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.