Though Stoker wrote Dracula well after the heyday of the Gothic novel—the period from approximately 1760 to 1820—the novel draws on many conventions of the genre, especially in these opening chapters. Conceived primarily as bloodcurdling tales of horror, Gothic novels tend to feature strong supernatural elements juxtaposed with familiar backdrops: dark and stormy nights, ruined castles riddled with secret passages, and forces of unlikely good pitted against those of unimaginable evil. Stoker echoes these conventions in this chapter, as the frantic superstitions of the Carpathian peasants, the cold and desolate mountain pass, and Harker’s disorienting and threatening ride to Dracula’s castle combine to create a mood of doom and dread.
As contemporary readers, we may find the setting vaguely reminiscent of Halloween, but Stoker’s descriptions in fact reveal a great deal about nineteenth-century British stereotypes of Eastern Europe. As Harker approaches Dracula’s castle, he notes that his trip has been “so strange and uncanny that a dreadful fear came upon [him].” Harker’s sense of dread illustrates his inability to comprehend the superstitions of the Carpathian peasants.
Indeed, as an Englishman who “visits the British Museum” in an attempt to understand the lands and customs of Transylvania, Harker emerges as a model of Victorian reason, a clear product of turn-of-the-century England. Harker’s education, as well as his Western sense of progress and propriety, disables him from making sense of such rustic traditions as “the evil eye.” To a man of Harker’s position and education, the strange sights he witnesses en route to the castle strike him as rare curiosities or dreams. He already begins doubting the reality of his experience: “I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming. . . .” Harker’s inability to accept what is unknown, irrational, and unprovable is echoed by his English and American compatriots later in the novel. Harker’s experience suggests that the foundations of Western civilization—reason, scientific advancement, and economic domination—are threatened by the alternative knowledge that they presume to have surpassed. Western empirical knowledge is vulnerable because it has summarily dismissed foreign ways of thinking and, in doing so, has failed to recognize the power of such alternative modes of thought.
Harker’s description of his ascent to the castle as “uncanny” foreshadows the psychological horror of the novel. In 1919, Sigmund Freud published an essay called “The Uncanny,” in which he analyzed the implications of feelings and sensations that arouse “dread and horror.” Freud concludes that uncanny experiences can arise at two times. First, they can arise when primitive, supposedly disproved beliefs suddenly seem to be confirmed or validated once again. Second, the uncanny can arise when repressed infantile complexes are revived. Most academic criticism of Dracula relies heavily on such psychoanalytic theory and argues that the novel can be seen as a case study of repressed instincts coming to the surface. Indeed, such a reading seems inevitable if one considers Freud’s model of psychosexual development, which links the first stage of this development—the oral stage—with the death instinct, the urge to destroy what is living. The vampire, bringing about death with his mouth, serves as a fitting embodiment of these abstract psychological concepts, and allows Stoker to investigate Victorian sexuality and repression.