- Bram Stoker's Dracula and Late-Victorian Advertising Tactics:Earnest Men, Virtuous Ladies, and Porn
"The book is of necessity full of horrors and terrors but I trust that these are calculated to 'cleanse the mind by pity and terror.' At any rate there is nothing base in the book."1
Dracula is "a veritable sexual lexicon of Victorian taboos," "seduction, rape, gang rape, group sex, necrophilia, pedophilia, incest, adultery, oral sex, menstruation, venereal disease, and voyeurism."2
Contemporary readers who have learned to identify an erotic potential in every episode of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897)3 may be somewhat surprised to learn that the text's "quasi-pornographic" quality seems to have escaped the notice of most late-Victorian critics.4 Although an anonymous reviewer in the 1899 December issue of the Wave vaguely commented on the prevalence of the text's "unnatural appetites," most reviews of the time focused on its sensationalism, its fascinating blend of medieval lore and nineteenth-century technology, and its ability to terrify.5 One might wonder if sexually inflected readings of Dracula have more to do with a twenty-first-century hyper-sexuality than with any inherent erotic tensions within Stoker's text. Stoker's article on censorship, however, in which he emphasizes purity of intention in a writer who deals "with impure or dangerous material" of the imagination, argues not for a total denial of risqué matter, but for an author's "control of his own utterances."6 Stoker's claim supports Foucault's observation that Victorian "sexual repression" involved a development of stringent codes by which to talk about sex rather than a dearth of discussion surrounding sex.7 One certainly has to keep in mind that Foucault's focus on the proliferation of discourses concerning sex in Victorian society ignores the complex, sometimes contradictory relations between beliefs and sexual practices. [End Page 283]
Michael Mason observes that a discursive interest in sex was indeed notable in the late nineteenth century, but that sexual behaviours of various classes and subcultures were not necessarily reflective of such changes: if discussions about sex were not repressed, it does not necessarily follow that people's actions were not.8 Late-Victorian society was far from monolithic in its treatment of sexual matters, so that a proof of stringently controlled but inherently erotic elements within a work of popular fin-de-siècle fiction hardly justifies any general conclusions about the sexual practices of various Victorians. Yet if one analyzes Stoker's popular text as a cultural artifact that absorbed, reinscribed, and exploited some of its society's marked interest in discussing sex, one could simultaneously account for its ostensible "decency" and its underlying eroticism.
To speak of Dracula's "sexiness" in any refreshing manner one would have to resist the psychoanalytically informed tendencies by which almost every recent scholar has approached the text. The aim of this article is to provide a historical materialist reading of Stoker's novel that explores the relations between the burgeoning, increasingly sexualized commodity culture of Victorian Britain and Dracula's depictions of desire. Dracula's monsters, first and foremost, consume and proliferate: through them the text expresses anxieties about fin-de-siècle practices of excessive material production, consumption, and expanding middle-class pursuit of leisure; the rise of commercial advertising directed at "modern" women who increasingly act as independent managers of their household incomes; the industry's profit-oriented sexualization of female figures; and the consequent destabilizations of Victorian gender norms. Yet Stoker's novel is one of contrary impulses. Although it seeks to purge Britain of destabilizing influences by repeatedly reaffirming traditional ideologies of gender, class, and race, its descriptions of vampire-otherness are in fact thoroughly structured by the language and plot codes of the Victorian pornographic industry. In consequence, the novel taps into the same sex-sells tactics as the commercial culture it identifies as threatening and partakes in the discussion, portrayal, and commodification of sex. Its insistence on the purity of London's citizens contrasts with its racy descriptions of foreign, sexualized, predominantly female vampires,9 but its "dangerous material" is only displaced, distanced, and controlled in this manner, rather...