Book Review (sort of): Dracula

Everybody knows Dracula.

Stoker’s novel of 1897 is a part of the establishment in the modern horror menagerie, and its caped monster nothing short of iconic. After 100+ years and multitudes of adaptations, a synopsis would be pointless. But there are aspects of Dracula which may not be common knowledge. Having re-read and done a bit of research on Dracula not long ago, I decided to briefly summarise my thoughts on Dracula in light of the period in which it was written.

Stoker wrote Dracula around the same time that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and H. G. Wells wrote The Island of Dr Moreau. We’re talking the end of the 19th century, and fantastic adventure stories were immensely popular following the success of authors such as Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. It’s the age of Edmond Dantès, Phileas Fogg and Rob Roy.

However, unlike some of the other fantastical tales published at the time, Wells, Stevenson and Stoker have a certain theme in common: the notion of something beastly resting in the human lineage and nature. Dr Moreau, for example, plays heavily on the fear of degeneration, of man becoming lesser, and Jekyll/Hyde remains the poster child for man/beast dualism to this day. Dracula is animalistic, able to transform into animals at will. This is contrasted with his cordiality and perceived humanity at the beginning of the story. The horror does not lie in Dracula being a beast, it lies in the dualism: Dracula is a gentleman and a beast. Incidentally, these books emerge not long after the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), which may to some extent explain the fascination with the beast in the late Victorian era.

No place in the text is this ‘beast beneath’ more apparent than in the description of Lucy, Mina Harker’s friend, turning into a vampire. Her appearance becomes more animalistic as her personality changes.

“…she drew back with an angry snarl, such as a cat gives when taken unawares; then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy’s eyes in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire…”

It is no accident that it is Lucy who is seen turning into this creature. Lucy, who, despite starting as a pure woman on par with Mina, is described in quite sexual terms. This female sexuality, even if not (initially) acted upon, was threatening for Victorian conservatives, particularly in the light of the rising suffragette movement. Lucy is therefore an obvious target for corruption in the book, and her fall could be a comment on the moral failings of the ‘new woman’ of the Victorian age, i.e. women availing themselves of the education and employment that had previously been reserved for men. That said, Mina herself embodies some of the qualities of the ‘new woman’, however she matches these with virtually no sexuality, a “man’s brain” (as stated by Van Helsing) and pronounced maternal behaviour. Mina is thus a more acceptable version of the Victorian ‘modern’ woman – someone who participates almost equally in society but maintains the existing social structures of subservient wife and mother.

And then there’s the madness aspect. Insanity was a fixation of the Victorian society, with the public fearing both the lunatics (the term of the time) and being accused of being a lunatic. The time was rife with stories of wives locked up in asylums by husbands wanting to get rid of them, and there was a growing sense that treatment should be humane and founded in emerging scientific advances (partly established through the Lunacy Act of 1845). The Woman in White (1859) by Wilke Collins is a mystery novel that deals with this particular topic, and the book enjoyed great popularity in its time. In Dracula, there is not only the madness/vampirism of Lucy, but also the asylum-bound Renfield. Again, the focus on insanity highlights the dissonance between the ‘disordered’ individual and the structured society, but in this case it is not limited to one gender. Many writers at the time, including the Brontë sisters and Dickens, used madness in their works, and both men and women were under scrutiny. Renfield and the asylum administrator, Dr Seward, are both given a great deal of attention by Stoker. Through this we get not only an example of the Victorian fascination with lunacy but also of the scientific and medical advances in dealing with it. In Dracula, however, science falls short in the face of the horrors of old, suggesting that these modern inventions also had their limits.

Finally, there is the fear of the other, the foreign, plaguing Victorian society. Dracula certainly encompasses this anxiety of immigration, of danger approaching from abroad. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, which was also Dracula’s origin, were particularly vilified. Incidentally, during the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper in 1888, the genteel population readily blamed the barbarous murders in Whitechapel on the growing Jewish community in East London. Published less than 10 years later, Dracula emerges as an echo of the brutal murders, their (presumed) alien origin, and Stoker even establishes a lair for the count near Whitechapel upon his arrival in London.

There are many ways of reading Dracula and certainly more educated interpretations of the text, but I am always a bit sad to see some of these old Victorian anxieties get lost in modern interpretations.

Sources: The British Library: Dracula – the Victorian Vampire (Greg Buzwell) and Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (Sarah Wise).

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One thought on “Book Review (sort of): Dracula

  1. […] greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central […]

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