Sociopolitical Philosophy in the Works of Stoker a

nd YeatsAround the turn of this century there was widespread fear throughout
Europe, and especially Ireland, of the consequences of the race mixing that was
occurring and the rise of the lower classes over the aristocracies in control.

In Ireland, the Protestants who were in control of the country began to fear the
rise of the Catholics, which threatened their land and political power. Two
Irish authors of the period, Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, offer their
views on this problem in their works of fiction. These include Stoker’s
Dracula and Yeats’ On Baile’s Strand and The Only Jealousy of Emer, and these
works show the authors’ differences in ideas on how to deal with this threat to
civilization. Stoker feels that triumph over this threat can only be achieved
by the defeat of these demonic forces through modernity, while Yeats believes
that only by facing the violent and demonic forces and emerging from them could
Ireland return to its ancient and traditional roots and find its place in

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The vampire was a common metaphor used by many authors in an attempt to
portray the rising lower class and foreign influence as evil and harmful to
modern civilization. The Irish Protestant author Sheridan Le Fanu uses vampires
to represent the Catholic uprising in Ireland in his story Carmilla. Like much
of gothic fiction, Carmilla is about the mixing of blood and the harm that
results from it. When vampires strike, they are tainting the blood of the pure
and innocent, causing them to degenerate into undead savages who will take over
and colonize until their race makes up the condition of the whole world. This
was the fear the Protestants had of the rising Catholic class. They were seen
as a lowly people and the fear was that they too would colonize and degenerate
Ireland, and perhaps the rest of Europe, back into a primitive land of savages.

This fear of the breakdown of civilization by dark forces is also what Dracula
is about.

In Dracula, Stoker sets up the heroes and victors of the novel as
civilized people, while the foreign villain is ancient and demonic. The book
begins with the journal of Jonathan Harker, a stenographer from London who is
sent to Transylvania to close a land deal with the mysterious Count Dracula.

From what is written in the journal, it is clear that Jonathan is very
civilized, logical and organized. His journal is written in shorthand, which is
a sign of modernity and efficiency. He is a stenographer, which means he is
well versed in the legal system, also a sign of a civilized person. Harker also
mentions that he had visited the British Museum and library in preparation for
his trip to this strange land, once again showing that he is well-organized
resourceful. Stoker makes sure to give the reader this impression of his
protagonist as a rational individual because it is he who will later combat the
savage forces with common sense and logic.

Harker’s detailed account of his journey into Transylvania shows the
contrast between the West and the East.As he travels farther east, the land
becomes more primitive and wild. As he writes in his journal, I had to sit in
the carriage for more than an hour before we began to move. It seems to me that
the further East you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to
be in China? (9). Here the reader sees that as Jonathan goes east, technology
begins to break down a bit and things are a lot less orderly. Jonathan also
finds that he is beginning to lose command over the language, as he writes,
They were evidently talking of me, and some of the people who were sitting on
the bench outside the door. . . came and listened, and then looked at me, most
of them pityingly. I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for
there were many nationalities in the crowd (13). Harker’s inability to
understand the language is one of the ways in which he loses control as he
travels east. Back in the modern world of the West, even in foreign countries,
Jonathan can understand what is being spoken and therefore has a sense of
control over his situation. In the East, however, he has lost this control. If
he were able to understand what the people are saying, he might realize the
danger that lay ahead of him in Transylvania before it is too late, but because
of the Eastern dialect, he is oblivious to the warnings.

When Jonathan reaches his eastern most destination, Count Dracula’s
castle, he soon realizes that he has lost all control of his situation. He
writes, I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I
explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In
no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit.

The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner! (39).As the reader
can see, the farther he travels east, the more broken down civilization becomes
and the more control he loses over his situation. This idea that the
uncontrolled savagery of mankind lies in the East is all part of the philosophy
that was shared by many Western Europeans at the time.

Stoker makes it clear to the reader that the vampire, or the practice of
mixing races, is demonic and anti-Christian. He does this by offering
perversions of Christianity in the novel. The first of these occurs with the
character of Renfield, a fifty-nine year old madman who comes under the
influence of Dracula. The character of Renfield foreshadows the social
disruption and insanity which will accompany Dracula’s descent upon England, or,
in other words, modern civilization. Before most of the characters experience
the wrath of Dracula, Renfield begins to act wild and speaks of the arrival of
his lord. This is one of the perversions of Christianity that Stoker employs to
show the demonic nature of the vampire.Dr. Seward notes in his diary,All
he would say was:- I don’t want to talk to you: you don’t count now; the Master
is at hand.’ The attendant thinks it is some sudden form sudden form of
religious mania which has seized him. (132). It is here that Renfield acts as
a demonic form of John the Baptist. Just as John the Baptist prepared people
for the coming of Christ, Renfield prepares people for the coming of his lord
and master, Dracula.

Another example of a perversion of Christianity is Lucy Westenra. After
her blood has been drained several times by the Count, she finally dies on
September 20th. An article in the Westminster Gazette dated September 25th
During the past two or three days several cases have occurred of young children
straying from home or neglecting to return from their playing on the Heath. In
all these cases the children were too young to give any properly intelligible
account of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had been
with a bloofer lady.’. . Some of the children, indeed all who have been missed
at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat (229).

The newspaper article indicates that the first cases of missing children were
reported around September 22nd or 23rd. The reader can infer that the bloofer
lady’ is Lucy Westenra, and this would mean that she rose three days after death.

This is a perversion of the Christian Resurrection, and it reminds the reader
of the evil from the East that is spreading westward into modern civilization.

The modern, civilized group of people are the only ones who can stop
Dracula from infecting their society. They all have qualities that show they
are participants in the enlightened modern world. Harker is a rational and
well-organized stenographer, Lucy is an assistant schoolmistress, Seward is a
doctor, Morris is from the rapidly growing United States, and Dr. Van Helsing
has an M.D., a Ph.D., and a D. Litt., as well as being an attorney. All of
these civilized characters join together to defeat the demonic vampire who harks
from the primitive lands of the East.

Stoker creates a story that is similar to Le Fanu’s Carmilla and other
gothic fiction in that it uses vampires to represent the common fear of race-
mixing and the uprising of the lower classes throughout Europe. While Stoker
believes that the best solution to this is to suppress and destroy the violent
and demonic energies that many feel threatened by, Yeats shows a different
philosophy in his works.

On Baile’s Strand shows Yeats’ opinion that the foreign threats should
not be simply suppressed or killed by modern society. In fact, Yeats feels that
modern society has its flaws and has the potential to cause more tragedy than
the threats themselves.

There are two characters in the play who represent conflicting energies.

Conchubar is the wise elder and is considered to be superior to Cuchulain, and
he represents obedience, law and enlightenment. Cuchulain is the ancient war
hero who represents the strong, heroic and violent energies upon which Anglo-
Ireland was founded. Cuchulain is a wild individual who is king over a certain
area of land, and Conchubar pays him a visit to try to convince him to pledge
his obedience to his lord and nation. After some time Cuchulain agrees to
recognize Conchubar as his lord and thus subscribes to the rules of society.

One may think that Cuchulain’s pledging allegiance to Conchubar would be
beneficial for him and his lord, as explained by Conchubar in his attempt to
gain Cuchulain’s allegiance. Will you be bound into obedience and so make this
land safe for them and theirs? You are but half a king and I but half; I need
your might of hand and burning heart, and you my wisdom (29). Conchubar’s
argument sounds reasonable, but as the reader finds out, Cuchulain’s pledge
leads him into despair.

Unknown to Cuchulain, he has a son whose mother is Aoife, a fierce
warrior and leader of a rival nation. Aoife has trained her son to kill
Cuchulain because she is angry that the boy’s father abandoned them. The Young
Man, Cuchulain’s son, comes to his father and challenges him. Cuchulain does
not want to battle him, because he feels a bond between them, as he says, Put
up your sword; I am not mocking you. I’d have you for my friend, but if it’s
not because you have a hot heart and a cold eye, I cannot tell the reason (34).

Despite the Young Man’s challenge, Cuchulain wants no part of the challenge, at
least not until the boy is older and has more experience. Conchubar, however,
reminds Cuchulain of his pledge, as he says:
He has come hither not in his own name but in Queen Aoife’s, and has challenged
us in challenging the foremost man of us all. . . You think it does not matter,
and that a fancy lighter than the air, a whim of the moment, has more matter in
it. For, having none that shall reign after you, you cannot think as I do, who
would leave a throne too high for insult (35).

Because Conchubar views this challenge as an insult to the kingdom that
Cuchulain has pledged his allegiance to, the heroic warrior is obligated to
accept the challenge and avenge the insult. Even though Cuchulain has a natural
bond with this foreigner, he eventually accepts the challenge and unwittingly
kills his son. He soon learns the identity of the stranger, and as a result he
goes insane and drowns while attacking waves in the ocean. If Cuchulain had not
pledged allegiance to the civilized society, he would have been able to follow
his natural energies and feelings, which would have kept him from murdering his
son and going mad. Through this tragedy Yeats states that by suppressing or
killing the natural instead of facing it or even embracing it, one can indeed
become a member of a civilized society, but this is ultimately a tragic
condition, as the Fool observes while describing Cuchulain’s death to the Blind
Man. There, he is down! He is up again. He is going out in the deep water.

There is a big wave. It has gone over him. I cannot see now. He has killed
kings and giants, but the waves have mastered him, the waves have mastered him!

In The Only Jealousy of Emer, Yeats further expresses his idea that
suppressing or avoiding the demonic is not a way to solve the problems facing
Ireland. He feels that Ireland is trying to lift itself out of its natural form
and create an image of itself as an imaginative modernist society, but doing so
will simply delay the inevitable only lead it into more despair and violence.

Only by facing and experiencing the violent and demonic forces that threaten it
can Ireland emerge triumphantly over such challenges.

The play continues from the end of On Baile’s Strand, and Cuchulain’s
body has been retrieved from the water. His wife Emer and mistress, Eithne
Inguba, are sitting at his bedside. Emer is confronted by the spirit of Bricriu,
a demon whom Cuchulain will face in the afterlife. Bricriu explains that Emer
can bring Cuchulain back to life if she renounces his love forever. At first
Emer refuses to do this, but she finally does renounce his love because she can
not bear to let Cuchulain go into the hands of the demons.

In renouncing his love, Emer loses the only thing she ever had left, the
hope of someday being reunited with her husband. When Cuchulain is revived, he
states that Eithne Inguba is his true love, and Emer’s life is filled with
nothing but sorrow.

If Cuchulain had faced the demons and suffered their wrath, he would
have become a legend that would live on forever, but instead he is lifted out of
the afterlife and lives with false passion toward Eithne Inguba. Just like this
story, Ireland will likewise lose all hope if it avoids the demonic threats
instead of going through and emerging from them. Even though Cuchulain’s life
is restored, he will not become the legend that he could have, and he will have
to face the demons eventually, as Bricriu says to Emer, He’ll never sit beside
you at the hearth or make old bones, but die of wounds and toil on some far
shore or mountain, a strange woman beside his mattress (119). Yeats is saying
that Ireland must eventually face and live through the dark forces that threaten
it, and removing itself from these forces, in addition to simply delaying the
inevitable, will only lead to further tragedy.

The works of these two Irish authors are fine pieces of fiction that
effectively employ the elements of horror and tragedy which are common in gothic
literature, but they also serve as valuable insights into the philosophies that
were shared by many Europeans during these times of anxiety and change. It is
difficult to say which philosophy is superior to the other. Stoker’s Dracula
was published in 1897, while Yeats’ works were written later, with The Only
Jealousy of Emerwritten in 1919, giving him the advantage of witnessing the
Easter Rising of 1916. The turmoil of the period was not as simple as modern
versus primitive or good versus evil, and certainly not everyone in Europe
shared their views or anything close to them, thus making it virtually
impossible to judge the superiority of one philosophy over another. While
readers may not agree with either of the authors, these works are still
entertaining and serve as a testament to the power of literature as a platform
for social and political opinion.

Category: English


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