The blood, the fangs, the garlic, the stake through the heart: you may never have read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but you know the character. The fanged vampire has become so ingrained in pop culture that the details of Stoker’s 1897 novel are easily forgotten. It recounts the struggle between Count Dracula, who comes over from Transylvania to suck English blood, and the valiant gang of men who confront him. Whilst indebted to the gothic literature of a century before, the story also reflects the anxieties of late Victorian society – Stoker, an Irishman, lived most of his life in London. Praised on its release, it has never been out of print, even if some of its values belong to another time…
In Victorian England, a woman had to be either chaste or married; promiscuity was unacceptable. Dracula reflects this view. The female goodies are pure and sweet but, when one is bitten by Dracula, she turns into a lustful vixen. The men, alarmed, see no option but to kill her. Male fear of female sexuality is a theme that runs throughout history, although women’s rights have come far since 1897.
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Stoker’s London is a progressive place, full of cutting-edge science and technology. Yet the heroes find that new medicine is powerless against the vampire’s curse. Only Professor Van Helsing, an elderly doctor well-schooled in ancient folk remedies, is able to help. As England rapidly modernised, many worried that old traditions were being lost. Stoker gives voice to that fear.
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Although Britain did most of the invading in the 1800s, by the century’s end, the public was terrified of being occupied by a foreign power. This gave rise to the genre of “invasion literature”. In Dracula, the vampire crash-lands on the shores of England and sows panic in the country. As he comes from Romania, he represents a strange, threatening culture that was mostly alien to Victorian readers.
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As an English visitor approaches Dracula’s castle in the Transylvanian hills, the locals give him crucifixes for protection. Indeed, throughout the novel the struggle between good and evil is cast in a religious light. Van Helsing describes himself as “a minister of God’s own will” – while Dracula, with his pointed ears and hairy body, evokes the Devil.
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Obviously. But then it is worth remembering that Stoker basically invented the modern vampire. Blood-sucking creatures have featured in folklore for millennia, and were popular in gothic literature. But Dracula (and its countless adaptations) cemented many traits we now associate with the genre, such as the Eastern European origins and fear of garlic. Vampires have been popular ever since…
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