Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt

Halfway into this Booker Prize-winning novel, I was recommending it to all and sundry. I couldn’t stop gushing about how effortlessly Byatt has imitated the voices of two different Victorian-era poets and their significant others, while also presenting us with flawless third-person narratives from the points of view of five different characters. I hope I’m remembering that correctly; Possession has so many different points of view sewn together in a lovely, elaborate patchwork (I don’t use that word as a pejorative), that it’s a little difficult to keep track of them all. Also, I’ve been waffling about publishing this blog post, since I feel like I haven’t done justice to the pleasure and instruction I received from this book. Actually, I know I haven’t, but you’ll forgive me, I’m sure.

The plot in summary: Two modern-day researchers unearth a previously unknown connection between two Victorian poets, the celebrated and school curriculum-prescribed Randolph Henry Ash and the relatively little know, recently anointed feminist Christabel LaMotte. The story follows the journey the two researchers, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, make into the past via letters written by the two poets, diary entries of their partners, and the verses that both composed, in order to discover the depth of their connection and how it impacted their respective lives. In the process, their lives come together in an admittedly predictable way. Nevertheless, the ending is immensely satisfying, especially the lovely, heartbreaking scene described in the postscript.

I’ve read novels before that play with conventional structures and narrative styles of the form. The fancy word for these, I gather, is ‘post-modern’. Particularly memorable are Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Possession could fall under the ‘postmodern’ rubric; I admit I don’t know how these classifications work, since I’ve also read of this book being described as ‘post postmodern’. The story of Roland and Maud runs along the same actual and emotional geography as that of Ash and Christabel. While the story of the two researchers is the lens through which we read the story of the poets, the book itself is the larger framework for our view of both stories. In a twisted sort of way, what I’m trying to say is that this ‘romance’ is really about ‘romance’ the genre and not about the particular story at the heart of it, so in some sense, you wouldn’t be surprised if the characters suddenly realized that they are in a book. Byatt doesn’t actually let her characters break the fourth wall, of course, but it’s a wire-walking act. At some point, Roland does wonder whether all the searching that he and Maud are doing together is not part of a romance, and whether the end of their story would be as final and satisfying as that of any romance. It’s an idea that rebels against his postmodernist training, and yet he acknowledges that the desire for a pat ending is very human.

Roland thought, partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others. He tried to extend this apercu. Might there not, he professionally asked himself, be an element of superstitious dread in any self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game or plot-coil that recognizes it has got out of hand? The recognizes that connections proliferate apparently at random, apparently in response to some ferocious ordering principle, which would, of course, being a good postmodernist principle, require the aleatory or the multivalent or the “free”, but structuring, but controlling, but driving, to some — to what? — end. Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable. But they are both frightening and enchantingly desirable.

This ‘what-if-we-are-in-a-movie’ trickery (something we all think at least once in our lives) is a playfulness I wish I could inject into my plots when I’m writing. I suppose the thought would come to any writer of fiction, at some point or another, that what they are doing is ludicrous. It’s not a feeling that stems from any lack of self-belief or lack of conviction in the art (and craft) that we practice; rather, it stems from a sense of humour that lies dormant as we play at being creators, only to rear up at inconvenient moments to poke fun at our endeavors. A kind of disembodied voice that says to us, “So, you think you can create something out of nothing? Lets watch you do it.” At least, I’ve heard it. And I’ve frequently wanted to fall in with The Voice’s mocking tone and poke fun at myself (Of course, I dare not do such a thing since my self-confidence as a writer fluctuates so wildly, that I would rather not tamper with its delicate constitution).

Often, when I’m writing, I run out of words or ideas and then I just let my unconscious mind take over and type out any random combination of words. And I wonder, what if my characters were aware of this randomness? Unfortunately, being a lesser, unpublished writer, I never have the confidence to tell the story of my storytelling even as I’m telling the actual story. Even now, as I write it, I find it a difficult idea to wrap my head around. I suppose that is another major reason why I enjoyed this book so much. There’s just so much to learn from this book about craft and how to translate one’s love of stories into something that is more than a story. What Byatt achieves with this novel is no easy thing: she has written what is clearly a ‘Romance’, and yet, it also pokes fun at our assumptions of romance and all the theorizing that we apply when reading and studying them.

Of course, it’s not an easy book to read. I suppose a lot of people would be tempted to skip the poetry to get on with the story. I know I was. But reading these pieces is very rewarding and it illuminates aspects of the two poets’ characters that are not explicitly explored in the rest of the narrative. In a sense, I suppose, these pieces allow the two poets to tell us the story of their love and how it changed them both, in their own words.

Pushing Forth: Reading Challenges for 2015

Since my last post, each time I made my way back towards this blog, Life would stick out a long leg and trip me up. I bet that’s the first time you heard that excuse! Or how about this one: The cat sat on my laptop’s keyboard and refused to budge.

I proffer the first excuse, for the sake of honesty. I don’t have a cat. However, I do feel a teensy bit dishonest using the Life excuse anyway, since, well…that’s what Life does. We just gotta get with the program and not let anything – Life or Death – keep us from doing things we love. In my case, that would be reading and writing about reading. So here I am, shuffling forward in a contrite way with a sheepish smile on my face. There’s uncertainty in my eyes, even as I widen my smile: will my readers, left in the lurch for over a year, take me back?

I hope you do.

***

I’m 30 years old.THREE-OH. That felt a like a lot when I was 25, but now I’m all like whatever. I feel like I’ve taken the ‘turning older’ part of life in my stride and I’m getting comfortable enough in  my skin to say that I actually love being 30. I’ve left the hectic, unhealthy life of my 20s behind and I look forward to a healthier middle age. Books shall, of course, form a huge part of the program that I have chalked out to keep me healthy…and sane.

***

A confession: I read about 57 books in 2014. Now before you go fainting in your shoes, let me point out that a third of those books were Agatha Christies. And before you get that sneer fixed on your face as you look at me, let me also add that I have been having a bad few years in terms of reading. I’ve simply not been able to read beyond a couple of pages everyday. My stamina is shot and my concentration is fragmented. Life, in short, has more or less been like what it presumably is in Hades.

So the Agatha Christies, for which I have professed my love before, were simply helping me get back on my feet. So yeah, I even suffered through Postern of Fate, before I realized that I was well now and that I didn’t need that wheelchair. However, I still need a crutch, it seems, so I’m putting myself through a few challenges to make sure I do some varied reading. As recommended by nutritionists, I need to fill half my plate with heavy literary fiction, about a fourth with some invigorating non-fiction and the remaining fourth with some graphic novels and how-tos. I shall snack – lightly – on whodunits. On my cheat days, I shall consume Wodehouse books, about 95 per cent of which I have already read, so reading them doesn’t really count as ‘reading’ according to the terms of my challenges.

***

Now, having got all of the above off my chest, I shall present the challenges. Kindly note that the books assigned for the various challenges might overlap with one another, but the overall goal remains the same: I want to have read at least 60 books in 2015.

Challenge No. 1 – The Mount TBR Challenge

TBR is the term we book nerds use to talk about our piles of unread books – To Be Read. Some people have tiny TBR stacks, some have piles and many have mountains. Since I fit in the last category, I shall be taking the Mount TBR Challenge being hosted by My Reader’s Block. The challenge has various levels, depending on how many books you want to tick off your TBR list. For 2015, I’m taking on the Mt Vancouver level, which means that I need to read at least 36 books from my TBR pile. Listing the books is optional, but I’m going to do it anyway, since making lists is so much fun!

  1. The Rules of Attraction – Brett Easton Ellis
  2. This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. The Collected Stories of John Cheever
  4. The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction II
  5. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
  6. The Dain Curse – Dashiell Hammett
  7. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami
  8. The Conservationist – Nadine Gordimer
  9. The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
  10. Artemis Fowl & The Time Paradox – Eoin Colfer
  11. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  12. A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
  13. Songs of Kabir – Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
  14. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
  15. Raag Darbari – Shrilal Shukla
  16. The Story of O – Pauline Reage
  17. The Red and The Black – Stendhal
  18. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
  19. Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott
  20. The Golden Gate – Vikram Seth
  21. Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish – Arshia Sattar
  22. When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson
  23. On Photography – Susan Sontag
  24. The Naive & Sentimental Novelist – Orhan Pamuk
  25. On Writing – Eudora Welty
  26. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  27. The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson
  28. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
  29. The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
  30. Serious Men – Manu Joesph
  31. Love & Longing in Bombay – Vikram Chandra
  32. The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
  33. The Legends of Khasak – O.V. Vijayan
  34. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  35. The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt
  36. The Writer’s Diet – Julia Cameron

Back-up books

  1. Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
  2. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  3. The Man Who Ate the World – Jay Rayner
  4. The Hungry Tide – Amitav Ghosh

Challenge No. 2 – Jazz Age January

This is basically just a reason to read literature from the Roaring Twenties, one of my favourite periods in history. I’ve written about it before, when I reviewed Evelyn Waugh’s bitingly hilarious send-up of the Jazz Age, Vile Bodies.

The challenge is hosted by Books Speak Volumes. I will begin 2015 by reading any two of the three books listed below:

  1. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  2. The Paris Wife – Paula McLain
  3. This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Challenge No. 3 – The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge

Now this is where it gets really fun. Book Riot is hosting a brilliant challenge where the idea is to expand your reading horizons as far as possible. After a year in which I read over 20 Agatha Christies, I really need this one.

There are 24 tasks in this challenge, which means about 2 per month. From what I gather, one tackle the tasks in any order and obviously, can choose to completely as many tasks per month, provided all 24 are done and dealt with before December 31, 2015. Do read through the recommendations that have been linked to on the sign-up page of the challenge.

  1. A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25 – The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis
  2. A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65 – Dear Life by Alice Munro
  3. A collection of short stories – The Collected Stories of John Cheever
  4. A book published by an indie press – The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction or Out! Stories from the New Queer India
  5. A book by or about someone who identifies as LGBTQ – Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
  6. A book by a person whose gender is different from your own – The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett
  7. A book set in Asia – Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami or Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
  8. A book by an author from Africa – The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer or Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  9. A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture – The Land of Naked People by Madhusree Mukherjee
  10. A microhistory – The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  11. A YA novel – Artemis Fowl & the Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer
  12. A sci-fi novel – Foundation & Empire by Isaac Asimov or Dune by Frank Herbert or Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  13. A romance novel – The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  14. A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade – A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  15. A book that is a retelling of a classic story – The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter or Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  16. An audiobook – Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  17. A collection of poetry – Songs of Kabir trans. by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
  18. A book that someone else has recommended to you – The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
  19. A book that was originally published in some other language – Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla
  20. A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind – Maus by Art Speigelman
  21. A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure – The Story of O by Pauline Reage
  22. A book published before 1850 – The Red and the Black by Stendhal
  23. A book published in 2014 – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  24. A self-improvement book – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

A happy year of reading lies ahead!

I Can’t Lose Myself in Books Anymore

Confessinons of a Book-Addict

Confessinons of a Book-Addict (Photo credit: -Georg-)

I’m getting older. In another year and a month, I will be 30. I discovered yet another grey hair on my head a couple of months ago, bringing the grand total up to 2. I can’t really eat an excess of chips and fries without it disagreeing with me (I once breakfasted for a whole week on a packet of chips). I can’t drink alcohol 5 days in a row, and I certainly cannot stay up all night. And, perhaps most tragically of all, I can’t lose myself in books anymore.

I know I can still lose myself in stories. Just the other day, the hubby and I were watching The Practice reruns and we caught the ‘Head in a Medical Bag’ case. As the episode  drew close to its end, I found myself growing nervous. I was worried about the fate of the defendant, George Vogelman, because I believed he was innocent. I was so worried in fact, that when the judge asked, “Has the jury reached a verdict?”, I gathered up a handful of my husband’s leg in my hand and twisted it.

I haven’t done anything like that in a long time with a book though. And I must admit, I have been worried about it. “I can’t seem to read two pages without falling asleep,” I complained to my husband. He agreed and pointed out that just the previous night, I fell asleep with my glasses still on and my left index finger marking the paragraph I was on.

And I know it’s not the books that are to blame. I read Gone Girl a few months ago. Anyone who read it raved about it. I stalked the local bookstores for months before the book finally hit India. In fact, I was so impatient that I just ordered a more expensive copy online, rather than wait for it. And no, I wouldn’t even do this for Murakami’s new or the second part of Marquez’s memoirs. I did it for Gone Girl because the numerous reviews I read online promised me that this book was ‘unputdownable’. That I would “stay up all night reading it”. And that “the twist halfway through the book will make me drop it in shock”. And I really, badly needed to feel all that.

Only, I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I think Gillian Flynn has crafted a cracker of a story. The characters are superb, the twists are truly shocking and the bare carcass of the marriage that she portrays is chilling. In short, I enjoyed the book. Also, I read it on a train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. So I didn’t really get the chance to see if it would keep me up all night, but I have a sinking feeling that I would have fallen asleep two pages into this book too, if I had been lying down on my bed while reading it.

I’m a person who has always lost herself in books.  As a child of 10, I would get home from school and immediately plop down with a Famous Five – even during exam time. I gulped down Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone in one afternoon. Tears rolled down my cheeks when I read The Kite Runner, and I couldn’t stop laughing out loud when reading PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. I was so horrified by the incest in one of Sidney Sheldon‘s books (I forget which one), that I moved about in a cloud of gloom for days. And I couldn’t sleep the night I read the first few chapters of The Dreamcatcher. But  I don’t remember the last time any of this has happened to me with a book.

It must be the fact that I’m getting older, obviously, as well as the fact that I have responsibilities to my work and family. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept the realization that I can’t lose myself in books anymore. In fact, it really, really sucks.

I’m currently reading The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. It’s the first book in the Wheel of Time series. I can tell that its an rollicking good read, full of adventure and magic and mystery and had I read this a few years earlier, I would have devoured it in less than a week.  As it happens, I have been struggling with this book for two months now. I’ve been abandoning books too, in fact, I read the first three books in the Song of Ice & Fire series, and with the fourth I have been stumbling. I have started on it twice now, only to stop after reading the first 3 chapters, because I had to review some other book. There just isn’t enough time, is there, to read all the books you want?

The Wildings

I had never imagined that a novel like The Wildings would come out of India. After seeing shelves after shelves of predictably tragic literary fiction and badly written commercial fiction, I had given up the hope of ever seeing anything this vividly imaginative.  The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy, however, shows me I can be optimistic: not only is it a beautifully produced book, but it also takes on a subject that few ‘serious’ writers in India would dare to explore: the lives of cats.

Yes, Dear Reader, Cats. If you, like me, are crazy about cats no matter how much they ignore you, then this is a book you want to read. And if you don’t like cats, I still think you should read this book, because you just might come to appreciate them and their talents a little more.

OK, the part about the talent needs to be scratched, because this is after all fiction. But how I wish it were true! All those times when I saw my cat sit in balcony and look outside – they make so much more sense now that I have read this book.

But I’m running ahead of myself. You need to know what this book is about. So, The Wildings is about a clan of cats living in the bylanes and ruins of Nizamuddin in Delhi. They live by a strict code of ethics all their own and they are all connected to each other through a strong, invisible web of scent and whisker transmissions. There’s Beraal, a beautiful black-and-white queen who is also a fierce fighter, Miao the wise Siamese who is the clan elder, Katar the strong and brave leader, Hulo the warrior and Southpaw, the curious kitten who can’t help but get into trouble. Other animals make appearances too, such as the deadly and powerful Kirri the mongoose, the brave little mouse Jethro Tail, a pair of squirrels called Aao and Jao and the cheels who rule the skies. Life in Nizamuddin is not luxurious, but it’s good, nonetheless. The cats survive catching prey like mice, rats and bandicoots and often forage through the rich leaving found in the midden heaps of the Bigfeet (humans), most of whom usually leave them alone. They  wander the roofs at night and doze in the cool shade offered by trees.

This serenity is interrupted by the arrival of Mara, an orange kitten with monsoon green eyes. She is what is known as a ‘Sender’ – a cat who can transmit her thoughts to other cats and animals so powerfully that most of them see a projection of her in front of them. A Sender is a rarity, a cat who only appears when times are set to get tough and when the other cats need her the most. And Mara is the most powerful Sender to have ever appeared in Nizamuddin.  A series of extraordinary events follow Mara’s arrival, such as encounters with tigers and a battle for survival against a crazed and bloodthirsty group of feral cats, but it all ends…well, I suppose.

In fact, the end is pretty ambiguous. You think it ends well, but when you really consider it, you can no longer be sure. The attitude of the Bigfeet towards the cats seems to change a little and Mara still has to struggle with her fears and doubts, but there is no immediate threat to the cats’ survival in Nizamuddin. It seems like a happy ending, but I highly doubt it. There’s no end to danger in the lives of street animals and the saga of the cats of Nizamuddin is endlessly fascinating. If Roy ever decides to come out with a sequel, I will be one of the first in line to buy it. Even flipping through the book affords one such pleasure. The illustrations by Prabha Mallya are beautiful and they fit in exactly with how you imagine the characters would look like.

While I loved the book, there were some things that bothered me. One was the names of the cats, such as Southpaw, Abol and Tabol, Qawwali, Affit and Davit. These are human words and I’m not entirely sure how they fit into cat vocabulary, especially since the cats refer to the humans as ‘Bigfeet’. That last detail, then seems like a superficial touch, which exists merely to add a touch of the ‘cute’ to the story.

Nevertheless, this is a book that I will hold on to – the story is worth visiting again and the illustrations, like I said before, take the experience to whole other level.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com . Participate now to get free books!

Herland: A Dystopian Motherland

Recent paperback edition

Recent paperback edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was, for me, one of the more interesting discoveries of the Fantasy & Sci-Fi class in Coursera. I had read Gilman before: her fascinating and highly disturbing short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, to be exact. If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest you do. It’s freely available on Project Gutenberg, as is Herland.

Now, I won’t say that Herland is as accomplished a story as The Yellow Wallpaper. The latter stirs me deeply; it stirs a visceral reaction, which is part horror and part pity. And that’s exactly what its meant to do. It makes us shudder because we see what supposedly ‘benevolent’ subjugation can do to a woman. In Herland, on the other hand, we’re presented with the picture of a world populated only by women. There’s no question of subjugation. Everything runs smoothly and like clockwork and the world is as pretty as a painting. Nevertheless, there are some disturbing aspects to this supposedly ‘perfect’ world, and those are what I chose to write about for my Coursera essay. Read and enjoy!

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book, Herland is presented as a Utopia which is free from disease, corruption, poverty and other vices that mar the rest of human civilization. But is it really the wonderful place that Gilman makes it out to be? Throughout the novel, one finds references to the practice of Eugenics in this nation where women, who are deemed unfit for the task, are prohibited from becoming mothers.

While the basic idea behind this selective motherhood is sound – that only the most capable should ideally be doing a job that comes with so much responsibility – modern democratic sensibilities rebel against it. There’s no denying that a woman’s role goes beyond the bearing and rearing of children, but it is entirely a woman’s prerogative to have children or not. In this matter, Herland citizens behave in a manner that would seem out of place in the kind of ‘Utopia’ that Gilman seems to be describing. After all, the freedom to procreate that we take for granted,  is something that is protected even in the most tyrannical societies. Whether a person is a ‘suitable’ parent is not for the state to judge, unless the child herself is in grave mental and physical danger.

What makes this even more disturbing is that, early in the story, the Herland citizens tell the three visitors that they have ‘bred out’ nuisances like dogs and cattle. Later, we find out that Herland also ‘breeds out’ girls who are seen as posing a danger to the stability of their society.  Would this be allowed to happen in a truly Utopian society?

Just like other stories before it, Herland points towards the dangers of ‘Utopian’ fantasies – whether they are seemingly harmless like Gilman’s or Hitler’s more brutal vision. This may not have been the conclusion that Gilman wished for readers of Herland to draw, but reading the book today does raise these questions.

Frankenstein’s Anti-Enlightenment Argument

English: Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Franken...

English: Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most boring book I read for the Fantasy & Sci-Fi course was Frankenstein. The protagonist was unsympathetic, there were long passages of exposition and repetitive descriptions, and almost every line of dialogue, even that of a young child, began with the exclamation “Ah!”. It was a very laboured and contrived book and I regretted every moment that I spent on it.

Anyway, I’ve pasted my essay on Frankenstein below. It wasn’t a great effort, but mostly because I hated the book so much that I simply couldn’t bring myself to write about it.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein argues against the main principles of the Age of Enlightenment. In the Age of Enlightenment, which was the primary cultural movement for a greater part of the 18th century, great value was placed on reason and the advancement of the human race through scientific development. Nature was to be dominated by man, not the other way round.

On reading Frankenstein, one can clearly see that Shelley is highly critical of the Enlightenment movement’s cold, calculated approach towards the world. Anthropocentricism dominated all cultural and intellectual discourse and it was believed that, thanks to science and technology, humans will advance like never before. Shelley explodes this belief by having her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, succumb to the ultimate hubris: he aspires to become the creator of a more ‘perfect’ race of beings. The ambition fails and Frankenstein sees his folly in trying to do nature’s work.

Shelley even frames her main narrative through the voice of another hubristic man, Walton, who wishes to fight against all odds and reach the Arctic: a desolate land, where man cannot hope to battle against the harshness of nature. Fittingly, the novel ends with Walton giving up his ambition and returning home.

While exposing human folly, Shelley also takes every opportunity to extol the sublime beauties of nature. Many passages are filled with Victor’s description of the natural beauties of his homeland and several times in the story, he finds solace in nature.  At one point, he even gives up his scientific studies and pursues literary studies, and finds “relief” and “consolation”.

In the end, Victor obsessively pursues his enemy, all the way to the arctic. Here, both the creator and his creature, meet their ultimate defeat, but not at each other’s hands. It is finally ruthless and relentless nature that kills Victor and renders his enemy without any purpose in life, thus leading to the latter’s suicide.

Dracula: Triumph of the Masculine

Vampire

The Vampire Deutsch: Der Vampir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long before Stephanie Meyer unleashed the first of the Twilight books on us, I liked Vampires. I’ve written about them on this blog before, and also for a column. No, I wouldn’t befriend one and neither would I sleep with one, but the idea of the Vampire was fascinating. Of course, for a long time Vampires have come to stand for repressed human sexuality; even Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, although physically so repulsive, is quite frankly sexual. You don’t even have to read the book too closely to understand that. Ever since then, most writers have treated Vampires in exactly the same way. They’ve gone from having hairy hands and yellow faces to having golden eyes and gleaming bodies, but throughout, they’ve stayed highly sexualized.

Honestly though, it’s not the sexuality of the Vampire that interests me. What I find fascinating is the idea of a being, existing for centuries with nothing to do. Most of us don’t look at it in this way, I suppose, but death is really a blessing and an escape – as long as it comes at the end of a long and fulfilling life. For Vampires, that particular door is closed, unless an especially brave slayer decides to put them out of their misery.  To me, the beautiful Vampires brought to us by Anne Rice, Meyer and Charlaine Harris are not really objects of desire, but really objects of pity. Anne Rice, actually expressed the existential anguish of Vampires pretty well, even though she herself did play a major role in the current sexualization of Vampires.

Anyway, so when I took the course on Fantasy & Sci-Fi through Coursera, I decided I wouldn’t focus on this ‘sexuality’ in Dracula. It was the most obvious take-away from the story. But I also didn’t understand how I could explain any of the existentialist strands in the novel because, frankly, there aren’t any. The novel is quite purely pulp, and with very little rumination. So I decided to take a radical and rather risky approach – Gender Politics. I’m sure a lot of you already know Dracula is a very gendered novel, full of macho men and swooning women. But again, I didn’t want to repeat the obvious, so I argued for Dracula being a symbol of the feminine. I know, it sounds weird. But read on below, and hopefully, you’ll be convinced.

One of the major themes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the triumph of the masculine over the feminine. This interpretation is not limited to the treatment of the characters. Even though the men – Van Helsing, Seward, Godalming, Morris and Harker – rescue the woman – Mina Harker – from the clutches of another male, Count Dracula, their real triumph is over the feminine forces that he represents.

Dracula was written during the Victorian era, when the feminine was represented as weak and irrational, and requiring the control of the stable and rational masculine. The women, Lucy and Mina, fall victim to Dracula’s magnetism. The more feminine Lucy dies, while Mina, with her “man’s brain”, is rescued by her husband and male friends. It is significant that although Jonathan Harker, a man, does almost fall victim to the three female vampires in Transylvania and is kept prisoner by Dracula, he manages to escape by himself.

However, the male vs. female question in Dracula goes beyond this reading. After the European Renaissance, the scientifically and militarily advanced Occident (Western Europe) was seen as representing the masculine, while the ‘mystical’ and backward Orient (Asia and Eastern Europe) was seen as feminine.  Also note that, magical powers and understanding of the supernatural are usually associated with women.

In the light of these considerations, one sees that Dracula, more than Lucy and Mina, represents the feminine in the story.  He is a supernatural being as well as a native of Eastern Europe.  In contrast, his main antagonists are all Western European males (except Morris, a hyper-masculine American), who defeat Dracula by the ultimate act of male dominance over female: penetration. Of course, Dracula is ‘penetrated’ by a stake through his heart, but the symbolic significance of the manner of his defeat cannot be missed.

Since Dracula is set in an age when the ideal female was passive and home-bound, the defeat of a symbolic ‘female’ like Dracula – who dared to be aggressive and venture beyond his ‘home’ – underlines the Victorian belief in the unchallenged superiority of the masculine.