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Dracula by Bram Stoker is a gothic novel detailing the story of the title character Dracula’s attempt to spread the undead curse from Transylvania to England and find new blood as well as his battle against a small group of men and women otherwise referred to as the ‘light crew.’ The novel, published in 1897, holds a mirror up to 19th-century Victorian society in the way that it conveys the anxieties embedded within society at the time including the clash between superstition and science, female expression and sexuality and the fear of the foreign.
The novel reflects Victorian attitudes towards the clash between science and superstition through the use of allegory. “We went into the room, taking the flowers with us. The Professor’s actions were certainly odd and not to be found in any pharmacopeia that I ever heard of”. In this quote, the differences between Seward and Van Helsing are clearly illustrated, with Seward unable to comprehend Van Helsing’s superstitious actions as his thought process is purely scientific and Stoker allegorises this clash in the form of Dr Seward and Van Helsing, two men who both represent different states of mind in the midst of the light crew’s conflict with Dracula. Seward is portrayed as a rational man and is used to represent an objective and scientific approach in many scenes, such as Lucy’s diagnosis. This is contrasted with Van Helsing who is a middle-ground between Dracula and Seward allegorically. Western society values progress and logic, therefore it can be said that Dracula explores this clash between superstition and science through allegories of the two.
Dracula explores Victorian anxieties towards female expression and sexuality through its use of characterisation and symbolism as well as foreshadowing and repetition. Victorian society favoured women who were pure and chaste and women who are overtly sexual were treated with disdain. Stoker portrays each type of woman differently, portraying the traditional Victorian woman through Mina and Lucy and the sexual New Woman through Dracula’s brides, as well as aspects of Mina and Lucy`. At the beginning of the novel, Mina and Lucy are shown to have similar qualities, such as purity, however as the novel progresses and Lucy is transformed into a vampire, these favourable qualities are overrun and she becomes sexualised, though not to the same extent as Dracula’s brides. This characterisation reflects how men of this period were becoming wary of their own and clinging to patriarchal gender roles. “The sweetness was turned to … heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness”. The repetition of the word ‘voluptuous’ can be found several times throughout the novel, mostly to describe the brides, and is always used to describe certain features with negative connotations to desire, linking back to how Victorians valued chastity and how freedom of a woman’s sexuality was frowned upon.
Stoker further explores this Victorian anxiety regarding the New Woman through Mina and Dracula’s brides. ‘Some of the ‘New Woman’ writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself.’ Despite Mina possessing characteristics of the New Woman such as intelligence, she is critical of the New Woman and never strays from the gender roles perceived as acceptable in late-Victorian society. This is contrasted with Dracula’s brides who do not conform to Victorian patriarchal gender norms as they are able to reproduce independently and prey on children. They also target men to “kiss,” which is symbolic of how these women have taken control over their sexuality, further projecting this anxiety regarding female sexuality in Victorian society.
Stoker employs juxtaposition, metaphor and context to explore the Victorian fear of foreignness and the ‘other.’ Many characters in the novel are juxtaposed with each other in order to elucidate how deeply ingrained in the Victorian conscious the fear of the foreign was, such as Mina and Dracula’s brides and Seward and Van Helsing, juxtaposing the accepted Victorian woman and the New Woman and tradition and superstition respectively. Stoker’s context for addressing this issue in the novel was the fact that at the time, many people living in England feared that the colonisation and oppression of other cultures would eventually cause backlash and, ultimately, the invasion of their country which is further illustrated through Dracula’s immigration to England, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the infiltration of England. Dracula is killed by Harker and Quincey, men who were characterised to represent Western society. This choice was purposeful on Stoker’s behalf as he aimed to convey his belief that British imperialism could overcome foreign forces despite the circumstances.
Dracula by Bram Stoker holds a mirror up to late-Victorian society as it addresses anxieties deeply ingrained into the public’s conscious at the time such as fears regarding superstition versus science, female expression and sexuality and fear of the foreign. It was at this particular point in history that the British lifestyle had changed drastically in a short period of time and more change was impending, leaving different groups in society in a state of uncertainty, such as men clinging to and attempting enforce patriarchal values and gender roles upon women as well as a general air of concern regarding the consequences and repercussions of British imperialism for society at large. Although these anxieties arose in a different period of time in a different context, perhaps there is still substance in the themes carried through Dracula even in today’s society.
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