Religion is a heavy weight on the shoulders of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel asks the reader to question the weight and might of religion against the backdrop of the limited power of science. The novel positions religion as the moral arbiter of ultimate good. When all other reason fails religion and religious symbols win against the forces of darkness and ignorance. Christopher Herbert describes it in “Vampire Religion” as a “strong religious thrust” (100). Dracula is a novel fixated with facts and minutia while simultaneously giving way to overarching raids into the occult and divine. As an analogy to the overarching mechanics of religiosity and the divine Stoker positions Van Helsing as a God-like figure, while Count Dracula represents the more obvious devil-like figure. However, it is Van Helsing who carves the moral and religious reasoning that moves the plot forward. In this essay, we will analyze Van Helsing’s semi-deified role, his position as an arbiter between good and evil, and his interpretation of the world.
Van Helsing is an atypical character. Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, Lucy Westenra, Arthur Holmwood, and John Seward are all British. We can confer the status of British on Mr. Morris under the United States previous colonial status and its cultural connection to England. However, the only two characters that are not British or connected to Britain by cultural association are Van Helsing and Dracula. He is described by Dr. Seward as “Professor Van Helsing, of Amsterdam who knows as much about obscure diseases as anyone in the world” (Stoker 105). From his first introduction, Van Helsing is demarcated as other by his place of origin and profuse knowledge. When Dr. Seward was perplexed by Lucy’s illness he looks towards a greater power, in this case, Van Helsing. Mario Vrbančic in his essay “Globalisation, Empire, and the Vampire” describes Van Helsing “job… [is] to make us believe the impossible” (5). It is interesting to note that in many Judeo-Christian traditions God is subtly trying to make his purpose be understood by progressive revelation. For example, in Daniel 10:1 the Bible states, “a revelation was given to Daniel… Its message was true and concerned a great war. The understanding of the message came to him in a vision” (NIV). In the book of Daniel, there are numerous messages that are only understood through the lens of time. Professor Van Helsing comes to the aid of those who seek help with knowledge, which he then reveals in incremental doses. He lords over the Lucy’s sickness and later the chase for Count Dracula with subtle God-like undertones.
During Lucy Westenra’s degeneration into a vampire, Van Helsing hints at knowledge and offers solutions that Dr. Seward, Lucy, and Lucy’s mother are all unfamiliar with and do not understand. In this regard the following excerpt elucidates Van Helsing’s alterity:
Oh, Professor, I believe you are only putting up a joke on me. Why, these flowers are only common garlic.”
To my surprise, Van Helsing rose up and said with all his sternness, his iron jaw set and his bushy eyebrows meeting,
“No trifling with me! I never jest! There is grim purpose in what I do, and I warn you that you do not thwart me. Take care, for the sake of others if not for your own. (Stoker 122)
If we notice, Van Helsing in this situation is taken to be jesting. Dr. Seward himself expresses surprise at the use of garlic but relents under Helsing’s explanation. Van Helsing is dominant and explosive. He dictates the course of action needed to be taken and those around him are expected to follow suit. In this fashion, Van Helsing represents a Judeo-Christion God who is forceful and managerial.
Ultimately, it is Van Helsing who drives the narrative against Dracula. In his speech before they leave to intercept the count Van Helsing says, “for it [referring to Dracula] have to yield to the powers that come from, and are, symbolic of good” (Stoker 298, 299). It is clear that Van Helsing knows what affects Dracula negatively and how he can be destroyed. He ascribes the label of good to religious objects that are embedded throughout the Christian tradition. Gavin Pate in “Vampire God” offers this modern moral critic of the vampire genre; “The vampire offers its victims horrific and contradictory choices when reflecting on their deaths. Will they be butchered and left for dead, or will they be granted the ultimate pardon, the immoral choice of everlasting life?” (261). Dracula plays out this moral dilemma, but the answer is categorical. There is no option. According to Val Helsing Lucy and, to some extent, Mina do not get a choice. He calls it “the curse of immortality,” in other words, something vile. In his judgment he proclaims Lucy an evil “Un-Dead” and further says, “this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the lady we love shall again be free” (Stoker 200). Therefore, Van Helsing takes it upon himself to label aspects of Lucy’s life but casts judgment upon her life once she has metamorphosed into a vampire. He is the driver of the moral struggle against the vampires and their way of life.
If we notice in the text it is Van Helsing who convinces the others of Lucy corrupt nature after her human death. He is the one that brings to light Count Dracula’s sordid and complicated past. While the others tremble with fear and attempt to forget the past (i.e. Jonathan Harker after his encounter with Dracula and before meeting Van Helsing), Van Helsing actively tries to rehash and connect the pieces of the story. He creates the disassociation necessary for them to commit their perceived duty of murder and satiate their desire for vengeance. Jamil Khader in “Un/Speakability and Radical Otherness” states, “the band of witnesses… in killing [Lucy]… frame her murder within a theological narrative of redemption and salvation that invests her death with meaning for them, while absolving them from complicity in her murder” (78). As an avenue for the novel’s moral crises Van Helsing vents in his convictions of good and evil all the while swaying the other characters in their beliefs.
The novel focuses on “a series of passages [that] instructs readers to interpret the tale not just in accordance with a broadly ecumenical religious spirit but in particular theological terms” (Herbert 101). The ideological bent is driven particularly through Van Helsing. He is the one who guides Arthur’s hand to destroy the vampire Lucy. He rants on several occasions about the need to destroy the Count. The reader is repeatedly fed the novel’s moral structure through the eyes and mouth of Van Helsing. Herbert continues, “a vampire, declares the pious Van Helsing, nominally an advanced medical scientist but more a lay priest (and necromancer) and the book’s main religious authority, is ‘an arrow in the side of Him who died for man’ (D, 276)” (101). As Herbert pointedly points out it seems that Van Helsing is the anti-thesis to Count Dracula. Whereas Dracula is barely present and his worldview is deduced more than vocalized, Van Helsing’s worldview is vocalized and incessantly reaffirmed by guilt-inducing speeches to the other characters. He represents the positive versus the negative, thus, Van Helsing sets himself up as good while affirming the evils of Dracula.
According to Van Helsing the “Draculas… were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One” (174). From his Judeo-Christian viewpoint, anything that is different and dark is immediately linked to Satan. Herbert asserts, “the evil Count is above all an emanation of the world of superstition and an image of a terrible menace posed by the superstitious mentality to decent Christian existence” (101). As Herbert points out the push against the Count is reduced to the fight between religious external versus internal forces. Van Helsing considered all things connected to Dracula emanating from the occult. This is diametrically opposed to notions of cleanliness and purity within his Christian Belief system. This notion is highlighted when Mina Harker screams “unclean” numerous times when the Catholic wafer is placed on her forehead (Stoker 187). Therefore, in Van Helsing’s worldview paganism is not only evil but its expansion (represented by Dracula creating more vampires) is abhorrent. As the enforcer of his moral code, for we must remember that while one can barely attribute the death of one vampire to each of the other men, Van Helsing takes the lead in murdering vampires. He kills the three female vampires while holding Mina protected/captive. He also makes it clear that he would be capable of killing a vampire Mina if she crossed fully into the world of vampirism. Consequently, we see throughout the novel the religious fervor on Van Helsing’s part that allows us to see his worldview and how these notions continually shape the argument about good versus evil throughout the narrative.
Dracula embraces the narrative of unyielding religious dogma and uses Van Helsing as a god-like — in the Christian vein — figure to drive this narrative. It is interesting to note that while Helsing’s voice is prominent throughout the book, only one entry titled, “Dr. Seward’s Phonograph Diary Spoken by Van Helsing,” is really told by his voice. The rest of the events and his speeches are the reproductions of other characters. This implies that the effect of his actions and words influenced the other characters immensely. He was the great overseer of their anti-vampiric enterprises and proved to be the consolidator of the two main groups of characters the Harkers and Lucy’s three suitors. In his semi-deified role, Van Helsing pulls in all the elements needed to accomplish their goal and lords over their proceedings in a sanguine but dictatorial manner. It is evident that throughout the text his notions of good versus evil propel the plot and actions of the characters forward. He also stresses his worldview of the forces beyond logical explanation on the rest of the characters. Count Dracula serves as the obvious representation of things evil and dark while Van Helsing serves to highlight the principle of Christianity that fear paganism and strange lifestyles. Throughout the novel, we return to the othering of Van Helsing to highlight the perceived higher moral nature of his character in the representation of the contemporary British and, more so, Christian principles. In effect, Dracula is heavily imbued with religious themes and the most potent supporter and espouser of Judeo-Christian doctrine and symbols is Van Helsing.
Dracula Bram Stoker
(Full name Abraham Stoker) Irish novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Stoker's novel Dracula (1897).
Dracula is one of the most famous horror novels of all time. Published in 1897, the book garnered much critical and popular attention at the time of its publication and through the years has spawned countless stories and novels by other authors, as well as numerous theatrical and cinematic adaptations. In fact, Dracula has never gone out of print since its first publication. Many critics regard the novel as the best-known and most enduring Gothic vampire story ever published.
Plot and Major Characters
Dracula is an epistolary novel, comprised of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, a ship's log, and phonograph recordings. In the first part of the novel, a young English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, is sent to Transylvania to counsel a wealthy client, Count Dracula. During Harker's two-month stay at Dracula's castle, he becomes disconcerted by Dracula's odd appearance, eccentricities, and predatory behavior; he begins to fear for his safety. After some investigation, Harker discovers that Dracula sleeps in a coffin in a crypt beneath the castle during the day and spends his nights stealing babies from the nearby town. He attempts to escape the castle, where he has become a hostage. In the next part of the novel, the scene shifts to England and the friendship between Harker's fiancée, Mina Murray, and a young lady named Lucy. After being courted by three worthy suitors, Lucy has accepted the marriage proposal of Arthur Holmwood, the future Lord Godalming. While on vacation in Whitby with Lucy and her mother, Mina chronicles in her diary the mysterious arrival of a Russian schooner, containing fifty boxes of earth, the corpses of the ship's crew, and a large black dog, which quickly disappears after landing. Lucy begins acting strangely, and Mina finds two tiny holes in Lucy's neck. Abruptly, Mina is called to Budapest to tend to Jonathan, who has escaped Dracula's castle and is suffering from brain fever. When he is sufficiently recovered, the two marry. Meanwhile, Lucy's condition deteriorates, and she gets weaker and paler. Holmwood appeals to his friend and former rival for Lucy's affections, the doctor Seward, to assess her condition. He also calls in a specialist, Dr. Van Helsing. Despite various treatments, Lucy dies.
After Harker and Mina return to London, Harker sees Dracula on the street but begins to doubt his own sanity. Reports in the newspaper detail the abduction of several small children near the cemetery where Lucy was buried. Harker describes his experiences in Dracula's castle to Van Helsing, who connects Dracula with Lucy; he realizes that Lucy has become a vampire and is abducting and biting local children. Van Helsing, Seward, Holmwood, and another of Lucy's former suitors, Morris, trap Lucy, drive a stake through her heart, and cut off her head. Then they place holy wafers in several of the boxes of earth found on the Russian schooner, thereby rendering the coffins uninhabitable for vampires. Meanwhile, Dracula has chosen Mina for his next victim and begins to turn her into a vampire. Van Helsing and his crew try to save her, but realize they have to kill Dracula to do it. They track Dracula to his London home, yet he manages to escape. They follow him to Europe, and after a struggle, they drive a knife through his heart and cut off his head. As Dracula's body disintegrates, Mina is saved.
Initially, Dracula was interpreted as a straightforward horror novel. Yet later critics began to explore the theme of repressed sexuality within the story. Commentators asserted that the transformation of Dracula's female victims, Lucy and Mina, from chaste to sexually aggressive should be considered a commentary on the attitude toward female sexuality in Victorian society. Homoerotic elements in the relationship between Dracula and Harker have also been detected. Moreover, the drinking of blood has been regarded as a metaphor for sexual intercourse, and the stakes that kill Lucy and three other vampire women have been discussed as phallic symbols. Critics have since tended to view Dracula from a Freudian psychosexual standpoint; however, the novel has also been interpreted from folkloric, political, feminist, and religious points of view. Other commentators have identified themes of parricide, infanticide, and gender reversal in Dracula. Autobiographical aspects of the novel have also been a topic of critical discussion, as a few commentators maintain that the novel is based on Stoker's traumatic experiences with doctors—and particularly the procedure of blood-letting—as a sickly child. The literary origins of Dracula have been investigated, such as Dr. William Polidori's The Vampyre, Thomas Prest's Varney the Vampyre, J. S. Le Fanu's Carmilla, and Guy de Maupassant's “Le Horla.”
Early critical reaction to Dracula was mixed. Some early reviewers noted the “unnecessary number of hideous incidents” which could “shock and disgust” readers. One critic even advised keeping the novel away from children and nervous adults. Today the name of Dracula is familiar to many people who may be wholly unaware of Stoker's identity, though the popularly held image of the vampire bears little resemblance to the demonic being that Stoker depicted. Adaptations of Dracula in plays and films have taken enormous liberties with Stoker's characterization. A resurgence of interest in traditional folklore has revealed that Stoker himself did not conform to established vampire legend. Yet Dracula has had tremendous impact on readers since its publication. Whether Stoker evoked a universal fear, or as some modern critics would have it, gave form to a universal fantasy, he created a powerful and lasting image that has become a part of popular culture.