21L.310 | Fall 2018 | Undergraduate

Bestsellers: Out for the Count


The course’s assignments consist of two essays. There will be one 1,500 word written paper and one 2,500 word paper. The first paper will assess the leading features of the vampire trope as it began to be domesticated in earlier English-language sources. The second and longer paper will survey what we have learned about the growth of vampire fiction as a genre during the 19th century leading to its classic formulation in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). 

Essay #1: Vampire Fiction: the Creation of a New Genre

In 1,500 words describe the main features of the vampire genre as it developed in the period 1800–1872.

Studying vampire fiction enables us to chart the growth of a new genre of English language fiction over the course of its two hundred year history:

As we know, fiction is divided into a number of genres. If we were writing a Western, say, we would expect to furnish the narrative with certain kinds of characters such as we might encounter in the Old West—the lean, mysterious guy who rides into town, dustcoat flapping aside to reveal immaculately-maintained sixguns who is greeted with the (utterly conventional remark) ‘Bin long on the trail, stranger?’; the seemingly prim school-ma’m struggling to bring civilisation to the Frontier; the alcoholic preacher or doctor struggling with loss of vocation; the wisecracking, tobacco spitting Old-Timer who’s seen it all… and so on. We would expect certain kinds of settings (don’t forget to put in a cactus or two, and we’ll need some barbed wire and tumble-weed, a saloon and a boot hill and various other bits and pieces), and a certain kind of story line typical of such a setting: a range war, perhaps? Or disputed mining claim? Or Indians on the war-path? Or the railroad coming? You get the idea.

Likewise, if we were writing crime fiction—we would be aware from our reading, and perhaps viewing, that there were various sorts, and that the worlds inhabited by Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe are very different although both are private eyes (of a sort). This, in turn is different from the typical police procedural novel we see in the 87th Precinct series. Even within a sub-genre such as this there will be striking differences of character and setting, and plot lines between Ed McBain’s tough New York cops and their English colleagues, Inspector Morse and Inspector Barnaby of the Midsomer Murders novels and TV series.

If we were creating pirate characters, we would need to be aware of the conventions; for example, us pirates always talks in the present tense, and we says colourful seagoing things like ‘slit me gizzard’ and ‘stap me vitals’, and we has interesting bits of us missing, like legs, hands, and eyes. (This is why Barrie’s characterisation of Captain Hook is so brilliant, that he throws overboard a lot of the existing baggage and makes his character a gentleman, an Old Etonian indeed—although you wouldn’t be aware of this if you only watched Disney—when the ticking crocodile catches up with him at the end, he jumps overboard crying ‘Floreat Etona’).

If a busy writer were sitting at his or her desk in 1870 trying to create an utterly conventional vampire fictional story, what characteristics would they use give such a creation, based on their previous reading? Remember, aspects such as character, setting, dialogue and story-line would all come in. Remember too that you are approaching this task as a scholar, a dispassionate observer: you are to describe the phenomenon, not attempt to write fiction for yourself.

You may wish to read the guidance notes on Polidori and Rymer for this essay.

Essay #2: Vampire Fiction: Its Growth

“At the end of the 19th century Bram Stoker in Dracula transformed the inherited idea of the vampire.” Discuss in 2,500 words.

This is a chance to review the evidence; consider changes, if any, in the presentation of the vampire in Stoker’s novel, and demonstrate an awareness of the conclusions on this point of at least two leading contemporary scholars, at least one of whom we should not have discussed in class (a search on JSTOR or Google Scholar will uncover many possibilities here). Do not be overly influenced by what other people think, however. You are now in possession of the primary evidence: try to come to your own conclusions about it.

Assessing literary critical essays:

There are basically three grounds for assessing works of literary criticism, as you will be invited to do in Essay #2:

  1. Fidelity to the text. Does the piece illuminate the text in any significant way? Does it have to distort the text to produce a “new” reading?
  2. Internal coherence. Does it make sense? Do the conclusions flow logically from the premises? Does it “hang together” as an argument?
  3. Contextual awareness. In Dracula criticism we find many references to allegedly widespread Victorian ideas concerning inter alia “The New Woman”, “Reverse Colonisation”, “Racial Degradation Theory”, and various Freudian-inspired psychoanalytical interpretations. Are these used—so far as you can judge— legitimately? Do they represent a genuine preoccupation of the text?

Polidori, John. “The Vampyre.” In Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. Edited by Alan Ryan. Penguin, 1989. ISBN: 9780140124453.

 Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. University of Chicago Press, 1997. Auerbach Reading Guide. ISBN: 9780226032023.

It always helps to read round a bit to give your studies some depth over and above what happens in the classroom in the limited time at our disposal. 

Much of the theory of vampire writing, considering what the vampire might ‘stand for’, for example, will be found in the useful essays appended to the Norton edition of Dracula which is one of the set texts for this course. Interesting theoretical overviews of 19th-century vampire fiction as a whole can be found in James B. Twitchell, The Living Dead A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature (Duke University Press, 1981) and Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Twitchell spreads his net very widely, considering almost any fictional being which drains the vitality of another by any means as a “vampire”, but the book contains a lot of interesting information, including vampire-like figures in early Romantic poetry. Auerbach is editor of the Norton Dracula; her book, Our Vampires, Ourselves which tries to relate changes in the vampire trope to changes in contemporary society from the early nineteenth century onwards is lively and readable, although her view of the subject is occasionally idiosyncratic.

Now to the stories for this week: in John Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, we might want to focus on characterization, amongst other things (remember last week we spoke about setting and narrative standpoint?) by noting growing signs of moral corruption in the central figure Lord Ruthven: obviously he’s a pretty bad fellow, but how is this conveyed? What are we told and how are we told it? Characters don’t just happen, obviously: their relationships are often patterned. This is part of what we mean when we speak about “form” and “structure” in literary works. The obvious relationship between the characters of Ruthven and his young companion, Aubrey, is one of contrast: but is Aubrey a simple ingénue, or is there more to him perhaps than first meets the eye? Aubrey reads a lot of novels. What effect does this have on his character? We learn that Ruthven’s affairs are “embarrassed”: what does this suggest? Ruthven is a man of mystery, difficult to interpret, and by the look of things Aubrey quite seriously misjudges him in the opening sections of the story. We might consider Aubrey, therefore a “limited narrator.” Is there anything in the first third of the story that enables the reader to “see” more than he does? How does Polidori build our suspicions that there may be something unnatural, even supernatural, about Lord Ruthven?

Amongst the story’s potential faults, we might consider the aspect of plausibility. Are there things in this story that strain credence? Consider, for example, the steps by which Polidori maneuvers Aubrey into a frame of mind in which he can accept that his former friend and mentor, Ruthven, is actually a vampire? Lastly here, there are a few further basic ingredients of the standard vampire trope (remember we thought last week about wild physical locations and stuff?) introduced in this story. Do we know what they are…? The extract from Varney the Vampire shows us a classic specimen of early Victorian popular mass-market fiction, very different from the style of Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot. Do you detect any feature of the style which might indicate this? The scenesetting here establishes a number of elements that later became clichés of the vampire genre. Amongst them are…?

(A similar approach to the above may yield helpful insights into “The Mysterious Stranger” and Johann Ludwig Tieck’s “Wake not the Dead” which we will also hope to consider this week).

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Fall 2018
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Written Assignments