Bram Stoker’s The Man (1905) has received little attention from readers or literary scholars. However, it is actually a very fascinating work that shows how enmeshed Stoker was in Victorian literary traditions. It also reflects the possibility that he was trying to work out his own feelings about women, or possibly himself as a homosexual man. Some critics have considered the novel sexist, but to some degree, it more likely is subversive, a typical method used by the Gothic to push against society’s boundaries, while ending conservatively to be acceptable to the general reading public. And while not a Gothic novel in itself, The Man draws on many Gothic elements.
The Man, to some degree, might be seen as a revision of a minor scene in Dracula and its results, and the question of its sexism revolves around this revision. In Dracula, Lucy suggests that a woman might propose to a man—critics like David J. Skal in Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, argue that Stoker punishes Lucy for this belief with living death when she becomes a vampiress. In The Man, the main female also makes this proposition, but to understand why she suggests it and how Stoker treats her for it, first we need a little background on the novel’s characters.
The primary female character in The Man is Stephen Norman. She is the daughter of a squire who always wanted a son to succeed him, but his wife dies giving birth to their one child, a girl, whom he promises he will love as much as if she were his son. As a result, he raises up Stephen like a boy, giving her a male name and raising her to run the estate. Note that Stephen also has no mother to soften her nature, although she has an aunt who comes to live with them.
The novel begins with a prologue where Stephen and Harold are in a churchyard together. Harold is the son of Stephen’s father’s friend, a minister. They are sitting on tombstones and arguing about whether women can be just. Stephen wants to attend court sessions so she is prepared to be just in her role when she is the master of the estate.
Harold and Stephen have grown up together and are like brother and sister. When Harold’s parents die, he comes to live with Stephen and her father. At one point, the two of them go to explore a crypt and she wants to enter it, but he tells her not to because he knows her mother is in it and he fears it will upset her. Later, she returns and enters the crypt, which causes her to faint. Harold finds her and carries her out, but Stephen is under the impression a neighbor boy, Leonard Everard, carried her out. Harold does not correct her misbelief, and consequently, Stephen begins to think she can admire and possibly love Leonard.
Soon after, Stephen’s father is in an accident and dies. On his deathbed, he asks Harold always to look after Stephen and love her and stand by her if she loves another. Harold agrees to all this, not yet realizing Stephen loves Leonard, and by now, Harold loves Stephen.
Meanwhile, Stephen wants to go to the court sessions. Her aunt tells her that some things women should not know and refers to the tree of knowledge. This is the Gothic theme of forbidden knowledge, and a reference to Eve’s transgression in eating the forbidden true of the tree of knowledge. Stoker here seems to suggest that women who step out of their traditional roles are committing transgressions. The aunt goes on to discuss fallen women, but Stephen says that if women sin in these cases, so do men. Stephen then goes on to tell her aunt that women have just as much right as men to propose when they are in love. Stoker is setting Stephen up for disaster here. She believes women are the equals of men, and now that she has feelings for Leonard, she decides she will propose to him to put her theory into practice. The narrator then tells us her preparations were like those of the devil when tempting Jesus. Like the devil who takes Jesus to a cliff, Stephen asks Leonard to meet her on a hill where he can see all her property and then realize the wealth he would have should he marry her. Stephen, like Satan, is tempting another with riches and power.
Leonard, however, is shocked by Stephen’s proposal. He finds it abnormal for a woman to propose and quickly refuses her. Stephen then asks him to forget about it. However, Leonard has debts and Stephen is rich, so he begins to reconsider. Soon after, he gets drunk and brags in a tavern to Harold that he is going to marry Stephen. Angered, Harold goes to Stephen and proposes to her before Leonard can get to her. She, however, comes to realize he knows about her proposal to Leonard and that Leonard said no. She suspects Harold pities her or that he thinks she’ll say yes to any man, so she refuses him and tells him she never wants to see him again. Harold then decides to leave England.
Leonard now tries to get Stephen to marry him, but she refuses, although she agrees to pay off his debts. I cannot help being reminded in these scenes of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), in which Emily St. Aubert falls for Valancourt, whom she thinks is perfect, yet we later find out he has made a mess of his life through gambling and getting into debt. Leonard has turned out to be far from Stephen’s equal and she now has a hard time getting rid of him.
Meanwhile, Harold is heartbroken. On the journey to America, he feels tormented. Then a little girl, Pearl, is washed off the ship and he jumps into the sea to rescue her. After that, the little girl is besotted with him and begins referring to him as “The Man.” Her grateful father, Mr. Stonehouse, realizes Harold is tormented and befriends him, suggesting that if Harold is a criminal, he will help him, even offering to adopt him as his son. Harold assures Mr. Stonehouse he is not a criminal, but the idea of changing his identity appeals to him.
Eventually, Harold ends up in Alaska. The author makes it clear he is in the wilderness—this is a time of wandering and being lost, like the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. Harold is undergoing the dark night of his soul and being much the Gothic Wanderer in his torment. However, he ends up becoming wealthy in the mines and adopts for himself the name Robinson, taken from the mine. He now decides to return to England after an absence of a few years.
Meanwhile, Stephen has inherited a castle from a distant relative and become a countess. She also longs for Harold, gradually realizing she wronged him. In her new home, she is gracious and kind to everyone, seeking to redeem herself. She also meets Sister Ruth, a Quaker woman, who dresses in white and gray, causing her be known as the Silver Lady. To Ruth, Stephen confesses she once killed a man—not physically, but she says she killed his soul. It’s important to note also that Stephen decides to be incognito when she meets Sister Ruth, not telling her at first that she’s the countess. She prefers, like Haroun al-Rashid, we are told, to visit incognito those socially beneath her.
Ironically, Harold’s ship now sinks off the shore of England near the castle Stephen inherited. Stephen sees a man (she doesn’t know it’s Harold) valiantly trying to save lives. Eventually, he swims toward shore, and she has a fire lit (by actually setting a house on fire) to warn him of the rocks that he will be dashed upon. At one point, he looks up at her, dressed all in scarlet, and recognizes her before he is rescued. However, during the rescue efforts, he also goes blind. (One wonders whether the sight of Stephen caused his blindness and whether Stoker is implying she’s a scarlet woman.) At the same time, Stephen is far from a scarlet woman—rather she is praying to God for Harold’s rescue, feeling guilt over how she hurt Harold and asking God to let her atone for the man whose soul she killed by letting her save this man, never suspecting the two men are the same. At times, she thinks how she wishes she had the power of God to rescue, which sounds like pride and a longing to be like God (Satan’s crime), but instead, God hears her prayer and allows Harold to be saved.
Harold is brought to the castle to be cared for. Because he has a beard and his eyes are bandaged, Stephen does not recognize him. Harold, however, realizes Stephen is there and he does not want her to pity him so he tries to get away. When Harold questions the doctor about how high up in the castle he is, the doctor thinks he plans to commit suicide by jumping out the window as a way to end his misery over being blind. Harold then confesses to the doctor that he loves Stephen but wishes to keep his identity secret from her, which is why he wishes to escape. The doctor agrees to keep Harold’s secret and tells Stephen that Mr. Robinson doesn’t like visitors. The doctor doesn’t want Harold to leave because he hopes to cure him of his blindness. I can’t help being reminded of Jane Eyre here, where Mr. Rochester is blind and weakened when the now wealthy Jane Eyre finds him. Stoker has put his male hero in an equally weakened state, even though Harold’s bravery has caused him to be referred to as a “giant” more than once in the novel.
These scenes of Harold, his identity unknown, living in Stephen’s house, also remind me of Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), where the adulterous wife returns in disguise as a governess to care for her children, only in this case, it is the future husband, not the wife who is in disguise. Since the wife in East Lynne was adulterous, here we can almost think Stephen was adulterous in propositioning Leonard when Stephen, at least in Harold’s heart, already belonged to Harold. Perhaps a stretch, and Stoker isn’t drawing straight analogies, but the influence seems likely to East Lynne or similar hidden identity cases in Victorian fiction, which are countless.
Of course, Stephen will eventually learn the truth about the blind man’s identity. It comes about when the Stonehouses, hearing of Harold’s bravery when the ship sank, come to visit Stephen, suspecting he is “The Man.” As they tell Stephen about their previous meeting with Mr. Robinson, Stephen realizes that “The Man,” “Mr. Robinson,” and Harold are all one. Eventually, she takes the Stonehouses to him. Once he removes his bandage, all is revealed except the love beating in Stephen and Harold’s hearts. At this point, Pearl tells Stephen that she always wanted to marry “The Man,” but that Stephen should actually do it because while he saved her, Stephen saved him when she lit the fire to rescue him.
Stephen is now older and wiser, but while she realizes now that she loves Harold, she does not dare to propose to him but waits for him to propose to her. When the proposal doesn’t happen, she goes to Sister Ruth, who then arranges for Harold to come to her. Of course, Sister Ruth arranges it so the two can be together. And we learn here that Sister Ruth is a recluse from the world because of a tragedy in her past that she wishes to prevent happening again for Stephen and Harold. (Sister Ruth then might be considered a Gothic wanderer herself, though her redemption is not through love but through helping others.)
The end of the novel may be considered very sexist. We are told that now Stephen knows her “Master” and that when she knows Harold loves her and will come to her, “She was all woman now; all-patient, and all-submissive. She waited the man; and the man was coming.” Of course, submissiveness seems sexist to modern readers, but it was conservative for Stoker’s time, perhaps overly conservative in an age when women had become fighting for their rights.
I am left thinking we can read this novel in various ways. First, as Stoker’s concern that women were getting too much power and stepping out of their bounds, or second, we can read it as his being supportive of women and showing the difficult situations they are in, showing us how Stephen is rejected by her society for her mannish ways and so, ultimately, she has no choice but to submit to a man. And while the novel’s title refers to Harold, it isn’t until nearly two-thirds of the way into the novel when Pearl starts referring to Harold as “The Man” that we even know who the title refers to. Given that Stephen acts like a man and has a man’s name, one might think she is “The Man” for the first part of the novel. So is Stoker being subversive, or sexist and conservative?
And then there is the issue of Stoker’s closeted homosexuality. Countless critics have talked about his working relationship with actor Henry Irving and how Irving was a dominant male who treated Stoker like a toady and how Stoker may well have relished it, having a masochistic side. Stoker was himself a giant of a man like Harold, and yet he acknowledged Irving as his master (boss) and was submissive to him. We are left then wondering whether Stoker was comparing himself to Harold, ultimately submitting to a woman who acted like a man (Stoker may have physically been Irving’s superior yet submitted to a physically weaker man) or does Stoker see himself as like Stephen, feminine in truth despite a masculine appearance and, therefore, ready to submit to his “Master.”
There are no easy answers to these questions. I think much more analysis needs to be done on The Man. It is definitely a fascinating novel of identity issues, gender issues, and Gothic themes that is firmly enmeshed in a Victorian literary tradition.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, a study of nineteenth-century British Gothic literature from 1794 (The Mysteries of Udolpho) to 1897 (Dracula) with a look at twenty and twenty-first century texts like Tarzan of the Apes, Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Tyler has also written Haunted Marquette, a history of hauntings in his native city of Marquette, Michigan, Spirit of the North: A Paranormal Romance, and the historical fantasy series The Children of Arthur, which details the story of King Arthur and his descendants, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.