Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been scaring readers since 1897. Hidden among the chilly text is a multitude of symbolism and social commentary. The work is a favorite of scholars and literary critics who enjoy dissecting the novel’s hidden meanings. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
Here are four examples:
Feminine virtue is at stake in Dracula. The characters of Mina and Lucy represent good and bad respectively. Lucy’s virtue has fallen because she gave into Dracula while Mina’s virtue must be preserved.
Female vampires give into their sensuality, something virtuous women in the late 19th century simply did not do. Submitting to one’s sexuality was to call one’s social character into question.
Victorian men were threatened by fallen women. They believed sexually aggressive women would destroy the very fabric of society and call into question male dominance.
The stake used to kill vampires is a phallic symbol. This is especially true when Arthur kills his fiancée Lucy.
The battle of good and evil in the book places Dracula in the role of the Devil and the heroes as representing salvation with God.
Those who become vampires are damned for eternity. Or at least until they are killed and their souls are restored and saved from evil.
Vampires are fought with Christian symbols – crucifixes and communion wafers.
Communion itself is a symbolic form of vampirism as it involves the consumption of Christ’s body and blood. Therefore, vampirism is a corruption of Christian rituals.
Blood has numerous meanings. It can refer to ancestry or the source of life.
The vampire puncturing the skin and draining fluids is an allusion to sex, so is the fact victims are turned into the undead at night. Red cheeks were a Victorian symbol of sexual arousal, and red cheeks appear often in the novel.
“First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions,” Dracula says. “You may as well be quiet; it is not the first time, or the second, that your veins have appeased my thirst!”
Some literary critics see the vampire’s blood lust as representing syphilis, the most common sexually transmitted disease when the novel was written, but others disagree.
The novel was written during the Victorian era, an age of technological change and scientific discovery. Stoker touches upon this by juxtaposing the old world – the Count’s Transylvania castle – with the new, modern world of London.
He also touches upon old and new knowledge and how both can be beneficial to society. It is the modern world that rejects superstition and fails to believe, at first, that there could be such a thing as a vampire.
“But even though the good guys in Dracula are able to use technology to their advantage in many cases, it has its limits,” education website Shmoop says. “The blood transfusions don’t save Lucy’s life, and a blip in the telegraph system keeps Seward from getting Van Helsing’s message in time rush to Lucy’s aid. Technology and science, it seems, don’t have all the answers.”
It is worth noting that while many literary critics see countless symbols in Dracula, other see none and claim the text is being interpreted with modern eyes instead of through the lens of 1890s England.
If you’ve never read Dracula, I highly recommend it. The novel holds up well considering the passage of time. The 1992 movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” closely follows the novel.
Updated: 16 October 2020