Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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 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.
Because of the many strange and supernatural events which take place in the novel, characters often question whether they might be going mad and imagining things. When Harker reunites with Mina after escaping from Dracula’s Castle, he does not know whether or not he can trust his memories: “I do not know if it was all real or the dreaming of a madman.” The character of Renfield, an inmate in Dr. Seward’s asylum, further reinforces how madness can make it difficult to see Dracula’s evil schemes at play. When Seward overhears Renfield saying “I shall be patient, Master. It is coming—coming—coming,” Seward assumes the man is raving mad, when Renfield is actually speaking with Dracula and foreshadowing the dangers to come. Seward even doubts his own ability to think logically, wondering “if my long habit of life amongst the insane is beginning to tell upon my own brain.” Confronted with an evil that seems impossible to understand, characters find it easier to believe they might be going insane and that their problems are entirely internal.
While Dracula is undoubtedly a menacing and dangerous figure, his national origin is a significant part of what makes him threatening to the other characters. As a resident of Eastern Europe, Dracula is portrayed as significantly different from his English, American, and Dutch enemies; as he himself explains to Harker, “Our ways are not your ways and there shall be to you many strange things.” On his last night at the castle, Harker looks at the sleeping count and thinks with horror that “This [is] the being I [am] helping to transfer to London.” He is less worried about Dracula’s existence than about the threat of national contamination. The fear of Dracula as a type of foreign invasion also explains why the men are so determined later in the novel to drive Dracula back to Transylvania, and stage their final battle with him there. Dracula poses the threat of literally contaminating local bloodlines with a foreign influence, and this threat reveals a deep-seated fear of outsiders gaining power and using it for evil means.
Count Dracula is equipped with many supernatural powers that make him a formidable enemy. However, Stoker is also quite pragmatic about the fact that part of what makes Dracula dangerous is his wealth, and his ability to engage in systems of economic exchange. Dracula buys his new home in England through a perfectly legal and commonplace financial transaction, and he pays for his voyages to and from England, rather than using any sort of magical ability to travel. When Harker is imprisoned in the castle, he observes finding “a great heap of gold in one corner,” evidence of Dracula having the money he needs to carry out his plans. While Dracula’s ancient origins and supernatural powers seem to make him a figure from the past, he is able to seamlessly navigate the modern cash economy and use it to his advantage. So long as he has the money to pay, many characters, including Harker himself, are willing to overlook his eccentric and menacing behavior.