Dracula: Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Summary: Van Helsing and the men stealthily enter the churchyard shortly before midnight. They find Lucy’s coffin again empty. Van Helsing relates to Arthur and Quincey what he and Seward found on their previous two visits to Lucy’s grave. He also relates that he visited the grave the previous day at sundown; he put garlic over it, and so Lucy did not stir. When he left, however, he took his garlic with him, explaining why Lucy is now absent from her grave. Van Helsing now seals up the tomb again, using ground-up communion Host as a putty-like substance around the door to repel the tomb’s “un-Dead” resident. The men keep a long and lonely vigil; at length, they see Lucy biting a small child. Seeing the men, Lucy flings the child to the ground and advances on them in a wanton, animalistic fashion. As if spellbound, Arthur moves toward her, but Van Helsing intervenes, brandishing a golden crucifix. Asking Arthur’s permission to proceed, Van Helsing removes some of the Host from the seal of the tomb door; astonishingly, Lucy proceeds to slip in to her tomb through that crack, “where scarce a knife-blade could have gone.” Leaving the child where the police will find him, the men leave. They return the next night to finish their task. They open the tomb to find Lucy lying there. Van Helsing directs Arthur as he hammers a large stake through Lucy’s heart; the other men recite a prayer for the dead. Van Helsing assures Arthur that Lucy is now at peace, her soul with God. But he also informs the men that a larger mission remains: “to find out the author of all this our sorrow and to stamp him out.”

Analysis: This key chapter brings many of the erotic elements and associations of Stoker’s text to the fore. The moment in which Arthur, directed by Van Helsing, hammers the stake through Lucy’s heart is presented in such a way as to be a grim parody of the climax of sexual intercourse: “The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut… Arthur… [drove] deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake… And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth ceased to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible task was over” (p. 262). It is not accidental that the staking of Lucy takes place, as Leonard Wolf points out, only the night after “the night that would have been [Arthur and Lucy’s] wedding night” (p. 257 n6); or that, in their previous encounter, Lucy called to Arthur—“with a langorous, voluptuous grace” (p. 257, and, of course, reminiscent of Dracula’s “brides” in Ch. 3)—“My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!” (p. 257). Denied the natural consummation of marriage in life, Lucy has only this unnatural or supernatural “consummation” in un-death. Setting aside for a moment the context of the vampiric lore that makes Lucy’s staking necessary for the novel’s plot, it does raise interesting thematic concerns about the book’s attitude toward female sexuality. Notice again the (male narrator’s) emphasis on how being un-Dead has changed Lucy:  “The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness” (p. 256). Possessed by Dracula, Lucy now possesses a “whole carnal and unspiritual appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity” (p. 260). (The language recalls the theological proposition that evil cannot create anything new; it can only twist and distort what God has created.) As Wolf notes, even the un-Dead Lucy’s hair color has changed: it is now dark hair (where in life it was light). Wolf comments: “Whether this is a conscious effect of the author’s or not, Lucy’s darkening hair symbolizes her sexual awakening and loss of innocence. This image, while minor, is inextricably bound up with the central theme of the novel: male hostility toward female sexuality” (p. 256 n4). Readers must determine for themselves whether Wolf somewhat overstates his claim that such hostility is the “central theme” of Stoker’s Dracula; nevertheless, this chapter, with the violence men wreak upon Lucy (more specifically, upon Lucy’s body—“It is her body, and yet not it” [p. 260]), can leave no doubt that male mistrust of and impulse to punish female sexuality is one theme that receives sustained attention. Notice further the disgust and hatred in Seward’s words as he describes Lucy upon her return to her tomb: “I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape… At that moment the remnant of my love passed into hate and loathing; had she then to be killed, I could have done it with savage delight. As she looked, her eyes blazed with unholy light, and the face became wreathed with a voluptuous smile. Oh, God, how it made me shudder to see it!” (p. 257). Again, vampirism aside, the dynamic is this: Lucy is demonstrating wanton, animalistic (note the comparisons to cats and dogs elsewhere in the passage), “voluptuous,” undisguised female sexual drive—and the response of these Victorian males is to suppress it in an extremely violent way. Only when the stake has been driven through her can they look upon Lucy and once more see “Lucy as we had seen her in life” instead of “the foul Thing that we so dreaded and grown to hate” (p. 264).
As the male hero, of course, Van Helsing continues to be presented in a positive light. He explains his use of the Host—the consecrated wafer of bread that, in the Roman Catholic Mass, the priest is believed to transubstantiate into the actual body of Jesus—by claiming to have “an Indulgence” (p. 255); that is, a remission of temporal punishment for sin, as using a Host in this way would ordinarily be. But—quite aside from Wolf’s correct point, that indulgences cannot be granted for sins that have not yet been committed (p. 255 n3)—what is significant about his use of the Host is the way in which it further demonstrates this character’s exceptional nature. It calls to mind stories from the Bible of King David eating the showbread reserved in the Tabernacle for God (see 1 Samuel 21:1-7), or Jesus and his disciples plucking the heads of grain on the Sabbath (see Matthew 12:1-8). Like these biblical heroes/savior figures, Van Helsing is above ordinary restrictions and laws, a status not lost upon his followers: as Seward states, “we felt individually that in the presence of such earnest purpose as the Professor’s, a purpose which could thus use the to him most sacred of things, it was impossible to distrust” (p 255).