Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

18 Mar 2011

(Novel) Dracula by: Bram Stoker

(Reaction) Dracula and the Victorian Era by: Michelle Rose Solano

The Victorian Era represented 19th century ideals such as devotion to family life, public and private responsibility, and above all, obedience to the law. These values were shown by the monarch herself; Queen Victoria led by example. It is not new to note that this conservative society found sex, and topics that are in any way related to sex, a taboo. Ironically, it is also in this era that prostitution not only became more rampant but most profitable as well. What men cannot do in polite society, they obviously do elsewhere. The turn of the century was not only a time of change and an age for industrialization; it was also an era of repression.

Victorian Era as an age of repression

It was in this age that members of the female gender were seen as a lady - or not. To be a lady requires purity, chastity, innocence and breeding. One must follow the rules and decorum set by polite society. Anybody who goes beyond these borders were not considered ladies. There was no middle ground. You were either a virgin or a whore. And these values were clearly shown in the female characters of the novel Dracula. Wilhemina Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra are the ladies of the story. Godly and pure, it is their virtues that the men seek to defend from the corruption of Dracula.

Juxtapose Lucy and Mina with the three Brides of Dracula who seduced Jonathan Harker in Dracula's castle. These women were epitomes of monster women, for real women in Victorian society are not allowed to display such voluptuousness and wantonness as described by this scene:

The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth... I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck... I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited - waited with beating heart.

All throughout the book, no other scene can come close to the sensuality that Jonathan encountered with these women. His scenes with his own wife Mina, remain innocent and platonic - proper, as Victorian society would call it. This exhibits the belief that women of virtue cannot feel desire nor become objects of desire. Mina, being a proper woman, is always held at arms length by her own husband, because that is the way things are and should always be. Women such as the Brides are therefore, not real women, but witches or demons, for their unnatural sensuality. In the same way, Dracula, who has turned an innocent, proper girl like Lucy into a sexual vixen, is seen as not a man but the Devil himself.

Lucy's transformation was not immediately seen as a product of Dracula's corruption. In the beginning they treated her as if she was suffering from a disease, using Dr. John Seward's modern science and knowledge of blood diseases. But it soon became apparent to Dr. Seward that what he was witnessing was beyond his realm of expertise. Like Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood, Seward was in love with Lucy and wanted to save her by all means possible. Hence, he called upon Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, M.D., D.Ph., D.Litt., etc.

The first mention of Van Helsing in the story, with the string of letters attached to his name, is enough to show that he is not a regular modern Victorian like Harker or Seward or Holmwood. These strapping young men have tried and failed to save Lucy. Though at the beginning Holmwood, the English lord, showed some resistance to putting Lucy in the care of an eccentric Dutch doctor who was an expert in everything under the sun, he and all of them came to admit that watching the corruption of Lucy before their very eyes was too much to handle and outside the realm of their modern sensibilities.

Victorian Era as an age of industrialization

The underlying belief of Victorian society was in progress-that things were better than ever before and could be made better still. To Victorian men like Arthur Holmwood, an English lord with all the resources under his disposal, there is no problem that cannot be solved by the new advances in science and industry discovered during their times. They believe themselves to be near the peak of modernity. In Dracula, the character of the Count represents an ancient evil that has come back to haunt the new and modern world. Jonathan Harker voiced out his fears when he wrote in his journal: Here I am, sitting at a little oak table... and writing in my diary in shorthand all that has happened since I closed it last. It is nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere modernity cannot kill.

It is easy to find what a certain culture values simply by knowing what it is they fear. The fear that despite all their knowledge and discoveries will leave them vulnerable still shows the hole that modernity and industrialization cannot fill in the sensibilities of the period.

Like a chain reaction, the same aforementioned advances in science led to questions regarding religious beliefs and traditions. It was during these years that the theory of evolution was formulated by Charles Darwin. The historical study of the Bible also created an impact among intellectuals in Victorian society. People began to consider the conflict between religious faith and what is seen as scientific truth.

In the character of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, we will find equilibrium between the two worlds. A noted man of science (his name is followed by a string of letters such as M.D., D.Ph., D.Litt., etc.) as well as the occult, Van Helsing looked into the matter of Lucy's illness using knowledge both in the realm of the scientific and the supernatural. More than Jonathan Harker, the main protagonist, and Lucy's suitors and defenders - Quincy Morris, the Texan; Arthur Holmwood, the English lord; and John Seward, the doctor - Van Helsing comes out as the hero of the novel because of his expertise and what he represents, a harmony between the ancient and the modern. Until today, the name Van Helsing is as famous as Dracula for his dynamism and mostly because he is a kick-ass old man who would probably be just as home in 2011 London as he is in 1890s England.

Bram Stoker's message is clear: modern man must not be so arrogant to believe only in his science and philosophy, do not discount the past. The embodiment of this is Dr. Van Helsing, who, although he has mastered the modern sciences, still looks to the ancient world for answers.

A single line encapsulates this thought in the 1992 movie adaptation. Van Helsing, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins is seen presenting a bat in one of his lectures and telling his class that, Civilization, and syphilization, have advanced together. Man, though they may reach the pinnacle of modernity still cannot leave behind his primitive urges. Many critics believe that Bram Stoker used vampirism as a metaphor for syphilis and other venereal diseases rampant in Victorian society. Was he trying to warn his peers of the dangers of succumbing to man's ancient desires or telling them to learn from it and master it, just as Van Helsing has?

Review:

Anyone who has seen Dracula in the movie house, may it be the Gary Oldman version, the Christopher Lee version or the Bela Lugosi version, needs to read the original novel. This much loved novel has never been out of print and has been re-written into movies, musicals and plays all over the world. Bram Stoker's Dracula is not the first vampire novel but it may seem that way to many because its predecessors (like Varney the Vampire or Feast of Blood) did not share the same acclaimed success.

The whole story is uniquely told from the point of view of the main characters. Though told in old Victorian English, it will only take a few pages before the reader becomes accustomed to the prose. Reading becomes fluid and soon you will be hearing the voices of Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, John Seward and Abraham Van Helsing narrating in their own distinct styles in your head. The title character, Dracula, remains a mystery because he is seen throughout the novel from the eyes of the other characters. Nobody catches a glimpse of what goes on inside his head. Hence, the novel remains as one of the standards of Gothic literature for its aura of mystery and suspense, fear and romance.

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