Dracula and Xenophobia

Dracula is a fascinating case study of late Victorian England’s negative attitudes toward immigrants. The fin de siècle was a tumultuous and uncertain time for English society as a whole and was marked by changes that were seen as frightening, unwelcome and overwhelming. This led many to resist change in various forms, including immigration of people from other countries, due to fears about England becoming tainted or corrupted by foreign influence. This was accompanied by the Social Darwinist movement, which used Darwin’s studies of evolution in birds to justify treating non-white and non-English people with contempt and disgust. In Dracula, Bram Stoker encapsulates and reflects the many anxieties surrounding foreign immigration and influence, especially through the character of Dracula.  

The idea that immigrants could corrupt England and force it backward in time is evident from the very first chapter. When Jonathan Harker first arrives in Eastern Europe and informs people there of his eventual destination, they desperately try to convince him to turn around and leave. An older woman begs him not to leave, or at least to go on a different night, and when she realizes she can’t convince him, she gives him a protective charm. Instead of listening to her, however, Jonathan brushes off her concerns as “very ridiculous” and says she was making him “not feel comfortable” (4). The use of the phrase “very ridiculous” suggests that Jonathan considers himself superior to the people whose country he is in simply because he is British and there on “important business” (4). Additionally, Jonathan’s complaint that the lady who was desperately trying to help him was making him uncomfortable further conveys his sense of superiority over others simply because he is British. He seems to think that these people are “backwards” and too superstitious to bother listening to them. Furthermore, when Jonathan arrives at Dracula’s castle, he quotes Dracula saying “I rejoice also that there is a chapel of old times. We Transylvanian nobles love not to think that our bones may lie amongst the common dead” (20). Jonathan’s modern, young, and well-furnished lifestyle is instantly contrasted with old Dracula’s preoccupation with history and death, shown by his reference to “a chapel of old times” and where his family’s “bones” will lie. This serves to reflect the English sentiment of the time that they were more modern and therefore more “advanced” than other societies, due to the widespread trend of the development of new technologies that were propelling their country forward, while leaving others behind. 

Not only is the “modern” Jonathan contrasted with the ancient foreigner Dracula, but Stoker also adds a more sinister aspect to this contrast with the implication that foreigners might attempt to corrupt England and drag it into the past or destroy it forever. For example, Jonathan discovers early on that Dracula’s castle is “a veritable prison” and that he is “a prisoner” (22). This use of the words ‘prison’ and ‘prisoner’ preys on the fears of English people at the time to suggest that foreigners might want to ‘trap’ or ‘imprison’ England’s progress and modernity, as well as its people. Furthermore, the novel opens with the premise that Dracula requires assistance from Jonathan to move from Transylvania to England, but he is later discovered to be a blood-sucking monster. This is accompanied by a scene in which he is caught feeding off Lucy. Stoker describes this scene as follows: “There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, “Lucy! Lucy!” and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes.” The use of the imagery of “half-reclining white figure” contrasted with “something long and black” suggests a corruption of someone who is “white” and “pure” with something that is “black” and “impure.” The implications of this contrast are numerous, but in this context, the imagery serves to reinforce the message of an evil foreigner who is determined to come to England to spread corruption and evil. In this way, then, Stoker’s Dracula successfully and memorably reflects the anxieties of the time concerning foreigners.  

One thought on “Dracula and Xenophobia”

  1. This is an interesting observation and something that is certainly significant to understanding and interpreting Dracula through a new historicist lens. Xenophobia and racism are undoubtably present in the novel, whether through the interactions of Jonathan with the locals, or simply from the fact that Dracula, something foreign to the English, is a spreader of disease and death. I think the dehumanization of Dracula factors into this as well, given that to the English he is a beast from a foreign land, that while looking human, is really not.

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