The Phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance of The Protagonist in Dracula

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Words: 2398 |

Pages: 5.5|

12 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 2398|Pages: 5.5|12 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

In his novel Dracula, Bram Stoker’s characters are deeply disturbed by the existence of the vampire. The notion of a creature that is both living and dead challenges their sanity by forcing them to question those things which they had previously considered to be obvious truths. Typically, these members of Victorian society would believe that one must either be alive or dead, seductive or repulsive, masculine or feminine, sexual or maternal, or mentally stable or unstable. However, many of the characters in the story possess traits which cause them to embody the aforementioned impossibilities. The coexistence of these conflicting ideas causes an uncomfortable tension that is referred to as ‘cognitive dissonance’. When the characters experience this feeling of cognitive dissonance, rather than changing their worldviews, they resort to questioning their state of mind. An intense fear of insanity pervades this novel, therefore, those qualities that cause the characters to question their sanity must be reconciled before they can rest and the story can come to a close.

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Count Dracula is the most obvious example of a character that exists as two separate conflicting ideas. The vampire is a creature who has passed from human life, but who is resurrected as a monster that walks, speaks, and feeds on blood. As coined by Stoker, Dracula is a member of the ‘undead’. This fact causes much skepticism from all of the characters except for Professor Van Helsing, whose job it is to convince the others that the vampire does indeed exist. The unwillingness to believe that Dracula could be the cause of Lucy’s troubles is best displayed during Van Helsing’s conversation with Doctor Seward. The professor spouts off a list of things which have occurred in the world, despite the fact that, before their occurrence, they would not even have been considered as a possibility. “Here I interrupted him. I was getting bewildered. He so crowded on my mind his list of nature’s eccentricities and possible impossibilities that my imagination was getting fired.” (Stoker 263) As soon as Seward’s mind begins to question his current ideas about reality, the doctor abruptly brings an end to the conversation for fear that he may have to alter his preconceptions. Seward knows that Van Helsing is asking him to draw a parallel between such events and the possibility that Count Dracula is the true cause of Lucy’s downfall, but is afraid to admit to a notion that could be considered impossible or even ‘crazy’.

“You are a clever man, friend John; you reason well, and your wit is bold; but you are too prejudiced... Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are... Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” (Stoker, 261)

If a phenomenon cannot be explained through reason, the characters tend to dismiss the event rather than to question the limits of their own knowledge. This is the easier way out. Humans do not like to deal with cognitive dissonance because it is an uncomfortable psychological experience.

The three vampire sisters who inhabit Castle Dracula also possess the binary qualities of life and death, but they are also both seductive and repulsive. The vampiresses encounter Jonathan Harker while he is alone in the castle. “There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” (Stoker 51-52) Rather than act on his desires or confront his fears, Harker simply lays still and allows the vampires to surround him and caress his body. Like Seward’s disruption of the conversation with Van Helsing, Harker’s inactivity is another way of disregarding a situation that he cannot understand. Jonathan is confused about the fact that he is sexually attracted to the vampires even though, during his time, the blatant sexuality that the three women exhibited would have been completely unacceptable from any other female. So, he attempts to avoid the situation by acting as though he were sleeping, almost as if he were hoping that he could tell himself that the whole event was merely a dream. Indeed, the very next day, Harker questions the reality of the events of the previous night. “I awoke in my own bed. If it be that I had not dreamt, the Count must have carried me here. I tried to satisfy myself on the subject, but could not arrive at any unquestionable result.” (Stoker 55) Although the vampire attack was remembered in vivid detail, Harker continues to question the accuracy of his memory by putting forth the idea that all of these events could have occurred while he was sleeping. Because our dreams are often irrational and indecipherable, Harker’s willingness to attribute his sexual encounter to such a hallucination would imply that he believes himself to have been in a less-than-stable mental state. Thus, Jonathan chooses to question his sanity rather than to accept that these ‘impossibilities’ could have occurred.

During his encounter with the three females, Harker also becomes an anomaly by developing feminine qualities throughout the scene. "In the Victorian mind men bore the complete onus for sexual depravity; a good woman only submitted to her husband's bestiality in order to reproduce" (Demetrakopoulos 106). When Harker lies very still and allows the vampires to take full control of him, he is taking on the traditional Victorian woman’s role in sex. In Jungian terms, the vampire sisters act as an agent that brings out Harker’s anima, or repressed feminine side. Later in the scene, Harker becomes so overwhelmed that he faints. Fainting is another activity that is typically labeled as a feminine action, causing Harker to take on the female role yet again. “Without a clearly defined, passive femininity against which to define himself and his world, Jonathan Harker crumbles into a nightmare of uncertainty, confusion, and vampiric ‘brain fever’.” (Prescott and Giorgio 490) Harker’s slip into temporary insanity provides him with another way to deny what has happened to him; he may have seen creatures that were both living and dead, or who were both seductive and repulsive, but it could also have been a hallucination as a result of his ‘brain fever’.

When Harker is recovering from his temporary illness, his fiancé, Mina, is there to look after him. Throughout the novel, Mina parallels Jonathan in the sense that she also takes on attributes of the opposite gender. When she vows never to open his journal unless it becomes absolutely necessary, Mina takes on the role of the protector as she attempts to ward off any recollection that may cause Jonathan to relapse into his state of insanity. In a sense, Mina becomes Harker’s ‘knight in shining armor’. Mina also becomes a saving grace for the rest of the men as she learns to work with the newest technology and keeps accurate records of each person’s encounters with the supernatural. When Dracula attempts to destroy their records, Mina has been wise enough to make several copies of the documents, thus allowing the ‘children of the light’ to continue on and defeat the vampire. Van Helsing praises Mina for her great achievements and exposes her dual nature as both feminine and masculine. “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and a woman’s heart.” (Stoker 321) However, after making this statement, the Professor goes on to state that, despite her helpfulness, Mina must no longer assist in the battle against Dracula. This must happen because Mina’s feminine and masculine qualities cannot be tolerated when they exist in one person. Nonetheless, Mina does continue on in the battle against the monster and is arguably the most important key to the discovery of Dracula’s whereabouts.

In stark contrast to Mina, Miss Lucy Westerna is represented as the epitome of Victorian femininity, except that she is highly sexualized. This sexuality becomes most evident once Lucy has undergone her transformation into a vampire, but her it is also expressed – in confidence – to Mina before she had become a creature of the night. “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (Stoker 81) Lucy is being courted by several men at once and, although she does not accept each advance, she tends to be flirt with each man and wishes to be with all of them. Once Dracula takes her life and she becomes a vampire, Mina’s sexuality is fully exposed and she no longer has the ability to be a wife or a mother. When Arthur, Van Helsing, Quincey, and Dr Seward travel to Lucy’s grave site to end her life as a vampire, they encounter a version of Lucy that is both sexual and, in a twisted sense, maternal. Lucy calls to Arthur in a tantalizing manner, displaying the fact that, as a vampire, Lucy will no longer hide her sexual cravings; she can never be a pure Victorian woman. Lucy feeds on young children and enters her tomb grasping a child tightly before she throws the girl to the floor in one careless gesture. Lucy was a woman who wanted to be married and, presumably become a mother in order to fulfill her wifely role, but the reality was that she could never have done so because of her sexuality. Dracula changed Lucy by exposing her inner self.

The final character who possesses opposing qualities is Doctor Seward’s patient, Renfield. Because he is a patient in the asylum, Renfield is considered to be the least sane of all of the characters; he is what ‘the children of the light’ fear to become. In reality, Renfield is one of the most informed people in the novel. He is aware of Dracula’s presence and is able to accurately judge Seward’s affections for Lucy and also tries to warn Mina that she should not stay in the asylum because of Dracula’s impending attack. When his patient speaks to Mina, Doctor Seward is very surprised by his coherent language and apparent insightfulness: “Here was my own pet lunatic – the most pronounced of his type that I had ever met with – talking elemental philosophy, and with the manner of a polished gentleman.” (Stoker 319) Renfield challenges the characters’ notions of what constitutes sanity. It would seem impossible that the man who collects and consumes insects could see things more clearly than the other characters in the story, yet he manages to correctly assess the situation much more quickly than the others. However, his coherent moments are attributed to momentary lapses of sanity rather than indicators of his true mental state.

In order to maintain their preconceptions, those characteristics which are binary opposites must be eliminated in order for the characters to rest and feel that their job has been completed. Count Dracula and the vampiresses are killed by the ‘children of the light’ in order to make things right in the world. Because they are successful in defeating them, they no longer need to worry about the existence of a creature who defies all natural laws by being both dead and alive at the same time. Similarly, Renfield is killed off because he cannot exist in the world that the other characters wish to live in. He is a madman who was able to see things much more clearly than the ‘children of the light’, and thus must be eliminated from the story. In the case of Lucy and the three sisters, each one is killed by a male with a large stake. The stake acts as a phallic symbol, thus asserting the man’s power over these voluptuous women. In the scene where the vampire Lucy is killed off, Arthur is the one who ends her life while all of her other suitors stand and watch. This makes all things right because it allows Arthur to assert his power and take his rightful place as her husband.

To correct the destabilization of gender roles, Mina and Jonathan are not killed off, but are given defined societal roles by the end of the novel. As the ‘children of the light’ are hot on Dracula’s trail, Mina’s transformation into a vampire has already begun to occur. She does not take part in the killing of Dracula, despite the fact that it was her careful work that ensured the discovery of his whereabouts. “By instructing the men to read the death rite, she gives herself over to the patriarchal control.” (Prescott and Giorgio 505) Mina gives herself over to the men because she allows them to assert their ultimate control over her; she does not want to turn into a vampire because she would become a sexual creature, thus destroying her image as a pure Victorian woman. Patriarchal control is also established when we learn that Mina has become a loving mother. This puts Jonathan in the role of the bread-winning husband while Mina becomes a maternal figure.

Stoker’s Dracula comes to a close when all things have been ‘made right’ in the world of the characters that he has created. Each character who possesses conflicting traits is either reformed so that he or she no longer represents a threat to familiar notions, or, if they cannot change, they are simply disposed of all together. Mina and Jonathan Harker’s gender roles are reconciled, Lucy’s sexuality is laid to rest and she is prevented from becoming an unacceptable mother figure, the madman who knows too much is killed in his asylum cell, and Count Dracula and his three vampire sisters are all disposed of so that the characters no longer need to experience the sense of cognitive dissonance which boggles their minds. The story has a happy ending and the remaining characters are free to live their lives without having to question their sanity.

Works Cited

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie. “Feminism, Sex Role Changes, and Other Subliminal Fantasies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Frontiers 11(1977): 104-112.

Prescott, Charles and Grace A. Giorgio. “Vampiric Affinities: Mina Harker and the Paradox of Femininity in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Literature and Culture 33(2): 487-515

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Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Toronto, ON: Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 1994.

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The Phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance of the Protagonist in Dracula. (2018, April 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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