Dracula is a work of fantasy. Its eerie effectiveness comes from its ability to play on universal human fears. But Stoker's novel also reflects the anxieties which troubled his era; the figure of Count Dracula is both a timeless vision of evil and the incarnation of turn-of-the-century England's strongest fears.
1897, the year Dracula was published, was the height of the British Empire's expansion. Britain had conquered huge expanses of land in Africa, Asia, and North America, and used these colonies to fuel its tremendous military and economic power. But this high point was also the beginning of a decline in British power. The rise of the United States and European powers such as Germany and Austro-Hungary threatened to unseat Britain as the world's most powerful nation. At the same time a steady rise in immigration brought unfamiliar races and cultures onto British soil; in England as in America, the turn of the century saw a sometimes violent reaction against the foreigner. Dracula, as an immigrant from the easternmost edge of Europe, represents many of the popular prejudices against outsiders. A year after Dracula's publication, British author H.G. Wells exploited similar anxieties in his alien-invasion novel The War of the Worlds.
The turn-of-the-century fear of outsiders was mirrored by new fears about the inside, the contents of the human mind. The late nineteenth century saw the birth of modern psychology and psychiatry. Sigmund Freud began publishing his theories of sexuality and the unconscious in 1895, but he was only one of hundreds of researchers in Europe and North America who suggested that the human mind is a much darker and more mysterious place than we might suppose. Dr. Seward and Dr. Van Helsing are practitioners of this new (in Stoker's day) science of the mind. The examples of hypnosis, mental suggestion, and compulsive behavior in Dracula reflect public interest in the
1895 was also the year that Oscar Wilde, a product of the same Dublin society as Stoker, was prosecuted for homosexuality. Wilde, then an international celebrity, was ruined by the trial, served two years in prison, and died in obscurity a few years later. The publicity and hostility surrounding the trial must have had an impact on Stoker, and Dracula shows the evidence of the author's suspicion and anxiety toward all forms of sexuality, especially those considered "perverse." The vampire's hypnotic power, his preference for young female victims, and the sensuality of many of the descriptions of bloodsucking, suggest that Stoker had more on his mind than monsters. If, as critics have suggested, Dracula is modeled on Stoker's revered but demanding employer, the actor Henry Irving, then it is certainly possible that the evil attractions of the Count indicate Stoker's fears about his own sexuality.
It is impossible to say that Count Dracula is simply a symbol for something else, whether foreign influence or repressed homosexuality. Dracula is a fully realized character, more so than even the book's heroes, and the vampire myth does date back centuries in Europe. But the specific forms that Dracula's threat takes in Stoker's novel - the invasion from the East, the power of hypnotic suggestion, the sexually-tinged assault on women - reflect the concerns of the place and time in which the novel was written.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Chapter 5 and 6
Chapter 9 and 10
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 24 and 25