‘Dracula before Dracula and Harker before Harker’: ‘Self’, ‘Otherness’ and the past in Bram Stoker’s ‘The Burial of the Rats’.

Daniel Baillie recently completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Dundee, where his fourth year dissertation explored the ubiquity of the Freudian unheimlich in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In September, he will commence postgraduate study at the University of Edinburgh. His interests are Gothic and invasion literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as the concept of ‘Otherness’ and the role of the domestic space. He also enjoys psychology and playing video games! You can find him on Twitter here. 

Bram Stoker’s short story ‘The Burial of Rats’ was circulated in the year 1896, one year before the publication of his emblematic Gothic tale, Dracula. Although a paucity of scholarly material has been published on the former, the latter has continued to enamour and garner critical attention since its publication. Two years following Stoker’s death in 1912, his widow Florence published Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories (1914), which was comprised of stories such as ‘The Burial of the Rats’. Florence Stoker intriguingly alleges that ‘Dracula’s Guest’ ‘[…] was originally excised owing to the length of the book [Dracula].’[1]However, later detractors such as Leslie Klinger have subsequently repudiated this claim expounding that: ‘Without the name “Dracula” appearing in the title and [Dracula’s] message [sent to the narrator], there would be very little to connect this traveller’s tale with [the novel Dracula].’[2] Contrarily, Elizabeth Miller’s seminal work illustrates the significance of ‘Dracula’s Guest’ by suggesting that it should not be studied as the expurgated chapter Florence Stoker purports it to be but as an experimental, precursor work that Stoker ‘wove parts of’ into ‘chapters 1-4 and 27’ of Dracula. [3] 

The manifold critical explorations of tales such as ‘Dracula’s Guest’ have emphasised their ambiguous status as ‘a self-contained narratives of unknown origin’ or perhaps even ‘part of an early draft which was abandoned during the planning stage’. [4] Miller’s study reveals an excerpt for chapter two entitled ‘Harker’s Diary Munich – wolf’ which she adduces as evidence in support of the notion that Jonathan Harker is in fact the narrator of this incipient work. [5] If we adhere to this pattern of thought and the corollary that it expedites, then the bizarre and somniferous encounter with the ‘wolf’ in ‘Dracula’s Guest’ is discernibly reconstituted in Dracula as Harker is terrorised in the calèche. For Miller, the information extracted from the typescript ‘proves that Bram continued to fiddle with the opening section until the final draft’.[6] She further perceives the similarly tumultuous journey of the anonymous, English narrator as well as the fungible functions of numerous ancillary characters. Herr Delbrück, the maître d’hôtel of the Quatre Saisons, in ‘Dracula’s Guest’ performs a similar function to that of the mysterious couple who operate the Golden Krone hotel. Herr Delbrück’s query, ‘for you know what night it is’ is expressed by the couple in the form of ‘but do you know what day it is?’[7] For Miller, the ‘Notes’ ‘confirm that he [Stoker] began working on a vampire novel even before he ascertained the name “Dracula” or selected Transylvania as the monster’s homeland.’[8] Similarly for David J. Skal, they incontrovertibly, ‘[…] with their abundance of overlapping characters, offer one of the few tangible insights into Stoker’s working method’.[9] The purpose of this brief critical foray is to illuminate the influence of Stoker’s embryonic ventures on his eventual masterpiece Dracula, and to suggest that comparisons, parallels and similarities can be discerned. The importance of ‘The Burial of the Rats’ with regards to the development of Dracula however is largely unexplored. As we peruse the story, the intrepid narrator’s sojourn into the Parisian world of ‘Otherness’ evokes the fraught traversal enacted by Harker in the opening chapters of Dracula. In both situations, we have two Englishmen marvelling at cultural fecundity, extolling the merit of scientific endeavour yet concurrently perceiving the residual and indelible indicators of a primitive past.

The quintessential Gothic milieu: abstruse, liminal and parlous. Whether Transylvania or the ‘unsavoury’ Parisian district, the dissolution of the familiar becomes palpable.

The quintessential Gothic milieu: abstruse, liminal and parlous. Whether Transylvania or the ‘unsavoury’ Parisian district, the dissolution of the familiar becomes palpable

Prevalent thematic concerns pertaining to ‘topography, landscape and customs’ seemed to have percolated Stoker’s thinking from the early 1890s and onwards.[10] Considering that the publication date of ‘Burial’ was 1896, the notion that this work is a Dracula prototype or a fleeting dalliance with an inherently unrefined, stylist experiment is hardly inconceivable. As evidenced, Stoker by this time was already cultivating and striving to filter his ideas concerning ‘characters’ and ‘plot for a story of the supernatural’ and Miller’s account of ‘Dracula’s Guest’ certainly implies an unrefined concept undergoing perpetual reconfiguration.[11]  Catherine Wynne muses that the critical history of Stoker’s work is replete with ‘psychoanalytical, gendered and imperial readings’ and contextualises him as ‘a figure immersed in and responding to the social, political and moral discourses of his time’.[12] Dracula is redolent with these thematic and conceptual facets and by reading it conjunctively with ‘Burial’, we can distinguish Stoker’s formation of idiosyncratic ‘monsters’ that represent the antithesis of the modern worlds in which they struggle to subsist. The manifestation of this ‘Otherness’ is predicated on a process of defamiliarisation, which characterises Gothic monsters as intrinsically degenerate. Kate Hebblethwaite informs us that the ‘rag pickers’ or chiffoniers depicted in ‘Burial’ were fundamentally pariah figures, traditionally ostracised and ‘held responsible for the ills of society, including epidemics, thefts and urban insecurity in general’.[13] Analogous to the vampire Count, the rag pickers symbolise the ‘Other’ race because they are delineated, at least ostensibly, as being irreconcilably different to the normative protagonists who encounter them. The ‘Other’ is represented as aberrant and antithetical to the ‘Self’, which precipitates the narrative destabilisation. Consequently, hitherto established binary conceptualisations of normalcy and deviancy are adumbrated to illuminate Victorian Gothic’s profound and invariably harrowing cultural exposition. Stephen Arata proffers that British culture and in particular, late Victorian fiction of the fin de siècle was ‘[…] saturated with the sense that the entire nation – as a race of people, as a political and imperial force, as a social and cultural power – was in irretrievable decline’.[14] Arata’s discourse establishes the precedent for further readings of the invasion motif in Stoker’s works through its engagement with imperial anxieties and the resultant introspection upon colonial and domestic socio-political concerns.

‘Burial’ commences by juxtaposing the progressive, ‘centralised’ milieu of modern Paris with the inscrutable and toxic ‘Other’ world of the rag pickers.[15] Miller’s emphasis on ‘topography, landscape and customs’ recalls Arata’s discourse by evoking the perennial anxieties of Stoker’s protagonists who are compelled to perambulate worlds where such concepts become obfuscated. In this instance, the similarities between the opening of ‘Burial’ and Harker’s initial diaries entries are as suggested, almost uncanny. Harker recounts, when voyaging to Transylvania that the ‘[…] impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East’.[16] Similarly in ‘Burial’, Stoker’s depiction of this Parisian ‘district’ becomes synonymous with mystery, esoteric ‘customs’ and prodigious signifiers of past glories. The unnamed narrator notes a ‘wild and not at all savoury district’[17] that parallels Harker’s description of Dracula’s native milieu as ‘one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe’.[18] Furthermore, the former protagonist infiltrates a labyrinthine realm that is ‘terra incognita, in so far as the guidebooks were concerned’.[19] Intriguingly, Harker also accesses an unfamiliar and discordant community that even the illustrious ‘British Museum’ cannot ‘light on any map or work’.[20] The provocative descriptions in ‘Burial’ allude to a space of ‘Otherness’, which is evidently as inexplicable as Transylvania in Dracula or Styria in ‘Dracula’s Guest’. Eastern Europe in Dracula is symbolic of Britain’s colonial conquests and similarly in ‘Burial’ the microcosmic society inhabited by the rag pickers is a colony of sorts, in that it is demarcated by the external ‘civilised’ boundaries, which surround it. As the English narrators gravitate closer to these uncharted realms of inscrutable ‘topography, queer ‘customs’ and exotic predilections, they encapsulate the metaphorical transition, as Arata suggests, from the colonising world to the colonised world which consequently, threatens to ‘reverse colonise’. Harker literally invokes the transition by writing that he is journeying, one which feels increasingly regressive, from the ‘West’ to the ‘East’. Similarly, in ‘Burial’, the narrator invokes colonial disparities by describing his transition from the ‘Paris’ of ‘centralisation’ to the ‘unsavoury district’ within Paris. The perpetual oscillation between Western rationality and ‘Otherness’ distorts the dichotomies of coloniser and colonised, familiar and unfamiliar in a sense that is both literal and symbolic. Harker alludes to the ‘British Museum’ and the technological revelation of rail transportation as the narrator of ‘Burial’ reminisces that ‘centralisation is becoming a fact […] its forerunner is classification’.[21] In both narratives Western ‘civilisations’ of putative knowledge, scientific advancement and rational nomenclature are vulnerable as an ‘unsavoury’, ‘wild’, ‘superstitious’ and pernicious ‘social wilderness’ loiters on the periphery of Victorian consciousness.

The implicit ‘savagery’ of Transylvania and the rag pickers, which transmogrifies into something more overt, in a Freudian sense both ‘repels and captivates’.[22]Both Harker and the narrator express ambivalence towards the ‘Otherness’ of the unheimlich milieu and its ‘primitive’ denizens. The ostensibly utopian and idyllic environs of Transylvania stimulate and intoxicate Harker who is endeared by their ‘beauty of every kind’ despite the presence of ‘barbarians’, ‘brigands’ and ominous ‘figures’. During his reception with Dracula, he perspicaciously discerns that he converses with ‘excellent English, but with a strange intonation.’[23]

Dracula preys upon Lucy colonising mind, body and identity. Concealment and espionage are preferable to internecine warfare. The modus operandi of the rag pickers is similar.

Dracula preys upon Lucy colonising mind, body and identity. Concealment and espionage are preferable to internecine warfare. The modus operandi of the rag pickers is similar.

Similarly, the narrator in ‘Burial’ is intrigued by the rag pickers and their customs which inculcates him with ‘a keener energy than I could have summoned to aid me in any investigation leading to any end, valuable or worthy’[24] yet their dwellings are the among the ‘strangest’ and they appear ‘very, very villainous’.[25] Moreover, like the raconteur Dracula they enthral the narrator with their anguishing tales of old. The ambivalence to which Arata alludes is inherently Freudian because of the narrator and Harker’s ‘proximity to elemental instincts and energies, energies seen as dissipated by modern life [which] makes them [the ‘Other’] dangerous but also deeply attractive’.[26] The result is a destabilisation of the ‘Self’ and the dissolution of the Freudian heimlich, which is contingent on the narrator and Harker’s sense of placelessness, isolation and rational destitution. Harker reckons that the Count ‘would make a wonderful solicitor’ and because of his ‘excellent English’ he appears familiar and compelling yet ‘strangely’ anachronistic at the time.[27] Moreover, Harker enjoys Dracula’s ‘courteous welcome’ before smoking a ‘cigar’ and observing the opulent tapestries that are reminiscent of those in ‘Hampton Court in England’.[28] From a Freudian perspective, the hapless protagonists unwittingly relinquish their autonomy by entering the liminal space of ‘Otherness’ because of the duplicitous heimlich comforts that assuage their anxiety. The artifice of the ‘courteous’ and ‘English’ speaking Dracula, coupled with the ‘smoking’ rag pickers who innocuously evoke the splendour of the ‘glorious’ ‘First Republic’ impart a sense of the familiar and inviting. Jerrold E. Hogle terms this as ‘unfamiliar familiarity’, which articulates ‘overtones of the archaic and the alien in their grotesque mixture of elements viewed as incompatible by established standards of normality’.[29] Thusly, banal and habitual activities such as ‘cigar’ smoking, story telling or even dining are warped by the unheimlich ‘Other’ resonating within the heimlich. Betsy van Schlun notes the penchant that Stoker’s villains have for nurturing ‘a rapport’ with their ‘victims’.[30] While the characteristics of Dracula and the rag pickers are inherently unheimlich they employ subterfuge to stultify the narrators with heimlich seductions whether they be ‘smoking’ habits or ‘English books’. Robert Edwards cogently determines that Stoker:

[…] Invokes a sense of […] familiarity and the continuity of a tradition on which stability and [modern] society’s self-perception rests; and yet he also expresses the past in terms of alien forces, forces which threaten to destabilise and encroach upon society’s norms and values.[31]

The Freudian ambivalence is thus derived from the cognitive dissonance experienced when observing an ancient, feudal Count whose genealogy is a tempestuous, litany of sanguine slaughter and yet in the modern world he is now a fervent cultivator of foreign, ‘English’ paraphernalia and language. In ‘Burial’, the rag pickers are analogous to Dracula in that they metaphorically embody a savage, ‘warlike’ past which is garnering momentum and undergoing a similar colonial recrudescence (or reversal).[32] The narrator is informed of ‘women who signalised themselves by their violence in the revolution’.[33] Like the Count, the rag pickers also cultivate foreign antiquities and symbolic relics of a turbulent past. They adorn ‘uniforms torn and worn threadbare’ whilst dwelling in the ‘colossal remnant of some boudoir of Charles VI or Henry II’ which becomes a presage for the miscegenation of land and body as does Transylvania.[34] Dracula himself epitomises a ‘landscape’ that is comprised of a ‘whirlpool’ of racial categorisations. Richard Wasson suggests that the colonial machinations of the ‘Other’ are ‘more covert […] but nevertheless there’ and manifest in regions where orthodox ‘laws and customs […] do not apply’.[35] Indeed they are ‘more covert’ as Dracula pronounces that the ‘warlike days are over’ and the rag pickers allow the narrator to infiltrate their habitat unopposed as they look at him ‘curiously […] in a whispered conference’.[36] The inference is, as Dracula proclaims euphemistically, that contemporary triumph is more obtainable through chicanery as opposed to savage conquest. Dracula and the rag pickers do not immediately attack their victims; they accord them hospitality, ingratiate themselves using ‘homely’ activities and cultivate a ‘rapport’ before ‘assimilating’ them. For Christopher Craft, the ‘Other’ is thus able to ‘abrogate demarcations’ and illuminate the ‘ambivalence of contemporary attitudes to the past’.[37] Craft seems to imply that Stoker is concerned in both stories primarily with Victorian society’s sense of ‘Self’ and its means of defining and distinguishing ‘Other’ cultures and customs. The rag pickers and Dracula’s tendency to ‘abrogate demarcations’ is predicated on their uncanny ability to evoke the past within the present, to present the colonised as a potentially threatening coloniser.

Porte d'Asnières, Cité Valmy: A community of rag pickers.

Porte d’Asnières, Cité Valmy: A community of rag pickers.

The ambivalence imputed to the past continually reconstitutes its interpretative merit with regards to the positive and negative associations that the individuals perceive. Julia Kristeva would postulate that Stoker’s milieu exemplifies her theory of ‘Abjection’ in that he delineates how Western ideologies are precipitously mutable, permeable and vulnerable in Transylvania or the community or rag pickers.[38] In a conventional sense, Western statutes and jurisprudence are formulated to preserve the integrity of the colonial subject whereas Dracula and the rag pickers embody the volitional dominance of rejecting such restrictions. This sense of security and colonial subversion is also exemplified by the repeated invocation of connubial longings and potential domestic equanimity. Harker envisions the domestic bliss that he and Mina will share as they ‘talk over’  his travels and as he reminds himself, ‘(Mem. get recipe for Mina),[39] in order for her to prepare various culinary delicacies for him.[40] The narrator in ‘Burial’ lugubriously recounts that he was ‘very much in love with a young lady’ but was possessed by a ‘harrowing anxiety lest some accident should prevent [him] showing Alice […] that I had […] been faithful to her trust and my own love.[41] Jennifer L. Fleissner suggests that these longings for the absent female counterpart ‘[…] lend an air of cozy domesticity’.[42] For the protagonists, the promise of marriage and domestic prosperity symbolise the heimlich and ‘homely’, which in the face of adversity is employed as a way of rationalising events. Harker and the narrator attain repose by imagining a matrimonial future and it is these desires, which impel them to confront their antagonists. Considering that neither is married at the beginning of each story we therefore assume that sexual consummation with Mina or Alice has been hitherto elusive. Consequently, the rag pickers and Dracula’s attempted ‘assimilation’ of these male individuals almost ensures that such amorous yearnings remain ungratified. These ‘hospitable’ monsters, per Freud’s study of the ‘Sand-Man’, thus metamorphose into unheimlich figures of emasculation, ‘harbingers of death’ and transgressive ‘disturbers of love’.[43] It is only in the denouement of each story that the vitality of the colonial male is revitalised. Harker and his diverse colonial retinue vanquish Dracula and in a sequence which is almost indistinguishable,[44] his spiritual predecessor in ‘Burial’ is reinforced by an assemblage of French ‘soldiers and ‘police officers’ whose combined vigour enables them to expunge the insidious rag pickers.[45] As Dracula succumbs to the ‘bowie knife’,[46] the repugnant old woman falls fatally onto her ‘dagger’and it is these phallic symbols of male imperial potency, which serve to reaffirm the puissance of Victorian Britain’s wavering hegemony.[47]

Stoker’s rats with leering ‘red eyes’ stalk and consume victims much like his vampiric Count does. A metaphorical colonisation…?

Stoker’s rats with leering ‘red eyes’ stalk and consume victims much like his vampiric Count does. A metaphorical colonisation…?

[1] Stoker, Florence, Ed. Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories, (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1914)

[2] Leslie Klinger, Ed. The New Annotated Dracula, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), p. 2.

[3] Elizabeth Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, (McFarland Literary Criticism, 2008), p. 279.

[4] Ibid, p. 278.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David J. Skal, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, (Macmillan, 2004), p. 43.

[9] Miller, p. 309.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Catherine Wynne, Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 4.

[13] Kate Hebblethwaite in Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Tales, (Penguin UK, 2006).

[14] Stephen Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’, (Victorian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1990), p. 621-45.

[15] Bram Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 1.

[16] Stoker, Dracula (1897), (Plain Label Books, 2007), p. 2.

[17] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 3.

[18] Stoker, Dracula, p. 2.

[19] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 3.

[20] Stoker, Dracula, p. 2.

[21] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 8.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Stoker, Dracula, p. 25.

[24] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 10.

[25] Ibid, p. 11.

[26] Arata, p. 624.

[27] Stoker, Dracula, p. 48.

[28] Ibid, p. 30.

[29] Jerrold E. Hogle, The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 128.

[30] Betsy van Schlun, Science and the Imagination: Mesmerism, Media, and the Mind in Nineteenth century American Literature, (Galda & Wilch, 2007), p. 35.

[31] Robert Edwards, ‘The Alien and the Familiar in the Jewel of Seven Stars and Dracula’, in Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic, ed. William Hughes and Andrew Smith, (London: Macmillan, 1998), p. 96-8.

[32] Ibid, p. 45.

[33] Stoker, ‘The Burial of Rats’, p. 11.

[34] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 11.

[35] Richard Wasson, The Politics of Dracula in Margaret L. Carter’s, Dracula the Vampire and the Critics, (London: UMI Research Press, 1988), p. 19-34.

[36] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 12.

[37] Christopher Craft, ‘Kiss Me with Those Red Lips: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, (Representations 8, 1984), p. 107-33.

[38] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, (Columbia University Press, 1984).

[39] Stoker, Dracula, p. 3.

[40] Ibid, p. 2.

[41] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats, p. 9.

[42] Jennifer L. Fleissner, Dictation Anxiety: The Stenographer’s Stake in Dracula, (Nineteenth-Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 22, Issue 3, 2000), p. 12.

[43] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, (Penguin UK, 2003), p. 89.

[44] Harker is reinforced by a Dutchman (Van Helsing), an American (Morris) and fellow Englishmen (Seward and Holmwood) as well as his beloved Mina.

[45] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 27.

[46] Stoker, Dracula, p. 598.

[47] Stoker, ‘The Burial of the Rats’, p. 27.


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