By exploring the roots and impact of the Gothic novel, Paul O’Brien illustrates how vampires and monsters are expressions of changing class relations – and fears – during the 18th and 19th century.
I first came across the phrase ‘Gothic Marxism’ in a report of a talk by the writer China Miéville on ‘Marxism and Halloween’. Miéville invoked the concept in relation to the idea of ‘solidarity with monsters’— the need for solidarity amongst those that capitalism had made monstrous by their drive toward industrialisation and commodity production.
The initial impetus for the Gothic in art and literature arose from the break with medieval society with the emergence of capitalist relations and industrialisation. The Gothic castle and the old structures stood in ruins, projecting both nostalgia and fear of the past — things that were lost but also alien and threatening to modern life.
Marx as a Gothic Writer
In Marx’s work, the political and social importance of class is central to his analysis of capitalism, with the relationship between capital and labour based on exploitation. Several Marxist literary critics have projected Marx as a gothic writer, in the way that he uses images and metaphors such as vampires and ghosts to suggest that capitalist forces of production are uncontrollable and will eventually bring about the destruction of the class that created them. This concept of summoning up powerful forces from the other world was a stable of Victorian gothic novels.
The very first sentence of the Communist Manifesto (1848) sets the tone. The German original reads ‘Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa’ and is commonly translated as ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’. But the word Gespenst can also be translated as ghost or spook, and in one early edition I believe it was translated as ‘a hobgoblin is haunting Europe’.
In the Victorian era, the social division, in terms of living conditions, was extreme, as outlined very forcefully by Frederick Engels in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). The ruling class had no conception of the poverty and wretched conditions that existed in the industrial towns of England. One of the themes that run throughout the Communist Manifesto is that of the constant struggle between the bourgeoisie and a sinister, resentful underclass that inhabits a dangerous underworld that they know nothing about and this is a concept that recurs again and again in gothic fiction.
Exploitation and fear of the underclass are common to both Marx and the gothic novelists. He also suggests that there are the forces that capitalism has summoned up but which they are unable to control. The result is that they are constantly harried, harassed and pursued by these monsters of their own creation. Consequently, as in many horror stories, behind the façade of prosperous stability, bourgeoisie society is in fact in a constant state of threat and agitation. As outlined by Marx:
Modern bourgeoisie society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up with his spells.
And like all good gothic novels, in Marx’s work, the forces of production grow into a terrifying monster that overwhelms and terrifies the bourgeoisie – the proletariat as a monster that is both unnatural and frightening.
Marx and Dracula
Bram Stoker published his novel Dracula in 1897 with limited success; it took another fifty years before it was acknowledged as a gothic classic. Count Dracula can be seen to represent a form of capital that sucks the life from the labouring classes. He cannot live except by exploiting and destroying the lives of others. He maintains himself by living off the life of others. Stories and novels that represented vampires as a class metaphor predates Stoker’s novel. They also contained Freudian, sexual, and exploitative undertones; the vampire drawing strength from the body of their victim.
Marx used the vampire metaphor in relation to the workings of capitalism: ‘Capital is dead Labour which, vampire life, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’. He referred to ‘the were-wolf’s hunger for surplus labour’, and to the fact that ‘the prolongation of the working day quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour’.
Stoker’s Dracula is not a direct illustration of the exploitative relationship between capital and labour. Rather it represents the class struggle between the capitalist bourgeois and the character of Dracula as a monopolist who controls a large portion of the market. Dracula is not capital itself, but a particular form of capital which had emerged in the 1890s: monopoly capital.
As the Marxist critic Franco Moretti explained; ‘Dracula is a true monopolist; solitary and despotic, he will not brook competition’. Dracula expressed the fears of the bourgeois and the petty-bourgeois who fear domination from the monopolistic power of big business. Moretti went on to suggest that the novel Dracula ‘was a desperate attempt to articulate anxieties about the crisis of liberal capitalism which was taking place within the 1890s and the challenge to the hegemony of the professional bourgeoisie which it entailed’.
Vampire fiction as class allegory predates Dracula. The means by which vampires feed not only has sexual and Freudian subtexts but is also a powerful representation of a classically exploitative relationship – one body drawing strength whilst the other weakens – and Marxist writers were not slow in appropriating this imagery.
Metaphors of Class
The connection between vampires and Marxism can also be due to Marx’s reading of horror stories as a distraction from his studies in the British Library, and the fact that vampires were a popular literary character at that time. These blood-sucker monsters had traditionally represented a metaphor for the exploitation of the rural class by the wealthy aristocracy. Marx extended this metaphor to represent the exploitation of the urban working-class by big capital.
In the early gothic novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the ‘monster’ is a lumpen-proletariat, and Balkan vampire folklore contained re-animated peasants as their subject. But by the time the vampire novel emerged in the early nineteenth century the classic vampire was from the aristocracy. In The Vampyre (1819) by John Polidori, the main character is a member of the British nobility. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), it is Carmilla, an aristocratic woman, who feeds on local peasant girls – victims whom she dismisses as worthless and expendable.
When the socialist writers of the mid- to late-nineteenth century cast around for a powerful and instantly recognisable symbol of economic exploitation, they did not have far to look. The American socialist and writer Jack London, when searching for suitable language to describe strike-breakers in industrial disputes used the following:
After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab.
Walter Crane, produced an engraving called Capitalist Vampire in 1885 for the Social Democratic Federation, in which a colossal bat, representing ‘capitalism’, ‘religious hypocrisy’ and ‘party politics’ feeds on a worker, whilst socialist forces emerge in the distance to do battle with the vampire.
Whether the Stoker’s Dracula can be considered a socialist novel is doubtful. Stoker himself was socially conservative. The working class hardly feature in the novel, and those that do are essentially caricatures of reality. Yet it is a narrative about exploitation, and the use and abuse of power, as much as a tale about vampires.
The gothic novel appealed to many nineteenth-century Irish writers such as Maria Edgeworth, Charles Robert Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker who made an impact on the world of literature in this genre. But this was essentially an Irish Protestant phenomenon that represented the political and social position of the Protestant community in mid-eighteenth-century Ireland. Their sense of being outsiders in Ireland, neither English nor Irish, a displaced community surrounded by hostile alien forces is central to the genre.
Irish Protestant gothic had several unique features. On the one hand, there was a religious element and their investment in what Robert Foster has called ‘Protestant Magic’, which included Freemasonry, folklore and a fascination with madness, the occult, and the supernatural. In Protestant discourse, in mid-eighteenth-century Ireland much was made of the link between vampirism and the Catholic belief in transubstantiation.
The second element was their fear of retribution from the displaced Catholic peasantry. The Whiteboys, an agrarian secret society, whose slogan was ‘we will know you by night, but you will not know us by day’, took their revenge on the landlords during the darkness of night by maiming their cattle, looting and fire-setting on their estates.
All of these fears, of the dark, of hostile forces, of blood sacrifice in Catholic belief fed into the vampire myth that was so popular with Irish Protestant Gothic writers, who were, in turn, instrumental in establishing the gothic novel as an international genre.
As in all of the great gothic novels, the vampires of capitalism unwillingly undermine the very system that has made them rich and powerful. Marx extended the vampire analogy when he says they are ‘acting as their own gravediggers’. It is up to us to drive a stake through the heart of vampire capitalism and bury it forever.