Matthew Baldwin's Journal

Nobody Likes a Freeloader

10.16.09 | 2 Comments

Okay, true confession time. After diligently keeping up with the Infinite Jest reading schedule for three months straight, Dracula somehow got the better of me. I am caught up now, but totally stalled out there for a spell. After tearing through the Castle Dracula prologue and 50 pages thereafter, the string of Lucy chapters–in which she became something of a human heart, blood merrily whooshing into and out of her–nearly did me in. By the time she finally kicked the bucket, it was sweet release for everyone involved.

Objectively, though, I recognize why Stoker felt it necessarily to dwell on Lucy’s longest goodbye. When read literally the events induce more eye-rolling than sympathy, but, when considered metaphorically, they neatly showcases what it is about Dracula (and vampires in general) that makes him so repellent.

I don’t mean the killing. I mean, yes, killing is obviously qualifies as Very Bad, but we don’t need vampires for that–we’ve got zombies mindlessly assailing all who come within their reach, and werewolves chowing down on friend and family every 28 days. What vampires bring to the table (so to speak) is something more insidious. Take, for instance, the fact that Lucy wasn’t so much killed as converted. That vampirism can be passed from person to person taps into our primal fears of contagion.

But I don’t think that fear–fear of death, or assault, or disease–can alone account for the revulsion that vampires inspire. I believe that anger also plays a key role. Because, as the ravaging of Lucy demonstrates, vampires are just killers, they are thieves and cheaters.

I mean “cheater” here in the evolutionary psychology sense, one who takes from the community without contributing. Like all parasites, vampires are unable to “live” without siphoning off the energy of others. This is true of all animals, of course–if you’re unable to photosynthesis, you’re eating something else. But vampires don’t kill their victims outright, they feed from time and time, dropping in for a snack whenever the mood strikes. They don’t prey on humans so much as farm them.

And in the case of dear Lucy, Dracula found himself at an all-you-can-eat-buffet, as her lovelorn beaus helpfully refilled his plate every time he licked it clean. Imagine the anger they would have felt if they’d known that their efforts were going not to recuperate their friend, but instead only to fatten their enemy.6

In a funny way, the Lucy chapters struck me as a extended allegory of the current Wall Street bailout, as every day taxpayers are asked to roll up their sleeves and give blood, and every night their contributions are handed over to disreputable individuals, many of whom probably also live in castles. Think of the visceral rage many (perhaps yourself) have felt at the thought of CEOs getting huge bonuses after hardworking Everyman are asked to chip in.7

Stoker craftily exploits this instinctive anger we feel at those getting rich off the sweat (or blood) of others. And there is another dimension as well. In his foreword, Ian Holt said:

For women, Dracula represents the ultimate alpha-male. Wealth, power, will and strength define him. He exists on a higher plane than human men, appealing to the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality.

I now understand what Mr. Holt meant by this. But I think that this is only half the equation–Dracula represents the ultimate alpha-male to men as well, and the effect is anything but “appealing”. Instead, it taps into that primal fear of all suitors: that after giving all to a woman they love they will be nonetheless jilted when a more powerful primate strolls onto the scene, someone who sweeps her away despite having done nothing to earn her affections.8 Good guys finish last, woozy from blood loss and reeking of garlic.

Vampires are not just beasts to be feared, but enemies to be hated. This is what makes Stoker’s character more malevolent than a straightforward killer could ever be. And it is why Dracula is more than a mere monster–he is a villain in the truest sense of the word.