Exploring Gothic Fiction Essay

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Gothic Fiction

Dracula is a far more traditional Gothic novel in the classic sense than the four books of the Twilight series, in which Bella Swan and her vampire lover Edward Cullen never even fully consummate their relationship until they are married in the third book Eclipse, and Bella does not finally get her wish to become a vampire until the fourth and final book Breaking Dawn. Far from being Edward's victim, or used as a pawn and discarded, she is eager to leave her dull, empty middle class life behind and become part of the Cullen vampire family. When she nearly dies giving birth to their half-vampire daughter, Edward finally does 'turn' her to save her life, and to paraphrase the title of the old song, we can only hope that she is satisfied. Bella in fact is a very traditional and conservative character, including her religion and even her reading habits, and through four novels she was basically entreating Edward for a chance to opt out of 21st Century consumer society and into a 'family' of vampires that she regards as an ideal, at least compared to her own.

In novels like Dracula, on the other hand, the racial and ethnic 'Other' represents exoticism and sensuality as well as danger, especially to white womanhood. This is a very common pattern in imperial history, including the wars against the Native peoples, the treatment of African slaves by the white settle states and the colonial occupations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Non-white and alien 'Others' were at once both seductive and menacing, both as a threat to European identity and notions of racial purity. Their culture and technology were considered primitive, backward and savage, and would have to give way to white civilization or face total destruction and extermination. At best, they could expect paternalistic guidance and control from colonial officials and reservation agents, who would forcibly teach them to give up their 'savage' propensities, and at worst they would be dealt with through genocide. Dracula was another alien from Eastern Europe who invaded England and started preying on 'pure' white women, until he was driven out of the country and then finally tracked down to his lair and destroyed by a heroic team of Anglo-American men led by the Dutch expert Prof. Abraham Van Helsing.

Twilight vs. The Traditional Gothic Genre

On the surface, the Twilight novels and films have little connection with the traditional Gothic genre, either in their treatment of women or any other area. Twilight is strictly the product of 21st Century mass consumer culture, where publishing is a global business and the marketing departments decide what is published rather than the editorial staff (Steiner 207). This means that the sales are marketing people are designing user-friendly characters who they believe will appeal to a mass audience, in this case mostly a female adolescent audience. Twilight has humane and 'civilized' vampires who feed on animals rather than humans and try to live 'ordinary' middle and upper class lives, at least when they are moving around after sundown. Although the setting in the Pacific Northwest is naturally gray, gloomy and foggy much of the time, the characters in Forks School are not exactly Gothic in the classical sense. There is a faction of vampires called the Volturi, the "vampire aristocracy who rule their netherworld from medieval thrones and feast on unsuspecting tourists in the bowels of the castle" (Branch 2010: 60). These are the cruel, immoral, pre-modern vampires with names like Aro, Caius and Marcus, but Edward, Carlisle and the other humanitarian vampires reject this lifestyle.

Gothic tales are usually set in castles, asylums, prisons and abbeys, preferably those in decrepit condition where the characters can exist partially in darkness and shadows, haunted by ghosts, monsters, guilt and hidden desires. Often there is a theme of aristocratic and authoritarian father figures in conflict with the more democratic and individualistic younger generation, who end up destroying the old order. This was the case in the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), where the Manfred was an aristocratic overlord determined to hold onto his domain in the face of internal rebellion from women and young people. In The Monk (1794), the aristocratic patriarch also took drastic measures to prevent his daughter from marrying a common shoemaker (Branch 62).

In Dracula, the Count was a racial, ethnic and sexual outsider and 'Other' who is a threat to Western civilization and white womanhood, and was therefore exterminated like any other 'barbarian' and 'savage'. He is also an aristocratic monster who intrudes on modern Britain and takes up residence in a defunct abbey, where he threatens the marriages of Lucy Westernra and Sir Arthur Holmwood, while also attempting to seduce and control Mina Harker. Van Helsing's extermination team of white, male "quasi-religious scientific disciples" united British gentleman and American cowboys in an Anglo-Saxon response to this outside menace (Branch 63). From the 18th and 17th Centuries until the 20th, European colonial powers openly controlled most of the world, and rigid hierarchies of color were in place, based on laws, treaties, theological, philosophical and ideological statements. Nonwhites were placed in a separate category as barbarians, savages and sub-humans, fit only for slavery of menial 'free' labor, and denied political, educational and economic opportunities. In the United States and other white settler states, cultural and political identity centered on "expanding over and obliterating savagery" (Rogin 147). Senator Thomas Hart Benton stated that "civilization or extinction has been the fate of all people who found themselves in the track of advancing whites: (Rogin 153). Almost everywhere in the world until fairly recent times, there were two legal and moral systems for whites and all the 'others' (Mills 23). History is littered with many examples of racism and paternalism toward non-whites.

Bella Swan as Conservative Traditionalist

Bella is not regularly being seduced, attacked or kidnapped by an exotic, foreign or aristocratic vampire of the Dracula type, but is in love with the 'rational' and 'civilized' vampire Edward. He lives in a mansion with other members of his vampire 'family', headed by Cullen, whose own father was a fundamentalist Christian and vampire hunter. Even though he was turned into a vampire as a result of his father's activities, Cullen still retains many of the moral and ethical values of his father's religion and even has a cross hanging outside the door of his study (Branch 61). Unlike Dracula, the Twilight vampires seem to have no fear or crosses, holy water or garlic, and Bella is also religious. Throughout the novels, she constantly pressures Edward to turn her into a vampire, since wants to be with him forever and also prefers the Cullen family to her own. Indeed, the Cullen's offer an "image of American family perfection" and an "ideal that is impossible for the vast majority of Americans to achieve" (Branch 63-64). Bella's main desire is to be "forever young, beautiful and united with Edward in a fantasy world where nothing changes" (Byron 2008: 179).

Bella is also prepared to give up her own education and aspirations for independence and a middle class life just to be with Edward as a vampire, which is why feminists have frequently criticized her character and the author of the series. Few women in the U.S. today are in an economic position to be full-time homemakers and mothers even if they would prefer to be, given that the high cost of living and relatively low wages require two incomes as an entry ticket into the middle class. Women today marry at an older age than in 1950 or even 1970, have children later and also have more educational and employment opportunities, yet Bella's life seems to be missing emotional, familial and romantic connections. Her world is a mass consumer society, made up of isolated, alienated individuals, which is why she finds the Cullen family so appealing. Of course, there is the minor problem that they are all day and cannot walk in the sunlight, but Bella's desire for this life and her love for Edward are so powerful that she is literally prepared to die in order to join them.

Bella is a reader, but not of contemporary novels or pulp fiction but of the pre-20th Century classics like Shakespeare and Jane Austen, which fits with her conservative and traditional character. She does not watch television and refuses to enter a New Age bookstore because it violates her Christian religious principles, and when her other friends go shopping for clothes she prefers to buy books. In the first Twilight novel, she is shown to be lower middle class, the product of divorce and a dysfunctional family, but using education to "climb up the social ladder" (Steiner 2011: 197). In the second novel, New Moon, the plot actually follows Romeo and Juliet, while the third in the series, Eclipse, refers constantly to Wuthering Heights. She is portrayed as being on a "morally higher ground than Catherine," while…[continue]

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