Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Consequences of Modernity
Early in the novel, as Harker becomes uncomfortable with his lodgings and his host at Castle Dracula, he notes that “unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill.” Here, Harker voices one of the central concerns of the Victorian era. The end of the nineteenth century brought drastic developments that forced English society to question the systems of belief that had governed it for centuries. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, called the validity of long-held sacred religious doctrines into question. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution brought profound economic and social change to the previously agrarian England.
Though Stoker begins his novel in a ruined castle—a traditional Gothic setting—he soon moves the action to Victorian London, where the advancements of modernity are largely responsible for the ease with which the count preys upon English society. When Lucy falls victim to Dracula’s spell, neither Mina nor Dr. Seward—both devotees of modern advancements—are equipped even to guess at the cause of Lucy’s predicament. Only Van Helsing, whose facility with modern medical techniques is tempered with open-mindedness about ancient legends and non-Western folk remedies, comes close to understanding Lucy’s affliction.
In Chapter XVII, when Van Helsing warns Seward that “to rid the earth of this terrible monster we must have all the knowledge and all the help which we can get,” he literally means all the knowledge. Van Helsing works not only to understand modern Western methods, but to incorporate the ancient and foreign schools of thought that the modern West dismisses. “It is the fault of our science,” he says, “that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Here, Van Helsing points to the dire consequences of subscribing only to contemporary currents of thought. Without an understanding of history—indeed, without different understandings of history—the world is left terribly vulnerable when history inevitably repeats itself.
The Threat of Female Sexual Expression
Most critics agree that Dracula is, as much as anything else, a novel that indulges the Victorian male imagination, particularly regarding the topic of female sexuality. In Victorian England, women’s sexual behavior was dictated by society’s extremely rigid expectations. A Victorian woman effectively had only two options: she was either a virgin—a model of purity and innocence—or else she was a wife and mother. If she was neither of these, she was considered a whore, and thus of no consequence to society.
By the time Dracula lands in England and begins to work his evil magic on Lucy Westenra, we understand that the impending battle between good and evil will hinge upon female sexuality. Both Lucy and Mina are less like real people than two-dimensional embodiments of virtues that have, over the ages, been coded as female. Both women are chaste, pure, innocent of the world’s evils, and devoted to their men. But Dracula threatens to turn the two women into their opposites, into women noted for their voluptuousness—a word Stoker turns to again and again—and unapologetically open sexual desire.
Dracula succeeds in transforming Lucy, and once she becomes a raving vampire vixen, Van Helsing’s men see no other option than to destroy her, in order to return her to a purer, more socially respectable state. After Lucy’s transformation, the men keep a careful eye on Mina, worried they will lose yet another model of Victorian womanhood to the dark side. The men are so intensely invested in the women’s sexual behavior because they are afraid of associating with the socially scorned. In fact, the men fear for nothing less than their own safety. Late in the novel, Dracula mocks Van Helsing’s crew, saying, “Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine.” Here, the count voices a male fantasy that has existed since Adam and Eve were turned out of Eden: namely, that women’s ungovernable desires leave men poised for a costly fall from grace.
The Promise of Christian Salvation
The folk legends and traditions Van Helsing draws upon suggest that the most effective weapons in combating supernatural evil are symbols of unearthly good. Indeed, in the fight against Dracula, these symbols of good take the form of the icons of Christian faith, such as the crucifix. The novel is so invested in the strength and power of these Christian symbols that it reads, at times, like a propagandistic Christian promise of salvation.
Dracula, practically as old as religion itself, stands as a satanic figure, most obviously in his appearance—pointed ears, fangs, and flaming eyes—but also in his consumption of blood. Dracula’s bloodthirstiness is a perversion of Christian ritual, as it extends his physical life but cuts him off from any form of spiritual existence. Those who fall under the count’s spell, including Lucy Westenra and the three “weird sisters,” find themselves cursed with physical life that is eternal but soulless. Stoker takes pains to emphasize the consequences of these women’s destruction.
Though they have preyed on helpless children and have sought to bring others into their awful brood, each of the women meets a death that conforms to the Christian promise of salvation. The undead Lucy, for instance, is transformed by her second death into a vision of “unequalled sweetness and purity,” and her soul is returned to her, as is a “holy calm” that “was to reign for ever.” Even the face of Dracula himself assumes “a look of peace, such as [Mina] never could have imagined might have rested there.” Stoker presents a particularly liberal vision of salvation in his implication that the saved need not necessarily be believers. In Dracula, all of the dead are granted the unparalleled peace of salvation—only the “Un-Dead” are barred from it.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Blood functions in many ways in the novel. Its first mention, in Chapter III, comes when the count tells Harker that “blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonorable peace; and the -glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.” The count proudly recounts his family history, relating blood to one’s ancestry—to the “great races” that have, in Dracula’s view, withered. The count foretells the coming of a war between lineages: between the East and the West, the ancient and the modern, and the evil and the good.
Later, the depictions of Dracula and his minions feeding on blood suggest the exchange of bodily fluids associated with sexual intercourse: Lucy is “drained” to the point of nearly passing out after the count penetrates her. The vampires’ drinking of blood echoes the Christian rite of Communion, but in a perverted sense. Rather than gain eternal spiritual life by consuming wine that has been transformed into Christ’s blood, Dracula drinks actual human blood in order to extend his physical—but quite soulless—life. The importance of blood in Christian mythology elevates the battle between Van Helsing’s warriors and the count to the significance of a holy war or crusade.
Science and Superstition
We notice the stamp of modernity almost immediately when the focus of the novel shifts to England. Dr. Seward records his diary on a phonograph, Mina Murray practices typewriting on a newfangled machine, and so on. Indeed, the whole of England seems willing to walk into a future of progress and advancement. While the peasants of Transylvania busily bless one another against the evil eye at their roadside shrines, Mr. Swales, the poor Englishman whom Lucy and Mina meet in the Whitby cemetery, has no patience for such unfounded superstitions as ghosts and monsters. The threat Dracula poses to London hinges, in large part, on the advance of modernity. Advances in science have caused the English to dismiss the reality of the very superstitions, such as Dracula, that seek to undo their society. Van Helsing bridges this divide: equipped with the unique knowledge of both the East and the West, he represents the best hope of understanding the incomprehensible and ridding the world of evil.
The icons of Christian, and particularly Catholic, worship appear throughout the novel with great frequency. In the early chapters, the peasants of Eastern Europe offer Jonathan Harker crucifixes to steel him against the malevolence that awaits him. Later, Van Helsing arrives armed with crosses and Communion wafers. The frequency with which Stoker returns to these images frames Van Helsing’s mission as an explicitly religious one. He is, as he says near the end of the novel, nothing less than a “minister of God’s own wish.”
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Weird Sisters
The three beautiful vampires Harker encounters in Dracula’s castle are both his dream and his nightmare—indeed, they embody both the dream and the nightmare of the Victorian male imagination in general. The sisters represent what the Victorian ideal stipulates women should not be—voluptuous and sexually aggressive—thus making their beauty both a promise of sexual fulfillment and a curse. These women offer Harker more sexual gratification in two paragraphs than his fiancée Mina does during the course of the entire novel. However, this sexual proficiency threatens to undermine the foundations of a male-dominated society by compromising men’s ability to reason and maintain control. For this reason, the sexually aggressive women in the novel must be destroyed.
The Stake Driven Through Lucy’s Heart
Arthur Holmwood buries a stake deep in Lucy’s heart in order to kill the demon she has become and to return her to the state of purity and innocence he so values. The language with which Stoker describes this violent act is unmistakably sexual, and the stake is an unambiguous symbol for the penis. In this way, it is fitting that the blow comes from Lucy’s fiancé, Arthur Holmwood: Lucy is being punished not only for being a vampire, but also for being available to the vampire’s seduction—Dracula, we recall, only has the power to attack willing victims. When Holmwood slays the demonic Lucy, he returns her to the role of a legitimate, monogamous lover, which reinvests his fiancée with her initial Victorian virtue.
The Czarina Catherine
The Czarina Catherine is the name of the ship in which Dracula flees England and journeys back to his homeland. The name of ship is taken from the Russian empress who was notorious for her -promiscuity. This reference is particularly suggestive of the threat that hangs over Mina Harker’s head: should Van Helsing and his men fail, she will be transformed into the same creature of appetites as Lucy.
by Somethingisbrokehere, January 08, 2013
Please let me state again: Finding anything sexual about Lucy's death and stating it as "unambiguous" that stake is a reference to a penis is absurd. Have you even read the book? I've read the book and I understand it well. Now here is a question: If a stake really meant penis than what did it offer in the books overall meaning? That a bunch of Christians are killing the undead by nailing their penises through people's hearts? Really? That is exactly what your notes are saying and it is embarrassing to think that someone ACTUALLY BELIEVES TH... Read more→
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by Mysticmidget, January 10, 2013
I agree with "somethingisbrokehere". I read through this summary to aid in an essay about this book and was positively shocked...though it gave me plenty of giggles! Dracula has many things about it which make it partly comedy to me, though of course it's only due to the change of the times. The thought of Bram Stoker reading this site's take on his novel is...oh, do try it, it is HILARIOUS. Psychoanalyzing can be taken too far, and I would ask that this site DOES NOT CHANGE THEIR TAKE ON LUCY'S FINAL DEATH, because in the future I might lik
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by Somethingisbrokehere, February 05, 2013
Okay I should've gone into detail more, but the whole penis idea doesn't fit into the plot and doesn't make sense. First of all from a Christian perspective (Mr. Stoker was Protestant) that would be considered an evil thing to do. Since they are undead that would similar to necrophilia which is most definitely unChristian and would go against everything the book is talking about. Also remember, this book was written in 1897 which really wasn't that long ago. The whole idea of stakes being penises doesn't make sense as cleansing (I don't thin
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