Dracula and Victorianism: A conservative or subversive novel?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 26 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Dracula and Victorianism
2.1 Sexuality
2.2 Gender roles
2.3 Religion
2.4 Science and Evolution

3 Summary and Conclusion

4 Literature
a) Primary Sources:
b) Sources on Victorianism:
c) Dracula

1 Introduction

The vampire myth seems never to loose its fascination. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles about the vampire Lestat, and Terry Pratchett’s clumsy and self-destructive ‘anti-bloodoholic’ vampires are only the most famous and best selling among those coming up in the ever growing branch of popular fantasy literature.

What is even more interesting is that vampirism is present even in the every day life of some communities. The Gothic Rock movement for example seems to insist on the so-called vampire fashion in clothing, as well as on white painted faces and blood-red rouged lips. In some internet book and film forums one even comes across people who claim to belong to the growing community of the so called ‘human living vampires’.

Despite all these fictional and non-fictional modern vampires, the cliché of a dark gentleman in evening attire, preferably chasing young ladies in negligees, is still the first association in people’s mind when it comes to mentioning vampires. This cliché apparently originated from the numberless films about the most famous of vampires – Count Dracula. Most of these film versions have kept only some superficial characteristics of Stoker’s novel, as in today’s popular culture Dracula has become something of a simple horror story.

The novel is yet certainly more than an entertaining read. It offers, among other things, an interesting study of the late Victorian society. As it is the aim of this paper to analyse Dracula as a product of its time, it focuses on some of the issues through which societies are generally defined. The topics chosen for the analysis of the novel in the context of late Victorianism are first of all sexuality and gender roles. The choice of searching for potential signs of sexuality in a Victorian novel is quite obvious, since Victorianism is generally identified with extreme prudishness and double standards. The issue of gender roles will concentrate mainly on women roles, since the second half of the 19th century is one of the most important periods in history of female emancipation. Furthermore, religion in Dracula certainly deserves closer attention, especially in the context of Victorian crisis of faith. The role of Catholicism in the book should also be analysed in context of its rising influence in Victorian England. Science will be first treated in its traditional role as the antipode to religion, and subsequently its application and role in the novel will be analysed, especially in the context of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

2 Dracula and Victorianism

2.1 Sexuality

Many popular vampire films, like Coppola’s and Craven’s Dracula versions or Queen of the Damned, based on a novel by Anne Rice, focus immensely on the sexuality of vampires. This may seem astonishing at first sight, for neither Stoker’s Count Dracula nor most of the modern fictional vampires in popular literature seem to need or do actually have sexual intercourse, since the aspects of lust and reproduction are covered by the drinking of blood. One can of course argue that such an open display of vampire sexuality is used due to the motto of ‘sex sells’. On the other hand one cannot deny that there is a lot of eroticism hidden between and behind the lines of Stoker’s novel as well.

Today’s non-scholar readers usually see very little, if anything, erotic in the novel, yet one has to bear in mind that it was written in the Victorian Age which is generally regarded as a period of extreme prudishness. Not only homosexuality, masturbation, premarital sexual intercourse or adultery were regarded as offensive or even criminal, but also physical passion expressed between husband and wife.[1]

Women were especially affected by these moral standards concerning sexuality, as they were supposed not to have any sexual desire at all, but to ‘suffer and be still’ during the intercourse.[2] The probably best example of this attitude is the frequently quoted advice which was allegedly given by Queen Victoria to one of her daughters before her wedding night: ‘Close your eyes and think of England’.

Except for her role as wife and mother, a married woman also had to function as a moral example and support her hardworking husband whose home and wife were his refuge from the world, and who therefore did not need a wife who would challenge him intellectually or even be sexually demanding.[3] On the contrary, wives were supposed to tame the sexual appetite of their husbands.[4] Men were regarded as constantly exposed to temptation into which they sometimes just had to give in, yet less by their own fault but more by the fault of the ‘seductress’.[5]

Since sexuality was repressed in public and even in marriage, the underground trade with sex and eroticism was flourishing. Brothels for every kind of sexual appetite were to be found in London and stories published in underground pornographic magazines and books were breaking every sexual taboo.[6]

Yet it seems that mainly members of aristocracy and gentry were prone to such ‘sexual excesses’ like visiting brothels and committing adultery, Queen Victoria’s son Albert being the most famous example[7]. The middle class defined itself against this upper class by strict observance of puritan rules and taking respectability for their highest value.[8] Such was at least the theory and what they displayed in public.

The narrators in Dracula and its author belong to the middle class. Interestingly, all these British middle class narrators are sexually ‘endangered’ by vampires - Lucy and Mina by Dracula, Jonathan by the vampire women in Transylvania and Dr. Seward by the ‘un-dead’ Lucy.

Lucy is the one who seems to be weakest of them, since she is tempted even before she meets Dracula, as is shown by her wish to marry three men or as many as they want her (66)[9]. The difference between her and Mina, who is the role model of an asexual Victorian lady, is observable from the very beginning. The way they are talking about their men tells much about the attitude each of them has to love and men. While Mina refers to Jonathan as ‘dear fellow’ (109), Lucy refers to Arthur more excitingly as to her ‘lover’ (68). Furthermore she is very flirtatious with all her three suitors, as she e.g. kisses Quincey and encourages Arthur to meet her alone even before they are engaged (66). Yet her ‘moral weakness’ is not shown only in these obvious signs of conscious behaviour. As Spencer remarks, Lucy’s habit of sleepwalking is a sign traditionally associated with sexual looseness.[10] In this subconscious state she walks, half naked by Victorian clothing standards, right to the unholy ground of the cemetery, the grave of a suicide, were she is an easy prey for Dracula.[11] In some way she helps Dracula to find her alone, exactly as she encouraged Arthur to do.

It is quite remarkable that Lucy does not feel sick after Dracula has bitten her for the first time. As Mina writes in her diary: ‘The adventure of the night does not seem to have harmed her, on the contrary; it has benefited her, for she looks better this morning than she has done for weeks.’(103). The fact that the vampire bite ‘benefits’ Lucy at first shows her contentment with the first fulfilment of her subconscious wish for sexuality which eventually leads to her death and destruction. The sin lies less in the act itself but more in enjoying it. What Stoker may be telling us here resembles the method of some Victorian doctors who used to keep young people from masturbating by telling them things which could be summed up as: ‘you may enjoy it now, but it will kill you in few months’.[12] That joy and danger lie close together is also shown in Lucy’s recalling of her experience on the churchyard. She says that there was something simultaneously ‘very sweet and very bitter’ (108) and that she heard singing in her ears (109). The latter reminds of the singing of the sirens in Odysseys travelling. It symbolises the irresistible sweet temptation on one hand, and, on the other, those life threatening monsters who wait for the tempted. That there must be something enjoyable in her meeting Dracula is also shown by Lucy’s try to leave the house again next night and her discontent when her attempt is prevented: ‘She seemed, even in her sleep, to be a little impatient at finding the door shut, and went back to bed under a sort of protest.’ (104)

Even after her life is seriously endangered, Lucy still subconsciously tries to put away things that are supposed to protect her from the vampire, as, e.g., she tries to get rid of the garlic around her neck while she sleeps. Her repressed sexuality seems to split her personality into ‘the traditional blond angel of the house […] and the creature of sexual appetites, the sleepwalker who accedes to violent penetration by the vampire’[13]. During the process of losing her mortal life, Lucy gradually loses her identity as a pure Victorian girl and changes into a demonic, sexually demanding Femme Fatale: ‘In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she opened her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft, voluptuous voice, such as I had never heard from her lips, ‘Arthur! Oh, my love, I am so glad you have come! Kiss me!’. The sexual demanding is even more clearly expressed later in the novel as the ‘un-dead’ Lucy tries to lure Arthur on the graveyard: ‘‘Come to me, Arthur. […] My arms are hungry for you.’’ Here, her transformation into an offensively sensual being is completed and therefore she has to be destroyed.

The scene of Arthur’s staking Lucy is frequently exerted by various critics. There is a wide range of interpretations, most of which imply necrophilia and sexual sadism. Leatherdale argues that ‘Stoker’s language dares to portray another Victorian unmentionable – the female orgasm. […] [Lucy’s] reactions to being ‘staked’ suggest the painful deflowering of a virgin, followed by her first and last orgasm.’[14] Craft argues in a similar way, that is the ‘novels real - and the woman’s only- climax’[15]. One can certainly contradict the ‘first’ and ‘only’ by claiming that Lucy’s description of a ‘sort of an agonizing feeling, as if I were in an earthquake’ (109), could also be taken for the description of an orgasm, yet a less obvious one. What is more important is that all interpretations share the general idea that the destruction of the ‘un-dead’ Lucy represents the destruction of the frightening female sexuality. As explained earlier in this chapter, this sexuality should be non-existent, at least when a decent and healthy Victorian lady is concerned. So it could be said that, by the staking, Lucy is ‘cured’ of an illness which turned her not only into an ‘un-dead’ but also a ‘un-woman’ in the eyes of her former friends.

The fear of the ‘un-woman’ is best expressed in the case of Jonathan Harker. As Dracula leaves for England, Jonathan dreads staying alone in the castle with the female vampires, whose womanhood he denies, as it does not match his own Victorian definition of it: ‘Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common. They are Devils of the Pit!’ (61). Still, his fascination with these ‘Devils’ is obvious when he first encounters them. The ambiguity of his feelings equals those of Lucy later in the novel, who describes her first encounter with Dracula as simultaneously ‘very sweet and very bitter’ (108). Harker describes the breath of the vampire girl as ‘honey sweet’ but with ‘bitter underlying’ and ‘bitter offensiveness’ (45). He feels ‘longing’ and ‘desire’ and ‘at the same time some deadly fear’ (45). Their ‘deliberate voluptuousness’ strikes him as ‘both thrilling and repulsive’ (45). One might argue that here again, as in the case of Lucy, the joy of sexual awakening is overshadowed by puritan rejection of sex as a sin. Leatherdale interprets the scene in a similar way: ‘To the Victorian mind, Harker’s anguish mirrors the suffocating repression that consumed his society. He is being offered […] instant sexual gratification, no strings attached […]. His culture, however, has conditioned him to wait until the marriage, and the matronly Mina is hardly the type of the woman to relieve these frustrations.’[16]. It is also obvious that Jonathan never shows any erotic reaction to his own wife but only to the vampire females[17]. This supports Leatherdales argument that the sense of recognition which Jonathan experiences by looking at the fair vampire girl (45) is not connected to Lucy, as many critics have expressed, but that ‘he sees a fantasy view of Mina: not as she is, but how he subconsciously wishes her to become.’[18] Yet in the real world, he has to deny this desire, since he is bound to destroy his wife if this wish ever comes true.

Another example of the split between Jonathan’s conscious and unconscious attitude to sexuality is given earlier in text, when he decides to sleep in a certain room in the castle because he feels some presence of the protecting and harmless matrimony there: ‘I determined […] to sleep here, where, of old, ladies had sat and sung and lived sweet lives whilst their gentle breasts were sad for their menfolk away in the midst of remorseless wars.’ (44) Ironically, this is the very room where he meets the danger of the life threatening sexuality, represented by the vampire ladies. It seems that he consciously prefers the illusion of homely matrimony when he is awake, yet as soon as he falls asleep, he subconsciously yields to the temptation of a forbidden and dangerous ‘ménage a trois’.[19]

It is remarkable that Jonathan does not offer any resistance whatsoever to the seductresses, but just lays back and waits for something to happen. He does not escape the temptation by his own efforts, but is ‘saved’ by the Count. Here again, the double standard of sexuality is applied. Both, Lucy and Jonathan are engaged and, if vampires are regarded as equal to sexuality, both of them commit the crimes of premarital intercourse and adultery. But Lucy is staked to death because she did not and could not resist Dracula, while Jonathan is punished comparatively mildly as he suffers only from a brain fever[20], which he eventually survives.

A similar example of double standards is to be found in the scene when Mina refers to the scar left on her forehead by the holy wafer as ‘this mark of shame’(316). She has not done anything, at least not voluntary, to be ashamed of. Although Spencer argues that the shame is a result of her secret desire for Dracula[21], it has to be taken into account that a woman who was seduced, or even raped, was regarded as sinful. According to Victorian moral standards and Christian doctrines, it is always the woman who in some way provokes the man to abuse her.

As many critics have remarked, the scene in which Dracula forces Mina to drink his blood has strong sexual overtones. Still, one hesitates to call it a rape. Although Mina allows Dracula to approach her only because he threatens to kill Jonathan otherwise, even she has to admit that she did not want to hinder him, once he has touched her (306). So Dracula seems to be more a seducer than a rapist, which makes him less horrible for modern readers, but not for some of Stoker’s contemporaries. Spencer explains that Victorians regarded sexual desire as much more dangerous than sexual activity itself.[22] That may explain why the men are so eager to destroy Dracula. A woman raped stays under they control, but a seduced woman might switch her loyalties and affinities[23]. Dracula’s is therefore a grave threat to the masculinity of the mortal men, who are unable to compete with his seductive powers. Dracula himself mocks them about this. Through Mina, he gives them the quizzical advice to ‘keep their energies for use closer to home’(306), which might imply that they would do better to prove their masculinity in marriage beds instead of proving it by hunting him, their rival. Yet it is not only the Count who threatens the masculinity of his pursuers, as will be shown in the next chapter.


[1] cp. Gelfert, Hans – Dieter: Kleine Kulturgeschichte Großbritanniens. Von Stonehenge bis zum Millennium Dome. Beck. München. 1999. S. 257. (In the following referred to as : Gelfert + page)

[2] s. and cp. Craft, Christopher: ‚ Kiss me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. 1984. In: Dracula. New Casebooks. Ed. by Glennis Byron. Macmillan Press Ltd. London. 1999. P. 93 -118. Here referring to P. 95. (In the following referred to as Craft + page.)

[3] cp. Gelfert. P. 253

[4] cp. Spencer, Katheleen L .: Purity and Danger: Dracula , the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis. In: EHL, 59:1. 1992. P. 197-225. Here referring to P. 216 (In the following referred to as: Spencer + page)

[5] cp. Gelfert. P. 253 and Tobias P. 133

[6] cp. Tobias, Rolf: Viktorianisches Lesebuch. Sexualität und Erotik in einem prüden Zeitalter. Bastei. Bergisch Gladbach. 1985 . P. 122. and P. 232ff. (In the following referred to as: Tobias + page)

[7] cp.Tobias. P. 38.ff

[8] cp. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Ed. by Kenneth O. Morgan. Oxford University Press. 1984. P. 492.

[9] All page references according to: Stoker, Bram: Dracula. Penguin Classics. Revised edition with new appendices and preface. London. 2003

[10] cp. Spencer. P. 210

[11] cp. Spencer. P. 210. Leatherdale argues in a similar way, that sleepwalking was seen as ‘means of fulfilling fantasies of dreams’. P. 153

[12] cp. Tobias. P. 61

[13] s. Spencer. P. 211

[14] s. Leatherdale, Clive: Dracula . The Novel and the Legend. Third revised edition. Desert Island Books Ltd. Westcliff on the Sea. 2001. P. 165. (In the following referred to as: Leatherdale + page)

[15] s. Craft. 107.

[16] s. Leatherdale. P. 161.

[17] A similar observation is to be found in Spencer. P. 216.

[18] s. Leatherdale. P. 162.

[19] One feels reminded of a ‘respectable’ Victorian gentlemen who keeps his respectable wife sitting at home and who rages against the immorality in public, but is visiting brothels at night to satisfy his sexual fantasies with which he could impossibly approach his innocent, asexual wife. In this context one could even argue that the three vampire seductresses represent another danger of extramarital sex – venereal diseases like tripper or syphilis, which were spreading in the brothels. The idea is especially interesting since Stoker himself probably, died of syphilis.

[20] Spencer argues that Jonathan’s brain fever is a kind of (self-) punishment for his sexual desire. P.216

[21] cp. Spencer. P.217

[22] cp. Spencer. P.217

[23] cp. Stevenson, John Allen : A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality in Dracula. In: PMLA. 103/2. 1988. P. 139-149. On page 147, Stevenson develops a similar argument. He claims that Dracula practices ‘imperialism of seduction’ and that even if Dracula approaches Lucy and Mina by violence at first, at the end they would be converts who would be leagued with him against his enemies.


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ISBN (Book)
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RWTH Aachen University – Institut für Anglistik
Vampires Vampire Victorianism Sexuality Science Religion Dracula Abraham Stoker Bram Stoker Viktorianismus




Title: Dracula and Victorianism: A conservative or subversive novel?