Dracula

Citation metadata

Author: Colin Wells
Date: 2001
From: World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them(Vol. 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times: The Victorian Era to the Present (1837-). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Length: 5,479 words

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Dracula

by Bram Stoker

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THE LITERARY WORK

A novel set in the Batkans and England in the late 1890s; first published in London m 1897.

SYNOPSIS

From his home in the Balkans the vampire Count Dracula journeys to England, where he uses supernatural powers to enthrall his victims, who become vampires themselves after he sucks their blood Led by the Dutch scientist Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a group of young friends combats Dracula.

Anglo-lrish author Bram Stoker (1847-1912) was born in Dublin, Ireland, where he spent a decade as a civil servant before moving to London in 1878. The move was prompted by Stoker’s becoming the business manager of the era’s best known actor, Henry Irving (1838-1905), who had just taken over London’s Lyceum Theater. For the next 27 years, until living’s death, Stoker helped run the theater, managing and promoting living’s career, writing letters in his name, and accompanying the actor on tours to various parts of the world (including the United States, which Stoker avidly admired). Stoker began a supplementary career as a novelist when he published The Snake’s Pass in 1890; his later novels include The Mystery of the Sea (1902), The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), The Lady of the Shroud (1909), and The Lair of the White Worm (1911). Like Dracula, these works combine elements of Gothic horror and often grotesque fantasy. None, however, has enjoyed Dracula’s lasting success. Written in a period of national anxiety in Britain, the novel reflects a society that fears its own vitality may somehow be draining away.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Certainty and doubt in late Victorian Britain

The late Victorian period (c. 1875-1901) was an age of contrasting certainties and doubts for the British. On one hand, national confidence was high as Britain’s worldwide empire expanded rapidly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. By 1897, when the nation marked Queen Victoria’s sixtieth year of rule with an exuberant public celebration called the Diamond Jubilee, Britain held sway over about a fourth of the world’s population and landmass. Of that territory, 2.5 million square miles—an area the size of the entire Roman Empire at its peak—had come under British rule in the previous twelve years alone, from 1884 to 1896. From Ireland to India, from the Americas to Asia and Africa, Britain seemed destined to rule.

Yet even as British world power reached its apogee, some believed they saw signs of vulnerability, portents of a feared and inevitable decline. Subject peoples in Ireland, India, Africa, and elsewhere had resisted British rule, at times violently. In addition, other Western nations, particularly Germany and the United States,

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seemed to possess energy and ambition that threatened to undo Britain’s global leadership should the British grow soft or degenerate. Such apprehensions, while pushed into the background in the grandly imperial 1890s, nonetheless reflected nagging concerns about Britain’s future.

Much more overtly worrisome to most cultural observers at the time was a deep religious crisis that was seen as undermining society’s very foundations. Fueled by the impersonal harshness of an industrial revolution that resulted in urban poverty, and by scientific developments such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859; also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), religious skepticism flourished on an unprecedented scale in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Though this crisis of faith had its best known expression in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Poem In Memoriam (1850; also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), a number of novelists addressed the issue too to ward the end of the century. One of them, a then-popular but now forgotten writer named Hall Caine (1853-1931), sold 50,000 copies of his novel The Christian in the first month of publication. Published (like Dracula) in 1897, the book tells the story of a clergyman, torn between his faith and his love for a woman, who revolts against organized religion and devotes himself to aiding the poor in crowded cities. Caine was a good friend of Stoker’s, and Dracula is dedicated to him (under the nickname “Hommy-Beg”). While it does not invoke Caine’s type of realism, Dracula does portray its protagonist as planning to prey on London’s “teeming millions” (Stoker, Dracula, p. 51).

By the end of the nineteenth century, science and industrialization had combined to produce a newly secular outlook in contrast to the longstanding religious one. This new outlook was “conducive to demystification,” not an altogether welcome development (Harrison, p. 130). Many Victorians felt the loss of mystery keenly, and the void it left created an often ambivalent reaction to the new secularism. Stoker’s novel reflects this ambivalence clearly. For example, the band of friends that opposes Dracula includes two scientists and enthusiastically relies on rational, modern scientific methods to demystify the alien threat represented by the vampire Count. In the end, however, they are forced to fall back on religious symbols as well, such as the crucifix and the Host (communion wafer). One of them, Jonathan Harker, a British lawyer imprisoned in Dracula’s castle in the novel’s early pages, acknowledges fearfully in his “up-to-date” shorthand diary that “the old centuries … have powers of their own that mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill” (Dracula, p. 36).

Modern technology and “the New Woman.”

Along with shorthand (which had actually been around for some two centuries but was coming into wider business and personal use), the modern weapons in the vampire hunters’ arsenal include such high-tech communications and information processing tools as the telegraph, the phonograph, and the typewriter. (The telephone had been invented and would come into commercial use just a few years after the novel is set.) Dr. Seward, one of the vampire hunters in the novel, keeps his journal on an early phonograph that records his voice on wax cylinders. The typewriter had been invented in the 1860s by American Christopher Sholes, who contracted with the arms manufacturer Remington and Sons to mass produce the machines in the 1870s. Remington opened a British dealership in 1886, and by the 1890s typewriters had come into widespread use in British businesses. In Dracula, Mina Murray (who marries Jonathan Harker midway through the novel) plays a key role in the hunt for Dracula by efficiently collecting and transcribing relevant but scattered documents on her typewriter, including various Page 109  |  Top of Articletelegrams, her husband’s shorthand diary, and Dr. Seward’s phonograph journal.

As Mina’s central part in the story suggests, the advent of the typewriter and other technologies created a revolutionary new role for women in British society. Suddenly, women were offered avenues of employment far different from any available to them before. One Englishman, returning to England in 1904 after a 30-year absence, was shocked to find women pursuing jobs that had either been reserved for men or had not even existed when he left:

So far as I remember in days gone by the only lines of employment open to girls or women were: teaching, assisting in a shop, dressmaking, or bar-keeping. In these days there is hardly an occupation … into which a girl may not aspire to enter. Type-writing provides a living for many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. There are women newspaper reporters almost as numerous as men. Accountants and book-keepers crowd the trains morning and evening … while many branches of postal, telegraph and telephone work are entirely managed by women.

(Harrison, p. 168)

The typewriter led the way in this revolution in the 1890s, as girls and young women skilled in shorthand and typing found work as secretaries in otherwise all-male offices. Wages, however, were too low for such employees to live independently, and they were expected to leave when they married. If they did not leave by their mid-twenties, they were generally replaced by younger, newly trained girls or women. Those women who did work nevertheless had a significant impact on late Victorian society; their jobs gave them a degree of financial independence, which contributed greatly to the formation of an assertive female identity.

Limited independence was more than women had enjoyed before, and in 1894 feminist novelist Sarah Grand coined the phrase “the New Woman” to describe the phenomenon. The New Woman was neither a prostitute nor a confirmed homebody; in fact, she did not consider the home her exclusive sphere. While Grand introduced the phrase “the New Woman,” the writer Ouida (pen name for Marie Louise de la Ramee) popularized it. She replied to Grand that this variety of female was a bore, and controversy ensued. Novelists meanwhile helped define the image. Middle-class and educated, as portrayed in popular novels by Grant Allen, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing, and others, the typical New Woman sought greater sexual freedom, smoked cigarettes, and drank in public. She also supported the growing women’s suffrage movement, which aimed to secure the vote for British women (a goal that would not be achieved until 1918 for women over the age of 30, until 1929 for women 21 and older, and until 1969 for those 18 and older). As Sally Ledger notes, the New Woman was an invented persona too, a characterization in reaction to this growing movement.

The New Woman of the fin de siècle had a multiple identity. She was, variously, a feminist activist, a social reformer, a popular novelist, a suffragette playwright, a woman poet; she was also often a fictional construct, a discursive response to the activities of the late nineteenth-century women’s movement.

(Ledger, p. 1)

In Dracula, Mina, an assistant schoolmistress at a girls’ school, rejects the New Woman’s radical values but seems to appreciate her abilities, having acquired typing and other secretarial skills in order to assist her husband’s career as a lawyer. Mina’s ambivalence regarding the New Woman reflects a genuine widespread cultural anxiety of the day. Many feared that new opportunities would lead women to neglect their civic responsibility to become mothers. The New Woman was perceived as an internal threat to national strength and security—a threat every bit as grave as the threat of colonial resistance. There was also a fear that if other nations did a better job of reproducing than Britain, they would grow stronger and the two threats would combine to dislodge the preeminence of the British. In view of this fear, what happens to Mina in the novel is doubly reassuring. She bears a British baby and is also prevented from helping to reproduce threatening outsiders, in this case, vampires.

Occultism and psychology

The late Victorians’ questioning of previous scientific, religious, and social certainties may help explain a surge of interest in the occult as the century drew to a close. Certainly many of the same people doing the questioning were drawn to the occult, which perhaps served to restore a sense of mystery to lives increasingly illuminated by the glaring spotlight of Victorian rationalism. Seances, clairvoyance, mesmerism (hypnosis), astrology, palmistry, crystal-gazing, faith healing, alchemy, witchcraft, astral projection—these and other mysterious practices and entertainments flourished, both in public spaces such as theaters and in private homes. Clubs and societies pursued occult ideas with avid curiosity, their members often sporting

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THE “CRIMINAL TYPE”

One discipline that Wended science and the occult was phrenology, which held that character traits and mental qualities can be discerned by the shape of the head or the dimensions of the brow. The discipline, now thoroughly discredited, played a part fn late Victorian criminology; Society boasted “scientific” criminologists, men who based their study of criminals on dissection and anatomy, as well as on observation of the head; In Dracula, Mina Harker names one such criminologist, Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) when she describes Count Dracula as “a criminal type’ and elsewhere the novel echoes very closely Lombroso’s description of the typical criminal when it describes Count Dracula (Dracula, p. 342):

Stoker Describes DraculaLombroso Describes the Criminal Type
• “[Count Dracula’s] face was … aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils”• “[The criminal’s] nose … is often aquline, like the beak of a bird of prey’”
• “His eyebrows were very massive almost meeting over the nose”• “The eyebrows are bushy and tend to meet across the nose’”
• “His ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed….”• “A relic of the pointed ear …”

(Adapted from Wolf, p, 300)

an attitude of scientific detachment. Many believed that occult phenomena could be scientifically explained.

For example, the Society for Psychical Research attempted to inquire scientifically into curiosities such as thought reading and haunted houses. The society also hosted a talk that Stoker may have attended on the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud, the Viennese doctor who was laying the foundations of modern psychology. Stoker incorporates contemporary ideas about mental illness into Dracula, citing Jean Martin Charcot, a French neurologist who worked with Freud in Paris in 1885 and who demonstrated the usefulness of hypnosis in treating mental illness. In the novel Dr. Seward runs a “lunatic asylum” (institution for the mentally ill) in which one of the patients, Renfield, is depicted as being psychically linked with Count Dracula, though Renfield is never properly bitten. Like Dracula’s female victims, Renfield is controlled through his psychic link with the vampire, who possesses supernaturally hypnotic powers of mind control.

The most influential of the many occult groups was the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 by the eccentric Russian immigrant Helena Petrova Blavatsky (1831-91), who is also credited with popularizing the term “occultism.” Madame Blavatsky (as she was known) promoted both mysticism and science as paths toward enlightenment, and the Theosophical Society attracted a wide range of Victorian nonconformists, including feminists, socialists, and vegetarians. Though not a “Theosophist” himself, Stoker belonged to a social set that included Theosophical Society members. One was Constance Wilde, wife of the celebrated writer and wit Oscar Wilde, a friend, fellow-Dubliner, and one-time rival of Stoker’s. (Before marrying Constance, Wilde had unsuccessfully wooed Florence Balcombe, who became Stoker’s wife in 1878.)

Oscar Wilde’s own occult novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890, features a sexually ambiguous central character who (like Dracula) acquires eternal youth from the powers of darkness.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The story is told through the journal entries, letters, newspaper articles, notes, and telegrams that Mina Marker assembles and transcribes during the course of the developing Page 111  |  Top of Articlecampaign against the vampire. The longest continuous narrative is the first, from the journal of Jonathan Barker. The young British lawyer has traveled to the Balkans at the request of his firm’s client, a certain Count Dracula, who wishes to purchase a house in London. Jonathan writes the first entry as he arrives in Transylvania (today the center and northwest of Romania), the region of the Balkans where the Count lives in his castle. As he awaits a coach that will take him closer to Castle Dracula, he is perturbed when an innkeeper’s wife implores him not to go and then gives him a crucifix, which she says will protect him. The coach is met later by another, smaller coach, driven by a tall man who hides his features but who has eyes that seem to gleam red in the lamplight. Dogs howl as the coach passes farms along the way, and, as it approaches the castle, wolves join in, forming a chorus of howling animals.

At the castle Jonathan is welcomed by Dracula, “a tall old man, clean-shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere” (Dracula, p. 15). At first, Dracula’s friendly welcome allays Jonathan’s growing sense of foreboding, but after a few days his nervousness returns. Several strange incidents add to his fears: the Count does not seem to cast a reflection in mirrors, for example, and reacts violently to the sight of blood when Jonathan cuts himself. Then from a window one night he sees the Count crawling headfirst, like a lizard, down the outside of the castle wall. Furthermore, Dracula only seems to be around at night; Jonathan never sees him during the day, when the castle doors are all locked. Gradually Jonathan realizes that he is a prisoner in the castle.

Against his host’s orders Jonathan explores the castle. In one of the rooms he experiences what seems to be a nightmare: he is menaced by three voluptuous women who excite in him a “deadly fear” yet also “a wicked burning desire” to be kissed with their red lips (Dracula, p. 37). One of the women is about to touch her sharp teeth to his neck when Dracula suddenly appears. His eyes glowing red with rage, the Count pushes them away with a furious warning: “This man belongs to me!” (Dracula, p. 39). The women seem to vanish, and Jonathan awakens in his room. Yet he feels certain the experience was real and dreads that the women still wish to suck his blood. He also sees and hears evidence that Dracula and the women are preying on young children. Another time, while exploring in the basement,

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he discovers 50 large wooden crates of earth, in one of which rests the Count himself, seemingly dead. In growing panic Jonathan decides to flee the castle, and his last entry is written as he plans to climb down the steep outer stone wall. Better, he resolves, to die in the attempt than to suffer whatever fate the Count and the ghoulish women have in store for him.

The next documents in the narrative are letters between Mina Murray and her upper-class friend Lucy Westenra, a beautiful and stylish young woman. Mina looks forward to her fiance Jonathan Harker’s return, and Lucy has recently received three proposals of marriage: one from the aristocratic Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming, and two others from his friends Dr. Jack Seward and Quincey Morris from Texas in the United States. She agrees to wed Arthur Holm-wood, and the rejected suitors gallantly pledge their friendship and best wishes. Mina and Lucy have planned to meet in Whitby, a small coastal resort town in the northern English county of Yorkshire. By the time they do so, Mina has grown anxious about Jonathan, from whom she has not heard in over a month. Meanwhile, entries from Dr. Seward’s journal reveal that (despite sadness at Lucy’s rejection) he has grown interested in what he calls a “zoophagous” (life-eating) patient in his lunatic asylum (Dracula, p. 70). Page 112  |  Top of ArticleThe man, whose name is Renfield, catches flies in his cell, first eating them, but then feeding them to spiders and eating the spiders; he soon progresses to feeding the spiders to sparrows and eating the birds himself. Renfield has asked for a kitten.

Entries from Mina’s journal reflect her growing concern about Jonathan, who still has not been heard from; Mina also mentions that Lucy has begun walking in her sleep. A newspaper cutting relates that a violent and sudden storm at sea off Whitby has resulted in the shipwreck of the Russian sailing vessel Demeter, driven aground in Whitby harbor. Oddly, the cargo vessel

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BLOODTHIRSTY TYRANTS, VAMPIRE LEGENDS

The clearest historical model for Count Dracula was a notoriously bloodthirsty Balkan nobleman called Vlad Tepes or Vlad the impaler, after his preferred nethod of executing Ms enemies. The ruler of the Balkan principality of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462, he was also known as Vlad Dracula. Dracula means “Devil or “Dragon’ in Wallachiari; Stoker makes clear in the novel that Draoila’s powers originate with the Devil, and hints that he may be the Devil himself, Another Central European historical figure, the sixteenfrcentury Hungarian countess Elizabeth Sathory, was infamous for killing young girls and bathing in their blood in order to rejuvenate herself While vampires have been a staple of folklore In many cultures since ancient times, such behavior may have helped give rise to an epidemic of vampire sightings in the eariy eighteenth century in Central Europe

was empty except for a huge dog that leaped off as the vessel came to rest, and the dead captain, who had lashed himself to the wheel. The captain’s log tells how the crew disappeared at night one by one during the voyage until only the captain was left; terrified, the man lashed himself to the wheel, and was found with a crucifix and rosary beads around his bound wrists. The vessel’s cargo includes 50 large boxes of earth, which are sent on to their destination.

As Mina records, Lucy’s sleepwalking worsens. Mina follows her friend one night to the ruins of a local abbey, where she seems to see a figure with gleaming red eyes bending over Lucy. When Mina approaches, the figure is gone, and Lucy is unconscious. She has two small pinpricks in her throat. Two nights later, Mina finds Lucy sitting up in bed, asleep, pointing to her bedroom window, around which Mina sees a large bat flying. Lucy grows languid and exhausted during the daytime, and she starts talking in her sleep. Instead of healing, the two wounds in her throat get larger. A document records the shipping of 50 crates to Carfax, the ruined manor house next to Dr. Seward’s asylum in London that Jonathan’s firm arranged for Dracuia to purchase.

Mina finally receives word of Jonathan, who has been ill in a hospital in the Hungarian city of Budapest for some six weeks. She journeys to Budapest, where she and the now recovering Jonathan are married. Dr. Seward makes entries in his phonograph journal that chart the strange behavior of Renfield, who babbles excitedly about awaiting the commands of his approaching master. Holmwood, worried about Lucy, asks Dr. Seward to examine her. Seward can find nothing wrong, but writes to his old teacher, the renowned Dutch scientist Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Arriving from Amsterdam, Van Helsing transfuses blood from Holmwood to Lucy, then repeats the operation with blood from himself, Seward, and Quincey Morris at intervals of several days, as Lucy somehow keeps losing blood and growing paler and weaker. Despite Van Helsing’s efforts, Lucy dies; she is entombed in her family’s crypt in Hampstead, close to London.

Mina and Jonathan, who have returned to England, are in London where Jonathan, aghast, sees the Count on the street one day. Dracuia has somehow grown younger, with black hair instead of gray. Meanwhile, newspaper cuttings report that several young children, missing after playing on Hampstead Heath, have returned with tales of a “bloofer lady” (beautiful lady) who lures them away (Dracuia, p. 177). The children also came home with unexplained wounds on their throats. Mina, having read Jonathan’s journal, prepares herself for the struggle she senses coming against “that fearful Count” by typing up her husband’s record of his days as Dracula’s prisoner (Dracuia, p. 179). The Dutch scientist Van Helsing contacts her to ask for Lucy’s diary, which Mina has also typed out; she gives him both documents. Van Helsing alarms Seward with talk of hypnotism and thought-reading, insisting that Seward keep an open mind while declaring that it was Lucy who attacked the children on Hampstead Heath. That night they go to the crypt, entering the cold dark chamber to find Page 113  |  Top of Articlethat Lucy’s coffin is empty. The next day, however, they find her again in the coffin.

Van Helsing tells the disbelieving Seward that Lucy has become a vampire, one of the “Un-Dead,” and that they must kill her by driving a stake through her heart and cutting off her head (Dracula, p. 201). They must do the same, he says, to Dracula, “the great Un-Dead,” who has made Lucy into a vampire by sucking her blood (Dracula, p. 203). After the vampire Lucy attacks them on a subsequent visit, Holmwood, Morris, and Seward believe Van Helsing. The night following the attack they return with him to the crypt, where Lucy’s fiance, Holmwood, hammers a stake through her heart and Van Helsing and Seward cut off her head. Van Helsing says that only after this can her soul rest in peace.

Mina comes to Dr. Seward’s asylum, where she transcribes the doctor’s phonograph journal and gives him typescripts of her and Jonathan’s diaries to read. Seward realizes that Renfield’s odd behavior, alternately violent and peaceful, has been “a sort of index to the coming and going of the Count” (Dracula, p. 225). Van Helsing’s occult research has taught him that Dracula’s powers are at their lowest by day, when the vampire must rest, and he can only do so on his native soil. They must find the boxes of earth and “sterilize” them by placing pieces of the Host (sanctified communion wafer) in them (Dracula, p. 242). Once they have done so, the vampire will be unable to rest. They can then find and attack him during his weakest hours, between noon and sunset.

While the men begin tracking the boxes, some of which Dracula has removed to other houses he has purchased, Dracula goes on the offensive against his hunters. Taking the form of mist, he enters Mina’s bedroom at night and begins to suck her blood as he sucked Lucy’s. Soon afterward, Renfield is found beaten in his cell; his back broken, he dies after revealing that Dracula, his assailant, has targeted Mina. Van Helsing and the others hurry to Mina’s room, where they find Jonathan in a trance-like stupor as Dracula, having drunk Mina’s blood, forces her to drink his own in turn. This, the vampire has told her, will place her mind under his command from any distance. Some hours later, as the men locate and sterilize the last of the boxes except for one, Dracula attacks them, but they drive him back with a crucifix, and he flees.

Mina suggests that Van Helsing hypnotize her. As she hopes, under hypnosis her mind-link with the vampire provides a vital clue to his whereabouts. She hears water lapping and sails creaking: Van Helsing assumes that Dracula has fled England in the remaining box and is returning to Transylvania. But the struggle is not over, for Van Helsing says they must pursue him—both for Mina’s sake, since she will remain under the vampire’s influence, and also “for the sake of humanity,” since he is immortal and will continue to make new vampires unless stopped (Dracula, p. 319). They travel to the Black Sea port of Varna, where they await Dracula’s arrival. Over-coming a number of obstacles, they finally intercept the band of gypsies that is transporting Dracula’s box from the ship to the castle. Just as the sun is about to set, the men fight their way through the gypsies to the box, where the mortally injured Quincy Morris plunges his bowie knife through Dracula’s heart as Jonathan Harker simultaneously cuts Dracula’s throat. The vampire’s body immediately crumbles into dust.

Evolution and degeneration

Throughout Dracula Stoker portrays the Texan Quincey Morris as a man of action who outshines his British fellow vampire hunters in resourcefulness, initiative, and strength. At one point in the novel, Renfield flatters Morris by predicting that America will become a world power: he foresees a day when “the Pole and the Tropics may hold allegiance to the Stars and Stripes” (Dracula, p. 244). Dr. Seward, the Victorian man of science, puts this potential in terms of breeding: “If America can go on breeding men like that, she will be a power in the world indeed” (Dracula, p. 173). In other words, imperial success results from breeding. And breeding, the Victorians had realized, is closely linked to the process of evolution.

The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 had made evolution the most influential idea of the later nineteenth century. Whereas Darwin had limited himself to the area of biology, by the 1870s British thinkers such as Herbert Spencer had applied Darwin’s ideas, popularly summed up in the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to the social realm. In contrast to Darwin’s explanation of biological success, however, this “social Darwinism” was invoked not merely to explain but also to justify social or political success. Politically powerful nations and individuals, the argument went, were inherently superior to less powerful ones, and therefore justified in expanding their power. The imperial Victorians viewed evolution as a ladder of progress, a ladder at the top of which they themselves stood. From the top of a ladder, however, one can easily go down. Progress thus also Page 114  |  Top of Articleentails an implicit threat, the danger of its opposite, degeneration, which was (like evolution) a widely discussed idea at the time of the novel. This often unconscious recognition lay behind the vague fears of the imperial 1890s. Like other nineteenth-century Europeans, the Victorians viewed blood and bloodlines as closely linked to the idea of racial vitality, and saw both as subject to degeneration. Degeneration could come through moral laxness or indulgence, vices they believed had caused the earlier downfall of the Roman Empire, with which the Victorians were fond of comparing their own. Or degeneration

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HOMOEROTIC UNDERTONES

In a sensational trial in 1895, two years before Dracula was published, Stoker’s friend Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison for his part in a homosexual love affair. In general, Victorian society viewed homosexualtty as an evil perversion. Stoker, who as a young man had idolized the homosexual American poet Wait Whitman, adopted an attitude of similar hero-worship toward Ws employer, the actor Henry Irving, Discerning homoerotic undertones in Dracula, modern critics have speculated about Stoker’s own sexual orientation. Stoker depicts the seductive and commanding Dracula as physically resembling Irving, and he attempted in vain to Interest the actor in playing the vampire in a stage version. Some critics have therefore argued that Stokefs novel cloaks an attraction toward Irving that the author felt unable to show openly. Regardless of the truth, the dangers of such impulses in Victortan society were clearly demonstrated by the fate of Oscar Wilde,, who emerged from prison a broken man in May 1897, the very month of Dracula’s publication.

could come simply with age. In Dracula, these imperial fears are symbolized by the foreign vampire’s draining of British blood in the very process through which he breeds vampires. Recounting medieval battles in his homeland, Dracula describes himself as belonging to “a conquering race” but one whose “blood” is old and needs to be revived (Dracula, p. 29). Drinking blood from his British victims physically rejuvenates him as it enervates them. The vampire thus demonstrates that a degenerate, parasitical fate potentially awaits those whose conquests lie in the past—as many feared was the case with Britain and her empire by the 1890s.

Sources and literary context

Aside from Central European vampire legends and the historical figures of Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory, Stoker also drew on an already existing body of vampire tales in English. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818; in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), they originated in the Romantic movement, which was dominated by such poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s husband) and Lord Byron. Some of these Dracula predecessors include:

  • Lord Byron’s “The Giaour” (1813), an occult narrative poem that mentions a vampire emerging from its tomb to suck the blood of humans.
  • Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), featuring a seductive and aristocratic vampire modeled on Lord Byron himself. Polidori was Byron’s physician, and he was present when Byron and the Shelleys held a horror story contest one stormy night in June 1816. Polidori based The Vampyre on an idea Byron himself had that night; Mary Shelley’s contribution would become Frankenstein.
  • James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1847), a long (nearly 900 pages) and turgidly written potboiler that introduces features Stoker would borrow for Dracula: Central European origins; long, fanglike canine teeth; a black cloak; the abilities to climb down sheer castle walls and put female victims in a trancelike state; arriving in Britain in a shipwrecked vessel.
  • Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), in which a sensuous female vampire preys on female victims.

Reception

Published on May 26, 1897, Dracula received mixed reviews and enjoyed only moderate sales during Stoker’s lifetime. Seeing the novel as a straightforward Gothic adventure story in which good triumphs over evil, Victorian readers and reviewers alike ignored the sexual elements that have proven so alluring for modern literary critics.

In addition to the novel’s sexual aspects, critics have found the figure of Count Dracula himself a strikingly rich source of symbolism, most of which plays off taboos or alienation of one kind or another. As one critic writes in the introduction to a recent edition, Dracula has been seen as standing for “perversion, menstruation, venereal disease, female sexuality, male homosexuality, feudal aristocracy, monopoly capitalism, the proletariat, the Jew, the primal father, the Antichrist, and the typewriter” (Ellmann in Dracula, p. xxviii). Along with being perennially Page 115  |  Top of Articlefashionable among literary critics, Dracula has proven immensely popular on both stage and screen, where (beginning with Bela Lugosi’s classic 1931 film portrayal) he has found his widest exposure in popular culture.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Belford, Barbara. Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Man Who Wrote Dracula. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Glover, David. Vampires, Mummies, and Liberals: Bram Stoker and the Politics of Popular Fiction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

Harrison, J. F. C. Late Victorian Britain 1875-1901. London: Routledge, 1991.

Hughes, William, and Andrew Smith, eds. Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Jarret, Derek. The Sleep of Reason: Fantasy and Reality from the Victorian Age to the First World War. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1988.

Jenner, Michael. Victorian Britain. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1999.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875600023