By: Kate Daley-Bailey
The literary vampire represents the ultimate ambiguous being… neither dead nor alive but rather undead. Vampires straddle boundaries, be they physical or metaphysical, that few other fictional beings could manage. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the image of the vampire has captured reader’s imaginations for roughly two hundred years and continues to haunt the pages of numerous popular novels. But over the span of these years, literary vampires have changed. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula… the Count is not much more than an inversion of his enemies, a demon, or a supernatural serial killer. In Anne Rice’s novel series, penned some 80 years later, the fledging vampire Louis is a tormented being… extraordinary and yet pitiful. Then some 25 years after Louis’ debut in Interview with a Vampire, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series introduces the Cullens family to the literary vampire scene… oddly enough, as moral exemplars.
Although the Count in Dracula is a great deal more monster than moral being, he is a clear representation of the uncolonized Other… seeking to reverse the colonization process and populate England with his vampire harem. Rice’s vampires are Others too… whose relationships with one another are often read as homosexual or rather asexual in nature, which for the 1970s was extremely provocative. The vampires of the Twilight series, in particular, the Cullens are extraordinary in ways which makes them seem alien to the human residents of Forks and suspect to the rest of the vampires in Meyer’s novels. Yet the Cullens also represent the Other. Investigating how an author presents vampire literature and how an audience of readers accepts the Other in literature may help cultural observers, like myself, to determine how a community defines itself. In particular, I am interested to see if there is a correlation between the method of narration used in vampire literature and the degree to which these so called Others are humanized in the minds of readers.
Novels as self-contained worlds
Successful fantasy literature, like enduring religious narratives, must draw people into their constructed worlds. As the noted sociologist of religion Peter Berger states “every human society is an enterprise of world-building. Religion occupies a distinctive place in this enterprise.” This world-building and world-maintenance of which human societies are involved, is often regulated by legitimizing narratives which, for many cultures, are still religious in some sense. Authors of novels, too, are involved in this process, even if only within the confines of their literary microcosm.
A community, in literature as well as outside of it, is often regulated by individuals, institutions, and values. Members of these communities are differentiated simply by the presence or belief in the presence of outsiders… Others. Reading about how cultures have described these Others informs the reader more about the hopes and fears of the narrating culture than anything definite about the Others themselves. This same concept seems to work when dealing with morality. The question of morality rarely comes up in solitude because the question of morality is a question of concern for the community. Community and morality both need a collection of selves and at least the possibility of Others to exist. Community and morality are in fact relational institutions.
Reading as a Moral Activity?
Famed ethicist Martha Nussbaum, in the preface to her work Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, speaks of a class she taught at the University of Chicago on Law and Literature. While her law students read Sophocles and Dickens, Nussbaum comments that the class
talked about ways in which texts of different types present human beings- seeing them, in some cases, as ends in themselves, endowed with dignity and individuality, in others as abstract undistinguished units or as mere means to the ends of others.
Nussbaum champions the literary imagination as pertinent to law, as well as other public spheres and defends her reasoning for choosing novels, in lieu of histories or biographies, as her medium by focusing on the roles each play. She writes, “…history simply records what in fact occurred… literature focuses on the possible.” And later she states: “the novel is a living form and in fact the central morally serious yet popularly engaging fictional form of our culture”.
Theoretical thinking about Law, Literature, and Religion, is often concerned with possible worlds, ideal worlds perhaps, but how does this help citizens of the “real world”? To answer this, Nussbaum pulls from another ethicist, Wayne Booth, who illustrates how the activity of reading, particularly reading fiction, can be a practical path to ethical inquiry. Nussbaum writes,
Booth argues that the act of reading and assessing what one has read is ethically valuable precisely because it is constructed in a manner that demands both immersion and critical conversation, comparison of what one has read both with one’s own unfolding experience and with the responses and arguments of other readers.
Reading can be an ethically valuable tool in that it requires both immersion into a different set of circumstances and elicits some sort of dialogue between, at the minimum, reader and text. Questions of community are inherently linked to questions of membership in said communities. This issue is crucial to our questions of morality because if morality is somehow tied up with membership… then we must ask what qualifications must one possess to be part of and therefore, bound by the rules of personhood, as set by that community?
Does simply being human categorize someone as a person? Historically, in the West, this has not been the case. If humanity is not the only requirement for personhood then what qualities must a human exhibit to count as a person? In his chapter Can a vampire be a person?, Nicolas Michaud questions the criteria for personhood which western philosophy has used to categorize various sentient beings. He summarizes the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s description of a person as someone who is rational and “part of a moral community.” What makes up a person? This line of inquiry ties into my title- regarding the paradoxical construct of a moral monster… what happens when an entity, albeit fictional in this case, exhibits both monstrous, even abominable qualities and simultaneously moral ones?
What makes something or someone monstrous? Theorist Jeffrey Stout defines a similar concept, using the term abomination. According to Stout, in order for a society to view something or someone as an abomination, the thing or person in question must be anomalous, consisting of “combined characteristics uniquely identified with separate kinds of things”, and be connected to a socially significant issue. Applying Stout’s recipe for abomination to our concept of monstrous, the concept of a vampire, no matter how sparkly, can easily be placed into the category of monstrous. The vampire is beyond anomalous, only existing in the pages of fiction, and most assuredly combines “characteristics uniquely identified with separate kinds of things.” For the vampire is neither dead nor alive; it is technically neither god nor evil and it has extraordinary strengths and crippling deficiencies. And while the topic of vampires may hardly seem like a socially significant issue, one need only look at America’s obsession with perpetual youth and beauty to see the appeal of vampire fiction.
The Moral Monster:
Telling one’s own life story has historically been a method for demonstrating selfhood, i.e. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Autobiography of Malcolm X, etc. While Douglas was neither fictional nor a vampire, his narration of his experience was a very successful tool in eliciting sympathy from his readers. The atrocities that American slaves suffered were well known in the North as well as the South, but when Douglas narrates his own experience and tells his own story… he becomes the authorizing figure of his story in the minds of his readers. His readers hear FROM him…. not merely ABOUT him.
But how can we extend this concept of narration as a form of self definition to fictional vampires? By tracking the transformation over time of literary vampires from bloodthirsty fiends, such as the Count, to the more “cuddlier and gentler” vampire, such as Edward Cullen, alongside the changing methods of narration used in these vampire novels, we might be able to see the reason for the radical reimagining and redefining of the vampire in literature.
Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula, published in 1897, was written as a compilation of various character’s letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, etc. The contributing characters narrate different sections of the novel. Ironically, the Count, the antagonist of the novel, is not a contributor to the narrative. Lucy, Mina’s flirtatious aristocratic friend, pens a few letters to Mina at the beginning of the novel but after she succumbs to the Count’s will and becomes a vampire herself, the reader never hears directly from Lucy again… the reader only hears ABOUT the vampiric Lucy. Let’s listen as Dr. Seward narrates Lucy’s drastic change, “the sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless, cruelty and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.” The Count is only heard through the editorializing of the novel’s narrating characters and Lucy is stripped of her narrating ability once she becomes a vampire. Could there be a correlation between a character’s muteness and their being characterizes as monstrous? Is the Count monstrous to the reader BECAUSE we never hear his voice… his narration of himself?
Louis of Interview with a Vampire
When a monster already removed from the reader spatially and psychologically becomes removed narratively as well, becomes a creature accessible only through several layers of narrative filtering, that monster more than ever becomes something outside the reader’s experience.
Rice’s vampires are much more complex than the Count of Stoker’s Dracula. Wood recommends that readers
consider Rice’s vampires not as monsters of the tradition but simply as ‘Strangers,’ people on the outside, outcast, alien, monstrous. The Stranger is not the same as the human readers but is similar to them.
Louis, in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, gets to narrate his story, albeit via the filter of the interviewer. Wood advises that we “overcome the alienation, the strangeness, the monstrousness perceived in those who are different from ourselves, finally to locate the true horror not in the other but in the self.”
Bella and the Cullens
Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series reads like a fictional autobiography. Bella, the primary narrator, tells her own story… describes her own transformation from human to vampire… and continues to narrate, as a trusted source, well after her transformation. Might speculation regarding the mode of narration in this series provide us with insight regarding why Bella’s vampirism is nothing close to monstrous but rather beautiful, why her transformation appears more like apotheosis than abomination?
Let us take for example Bella’s description of her transformation in the last novel in the Twilight Series, Breaking Dawn. Bella refers to herself a “newborn” with heightened perception, strength and “dizzying beauty”. She also has the unusual ability to control herself…when newly “born” vampires are known for being particularly irrational and uncontrollable. Bella even wonders if at any moment she will lose control and “turn into a monster”. But she doesn’t. In many ways, her former human existence seems like a mere shadow of her full vampiric form. Bella has become the heroine of her own story…she has morphed from a clumsy, accident prone, very mortal, girl to a beautiful, powerful, and self-composed woman. She has narrated her own transformation. Oddly, Bella’s change flips the vampire as monster concept on its head. Bella, a young beautiful woman fully embraces a vampiric identity… it is not forced upon her, like in the case of Lucy in Dracula. And in embracing this identity and embodying it in her story… she is not remade in the image of the vampire but rather the image of the vampire gets remade in her.
Authors as Others
Meyer’s series may never be categorized as literature in a canonical sense but she has mesmerized more than merely prepubescent teens with her tales of unlikely heroes and monsters who prove to be more human than human. Meyer, as well as Rice, and Stoker before them, are striking representations of outsiders in their own right. Stoker was an Irish transplant in England working in theatre when his novel was written. Rice was a
lapsed Roman Catholic living in San Francisco pining for the haunted Southern landscape of her home, New Orleans, when she wrote Interview with a Vampire. And Meyer, a modern mother and Mormon, too represents a somewhat “Othered” and demonized community in American religious history. Perhaps these novels are attempts, conscious or not, by the authors to come to terms with the “Other” in themselves? And perhaps our desire to read and identify with these novels is a way for us, as readers, to come to terms with the “Other” in ourselves?