By John Madigan
Dracula was published in 1897 and it is a perfect example of the Victorian era culture. The characters are all either upper class or middle class, well-educated and all good Christians. Dracula is the stereotypical evil foreigner, out to conquer England (and by extension, the British Empire), not to mention corrupting pure English women with his foreign ways. The heroes, fine examples of Victorian manhood, form a group of modern day knights, sworn to save Mina’s immortal soul that has been corrupted by Dracula’s influence. The men not only succeed in driving Dracula from English soil, they pursue him to Transylvania, and destroy him in sight of his castle.
Class, wealth, and education are very important to the novel’s plot. Our heroes include an aristocrat, two doctors, a solicitor and a school teacher. Lucy is wealthy as well and Dracula is a Count. Arthur Holmwood’s status is useful in influencing various sources in providing information normally not available to the rest of the group. His wealth enables them to pursue Dracula back to Transylvania and buy the supplies they need. Seward and Van Helsing, draw upon their medical knowledge. Van Helsing is also knowledgeable in the law, as is Harker. Mina is well-organized, knows short hand and is proficient in the use of a typewriter.
Dracula can be seen as a struggle of Good versus Evil. The heroes are Christians, all being members of the Church of England, except for Van Helsing. He’s Catholic and readily uses the cross, the Host and prayer to ward off Dracula and his brides. Despite being good Protestants, the others accept these symbols of faith without question. Harker, who at the beginning of the novel, reacts skeptically at being presented with a cross during his journey to Dracula’s castle, soon changes his opinion after his experiences there. He eagerly accepts Van Helsing’s tools in the fight against Dracula. All the characters dedicate themselves saving Dracula’s victims from eternal damnation by destroying them. The heroes see it as their Christian duty to destroy Dracula to prevent him making any more of his kind. After being forced by Dracula to take his blood, Mina sees herself as unclean and is willing to die at the hands of her own husband if she becomes a full vampire.
They way Victorians travelled and communicated was changing, and the characters in the novel make good use of this new technology in their struggles against Dracula. For example, Van Helsing journeys to and from Amsterdam on a regular basis early in the novel, and later, Dracula is pursued by steam ship and train as he flees to his castle. The telegraph is used regularly and to good effect in keeping the group’s efforts coordinated. Seward uses a gramophone to record his diary and Mina uses a typewriter to produce a combined manuscript of all the groups very convenient diaries. Holmwood even uses the precise record-keeping when it comes to shipping to track Dracula’s passage back to Transylvania.
Besides reflecting Victorian ideas of class, religion and the wonders of progress, another subject that was much in the Victorian consciousness at the time. Stoker was writing during a period of a resurgence of interest in Irish myths and one weaves itself into the plot. That is the belief in changelings. Irish peasants in the 19th century still literally believed that the Fae could seduce, abduct, and replace children and women with one of their own. There were many infamous cases of those believed to be changelings being abused and even killed. One such case, the murder of Bridget Cleary in 1895. The husband and relatives of this woman, convinced she was a changeling burned her. The case was reported nationally and internationally.
During his time at Dracula’s castle, Harker is horrified to witness Dracula give a baby he’s abducted to his three brides. He does it very casually, and you get the idea he does this on a regular basis. It must be common knowledge as later the child’s mother appears at the castle and begs to get her child back. Obviously, the child wasn’t replaced by a changeling, but the similarity is clear. Later, after Lucy is turned into a vampire, she abducts children to feed from as well.
When a person was suspected of have been being replaced by a changeling, there were so-called “faery doctors” that families could turn to for help. These individuals were experts in determining the true nature of a suspected changeling. Physical harm, for example, burning a changeling, was one of the tried and true methods of making it reveal itself, driving it away and supposedly forcing the faeries to return the person who had been abducted. Van Helsing performs the role of “faery doctor” when called in by Seward to diagnose what’s wrong with Lucy. Van Helsing uses garlic and the cross to protect her from being turned into a vampire, tying to prevent her from losing her soul, a form of spiritual abduction. He fails in his efforts, so he and the other men go to Lucy’s tomb, trapping and destroying her. They don’t burn her, but they do violate her body by staking then beheading her. The real Lucy isn’t returned, but her soul is freed to go to its final reward.
Mina then is targeted by Dracula, eventually being forced to drink Dracula’s blood. Disturbingly enough, she is forced to do this with her husband lying next to her in bed, unaware this is happening. Not only does Dracula begin the process of turning her into a vampire, he also makes her symbolically perform an act of infidelity. Van Helsing acting as “faery doctor”, tries to slow the process of Mina turning. She is also burned, but only on the forehead, when touched with a holy wafer. She is quite willing to be killed if she is “replaced” by the hands of her husband. An interesting reversal of what Bridget Cleary’s husband did to her.
Mina’s process of being turned seems slower than Lucy’s turning. The difference is not only her being aware of what has happened to her, but also her understanding of it. By the process of organizing the group’s various diaries, she acts like a folklorist of a kind. She can see Dracula for what he is, understanding his strengths, weaknesses and his motivations. If she were an Irish peasant wife, her having a way to support herself without total reliance on her husband would make her a likely candidate for being accused of being a changeling. Fortunately for her, she is English, shows a knowledge of her position as a woman and is surrounded by people who don’t attribute her native intelligence as a sign of being different.
Dracula is a novel on many levels. It praises Victorian culture, showing the proper way of doing things. The class system is reinforced, showing upper and middle-class heroes defending English women from the depredations of a threatening foreigner. It shows the wonders of 19th century technology and the inevitable triumph of science over superstition. Lastly, it is a novel that reflects the fears of society at the time, not only the British fear of foreigners and immigrants, Victorian fear of sex, and the Irish fear of the dangers of the supernatural world. These are some of the reasons that the novel has endured, lending itself to constant reinterpretation, by scholars, readers, and the media.
The novel has always fascinated me on a personal level, inspiring me to not only consume media dealing with vampires, but to consider the facts behind the legends. It has lead me to discover fascinating facts and it’s interesting to see how Stoker altered the legends to suit the purposes of the novel. Most interesting is that in the original stories, vampires were the reanimated corpses of family members that preyed on their still living relatives. Stoker changed this, fusing the historical Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, with the legends, creating a proper foe for his brave English heroes. Once Dracula became a stage play, he was made more a more elegant figure, gaining a refined air and, surprisingly, becoming a romantic figure to female audience members. Vampires, with a few modifications by the media, became the original “goths”, seducing the opposite sex while their undead state. This lead to them becoming the anti-hero, and often the hero of various works of fiction in print and on stage and screen. It has been a long and interesting journey from Nosferatu (1922) to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) to Twilight (2008). The changes in how vampires being seen reflecting each generation’s unconscious fears and desires.
McGrath, Thomas. "Fairy Faith and Changelings: The Burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895." Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 71.282 (1982): 178-84. Web.
Shimokusu, Masaya. "Corpse or Changeling? —An Irish Folkloric Aspect of Bram Stoker’s Dracula1." Doshisha University English Literature Research, 84 (2009): 57-70.