It is only in the latter half of the twentieth century that Dracula has begun to receive serious critical attention instead of being dismissed as lightweight sensationalist Victorian popular fiction. It has become apparent that the novel is not simply a conventional work of Gothic horror but, as with its contemporaries Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, this revival of a genre typical of the earlier half of the nineteenth century has some significance with regard to contemporary events. Dracula is less a straightforwardly titillating story of adventure and mythical monsters than a study of the undermining of the psychic and social categories upon which the security and comfort of the Victorian middle-class world depended.Order now
This resurgence of the Gothic came at a time when the boundaries which had previously seemed so unshakeable were beginning to crumble, when the general self satisfaction and supreme confidence in the age was being eroded by troubles both at home and further afield within the Empire and thus it is hardly surprising, as David Punter observes, that the period saw a ‘burst of symbolic energy as powerful as that of the original Gothic’1. The Gothic tradition is interested in the forbidden, it seeks to explore the desires and fears that society represses in order to maintain stability, it deals with the blurring of certainties and above all with transgressions of the norm, and all of these are clearly relevant to the late Victorian crisis of faith in previously indisputable beliefs.
Dracula clearly belongs to the Gothic with its continual transgression of social, psychic and realistic limits. Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick2 has identified the distinctive features of Gothic literature as follows; the setting is often a Catholic European country, and includes an oppressive ruin or castle in a wild landscape, it is likely to feature a sensitive heroine tyrannised and imprisoned by an older man intent on rape and murder, who is rescued by her impetuous lover. There is often an interest in religious institutions, sleep or deathlike states, the damaging effects of guilt, family ties, and hints of incest.
The form of the novel is discontinuous and convoluted in order to emphasise the theme of the difficulties of communication. Even on superficial reading it is obvious that Dracula conforms to some extent to these guidelines, although there is a variation of convention in that it is initially Jonathan Harker who represents the trapped victim, and Mina who plays the shadowy lover present only within his consciousness, a role reversal with connotations of one of the central anxieties of both the novel and the time -that of gender.
Thus as a novel set firmly in the Gothic tradition Dracula is concerned with that transgression of boundaries which was the cause of the fin de siï¿½cle anxiety infecting England. Sally Ledger characterises the period as one when the ‘monolithic certainties of mid-Victorian Britain’3 suddenly began to be eroded. This atmosphere of doubt was reflected in the form of the novel -one-volume novels and novellas were overtaking weighty three part works, and it was becoming less and less likely that the reader would be able to rely on the security of one omniscient narrator. Admittedly this had been the case previously, notably in the story within a story told by multiple narrators of earlier Gothic fiction, but ultimately a complete explanation was usually provided.
The narrative structure of Dracula is an example of the changes typical of the fin de sicle form; although the many separate narratives are prefaced by an explanatory note which seeks to underline their authenticity this lacks confidence, admitting that the story is ‘almost at variance with the possibilities of latter day belief’4 and it is difficult to have faith in a narrative made up of so many different voices, none of whom have the privilege of omniscience.
The collected contents of the book purport to prove the fantastic, the existence of vampires in nineteenth century England, yet it is only Jonathan Harker at the very end of the novel who points out that the papers hardly constitute proof ‘of so wild a story’ (page 378). Whilst this series of first person narratives, newspaper clippings and letters increase the proximity of the horror and bewilderment and give the story its immediacy, it also denies the reader certainty and perhaps could be said to mirror a similar prevailing mood of doubt and confusion in contemporary Britain.
However, some critics have commented that the fact that the main narrators are all (with the exception of Mina) young, middle class male professionals means that they all seem to speak with one homogenous voice, and it is certainly true that Stoker fails to develop his characters or bestow any extraneous individualising traits upon them, in this vein Senf notes that With the exception of Dr. Van Helsing, all the central characters are youthful and inexperienced -two dimensional characters whose only distinguishing characteristics are their names and their professions; and by maintaining a constancy of style throughout and emphasising the beliefs which they hold in common, Stoker further diminishes any individualising traits.
This sidelining of character development can be seen as both a product of the mythical nature of the tale, as characters are less important than the basic premise of the story in such a genre, and of their importance as symbols of fin de siï¿½cle decline. Stoker was writing at a time when gender relations were under intense scrutiny, and when many people felt that the traditional roles of men and women were being threatened, to the detriment of society as a whole.
The suffragette movement and the rise of the ‘New Woman’ challenged what many felt to be the almost sacred role of the The Angel in the House, as the popular poet Coventry Patmore christened the feminine ideal, and at the same time the decadent movement and dandyism, as well as the scandal of Oscar Wilde’s trial and conviction, focused public attention on homosexuality as undermining conventional masculinity. Therefore the similarity between the principle narrators could be seen as the future leaders of society (i.e. the young middle class professionals) bonding against a common enemy, with the Count representing homosexuality and a myriad of other sexual ‘perversions’ including incest, and the female vampires the predatory voluptuous sexually liberated female.
Although Dracula himself is not overtly homosexual, the hovering anxiety of the novel, articulated from the very beginning, is his initial interest in Harker himself. The Count’s ultimate desire to possess and drain another male, evident in his reaction when Harker cuts himself shaving and when he finds him with his vampiric sisters How dare you touch him, any of you?