Dracula: In Limbo Between Fantasy and Science

Editor: Qiu Lin

Author: Heisenberg

Corporeal transference, materialization, astral bodies, mind reading and hypnotism are several of the ideas that Van Helsing may have had in mind when he wrote: “There are things done to-day in electrical science which would have been deemed unholy by the very man who discovered electricity – who would themselves not so long before have been burned as wizards.”

This remark is spoken to Dr. Seward, his student. Their discussion concerns the existence of vampires and the scientific basis for preternatural occurrences, which is one of the foundational questions underlying the Dracula novel. As Van Helsing’s persuasive speech implies there are no clear boundary lines between science fiction and the hard sciences. Or are the two concepts perhaps inseparable with alternative significance during different epochs? These unsolved questions follow the reader throughout the course of the book, which itself is cloaked in the guise of a simple novel regarding the duality between good and evil. The vampires are immediately perceived as ‘evil’ by the protagonists after Dracula drinks Lucy’s blood. Such a moral pretext legitimizes the assault launched by Van Helsing and his group on all vampires, whereas their very dogmatism leads to the death of Luna and Mina, indirectly. These are the females whom they claim to protect.

The conversation between Van Helsing and Dr. Seward also touches on hypnotism; the scientific basis for Mesmerism was widely discussed in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Occultism and esoteric philosophies were also being popularized in this period; similarly, both Paris and London witnessed a hybridization of medieval relic worship and “new science” [1]. Consequently, the mainstream Gothic literature came to be regarded as a “Victorian wasteland,” which is a term used by Mark M. Hennelly in one of his essays: “…nineteenth century all but dead, the twentieth powerless to be born without fertile, ideological conception.”[2]

In essence, Dr. Seward endorses the science of hypnotism that the French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot had recently elaborated. Five years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, Ernest Hart, a British physician, toured Paris and recorded for the British Medical Journal (1893) what he had seen in the Salpêtrière clinic. Harboring a dubious view regarding Charcot’s hypnotism, Dr. Hart wrote: “These various stages…appear to be performances originating partly in the auto-suggestion of an originally morbid patient.” It was the “picturesque eccentricity of the phenomena” [3], he argued, that stirred the trend.

The extensive series of hypnoses performed on female patients by Charcot were said to be fuelled by an invisible force, i.e., mesmeric power. Similarly, the test that Dr. Seward implements on Renfield in the novel mirrors this historical exploration. “Why not advance science in its most difficult and vital aspect – the knowledge of the brain?” He conceives a scientific term “zoöphagous (life-eating) maniac” to classify Renfield thereby tacitly allowing the lunatic behavior of the latter to further degenerate into chronic mania. “The man is an undeveloped homicidal maniac. I shall test him with his present craving and see how it will work out.” These amoral [or even immoral] experiments were not uncommon when Bram Stoker was alive; and once again they serve as a metaphor for the blurred borderline between the occult and the scientific.

To intensify the conflict between these two value systems, Bram Stoker applied subplots involving consecutive events to detail Dracula’s preparations, e.g., the sinister sleep walk of Lucy (p. 77), the log written by the Captain of the wrecked ship, Demeter (p. 88), business correspondence concerning Dracula’s real estate purchase in England (p. 104), local reports about unusual accidents (p. 188).

Each of these shifting points of view and the internal transitions of the main characters strengthens the evil impression Dracula leaves on the readers. One scholar of Victorian literature, Carol A. Senf, indicated these techniques comprised “unreliable narrative”. Since readers in the late 19th century shared similar perspectives with the protagonists, they could readily regard Dracula as their enemy despite the questionable “subjective records” [4] presented by the main characters. This narrative setting, in a way, acts as a catalyst for the climax between mortals and vampires. This subjective rivalry is not directly analogous to a struggle between good and evil; conversely, it is inherently interwoven along with historical factors (as mentioned above). In the technical sense, this conflict is used as a narrative tool to create a sense of tension.

Although the deaths of Lucy and Mina are triggered by Dracula, Van Helsing and the other male characters cannot be absolved from these tragedies for they fail to fulfill their mutual obligation to inform Lucy’s mother, Mrs. Westenra, and Mina regarding the fatal propensities of Dracula.

Compared with the intensive inciting incident illustrated by Jonathan Harker concerning the gloomy castle and its dwellers in Act 1, the opening of Act 2 is extraordinarily mild since the letters of Lucy and Mina are too trivial to worth commenting about. Nonetheless, they provide a glimpse of the social roles defined for males and females in the Victorian era. Overwhelmed by the satisfaction of having received three suitors on the same day, Ms. Lucy has qualms about rejecting two others (due to her kind nature): “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men? (i.e., Dr. John Seward, Mr. Morris and Hon. Arthur Holmwood), or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” She asked Mina: “Why are men so noble when we women are so little worthy of them?” This self-deprecation reflects the pervasive gender inequality at the time of Bram Stoker, which is reconfirmed repeatedly in terms of the attitudes of male characters towards females. Lucy is disgusted by garlic flowers and threw them away the first time Van Helsing presents her the wreath defending the nocturnal attack of Dracula. Van Helsing does not inform her the function of wreath, conversely, he bursts with anger: “No trifling me! I never jest! There is grim purpose in all I do…obedience is to bring you strong and well into loving arms that wait for you.” This dogmatic attitude characterizes Lucy and Mrs. Westenra: The lady that should be informed firstly, at a less informational position.

 

In terms of the narration, the fragmentary information that each character offers and their mutual misunderstanding compels further conflicts. However, it is Van Helsing’s concealment of the characteristics of vampires that renders Lucy vulnerable to Dracula. Moreover, the deadly attack is engendered by Mrs. Westenra who is unaware of the night battle between Dracula and Van Helsing because Van Helsing keeps this all to himself in due consideration of her terminal cancer. When Lucy is asleep one night, Mrs. Westenra takes the garlic wreath away from Lucy’s neck and opens the window to ventilate the room thus giving Dracula an opportunity to attack. It seems we should reprimand Mrs. Westenra while actually it is not her fault that she did not know about vampires, so it was Van Helsing’s conservative attitudes that leads directly to her situation.

Lucy’s death occurs midway through the book and this event clarifies the conflicts between the protagonists and antagonists. “We need have no secrets amongst us; working together and with absolute trust.” Mina learns this lesson after her friend’s death and thereafter the protagonists consolidate their alliance with renewed determination. Mina’s helpful classification of various records earns her high praise from Van Helsing. He indicates the same mistake might not be recommitted. “She has a man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and a woman’s heart.” But his later statement discloses his inner belief:” We men are determined…to destroy this monster; but it is no part for a woman.” Such an idea is reflected by Dr. Seward as well:” …but it is no place for a woman”.

Hereafter, Mina is excluded from the male circle and deprived of the available information resources. This disintegration once again allows Dracula an opportunity to intercede since Mina is ignorant of Dracula’s ability to disguise himself in dense fog. “It got thicker and thicker…Suddenly the horror burst upon me.” Mina does not report this horrible nightmare to Van Helsing and Dr. Seward in order not to alarm them. However, their insufficient interaction and distrust determines that the fate of Lucy will recur with Mina becoming the next victim. Ultimately, Mina bursts into sorrowful anger: “There must be no concealment…there is nothing in all the world that can give me more pain than I have already endured.” In effect, the chivalrous male thoughtfulness ironically accelerates the calamity of Lucy and Mina.

Dracula is sophisticated enough to exploit this weakness of humanity. Descended from a family that fought the invading enemy while guarding the “frontier of Turkey-land”, Count Dracula retains a sense of nostalgia for this glorious past. Even Jonathan, who lives in the gloomy castle with revulsion, has to admit that “the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill”.

Living in the Transylvanian castle constructed by fictitious proses, Dracula “love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.” What is unspoken is his resentful colonization plan. The overgrown castle must be replaced by modern theories, mindsets and value systems. When Arthur destroys the infected Lucy,” the foul Thing”, the author adds: “One and all we felt that the holy calm that lay like sunshine over the wasted face and form was only an earthly token and symbol of the calm that was to reign for ever.”

Vampirism indeed has its own distinctive appeal to the general public, and this attraction has been periodically revived through commercial films, as well as academic studies. In 1972, an investigation by two professors from Boston College, specifically Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, attempted to de-demonize the historical Vlad Ⅲ who had inspired Bram Stoker to create Count Dracula. The barbaric stories of Vlad Ⅲ impaling the innocent may be an effort to associate Stoker’s Dracula with mythical vampire gods in Transylvanian folklore [5]. Devendra P. Varma, a scholar of English Gothic tales and a professor at Dalhousie University in Canada, argued that the term “vampire” emerged from Tibetan and Indian mythology [6].

We cannot be entirely sure that either of these explanations is accurate especially since the late period of Victorian literature reflects significant cultural turmoil. Bram Stoker’s predecessor, Thomas Preskett Prest, had portrayed a vampire that was far more controversial and confusing in Varney the Vampire (1847); as a result, it had failed to capture the attention of the general public primarily due to an inadequate usage of narration. Stoker’s Dracula, on the other hand, proved highly successful as a fictional narrative partially due to culturally resonant themes that were emblematic of the late Victorian era.

 

NOTES

[1] Burton, Tara Isabella. “Satanism and Magic in the Age of the Moulin Rouge.” JSTOR Daily, 2016.3

[2] Hennelly, Mark M., Jr. “Dracula: The Gnostic Quest and Victorian Wasteland.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 20, Number1, 1997:13-76

[3] Hart, Ernest. “The New Mesmerism. V.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 1676, 1893, pp. 301–303. JSTOR

[4] Senf, Carol A. “‘Dracula’: The Unseen Face in the Mirror.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 9, no. 3, 1979, pp. 160–170. JSTOR

[5] The word “Dracula” derived from Vlad Ⅱwhose another title was Vlad Dracul (meant Dragon in Romanian). Vlad Ⅲ inherited it from his father with an adding –a in Romanian custom to represent his identity as a nobleman’s son. Bruce Scivally. “Dracula FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Count from Transylvania”, Backbeat Books, 2015. Quoted from Raymond T. McNally, Radu Florescu. “In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires”

[6] James Twitchell. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, Duke University Press, 1981, p.7, quoted from Devendra P. Varma. “Introduction” to Varney the Vampyre, pp.xvii-xix

 

* I attribute the birth of this sparkling essay to Mr. Qiu who helped to polish my shabby essay. Qiu Lin is an experienced writer and proficient in English essay editing. He is also the chief editor of writersforme.com

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