Bram Stoker’s Dracula presents the character of Dracula as a metaphor for the cultural paranoia of physical and moral decay surrounding syphilis and the author’s own experience with the debilitating illness. Social changes such as the emergence of “the New Woman” and progressive ideas about gender roles prompted a societal fear of declining female virtue and chastity. Syphilis was most prominent in Whitechapel, a district in London notorious for its high levels of prostitution and made famous by the Jack the Ripper murders. Many 19th century scientists believed that prostitutes conceived syphilis in their sexual organs as a result of their promiscuity. While encompassing society’s disapproval of prostitution, Dracula also demonstrates Stoker’s belief that swapping fluids with a stranger at night leads to a life of misery. The likeness of vampirism to syphilis are similar in their foreign origin, the way they spread, and the effects on the victim. Stoker demonstrates how a lack of a moral values leads to contracting foreign disease.
Both vampirism and STDs are believed to have started outside of London and arrived in London via ship. According to Mark Rose, syphilis has New World origin and was transported across the Atlantic back to Europe following Columbus’ visit to the New World. Vampirism originated in Transylvania and was transported via Dracula to London by ship. Dracula arrives in England and “has succeeded after all, them, in his design in getting to London” (Stoker 200). He moves throughout the streets of London, undetected. Dracula appears as any other Londoner: “a tall, thin man with a beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard” (Stoker 183). Syphilis could lay dormant for up to 25 years, so someone could have syphilis but no one would know. Both vampirism and syphilis lurked in the streets of London and could be unnoticed.
Mina’s idea that “some of the ‘New Women’ writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting” posed a shocking and progressive proposition upon conventional Victorian marriage norms (Stoker 99-100). Upon receiving three marriage proposals on the same day, Lucy expresses her frustration that she cannot engage in polygamous marriage and marry all three of her suitors. Lucy writes Mina, “why can’t they [Victorian society] let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (Stoker 67). Due to Lucy’s promiscuity, Dracula views her as an easy target and Lucy is vulnerable to his evil powers and vampirism. Conversely, due to Mina’s chastity and her “traditional Victorian qualities of determination and loyalty towards her husband,” she is protected against the risk of contracting Dracula’s lure to vampirism (Buzwell). British society frowned upon both parties involved in prostitution, that being the prostitute herself and the man likely cheating on his wife to engage in the exchange. Stoker believes that if one lacked moral values to prevent falling to the sexual lure of adultery, one would contract a sexually transmitted disease as a result. Stoker, whose writings demonstrated signs of guilt and sexual frustration within his marriage, likely had sex with a prostitute and contracted syphilis himself.
The similarities between syphilis and vampirism demonstrate Stoker’s belief that moral virtue will protect one against the harm of foreigners.
Buzwell, Greg. “Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties.” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, British Library, 15 May 2014, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/dracula#.
Rose, Mark. “Origins of Syphilis.” Archaeology Archive, version 50, revision 1, Archaeological Institute of America, Jan. 1997, archive.archaeology.org/9701/newsbriefs/syphilis.html.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Penguin Group, 1993.
Hall, Lesley A. “’The Great Scourge’: Syphilis as a medical problem and moral metaphor, 1880-1916.” Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 23 May 1998, www.lesleyahall.net/grtscrge.htm.