Secondary School English Literature: Dracula – Bram Stoker – An Introduction Part 1 to the Death of Lucy Westenra

FOR those encountering the Gothic as a genre in their studies of English literature, there can be few, if any, better places to start than with Bram Stoker’s oeuvre of 1897. The novel Dracula has played a major role in the modern day Gothic and its inception into the modern era. It contains a tightly constructed plot, uses a wide variety of narrative techniques, though principally relying on letters and diary extracts as the main narration, and draws the reader into the darkest recesses of the human psyche besides being an excellent tale. It does, however, go deeper than this.

First questions for the school reader:

  • Why does the book begin with the young solicitor’s clerk, Harker, travelling from the West to the East? What can we infer from the quote: “I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting.”?
  • What is the atmosphere created by Stoker’s use of language as Harker leaves behind Germany and heads through the Eastern countries, travelling towards Romania and the province of Transylvania?
  • How does Stoker use imagery to pull the reader into Harker’s sense of confusion and feeling lost as he travels East – why is the use of travelling by train important? (Remember – 1897!) What significance is there in the train lines ending and the carriages and carts as he travels through Bohemia?
  • How does Stoker contrast the rationality of Harker’s own background and the Britain he has left behind with the superstition and apparent primitivism of the people he encounters as he travels to Castle Dracula?

After his arrival at Castle Dracula, we find a very marked juxtaposition of the old (the castle building, the use of candlelight rather than gas lighting etc) and the modern (the wide variety of modern magazines, journals, books et al in the library). Dracula is constantly questioning Harker about England, and especially London; there are frequent mentions of ideas and technology which are modern to the nineteenth century (eg Harker’s writing of his journal in shorthand, a system developed by Isaac Pitman, and first presented in 1837) – as the struggles against Dracula’s atavistic vampire progress, we encounter the use of typewriters, telephones, the telegraph system, phonographs and Kodak photographic equipment used against the ancient evil which the Count embodies – where he is able, in primitive Transylvania, to dominate and control through fear and the horror he brings (if we consider it in clear terms, Dracula and his female entourage would account for fewer deaths in the area than the average outbreak of any of the viral illnesses which frequented the pre antibiotic era) the Count must face the modern ideas and technologies which counter his supernatural abilities. Van Helsing, doctor and professor, can travel from Amsterdam to Whitby and London very quickly using the modern steam ship crossings, yet he also manipulates and effectively wields the traditional weapons against the vampire lord – especially the Crucifix and garlic to drive the vampires back, and the use of the Consecrated Host and Holy Water to cleanse and injure the undead. It is noticeable also that the religious symbolism, used here in a Gothic tale of horror, is based on the symbols and rites of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the innate anti-Catholicism of much of Victorian England outside of the Irish ghettoes and the old Catholic areas such as Lancaster in the North West.

Dracula himself is an unusual anti hero – his presence, after being fairly continuous in the first part of the novel in Romania, is often not corporeal in the rest of the book, but rather a dark and brooding fear that permeates the whole of the novel, just out of eyesight, but haunting the whole structure. His ability to transmute from human form to animal (bat or wolf) makes him a bridge between the civilised human (the cultured aristocrat) and the feral being which instils fear; he bridges the feudal world of his Transylvania homeland and the modern world hub of London, the largest city in the world and mistress of the largest Empire; feeding on the blood of the living rejuvenates him and changes him from the old of the East to the young and vibrant of the new; and, perhaps most significantly for the Gothic genre, as the Undead, he bridges the widest gulf, that between the living and the dead: though belonging truly to neither, he has a level of control over both, particularly in Lucy and then Mina. As readers, we are no more able than the human protagonists to put a concrete identity on the Count and this is a large part in his fascination and attraction to each of us.

In being an incarnation of the feral – the base parts of human nature – the Count, and indeed his female underlings, are the bringers of lasciviousness and the areas of the human psyche which would bring shock to the Victorians – the scene where the female vampires attempt to seduce Harker in Castle Dracula would have been rather shocking to a Victorian audience – even in today’s world, it has a level of sensuality: ‘a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips’, yet the being of the seducers, the vampire women, combines the sensual with the repulsive, particularly as they then go on to feed on the baby in a full rejection of the maternal instinct and motherly role which would have been the expected norm of the the gender identity of the time. Here again the juxtaposition of lust as an uncontrolled desire with the pure love which Jonathan and Mina feel for each other and the sadness in the corruption of the confused love which Lucy has for her suitors and eventually true love for Arthur Holmwood brought by the vampire’s turning her to the undead. 

Thinking points:

– What is the significance of the quote:

Oh, the terrible struggle that I have had against sleep so often of late; the pain of the sleeplessness, or the pain of the fear of sleep, and with such unknown horror as it has for me! How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.

  • The modern is used, as said above, to counter the Vampire Lord. What, however, can we intuit from the failure of medical science to save Lucy and the need for van Helsing to turn to the superstitious cures to give her ultimate release?
  • Up until the death of Lucy Westenra, how are the traditional social roles of the genders in Victorian society challenged? Is the reaction to this portrayed in a positive or a negative way? How can this be supported from the text?
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