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Stanley Stepanic, Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Virginia, explains themes in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.

Dracula | Themes


Limits of Modern Knowledge

Ancient and modern knowledge play important parts in Dracula as the main characters struggle to understand who and what Dracula is—and both are necessary in the battle against Dracula. Despite Stoker's admiration for and inclusion of new scientific knowledge and advancing technology, which he reveals in small details about cameras, portable typewriters, and the like, what saves the day is the lore Van Helsing gathers from old sources and from experts in ancient myths.

Knowledge itself is not quite safe in the novel, an echo of the Genesis story from the Bible in which the desire to know good from evil causes Adam and Eve to risk expulsion from paradise. Readers see this ambivalence, for example, when Seward admits wanting to let Renfield's madness run to murder to advance science, and when Van Helsing accuses Dracula of overstepping what humans may rightly know and learning dark arts in the Scholomance. Knowledge, as Van Helsing says and demonstrates, must be controlled. People must understand its limits.

Masculinity and Femininity

In Dracula relationships between men and women, whether mortal or vampire, drive choices and reveal characters' desires. The novel is partly a tug-of-war for the love and allegiances of Lucy and Mina. In Lucy's case, not only Dracula but three mortal men want to possess her innocence and golden beauty. In Mina's case, the struggle is between Harker and Dracula, but over the course of the novel, all the men, Van Helsing included, come to love Mina and would rather die than see Dracula make her his bride.

The question is what inspires such love in the men. Mina and Lucy are representatives of Victorian womanhood just as the young men represent then modern masculinity. Together they test the boundaries of acceptable social behavior and embody and rebel against cultural expectations in the areas of work, dominance, and sexuality.

Salvation and Damnation

Van Helsing frames the conflict in Dracula as a battle of good against evil. He identifies good in explicitly Christian terms, uses objects associated with Christian rites against Dracula, and speaks often of God's judgment and of Dracula and his victims as excluded from salvation and heaven. He even grieves Dracula's defection from the good because such a being could advance God's work, if he chose to.

Dracula, in contrast, is associated with darkness, death, and damnation, since any vampire he creates is cut off from heaven. Van Helsing goes further by accusing Dracula and his ancestors of having studied with "the Evil One" in a legendary school, the Scholomance, to learn to control weather and communicate with animals, skills denied mortals. Marks of damnation—especially Mina's burned forehead—dominate the novel's final chapters in particular and culminate not only in Mina's purification but also the release of the souls of the vampire women and perhaps of Dracula's as well.

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