The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Dracula (1897)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Dracula was written by Bram Stoker. Stoker (1847-1912) was a friend of the famous actor Henry Irving and the actor-manager of his theater for almost twenty years. Stoker also wrote a variety of novels, including the twisted and misogynistic Lair of the White Worm (1911), which may have been written while Stoker was suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis. But Stoker remains best-known, and will likely always be best-known, for Dracula. This wasn’t always the case. Dracula was initially only a modest success, and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, apocryphally written in competition with Stoker, sold far better. But Dracula, helped by media portrayals of the novel as well as by the novel’s potent brew of symbolism, sex, and horror, eclipsed The Beetle within two decades and is now as immortal as the undead Count himself.

In 1893 Count Vlad Tepes Dracula, a Transylvanian nobleman, decides to move from his ancestral castle near the Borgo Pass, in Transylvania, to London. After sufficient research he engages an English law firm to buy him properties in and around London. The firm sends one of its clerks, Jonathan Harker, to Castle Dracula to close the deal. Harker initially sees nothing unusual about the Count, but soon becomes alarmed at some of his more unusual behaviors. Harker eventually realizes that his life is in danger, but he is a prisoner in the Castle and can do nothing. After several frightening moments, including the startling sight of Dracula crawling head first down the castle’s walls, and an erotically charged attack by three vampire women, Harker watches Dracula depart for England and then makes his own escape attempt. Back in England Harker’s fiancée Mina Murray visits her best friend Lucy Westenra, meets Lucy’s fiancé Arthur Holmwood, and sees a ship run aground near them, its crew dead and the only living creature on board a gray wolf-like dog, which soon escapes into the countryside.

Soon after that the bad things start occurring. Lucy begins sleepwalking, and Mina, following her one night, sees her in a churchyard, a tall, thin man bent over her. Lucy remembers nothing, but begins deteriorating physically, so much so that Mina is forced to ask for help from Doctor Seward, one of Lucy’s rejected suitors. Lucy improves but then grows worse, and Doctor Seward asks for help from his old friend and tutor Doctor Abraham Van Helsing. Van Helsing discovers two bite marks on Lucy’s neck and immediately recognizes Lucy’s problem. He orders blood transfusions for her, first from her fiancé and later from the other men protecting her and hangs garlic around her. Her condition improves, but thanks to Doctor Seward’s sloppiness and then to the ignorance of Lucy’s mother, Dracula is able to reach her again, and eventually she is drained so badly she dies. Harker returns to England, having escaped from the castle but becoming sick for some months and requiring lengthy care. Soon after, some children in the neighborhood are attacked by the “bloofer lady,” and Van Helsing is forced to reveal to Holmwood, Seward, Harker, and Quincey Morris, an American friend of the three, that he believes Lucy was victimized by a vampire and became one in turn. Van Helsing reveals that the only way to save Lucy’s soul is to exhume her corpse, drive a stake through its heart, cut off its head, and stuff its mouth with garlic. Doctor Seward is horrified, but a midnight investigation of Lucy’s tomb reveals that she is not there, and when daylight comes Lucy returns to the tomb, now clearly a vampire, and the group destroys her.

Dracula, a bit piqued, then preys on Mina, drinking her blood and, worse still, making her drink his blood in another erotically charged scene. The men turn their sites on the Count. They first destroy the boxes of Transylvanian earth which he brought with him from home and which he needs to sleep in. Dracula decides that London is too much trouble and leaves by sea for Transylvania. The group follows him, using Mina as a spy—because she has fed on Dracula’s blood, she has a link to him, and when put in a trance she sees what he sees. Van Helsing and the men pursue Dracula to Transylvania, and after a fight with his Romany followers they succeed in killing him. The novel ends with an epilogue set seven years later in which Mina and Jonathan have a young son who they have named after Quincey, who died while fighting Dracula.

Dracula is in those class of novels, with The Count of Monte Cristo and Frankenstein, which are powerful and enjoyable, even today, while also being flawed. Dracula is not Art or Literature, but it is a work of symbolism and terror whose potency has grown, not diminished, in the century since its inception.

Stoker was not a particularly good writer. He was sloppy and hasty, his Victorian sensibilities overwhelmed his storytelling sensibilities, and he overindulged in the bathos common to the late Victorians. But even with its many flaws Dracula is still a work of great power, and a seminal one in the horror genre. Even readers jaded by horrors Stoker couldn’t imagine can still glory in the horripilation Dracula is capable of. And Stoker is capable of some memorable lines as well as some surprisingly lyrical ones.

Dracula shares certain elements in common with the Gothics, including beautiful young women (Lucy and Mina) threatened with ravishment (both physical and spiritual) and pursued (through subterranean corridors or crumbling ruins in the Gothics, through more prosaic quarters in Dracula) by a dreadful, superhumanly evil being. And as in the Gothics, sexuality and its threat is a central, if submerged, theme. But the sexual symbolism is far more common and overt in Dracula than in nearly all Gothics. Whether Stoker knew it or not–and there are moments, certainly in some of Van Helsing’s speeches, that hint at a greater understanding on Stoker’s part of what he was writing than is commonly assumed–Dracula is sodden with sexuality and with a commingling and equivalence of blood and sex. The “languorous ecstasy” which Jonathan Harker feels as he is about to be penetrated by the fangs of one of the vampire women and then sucked by her; the vampires’ repeated use of “kiss” in the place of “bloodsucking;” the post-coital mood the single, flirtatious Lucy feels after Dracula’s visit versus the guilt and depression the married Mina feels after a similar visit; the desire Mina feels for Dracula’s “kiss;” the vampiric Lucy’s aggressive and openly expressed desire (“my arms are hungry for you”) for Arthur; the almost pornographic scene of Mina feeding on Dracula’s blood, her face pressed against his naked breast; the open acknowledgment and articulation that Mina, having taken the bodily fluids (the blood) of several men (transfusions to replace the blood Dracula has taken), is the “bride,” not just of Jonathan, her husband, but also of Dracula, Arthur, Quincy, Van Helsing, and John Seward; the transformation in death of the proper (if flirtatious) Lucy to the carnal and “voluptuous” vampire; and the phallic weaponry–stakes and knives--of the men. Dracula was not the first vampire story to link vampirism with sexuality—Gautier managed that sixty years earlier with Clarimonde,” and the linkage had become a tradition in vampire stories since—but Dracula achieved it more completely than any vampire story or novel before it.

The apex of the novel’s eroticism comes in the first four chapters, with the appearance of the vampire brides and their near-attack on Jonathan Harker. These chapters are also the novel’s high point of horror. The frightening atmosphere is sustained with images like the creepy visual of Dracula crawling head first down the castle wall, and with atrocities like Dracula giving a baby to the vampire brides in the place of Harker. The shift to London changes the atmosphere, and while there are many moments of terror later in the novel they do not reach the peak of the first four chapters.

But while the transition to England and to the heavy use of documents–memos, diaries, letters–to narrate events does interrupt the novel’s momentum, they are still effective, even if obtrusive, in establishing character and building suspense. The novel could do with some tightening, the elision of superfluous detail, and the excision of the more bathetic and overindulgent prose. The surfeit of bathos, the “slough of feeling,” can make Victorian novels such as Dracula a chore to read. Additionally, there are a few too many instances of Stoker’s prejudices influencing the text. Class prejudices are common, with English working classes figures inviting derision. Stoker’s concerns for England’s social purity appears in the novel’s obsession with sex and with the invasion of England by a sexually dangerous foreigner; Dracula is a later version of the invasion novel genre (see: Future War) as well as an example of what Stephen D. Arata calls “reverse colonization:”

Versions of this story recur with remarkable frequency in both fiction and nonfiction texts throughout the last decades of the century. In whatever guise, this narrative expresses both fear and guilt. The fear is that what has been represented as the “civilized” world is on the point of being colonized by “primitive” forces. These forces can originate outside the civilized world¼or they can inhere in the civilized itself¼fantasies of reverse colonization are particularly prevalent in late-Victorian popular fiction¼in each case, a terrifying reversal has occurred: the colonizer finds himself in the position of the colonized, the exploiter becomes exploited, the victimizer victimized. Such fears are linked to a perceived decline—racial, moral, spiritual—which makes the nation vulnerable to attack from more vigorous, “primitive” peoples.1 

Similarly, Dracula’s identity as a Transylvanian—an Asian rather than a European in the eyes of Stoker’s audience—provides the novel with a Yellow Peril subtext to go along with its Fin-de-Siècle Unease.

Another aspect of Dracula’s Eastern nature was worrisome to Victorian audiences:

Dracula belongs to a character-type that I will define as the “demi-immortal Oriental.” This character type began appearing with increasing frequency in the early nineteenth century for a range of specific historical reasons stemming from the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and Romanticism…in the character of the demi-immortal Oriental vitalism came to signify a type of eternal life in competition with the traditional Judeo-Christian afterlife, which rendered it necessarily damnable…two of the monsters that late-Victorian ideologies wanted to disavow were any form of immortality other than the traditional Christian one and any form of economics other than Adam Smith’s naturally free circulation and exchange. Two monstrous alternatives—demi-immortality and an archaic economy of gold and land—are wedded in/as Dracula.2 

The novel is full of sexism, misogyny, and condescension to women, although it is Mina who is most often responsible for helping the men, and they who are responsible for her being victimized. Stoker has Mina mouth some contemptuous lines for the New Woman, although Mina is herself a New Woman in all but name. (She is independent, intelligent, and demurely assertive, as well as a working woman—she is an assistant schoolmistress at the beginning of the novel).

And then there is Dracula. Curiously, for all his importance to the novel the reader sees relatively little of his personality. He is offstage for most of the novel, which heightens the suspense and increases the sense of danger but does not allow the reader the opportunity to get to know him. Dracula is malevolent and, as seen in the first few chapters, he is proud, not just of himself but of his land and his people. He is an ardent patriot and vocal about his people’s achievements. But little else is seen of his personality. He speaks to Harker of his loneliness, but the reader cannot know how truthful he is being. Is the Count simply practicing his social skills on Harker? Mina asks the others to feel for Dracula, to sympathize with him, but are these her sentiments, or is Dracula speaking through her? Later in the novel the reader sees how contemptuous Dracula is of humans, but Stoker shows the reader little else about him. The film versions of Dracula change not just the novel’s plot but also the Count’s character, adding the romantic anti-hero characterization, adding restrictions to his powers (the literary Dracula can walk about during the day and assume the guise of another human, as he does in the novel’s beginning, when he turns into the horseman who escorts Harker to Castle Dracula) that readers often project film representations of the Count on to the literary version.

Dracula is a classic. Not in the sense of the literary canon, but rather as a work which retains its power and is read for pleasure a century after its inception and will likely stay that way for at least another century. Those who have never read it should, because despite its flaws it still entertains and even at points frightens.

Recommended Edition

Print: Bram Stoker and Leslie S. Klinger, The New Annotated Dracula. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.



1 Stephen D. Arata, “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization,” Victorian Studies 33, no. 4 (Summer, 1990): 623.

2 J. Jeffrey Franklin, “The Economics of Immortality: The Demi-Immortal Oriental, Enlightenment Vitalism, and Political Economy in Dracula,” Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 76 (Autumn 2012): 127.