Art imitates life, life imitates art.
A phrase we’ve likely all heard, and an idea that can blossom in countless ideas. To count off just a few:
Do we unwittingly shape our lives to resemble the stories we read or see on the screen?
Do we view our lives through evolving internal narratives – constructing ourselves as heroes and heroines?
Does our creative output reflect the world we see, or the world we want to see?
And the question we’ll look at today: Can art be a vehicle to process and transform parts of our lives?
Art as transformational therapy.
Art therapy is a growing modern phenomenon, one that highlights a long-treasured aspect of art – that creative and artistic expression can be a way to work through, understand, and process parts of our lives.
Sometimes just ‘painting it out’ can prove surprisingly helpful. Channeling our experiences into narrative fiction, we can take ownership of perspective and context, reorienting our relationships with aspects of our own internal worlds.
Today we look at an example from over a century ago, exploring a particular perspective of a piece we all know, at least by name: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
A novel with bite – and backstory.
What sort of transformation could be manifested through Dracula?
To understand the author’s transformative experience, we must first understand a bit about the author!
For Dracula, the salient part of Stoker’s life is his relationship with the literary and cultural icon, Oscar Wilde.
The two most likely met while Stoker was attending Trinity College, where he quickly became close with Wilde’s parents. Stoker spent Christmas with the Wilde family in 1875, at which point Wilde was courting Florence Balcombe, a relationship that would continue for several years.
In December of 1878, however, Stoker unexpectedly married Wilde’s sweetheart.
For years afterward, Stoker, Balcombe, and Wilde were tangled in a love triangle, as Wilde continued to send Balcombe gifts and love letters. In their torrid triangle, Wilde and Stoker grew increasingly close. In the 1880’s and 90’s, after Wilde himself had married another woman, the two couples always lived close to each other, fostering a deep and continued friendship.
In late May of 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency – having sexual relations with other men.
From then on, Wilde would be demonized by the English media and public. As The Daily Telegraph asserted, Wilde was responsible for “inflicting on the public… as much moral damage of the most hideous and repulsive kind as no single individual could well cause.” The presiding judge at Wilde’s trial, Justice Wills, proclaimed that “creatures found guilty of such offenses as [Oscar Wilde] had must be dead to every sense of shame.”
Stoker began writing Dracula in August of 1895 – just months after Wilde’s conviction.
So why did Stoker write Dracula?Through Dracula, Stoker processes his relationship with Oscar Wilde – reconciling (and separating) the Wilde that Stoker knew and loved with the monstrous caricature of the day. One can observe in the novel a close resemblance between Count Dracula and the horrible image of Wilde popular in the 1890s.
In destroying Dracula, Stoker rejects the ugly portrayal of Wilde, reconciling it with the Wilde who Stoker knew and loved.
Where do we find that in the book?
Stoker paints Count Dracula as an evilly seductive aristocrat, particularly emphasizing his refinement and education. And importantly, from the very start, the evil Count preys on young boys.
Early in the novel, we encounter hysterical mother pleading for the safe return of her son, whom Dracula has apparently captured; instead, we see Dracula sneer at the maternal grief, as he summons wolves to devour her. Similarly, Wilde at the time was portrayed as a ‘corrupter and destroyer of youth’ – a monster that the good folk of Britain must protect themselves and their children from.
The infectious nature of Dracula’s evil – his victims are cursed to become vampires themselves – also reflects the popular portrayal of Wilde. At the time, homosexuality was seen as a disease, and it was widely believed that it could be transmitted from one man to another.
Trapped in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan Harker – the protagonist of Stoker’s Dracula – himself comes upon the brink of succumbing to his captor’s ‘disease.’
After falling asleep in a forbidden room, Harker is visited by three female vampires. As they advance on him, Harker admits to feeling “a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” With the kiss of the vampire closing in, Stoker’s imagery and descriptions become increasingly sexually impassioned – with teeth “just touching and pausing” on his neck, he “closed [his] eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.”
They are only vessels through which Dracula and Harker connect, alluding to Wilde and Stoker’s own connection through Florence Balcombe.
The descriptions of the women are all descriptions of Dracula himself – aquiline noses, piercing eyes, scarlet lips, and sharp white teeth. The women are female stand-ins for the Count.
To further affirm the allusion to male sexual bonding, Dracula himself appears at this moment of climax to claim his stake on Harker, furiously admonishing his fellow vampires that “This man belongs to me!” – suggestive of then-notorious allegations in court that Wilde would note to his provider of sexual clientele, “This is the boy for me.” before inviting the particular young man to retire with him to the Savoy Hotel.
Care for a cinematic bonus?
Introducing: the good Oscar Wilde!
As part of reconciling the monstrously caricatured Wilde with the man Stoker knew and loved, the author merges his protagonist and antagonist – Harker is increasingly like Dracula, but categorically good.
The love triangle between Harker, Dracula, and Harker’s fiancee Mina reaches a climax when Dracula feeds Mina from a self-inflicted wound on his breast, an act Stoker invests with particularly sexual imagery, all while Harker sleeps in the bed at their side. After such an intimate act between Mina and Dracula, Harker’s identity begins to mirror Dracula’s.
Here, Stoker creates a separation between the ‘good’ Oscar Wilde whom Stoker knew and loved – Harker – and the ‘bad’ Wilde, the monstrous caricature purported by the press – Dracula.
The narrator makes sure to notice that “whilst [Harker’s] face of white set passion worked convulsively… the hands tenderly and lovingly stroked [Mina’s] ruffled hair.”
Stoker emphasizes that, although Harker in many ways reflects what we think of Dracula, he does so maintaining love and compassion; Harker assimilates Dracula’s Wilde-ness free of demonized connotations.
Harker is portrayed as the Wilde of reality, the Wilde that Stoker knew. Stoker’s harrowing descriptions of Harker’s imprisonment in Dracula’s castle allude to Wilde’s own imprisonment; when Harker realizes he is a prisoner, he exclaims “…a sort of wild feeling came over me.” Indeed, Harker, the ‘good’ Wilde is imprisoned on account of Dracula, the demonized Wilde – just as the real Oscar Wilde was imprisoned on account of the demonic caricature constructed by the English courts and press.
Note: Dracula is filled with numerous striking and weighted uses of the word ‘wild,’ that seem more than coincidental – though we’re highlighting a handful here, there are many more.
When trying to find a way out of Dracula’s locked castle, Harker notes that “…a wild desire took me to obtain the key at any risk” – and at the time the ‘desire of Oscar Wilde’ had become a common euphemism for homosexuality. This wild desire leads him to “feel all over the body” of the sleeping Count. Stoker also describes the relationship Harker has to the Count throughout the novel as sexually charged.
Harker reflects the sexual reality of Oscar Wilde without demonization.
In the novel’s conclusion, Harker rushes forward in a frenzy to stab Dracula through the heart before the sun sets. The narrator of the scene watches and is overcome with “a wild, surging desire to do something,” reflecting Stoker’s own drive to act when faced with the confrontations of the good Wilde that he knew and the demonized Wilde of public infamy.
The Count is stabbed, and disintegrates into dust; the monster is destroyed, and the true and good Wilde (Harker) triumphs over the demonized Wilde (Dracula).
So… what’s the point?
So, all well and good then – Stoker, through his artistic act of writing Dracula, processed his complex emotions surrounding Oscar Wilde and the infamous ‘gross indecency’ trial – but, to be blunt, why should we care, beyond the historical and authorial interest?
The very obscurity of this personal backstory to Stoker’s Dracula exemplifies exactly what is so powerful about this process surrounding art.
Put simply – it doesn’t matter if we know the origin, because we interpret it into our own lives.
Dracula is a potent piece of fiction, and is a powerful manifestation of transformation and emotional processing through fiction. Because artistic expression works through metaphor, symbolism, and imaginative representation, we experience this outside of the authorial impetus.
We experience a story whose protagonist is increasingly similar to its antagonist, the two mirroring each other, with the ‘good’ side prevailing over – and, ultimately, freeing – the ‘evil’ side.
We experience the dynamic tension between attraction and repulsion, temptation and tenacity, cruelty and compassion – all without knowing what originally the author was processing through.
With this rich symbolic experience, we’re given transformative tools with which to ‘plug in’ and process parts our own lives.
Though vampire myths predate Stoker, it is Stoker’s Dracula that set the standard, and informed the vampiric legacy still so popular today. Vampire mythology in our culture is so emotionally rich and poignantly evocative largely because its origin, Dracula, is so deeply infused with artistic personal transformation.
Art transcends the artist.
Here we see the true power in art as personal transformation: it leaves a non-personal legacy. That is, when we use art as a means to process through our own life’s experiences, we create a tool for others to use after us, for their own lives and in their own ways.
Through art, the personal stretches into the universal.
Have you ever explored and processed through parts of your life through artistic expression? With painting, writing, drawing, singing, dancing – or something else?
Have you shared what you created with the world?
Join the discussion and share your thoughts in the comments!
And if you enjoyed this article, be sure to revisit our discussion, Why Poetry?, where we look at other perspectives on the value and beauty of literary arts!
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