Dracula – a study guide

critical commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

Dracula (1897) is not the first novel to deal with the myth of vampyres. It follows a tradition which includes Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), William Polidori’s ‘The Vampire’ (1819), James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1847), Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla‘ (1872), and George du Maurier’s Trilby. But it is undoubtedly the best known, perhaps because it combines just about every aspect and manifestation of the myth – blood lust, sexual deviation, the UnDead, murder, bats, wolves, imprisonment, madness, and infanticide.

It also has the classic settings of Gothic horror stories – a castle in Transylvania, a ruined abbey, dungeons, crypts, graveyards, and a lunatic asylum. To this mixture is added virgins in distress, pseudo scientific experiments, drugs, telepathy, and hypnotism. It also has to be said that the novel is built from a fascinating and complex series of separate narratives and contains memorably vivid scenes and characters. The story lends itself to a number of different interpretations, and its fame was enhanced by the German silent film classic Nosferatu made in 1922 – which you can watch in its full length version below.


Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931)

Dracula – critical commentary

The novel attracts critical commentary on a number of recognisable themes, some of which overlap with each other.

The New Woman

Lucy and her friend Mina can be seen as examples of women who are prepared to take their destiny into their own hands. Mina has an independent career as a schoolteacher, and she is competent in shorthand. She uses a typewriter and can memorise train timetables. Although Lucy is something of a lightweight socialite at the start of the novel, she deals reasonably with her three proposals of marriage on a single day. They enjoy their friendship and dine out in a fashion which Mina actually likens to the appetites of the New Woman. Later in the novel when the gallant brotherhood of four men repeatedly exclude her from the pursuit of Dracula, it is she who not only persuades them otherwise but supplies the information that leads to his capture.

West Vs East

Modern studies of the post-colonial world have encouraged a view of the novel as a Victorian allegory of the Christian west fighting against the corrupt forces of the east. Many of the novel’s details support this view. The four blood brothers are all representatives of the western orthodoxy. Arthur Holmwood actually becomes Lord Godalming during the course of the novel; John Seward is a respected head of a medical institute. Quincy Morris represents the protestant new world, and Van Helsing the equally imperialist Dutch. All of them are Christians and several times swear religiously to overthrow the foreigner, the alien Dracula.

He is not only from what in the late nineteenth century was perceived as the eastern ‘edge’ of Europe (Romania), but he draws his inspiration and heritage from Turkey, which is still further east.

The Rise of Science

Dracula is drenched in references to the latest scientific developments and what we would now call new media. Both John Seward and Van Helsing are neuroscientists; they experiment with drugs, hypnosis, and telepathy in their dealings with both Lucy and Mina. The narrative includes a whole array of what were the latest technical developments at the end of the nineteenth century – the London underground, typewriters, a phonograph, shorthand and dictation, telegrams, and a camera. In the final stages of the chase to catch Dracula, Mina even acquires a portable typewriter in order to transcribe the contents of the various diaries and journals which record events.

Sex, blood, and sublimation

Lucy has three suitors who propose to her on the same day – John Seward, Quincy Morris, and Arthur Holmwood. In the central section of the novel, dealing with the aftermath of Lucy’s encounter with Dracula in Whitby Professor Van Helsing arrives and later mentions that he too is ‘in love’ with her. He proscribes blood transfusions as the only way of saving her. All four men in turn ‘give blood’ in a manner which is distinctly sexual by implication.

On each occasion attention is drawn to Lucy’s red lips, open mouth, pink gums, and white teeth – a clear image of the vagina dentata if ever one was in doubt. The experience of transfusion leaves the men depleted and exhausted, but brings life and colour back to Lucy’s cheeks. Van Helsing also observes that there might be possible jealousy between the suitors if they knew that their rivals had made this connection.

At one point Seward and Van Helsing also put Lucy in a bath of warm water to revive her, and although no reference is made to what she is wearing, it is reasonable to assume that she is not clothed. Moreover, throughout the whole series of treatments, they keep giving her drugs – morphine and opiates – which Van Helsing sometimes injects into her. Dracula takes in the blood of others in order to survive, and so does Lucy, but under medical supervision.

The climactic scene where Arthur takes the lead in killing Lucy is described in unmistakably sexual terms

Arthur took the stake and the hammer … placed the point over the heart … Then he struck with all his might … The Thing in the coffin writhed, and a hideous blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions, the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam… Arthur never faltered … his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, while the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it … And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth ceased to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still… Great drops of sweat sprang out on [Arthur’s] forehead, and his breath came in broken gasps. It had indeed been an awful strain on him…

And when Dracula visits Mina, the connection between them is even more sexualised.

With his left hand he held both Mrs Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension, his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast, which was shown by his torn open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink

It was once thought that semen was a condensed form of blood, and the reference to milk in the simile reinforces this connection, as well as suggesting that a form of forced fellatio is taking place in the scene.

Dracula – study resources

Dracula Dracula – Oxford Classics – Amazon UK

Dracula Dracula – Oxford Classics – Amazon US

Dracula Dracula – York Notes for students – Amazon UK

Dracula Dracula – York Notes for students – Amazon US

Dracula Dracula – Spark Notes for students – Amazon UK

Dracula Dracula – Spark Notes for students – Amazon US

Dracula Dracula – Cliffs Notes for students – Amazon UK

Dracula Dracula – Cliffs Notes for students – Amazon US

Dracula Dracula – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg

Dracula Dracula – full cast dramatisation BBC audioBook – Amazon UK

Dracula Dracula – Norton Critical Editions – Amazon US

Dracula Dracula – encyclopedia entry at Wikipedia

Dracula Dracula – scan of the first edition

Dracula Dracula – Francis Ford Coppola’s film version – Amazon UK

Dracula Dracula – 1931 Tod Hunter film version with Bela Lugosi – Amazon UK

Pointer Buffy the Vampire Slayer – complete boxed set – Amazon UK

Dracula – plot summary

DraculaEnglish solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula, who has bought properties in London. He is hospitably received, but then is held prisoner in the castle, where he encounters three female vampires. Harker writes letters to his fiancée and employer asking for help, but Dracula intercepts them. Dracula then takes a boat journey to England. On the journey the entire crew disappear one by one. The ship is driven ashore at Whitby, Yorkshire during a violent storm.

Meanwhile, Minna Murray, Harker’s fiancee is in Whitby with her friend Lucy Westenra, who has had three proposals from different suitors on the same day. She eventually accepts Arthur Holmwood. The two young women witness the aftermath of the storm, and Lucy begins to sleepwalk, finally making a mid-night encounter with Dracula, who leaves his signature fang marks in her neck.

Dr John Seward, one of Lucy’s suitors, is in charge of a lunatic asylum located in the grounds of one of the properties that Dracula has bought. He is principally occupied with Renfield, a zoophagic patient who is violent and keeps trying to escape.

Word arrives in England that Harker is in a church hospice in Europe, recovering from a nervous collapse. Mina travels to see him and they are married.

Lucy begins to suffer from anaemia, and she is consulted by Dr Seward and Professor Van Helsing, who perform repeated blood transfusions on themselves and Lucy’s fiance Arthur in order to keep her alive. Whilst she is recovering, an escaped wolf from London Zoo attacks the house. Lucy’s mother dies of fright, having left her estate to Arthur.

Despite further blood transfusions, Lucy dies too. Meanwhile Mina and Jonathan return to Exeter where Mr Hawkins makes them his inheritors, then suddenly dies. When Jonathan visits London for the the funeral he sees Dracula in Piccadilly, looking younger, following which there is an outbreak of attacks on young children in the London area. They report being abducted by a beautiful lady.

DraculaVan Helsing reads Lucy’s diaries and letters, then visits Mina and Jonathan in Exeter and reads the typed copies of their journals, which Mina has made. He then recruits John Seward to visit Lucy’s tomb, which turns out to be empty when they visit it at night. On returning in the daylight however, they find her there. He then recruits Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris, and the four men confront Lucy in her vampire mode outside the tomb. Next day they return in the daylight and Arthur drives a stake through her heart, following which Van Helsing cuts off her head.

The four men agree that they must locate Dracula and kill him, Van Helsing suggests that they exclude Mina from the group for her own safety. They visit Dracula’s house and locate some of the boxes of Transylvanian earth he has brought to England. Meanwhile, Mina is visited by Dracula at night.

Renfield is savagely attacked and dies, then the four men catch Dracula with Mina, who is now in his thrall. Dracula escapes, and the four men begin to purify the boxes of earth, to block off Dracula’s acces to a secure resting place. They break into his house at Carfax and two other properties on the Thames, and his house in Picadilly. They plan to kill him, but when he returns home he once again escapes.

Mina, still in Dracula’s thrall, is hypnotised by Van Helsin, and reveals that Dracula is on board a ship, presumably on his way back to Transylvania. The Gang of Four swear to track him down. First they once again exclude Mina from their plans for her own safety, but she argues that she will be valuable in the search, However, she makes them promise to kill her if Dracula’s influence over her should get worse. They agree, and embark on along journey which culminates almost where the novel began – on the Borgo Pass close to Dracula’s castle.

Van Helsin and Mina are confronted by the three female vampyres, who are driven away with Christian symbols back to the castle, Van Helsin follows and murders them in their coffins. Finally all the characters converge on the Pass where they intercept the cart containing Dracula in his box of earth trying to reach the castle before sunset. They capture the box, open it, and decapitate him.

Dracula – film version

There have been many film adaptations of the Dracula story – but F.W.Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is the first and most famous. It’s now regarded as a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema, along with works such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Bram Stoker’s widow Florence understandably but foolishly tried to defend her husband’s copyright to the story. She even went to the extent of buying up and destroying copies of the film. Murnau was forced to change the names of the characters, and to transpose the location from England to Germany. Some characters are missed out altogether – but the essence of the story remains the same, and the visuals are spectacular, much enhanced by the performance of Max Schreck as Count Orlok.

Principal characters
Jonathan Harker a young solicitor
Peter Hawkins an Exeter solicitor, his employer
Wilhelmina (Mina) Murray Jonathan’s fiancee then his wife, an assistant schoolmistress
Count Dracula a Transylvanian aristocrat
Lucy Westrena Mina’s friend, a socialite
Dr John Seward head of a lunatic asylum, suitor to Lucy
Quincy P Morris an American bachelor, suitor to Lucy
Arthur Holmwood
(later Lord Godalming)
engaged to Lucy
Renfield a zoophagic lunatic patient in Seward’s asylum
Professor Abraham Van Helsin a Dutch pysician and lawyer

Literary criticism

Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Glennis Byron, Dracula: New Casebook, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999.

Christopher Frayling, Vampires: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, London: Faber, 1991.

Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire, London: Routledge, 1994.

William Hughes, Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Reader’s Guide, London:Continuum, 2009.

Rob Lathom, Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Clive Leatherdale, Dracula: The Novel and the Legend: A Study of Bram Stoker’s Masterpiece, Brighton: Desert Island Books, 1993.

Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Si&eactue;cle, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1763 to the Present Day, London: Longmans, 1980.

Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Find Si&eactue;, London: Virago, 1992.

Montague Summers, The Vampire, 1928, London: Studio editions, 1995.

Trivia and parallels

When Harker arrives at the castle, Dracula makes his meals, waits on him as a servant, makes his bed, keeps him up at night talking, and even wears his clothes. Are these hints of the ‘Double’?

Lucy Westrena has three offers of marriage – and Dracula has three ‘brides’. The three suitors all become ‘blood-providers’ in the transfusion experiments on Lucy. The three female vampires are blood-providers for Dracula.

Dracula climbs up and down the wall of the castle to reach Harker’s room – and Harker in turn climbs up and down the wall to reach Dracula’s room.

Harker writes letters asking for help to escape from the castle – but Dracula intercepts the letters, then forces him to write a parallel set of false letters describing his departure from the castle.

Jonathan Harker is a solicitor, and acts as a conveyancer for Dracula’s purchases of property around London. Dracula has his castle, and establishes a property portfolio in England. Arthur inherits his title when his father dies, and then also inherits Lucy’s legacy because of an ‘entailed property’ clause in the family will. Jonathan Harker inherits the solicitor’s business from Mr Hawkins.

© Roy Johnson 2011

Literary studies links

Dracula Literary studies guides

Dracula Tutorials on 19th century authors

Dracula Tutorials on 20th century authors

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