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Saturday, 26 February 2011

Dracula and Disease

“Unclean! Unclean!” Cries Mina Harker as the newly seared scar cools on her forehead. “Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh!” (Stoker, p.231) She is not yet a Vampire, not yet entirely a creature of darkness, but her flesh is unholy and her blood has been infiltrated. As she weeps on the floor, desperately tugging her hair down over her face “as the leper of old his mantle”, she is diseased-she is infected. The words she uses emphasise her separation from society, she is shunned by God and takes on the appearance of the ultimate social outcast. The mark on her brow is as shaming as a body of suppurating leprous flesh. Her malady is supernatural, but its effects are not always far removed from those that conventionally afflicted the heroines of Victorian sensation literature. The Ventnor landlady of M.E Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret gives us the paradigm, “how she [Mrs. Talboys’] had come to Ventnor...and how day by day she had gradually but surely sunk under the fateful malady.” (Braddon, p.41) There is no elaboration on the cause of her death, there was never a chance of recovery. These women rarely die of a specific disease; they far more often die for a reason.

Victorian literature, and in particular the sensation fiction of the late 19th century is replete with images of disease. “There is scarcely a Victorian...narrative without its ailing protagonist, its depiction of a sojourn in the sick-room.”(Balin, p.5) Disease is an invasion of the internal by the external, on the basic human level it is an infiltration of malign foreign bodies into our most personal physical space. In the Victorian novel it stands for a variety of perceived invasions and invaders. By the publication of Dracula at the close of the 19th century, England had become plagued with anxieties. The social, political and sexual worlds, which had apparently remained in stable stasis for several decades, were coming under significant attack. England’s imperial security was no longer entirely assured, sexual standards were changing rapidly, and the birth of the New Woman was threatening sacred domestic values. As a genre which “is frequently considered times of cultural crisis” (Byron, p.39) the recreation of the Gothic novel was to be anticipated. Where the ‘first-wave’ of Gothic novels in the late 18th century found their horrors in unfamiliar lands and the dislocation of an individual, the re-invented Victorian Gothic examined the effect of the ‘other’ in our own territory.

The most horrific invasions and the most emotive plagues were those that struck at the domestic scene, the heart of Victorian life. In Dracula domesticity is represented by the two central couples, Arthur and Lucy Westenra, and Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray. Both men are honourable and both women, chaste and virtuous. Lucy is innocently flirtatious but sexually immature, Mina is content to exist within the male-defined ideal of feminine domesticity. She obeys the commands of the male characters without question, and despises the liberated New Woman, who she deprecatingly supposes, “will do the [marital] proposing herself. And a nice job she will make of it to!” (p.89) Jonathan and Arthur expect nothing more than domesticated and obedient wives, Jonathan’s first mention of Mina is a memorandum to “Get [a] recipe for [her]” (p.1).

The first invasion into their mutual domestic serenities comes during Jonathan’s captivity in Dracula’s castle. His encounter with the three female vampires creates a division between the qualities Jonathan requires in a wife, and the attributes he desires in a woman. They are “awful women”(p.40) with “voluptuous lips” (p.37) which they lick “like...animal[s]”(p.38). They are sexual beings, living on animalistic, carnal urges. Even as they make Jonathan “uneasy” they awaken a “wicked, burning desire” for physical, sexual contact. He is aware of their opposition to his previous ideal of femininity, he fears to note down his ambivalent emotions “lest someday [they] should meet Mina’s eyes, and cause her pain.” (p.37). Jonathan is unconsciously separating his domestic life from his sexual urges, the women are “both thrilling and repulsive” (p.38) because they embody his “greatly desired and equally strongly feared fantasies”. (Roth, p.99) This conflict is a typical but un-discussed trait of Victorian male psychology. Jonathan’s guilty encounter with the vampiresses reflects a male encounter with prostitution, a more common occurrence than literature of the period would suggest. The vampire is the ultimate fallen woman, who has abandoned both her body and soul to carnality, and she has here infected the virtuous Jonathan with her sexuality. It is important for Stoker to emphasise the hypnotic power of the vampire, Jonathan could not be permitted to await sensual contact in a “languorous ecstasy” (p.38) if he was not under the corrupting influence of an external source.

Like the prostitute these women are represented as inversions of every natural female urge. The sexual desire they display is forcibly delineated as unnatural and perverse, their erotic seduction of Jonathan is followed by a scene of true horror in which Dracula produces “a bag...[containing] a half-smothered child” (p.39), which they move in to devour. The close proximity of these two scenes emphasises the division between the fertile acts of conjugal union, and the destructive and sterile sexuality of the vampire and prostitute. Their relationship to the Count is not that of submissive wives, but trained animals, “the blue eyes transformed with fury, the white teeth champing with rage” (p.38), they are little different from the wolves and rats he holds at his command. Their ability to change instantly from sexually aggressive beasts to “fair girls” who laugh with “ribald coquetry”(p.39) displays male anxiety at the true nature of youthful females.

It was a popular Victorian belief that an excess of sensual excitement or stimulation could lead to physical illness or mental breakdown, by surrendering themselves to the Count’s hypnotic seduction these three women have become afflicted with both. Throughout Gothic and sensation literature, disease and madness are used to cloud or obscure dangerous realities (Blair) such as natural female desire and sexuality, it “substitutes the sick body for the troubled self”. (Bailin, p.21) It is important for Stoker to emphasise that his sexually promiscuous and dominant women are separate from the ‘reality’ of femininity. Excessive sensuality and lack of restraint are perceived as both the cause and the symptom of vampirism.

Jonathan’s experiences in Dracula’s castle may threaten his chastity and eventually his life, but they are at least contained within the domain of the ‘other’. They remain in an external environment, connected only by an epistolary channel to his domestic sphere in England. The danger of infection and corruption are only truly realised when they endanger the idealised microcosm of the home. By 1870 infection had become a Victorian obsession. The possibility of husbands spreading venereal disease contracted from contact with prostitutes into the Christian earthly paradise of marriage became a true concern. If Christian iconography and philosophy “represents the the house or mansion of the soul”, (Sage, p.1) a sexually transmitted contamination had serious moral implications.

The sufferer of a venereal disease such as syphilis resembles the victim of a vampire in many ways. The knowledge that a time limit has been placed on life, and the crushing realisation of mortality which it engenders, is a recognition that those infected by a vampires blood, and those infected with a terminal disease must realise together. “What have I done to deserve such a fate” (p.288) asks Mina of the Almighty. Speaking of his syphilis induced aphasia the poet Baudelaire laments “the living death to which [he is now] condemned” (Pichois & Ziegler, p.347) and writes bitterly of the prostitutes he blamed for his infection, comparing them in several poems to vampires and hideous succubae. In his poem ‘To one who is too cheerful’, written after his syphilis was diagnosed, Baudelaire considers a virginal, virtuous girl, and contemplates mutilating her. “To carve in your astonished side, An injury both deep and wide” (Baudelaire, p.89) he proposes the creation of a simulacrum of a vagina, “two lips so red and new” into which he can “slip [his] venom, lovingly.” Although he denied it during the following obscenity trial, the venom clearly refers to his disease, and pre-figuring Stoker’s scene of Mina’s infection, the violently created artificial labia are the conduit of contagion.

The Contagious Diseases acts “mandated compulsory genital inspection for venereal disease in suspected prostitutes and detention in lock hospitals for infected women”, (Hughs, p.39) thrusting the unmentionable issue of unfulfilled sexual desire into the public consciousness. The conflicting determination to avoid all admission of unhealthy urges, and protect the sanctity of the domestic idyll increased the need to contain this ‘deviant’ sexuality within the realm of an ‘other’, a lower class which can be isolated and removed from acceptable civilised society.

Jonathan Harker’s visit to Transylvania provides the Count’s entrance into England, just as a visit to a brothel would allow disease into the marriage bed. A vampire “may not enter anywhere at the first, unless there be someone of the household who bid him to come”, (Stoker, p.240) and the deal which Jonathan and his company strike with the Count allows him to pervasively infiltrate English society. Dracula does not travel to England alone, he instantly spreads his coffins, his nests, to a variety of independent locations throughout London. The roots he plants are complex, and cannot be rapidly torn up. Mere days after arriving in England, Dracula has invaded the domestic lives of Lucy Westenra and Arthur Holmwood, his infection travels fast, and the virginal Lucy is soon consumed by it. Her sleepwalking and tormented dreams are early indications of the Count’s power over her, and as her disturbance progresses Mina finds her “unclad in a churchyard” (p.91). The weak femininity of Lucy is no match for the morbid allure of the Count. Lucy’s early flirtatious attitude “Just fancy! Three proposals in one day!” (p.56) marks her as emotionally immature and vulnerable to amorous temptation. She is easy prey for the vampire. Her degeneration from loss of blood is initially described in familiar terms; it is the undiagnosed weakening, wasting disease, the bane of Victorian heroines. Her punishment for submitting to the Count, even without consent, is death, and resurrection as his slave. Once life has departed she becomes the fallen woman, the prostitute, the beast-“eyes full of hellfire” with a face “wreathed with a voluptuous smile” (p.211), the “devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity” (p.214).

Vampirism may be perceived to reduce the heroines to a sub-human bestial level or the disgraced class of prostitute, but it also signifies a realisation of personal sexuality for the repressed Victorian woman. Mina Murray, by this time Mina Harker, is not presented in a sexual context with her husband. Married in his convalescent bed under the watchful gaze of hospital nuns the consummation of their marriage is not assured, and the graphic depiction of her ‘impregnation’ by the Count (p.282) suggests the deflowering of a virgin. Loss of virginity is not the only implication this scene contains. Critics have viewed it as an “enforced fellatio” or a sexual “infantilism” (Bentley, p.39) in which the re-born Mina sucks from her hermaphroditic genitor/trix, and both of these interpretations are valid, although the equation of blood with semen-though initially attractive, is not substantially supported in the text. As he stands, pushing Mina’s mouth to the thin bleeding slit he has carved on his chest he is confronting her with her own sexuality. He is not dominating her with a phallic symbol or penetrating her with his teeth. Her once white nightdress is “smeared with [the] blood” which streams from the labial wound in his breast, physically manifesting the intense menstruation anxiety experienced by maturing Victorian girls. He has a “resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk”, (p.282) he is not impregnating Mina with his vampire seed, he is training her to drink deeply of her own sexuality. It is an act akin to a first communion, as the zoophagous Renfield frequently asserts, “the blood is the life”(p.235). The communion is here ironically inverted, for the blood is the blood of an anti-Christ invader, and it brings an ironic promise of eternal non-life, perpetual damnation and living death.

The Count’s opposition to Christianity is combined with his foreign origin to create an utterly alien intruder. In the latter years of the Victorian era faith in the invulnerability of the Empire was crumbling. The expanding power of America and Germany suggested a possible future where Britain had lost its supremacy. Considerations of race and purity were widely discussed, and the influence of Eastern culture (opium, sexual profligacy) was frequently blamed for the perceived degeneration of western values. As Maud Ellmann puts it “West means love, where East means lust; West normality, East Perversity.” (p.xxiii)

The figure of Dracula is both the invader from the East and a far more ancient target of suspicion, the Jew. Jew’s had been equated with both disease and vampirism before Stoker’s novel. Popular stereotypes depicted the Jew as a spreading ‘other’, whose lack of an existing country of origin marked him as a parasitic nomad, who both spread disease and was himself a plague on Christian society. The Jew was not considered as a literal bloodsucker, he drained the money from the honest Englishmen around him, he corrupted innocent girls with his anti-Christian ideas. He was “’feeding off’ and ‘poisoning’ the blood of the Londoner”. (Gelder, p.15) Stoker’s Count is “of Jewish aspect”, (Stoker, p.172) and he is revealed to be “a hoarder of money and gold”. (Gelder, p.14) In his early entries from Dracula’s castle Jonathan notes “a great heap of of all kinds, Roman and British, and Austrian, and Hungarian, and Greek and Turkish money”, (p.40) the treasure has come from a variety of sources-Dracula has drained more than one nation. It is also significant that in a novel as concerned with blood as Dracula, when the Count himself is cut “a stream of gold” pours out (p.306). Stoker zoomorphises the only truly Jewish character in the novel, Immanuel Hildesheim, whom Harker describes as “a Hebrew...with a nose like a sheep and a fez” (p.349) just as Dracula is frequently described with animalistic language. Dracula is given the features of the caricatured Jew, “a tall, thin man, with a beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard” (p.172) which are also the features of a rat. Dracula’s London abode is found to be swarming with “Rat, rats, rats! Hundreds, thousands, millions of them” (p.279), their association with disease carried from overseas dates to the great plagues, the Black Death. The rats that carried the infection were brought by traders in packets aboard ships, just as Dracula arrived in his coffin of Transylvanian earth, carrying the vampiric disease to England. The Jew, rat and vampire are considered together as dangerous invading forces of contagion.

The invaders, the infiltrators and usurpers must at all costs be repelled. The narrative of the Gothic novel must move towards a return of normality and a destruction of perversity. In Dracula, the “Crew of Light” must defeat the Count and destroy his works before vampirism spreads across England, and the Christian and moral value systems of Victorian England are lost forever. They are battling in many respects with an amalgamated manifestation of society’s Fin de Siecle paranoia’s. Their first priority is to reclaim the domestic sphere from the un-Christian un-dead. Their destruction of the possessed body of Lucy is conceived by the hunters as an act of kindness, they operate so that “the soul of the poor lady [they] love can go free” (p.215) -but behind such noble rhetoric their actions are the violent re-assertion of male domination. The vampire in its tomb even resembles a sexualised woman, the blood on her lips and in her cheeks stands out against her pale face like rouge and pigment, she has a “carnal...appearance” (p.214). While exploring Lucy’s tomb to test his hypothesis Van Helsing and Dr. Seward become charged with what can only be described as sexual excitement. Preparing to enter a woman’s most sacred resting place they are exceedingly nervous. Helsing is twice described “fumbling in his bag” (p.197) and as he prepares to force his way into the inner folds of her coffin his candle becomes a definite phallic symbol, from it “sperm dropped in white patches which congealed as they touched the metal”. Although sperm is not intended in the medical sense of the word, there is still an impression of sexual anticipation and arousal. On this first visit to the sanctity of Lucy’s tomb it has been spattered with pre-ejaculate and ripped open by masculine hunters. The second visit will end in her violation. When this finally arrives it climaxes in an explosion of phallic imagery, as the once dominant female is assaulted in her sleep by our heroes, trapped in her coffin and violated with a wooden stake by the lover whose relationship was never consummated. “The body shook, writhed and twisted in wild contortions” (p.216) as death throes shift into orgasmic convulsions then back again. Body fluid foams and sprays across the dank vault as the phallocentric order is restored and the molested body collapses into chaste serenity...and is beheaded.

The hunting of the Count is comparatively restrained. The language of cleaning and purification takes precedence over the heavily eroticised descriptions of female exorcism. This may reveal some of Stoker’s own sexual insecurities. His masculine protagonists, bound together by an almost entirely homosocial union do not seek to penetrate Dracula in his sleep. Van Helsing replaces his salivating candle with the holy wafer, “to sterilize the earth” (p.298) from which Dracula draws his power. The word “sterilize” is used repeatedly by Van Helsing when describing his pursuit of the Count, perhaps an attempt by Stoker to neutralise the potentially homo-erotic nature of the hunt. The sexual battle has become a religious quest, the disease can be fought with asexual symbolism and concrete morality. When the Count is finally tracked down and trapped he is dispatched with “the weapons of the empire”, (Byron & Hunter, p.233) Jonathan and Quincey’s knives, in the words of David Punter, “he dies like a man.” (p.234)

The vampire is repelled with garlic and branches of rosewood, wards against evil which date from the pagan traditions of England. The infiltrating forces of the modern and the foreign are driven back by a symbolic emphasis on the historical continuity of British life. The nomadic parasite cannot invade a country as well established and eternal as England, the nationally alien cannot match itself against the might of British solidarity and imperialism. The New Woman can never erase the masculine ideal of femininity and the degeneration of morality will never be permitted to corrupt the domestic haven. The invader will be driven back to his place of origin and destroyed. The disease will be cured, like the scar on Mina’s forehead, the curse “[will] pass...away”. (Stoker, p.378) In a social climate of anxiety and unease Bram Stoker invokes and magnifies the worst nightmares of the Victorian establishment in graphic detail, then tests them against the strength and virtue of the British character and honest comradeship. If Sensation fiction uses disease to conceal uncomfortable truths and manifest social decay, Stoker uses vampirism as an ultimate all encompassing disease to exhibit every facet of Fin de Siecle insecurity.


Baudelaire, Charles.  The Flowers of Evil.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998)
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth.  Lady Audley’s Secret.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998)
Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998)

Bailin, Miriam.  The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1994)
Barreca, Regina.  Sex & Death in Victorian Literature.  Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd. (1990)
Byron, Glennis.  New Casebooks-Dracula.  Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd. (1999)
Garret, Peter K.  Gothic Reflections.  Cornell: Cornell University Press (2003)
Gelder, Ken.  Reading the Vampire.  London: Routledge (1994)
Navarette, Susan J.  The Shape of Fear.  Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky (1998)
Pichois, Claude. & Ziegler, Jean.  Baudelaire. (Translated by Graham Robb)  London: Vintage (2002)
Punter, David. & Byron, Glennis.  The Gothic.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2004)
Punter, David.  Gothic Pathologies.  Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd. (1998)
Sage, Victor.  Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition.  Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd. (1988)
Tucker, Herbert F.  A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2004)

- Stewart Pringle (2004)

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