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Can the Vampire Speak?: Dracula as Discourse on Cultural Extinction
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Much ado has been made in Dracula criticism about the manifold dangers the vampire poses for England and the English. Christine Ferguson summarizes the interpretive landscape of Bram Stoker's novel as centering on a dominant myth of late-Victorian England as "obsessed with the preservation of a pure, homogeneous, and unchanging national identity" that was constantly threatened by foreign and subversive elements. Carol Senf calls the threat Dracula seems to pose "a kind of reverse imperialism," the potential colonization of the civilized world by a more primitive race. Stephen D. Arata, in a seminal essay, similarly names this general anxiety one of "reverse colonization," suggesting that Dracula is not only a physical threat to his victims, but also endangers their "cultural, political, and racial selves." Many critics have inferred threats to norms of gender, the body, and especially sexuality. Such readings strongly reinforce the novel's thrust as a horror story, accentuating the vulnerability of the characters, while simultaneously adding new layers of menace and unlikeness to the bloodthirsty monster from the periphery of Europe.

The problem with such a reading is that its understanding of the vampire entirely foregrounds the perspective of the victims, leaving the Count himself in a state of alterity from which he may not speak. R. J. Clougherty laments the nearly unanimous tendency of critics to read the Count as an evil or antithetic figure, without investigating his background and determining whether he poses a real or illusory threat. Who, after all, is "Count Dracula"? We cannot answer very basic questions about him conclusively: he has no clearly defined name, culture, nationality, or even language. His motivations are mysterious to us, since he is not outwardly presented as a territorial conqueror but as a blood-sucking fiend. Is he Hungarian or Romanian? If he is a boyar, and a count, what is his estate—does he only rule over the deracinated Szgany (Roma, or Gypsies) who themselves have no nation? Why, in particular, is his native language not conveyed in the narrative?

Such questions can be dismissed with a facile reading of the novel as a monster story: his mysteries make him frightening, since he threatens our settled boundaries of knowledge and identity. However, it can be seen that these specific ambiguities are not only revealing, but pertinent to contemporary discourses on nationhood and cultural endangerment. Dracula can be read as a prescient depiction of a globalizing world in which minority cultures and languages are increasingly threatened with assimilation and extinction. Transylvania, Dracula's place of origin, is even today a center of such a fight for cultural survival: ethnic Hungarians living there have struggled against "cultural genocide" and assimilation. The Székely, with whom Dracula initially claims kinship, are one such Hungarian-speaking people whose culture has been threatened in Transylvania, where they face pressure to adopt the language and culture of Romania. Countless other cultures and ethnicities have already assimilated in, or otherwise disappeared from, the same region. Transylvania is in Dracula's words a "whirlpool of European races," in the sense of a place of cultural blending, drowning, and annihilation.

In this light, Dracula can be viewed as a subaltern struggling against cultural loss. As the sole heir of a disappearing civilization, he is losing his own historical record even as he attempts to learn the dominant, imperial language and culture of the British Empire. The very grotesqueness of this act can be seen as vampiric: "un-dead," he must drink the blood of a foreign culture to "survive" the death-in-life of a people who have lost their heritage. The more successful he is in this endeavor—the more he adopts the English language, culture, and systems of historical representation—the less we can understand his own identity; by the time he narrates it to Harker, Dracula's historical record is already fragmentary and incoherent. The mysteries of Dracula are those of a dying people. Rather than viewing the novel as depicting a threat of "reverse colonization," such a reading suggests that it is less the British Empire that is under threat (sustained as it is by its "teeming millions") than the disappearing civilization of Dracula himself—already in...



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