Sexual Fear And Colonialism In Dracula And Heart Of Darkness Argumentative Essay Samples
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Many of the greatest works of Victorian literature take a critical or satirical stance on the orthodoxy and imperialism inherent to English culture in the 1800s; from a class or gender perspective, Victorian English culture can be seen as restrictive, oppressive and dangerous to other cultures it interacts with and dominates. This is particularly true in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as they both illustrate and condemn the reductive, limiting and patronizing attitudes the English have toward the Other. While Dracula himself is the personification of the Eastern European Other who may seek to defile England’s women with his exotic sexuality and taboo behavior, the Englishmen of Heart of Darkness abuse and look down upon the natives which they abuse for the sake of commerce and imperialism.
Dracula and the Fear of Oriental Conquest
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in particular, is given added context when considering the work within the auspices of British colonialism, imperialism, gender and class. According to Arata, the historical context of Dracula includes “the decline of Britain as a world power at the close of the nineteenth century,” as the influence and economy of Britain began to decline, making it more fearful of other countries and powers overtaking it (622). Within the book, the Englishmen of the novel fear “reverse colonization,” rather than reveling in their own colonization of others. Unlike the imperialistic bravado and arrogance of Heart of Darkness’s characters, the mood of Dracula is one of abject fear – fear that the Other will overtake British culture.
This fear of the Other is most acutely represented in the character of Dracula himself. Count Dracula is an exotic, Eastern European figure who is painted as decidedly inhuman, representative of the mysterious properties of the East. He is a seductive figure, his vampiric nature becoming representative of the parasitic nature of the Orient that many Englishmen fear. In many ways, Dracula’s nature is a noted consequence of British imperialism, as Van Helsing notes: "He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar” (Stoker 286). Dracula’s nationality is left intentionally vague, and his wealth and military status as a Count cements him as an implicit military threat to the West; one of the underlying fears of the book is that Dracula himself will invade Britain and convert them to his way of life (vampirism). Just as Dracula desires blood to nourish him, so would the East (according to English fears) need warfare and conquest with England to support itself. To that end, Dracula becomes representative of the potential disruption of the ideal domestic from an imperial point of view.
Dracula’s choice to move to England presents fears of immigration, and the kind of reverse colonization that turns England into the very countries it used to conquer. What’s more, Dracula demonstrates an ability to echo and personify Occidental virtues as a mask to hide his true intentions within Victorian society – yet another fear expressed in the novel (Arata 638). By melding so easily within British culture once he moves here, yet having such sinister intentions and motives, Stoker’s novel further expresses the insidious disruption of the ideal domestic by a metaphorical wolf in sheep’s clothing – an Oriental figure who can successfully pass themselves off as an Englishman: “Well I know that, did I move and speak in your London, none there are who would not know me for a stranger” (Stoker 31).
Part of the reverse colonization narrative that Arata speaks of relates also to miscegenation – the fear of race mixing – which Dracula represents in his vampirism. Psychoanalytic readings easily conflate the violently sexual nature of vampires (as well as their sexual allure) with the exoticism of the East, and the inherent fear that outsiders will come, take English women, and provide racially-mixed babies that will end the pure Anglo-Saxon race (Arata 631). The pull that Dracula has on women such as Mina Harker is evidence of this fear, as vampire attacks seem exotic, exciting and new to Englishwomen: “"The adventure of the night does not seem to have harmed heron the contrary, it has benefited her for she looks better this morning than she has done in weeks” (Stoker 115).
The vitality that Dracula takes from the Harkers in various ways is personified by their increasing weakness and asexual nature; Dracula is appealing because he is the ravenous sexual creature Englishmen fear their women will be attracted to, whereas they are not. To that end, Dracula disrupts the ideal domestic in yet another way – by presenting himself as the more alluring sexual partner to English women. The fear of Dracula, essentially, is that he will take over the English country and ravage their women; these fundamental fears color the entirety of the book.
Here, class and gender are inextricably connected, as the desire for female sexual freedom is likened to the destruction of upper-class English culture, as personified by Van Helsing’s expression of anxiety about these vampire attacks: "I fear to trust those women" (Stoker 180). By unleashing women’s inherent sexuality, this is feared to cause the death of the status quo in British culture, which is ruled by rich white men. What Harker and Van Helsing fight against is the preservation of a very specific, Anglocentric way of life in which the upper classes (and men in particular) continue to benefit socially.
Heart of Darkness and the Passive Arrogance of Imperialism
Within the story of Charles Marlow and Mr. Kurtz, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness takes a starkly critical take on imperialism and its dangers. Throughout the book, Kurtz and all of the other Englishmen in the story, including Marlow, have a very complicated relationship with the African natives. Whether they overtly set themselves up as their ideological better (as when Kurtz ascribes himself as the god of these natives), or patronizingly treats them like slaves and exoticized objects (as is Marlow’s approach), the Englishmen of this novel are shown to consider themselves as ‘above’ the natives, which they regard with the same fear and distance as the Englishmen toward Dracula in Stoker’s novel. However, whereas they fear Dracula for his Otherness, the whites of Heart of Darkness consider the Other to be beneath them, and well within their control.
The African native, as exemplified in the book, is treated as essentially an object, a clear parallel to the imperialist, colonialist attitudes of Victorian England. The African natives that are shown are described as dumb, ignorant savages, who are largely ignorant of how modern European men are supposed to act and behave. In fact, the natives are largely a means to an end to get the real objects of their eye – ivory. As Marlow notes, the men working at the Central Station are almost animalistically preoccupied with it: “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it” (Conrad 60). Not only does this reveal the imperialistic disdain for the African natives, but reveals the more insidious nature of colonialism: the abuse of native peoples for their resources. In order to follow the capitalistic demands of British imperialism, the men of Central Station must treat the Africans as less than human in order to benefit from their labor, acting as a particularly insidious form of abuse.
Marlow, in particular, has a great deal of difficulty considering the Africans as human: “It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman” (Conrad 97). Despite this, Marlow comes the closest to combating the insidious nature of British imperialism, even as he sees a ‘dim suspicion’ of meaning within the African natives; still, he does not come out completely in sympathy for their humanity, since their behavior is so “ugly” (Conrad 97). By describing these people as “wild and passionate,” things that are somehow not indicative of humanity, Marlow and the Englishmen of the novel separate themselves from the Other through these strict cultural lenses, defining themselves by what they are not and shunning those who do not fit that description (Conrad 97).
The closest Marlow comes to truly understanding and caring for a native is his relationship with his helmsman – when he first meets meets him, he describes him mostly through his ornamentation: “He sported a pair of brass earrings, wore a blue cloth wrapper from the waist to the ankles, and thought all the world of himself. He was the most unstable kind of fool I had ever seen" (Conrad 121). Even when the helmsman dies at the hands of other ‘savages,’ Marlow expresses his sadness that he is dead, but mostly through a sense of utility, instead of the mourning one would have for another person. “don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument" (Conrad 139). Even though Marlow himself is the more benevolent side of Kurtz’s overt rule of the natives through his perceived right as a white man, his ignorance and dismissal of the natives reveals the inherently oppressive side of British colonialism.
In addition to the issues of class and imperialism, gender also plays a role in this exploration of the Orient, primarily through Kurtz’s Congolese mistress. Even though both Kurtz and Marlow find themselves enamored of her, it is chiefly through a sense of exoticism and objectification: "She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose" (Conrad 169). When she first appears in the book, Marlow simply describes her based on how she looks and stands, using his male gaze to commoditize her and size her up as an erotic partner. He likens her to the wilderness, and the reader seems to understand Marlow’s assessment of her as purely carnal and decorative – a part of the landscape. This treatment of women, particularly foreign women, is part of the ideal domestic of British colonialism – the idea that men are allowed to conquer and own these foreign women and can desire them for their exotic dark skin and African features, without compromising their own idea of British superiority.
The ideal domestic inherent in Victorian English colonialism and imperialism – namely, that the women and lower class will keep their place, and that British upper-class white supremacy is immutable – is challenged in various ways within Dracula and Heart of Darkness. While Heart of Darkness simply explores the moral bankruptcy of English colonialism and capitalism (which extends to a materialistic treatment of African natives and their women), Dracula offers a late-Victorian threat to the ideal domestic through the character of Dracula himself. Marlow in Heart of Darkness is shown moving from situation to situation, never really changing his mind about the inherent ‘lesser’ nature of the African natives as that would disrupt his goals; Harker and the other Englishmen in Dracula, however, must grapple with the fear that Dracula has the ability to conquer their country and their women. In this respect, both novels explore the disruption of the ideal domestic from two different perspectives – one in which the characters do not change their destructive ways, and one in which the inherent weakness of British colonial culture is shown to nearly bring about its end.
Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.”
Victorian Studies 33(4) (Summer 1990): 621-645.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Blackwood's Magazine, 1899. Print.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula.
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