Dracula Bram Stoker
(Full name Abraham Stoker) Irish novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Stoker's novel Dracula (1897).
Dracula is one of the most famous horror novels of all time. Published in 1897, the book garnered much critical and popular attention at the time of its publication and through the years has spawned countless stories and novels by other authors, as well as numerous theatrical and cinematic adaptations. In fact, Dracula has never gone out of print since its first publication. Many critics regard the novel as the best-known and most enduring Gothic vampire story ever published.
Plot and Major Characters
Dracula is an epistolary novel, comprised of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, a ship's log, and phonograph recordings. In the first part of the novel, a young English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, is sent to Transylvania to counsel a wealthy client, Count Dracula. During Harker's two-month stay at Dracula's castle, he becomes disconcerted by Dracula's odd appearance, eccentricities, and predatory behavior; he begins to fear for his safety. After some investigation, Harker discovers that Dracula sleeps in a coffin in a crypt beneath the castle during the day and spends his nights stealing babies from the nearby town. He attempts to escape the castle, where he has become a hostage. In the next part of the novel, the scene shifts to England and the friendship between Harker's fiancée, Mina Murray, and a young lady named Lucy. After being courted by three worthy suitors, Lucy has accepted the marriage proposal of Arthur Holmwood, the future Lord Godalming. While on vacation in Whitby with Lucy and her mother, Mina chronicles in her diary the mysterious arrival of a Russian schooner, containing fifty boxes of earth, the corpses of the ship's crew, and a large black dog, which quickly disappears after landing. Lucy begins acting strangely, and Mina finds two tiny holes in Lucy's neck. Abruptly, Mina is called to Budapest to tend to Jonathan, who has escaped Dracula's castle and is suffering from brain fever. When he is sufficiently recovered, the two marry. Meanwhile, Lucy's condition deteriorates, and she gets weaker and paler. Holmwood appeals to his friend and former rival for Lucy's affections, the doctor Seward, to assess her condition. He also calls in a specialist, Dr. Van Helsing. Despite various treatments, Lucy dies.
After Harker and Mina return to London, Harker sees Dracula on the street but begins to doubt his own sanity. Reports in the newspaper detail the abduction of several small children near the cemetery where Lucy was buried. Harker describes his experiences in Dracula's castle to Van Helsing, who connects Dracula with Lucy; he realizes that Lucy has become a vampire and is abducting and biting local children. Van Helsing, Seward, Holmwood, and another of Lucy's former suitors, Morris, trap Lucy, drive a stake through her heart, and cut off her head. Then they place holy wafers in several of the boxes of earth found on the Russian schooner, thereby rendering the coffins uninhabitable for vampires. Meanwhile, Dracula has chosen Mina for his next victim and begins to turn her into a vampire. Van Helsing and his crew try to save her, but realize they have to kill Dracula to do it. They track Dracula to his London home, yet he manages to escape. They follow him to Europe, and after a struggle, they drive a knife through his heart and cut off his head. As Dracula's body disintegrates, Mina is saved.
Initially, Dracula was interpreted as a straightforward horror novel. Yet later critics began to explore the theme of repressed sexuality within the story. Commentators asserted that the transformation of Dracula's female victims, Lucy and Mina, from chaste to sexually aggressive should be considered a commentary on the attitude toward female sexuality in Victorian society. Homoerotic elements in the relationship between Dracula and Harker have also been detected. Moreover, the drinking of blood has been regarded as a metaphor for sexual intercourse, and the stakes that kill Lucy and three other vampire women have been discussed as phallic symbols. Critics have since tended to view Dracula from a Freudian psychosexual standpoint; however, the novel has also been interpreted from folkloric, political, feminist, and religious points of view. Other commentators have identified themes of parricide, infanticide, and gender reversal in Dracula. Autobiographical aspects of the novel have also been a topic of critical discussion, as a few commentators maintain that the novel is based on Stoker's traumatic experiences with doctors—and particularly the procedure of blood-letting—as a sickly child. The literary origins of Dracula have been investigated, such as Dr. William Polidori's The Vampyre, Thomas Prest's Varney the Vampyre, J. S. Le Fanu's Carmilla, and Guy de Maupassant's “Le Horla.”
Early critical reaction to Dracula was mixed. Some early reviewers noted the “unnecessary number of hideous incidents” which could “shock and disgust” readers. One critic even advised keeping the novel away from children and nervous adults. Today the name of Dracula is familiar to many people who may be wholly unaware of Stoker's identity, though the popularly held image of the vampire bears little resemblance to the demonic being that Stoker depicted. Adaptations of Dracula in plays and films have taken enormous liberties with Stoker's characterization. A resurgence of interest in traditional folklore has revealed that Stoker himself did not conform to established vampire legend. Yet Dracula has had tremendous impact on readers since its publication. Whether Stoker evoked a universal fear, or as some modern critics would have it, gave form to a universal fantasy, he created a powerful and lasting image that has become a part of popular culture.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Consequences of Modernity
Early in the novel, as Harker becomes uncomfortable with his lodgings and his host at Castle Dracula, he notes that “unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill.” Here, Harker voices one of the central concerns of the Victorian era. The end of the nineteenth century brought drastic developments that forced English society to question the systems of belief that had governed it for centuries. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, called the validity of long-held sacred religious doctrines into question. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution brought profound economic and social change to the previously agrarian England.
Though Stoker begins his novel in a ruined castle—a traditional Gothic setting—he soon moves the action to Victorian London, where the advancements of modernity are largely responsible for the ease with which the count preys upon English society. When Lucy falls victim to Dracula’s spell, neither Mina nor Dr. Seward—both devotees of modern advancements—are equipped even to guess at the cause of Lucy’s predicament. Only Van Helsing, whose facility with modern medical techniques is tempered with open-mindedness about ancient legends and non-Western folk remedies, comes close to understanding Lucy’s affliction.
In Chapter XVII, when Van Helsing warns Seward that “to rid the earth of this terrible monster we must have all the knowledge and all the help which we can get,” he literally means all the knowledge. Van Helsing works not only to understand modern Western methods, but to incorporate the ancient and foreign schools of thought that the modern West dismisses. “It is the fault of our science,” he says, “that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Here, Van Helsing points to the dire consequences of subscribing only to contemporary currents of thought. Without an understanding of history—indeed, without different understandings of history—the world is left terribly vulnerable when history inevitably repeats itself.
The Threat of Female Sexual Expression
Most critics agree that Dracula is, as much as anything else, a novel that indulges the Victorian male imagination, particularly regarding the topic of female sexuality. In Victorian England, women’s sexual behavior was dictated by society’s extremely rigid expectations. A Victorian woman effectively had only two options: she was either a virgin—a model of purity and innocence—or else she was a wife and mother. If she was neither of these, she was considered a whore, and thus of no consequence to society.
By the time Dracula lands in England and begins to work his evil magic on Lucy Westenra, we understand that the impending battle between good and evil will hinge upon female sexuality. Both Lucy and Mina are less like real people than two-dimensional embodiments of virtues that have, over the ages, been coded as female. Both women are chaste, pure, innocent of the world’s evils, and devoted to their men. But Dracula threatens to turn the two women into their opposites, into women noted for their voluptuousness—a word Stoker turns to again and again—and unapologetically open sexual desire.
Dracula succeeds in transforming Lucy, and once she becomes a raving vampire vixen, Van Helsing’s men see no other option than to destroy her, in order to return her to a purer, more socially respectable state. After Lucy’s transformation, the men keep a careful eye on Mina, worried they will lose yet another model of Victorian womanhood to the dark side. The men are so intensely invested in the women’s sexual behavior because they are afraid of associating with the socially scorned. In fact, the men fear for nothing less than their own safety. Late in the novel, Dracula mocks Van Helsing’s crew, saying, “Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine.” Here, the count voices a male fantasy that has existed since Adam and Eve were turned out of Eden: namely, that women’s ungovernable desires leave men poised for a costly fall from grace.
More main ideas from Dracula