Killing Time: Dracula and Social Discoordination

Excerpt from Chapter 23, by Hollis Robbins

Scholars have long read the fictional Count Dracula as embodying a real, debilitating contemporary threat to the moral and cultural health of the West (specifically Victorian England): perverse sexuality, feminism, racial degeneration, colonialism, and monopoly capitalism.4 This essay examines the vampire’s threat to economic health, specifically, his disruption of new civil timekeeping standards and the danger this poses for modern commerce.5 Britain’s economic prosperity in the nineteenth century was largely dependent on the adoption of international standards such as Greenwich Mean Time and the universal day, which ensured smooth coordination for trade, legal transactions, railroad travel, and mail delivery. Dracula, whose powers are governed by the sun and the moon rather than clocks and calendars, works to destabilize social coordination. His objective is not only literally to “fatten on the blood of the living,”6 but also more broadly to suck the lifeblood of a thriving commercial economy at the dawn of a global age. Under Dracula’s spell, humans forget the time, becoming listless, unproductive, and indifferent to social convention. At heart, the fundamental battle in Stoker’s Dracula is a death struggle between standard time as an institutional basis for world markets and planetary time governing a primitive, superstitious existence.

. . .

To follow Stoker’s tale, readers need a basic understanding of date- and timekeeping systems, particularly standard time (based on Greenwich Mean Time) and the Gregorian calendar, the standard temporal reference framework of the modern world.10 Standard time concepts such as units of time (seconds, minutes, hours), along with time reckoning and dating frameworks (clocks and calendars), are now so widely accepted that they seem inevitable, but it was not always so. The universal authority of these systems is essential to the plot of Dracula, which alternates between modern time specificity and the fog of temporal uncertainty that surrounds Count Dracula.

Clearly, institutional time and date agreement is essential to legal and commercial transactions as well as for certain aspects of social intercourse. A simple agreement as to when the day begins allows events to be assigned to a particular date without confusion. For some cultures, the new day begins at sunset; for others, dawn; for others, midnight. The adoption of universal rules for marking and measuring time is just one example of the need for agreed-upon standards to coordinate behavior—a need that became increasingly relevant in the nineteenth century. Expanding trade and commerce encouraged the adoption of national standards for weights, measures, typewriter keyboards, railway track gauges, and traffic lights, for example.

The economic function of standards is to coordinate behavior in ways that maximize benefits for all parties and minimize loss from mismatched expectations. In the language of game theory, a standard is a solution to a coordination game. One simple example of a coordination game is the choice of which side of the road to drive on. In principle, the choice of left or right doesn’t matter. What matters crucially is that everyone in a given region makes the same choice; if they do not, wrecks will occur.

There are cases, however, where some standards are considered to be objectively better than others. The metric system is often deemed superior to the English system of weights and measures because it’s easier to learn. A society that has adopted an inferior system (perhaps by historical accident or because the standard had once been superior) may oppose calls to switch to a better system. Standard switching nearly always generates confusion, transition costs, and psychological resistance.

Arguably, that was precisely the situation with respect to time conventions in the nineteenth century. In 1897, when Dracula first appeared, the notion of a standard time was still very new in Britain. For most of history, people kept local time, marked by sundials and tolled by church bells. But the advent of modern commerce made local time an inferior standard, which gradually gave way to superior—that is, more universal—standards that allowed coordination over greater distances. After the development of the mechanical clock in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, clock towers were introduced in cities around Europe to standardize the workday and regulate sessions of municipal courts, assemblies, and university lectures; hourglasses soon joined smaller mechanical clocks in schools and homes.11 Minute hands became widely used in the eighteenth century. The expansion of postal routes and railway lines necessitated national (and soon international) time standards and timetables. Railway companies, recognizing the need for a standard time, as networks of tracks and lines were shared by dozens of railway companies with their own schedules, adopted an industry standard, Railway Time, in 1840. Greenwich Mean Time (based on time measured in the Greenwich Observatory, situated on the Greenwich meridian, zero degrees longitude) replaced Railway Time for British railways in 1847. In 1859, Big Ben was installed in London, tolling Greenwich time and encouraging watches to be set to national time. In 1880, Greenwich Mean Time became legal time in Britain. In 1884 the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., recommended that all countries adopt Universal Time (with Greenwich as prime meridian) and the universal twenty-four-hour day, to begin at midnight. Of particular relevance to Dracula’s story, two of the delegations voting “no” to this resolution were Austria-Hungary and Turkey, on either side of Transylvania, both of which backed a resolution starting the day at noon.12

The calendar too was not fully standard across Europe in Bram Stoker’s lifetime. The Gregorian calendar had been in use by Roman Catholic countries in Western Europe since the sixteenth century, while the Eastern Orthodox regions of Eastern Europe, including the regions surrounding Transylvania, still followed the Julian calendar.

4. Cf. Christopher Craft, “‘Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Representations 8 (1994): 107–33; Talia Schaffer, “‘A Wilde Desire Took Me’: The Homoerotic History of Dracula,” English Literary History 61, no. 2 (1994): 381–425; Carol A. Senf, The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1988); Stephen D. Arata, “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization,” Victorian Studies 33, no. 4 (1990): 622; Franco Moretti, “The Dialectic of Fear,” New Left Review 136 (1982): 67–85; and Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).
5. Recall the concerns over Y2K.
6. Stoker, Dracula, 211.

10. See Eviatar Zerubavel, “The Standardization of Time: A Sociohistorical Perspective,” American Journal of Sociology, 88, no. 1 (July 1982): 1–23, and Derek Howse, Greenwich Time and the Discovery of the Longitude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980). See also W. N. Osborough, “The Dublin Castle Career (1866–78) of Bram Stoker,” Gothic Studies 1, no. 2 (1999): 222–40, which explores Stoker’s first book, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland (1879). One of the key responsibilities of the clerks of Dublin Castle was to reconcile and clarify calendar terms in the official records. Stoker writes in his introduction: “Experience has shown me that with several hundred men performing daily a multitude of acts of greater or lesser importance, a certain uniformity of method is necessary to lighten their own labour and the labour of those to whom is entrusted the auditing of their accounts and returns. Such subjects as the advisability of uniform filing of papers or folding of returns, of using dots instead of o’s in money columns, or of forwarding returns at the earliest instead of the latest date allowable” (unpaginated).
11. See Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996).
12. Howse, Greenwich Time, 148.

2 responses to “Killing Time: Dracula and Social Discoordination

%d bloggers like this: