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Gender Roles and Religion Culture as The Main Elements in Dracula's Novels

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The Vampire; an undead being that feeds on the blood of the living. With gaunt eyes, a pale complexion, florid lips and most noticeably sharp, animal-like teeth, the vampire is a legend that has been around since the 18th century. However, the notion of the vampire itself had existed long before then. Tales of demons and spirits that possessed qualities shared by the vampire have reportedly appeared in folklore from Mesopotamian, Hebrew and Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. When Bram Stoker released Dracula in 1897 it was described as ‘the very weirdest of weird tales’. The novel clashed with the stories of its time and many readers and critics deemed it to be a mockery of traditional conventions in literature in Stoker’s creation of a world so far from reality. It was not an immediate success, however it became more popular in the 20th century when movie adaptations were released. His portrayals of attitudes towards the mentally ill, gender roles and Christianity amongst elements of the Gothic, both affirmed and challenged values at the time, ultimately making his novel so significant. Bram Stoker’s novel went on to influence the image of the vampire in folklore, popular culture and legend. Since then, a number of novels and movies have been prompted by Stoker’s novel. One of these is the 2005 novel, The Historian. The author, Elizabeth Kostova, grew up listening to her father’s stories of Dracula and became interested in the etymology and folklore around the vampire. She went on to spend ten years researching and writing a novel around the vampire in the East and West. Her novel contains both elements of Christian and Islamic culture and deals with the notion of good and evil. Both Stoker’s and Kostova’s novels are influenced by the values of their world as well as the legend of the vampire that is carried through and adapted in both texts.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the harsh treatment of the mentally ill is a prevalent value of the Victorian era that is reflected in the novel. The theme of sanity and insanity is explored throughout the plot, with most characters questioning their own sense at some point in the book. The novel was constructed during the Victorian Era; an era that characterised any sort of socially divergent behaviour as ‘madness’. People who demonstrated these behaviours were removed from society and put in mental asylums where they would have very limited contact with the outside world. During this period, women were more prone than men to showing signs that were considered representative of illness or madness. Victorian values permitted women to be quiet, submissive and agreeable around men. Speaking out against a man or demonstrating characteristics that went against the values at the time were considered acts of hysteria; a viable condition that resulted in the admission of many women into lunatic asylums at this time. These attitudes are affirmed in the novel in the representations of evil characters as being mad or insane, and madness is seen as a symptom for vampirism. In the text, Lucy shows signs of madness after being bitten by Dracula. She begins sleepwalking, becoming anaemic and sensitive to sunlight, and as this escalates, she is isolated by others. In the opening of the novel, Jonathan Harker fights with his own professional and right-minded psychological state. However, as supernatural occurrences and inexplicable events unfold before his eyes, he begins to question his own state of mind. As he is imprisoned in Dracula’s castle, he postulates ‘I think I must have been mad for the time, for I behaved such as a rat does in a trap’. The simile portrays madness as animalistic, ultimately revealing insight into the attitudes towards madness and insanity during this period. In fact, Count Dracula is often viewed as a representation of insanity and is used in order to perpetuate Victorian values pertaining to mental illness.

Women in the Victorian period were required to be submissive and obedient to their male counterparts. In Stoker’s novel Dracula, the roles of Victorian women are challenged and affirmed in his portrayals of Lucy and Mina. The two characters are heavily juxtaposed in terms of their personalities; Lucy is portrayed as beautiful and innocent, yet overtly sexual, whilst Mina is portrayed as virtuous and intelligent, however she is non-sexualised in her portrayal. At the time of the novel’s creation during the late 19th century, the notion of the ‘new woman’ arose in Victorian society. The ‘New woman’ was a term given to women who held progressive beliefs and openly pushed against their oppression in society. Both Mina and Lucy share qualities that align with the feminist ideals of the ‘new woman’ movement, however their qualities at times also affirm the traditional values of the era. In the novel, Lucy is portrayed as flirtatious and having sexual tendencies that challenge the traditional Victorian values of the time. In the opening of the novel, Lucy describes her woes of wanting to marry three men. She states ‘why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble”. This suggestion reflects the progressive views of the ‘new woman’ that Stoker has chosen to portray. Mina’s character however reflects the values of the more conservative ‘new woman’. She is well-educated and employed; values also reflected in the ideals of the ‘new woman’ movement. In the novel, Mina is recognised for her intellect; in fact Van Helsing compliments her on having a ‘man’s brain’. Towards the end of the novel, Mina’s personality becomes more traditional and feminine and there is less of a focus on her intellect and more on her delicate beauty. Stoker presents juxtaposing female characters that represent the diversity of the new woman movement through affirming and challenging ideals of women at the time.

With the release of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, the public began to question their own views on the Christian values that were widely accepted in Victorian society. The revelations in The Origin of Species conflicted with those in The Bible ultimately leading to public questioning of its messages and a newfound doubt in faith. Stoker challenges this questioning in Dracula through the use of explicit religious imagery and the perversion of the sacraments, in fact the entire novel can be comprehended as a promise of salvation to those who follow the teachings of the Bible. Throughout the novel, the crucifix is used to ward off Dracula and keep him at bay. This Christian symbol reflects the idea that Christianity overcomes evil and thus challenges the views at the time wherein faith is questioned. In the novel the perversion of the sacraments is used to parallel the real sacraments and thus reinforce Christian imagery in the novel. An example of this is when Mina drinks blood from a wound on Dracula’s chest and in doing this gets closer to becoming one of the undead. Through the distortion of the sacraments, Stoker reflects the Christian rite: Eucharist which entails drinking the blood of Christ as a way of remembering Christ’s sacrifice to save humanity. Additionally, Stoker portrays the Christian faith in a positive light through representing Dracula as the embodiment of the Devil. Much like the devil, Dracula corrupts people by making them ‘unclean’ and takes their souls to become vampires like him. Additionally, Stoker affirms the Christian presence in the novel through biblical references. Whilst trapped in Dracula’s mansion, Jonathan states that “The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.” The biblical reference to Judas, a traitor of Jesus ultimately aids in comparing Dracula to someone of evil, and un-Christian nature. Stoker showcases Christian imagery and the perversion of the sacraments in order to challenge the questioning of faith at the time. 

The sheer strangeness of Stoker’s Dracula, its take on the mentally ill, women’s roles and Christianity contributed to its increasing popularity in recent years. A number of adaptations have been created since its release, including Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. In her novel, the protagonists go on a quest to find the tomb of Vlad Tepes, the almost-historically accurate palimpsest of Stoker’s Dracula. Like Dracula, the novel explores elements of Christianity, however it also has a heavy focus on the relationship between Christianity and Islam through comparisons between the portrayal of characters of both faiths. Kostova highlights the cost of religious conflict through historic accounts of Vlad’s ruthlessness on his quest to spread Christianity and gain power in the Ottoman and Slavic countries. The novel investigates the idea of good and evil and the metaphor of Dracula as malevolence. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is also portrayed as a representation of this, specifically sharing characteristics with the devil. Conversely, Kostova’s The Historian does not put great focus on gender roles and the treatment of the mentally ill like Stoker’s Dracula does. In addition to dealing with religion and the notion of good and evil, the novel is largely influenced by the author’s own childhood. The novel itself took 10 years of thorough research and construction before it was published in 2005 where it hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller list in its first week of sale.

Much of Kostova’s novel was influenced by her childhood context and experiences growing up. Her family moved from the US to Slovenia in 1972 when she was eight. In that year, she and her family travelled around Europe, Kostova stating that “it was the formative experience of [her] childhood”. Her fascination in Dracula’s legend stemmed from the vampire stories her father amused her with as a child. She explained that ‘At the end of each of these tales, the young listener realizes that Dracula himself is listening to the story”. This idea is reflected in her novel through the portrayal of Vlad as all-knowing, in fact it is this knowledge of history and the present that gives him power. Kostova’s mother was a librarian who frequently took her and her sister to the library, allowing them to borrow up to 30 books at a time. Her bookish upbringing led to her aspirations of becoming a writer from a young age. In university she gained an interest in Slavic and Balkan folk music. So, in 1989, she and a group of friends travelled to Eastern Europe to study local music traditions. While she was in Europe, The Berlin Wall collapsed ultimately marking the downfall of communism in the East. This event shaped her knowledge of history, and communism acts as a minor challenge in Paul and Helen’s pursuits. In 1994, five years after her trip to Europe, Kostova recalls the memories she had of her father’s stories whilst hiking. She asked herself the questions: ‘what if the father were spinning his Dracula tales to his entranced daughter and Dracula were listening in? What if Dracula were still alive?. It’s these questions that shape the entire purpose and plot of the novel. In her novel, Dracula is largely based off of his equivalent historical figure, Vlad Tepes. Kostova spent 10 years researching the history behind Vlad, the countries which the characters visited and the historical evidence featured in the novel. She uses this evidence to construct a Dracula that is ruthless, torturous yet human whilst Stoker represents him as undead and animalistic. Kostova stated in an interview that ‘His Dracula was only very loosely connected with the historical Dracula. He did research …and came across …the heroic deeds of Vlad, but he doesn’t seem to have known very much about his torture record.’ Through her childhood experiences in Europe, travels in university, flashbacks and years of research, Kostova’s constructed a novel where plot, history, characterisation and purpose are affected by her own personal context.

One of the most prominent themes in Kostova’s novel is the relationship between Christianity and Islam. In her representation of Dracula, Vlad is a Christian conqueror whose main goal is to gain power and defeat his Muslim Ottoman enemies. His ruthless torture methods that he uses against people who are not allied with his leadership and his faith constitute how religion is portrayed in the novel. Peter Berbegel in The Boston Globe explains how ‘Much of what is frightening in the novel is the suggestion of heretical Christian practices and conspiratorial monks.’ This differs to the typical portrayal of the Christian faith as pure and kind in comparison with the Muslim faith which was portrayed as dissenting, particularly during the time of the novel’s construction. The novel was written between 1994 to 2004, and may have thus been influenced by events such as 9/11, a seminal terrorist attack that contributed to the rise of fascism in the West and increased hostility towards Muslims. Kostova challenges this notion in her novel, in both the depiction of historical events involving Vlad and the relationship between the protagonists and Professor Bora. During Peter and Helen’s travels through Europe, they meet Professor Bora in Turkey. Bora is portrayed as passionate, friendly and kind, and is later revealed to be involved in an Ottoman group committed to defeating Vlad. The portrayal of Christianity vs Islam in the novel raises further questions exploring what constitutes good and evil in the novel’s context. Towards the end of the novel, Dracula explains to Rossi: ‘History has taught us that the nature of man is evil, sublimely so. Good is not perfectible, but evil is’. In fact Kostova stated herself that ‘Dracula is a metaphor for the evil that is so hard to undo in history.’ One interpretation of Kostova’s Dracula theorises that ‘Western civilisation and Islam have common enemies represented by ‘vampires” in the novel, hence the banding together of the protagonists and Bora as well as the combination of Christian and Islamic artifacts that are used to defeat Vlad. The underlying questions of good and evil and its link to Christian and Islamic relationships; a theme prominent in both the historical context within and outside the novel’s plot ultimately allows Kostova to challenge the conflict between the two faiths during this time.

The representation of the vampire has differed across history through its portrayal in folklore, myth and legend. Bram Stoker, a pioneer in recontextualising the gothic horror genre based much of his plot off the values during the time of construction. In his novel, he challenged the Victorian public’s doubt in faith as well as gender roles and the rise of the new woman. Additionally, he affirmed the harsh treatment of the mentally ill during the Victorian era. His ground-breaking novel led to the creation of a whole literary genre and many other film adaptations. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, appropriates a number of themes featured in Stoker’s novel in order to challenge or affirm the ideals of her own time. Through her own experiences growing up and the dichotomies between the Christian and Islamic faith in a post 9/11 world, Kostova reflects and challenges these notions, ultimately shaping the context that lays within the novel. Both texts explore the image of the vampire in different ways yet similarly pass down the perennial vampire legend that has shaped our history.

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Gender Roles and Religion Culture as the Main Elements in Dracula’s Novels. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/gender-roles-and-religion-culture-as-the-main-elements-in-draculas-novels/
“Gender Roles and Religion Culture as the Main Elements in Dracula’s Novels.” GradesFixer, 29 Apr. 2022, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/gender-roles-and-religion-culture-as-the-main-elements-in-draculas-novels/
Gender Roles and Religion Culture as the Main Elements in Dracula’s Novels. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/gender-roles-and-religion-culture-as-the-main-elements-in-draculas-novels/> [Accessed 22 May 2022].
Gender Roles and Religion Culture as the Main Elements in Dracula’s Novels [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Apr 29 [cited 2022 May 22]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/gender-roles-and-religion-culture-as-the-main-elements-in-draculas-novels/
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