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Victorian Anxieties Bram Stokers Dracula English Literature Essay

Bram Stokers Dracula, in the midst of its gothic atmosphere, creates a space for accidental and involuntary motifs, transactions, and symbolic features, that not only give rise to psychological interest, but also produce openings for revolution (Houston 11). Written in the midst of the late nineteenth- century, Dracula emerges, as what Houston calls, “a novel of Victorian psychical derangements”, elaborating on the anxieties produced by the various scientific discourses that questioned the conventional ideas of the Human.1 The significance of the relationship between science and novel lies in the representation of the individual as a microcosm of the social realm. The importance of the scientific outlook is realized in the secrets of the psychological and social life amid the mystery of a world, invisible to the untrained eye. Victorian novelists and scientists were quite interested in deconstructing this mystery of the human world that questioned the physical existence of man as a social being. As a result, according to Shuttleworth, they assumed the human body and psyche as the containers of the cultural anxieties. Consequently, there was an increase in the amount of the novels that pathologized “body as a dangerous city, where mania and crime lurk in hidden alley- ways, ever ready to leap out and disturb” the fragile life.2 Following the gothic trend of late Victorian fiction, Stoker characterized his world as a ‘nebula’ of the Darwinian and psychological state, that not only revealed the hidden personality of the individual but also “the evidences of the human continuity with the animal world”.3 The narrative fragments of Dracula embody the stress of the degenrated aspect of the human life that joins it with the animal world as Darwin suggests, and reveal the characters under abnormal psychological states, invoking the psychological interest in the novel. The remark by Van Helsing, “Why not advance science in its most difficult and vital aspect- the knowledge of the brain? Had I even the secret of one such mind- did I hold the key to the fancy of even one lunatic...” (Dracula 80); incites one to question Stoker’s use of Vampirism as a medical- mental phenomenon to delve into a conscious scientific inquiry of the Victorian mind, highlighting its cultural anxieties. I propose that this question can be answered by following the historical and scientific background of the novel, its characterization and its narrative strategy. As Foucault has argued, “the nineteenth- century witnessed the emergence of a new economy of the individual and social life, centered on the regulation of the forces of the body and controlled through surveillance”.4 The human body became the prominent source for the novelists and the scientists to unravel the process of the human mind. Supported by the scientific efforts in the form of modern psychology- including physiognomy and phrenology- the inner secrets of the mind were decoded by studying the external signs of the body. Phrenology was the key theory of the brain and science that involved character reading. It was believed that by examining the shape and unevenness of skull or head, one could penetrate the inner secrets of this hidden domain. Stoker was mainly interested in the science that preceded phrenology, i.e., physiognomy. The term closely related with phrenology, physiognomy studies the internal character from the external appearances- most notably the face. Dracula is filled with the instances where physiognomy acts as a chief element in decoding the hidden domain of Vampirism. For instance, the transformation of Lucy is confirmed by examining the physical characteristics such as “sharp teeth” and “voluptuous blood red lips” that instills the men to accept the new identity of Lucy as a female vampire- “the sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness” (Dracula 225). Indeed nineteenth- century physiology and psychiatry broke down earlier absolute divides between the normal and pathological, insisting that disease arose merely from an excess or deficiency of elements integral to normal functioning.5 In Dracula, Stoker broke this divide by using blood as an integral element of Vampirism, highlighting the subliminal cultural anxiety that Victorians associated with the blood system. The motif of blood in Dracula, “evokes an entire complex of cultural fears about the transmissibility of character through the body fluids” (Law 148). It induces the close relationship between blood and sexuality into that of Vampirism by exploring the Victorian belief that blood is sperm, therefore, feeding on blood and exchanging it can be related to intercourse. This belief was defined as Spermatic Economy- a popular nineteenth- century quasi- medical discourse in which semen is regarded as a product of the blood.6 This belief not only generated “the quasi- metaphysical fear of cross- species mixing”, but also the fear of blood- borne diseases like Syphilis (Law 157). The Vampirism in the novel incites both these fears eminently. The transformation of Lucy into a female vampire is through the process of cross- species mixing that involves the exchange of blood- a semen- giving rise to Vampirism, as a kind of Syphilis.7 However, blood also acts as a basis for “intangible telepathic connection between Mina Harker and Count Dracula, overwriting the equivalent channels in both mesmerism and hypnotism”.8 In this case the infectious blood becomes a psychic tool for the Count to trace the movements of the Van Helsing and the crew. In the 1880’s “tremendous change in the fields of medicine and microbiology” not only provided Stoker a medium to built his myth of Vampirism on the notion of “infectious diseases”, but also to highlight “the fearful worldview of the late 1800’s with respect to the diseases” like Cholera and Rabies.9 The myth of Vampirism allows Stoker to penetrate into the debate involving the spread of the diseases and the procedure of “medical research that closely affected the mindset of the Victorian England”.10 Vampirism is illustrated as an infectious disease that is “directly transmitted from an infected individual to a non- infected individual via a bite”.11 It has the character of that of Cholera, a disease whose ‘eastern’ origin intricate the image of an invader from “the East”, bringing death and infection. This image of the invader is eminently related with Vampirism as a mental phenomenon, whose dangers are realized by the characters, but the cause is unknown. Their anxiety to decode this phenomenon is parallel with the situation of the nineteenth-century physicians who were trying to understand the cause of Cholera. Another disease that is more accurately related to Vampirism is Rabies- a disease involving the transmission of infection by the bite of an infected animal. The similarity between Vampirism and Rabies involve the medium of infectious animal transmitting the disease through bodily fluids, i.e., saliva containing in the Rabies and the infectious blood in Vampirism. The social terror involved in these fatal diseases also link them intricately with the fear associated with an image of the uncontrollable animal, elaborated in the myth of Vampire. The important historical and scientific aspect of Vampirism is evolutionism. The key element of Darwin’s theory embodied into the Vampirism is the correlation between progress and degeneration. According to Glendening, Victorians’ translation of Darwin’s ideas from the biological to social realm led to varied and conflicted applications.12 For instance, some people taking into account the idea of progress propogated by Darwin’s theory, related it to societal progress; whereas some termed it as a gradual process of degeneration of human mind into chaos. Most of the later theories reflected these anxieties about the society formed on the basis of “survival of the fittest”. The elements of chance, competition, predation, death and extinction, embedded in Darwin’s theory of “natural selection”, attributed to the threat of physical, social, and moral chaos causing social degeneration. The modern world of Dracula, retains the progressive aspect of evolutionism until the arrival of Count Dracula that unveils the primitivism lurking beneath the civilized world of Victorian England. The best example of this retrogressive descent is Harker’s journey from modern England to the uncharted, primitive Transylvania. His journey acts as a Darwinian discourse of the human ancestry; charting the “evolutionary time- line” into the primitive past that reveals the degenerated bestial side of man. Harker’s transformation from a reasonable, educated modern man into the hysteric counter part of primitive Count Dracula further seals the retrogressive movement of the modern scientific society. Another example of degeneration is the formation of the female vampires- “the floating motes of dust” notes Harker “gathered till they seemed to take [on the] dim phantom shapes” of the women who “gradually materialized” into the particles “whirled round and gathered in clusters in nebulous sort of way” (Dracula 62- 63). Here the “materialization” of the female vampires from the dust metaphorically alludes to the evolution from the dust and chaos into the human/ animal form. The important thing to note amid this “evolutionary theory” is the end product of the whole process, which is the evolution of female vampires- the semi- human life. This reveals the lower evolutionary status of the human standard which is psychologically and morally retrogressive. Dracula, confronts this retrogression in the form of Vampirism, that not only highlights the decayed moral values but also the state of a degenerated society where the “physical and mental debilitation suffered in one generation” ought to express itself in the next.13 The more basic fear among Victorian people, however, was that modernity could never escape the grasp of its own primitive origins.14 Before examining the characters in the psychological light, the controversial debate between Spiritualism and Science needs to be referred in order to explain the high status of the nineteenth- century physicians. Dracula as a scientific novel opens up the controversial debate regarding Spiritualism and Science, that according to Noakes related Victorian science as “enlightenment” and Spiritualism as a “marginalized, bottomless deep”.15 In this controversial debate was added “the physician’s peculiar and delicate positioning between scientific norms and social mores…pressurizing the physicians to remove the fears and fantasies of their clientele by accounting the economy of bodily fluids. Time after time, medical professionals found themselves at the center of discomfiting social controversies over the regulation of bodily fluids: Spermatorrhoea in the 1850’s, 1860’s and 1870’s; the Contagious Diseases acts in the 1860’s, 1870’s and 1880’s; and the compulsory vaccination in the 1870’s, 1880’s, and 1890’s” (Law 155- 156). According to Law, the controversy over compulsory vaccination hit particularly hard and was popularly described as a kind of “blood- poisoning”, with doctors as the vampiric enemy. It is particularly because of this notion that the blood- transfusion was regarded as a dangerous procedure that was not well understood. In the figures of Van Helsing and Jack Seward, Stoker provides a glimpse into the controversial debate. Van Helsing, the world famous scientist triumphs over the combination of the spiritual and scientific expertise; whereas Seward- a mental health specialist- is of a rational scientific character that requires rational explanations for supernatural phenomena like Vampirism- “You are a clever man, friend John (says Van Helsing); you reason well, and your wit is bold; but you are too prejudiced. . . . Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young.” (Dracula 134). However, Stoker seems to prefer the psychological explanations of Van Helsing rather than Seward, who later succumbs to the theory of Helsing. The research of Helsing paves way for the modern sciences- including psychiatry, physiognomy and hypnosis- into the mythological realm of Vampirism. Vampirism as a mental phenomenon is best illustrated through the medical discoveries in the Victorian England that embody the cultural anxieties about disease, insanity and gender constructions. The major pathological cases in the novel are that of Lucy, the three female vampires, Mina and Reinfield. It is the descent of female characters into the Vampirism that provides a medical opportunity to reveal the gender constructions of Victorian England. In Dracula, the vampiric transformation of women is expressed through the physiognomy of their body. The issues reflected are related with that of hunger and the shift between the anorexic emancipation and “voluptuous flesh” highlighting the deformed femininity. If studied under psychological impression, the exaggerated representation of anorexia embodies the male fears about the ‘New Woman’ and her unrestrained sexual appetite typified by hunger. If studied under the light psychology, the representation of deformed femininity, with “voluptuous” sexual appetite, embodies male fears about the ‘New Woman’ and her unrestrained sexual appetite typified by hunger. The fear of the so- called ‘New Woman’ and the reversal of the sexual roles imply the social construct of the venereal disease called Syphilis, associated with the sexual appetite of uncontrolled women. Showalter in her critical work Sexual Anarchy, claims that in the fictions of 1890’s, Syphilis, played a symbolic role in defining the gender constructs of the male dominated Victorian society. The disease was mainly regarded as the eruption of a repressed desire that surfaced a secret life. Lucy and Mina, the two heroines of the novel unconsciously harbor the secret desires of following the path of ‘New Woman’- whether it is the frustrated desire of Lucy to marry her three suitors or Mina’s fascination about the independence of the ‘New Woman’. Dracula, who acts as a syphilitic man infecting first Lucy and then Mina. The victimization of Lucy and Mina illustrate the dangers of syphilis through the physical and moral degeneration. In the feminist view the syphilitic insanity “was the product of man’s viciousness and represented innocent woman’s entrapment and victimization”.16 They used the Darwinian theory against the misogynist men and termed syphilis as a key to their savage origin. In the novel, Dracula, in the feminist view can be seen as a misogynist savage man infecting women with the fatal disease. Another pathological character that embodies the symptoms of Vampirism is Renfield. However, the origin of his symptoms remains unknown, nevertheless, his disease is characterized as a psychiatrically and/or neurological.17 Through the case of Renfield, Stoker emphasizes on the nature and condition of the lunatic asylum in nineteenth century. The case study of Renfield illustrates the growth of scientific technology of nineteenth century, when the phonographs were used to record the observations of the lunatic patient.18 The condition of Renfield works upon the psychic element of Vampirism, where the infected body exerts telepathic connection with his master Dracula. This connection not only embodies the symptoms of hysteria but also the clinical condition of Vampirism as a disease. In the 1980’s Herschel Prins developed the idea of Vampirism as a clinical condition. In 1992, this condition was associated with Renfield’s syndrome by psychologist Richard Noll.19 Noll defined three stages for Vampirism: “Auto vampirism- generally developed in the initial stages of childhood where the scrapes or cuts are inflicted by the person to produce blood which is then ingested; Zoophagia- is the eating of living creatures, but more specifically the drinking of their blood”, (as observed in the case of Renfield where he consumes the insects in the ascending order of the life form in order to grab the life force in the form of blood), this stage may develop prior to the first stage; and “the last stage is Vampirism, defined by the procuring and drinking of the blood of living human beings”.20 These stages gradually define the state of Renfield from a “Zoophagous”, as defined by Seward, to that of Vampirism where the blood acquires the mystical significance for him- “The blood is life” (Dracula 152, 249). His transformation is sealed with his act of “licking the blood” of Seward like a “dog”; thus, marking his degeneration from a lunatic man to that of semi- human being. However, the one interesting thing to note about Renfield’s syndrome is his engagement with the experiment involved to trace the ascending life force in the nature, which would provide him the immortal power, as Seward observes- “…he keeps a little notebook in which he is always jotting down something. Whole pages of it are filled with masses of figures, generally single numbers added up in batches, and then the totals added in batches again, as though he were ‘focusing’ some account...” (Dracula 78). His eagerness to balance out the masses of figures in order to trace the life forces, reflects upon the social, economic and political anxieties of the Victorian man, who was deeply entangled within the web of scientific and religious theories that explained the existence of man. Vampirism as a mental phenomenon can be understood by studying hysteria as the key element of the novel. To further the argument one needs to decode the narrative technique of the epistolary novel as a scientific explanation of the mental disorder, where the patient is compelled to write his/her experiences so that he is able to track his mental digression. In all other social phenomena, psychological facts play an important role in Victorian society that compelled the professions to keep painstaking accounts of every aspect of society, including mental.21 In this way the novel is more or less seen as a psychological report, where the different diaries by the characters create “a testimony of their own mental disorder”.22 According to Dingley in his essay “Count Dracula and the Martians”, the characters of Dracula, are the “defenders of civilization, obsessive narrators… recording their every move on the new fanged phonograph” (The Victorian Fantasies 22). This obsessive compulsion is seen in the case of Harker who encapsulates this historiographical compulsion to record every detail of his mental phenomena: “I must keep writing at every chance, for I dare not stop to think, all, big and little, must go down..” (Dracula 344). Harker’s journal embodies the development of paranoia that traces the retrogression of a skeptical rational mind into a mental disorder, where he tries to commit suicide in an attempt to escape his own (mental) reality. Another controversial idea to situate Vampirism as a medical condition is to define the characters in the light of hysteric situations. According to Helen King, people who are “hysterical” often lose self- control due to an overwhelming fear. This fear can be centered on a body part or most commonly, on an imagined problem with that body part. The fear is then termed as “Mass hysteria”, when it is associated with the waves of popular medical problems, creating a condition of helplessness.23 In the case of Dracula, the hysteria that is created is related to the Victorian anxiety of exchanging bodily fluids and the infectious diseases like Cholrea and Syphilis. Dracula symbolizes the infectious disease that not only exerts the fear of cross- mixing species, but also the social terror of a fatal disease in the form of Vampirism. This disease creates a paranoia that entangles the major characters of the novel into a hysterical web, Van Helsing being the center of this web. It is first in the observation of Seward that we get the glimpse of Van Helsing as a hysteric- “the moment we were alone in the carriage he gave way to the regular fit of hysterics. He had denied to me since that it was hysterics, and insisted it was only his sense of humour asserting itself under very terrible condition” (Dracula 225). He relates this hysteric attitude of the scientist in relation to the myth of the Vampire. Here it is important to note that throughout the novel the information about the Vampirism is only known to Van Helsing. The characters come to know about Vampirism only through Van Helsing’s myth of Vampirism. There is no written account by Count Dracula that could confirm the suspicions of the scientist. Therefore, one seems to regard Helsing as a mentally insane patient who is convinced by the reality of his hallucinations. He imposes his delusive reality over the rest of characters who share his delusive reality. The extremity of this delusive reality can be seen in the case of Seward, a mental health physician, who accepts this delusion with little skepticism. The atmosphere of the novel is then characterized as a stage of “sensitive hallucination”, where the characters are completely convinced of the reality of the situation and their behavior illustrate the acceptance of that (mental) reality.24 The need to rely on this (mental) reality urge the characters to share their information, personal diaries and notes, so that they feel safe against the threat of Vampirism. This act of sharing the knowledge shapes their paranoid into a reality that spread inside their minds, sharing the madness. Hence, “it is somehow appropriate that the campaign of Van Helsing to execute Dracula has its headquarters in a lunatic asylum, the site of tidily contained but disordered minds” (Dracula xxxiii). Stoker’s Dracula, in using Vampirism as a combination of Victorian cultural and science, illustrate a mental phenomenon that unveils the darker side of cultural anxieties in the form of supernatural. It uses medical and modern sciences to elaborate upon the scientific debates of nineteenth century that concentrated on the human body and mind. It addresses and moulds the Darwinian concerns of ‘progressive evolution’ into that of modern society, where degeneration lurks beneath the surface of modernity. “The underlying evolutionary significations of the novel are frightening because they endorse a mindless, materialistic Darwinian universe that adheres to the moral and social decay, affecting the physical and psychological condition of the man” (Glendening 124). This materialistic Darwinian universe is “studded with characters obsessively recording the fevers, nightmares and illnesses”, through which one can understand the historical and scientific development of Victorian world (Houston 121). Therefore, by understanding the medical and psychological background of the novel, the Vampirism can be regarded as a mental/medical phenomenon that not only makes a conscious scientific inquiry of the Victorian mind, but also situates Dracula in the state of suppressed or palpable hysteria, that embodies the cultural anxieties of nineteenth century Victorian England.


In the late 1800’s, the scientific discourses like evolutionism, Lamarckism, mental physiology and sexology, dismantled the idea of the perfect human being in the modern society. This issue was revived by the gothic literature of late 19th century. Dracula, written in 1897, intricately deals with these discourses in order to provide an empirical account of human mind and body.

Shuttleworth, Sally. Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1996: 16.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the present day. London: Longman Group Ltd, 1980: 239.

Shuttleworth, Sally. Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology (1996): 3.

Ibid., 12.

Hughes, William. Beyond Dracula. Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000: 140.

Vampire transformed Lucy into his own kind by having sexual intercourse with her. By seeing the act of blood- sucking in sexual terms, the blood exchange can be seen as an act of exchanging fluids that happens in a sexual intercourse. Consequently, the blood of Vampire can be seen as a “semen” that gave rise to a new kind. It’s disastrous aftereffects can allude to the effects of Syphillis. The chaos of destruction brought by the act of Vampirism can be rellated to the Victorian anxities surrounding the disease of sexual irregularities,i.e., Syphillis.

Hughes, William. Beyond Dracula (2000): 176.

Sutton, Jessica. “Dracula and the Victorian Understanding of Disease”. Simplysupernatural-vampire.com. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.



Glendening, John. The Evolutionary Imagination in Late- Victorian Novels: An Entangled Bank. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 1988: 14.

Like Darwinism, Lamarckism also provides a form of degeneration. The theory asserts that animals, exercise volition by making natural choice that include physical and moral debilitation. This debilitation suffered in one generation is passed onto the other one.

Glendening, John. The Evolutionary Imagination in Late- Victorian Novels: An Entangled Bank (1988): 117.

Noakes, Richard. “Spiritualism, Science and the Supernatural in mid- Victorian Britain.” The Victorian Supernatural. Nicola Bown et al eds. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2004: 24- 25.

Showalter, Elaine. “Syphilis, Sexuality, and the Fiction of the Fin de Siecle.” Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth- Century Novel. Ed. Ruth Bernard Yeazell. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986: 94.

Regis Olry & Duane E. Haines. “Renfield’s Syndrome: A Psychiatric Illness drawn from Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and the Clinical Perspectives, 17th October 2011, p. 368.

In Dracula, Stoker make use of modern technologies like Phonographs, telegrams, typewriter, etc. to highlight the scientific progress of nineteenth- century. In the novel, Dr Seward uses phonograph to record his observations about the lunatic behavior of Renfield.

Regis Olry, and Duane E. Haines. “Renfield’s Syndrome: A Psychiatric Illness drawn from Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and the Clinical Perspectives (17th October 2011): 369.

Noll, Richard. Vampires, Werewolves, & Demons:TwentiethCentury Reports in the Psychiatric Literature. New York: Brunner/ Mazel Publishing, Inc., 1992: 366.

Houston, Turley Gail. From Dickens to Dracula: Gothic, Economics, and Victorian Fiction. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2005: 123.

Andrer, Romero- Joder. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A study on the Human Mind and Paranoid Behavior”, Atlantis 31.2 (2009), 23- 39.

King, Helen. “Once upon a text: Hysteria from Hippocrates.” Hysteria beyond Freud. Ed. Gilman, Sander; King; Porter, Helen et al. California: The University of California Press, 1993: 3- 90.

Mesa Cid defined three types of hallucinatory experiences: sensitive hallucination- where the patient is completely convinced of the reality of the situation, and his behavior reacts to that experience; hallucinosis- where the person’s reaction answers the experience, although the patient is not completely convinced of the perceived reality (as in the case of Dr Seward); and pseudo hallucination- where the person perceives the reality more vaguely, not through the senses, but feeling it inside the mind (as in the case of Mina who has a telepathic connection with Dracula).

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