Analysis of Bram Stoker’s The Coming of Abel Behenna

This story collected in the posthumously published Dracula’s Guest is about the power of the past to haunt the present. Bram Stoker also makes use of the plot device of the fatal return, a popular narrative in many 19th-century texts. Most of the action takes place in Pencastle, a small Edenic fishing port in Cornwall. The narrative is driven by the demands made by the heroine, Sarah Trefusis, and her greedy mother that, as a married woman, Sarah be provided with a comfortable lifestyle by one of her suitors, Eric Sansom or Abel Behenna. Abel, having staked his claim to Sarah by the lucky toss of a coin, dutifully sails off to China and the East Indies to satisfy her hunger for money. Sarah while remembering her relationship with Abel, but having “woman’s weaker nature,” consoles herself with Eric. For his own selfish motives, Eric persuades Sarah that Abel is dead. Having satisfied herself that she can access the money freshly deposited in Abel’s bank account, Sarah agrees to replace Abel with Eric. Two weeks before the wedding, there is a violent storm and a ship is wrecked in the harbor. Climbing aboard to help rescue the crew, Eric comes face to face with one of them, Abel, and refuses to save him. However, even when apparently out of the picture, Abel has the power to disrupt events, and he does so on Eric and Sarah’s wedding day, the day that was supposed to be Abel and Sarah’s wedding day. He comes back from the most frightening destination of all, death, to demand recognition of his rights—to Sarah, to his money, and to the domesticity he has been promised. The story ends when Abel’s corpse is discovered outside Eric’s cottage, his hand outstretched toward Sarah in a gesture of accusation.

There are several ways of interpreting the story. Most obviously Abel’s return from the dead and his biting back, as it were, can be read as a bleak comment on the failure of romantic love in a world full of competing individual appetites and ambitions. The story can also be read as a narrative about exclusion. Removed from Sarah, separated from her and from Pencastle, Abel becomes a creature of margin as well as burden. Once out of sight he is also out of mind, and once Sarah has agreed to marry Eric, he can return only as a troubling ghost. Reading out from the story into the wider context of 1890s imperialism with which Stoker’s readers would have been familiar, there are grounds for suggesting that this is also a cautionary story about imperial as well as domestic exploitation: Abel becomes part of the empire, spending his days in foreign lands and sending his hard-earned money back home. When he finally returns, an unexpected and unwelcome visitor glimpsed by terrified witnesses, he is represented in terms that emphasize his foreignness, or otherness: “a strange seaman whom no one knew,” a “porpoise,” a weird creature “like a pig with the entrails out” (117–18); he is no longer the handsome young man Sarah remembers but a less-than-human being who exists only to support the English home. Critics interested in issues of gender might also say that what makes this story especially interesting is the use it makes of the triangle configuration, so common to Victorian fiction, of one woman loved by two men; the woman marries the losing suitor after the first has disappeared. As a female character in a short story about male friendship written by a man, the function of Sarah seems fairly predictable: By captivating both men, this sadistic character allows Stoker once again to associate the figure of woman with death and destruction and moral emptiness. She is a life-denying rather than lifegiving force. “[H]er one intention . . . was so to arrange matters that [she] . . . should get all that was possible out of both men.” “ ‘Both these men want ye,’ ” her mother tells her, “ ‘and only one can have ye, but before ye choose it’ll be so arranged that ye’ll have all that both have got!’ ” (100). In this sense “The Coming of Abel Behenna” is a thoroughly misogynistic text in its analysis of male-female relations.

Vampire Narrative

Stoker, Bram. Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. London: George Routledge, 1914.

Categories: British Literature, Irish Literature, Literature, Short Story

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