Dracula has appealed to readers for almost a century, at least in part because it deals with one of the great human conflicts: the struggle between good and evil. Stoker acknowledges the complexity of this conflict by showing good characters attracted to evil. For example, Jonathan Harker, the lawyer who journeys to Transylvania, is almost attacked at Dracula’s castle by three young female vampires. In fact, he seems to be actually welcoming the attack before it is interrupted by the count. In this scene, as well as others, Stoker suggests that evil, represented by the vampires, is an almost irresistible force which requires great spiritual strength to overcome. It eventually takes the combined forces of a band of men, representing different countries, to defeat the vampiric count. Stoker’s novel is a symbolic exploration of a conflict which has long troubled humankind.
Dracula also has considerable cultural importance. Stoker was not the first writer to make use of the vampire legend. Throughout the 19th century vampires appeared in a number of works, including Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla (1872), which Stoker read as a young man. But it is Stoker’s version of the vampire legend that has had the most enduring popular appeal and the greatest influence on modern writers and filmmakers. In his book Vampires Unearthed, Martin Riccardo tells the story of a survey taken by Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum to determine the world’s “most hated person.” Dracula ranked fifth. Clearly, Stoker’s creation continues to capture readers’ imaginations.
Stoker uses a circular structure for his novel, incorporating two settings. Transylvania is the setting for the beginning and end of the novel, and, since he had never been there, Stoker had to rely on research for his description of the country and its people. The rest of the novel takes place in England, a setting familiar to Stoker and his audience.
The novel begins with Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania on May 3 of an unspecified year. Harker later states that seven years elapse between the events themselves and his compilation of them, so we may assume that the action of the novel takes place from May to November in 1890. Harker’s initial enjoyment of a country filled with wonderful new sights, people, and food contrasts sharply with his apprehension as he approaches the count’s castle and his terror when he finally realizes he is Dracula’s prisoner. This section, the first four chapters of the novel, has been highly praised for its accurate descriptions of the region and its use of those descriptions to create suspense and terror. In the novel’s final chapter, which begins on November 1, All Saints’ Day, the setting is again Count Dracula’s Transylvania.
Most of the novel’s events, however, take place in England, primarily in the northeastern coastal city of Whitby, itself a reminder of England’s island isolation and its vulnerability to attack. Whitby’s history also contributes to its effectiveness as a setting. It is the site of a 7th-century abbey, traces of which still remain, at which the Synod of Whitby, an important church meeting, was held in 664. The presence of abbey ruins is a typical element of the popular Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. Moreover, Whitby’s role in the history of English Christianity relates the setting to the thematic conflict of good and evil.
THEMES AND CHARACTERS
Stoker explores the conflict of good and evil throughout the novel and does not allow good to triumph until the last few pages. In the meantime, all of the characters are drawn into the conflict and divided into two camps: the good forces led by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and the evil forces by Count Dracula.
The first and larger group, the good characters, forms around Van Helsing, a doctor of medicine, philosophy, literature, and more. He arrives from Amsterdam at the request of his former student Dr. John Seward to help with the diagnosis and treatment of Lucy Westenra. Van Helsing is older and more educated than the rest of the group, and he becomes a father figure and leader. Unlike the others, he is familiar with the folk stories about vampires and the ways to combat them.
He is assisted by a band of young men, most of whom have some relationship to Lucy. Dr. John Seward, an unsuccessful suitor for Lucy’s hand, is the director of an insane asylum. Another unsuccessful suitor is Quincey Morris, a Texan whose major characteristic is his physical courage. The final suitorLucy receives the three proposals in a single dayis Arthur Holmwood, whom she accepts. Arthur’s father dies during Lucy’s illness, and Arthur inherits his title and becomes Lord Godalming. These three young men have shared adventures in the past and are drawn closer together because of their love for Lucy. The last member of the group is Jonathan Harker, the lawyer whose journal of his trip to Dracula’s castle forms the first part of the novel. After his recovery, he marries Lucy’s friend Mina. Harker’s earlier experiences with Dracula make him particularly helpful to the group.
The group’s two young women are introduced by means of their letters, which follow Harker’s journal. Although they are associated with Van Helsing and his band, both are pulled over to Dracula’s side. Lucy is extremely beautiful but has little strength of character; after Dracula transforms her into a vampire, her sweetness changes into seductiveness. Her friend Mina, more firmly under male protection because of her marriage to Jonathan, manages to survive Dracula’s attack and serves as the group’s secretary and inspiration. Her exchange of blood with Dracula actually has positive consequences because it provides the band with information about Dracula’s actions and whereabouts. Dracula’s death frees her completely from his influence.
The characters on the side of evil are all related to Dracula. As the novel begins, he has been a vampire for many centuries and has great strength and power. He accomplishes his evil purposes mainly through weak links: women, an insane man, and an unsuspecting, unprotected foreigner. His “children,” the vampires he has created, are all women, including the lovely female vampires who live with him at his castle. They are presented as unnatural women. They prey on children and behave aggressively and seductively toward men. Lucy acts in this manner after she becomes a vampire.
Dracula’s major accomplice is Renfield, a patient at Seward’s asylum. Renfield is obsessed with the idea of the food chain, feeding flies to spiders and spiders to birds, and so is an appropriate admirer of Dracula, who in feeding on humans belongs at the top of the food chain. While Renfield at first welcomes Dracula, becoming increasingly more excited the closer Dracula gets to the asylum, he later recovers his sanity and is fatally injured in attempting to stop the count.
The evil characters are not only defeated but also redeemed by the good characters, illustrating Stoker’s theme that good is ultimately more powerful than evil. Dracula seems at first invincible, but his weaknesses become apparent throughout the novel. He can be stopped by consecrated wafers (literally, in the Roman Catholic Church, the body of Christ) and by other religious symbols, such as the crucifix. In the end he is destroyed by knives. Moreover, characters with sufficient spiritual strength can survive his attacks, suggesting Stoker’s view of an individual’s control over his soul as well as his life.