Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner

Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner




Challenging and Restoring Normalcy in Stoker’s Dracula and Matheson’s I Am Legend
Sarah Benton

‘The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him’ (qtd. in Matheson, p. 28). Dr. Van Helsing’s line from the 1931 film version of Dracula is an accurate statement for both Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s novel and Robert Neville in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Neville ponders this quote at one point: ‘It was true. No one had believed in them, and how could they fight something they didn’t even believe in?’ (Matheson, p. 28). Both vampire hunters exist in novels where conformity in society and the definition of normality are threatened through the challenge of sexual norms, gender roles and the definition of otherness or ‘monsterness’. They must use their science and technology as an answer to this invasion of change. These issues are thinly veiled behind the vampires that bring them to the surface. While Stoker’s vampires are rooted in a supernatural existence and religious superstitions, Matheson’s are a thing of pure scientific reasoning and explanation. Neville is able to rationalize these creatures without ‘blood-eyed vampires hovering over heroines’ beds. All without bats fluttering against estate windows, all without the supernatural’ (Matheson, p. 88).
While both novels take place in different time periods – Stoker’s is set in Victorian England and Matheson writes in the 1950s, the idea of conformity and sovereignty in both societies is valued. Both novels deal with what happens when this idea of a sovereign society is challenged through the changing of values and institutions. According to Joseph Epstein’s commentary, ‘My 1950s. (How the Decade Really Was)’, ‘the standard view of the 50’s…is that it was a time when idealism slept, cruel discrimination was everywhere in force…conformity reigned, and the cold war defiled everything.’ Matheson’s novel takes these issues and sets them in the background of a society that has been conquered and has but one man left to stand for what remains. In Dracula, Dr. Seward finds the idea of a supernatural vampire ‘in London in the nineteenth century’ startling. Van Helsing expands on this: ‘A year ago which of us would have received such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, sceptical, matter-of-fact century?’ (Stoker, p. 229). Victorian England at the time was known for its industrial strength and superiority, something that Dracula, representing the foreigner, threatened.

In both novels, a definition of normalcy must be upheld. For the vampire hunters in Dracula their idea of normalcy comes from their unity as group devoted to one cause – ridding London of Dracula. Right away, after reading Jonathan Harker’s journal, Mina vows to defend England’s sovereignty: ‘That fearful Count was coming to London…If it should be, and he came to London…There may be solemn duty, and if it come we must not shrink from it’ (Stoker, pp. 172-173). Van Helsing, though not English, is still devoted to the banishment of evil, and encourages the others saying: ‘we believe that God is with us through all this blackness…we shall follow [Dracula]; and we shall not flinch; even if we should peril ourselves that we become like him’ (Stoker, p. 329).

Robert Neville is living in a dead society, he is the last human being living among vampires – the only survivor of the vampire plague. There is no unifying idea of normalcy for him now. He knows that, ‘normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many, and not the standard of just one man’ (Matheson, p. 169). His only concept of normalcy comes from what seems normal to him, or that which separates him from the vampires. After a close call upon arriving home after sunset, Neville is thankful to learn that ‘the generator had not been ruined. The vampires apparently had no idea of its importance to him…they had left it alone’ (Matheson, pp. 49-50). The concept of vampires is no longer a foreign idea to him: ‘the dead walk about and I think nothing of it. The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough’ (Matheson, p. 65). Neville’s ideas about normal life come from his science and his technology.
Some form of change is what challenges both novels’ definition of normal. Troy Boone points out in his essay, ‘"He is English and Therefore Adventurous”: Politics, Decadence, and “Dracula"’, that ‘Dracula is not only a threat but ... a catalyst for change.’ He goes on to point out that Dracula does not simply sit around passively while Harker journals, he instead, ‘prepares to invade Harker's society’ with the ‘subversion of its most powerful ideals’. (Boone) These ideals are illustrated through the juxtaposition of Mina’s pureness and Lucy’s sexual aggressiveness, both as a human and a vampire. Gender role reversals, as well, represent the change Dracula brings with him, which can be seen in the feminization of Harker and the strong leadership position Mina assumes in the hunt for Dracula.

In I Am Legend, society has already been challenged and redefined once. Throughout the novel we can see a progression of societal changes. First is the human-dominated society that is invaded by vampires. This was a society that doubted the existence of vampires at all:
‘They knew it was something, but it couldn’t be that –not that. That was imagination, that was superstition, there was no such thing as that. And before science had caught up with the legend, the legend had swallowed science and everything’ (Matheson, p. 29).

After the fall of that society the vampires exist in their own society of sorts. However, it is primitive, and only a society in the sense that they are a group of vampires. Neville observes that for food they ‘attacked one of their own. They did that often. There was no union among them. Their need was their only motivation’ (Matheson, p. 23). Neville even begins to wonder whether the vampire in this stage of pre-society is even bad. After all, ‘he has no means of support, no measures for proper education, he has not the voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence’ (Matheson, p. 26).

Towards the end of the novel Neville discovers that the vampires are going to ‘set up society again slowly but surely’ (Matheson, p. 154). Their society is advancing now, made possible through the vampires’ use of technology. They can now ‘live in the sun for short periods’ (Matheson, p. 155) of time. They are able to live with the germ that caused vampirism because of a pill they discovered and it is ‘helping to set up society again slowly’ (Matheson, p. 155). Ruth, a vampire who tricks Neville for information and who is an officer in this new society, describes it as a ‘revolutionary group – repossessing society by violence. It’s inevitable’ (Matheson, p. 166). Neville and his science represent the change infiltrating their new society, and so he must be conquered. Even this new society values conformity and fears change. Their execution of Neville provides them safety and ensures that ‘when [Neville’s] gone there won’t be anyone else like [him] within [their] particular society’ (Matheson, p. 167).

One of the threats to society in both novels is the domineering sexual attitude tempting the characters. Both Jonathan Harker and Robert Neville are repelled yet attracted to the female vampires. When Harker encounters Dracula’s three ‘brides’ for the first time, he admits that ‘there was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear’ (Stoker, p. 58). In fact, his first encounter with the female vampires leaves him, as Boone writes, ‘feminine, passive, penetrated rather than masculine, active, penetrating’ meaning that the female is the sexual dominator in the scene, something that obviously undermines Victorian ideas about female sexual pureness.

Boone points out that in Dracula, ‘sexual desire leads to and is mingled with horror.’ Dracula is attempting to conquer Jonathan’s society by ‘subverting its concept of the appropriate boundaries of women’s sexuality’. (Boone) Boone writes, ‘women…are the place through which threats to cultural stability can enter’. Lucy, and her question, ‘why can’t they let a girl marry three men?’ (Stoker, p. 58), represents a horrifying change for Victorian England: female sexual arrogance. This idea is only magnified after her transmogrification into a vampire. The vampire Lucy changed: ‘The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness’ (Stoker, p. 203). Her sexual aggression is magnified now, seen when she advances on her former husband, Arthur, with ‘outstretched arms and a wanton smile’, (Stoker, p 203) and beckons him, calling ‘Come to me, and we can rest together’ (Stoker, p. 203). This display is described as ‘diabolically sweet’ and Lucy described as ‘unclean and full of hell-fire’ (Stoker, p. 203), the opposite of what a pure Victorian woman ought to be. This is the change that Dracula brings with him and Dr. Seward illustrates the attitude towards this change: ‘had [Lucy] then to be killed, I could have done it with savage delight’ (Stoker, p. 203).

Boone’s idea that sexual desire leads to horror could be used to describe Neville as well. He is similarly conflicted. At night when Neville is barricaded in his house waiting for dawn, the female vampires try to tempt him, ‘posing like lewd puppets…on the possibility he’d see them and decide to come out’ (Matheson, p. 19). Like Harker, he struggles and ‘all the words of centuries couldn’t end the wordless, mindless craving of his flesh. The realization made him sick’ (Matheson, p. 19).

The female vampires serve as a temptation for Neville in the beginning of the novel. Neville is a threat to their wellbeing, not only because he hunts and kills them in the daytime, but because he is trying to find a cure for the vampire disease. He represents the possibility of change for them, and therefore he must be eliminated. Before society was overtaken by vampires, he had a wife and family. Now, he is being provoked into giving into base sexual instincts in an attempt to lure him to his demise. His sexual drive diminishes over the years but ‘there had been some terrible moments in those days, moments when the most terrible of solutions to his need were considered, were often dwelt upon until they drove him half mad’ (Matheson, p. 136).
The challenging of sexual norms is not the only subversion that must be conquered. In Dracula, gender roles are often reversed in the characters. For instance, Harker’s fear of Dracula feminizes him. When he is seduced by the female vampires living in the castle, he is made the submissive, ‘the girl went on her knees, and bent over [him], simply gloating’ (Stoker, p. 38). When Dracula interrupts he claims that Harker belongs to him and after ‘looking at [his] face attentively’ whispers ‘Yes, I too can love’ (Stoker, p. 39). After his encounter with Dracula’s brides, Harker faints, overcome with horror. He wakes up in his bed the next morning and can only surmise that ‘the count must have carried [him there]’ (Stoker, p. 40). Harker is the female in the relationship between him and Dracula. He even weeps ‘tears of bitter disappointment’ when he realizes he cannot leave the castle (Stoker, p. 49).

Even after he is home with Mina, he remains the weaker of the two, while Mina takes on a more masculine role within their relationship. She admits that she is ‘not of a fainting disposition’ while it is obvious that her husband is. Within their group of vampire hunters she remains strong, while at times the men break down. In one scene, Homewood begins to cry over Lucy, at which point Mina muses that: ‘there is something in a woman’s nature that makes men free to break down before her and express his feelings on the tender or emotional side without feeling it derogatory to his manhood’ (Stoker, p. 220). Homewood eventually becomes ‘quite hysterical…[beating] his palms together in a perfect agony of grief’ (Stoker, p. 221). Dracula’s invasion, and Lucy’s transformation, serve to feminize the men. It strips them of their masculinity, and therefore threatens the proprieties of their society.

The traditional roles of gender in Matheson’s novel are used by the vampires to subvert Neville. A description of Neville depicts him as

‘230 pounds. His face was full, his body broad and muscular underneath the loose-fitting denim he wore. He had long before given up shaving. Only rarely did he crop his thick long beard, so that it remained two or three inches from his skin. His hair was thinning and was long and straggly. Set in the deep tan of his face, his blue eyes were calm and unexcitable’ (Matheson, p. 120).

When, after being alone for so many years, he first sees Ruth, she runs from him and he chases her not realizing ‘how frightening he looked; six foot three in his boots, a gigantic bearded man with an intent look’ (Matheson, p. 123). Ruth, really a vampire in disguise sent to spy on Neville, resorts to crying in order to manipulate him. When he loses his temper after catching her and hits her, she starts ‘crying helplessly’, which causes Neville to calm down. Later on, when Neville suspects her of being a vampire, she cries again. It works, causing Neville to feel ‘guilty now, in spite of suspicions and doubts. He couldn’t help it. He had forgotten about sobbing women’ (Matheson, p. 131). Ruth uses the traditional gender roles and stereotypes to infiltrate Neville’s life and get information. Even though she tries to save him, in the end it is this information that leads to his capture and execution.

In both novels, this threat of change has to be conquered. Technology is the key component required for this to happen. Van Helsing and his followers have all matter of modern Victorian conveniences at their disposal. Dr. Seward keeps his diary by phonograph and laments when he cannot: ‘How I miss my phonograph! To write diary with a pen is irksome to me’ (Stoker, p. 322). They also are able to travel by train, while Dracula cannot else he ‘take [the] chance of being delayed, and delay would be fatal’ (Stoker, p. 337). They communicate by telegram and Mina uses a typewriter and is, at one point, ‘grateful to the man who invented the ‘Traveller’s’ typewriter…I should have felt quite astray doing the work if I had to write with a pen’ (Stoker, p. 336). Van Helsing is also invaluable because he is able to ‘[prepare] the rituals and [induce] a hypnotic trance’ (Ramsland, p. 157) on Mina for information about Dracula. Dr. Seward’s phonograph records and Mina’s typewritten notes are used to collect information so that they are all kept informed. Van Helsing is able to utilize this technology to kill Dracula.

However, Boone writes, ‘even symbols of modern efficiency, like the post office, fail to help the vampire hunters.’ Telegrams often arrive late, like when one was ‘delivered late by twenty-two hours’ (Stoker, p. 137). The train also often falls short of being accommodating. Harker muses that: ‘It seems to me that the further east you go, the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they be in China?’ (Stoker, p. 4).

Dracula, however, only has old-fashioned means of technology to aid his endeavours. He must travel by ships. Mina explains: ‘it is the safest way, in one respect, but with the most danger in another. On the water he is powerless except at night’ (Stoker, p. 337). His only means of communication in Transylvania is by letter where ‘posts were few and uncertain’ (Stoker, p. 41). He is not, however, completely helpless. Van Helsing knows this and tells the others, saying, ‘he has the strength of many…he can transform himself to wolf…he can be as bat…he can come in mist which he can create’ (Stoker, pp. 228, 229).

Neville, on the other hand, has things like a car and a generator, but his ‘primary tool is a microscope’ (Ramsland, p. 46). It is this piece of technology that he comes to rely on. He describes it as ‘a decent instrument…good base…smooth movement…good lenses’ (Matheson, p. 84). It is with the microscope that he discovers ‘the cause of the vampire. All the centuries of fearful superstition had been felled in the moment he had seen the germ’ (Matheson, p. 86). It is his access to science that motivates him. After his discovery, ‘a massive weight of despair fell over him. To have the answer now when it was too late was a crushing blow…. How could he ever hope to cure [them]?…he forced himself to study’ (Matheson, p. 87). His science gives him the support that Van Helsing and others in Stoker’s novel got from each other. He can now stand by his science and technology as his guide to normalcy.

The vampires in I Am Legend learn to use technology to overcome Neville. Ruth uses make-up in order to look tan. Neville doesn’t realize this until after she attacks him and his hands ‘slid off her calves, rubbing away part of the tan’ (Matheson, p. 153). After Ruth escapes from Neville he reads a letter she left, telling him:

‘What you don’t understand yet is that we’re going to stay alive. We’ve found a way to do that…. You may not believe that we can live in the sun for short periods now. You may not believe that my tan was only make-up. You may not believe that we can live with the germ now…the discovery of this pill…saved us from dying’ (Matheson, pp. 155-155).

Neville’s technology ultimately fails against the vampires. They use their own knowledge of science to overcome him.

Neville embodies the threat of being the ‘other’ or monster, and this fear must be conquered. After his capture, Ruth tells him that the other vampires are ‘terrified of you, Robert, they hate you. And they want your life’ (Matheson, p. 168). He is now the threat to their society and ‘sooner or later [they’ll] be too organized and nothing will stop [them] from destroying [him]’ (Matheson, p. 155). Neville knows this and considers it:

‘They were going to do what they had to do, albeit with unnecessary violence and seeming relish. He had killed their people and they had come to capture him and save themselves. He would not fight. He’d throw himself upon the justice of their new society’ (Matheson, p. 160).

On the brink of execution and extinction, he comes to the realization that he was ‘the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept… and he knew that they were afraid of him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen. [He] looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them’ (Matheson, pp 169-170).

In Dracula, Van Helsing and his followers have to work very hard to hunt and kill this threat to their society. However, Van Helsing notes that they have an advantage over Dracula saying: ‘We… are not without strength. We have on our side power of combination…we have sources of science; we are free to act and think…. We have self-devotion to a cause, and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one’ (Stoker, p. 229). It is this devotion that enables them to finally kill Dracula in the end, successfully overcoming the threat to Victorian England’s values. Normalcy and society remain upheld while ‘every trace of all that had been was blotted out’ (Stoker, p. 364).

The battle in both novels is between that which is defined as normal and the change that threatens that definition. Dracula, and the female sexual aggression and unconventional gender roles he brings with him, proves that these are forces that need to be controlled. For the vampires in I Am Legend, Neville and his science represent the threat to their society. These vampires use sexuality and gender stereotypes as a weapon against Neville. In both cases, normalcy prevails, whatever definition it may have, and society remains intact. Stoker and Matheson use their stories to question our preconceived notions of the way things are and the way they could be, by challenging our interpretation of the conventional.

Works Cited
Boone, Troy (2007) ‘“He is English and Therefore Adventurous”: Politics, Decadence, and “Dracula”’, Studies in the Novel 25.N1 (1993), General Reference Center, Gale, Manatee Community College, p. 76, Venice, FL. 06 Nov. 2007 <http://find.galegroup.com>

Epstein, Joseph (1993) ‘My 1950s’, Commentary 96.n3 (Sept 1993): 37(6), General Reference Center, Gold, Gale CCLA, Manatee Community College, Venice, FL. 15 Mar. 2008, <http://find.galegroup.com>

Matheson, Richard (1995) I Am Legend (New York: Tom Doherty Associates).

Ramsland, Katherine (2002) The Science of Vampires (New York: Berkley Boulevard Books), Manatee Community College Lib., Venice, FL. 06 Nov. 2007 <http://www.netlibrary.com>

Stoker, Bram (2001) Dracula (New York: The Modern Library).

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