Dracula: As A Victorian-era Novel
Over the course of the late 19th century, Victorian Britain underwent social changes, moving from a time with rigid gender expectations, to one with greater freedoms. Bram Stoker’s popular late Victorian horror novel Dracula (1897) reflects growing contemporary discourse in the shifting cultural depiction of the masculine and feminine. Through the course of the novel, Stoker uses characters to communicate the feminine ideal of commitment, chastity and submission, and the consequences which followed if these traits were not exhibited, such as vampirism, which Stoker links with impropriety and hypersexuality. At the heart of the novel, Stoker essentially asks what it means to be feminine, and warns against the dangers of transgressive behaviour. The portrayal of different forms of femininity can be seen through Stoker’s construction of the characters of Mina, Lucy and Dracula, in which their eventual fates between death and survival are a commentary on their behaviour in life. Ultimately, the novel emphasises that only the adherence to late Victorian gender boundaries are acceptable.
Stoker uses the character of Mina Harker to represent the valued Victorian traits of the feminine ideal. Mina is one of two central female figures in the text, and acts as a character foil for the other; Lucy Westenra, who highlights Mina’s delineation of the feminine ideal; the ‘Angel in the House’ who demonstrated traits of a devoted, servient wife. Introduced by the correspondence she writes to Lucy, Mina is always in service to her husband and his male friends, as she writes; her greatest desire to be “useful to Jonathan” in marriage. However, Mina’s eventual biting by Dracula can be seen as retribution for her qualities that are similar to those of the ‘New Woman’, a notion which gained traction for challenging social boundaries regarding womanhood – whose characteristics included independence, higher education and being physically larger, all previously masculine-associated qualities. Mina’s intelligence is arguably her most prominent feature shown by her compilation of information which subsequently lead to the realisation of Dracula’s exploits by the ‘Crew of Light’. Despite this, Mina’s characteristics still largely remain in the realm of the acceptable, and thus allowing her to survive the attack and allure of vampirism. Rejecting the three brides of Dracula in the last chapter, she deems herself still ‘pure’ and ‘good’ as Van Helsing remarks; “God be thanked she was, not yet, one of them”. By creating Mina as a character who models the ‘Angel in the House’ notion, and subsequently allowing her to live, Stoker comments on the worth of these social constructs and hints that the following of these guidelines prevents the moral decay into the socially transgressive.
By contrast, Stoker uses the character of Lucy Westenra to further advise readers upon the transgressions against contemporary gender notions. Lucy is portrayed as an extremely physically desirable young woman, who is aware and brazen with her sexuality. Entertaining three offers of marriage within one day, she remarks “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as they want, and save all this trouble?” Although immediately followed with “But this is heresy…” even the brief moment of speculation demonstrated Lucy’s willingness to consider polygamy in a strictly monogamous society. This inclination to flout convention can also be seen in the ritual of blood transfusions she receives after being bitten by Count Dracula. A level of intimacy is involved with this scientific procedure, after which Seward supplies his blood Van Helsing remarks; “If our young lover should turn up unexpected, as before, no word to him. It would frighten him and enjealous him, too.”. Ultimately, Lucy shares blood intimately with three men, as well as Dracula, a perversion of her desire for open affection. Stoker’s choice for her eventual descent into vampirism, and consequently death, can be seen as punishment for her transgressive notions of marriage, and defiling the sanctity of the ultimate achievement of the Victorian Era. Thus, by using Lucy as a representation of the transgressive woman and her eventual fate of an unholy death, Stoker effectively reinforces the necessity for conventions and compliance of gender expectations of the late Victorian Era.
The representation of the Victorian faith that the feminine is submissive to the will of the masculine is explored through Stoker’s use of the character Dracula. By establishing a dichotomy between the East and the West, Stoker expresses Dracula as foreign, and thus an Other to the in-group of the Londoners. The inherent adoption by Dracula of the characteristics of other binary oppositions, namely superstition (science versus superstition) and bloodshed (peace versus bloodshed) allows the audience to also perceive Dracula as feminine and the ‘Crew of Light’ as masculine. Dracula’s femininity is also emphasised through descriptions of specific physical attributes, such as his “very red lips” and “pallid skin”, typically associated with women in Victorian Britain. However, Dracula also draws upon masculine qualities of physical strength (described by Jonathan Harker as “prodigious strength”), aggressiveness and dominance – which he establishes through his desire for the geopolitical expansion of vampirism; the realisation of the Victorian fear of reverse colonisation. His challenge of the accepted boundaries of femininity is met with the ‘Crew of Light’ and their efforts to kill Dracula, representative of the masculine wrangling the feminine into submission. Therefore, Dracula’s ultimate defeat by the vampire hunters can be understood as Stoker’s reaffirmation of the Victorian belief that masculine superiority remains unassailable, even by an aggressive foreign feminine force. Thus, although not an explicit female character, Dracula’s challenge of Victorian gender notions, through the blurring of masculine and feminine traits, is condemned by Stoker through his subsequent death.
Dracula is a novel in which Victorian attitudes and values towards delineation of transgressive feminine qualities are clearly explored, as well as the portrayal of the social ideal. Stoker’s combination of masculinity and femininity reflect conservative society, and he comments on these ideas through the character’s fates, reflecting on their chosen behaviour throughout the novel. Overall, Dracula represents the views, values and attitudes of Victorian England towards women pushing gender boundaries.