Analysis of Bram Stoker’s The Dualitists

First published in the Theatre Annual (1887), “The Dualitists,” frequently cited as demonstrating one of Bram Stoker’s favorite themes, male bonding, evokes a world of children’s adventure stories. As in much of Stoker’s fiction, the driving force grows out of an innate male lust for violence. Two young boys, Harry Merford and Tommy Santon, are each given an identical knife as Christmas presents. Armed with these symbols of manliness, self-possession, and self-ownership, the boys put their weapons to the test by “hacking” them against the other like fencing swordsmen. When the knives become worn out, the boys look for other paired objects that they might use to continue their game— furniture, dolls, pet rabbits—before deciding on two human weapons: a set of identical baby twins belonging to neighbors Ephraim and Sophonisba Bubb. In the climax of the story, the boys smash the twins together in “apotheosis of art.” When Mr. Bubb tries to wrest his children from their torturers, he misses and blows off the heads of his own children with a “doublebarrelled gun.” The boys wave the torsos of the twins like trophies. When the mutilated bodies are thrown into the air, the parents try to catch them but are killed by the weight of their children’s bodies falling on top of them, thus ensuring the extinction of the whole Bubb family. With Harry and Tommy acting as the only witnesses, a coroner’s court concludes that the parents (“inhuman monsters, maddened by drink”) must have been guilty of infanticide and suicide. Tommy and Harry meanwhile are feted as heroes.

This macabre story depends for its effectiveness partly on the doubling that is so insistent a feature of Stoker’s fiction and in gothic writing generally. The infanticide and parricide of the two boys is graphically depicted, and the narrative gains much from our being forced to respond to the suggestion that the mutant violence emerging in the story is latent in everyone— even small children. The events of the narrative are presented in matter-of-fact terms, even humorously; we are not asked to weep for the murdered children and their parents. As elsewhere in Stoker’s fiction, the tradition of the gothic horror tale is transformed and domesticated, with the ensuing paradox that the appalling wickedness and gruesome crimes are perpetuated by small children running out of control in commonplace, ordinary modern settings. Related to this is the way the narrator stresses the narcissism of the two spoiled boys. Their heroism surpasses the likes of Napoleon and Nelson (the figures the boys claim as the inspiration for their game); they view themselves not as “unregenerate youths” but as heroes, not as butchers but as musketeers, demonstrating their manhood by mimicking accepted masculine codes, refusing Bubb’s mandate to come down off the roof: “ ‘Never!’ Exclaimed the heroic two with one impulse, and continued their awful pastime with a zest tenfold” (57).

In a preface to the story, Peter Haining has suggested that Stoker developed the idea for it by watching Henry Irving’s performances in the dueling epic The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, a story of twin brothers separated at birth but held together by a psychic bond. The domestic setting may also owe something to Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of doubling, “William Wilson” (1839). Critics have also detected political overtones, seeing the story as Stoker’s allegorization of Anglo-Irish relations during the 1880s, a time when Irish resentment against British rule was prompting an escalation of armed resistance to the British authorities.

Horror Novels and Novelists

Stoker, Bram. Bram Stoker’s Midnight Tales. Edited by Peter Haining. London: Peter Owen, 1990.
Hughes, William, and Andrew Smith, eds. Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic. London: Macmillan, 1998.
Valente, Joseph, “ ‘Double Born’: Bram Stoker and the Metrocolonial Gothic,” Modern Fiction Studies 46 (2000): 632–645.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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