Relatable Monstrosities: Dracula and The Purple Cloud
In the novels Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel, the conscious efforts by characters to preserve their humanity and align themselves with others act as barriers to their pursuit of personal fulfillment. Indeed, our lives as humans are defined almost solely by the obligations we owe to society and its structure. Both of these works revolve around individuals who seem human by appearance, but whose actions are quite singular and contradicting to that of those around them. In this way, we are naturally invited to consider what makes the characters of Adam Jeffson and the Count disjoint from ourselves, and the rest of humanity. That is, how do they go about advancing their will in a way that defies human nature, and what is the result of this?
It is a lofty goal to pinpoint the universal set of morals and qualities that deem a being or an action worthy of being identified as ‘human’. Fortunately, this is not necessary because these novels establish a manageable context in which to contemplate the qualities that Man holds most dear and uses in his self-definition. By permitting civilized members of society (or rather the remnants of civilized society, as in The Purple Cloud) to interact with the likes of an immortal human-creature hybrid, Dracula, and an unhinged last man, Jeffson, these books enable the reader to explore the limits and requirements of humanity by observing how it contrasts with other states of being. Perhaps it seems intuitive that the reader, likely being neither a vampire nor the last person on Earth, would identify with the side of civilized society in these novels, aligning them self against the horror spread by our two aforementioned characters. For me, however, this was not necessarily the case. The fact that I felt any degree of envy towards these outliers inclines me to believe that, somewhere within their characters, they possess certain traits that are implicitly alluring to the other side, civilized society. What is it about these two that, no matter how greatly they defy the codes of humanity that others strive to preserve, allows them to attain humanly fulfilment free from the considerations that limit others? Furthermore, how do Man’s active efforts to keep and prove his humanity prevent him from attaining the fulfillment that the ‘anti-humans’ seem to achieve at will and with little confliction?
Dracula and The Purple Cloud complement each other nicely, as Dracula captures the view that civilized people have on non-human beings, while the latter explores the mind of one who grows to defy and condemn humanity’s limitations. These contrasting views create a full picture that shows the sides of both humanity and its opposition, as well as how one views and evaluates the other. In both cases, we come to understand the human as a limited, restrained being.
Some proof of this proposition exists in The Purple Cloud; shortly after reaching land and discovering the largescale demise of mankind, Jeffson is at odds with himself as to how he should continue. He concludes that, to advance his search for remaining life, he needs a lamp and oil. Once he realizes that he must smash a store window to attain this, however, his human morals interfere, “and for some fifteen or twenty minutes, [he stands] hesitating” (Shiel 84). There will clearly be no legal ramifications for this action, being that the police and shop owner are dead, though this habit of restraint is still pronounced in his mind and as a result he is initially unable to reach his goal. He soon sheds these concerns however, and upon smashing the window he is met with “a noise so passionate, so dominant, so divulgent… so long lasting” that it has a profound impact on his psyche (85). This scene is important because it is a preliminary instance of Jeffson freeing himself from the rules of the civilized world that he is, until now, thoroughly accustomed to obeying. Later in the novel, after his being is altered from extensive detachment from society, he faces a similar situation, but acts without the hesitation. Needing something from a store, “… [he goes] in by window” with “a rage upon [him] to have [his] will quickly accomplished” (133). Here he holds no reservation against destroying the bounds of humanity, and as a result is able to reach his aims much quicker.
In Dracula, the limitations of humanity are discussed using the sleepwalking of Dracula’s victims. Once bitten, Lucy begins to occasionally behave in a way that is outside the confines of her typical life, but, “as soon as her will is thwarted” during these bouts “her intention…disappears, and she yields herself almost exactly to the routine of her life” (Stoker 96). Only because she has been touched by vampirism, an unhuman condition, does she deviate from her life’s boundaries. For Lucy, her humanity acts as guidelines that she traditionally follows to a tee, and when she ventures outside of these limits, her civilized acquaintances are quick to pull her back into her routine existence, essentially returning her to humanity. Maybe this is to literally save her from becoming a Vampire’s breakfast, but alternatively, it could be said that those who counteract her periodic efforts at deviation are working to stifle her pursuit of fulfillment through unconventional avenues. Here, people like VanHelsing and Mina are operating as the controlling agents of society, forbidding the individual to advance them self if it doesn’t serve any particular interest to the community at large. After all, it takes “a truly lion-hearted [person]…to proclaim a view so at variance with the spirit of [their] age!” (Shiel 11). If this assertion is not too much of a stretch, then vampirism can be understood as a state of ultimate freedom that allows one to finally shed the means allowed by society, and pursue fulfillment how they see fit, rather than as a disease or purely animal instinct.
While it may be an unpopular suggestion that vampirism leads one to any admirable or beneficial outcomes, it is undeniable that humanity has a great fascination with this potent form of being. This captivation is obvious in the real world, given the numerous portrayals of Dracula and vampires in general across time and varying mediums, though for our purposes, the fascination with vampires within the frame of Dracula is most telling. Within the very first moments of interaction that we see between Man and vampire, this allure is apparent, as Jonathan Harker, though “thrilled and repulsed”, “[feels] in [his] heart a wicked, burning desire that [the vampire women] would kiss [him]” (45). He is far detached from other civilized men at this point, and is fully aware of his state as a prisoner in Castle Dracula, though his encounter with these magnetizing beings somehow manages to deliver him from these bodily fears and bring him thoughts of arousal and desire. He is ultimately compelled by the prospect of his impeding fate, by the idea of being freed from his humanly toil. This strange urge later troubles him as he reflects on it, showing his anxiety around the possibility that he might actually welcome the loss of his humanity. Later in the novel, this unspoken longing to free the self from their humanity is reflected by Dr. Seward when, after hearing that Lucy is apprehensive to sleep, he questions, “afraid to sleep! Why so? It is the boon we all crave for” (135). Sleeping is arguably the one time in every person’s day that they are made to confront their deepest longings and thoughts, free from the conscious efforts to maintain their humanity. Since this is an occasion that Man universally craves, it is reasonable that it is for the purpose of being separated from the intrinsic struggle with the unnatural human condition.
Though mankind is certainly fascinated with vampires and what they represent, it may be due to something more innocent than a strong urge to mirror their appalling ways, such as a general fondness with that which we cannot fully understand. So while vampirism’s lure alone may not necessarily indicate that it is what all human’s crave, the ability of vampires, like Dracula, to achieve readily admitted humanly goals (wealth, freedom, health), suggests that vampirism stands to bring Man content in more conventional forms. When attempting to escape Castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker notices that, in addition to his large collection of literature, his captor has in his possession “a great heap of gold…gold of all kinds” (55). Money is perhaps the institution created by humans that stands to limit members of the human species to the highest and broadest degree. Poverty transcends time and space on Earth, and does not discriminate against who it condemns to a life of meager existence. Freedom is an important aspect of humanity, but this freedom is rarely achievable for one without the appropriate amount of wealth. Here, it is shown that Dracula is far detached from these mortal confines and that his embodiment of vampirism has graduated him from this self-limiting creations of humanity.
Though wealth is but one of Man’s many aspirations, in The Purple Cloud this interest is shown to triumph all others in its ability to drive the actions of mankind. In this novel, Man’s desire to reach the North Pole is initially prompted by “abstract interest [and the]…mere desire for knowledge”, but once a cash reward is offered to the first person to reach this destination, this “abstract interest… [is] now, suddenly, a thousand and a thousand times intensified by a concrete interest- a tremendous money interest” (Shiel 10). Many have lost their lives in attempting to reach the Pole, but this danger is validated by the fiscal gains it promises. This begs the question, what would Man not risk to attain the freedom granted by wealth? Would Jeffson not have eagerly thrown himself at the feet of Dracula instead of boarding the Boreal in order to satisfy his fiancé’s wishes?
Given the amount of failed voyages, the voyage to the Pole is of great difficulty, and even though “human ingenuity had achieved things a thousand times more difficult…Man had never reached [the Pole]… [he] had always been baulked” (11). Such an inability to traverse even the Earth’s surface in it’s entirely hints once again at Man’s self-imposed restrictions, which prevent him from exploring the full range of his being. Not being able to reach this distant destination suggests that Man will always be denied that which alone seems able to bring him fulfillment and clarity as to the extent of his capabilities. There are limits to where Man can go, literally in distance and in virtue. Jeffson eventually becomes the first, and only, member of our species to attain “the sanctity of sanctities, the old eternal secret”, but he cannot do this without sealing the fate of the rest of humanity (41). The deep yearning of Man is to discover that which renders his humanity useless, though the paradox is that his humanity stops him from ever reaching clarity of this extent.
I have spoken much about the limitations of the human condition, and how they impede one from reaching true satisfaction, but what shape does this satisfaction actually take for the human that has commitment to abandon their humanity? Jeffson alone can begin to answer this question for us. While he had his fears in the beginning of his time as last Man, he has time to get past this initial shock and become comfortable with the disconcerting idea of being the sole human. He becomes so accepting of his circumstance that he eventually believes “one man [and] one planet…[is] the only natural and proper condition” (126). Perhaps the reason that the purple cloud preserves its victims is to make the point that other humans and society are still present in Jeffson’s life, the only difference is that now he no longer considers them before he acts. Jeffson has learned to live as he believes he was intended to all along, and he goes great distance to remove the grasp that civilization and humanity once had on his Earth by burning cities to the ground. When he engages in this purging, he proclaims that “never could [he] have dreamed of aught so great and potent” (140). It is only upon the dismissal of humanity that Jeffson can realize the deepest pleasures that he never knew, but always suspected, existed. As “the ordinary youth of [his] time”, Jeffson struggled with “the agony of strife” in common human undertakings, such as deciding his career (15). When he no longer exists purely to serve his role in society, new possibilities are opened, and his “spirit more and more feels, and dances” as he becomes in touch with the “deeper mysteries of sensation [and] sweeter thrills”(141). The life he led as a doctor, though held in high esteem by society, now seems meek and dull by comparison. A human being must take too many considerations into their decisions if they are to retain their status, but now Jeffson has discovered, when free from this need, he can achieve “…a sensation of dear peace, of almighty power…”(142). Life amongst civilized society could never warrant Man to experience bliss such as this.
Jeffson and Dracula are very similar in what they represent to the civilized man. They are objects that embody ultimate freedom, and allow themselves to indulge in the most decadent and sensuous experiences that the Earth has to offer. The limits of Man are much wider than those of humanity, and humanity is but an act put on by Man to earn membership in society. Jeffson learns this when he finds that, after years of “thinking inarticulately,…English words and letters have a foreign air [to him]” (149). He may have once thought these abilities to be an innate part of his being, but by failing to maintain them, he finds that they are but an instrument of society to confine Man. As civilized beings, we humans are fascinated by the monstrosities on the outskirts of mankind, as they have shed the humanity against which we so commonly struggle, and they emerged swiftly, becoming the subjects of our envy. Once one stops upholding one’s own humanity, it is much easier to accept that which has repeatedly been met with self-denial. Staying within our bounds forces us to constantly wonder what lies outside these confines, and we will only satisfy this insatiable curiosity by forfeiting our humanity, or by meeting death.
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