NovelGuide: Dracula: Essay Q&A
1. Discuss the role of sexuality in Dracula.
Most criticism of Dracula sees the novel in terms of suppressed sexual instincts coming to the surface. The novel draws an implied analogy between vampirism and sex. The Count can only go where he is first invited, meaning that his female victims desire him to penetrate them. This act of penetration draws blood, like the 'deflowering' of a virgin bride. After the act, the woman looks unnaturally flushed and healthy, though after repeated penetration, she becomes drained of blood and anemic. The exchange of bodily fluids (blood in the case of vampiric attacks) is another similarity with sex. Once corrupted by the Count's attentions, the women (Lucy is an example) is transformed from pure and virtuous creature to a lascivious, bestial predator who is driven to lure men to their destruction. The Count, by draining the blood of women and indirectly of the men who are loved (and fed upon) by them, has power over both women and men. Symbolically, the Count's sexual prowess threatens the 'respectable' relationship that Victorian society so valued, based on the sexual purity of women and the protective role of men.
Four out of the five women characters in Dracula are vampires (the three vampire women at Dracula's castle and Lucy). The remaining woman character, Mina, is on her way to becoming a vampire towards the end of the novel. Such women are able to create an ever-widening circle of vampires through their seduction of men and innocent children, and are thereby a threat to the fabric of society. (Anyone who doubts that, for Stoker, sexuality was the great demon that threatened society should read his 1908 essay, "The Censorship of Fiction.") The only way to eradicate this threat was to destroy the vampire women via the remarkably sexually symbolic act of hammering a (phallic) stake through their heart. This is seen as a morally pure and altruistic act in the novel, in spite of the fact that the violence perpetrated by the 'saviors' is as extreme as that perpetrated by the vampires - some say more extreme, since it is uninvited and immediately fatal.
That Stoker, in Dracula, showed a deep ambivalence about sexuality (especially female sexuality) is clear from the combined eroticism and violence of the scene portraying the destruction of Lucy by Holmwood, and the scene portraying the attempted seduction of Harker by the vampire women. Sexual expression is simultaneously longed for and loathed.
2. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the novel's style of narrative.
Dracula is narrated by means of a series of diary entries, letters, newspaper cuttings and memoranda written and collected by the band of friends who oppose the Count. This narrative style is based on the "epistolary" (letter-based) style which became popular in the eighteenth century. This form of narrative lends an air of immediacy and authenticity to what is, as the characters frequently remind us, a fantastic and improbable story. Their determination to "keep the record," rather in the manner of a witness statement or other official report, tells us that they are simply writing down what happened, close to the time when it happened. There is no time or space for imagination to play its part.
This method of telling the story increases the suspense in the novel in two ways. First, if the narrative had been recalled some time after the event, we would know that the character survived. But during Harker's terrifying sojourn in the Count's castle, his daily diary entries give us no clue as to whether he survived. The sudden end to his diary entries at the end of Chapter 4 leaves us, literally, with a cliff-hanger as he attempts an escape down the castle wall and precipice.
Second, each character is limited in his or her understanding of what is going on. Their narrow scientifically-based viewpoints will not allow them to believe in vampires, so they cannot possibly draw any useful conclusions from the baffling events that befall them. We, the readers, with the benefit of more familiarity with vampire lore (due largely to the success of this very novel) and greater openness of mind than the characters, understand more than they do, and we are able to piece together their records before they can. Hence, we constantly wonder whether the characters will work out what is going on in time to save themselves from the Count's machinations.
One disadvantage of the epistolary style of Dracula is that our attention is drawn to the fact that all the characters sound the same, with the exception of the heavily-accented Van Helsing, whose dialog reads like a caricature of a Dutchman. However, this sameness can be seen as a strength in the light of the fact that Stoker was drawing attention to the limitations of the Western scientific viewpoint, which is too narrow and conformist to encompass the alternative reality embodied by the Count.
3. How is Christian belief and symbolism used in the novel?
Van Helsing's band of friends represents the Christian tradition, whereas Count Dracula represents a type of anti-Christian tradition. The group of friends uses the paraphernalia of Christian ritual, such as Communion wafers and crucifixes, to ward off the vampires. Vampirism itself is portrayed as a demonic reversal of the Eucharist (Communion), in which the communicant drinks consecrated wine that represents Christ's blood. The wine is believed to nourish the communicant "unto immortality." The vampire, on the other hand, drinks the lifeblood of his victims in order to attain a perverted kind of immortality, the "Un-dead" state whereby he cannot die in the ordinary way but is eternally damned. The fact that Renfield is unwilling to entertain any talk of the souls of the animals he consumes shows that the vampiric existence is irreconcilable with concern over the state of one's immortal soul. Vampires try to preserve their fleshly existence at the expense of the eternal life of the soul, whereas Christian belief teaches that the fleshly existence is secondary to the state of the soul and its fate after death.
The Un-dead, damned state lasts until the vampire is destroyed in the traditional way, by having a stake driven through his heart and his head cut off. While the method of destruction is drawn from pagan and folkloric traditions rather than Christian tradition, Stoker reverts to a very liberal form of Christianity for the resolution of the vampire-staking. The soul is restored to a state of grace, regardless of the extent of the sins committed by the vampire.
The Christian theme in the novel points to a wider social anxiety. The Victorian age was characterized by scientific and technological advancements that challenged the religious beliefs that gave society its moral structure. New ideas played their part in distancing people from religion, including Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859), which taught that man was not created by God in His own image but evolved, with apes, from a common ape-like ancestor. The characters in Dracula, with their phonographs and typewriters, embrace the new science and techology but have left behind the spiritual and religious knowledge that would enable them to recognise and oppose the powers of evil. Only Van Helsing, with his mastery of both modern science and ancient wisdom, has the necessary knowledge to defeat the Count.
4. Is Van Helsing's band of friends entirely good, and is Count Dracula entirely evil?
Much modern criticism sees the characters and events of the novel in a more ambiguous light than as a clear-cut struggle between the good of Van Helsing's band and the evil of Count Dracula. This is largely because of our familiarity with the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), which tends to see negative or evil traits not as threats external to the self but as disowned aspects of the self. Because of societal, moral or religious disapproval, these disowned traits are not allowed free expression by the conscious self, and so they are driven underground and become unconscious. The unconscious traits are not subject to conscious control, but take on a life of their own, demanding expression in unpredictable, uncontrolled or violent ways. Thus, sleep, dreams, hypnotic states, insane states and drug states can allow the unconscious to express itself. These states are common in Dracula and mark the time of greatest susceptibility to the Count's influence (for example, Lucy's sleep-walking, when she first allows the Count to bite her; and Renfield's insanity, when he becomes the Count's servant).
The psychoanalytic approach to the novel is supported by the fact that the Count can only go where he is first invited (desired). This means that he is not merely an evil person who picks innocent victims at random but that he expresses or fulfils a need or desire in the recipient of his attentions. It can be argued that the Count is the necessary expression of much that was suppressed in Victorian England: sexuality (especially in females), aggression, anti-maternal feelings (note the violence towards children expressed by the vampire Lucy and the three vampire women), the needs of the flesh, and contempt for the immortal soul.
Some would argue that the Count and his fellow vampires must be evil because they cause death, whereas Van Helsing's band of friends must be good because they save lives. But even this is not so simple as it first seems. The men use a shocking degree of violence to slay the vampires, and they do so out of fear of themselves and others being seduced and becoming vampires also. Death by vampire, on the other hand, seems a slower, gentler and more fascinatingly sensual fate. We are more aware than the people of Stoker's age of the dangers of fearing and hating those who are 'not like us,' and how such fears can lead to violence and even genocide.
Looking at the 'good' characters - the band of friends who oppose the Count - it is easy to see them as so limited in outlook as to be almost crippled. Seward, wedded to the scientific viewpoint and to technological progress, as Van Helsing points out, is so prejudiced towards the rational that he cannot even "let [his] eyes see nor [his] ears hear." Without Van Helsing's guidance, Lucy's bizarre death would have told Seward nothing. In addition, despite Seward's pride in his rationality, he is so sunk in grief after Lucy's death that he is unable to act; it is Mina who, in spite of her own grief, sets him on a productive path. Harker, another rational young man, is unable to believe his own less-than-rational experiences in the Count's castle and plunges into denial followed by a type of nervous breakdown; Mina follows him in disbelieving his experiences, and the situation is only rescued by Van Helsing's intervention. The women, meanwhile, are for the most part helpless victims of the Count, or of their own suppressed sexual instinct, depending on the reader's interpretation. These are one-sided people who see only what their prejudices allow them to see; some critics note that Harker cannot see the Count in a mirror because he cannot see the Count-like aspects of himself.
It is no accident that the band of friends uses Seward's lunatic asylum as its headquarters to fight the Count. Downstairs are those that society judges insane, and upstairs are those that society judges sane, but both are equally limited, unstable and vulnerable because of their incompleteness. The exception is Van Helsing, whose completeness of knowledge makes him powerful.
5. Compare and contrast the characters of Lucy and Mina.
A the beginning of the novel, Lucy and Mina are both pure, virtuous and beautiful examples of Victorian womanhood. However, there is an important difference between them. Lucy has great sexual magnetism and sexual desire. Not only does she attract three proposals in one day, but she wishes that she could accept all three. However, she knows this to be "heresy" - that is, a forbidden thought that cannot be acted upon. While she accepts Holmwood's proposal, it is some time before they can be together. She begins sleepwalking, a state in which unconscious thoughts and desires can express themselves. It is while she is sleepwalking that she is first bitten by the Count. On subsequent nights, she seems impatient to repeat the experience. Before long, she is drained and anemic as she loses blood. Once she becomes a vampire, she expresses a sexually voracious nature.
Mina is unlike Lucy in that she is content to be engaged to Harker and is not driven by sexual desire, either in her relationship with him or with other men. Unlike Lucy, she is not in the habit of attracting men in general; she is monogamous, as befits a respectable Victorian woman. While Lucy is focused on her own desires and appetites, Mina is more selfless and practical, thinking only of how she can be useful to her husband. She learns shorthand and typing in order to help him. Because she is not subject to strong sexual passion, she has less to suppress and unlike Lucy, does not need to sleepwalk to express herself. In spite of her greater purity, however, Mina is still vulnerable to the Count's seductions and admits that when he first visits her, she does not wish to "hinder" him. Interestingly, the Count first visits Mina when her husband and the other men have decided to leave her out of their plans to defeat the Count, and she begins to feel lonely and abandoned - typical prerequisites to an extra-marital affair!
Mina's capitulation confirms Stoker's apparent view of women - that they are weak-willed creatures who need the protection and guidance of men at all times. But compared with Lucy, Mina's greater strength of character enables her to resist the descent into vampirism with more fortitude and greater success.