Get Real!: A visual case study of real and surrealist demons in 19th century literature

Middlemarch-Cover_NYU_01                                    Dracula-Cover-NYU_01

Bodies of literature can be divided into two subcategories; realist, and surrealist literature.

A Sicilian Romance, The Monk, and Dracula utilize supernatural themes in order to evoke poignant emotions in the reader. Larger-than-life characters like Frankenstein (and his monster, who is quite literally larger than life), may serve to represent very real aspects of human nature at large, and manage to (for the most part, barring most of The Monk) make the fantastical feel real.

Daniel Deronda, A Tale of Two Cities, The Sorrows of Young Werther—these are novels that contrast the surrealist movement in fiction; they contain no fantastic elements and their strive towards the realist aesthetic derives it’s “realness” from a presence of absolute human imperfection, containing characters that, as Eliot writes in Adam Bede, “you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people — amongst whom your life is passed — that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love:…falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult.”

The move toward literary realism is not a strictly nineteenth century development, neither is it a strictly chronological one. Nonetheless, “one has to agree that almost all nineteenth century novels—even the most realistic—include Gothic elements” (The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature p. 27).

For example, realist novels use aspects of surrealism to impart greater meaning or illuminate truths about their characters, surroundings, or themes. It’s fair to say that realistic nineteenth century novels do not adopt all aspects of the Gothic. But for example, in the case of the vampire, one of the most adopted figures in the history of literature  can represent something different than the literal demon of folklore, namely, “the sense that human life is mysterious and the belief that certain human beings exist outside the community” (Senf).

The sensation remains, as realist fiction encourages people to see the same terror and dread present in the mysterious people and places of Gothic fiction in realistic social situations.

In Middle March, George Eliot compares four of the characters to vampires in folklore. Such subjects were not lost on her readers, one of her reviewers suggesting that Rosamund is “a kind of well-conducted domestic vampire”. Eliot’s character Lydgate later describes her as a “his basil plant […because] basil was a plant that flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains”—she has effectively transformed into a sort of parasite or cannibal, no longer human. She bears little resemblance to the hideous vampire of folklore, or even the sexualized female vampires in Stoker’s 1897 thriller.

The original mythic image of the vampire is merely altered in realist fiction. It never disappears.

I’ve pulled first-edition covers of both Dracula and Middlemarch. Dracula’s cover is a symptom of the late 19th century discovery of inexpensive color printing; yet in a decade where publishers were springing for increasingly flashier illustrations on cover pages, Dracula’s minimal use of color but presence of color symbolizes investment as well as artistic calculation: it would have been featured in a room full of elaborately illustrated novels and sensation fiction; yet it’s cover merely reads “Dracula” in a red color, in a font that seems inherently dangerous, over an eye-popping yellow that seems a universal symbol for alarm. The surrealist novel opts for the dread of mystery.

Counteractively,  the cover of Middlemarch, which displays a country-house and the surrounding woods, bustles with activity and life; it does not let your mind wander. Instead, it attaches the events of the novel to an earthly place.

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