Van Helsing’s Critique of Certainty and Modernity

Bram Stoker’s Dracula highlights the “ambivalence of modernity” described in Ledger and Luckhurst’s chapter on the ‘Fin de Siècle’ (Ledger and Luckhurst, xiii). We see the fear of uncertainty played out in Harker’s journal, where he expresses that “it was the doubt as to the reality of the whole thing that knocked [him] over,” not his harrowing experience with the Count (Stoker, 200). In an age of uncertainty, people need to find things that they can place their trust in, such as science; however, it is this search for certainty that Van Helsing pushes against in his conversation with Dr. Seward.

When Van Helsing shows Dr. Seward the newspaper article about the children whose throats had bite marks like Lucy’s, Dr. Seward infers that there may be a correlation between the bites on Lucy’s neck and the bites on the children’s necks; however, Van Helsing already believes that the bites “were made by Miss Lucy” (206). He criticizes Dr. Seward of being “too prejudiced” because he is listening to what he believes, not what the evidence is showing him (204). However, for Dr. Seward to listen to the evidence rather than his beliefs would result in him ignoring what science has shown to be possible. Van Helsing takes this opportunity to deliver a message critiquing “the authority of science” which is so crucial to the Fin de Siècle (Ledger and Luckhurst, xv).

Van Helsing argues that “there are things old and new which must not be contemplate by men’s eyes, because they know – or think they know – some things which other men have told them” (Stoker, 204). He seems to be discrediting science as being only something “which other men” have created. This statement puts science on similar grounds as religion; that is, it is something that has been told to us by others and that we then believe. As discussed in class, the crisis of faith at this time was concurrent with the permeation of science – how can one have faith if science has disproven the biblical story of creation? Van Helsing’s direction to have “an open mind” seems to be the response to this question, and one that encourages a sense of uncertainty (206).

Van Helsing believes that “it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain” (204). By claiming that the problem with science is that it desires to have an answer for everything, Van Helsing seems to be arguing that there is not, in fact, an answer for everything. Acknowledging that there isn’t an answer for everything and that no one knows everything creates a sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty is placed in conjunction with modernity when Van Helsing describes that “we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs” (204). Growth is quintessential of modernity, but the idea of “new beliefs” sparks an interesting debate as to what constitutes a belief for Van Helsing.

In his statement about what people “know – or think they know” because of what “other men have told them,” Van Helsing suggests that knowledge and science are beliefs held by people who have been told what to believe (204). Perhaps, the “beliefs” that he is referring to in his comment about “the growth of new beliefs” are the same developments of “psychology, psychical research, sexology, and eugenics” that Ledger and Luckhurst outline as “‘new’ human sciences” (xiii). In these few passages, Van Helsing calls out the new “knowledge” and developments of modernity as creating a false sense of certainty and truth that prevents Dr. Seward from seeing the reality of Lucy’s situation.

One thought on “Van Helsing’s Critique of Certainty and Modernity”

  1. Your points about Van Helsing equating science as a human creation along with religion are inspired; I very much agree with and enjoy your take on that. I hadn’t noticed before that Van Helsing’s attitude towards science disagrees with Ledger and Luckhurst’s article pointing out the new certainties science brought to the the fin-de-siecle; perhaps this is another way that Stoker illustrates Van Helsing’s ‘foreign-ness’? That Stoker is encouraging his readers to think for themselves beyond — as you say — what they are told to believe is a thought that hadn’t occurred to me but one I sincerely appreciate when considering the novel.

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