A Wilde Bite

It is Count Dracula’s touch that summons an uncontrollable shudder in Jonathan Harker. This visceral reaction to the Count’s touch by his “white and fine” hands is expressed as disgust, yet vibrates with pleasure. Aesthetes, such as Oscar Wilde, label these vibrations as an aesthetic experience, a blush, that flutters throughout one’s body in the presence of beauty. It is, as Walter Pater says, a certain temperament: “the power to be deeply moved” by beautiful objects. Bram Stoker’s Dracula obscures the limited idea that aesthetic experiences are only felt on “the sungilt side of the garden.” Quivers of pleasure, sensual pulsations, and lustful throbs can be felt on the other side, where there’s shadow and gloom.

Dracula’s dark castle initially “seems like a horrible nightmare” to Harker, but he soon yields to the Count’s hospitality. Dracula courts Harker with delectable foods, impeccable manners, and even comfortable bedding. This softens Harker’s masculinity, aiding Harker to develop a temperament that allows pleasures from dark, chilling places to engulf him. As a subversion against Victorian masculinity, which demanded self-control of one’s body and public decency, Harker experiences a freedom that allows him to feel aroused by things that do not exist outside the Count’s realm.

Atlanta Ballet’s 2013 production of Dracula. Dracula and Harker meet.  – Source

In Dracula’s domain, wolves howl and “the children of the night” make music — they  are not silenced. Harker soon learns that he has difficulty suppressing his own sensations. The moment Harker realizes he is not a guest at Dracula’s castle but a prisoner, “a sort of wild” feeling comes over him. He rushes to try every door and peers out every window, soon losing his will to escape. By accepting that he is a prisoner in Dracula’s castle and relinquishing his masculinity, something imprisoned inside Harker awakens. His newfound place as a passive feminine object, the damsel, now widens his scope of desire and pleasure.

Harker is not completely against dismissing his masculinity either. There are moments where he enjoys being the distressed damsel such as one scene where Harker is overcome with horror and sinks down unconscious. Dracula then carries Harker’s limp, unconscious body, lays him in bed, and undresses him. Harker does not wake up feeling violated, but rather describes something enticing about yielding to Dracula and being “so absolutely in his power.” Stoker charges Harker’s lines with sexual energy, particularly during moments where Harker is aware of his objectification, “and to refuse would be to excite his suspicion and to arouse his anger.” Considering himself a prisoner in Dracula’s castle produces a strange paradox. On one hand, Dracula has given permission to “Come freely. Go Safely,” yet Harker does not run. He stays as a prisoner in Dracula’s castle, allowing himself to experience desires he never knew he had.

In the lexical network, the sense of desire is commonly disconnected from coldness or fear.

Stoker creates a polemic against that network. For Stoker, desire shivers with uneasiness and fear. When Harker encounters three beautiful young women, he feels “uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear,” as well as “a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss” him with their red lips. Given the Victorian perception of women as “either frigid or else insatiable” and more likely to give into their sexual desires, Harker embraces his femininity. There is an agency found in pleasure and a force that emerges from sensations. Whereas Victorian masculinity was strict and filtering, Harker’s femininity gives him access to depths within himself.

Dracula sneaks up on Harker shaving. – Source

For instance, when Dracula sneaks behind Harker shaving, Harker looks into the mirror and realizes Dracula does not have a reflection; Dracula is there, his presence known, but in the mirror it is just Harker. In “De Profundis,” Oscar Wilde states, “What the artist is always looking for is that mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward.” By omitting Dracula’s reflection, Stoker expresses Dracula’s inner demon as being a presence that is not tangible because he is everywhere – Dracula is inside us, inside Harker, and a part of his soul.

Wilde also states that “the soul of a man is unknowable.” Dracula pushes and complicates this idea even further by challenging self-identity, duty, and man’s control over  his own body. Harker thinks he knows who he is until he enters Dracula’s castle, where Harker is emasculated into passivity. Through that very castration, aesthetic pulses blossom inside of Harker.

When Count Dracula invites Jonathan Harker into his castle, Stoker invites readers inside as well. It is within this castle where we find temperament, the power to be moved by aesthetic beauty. In this novel, beauty is not found where light is; beauty comes from the depths of darkness. It may be that we are scared of plunging into that darkness — we feel paralyzed with unease — but Stoker escorts us in and disrobes our restrictive notions of masculinity and femininity. He takes us into the opposite side of “the sungilt garden” where the Count is waiting to stroke our fears, to feel us shudder.

By Pooka Paik

Pooka Paik is an English & Political Science double major, and a graduating senior in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. This essay is a further exploration of an assignment completed for Survey of English Lit. II, taught by Professor Carina Pasquesi. This piece reflects on past thinkings on Aestheticism as both a subversion and transgression against polite Victorian (19th Century) culture and society.

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