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Interview with the Vampire | Context

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Vampire Literature

The first vampire story ever published was done so as a joke. The British poet Lord Byron hosted a ghost story competition in 1819. British novelist Mary Shelley won the contest with her story Frankenstein. Lord Byron's doctor, Dr. John Polidori, submitted The Vampyre, starring a bloodthirsty vampire whose characteristics mocked Byron. In the story, a young Englishman is stalked by a mysterious baron who eventually marries and kills the Englishman's sister. While the story offered a hint of romance and intrigue, the vampire was loosely characterized, comprising mostly fangs and bloodlust. The story proved so popular, however, other writers emulated the monster in vampire tales of their own, including Varney the Vampire (1847) and Carmilla (1871). The vampires varied in appearance—Carmilla, for example, was a pale, teenage girl who fed solely off aristocrats' daughters—but their characterizations were similar: bloodthirsty, evil, and uncomplicated. The same was true of vampire stories in the following century, including Dracula (1897), Salem's Lot (1975), and I am Legend (1953), which suggested a vampire's victim would also become a vampire. Early vampires are typically characterized this way:

  • Bloodthirsty, parasitic monsters
  • Aversion to garlic and religious symbols
  • Sleep in coffins and must avoid sunlight
  • No reflection
  • Fangs
  • No emotion or critical thinking

Interview with the Vampire (1976) completely changed the vampire genre by giving vampires a longing for something other than blood:

  • Louis searches for moral redemption from his sins.
  • Claudia searches for answers of origin.
  • Armand searches for companionship in immortality.

Rice also gives the vampires complex romantic emotions like lust and sensuality, although her characters rarely have sex. From this titillating stage, the modern vampire romance was born. Rice invented the ideas that garlic and crucifixes were meaningless against vampires and that vampires could self-heal and survive off animals. These characteristics have been essentially lifted wholesale into all other following vampire novels.

Point of View

Although technically a third-person narration, the interviewer in the story speaks so rarely—interjecting only to ask minor questions of Louis—the narrative unfolds like a first-person novel, allowing the reader to become the silent interviewer. Louis's story explicitly mediates through his own voice and perspective. He frequently speculates on the internal thoughts of those he incorporates into his story, giving him a misleading aura of omniscience. Louis uses formal tone and language, reflecting the fact that he was born in a distant time even though he tells his story at the end of the 20th century. His use of the word "bullshit" for example, seems anachronistic, which is the point: he is a creature of another age living in the modern world.

While Louis's story spans two centuries, it mainly focuses on approximately the first 75 years of his life as a vampire. He seems to recall every detail with clarity. In the century since Claudia's death, the century in which he lost his humanity, he has taken the time to think through those early events, crafting them into the narrative he wishes to share. Louis hopes to redeem his sins by sharing his life story as a cautionary tale, to warn others against immortality and its inherent evils. The interviewer reacts in opposition to Louis's hopes, and for this reason, Louis believes he has failed. In his own mind, he is ultimately irredeemable.

Setting

The novel spans continents as well as centuries, beginning in 18th-century New Orleans, in a world still dominated by plantations and slavery. On plantations a white master lived in a large house, keeping his slaves on the property in their own quarters. The slaves belonged to the master and lived as property. As Rice's vampires are slaves to their masters, the setting reflects a major exploration in the novel: Is human nature any less evil than the mythical vampire nature? Human slavery, in the novel, aligns with a very real form of human vampirism, as masters greedily drew out the lifeblood of their slaves on plantations in the South. One of the first shifts in perception Louis experiences as a new vampire is the ability to see that the African slaves he owned were: "extremely intelligent slaves who might have done [the overseer's] job ... a long time before, if [he] had recognized their intelligence."

Midway through the novel, Louis and Claudia move to Paris around the year 1860. The characters dress in the finest Parisian fashion, decorate their apartment with luxurious home goods, and visit art galleries and the theater. They, like many Parisians of the era, filled their lives with art. Before arriving in Paris, Louis and Claudia visited remote European villages where the people as well as the vampires are "country bumpkins." Meaningless superstitions enslave the people, while vampires kill like zombies. Life in Paris appears more refined, full of art, literature, and philosophy.

The novel ends in late 20th-century San Francisco. Like the port city of New Orleans, 20th-century San Francisco attracted people of every race and sexual orientation. Both New Orleans and San Francisco have a darker, seedier side and a "live and let live" attitude, which provides perfect settings for vampirism to thrive.

Though the novel never pinpoints "present day," the novel was published in 1976. Knowing Louis was 25 in 1791 and has lived for two centuries, the 1970s is a good guess for the time frame. Because specific dates are rarely mentioned, the novel has a somewhat timeless quality. The lack of surrounding details in the "present day" scenes mean it could just as easily be taking place in the 21st century, allowing Louis's message about immortality to resonate as clearly with readers today as in the 1970s.

Epidemics

When Claudia becomes a vampire in 1795 she has recently lost her mother to the plague and her father's whereabouts are unknown. The reader first sees her crying over her mother's corpse, and she begs Louis to help her, saying they were trying to get away "before the plague came." Because the mother has died, it seems the plague has already arrived. Historically, however, the bubonic plague—commonly referred to as the plague—did not arrive in New Orleans until the early 20th century, over 100 years after Claudia's mother died. While this information suggests a narrative error, particularly because Louis references the plague several times in his tale, it's possible he was referring to the influenza outbreak of 1781, which hit all of the colonies, or the bouts of recurring yellow fever, which hit New Orleans periodically. In the late 18th century (and early 19th century), people knew little about how sickness spread, which made contagious illnesses like whooping cough, cholera, diphtheria, and influenza (the flu) difficult to contain. This, along with the yellow fever epidemic, which killed roughly 150,000 people in the 18th and 19th centuries, allowed the vampire family to hunt unnoticed—as dead bodies would not arouse suspicion—during their 65 years in New Orleans.

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