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In the Gothic novel Dracula, Bram Stoker largely presents good and evil in stark contrast in a very simple manner. This perhaps mirrors Victorian views of good and evil as opposed yet inextricable, a strict view of right and wrong in a religious sense. But more interesting than this construct is the character of Renfield, the man who appears to be neutral, caught between the clearly righteous good and the evidently evil. Throughout the novel, he is submerged in a metaphorical grey area. Stoker uses Renfield to provoke deeper thought about good and evil, and indeed wants the reader to fear this grey area itself.
Often, Stoker does tend to present quite easily accessible interpretations on good and evil. For example, when Mina is fed on by and equally feeds from Dracula in chapter twenty one, the literary technique isn’t hard to suss out. Descriptions such as “white-clad” and “clad in black” are used to describe Mina and Dracula: the colours are obviously opposed but Stoker has even gone as far as switching the syntax of the adjectives to emphasise the opposing ideas. You also see Mina’s “nightdress” which has been “smeared with blood” and which thus has connotations of a loss of virginity, due to the Victorian belief that the exchange of blood and reproductive fluids are synonymous. It means a loss of innocence from colour imagery, a deflowering of Mina’s character. There is also clear contrast in terms of religious lexicon from “God’s mercy” to the “devil and his children”. So, in many ways (visual and metaphorical, and in allusions to the Bible), Stoker presents good and evil to be a very clear cut-subject, something that doesn’t require an awful lot of thought.
This begs the question: what about Renfield? Where does he fit in? He’s generally an extremely ambiguous character. His initial interactions with Dracula aren’t clear in his exposition. It’s also unclear why it is that he’s so particularly sensitive to Dracula’s movements. Another ambiguity is his strange and unnatural obsession with immortality. He’s described as a “madman”. No past, no personality. So we are left to rely purely on the text, but the writing offers a very grey too. We are often left confused about Renfield’s warped personality: he displays kindness and politeness (much like the ideal Victorian bachelor) by “tidying” before Mina enters his cell and even says “let the lady come in” only after he has finished cleaning. However, this only makes it more uncomfortable to see the character displaying signs of evil. As Seward says when Mina enters the cell, “I thought that he may have had some homicidal intent”. Just like the in-between of horror and terror, the grey, Renfield is an example of the abject. He is both good and evil.
One of the displays of Renfield’s possible evil is his strange habit of eating the insects in his room. The flies and spiders sent by Dracula himself are obviously under his influence, as Harker says in the fourth chapter of the novel in reference to Castle Dracula, supposedly a place where the Devil and the “Devil’s children”. Possibly, the insects are the “devil’s children” in question, under the influence of the Count. The juxtaposition of the insects and Renfield makes him seem much more animalistic, bringing about the Victorian fear of devolution and thus transmitting the impression that he is evil.
In chapter twenty one when Renfield is on his deathbed, he mentions the “Acherontia atropos of the Sphinges” . As Van Helsing says, this translates to the “Death’s Head Moth”. The use of this symbol has a huge impact on both the Victorian and the contemporary reader. In the 1840s, the entomologist Moses Harris claimed that the moth was “the device of evil spirits” because of its skull-like pattern, and this interpretation was digested by the society of the time; people then believed that the moth was some sort of evil omen. In popular culture, surrealist Salvador Dalí also used the design for his work in relation to death, further pushing conventional beliefs surrounding the moth. Renfield however eats these insects in his cell: this is again an in-between state of evil and good because the physical eating of the insects in the correct order of the food chain is a completely natural process. However, it feels twisted, and brings back the sickly, abject, revulsed feeling at the act.
When Renfield is very close to death, it is made clear to the reader that he simply should already be dead due to the injuries he’s sustained. These include his “pool of blood” he’s laying in, his “back broken”: he’s “paralysed”, and has a “mark on his head”. This is the connection Renfield holds to the dark side, evil, even when he’s close physically to death. Yet he’s strangely alive, with “uncertain breaths”, and he is “quickly revived” when Seward wets his lips with brandy. He’s also undergoing “agonised confusion” and the men are in a state of “nervous suspense”. So he’s on his deathbed but very strangely vital and sane (which is unusual for him): this is just another example of how he is completely a middle man between good and evil. This boundary between the two holds forth Victorian fears of the liminal, threatening Stoker’s readers with illogicality and ambiguity.
As David Rogers says, Victorian times had an “apocalyptic nature”: this was an era of uncertainty and change. Often, Stoker accentuates this fear by using Renfield as a middle man to make this uncertainty and unease about the forces of good and evil more accessible to his readers.
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