Dracula: Essay Q&A

1. Authors will often use the physical settings of their stories to hint at those stories’ themes. How does Stoker, through Harker’s journal entries at the novel’s beginning, alert readers to themes of importance in Dracula?
Harker’s descriptions of Translyvania paint the region as one of chaos and disorder, “one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe” (p. 3). Its inhabitants cannot even pinpoint Castle Dracula’s location with precision; and the whole region Harker calls “the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool” (p. 4)—an image that suggests, perhaps, the mythological Greek sea monster Charybdis. In addition to being presented as a land of chaos, Transylvania, as Harker sees it, is a liminal place: a place where the boundaries between two different worlds thins or even, at times, disappears. It is a “frontier… [that] has had a very stormy existence” (p. 6); and at one point on his trip to the Borgo Pass, Harker notes during the course of a gathering thunderstorm that the Carpathian mountains “had separated two atmospheres” (p. 14). Symbolically, Harker is leaving one world behind—the world of order, reason, and security—and is passing into another, a world of disorder, superstition, and danger. (Ironically, Harker resolves in his journal to ask his host, the Count, about the population’s superstitions regarding vampires, when the Count, of course, is himself the object of the people’s fear.) The human condition can be seen as an existential “limbo” between order and chaos in many areas—intellectually, psychologically, sexually—all of which will be explored as the novel progresses.
2. Lucy undergoes numerous blood transfusions during the course of the novel, beginning in Chapter 10. Aside from their utility to his plot, how do these transfusions serve to develop Stoker’s thematic concerns?
Lucy’s many blood transfusions are important as symbolic and thematic statements about blood, love, and life. As when Seward sucked the gangrene from Van Helsing’s bloody knife wound long ago (Ch. 9, p. 148), so now does the exchange or transfer of blood serve the ends of life rather than those of death. Although she remains passive and unaware in all instances, the transfusions of Holmwood’s and Seward’s blood into Lucy’s veins in order to prolong her life are the precise opposite of Dracula taking blood from her veins in order to prolong his own. This chapter affirms the traditional symbolism of blood as being to some extent life itself: for instance, Van Helsing praises Holmwood’s blood because Holmwood is “young and strong and of blood” (p. 160)—i.e., potent, vibrant, alive. Or again, during the first transfusion, “something like life seemed to come back to poor Lucy’s cheeks” (p. 160)—an almost-direct correlation of blood to the life-force. Later in the text, Lucy will be explicitly identified as one for whom many men are willing to open their veins (Ch. 12, p. 190), signifying that the transfusions represent the spirit of love and self-sacrifice that differentiates the living from the “un-dead.”
3. What larger, thematic significance does the wolf’s escape in Chapter 11 play to the novel as a whole?
The vampire “possesses” (not Stoker’s word, but apparently an apt description of what is happening) the wolf Berserker (so named for “[w]arriors of Norse mythology capable of assuming at will the shapes of bears or wolves,” Wolf, p. 40 n10) in order to gain access to Lucy. It is not insignificant, therefore, that the reporter who interviews Bilder is reminded by the returning wolf of “that father of all picture-wolves—Red Riding Hood’s quondam [Lat. ‘former’] friend, whilst moving her confidence in masquerade” (p. 180). The “Big Bad Wolf” of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale is an archetypal image of adulthood menacing childhood, and of violent sexuality preying on virginal innocence, dangerous masculinity impinging upon safe femininity. Additionally, the wolf is also often a symbol of liminality—as we have seen, a recurring theme in Stoker’s novel. Fairy tale expert Maria Tatar writes, “Wild animals, sinister men, and the hybrid figure of the werewolf were thought [in medieval times] to menace the safety of children with powerful immediacy…The wolf, with his predatory nature, is frequently seen as a metaphor for sexually seductive men, but he can also be read as a hybrid figure who crosses the boundary between wilderness and civilization” (Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2004; pp. 143, 145). Berserker, then, as an animal who straddles the line between wildness and domesticity, serves as a fitting “familiar” (associate, serving spirit—often especially associated in folklore with witches) for Dracula, who exists in a liminal limbo between death and life, order and chaos, reason and passion.
4. How is the often conflicted relationship between personal experience and external authority as bases for knowledge a central concern of Stoker’s novel?
Characters in Stoker’s novel must choose which actions to take or not take based on whether they believe what they (or those close to them) have experienced, or whether they trust instead received authority that such experiences cannot be possible. Dr. Seward probably best exemplifies this conflict. For example, he (in a fine psychological characterization by Stoker) undergoes a reaction any one might to Van Helsing’s revelations that Lucy is among the Un-dead: despite all the evidence, he refuses to embrace fully and immediately the truth. Or, rather, he interprets the evidence in ways that lead to more acceptable conclusions: e.g., “I am satisfied that Lucy’s body is not in that coffin, but that only proves one thing… That it is not there” (p. 243). Even after he comes close to accepting Van Helsing’s theory, after the proverbial good night’s sleep he writes, “Surely there must be some rational explanation of all these mysterious things” (p. 249). Such an understandable reluctance to come to grips with the nature of the threat facing Lucy (and, through her, others) lends an air of verisimilitude to Stoker’s tale. Who, after all, would be eager to believe such a thing about their beloved? Nevertheless, such belief—such faith, to hearken back to the language Van Helsing employed in the previous chapter—is necessary if resolution is to be achieved. In Van Helsing’s discourse to Seward regarding the difficulty of convincing Arthur to believe Lucy’s fate—“[I]f you, who saw the coffin empty last night… and yet of your own senses did not believe, how, then, can I expect Arthur, who know none of these things, to believe?” (p. 247)—Stoker may be gently and ironically parodying the words of Christ to “Doubting Thomas,” the disciple who refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he had seen his risen Lord for himself: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29, KJV). Seward has played the role of Van Helsing’s “doubting Thomas” (he even explicitly references his “old doubting frame of mind,” p. 250); now, Arthur is the one “who has not seen” and yet must believe. He must adopt the attitude modeled by Morris, who privileges personal trust in Van Helsing over intellectual understanding: “I don’t quite see his drift, but I swear he’s honest; and that’s good enough for me” (p. 250).
5. Like many Western authors, Stoker occasionally and often ironically evokes the text of the Bible to advance his thematic purposes. Choose one instance of biblical allusion in the novel and explain its larger significance.
One dramatic example of biblical allusion occurs in Chapter 21. As Leonard Wolf notes, Renfield’s encounter with Dracula on the night of October 1-2 bears more than a passing resemblance to the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11 and parallels). As Satan promises Jesus mastery over all the kingdoms of the world in return for worship of him, Dracula promises Renfield, “All these lives I will give you, ay, and many more and greater, through countless ages, if you will fall down and worship me!” (p. 334). This promise likely explains why Renfield, in the previous chapter, abandoned his practice of catching flies—and the vampire’s failure to make good on the promise during the day of October 2 also likely explains why Renfield, by the previous chapter’s end, has resorted to that same practice (Ch. 20; p. 326). The episode evokes, possibly, the traditional language used in Christian rites of initiation: “Do you renounce the Devil and all his empty promises?” Renfield does not—and, in the end, pays for that sin with his life. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, he does not die completely disgraced, for he did resolve to fight Dracula when, apparently, he realized that Mina Harker was in peril (even if the motive was not purely altruistic: “I don’t care for the pale people; I like them with lots of blood in them, and hers had all seemed to have run out,” p. 335). At the same time, of course, Renfield’s resistance proves to be too little, too late.