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Context

Stanley Stepanic, Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Virginia, explains the historical and cultural context of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

Dracula | Context

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Eastern European Vampire Literature

Bram Stoker did not write the first vampire story. Myths and lore about vampires stretch back into ancient times and there are vampire-like creatures in folkore around the globe, but several published vampire stories preceded and likely influenced Stoker's novel. Dr. John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), a novel written as part of the literary challenge that also inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), features Lord Ruthven, an aristocratic, suave vampire who preys on young women but—unlike Dracula—escapes capture and judgment. Varney the Vampire, or, the Feast of Blood (1847) was a very different entry in the vampire canon—an illustrated penny dreadful first serialized from 1845–47. A penny dreadful was a cheap publication, a story told in several installments with each installment costing one penny. The author, who evidence suggests was either James Rymer or Thomas Prest, perhaps both, creates in Lord Varney a vampire with great strength and a growing sense of guilt over the deaths he causes. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's novella Carmilla (1871–72) presents a sexualized female vampire who preys on young women who, the novella implies, become her lovers. Carmilla's nemesis, Baron Vordenberg, is an expert on vampires, like Van Helsing.

However, Stoker's plans and drafts were influenced not only by these and other literary forebears but also by his own research into historical works, travel books, and records of lore. His working notes show his reliance, for example, on travel writer Emily Gerard's writings about Transylvania and the customs of people there. Gerard writes of the Romanian superstitious belief, as she saw it, in "all sorts of supernatural beings and monsters," of which the most terrible was the vampire. Stoker visited Whitby personally and while there read a history of Wallachia (home to Vlad III Dracula) and Moldavia; three references to the name Dracula in this work are what led him to give the vampire his famous name.

Horror versus Gothic Literature

Dracula is one of several important and enduring horror stories created by Victorian authors. The Gothic novel was well established (and had perhaps peaked and begun to decline) when Stoker began work on Dracula, yet his novel has Gothic traits:

  • mysterious settings often remote and ancient;
  • innocent young women pursued by older men, who often hail from other lands, and are finally saved by virtuous young men whom they marry;
  • and dramatic coincidences in which fate plays a hand.

But later Victorian horror novels such as Dracula incorporate psychological drama, as well. Characters' motivations become more sophisticated in these works, and conflict is connected to contemporary issues such as, in the case of Dracula, questions of sexuality and marriage, England's progressive agenda, and scientific challenges to religious traditions. Dracula belongs to a cluster of novels presenting change and transition, of body and of mind.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), among others, precede Dracula and all deal with forces that, usually for worse, transform characters' bodies, often in frightening and appalling ways, which cause the characters' essential selves to disintegrate and to be replaced by unexpectedly horrible personalities. These transformations allow authors to address real-world fears obliquely, without tripping over cultural sensitivities. For example, Dracula moves among London's "teeming millions" unnoticed and unchecked, for a time, taking prey and slowly regaining his youth. Metaphorically, his ability to glide through London spreading his curse could stand in for various fears like the spread of infection or the invasion of English culture by foreign ideas.

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