the deep water.
There is a big wave. It has gone over him. I cannot see now. He has killedkings 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 thatsuppressing or avoiding the demonic is not a way to solve the problems facingIreland. He feels that Ireland is trying to lift itself out of its natural formand create an image of itself as an imaginative modernist society, but doing sowill simply delay the inevitable only lead it into more despair and violence.
Only by facing and experiencing the violent and demonic forces that threaten itcan Ireland emerge triumphantly over such challenges.
The play continues from the end of On Baile’s Strand, and Cuchulain’sbody has been retrieved from the water. His wife Emer and mistress, EithneInguba, 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 Emercan bring Cuchulain back to life if she renounces his love forever. At firstEmer 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, thehope of someday being reunited with her husband. When Cuchulain is revived, hestates that Eithne Inguba is his true love, and Emer’s life is filled withnothing but sorrow.
If Cuchulain had faced the demons and suffered their wrath, he wouldhave become a legend that would live on forever, but instead he is lifted out ofthe afterlife and lives with false passion toward Eithne Inguba. Just like thisstory, Ireland will likewise lose all hope if it avoids the demonic threatsinstead of going through and emerging from them. Even though Cuchulain’s lifeis restored, he will not become the legend that he could have, and he will haveto face the demons eventually, as Bricriu says to Emer, He’ll never sit besideyou at the hearth or make old bones, but die of wounds and toil on some farshore or mountain, a strange woman beside his mattress (119). Yeats is sayingthat Ireland must eventually face and live through the dark forces that threatenit, and removing itself from these forces, in addition to simply delaying theinevitable, will only lead to further tragedy.
The works of these two Irish authors are fine pieces of fiction thateffectively employ the elements of horror and tragedy which are common in gothicliterature, but they also serve as valuable insights into the philosophies thatwere shared by many Europeans during these times of anxiety and change. It isdifficult to say which philosophy is superior to the other. Stoker’s Draculawas published in 1897, while Yeats’ works were written later, with The OnlyJealousy of Emerwritten in 1919, giving him the advantage of witnessing theEaster Rising of 1916. The turmoil of the period was not as simple as modernversus primitive or good versus evil, and certainly not everyone in Europeshared their views or anything close to them, thus making it virtuallyimpossible to judge the superiority of one philosophy over another. Whilereaders may not agree with either of the authors, these works are stillentertaining and serve as a testament to the power of literature as a platformfor social and political opinion.