“In the semblance of man”: The Imperial Uncanny in Late Victorian Popular Fiction and Bram Stoker’s Dracula


Bipranarayan Bhattacharyya

Darwin’s theory of evolution was one of the greatest scientific achievements of the Victorian period. However, the theory, with its emphasis on the fact of constant transformations in organisms in course of the struggle for survival, was also received in an opposite way in some quarters. Instead of subscribing to the belief that such transformations will always proceed through the steady path of a gradual progress towards perfection, such quarters put forward the possibility that transformations intended solely for survival and nothing else were not certain to guarantee progress in every sense of the word, but can also result in the gradual turn of the animal world toward the worse, thus leading to regression. Environment operated in various ways to different effects, and the most adaptive inherited characteristics were not necessarily the highest or most civilized ones. In Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880), Darwin’s disciple Edwin Ray Lankester pointed out that parasites, which necessarily postdate their host organisms, are none the less “simpler and lower in structure” than those organisms, and talked of the decline of the ‘white races’ into parasitism (Trotter 111). In the later Victorian period, there seems to be a widespread belief in the society that the English race was gradually losing its energy, strength and mental resource, and entering a phase of decline. Stephen Arata says that the decay of British global influence, the loss of overseas markets for British goods, the economic and political rise of Germany and the United States, the increasing unrest in British colonies and possessions, the growing domestic uneasiness over the morality of imperialism- all combined to erode Victorian confidence in the inevitability of British progress and hegemony (Arata 120). Max Nordau’s Degeneration, published in English translation in 1895, proclaimed the end of European civilization with the help of arguments based on medical science. Recruiting campaigns for the Boer War revealed that sixty per cent of Englishmen were unfit for military service, and the government felt obliged to form an Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration — events which further fuelled fears of racial degeneration (Trotter 112-3). On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that the late Victorian period also saw an unprecedented improvement in the transport facilities between the imperial heartland of England and the colonial margins. Indeed, a trip to one of the colonies in a Thomas Cook P & O steamer became so easy and affordable that Frederic Harrison laments the loss of adventure in such a banal empire: “We go abroad, but we travel no longer” (Harrison 241). However, such a smooth and well-frequented connection between England and its colonies also opened the possibility of an unintended increase in the number of elements travelling from the colonies to England, which unlike the migration of labourers and colonial officials, might occur undetected by the active surveillance of colonial policing. And if such elements decided to invade the imperial centre with hostile motives, what chance did a degenerating Britain stand before such forces? Susan Cannon Harris shows how late Victorian popular novels show exotic poisons brought into the imperial metropole as a result of “England’s increasingly intimate contact with the peoples and cultures on the peripheries of the Empire” (Harris 448). Indeed, again and again we find in late Victorian popular fiction that Britain, smug in the comforts of her civilization, is threatened by some unforeseen presence from the periphery of the Empire (which can be either a person or a material object) that penetrates the very heart of English society, throwing it into complete disarray. In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), it is a yellow diamond originally belonging to a temple of the Moon-God at Somnauth in India, which also brings three Indians on its trail. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four (1890) it is the Agra treasure resulting in the presence of Tonga, the murderous tribal from Andaman in London, and in The Beetle (1897) by Richard Marsh, it is an Egyptian priestess. I argue that the horror caused by the presence of such elements in London results from the element of ‘uncanny’, a concept discussed in detail by early twentieth-century theorists Ernst Jentsch in his ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’(1906) and Sigmund Freud in ‘The Uncanny’(1919).

Jentsch says that something unheimlich (‘uncanny’) happens to someone who is ‘not quite ‘at home’ or ‘at ease’ in the situation concerned, and the thing is or at least seems to be foreign to him’ (Jentsch 2). I argue that the presence from the colonial margins is ‘uncanny’ to the English reader precisely because it represents something ‘foreign’ within an intimate space, i.e. their own home or country, with whom the they are not ‘at home’. Furthermore, one of the recurring tropes in such narratives is the colonial native’s intention to invade and conquer the English people. In Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1887), the African queen Ayesha half-heartedly considers the idea of invading England: “then shall we journey to this England of thine, and live as it becometh us to live” (Haggard 117). In John Buchan’s The Half-Hearted (1900), the Russian spy Marker tells the English protagonist: “Britain is getting sick, and when she is sick enough, some people who are less sick will overwhelm her…When that day comes, my masters, we shall have a new empire, the Holy Eastern Empire” (Buchan 100). According to Stephen Arata, the possibility of such an event arises in British fantasy because “(i)n the marauding, invasive Other, British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms” (121). In his essay, Freud explains Schelling’s original definition of ‘uncanny’ as ‘something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light’ (Freud 13). I argue that the presence of the invading ‘Other’ from the margins in the imperial metropole is ‘doubly uncanny’ to the British as its rapacious activities are a reflection of the British greed for power and domination hitherto concealed under the veneer of the humanistic rhetoric of imperialism. This element of ‘uncanny’ in the narrative tropes of these writings is arguably one reason why late Victorian popular fiction frequently takes the line of supernatural and horror narratives- a tendency which leads Patrick Brantlinger to term this literature as ‘Imperial Gothic’ (Brantlinger 228). A close look at one of the most famous works of late Victorian popular fiction- Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) would reveal how the concept of ‘uncanny’ has been developed at various levels in this horror narrative.

Arata notes how Dracula initially parallels the literary conventions of a travel narrative (129). The descriptions of Jonathan’s trip to the vampire’s castle echo those of the innumerable forays of the white man into the Orient when he notes: “The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East” (Stoker 3). Like any conventional Oriental tourist, Jonathan gives detailed ethnographic accounts of the natives, intends to collect the local recipes, and frets about the unpunctuality of the local trains. It must be noted that though Transylvania is greatly different from Harker’s homeland, such difference does not make him ‘uneasy,’ as like every serious Oriental traveller, he has done some preliminary research about his destination: “I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania” (Stoker 3). Thus, the unfamiliarity of Transylvanian local customs is something highly expected, and cheerfully accepted by Harker. However, his expectations start breaking down once Harker arrives at the Golden Krone Hotel. Instead of the usual respect for an urban and educated lawyer, the owners of the Hotel and his fellow passengers in the coach treat him with pity. The coach, instead of being usually lackadaisical like any Eastern conveyance, is driven “with a feverish haste” (Stoker 6). The words used by the crowd around the inn door prove too much for Harker’s foreknowledge and throws him into genuine confusion — “I quietly got my polyglot dictionary from my bag and looked them out” (Stoker 6). Once he learns the meanings of the words, they further deepen his confusion, and he is compelled to wait for native assistance: “I must ask the Count about these superstitions” (Stoker 6). Jentsch says that the feeling of uncanny is related with a “lack of orientation” (2) or a deficiency of “intellectual mastery” (4) of a situation. It is precisely Harker’s “intellectual mastery” of his surroundings, supplied by his previous research on Transylvania that gets broken down by events which appear genuinely unfamiliar to his expectations, compromising his posture of a self-assured traveller to the Orient. This is a situation provoking an uncanny sense of fear in him as he is certainly not ‘at ease’. Freud draws attention to the role played by “the factors of silence, solitude and darkness” in producing this sense of fear (Freud 19), and Harker’s fear is similarly magnified during his journey to Castle Dracula, when he is a lone traveller by night accompanied by a laconic driver. The uncanny feeling continues once the Count appears on the scene as himself, as his appearance evokes similar confusion in Harker. The Count who “spoke excellent English, but with a strange intonation” (Stoker 11) is aged but possesses great strength and “astonishing vitality” (Stoker 13). He is a man of impeccable courtesy but who nevertheless has “a grim sort of smile” (Stoker 13). Harker’s minute description of the Count’s appearance and behaviour, accompanied by his repeated use of the word ‘strange’ [“Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm,” “There seemed a strange stillness over everything,” “I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul” (Stoker 13)] express his anxiety over the inability to properly ‘slot’ the Count. The Count seems to him a lot of things at the same time, yet none so completely as to enable smooth categorization. The Count’s abode creates similar confusions in Harker’s mind. The Count himself says — “We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England” (Stoker 14) and yet Harker finds the Count’s library stuffed with English reading material: “In the library I found, to my great delight, a vast number of English books, whole shelves full of them, and bound volumes of magazines and newspapers” (Stoker 13). The castle shows evident signs of wealth but has no servant, and the furniture is “dusty with age and moth-eaten” (Stoker 22). Harker’s initial descriptions of the castle show him at a loss as to what to make of the place, and the uncanny effect the castle has on him is evident in his words: “there is something so strange about this place and all in it that I cannot but feel uneasy” (Stoker 16).

The initial feeling of unease gives way to genuine horror once Jonathan sees Dracula at his movements: “I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings” (Stoker 21). This is the point when Jonathan’s confusion regarding Dracula’s identity also reaches its utmost point: “What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature, is it in the semblance of man?” (Stoker 21). However, the greatest reason why the Count becomes such a figure of horror to Jonathan is that he cannot decide whether the Count is actually dead or alive. As Jentsch says in his essay which is later confirmed by Freud, the most regular effect of ‘uncanny’ is triggered by a “doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate” (Jentsch 8). Jonathan’s doubt is evident once he discovers the Count’s body lying in a coffin:

There, in one of the great boxes, of which there were fifty in all, on a pile of newly dug earth, lay the Count! He was either dead or asleep, I could not say which, for eyes were open and stony, but without the glassiness of death, and the cheeks had the warmth of life through all their pallor. The lips were as red as ever. But there was no sign of movement, no pulse, no breath, no beating of the heart. (Stoker 29)

And once Jonathan becomes convinced that Dracula is not really dead and gone, the sight of his apparently lifeless body lying “gorged in blood” (Stoker 31) in a coffin becomes all the more horrible for Jonathan as according to Freud: “To many people the idea of being buried alive while appearing to be dead is the most uncanny thing of all” (Freud 14).

While Dracula thus becomes an uncanny figure due to his status as an ‘UnDead,’ he evokes further horror with his arrival and subsequent activities in London. Because for the English, Dracula in London means a dangerously foreign creature within an intimate space, the heart of English civilization. It may be noted that this fear of the foreign Count invading the intimate spaces of the English is first portrayed in the scene where the Count dresses himself in the English clothes of Jonathan (Stoker 27), as clothes certainly represent one of the most personal and intimate belongings of a person. His activities add another element of the uncanny as they are also a rapacious form of conquest and subsequent dominance which grotesquely mirrors British imperialism, as made evident by Jonathan’s fears:

This was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood, and create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to battle on the helpless. (Stoker 31)

Arata argues that Dracula’s actions in London represent an ultimate colonisation of the English body and mind, a complete appropriation of their most intrinsic features — “Horror arises not because Dracula destroys bodies, but because he appropriates and transforms them. Having yielded to his assault, one literally ‘goes native’ by becoming a vampire oneself” (Arata 125). John Allen Stevenson argues that if ‘blood’ is a sign of racial identity, then Dracula effectively deracinates his victims (Stevenson 144). If we keep in mind the fact that unlike earlier portrayals of the vampire figure such as Polidori’s Count Ruthven and Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Stoker’s Count is depicted as remarkably strong and energetic, then we realise that Dracula’s feeding on the degenerate English mass actually represents, albeit in a perverted form, the biological and political annihilation of the weaker race by the stronger. As Patrick Brantlinger shows, a number of Victorian apologists for the Empire such as J.A. Cramb believed British colonisation to be the manifestation of such a Darwinian struggle for racial survival, as the Anglo-Saxon race was for them the fittest to survive (Brantlinger 228). Arata draws attention to the fact that “Dracula propagates his race solely through the bodies of women” (Arata 128), and it is significant to note that the male Count’s attempts at gaining complete mastery over Lucy and Mina grotesquely parallel Victorian patriarchy. The reason why Dracula’s activities at London evoke a strong sense of uncanny horror is because in them, Victorian Britain recognises its own imperial and patriarchal ideologies reflected back in monstrous forms.

Jentsch draws attention to the uncanny effect produced on people by epileptic fits and attacks of spasms (14), because, as Freud explains, these events elicit the feeling that “automatic, mechanical processes are at work, concealed beneath the ordinary appearance of animation” (4). It is interesting to note that the subjects of Dracula themselves become a source of uncanny horror as they are reduced by Dracula to a similar state of being little more than an automaton. The somnambulating Lucy going out of her house to allow the Count suck her blood provides an early picture of such automated action (Stoker 58), and when she herself becomes an ‘UnDead,’ Van Helsing explains the ceaselessly mechanical life to which such victims are doomed — “They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world” (Stoker 130). Thus, it can be said that the uncanny horror evoked by Lucy when she is under Dracula’s spell has three different levels — first, she evokes the sense of uncanny by being neither fully dead nor fully alive, but something confusingly in between, second, by displaying a completely different behaviour despite inhabiting the familiar body of Lucy Westenra [“Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed,” says Dr. Seward (Stoker 128)], and third, she evokes the sense of uncanny because under the spell her actions are those of a mechanical being, an automaton. It should be noted that after his failure in Lucy’s case, Dracula tries to reduce Mina into a similar automatic existence: “Now you shall come to my call. When my brain says “Come!” to you, you shall cross land or sea to do my bidding” (Stoker 174). However, Mina decides to resist the harmful effects of this spell by placing her mind under the control of Van Helsing and his powers of hypnotism. Thus, though they are ultimately intended to undermine Dracula, the primary source of uncanny horror in the narrative, the automated replies given to Van Helsing by a hypnotised Mina also possess a certain uncanny element in themselves.

The five male characters of the novel, accompanied by Mina, eventually succeed in banishing the uncanny figure of Dracula from the English coasts, ultimately killing him in his own homeland. After the monster’s death, a conscious effort to disavow the uncanny effect produced by the figure of the Count is seen in Jonathan’s subsequent visit to Transylvania. Harker’s accounts of this journey evidently attempt to declare triumphantly that nothing now exists in Transylvania which can challenge his intellectual grip over the place as an English tourist to the Orient:

In the summer of this year we made a journey to Transylvania, and went over the old ground which was, and is, to us so full of vivid and terrible memories. It was almost impossible to believe that the things which we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths. Every trace of all that had been was blotted out. (Stoker 227)

The words clearly show Jonathan’s attempt to recover the rational constructs with which we see him in the beginning of the narrative. However, ‘every trace’ is not actually ‘blotted out’ as the various records which give a collective account of the Dracula affair do not have the familiar quality of ‘authenticity’ for the protagonists, of whom almost every one is a person dealing in bare facts (Jonathan is a lawyer, Seward and Van Helsing are doctors, and Mina memorizes train timings). The records thus ultimately fail to conveniently ‘familiarise’ the uncanny ‘Otherness’ of the Dracula affair. This realisation ultimately leads Van Helsing to do away with the convention of factual reality altogether. Freud notes that a fairy tale never evokes the sense of uncanny in spite of depicting innumerable highly unusual events because in a fairy story — “the world of reality is left behind from the very start” (18). A writer of fairy tales never expects his readers to believe or judge him according to the familiar parameters of factual reality, because in the realm of the fairy tale it is the unfamiliar which is the order of the day, and thereby, nothing ‘strange.’ Van Helsing’s final words — “We want no proofs! We ask none to believe us!” (Stoker 227) show him attempting to attenuate the uncanny element in the Dracula affair by treating the whole incident in the manner of a fairy tale. However, despite Van Helsing’s efforts to tranquillize the overwhelming momentum of the uncanny feeling at the end of the novel, the uncomfortable effect remains, and Count Dracula continues to be a mysterious figure, who refuses to be eliminated explained away by European rationality.

Works Cited

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation.” New Casebooks: Dracula, edited by Glennis Byron, Palgrave, 1999, pp. 119-44

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Cornell UP, 1988

Buchan, John. The Half-Hearted. E-book, Project Gutenberg, 2005

Freud, Sigmund. “The “Uncanny”.” Translated by Alix Strachey

Haggard, Henry Rider. She. E-book, Project Gutenberg

Harris, Susan Cannon. “Pathological Possibilities: Contagion and Empire in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Stories.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no. 2, 2003, pp. 447-66

Harrison, Frederic. Memories and Thoughts. Macmillan, 1906

Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” Translated by Roy Sellars. Stevenson, John Allen. “A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula.” PMLA, no.103, 1988, pp. 139-49

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. E-book, Project Gutenberg, 2008

Trotter, David. The English Novel in History 1895-1920. Routledge, 1993


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