Centuries of Paradox
Images of the vampire over time show a cohesive relationship with the genre of gothic literature because of its complex and contradictory nature. Gothic literature’s rise as the artistic interaction between the scientific and the supernatural played with an enticing paradox that extended beyond just themes and motifs. It manifested into the characters themselves. Dating back to the 1700’s, the introduction of a paradoxical character derived from Lord Byron’s many works appears in many vampiric characters as the Byronic hero. Also an aspect of gothic literature, monstrosity served and is serving an important purpose in our culture. Whatever aspects of humanity and society are manifested into monstrosity reveal the deepest fears of said society. When it comes to vampirism, both violence and sexual liberation inform the reader a great deal pertaining to the current state of cultural principles. A comparison of modern vampire imagery and older images in literary texts suggests that our culture is simply enticed by paradox and can empathize with the complexity of vampiric figures. The difference in the components of the paradoxes reveals the ways in which our culture’s values have changed in their origins while a theme of contradiction has stayed present.
As established, gothic literature itself is founded in the paradox of science and the supernatural. The unwavering popularity for the complicated and multifaceted presence of the Byronic hero in our culture over time also supports the claim that we are engaged by paradox. The Byronic hero loathes the reality that he is a monster. He is both creative and destructive, human and monster, sensitive and angsty, and both us and the other. Most of Byron’s poems included versions of the Byronic hero and Byron’s sentiments also support the popularity of the paradoxical existential lens also present in gothic literature. In his poem “Manfred”, Byron writes: “Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most / must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth” (Byron 11-12). Byron’s awareness in general was something burdening his thoughts, and while knowledge was valued and sought after, the truth was something “fatal” and had to be mourned. One typical example of a vampirical Byronic hero is Varney the Vampire who is tortured by his own monstrosity. Although Varney was present in the 1840’s, his archetype can be seen manifested in many of today’s characters which supports our culture’s longstanding fascination with duality and paradoxes. In the Twilight series, the main character Edward Cullen faces a strikingly similar torture to Varney and even Lord Byron. His awareness of his current state weighs on him, and even though he is painfully aware of his monstrosity, he brutes on in a relatively existential way. He knows he should stay away from his love interest but cannot bring himself to do it because he is a pinnacle of the overlap of humanity and monstrosity. Even centuries later, this tragically yet fascinatingly torn character grabs the attention of our society while also evoking our empathy more and more.
An interest in this paradox tells us about our culture’s relationships with individuality and the other. Since the Byronic hero is a form of both pure expression of individuality while also personifying our culture’s fear of the other, its popularity suggests that society and individuals struggle to successfully experience and define ourselves. Because of the natural and often conflicting duality most people experience, becoming indistinguishable from the other is a reason our culture may embrace monstrosity so much. It expertly lends itself to appeal to our individuality. Another more modern and ambiguous version of the vampire appears in the television series Dexter. Dexter Morgan is extremely aware of his monstrosity yet chooses to express it by killing other killers. This raises an enticing ethical dilemma for viewers which supports that the complexity of monstrosity engages our culture. In the very first episode, he says: “Blood. Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge, other times it helps me control the chaos.” Blood is undoubtedly one of the greatest symbols of the vampire in literature and text which is why Dexter can be considered not only the archetype of the Byronic hero but a form of a modern vampire as well. The popularity of both the show Dexter and the series Twilight informs us that our culture can identify with monstrosity while also justifying it through empathy. Dexter battles with his monstrosity, need to kill, and fascination with blood while remaining a controversial figure in the minds of the public since his horrible actions may be resulting in a net positive. One of the reasons society is so enticed by this paradox is because individuals identify monstrosity in themselves while also using characters such as Dexter and Edward as vehicles to accept monstrous parts of themselves.
While the presence of the paradox is apparent through gothic literature and vampiric figures, the aspects that comprise these paradoxes go beyond just violence and monstrosity. The shifts in the paradoxical components are parallel in structure to the shifts in our culture’s fears and expectations. The way vampire images have always been portrayed is shown through the lens of that author’s and/or that society’s cultural standards. For example, Bram Stoker’s personification of the female vampire sends very clear messages about how women fit into society in line with the rigid structure and values they were meant to adhere to. The character Lucy in Dracula by Bram Stoker expresses intellect and sexuality in a way that was clearly threatening for the time since she is effectively punished in the text. Stoker then goes on to imply that since Lucy may have had sexual experiences with multiple men, her punishment for this sexual liberation is death. This text is clearly written by someone who believes in and is enforcing the ideals of a monogamous and patriarchal society. At the time, sin was easily classified as a simple disobedience against religious values: purity is godlike and sexuality is sinful. As the value for religion in our culture has declined since Stoker wrote Dracula, the source from where our culture derives and follows its values has altered following the decline of religion causing society to find ways to reinforce and dictate those values itself. Vampire literature has always contained an element of threatening sexuality, especially when it comes to the female monster. Lillith was extremely sexually liberated and described as being the mother of all monsters while Carmilla was an alluring vampire that drained and seduced those around her. Whether in the bible, in Stoker’s works, or even Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, all threats of women’s sexuality were written at a time or through a lens of a culture with significant religious values. In the show The Vampire Diaries, Nina Dobrev’s character is portrayed as seductive and vampiric with little emphasis on religion or sin. The show is strikingly more graphic and violent than LeFanu’s Carmilla which suggests that while cultural fears used to be intertwined with violating religious standards of purity, our culture now fears violence much more but is enticed by the juxtaposition of sexuality and brutality. Violence is a form of entertainment today because it plays with the promiscuity that sin did during the times of earlier vampiric works.
Paradox is enticing because of more than just its complexity. It allows us to identify with both society and the other at the same time and also is an immersive view into the fears and standards of a culture at a given time, especially with monstrosity and gothic literature. As a value such as religion is losing its impact and power in modern day America, the rise of violence grows as a form of radical entertainment. Gothic literature and vampiric images have consistently played with more than just the other. This genre pushes individuality and challenges the norm in ways that reflect society’s fears, however, as our culture becomes more and more desensitized to violence, this raises the question: what aspects of society’s fears and cultural expectations will the genre challenge next?
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