Notes on Polidori and Rymer

Buy at Amazon Polidori, John. "The Vampyre." In Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. Edited by Alan Ryan. Penguin, 1989. ISBN: 9780140124453.

Buy at Amazon 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).