Criticism 44.2 (2002) 208-212
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Dracula's Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood by Joseph Valente. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Pp. 192. $29.95 cloth.
Upon seeing the title, I was prepared not to like this book very much, a feeling based largely on my personal opinion that Hibernian readings overlook much of what I find intriguing in Stoker's writings, including his complex attitudes toward gender issues, his ambivalent treatment of science and technology, and the apparent disparity between his liberal political beliefs and his occasionally racist sentiments. Reading Valente's intelligent—indeed groundbreaking work—convinced me, however, that an Irish reading can answer many of the perplexing questions raised in Dracula and in Stoker's other works.
It should come as no surprise that Valente's study focuses on Dracula (and much of my review will therefore zero in on his reading of that novel). However, Dracula's Crypt is also worth reading because it introduces readers to several lesser known works, including The Primrose Path (recently reissued by The Desert Island Dracula Library) and "The Dualitists" as well as The Snake's Pass, the only Stoker work to take place in Ireland and therefore the work on which many Hibernian readings rely.
Valente lays out the thesis of Dracula's Crypt clearly in his introduction, [End Page 208] articulating at the same time the degree to which his "revisionist Hibernian reading" differs from previous readings because the "specifically Irish elements in the novel . . . serve to modulate Dracula's central metaphorics of blood into a . . . critique of this racialist logic and its attendant illogic, racialist paranoia" (5). Thus, Valente argues that Stoker does not share the often simplistic views of the characters he has created but rather looks at these characters with some degree of ironic detachment. The result of this reading is to distance Dracula from the popular fiction with which it is generally compared and to see Stoker's criticism of the individuals who would share such a simplistic worldview. As a result, Dracula becomes more rich and complex, Stoker himself a more interesting writer, a deliberate craftsman rather than "an allegory, a type of his age and his society" (7).
To support his Hibernian reading, Valente amasses an impressive array of evidence that includes the analysis of the ethnic orientation of Stoker's immediate family; a thorough grounding in the history and politics of Britain and Eastern Europe; the knowledge of both literary genres and cultural studies; and an understanding of psychoanalytic approaches to literature. Finally, while previous literary critics have sometimes called attention to Stoker's predilection for puns, Valente is perhaps the first critic to undertake a systematic reading of those puns and to use the puns to demonstrate Stoker's awareness of social and political issues.
Valente's organization of evidence is both skillful and sensible. After laying out his argument in the brief introduction, he begins the first chapter by looking at Stoker's own background as a hybrid (Anglo and Celtic). Demonstrating Stoker's position as both insider and outsider provides the framework for arguing that Stoker's attitude toward the fin de siècle status quo is more crucial than is generally thought.
The very short second chapter examines a little known Stoker short story, "The Dualitists," as a prelude to Dracula both in terms of its deliberate and obvious sexual symbolism and its use of the language of "state administration and policy" (45). As Valente explains, the phallic symbolism of the story illustrates "the sexual ingredient of racial and national tensions," a central element in . . . the Irish Dracula while the language of politics makes legible "topical analogies to the Irish situation" (45).
The transition to Chapter 3, which focuses on the Irish Dracula, is therefore an easy one, and Valente opens the chapter with the direct statement: "Ireland and the Irish Question may be said to constitute the 'other scene' of Dracula, a never fully present correlative to the official narrative concerning the Balkans and the Eastern Question, at once...