Monstrous Protagonists: Victorian Fears Related to “Cultural Guilt”

Dracula as a novel seems to be about eradicating the evil influences of vampirism (and vampires’ representation of foreignness) from Victorian society. However, in questioning who is evil in our text, Bram Stoker paints Victorians themselves as monstrous, calling attention to widespread cultural guilt resulting from imperialism. The monstrous and yet contrite nature of Victorianism is perhaps best captured by Stoker’s portrayal of Dracula’s death (401). 

Throughout this scene, exceptionally violent actions and tumultuous surroundings lead up to the tranquil death of Dracula’s character. Opening this scene with the “level[ing] of weapons,” “the flashing [of] knives,” and the “howling of wolves” enables Stoker to build climactic tension (401). The resolution for this tension comes with Jonathan and Mr. Morris driving their knives into Dracula, who subsequently “crumbles” away (Stoker 401). Perhaps most significant to this scene is Mina’s narration, which reveals that Dracula had a “look of peace” upon his “face,” one which she “never could have imagined might have rested there” as he dissolved into the air (401). In considering Dracula as a foreign influence to be vanquished, one may interpret Stoker’s protagonists as crusaders. But the notion that Dracula needed to be at peace runs contrary to that theme and fits with the higher ethical standards of Victorian society. Stoker’s juxtaposition of these chaotic and serene depictions demonstrates the dual themes running through the novel.  

As Stephen Arata highlights, fears of reverse colonization were salient in the minds of Victorians. What had once been the pride of the “white man’s burden” to “civilize” the rest of the world had now turned into fears related to “being colonized by ‘primitive’ forces;” fears which Arata highlights as stemming from “cultural guilt” (Arata 623). The protagonists of Stoker’s novel justify their actions by claiming that all of their efforts to “sterilize” Dracula’s ties to Transylvania and rid society from his vampire-like tendencies were for the good of the moral order and cultural progress – an idea which seems to parallel the justifications made by the Victorians for their colonization efforts (Stoker 317). A final “look of peace” on Dracula’s face perhaps demonstrates the remorse that these Eurocentric characters felt and may have been Stoker’s attempt to call attention to the cultural feelings of guilt around their previous influence over and eradication of the foreign.

Watch out for those foreign gentlemen, they have big teeth!

Bram Stoker’s Dracula draws upon Victorian fears, asking ‘what happens to vulnerable women’ when the “foreign” become immersed within society. In laying out this argument, the vulnerability of women is perhaps best captured by Stokers’ depiction of Lucy on the East Cliff; a scene in which Mina is determined to reach her sleepwalking friend (101).

Stoker’s utilization of a binary between the “white” and “black” elements within this scene helps to accentuate the stark contrast between the purity and goodness of Lucy and the evil and darkness of an unknown figure (whom unbeknownst to Mina is Dracula) (101). These light and dark elements intersect when the “long and black,” figure of Dracula is depicted “bending over the half-reclining white figure” of Lucy, a moment that may warrant an interpretation suggesting that Lucy’s purity has been corrupted and that some sort of defilement has occurred (101). At this moment, Mina calls out to Lucy and sees the “white face and red, gleaming eyes” of the figure that had been standing over her, introducing a secondary purpose of Stoker’s use of the black and white binary (101). Specifically, the contrast between the “black” and “white” used to paint the scene and Dracula’s “red eyes makes this moment climactic. Stoker is not only able to justify the “shadowy” figure of Dracula while keeping his “beastly” features hidden from Mina, but he is also able to elicit a strong sense of fear in the minds of Victorian readers – a fear linked to the threat of things foreign (101).

In a time of Imperialism and superiority, the Victorians were afraid of foreign ideas becoming inseparable from their own practices. Dracula’s ideas of normalcy (i.e., sucking the blood out of vulnerable women like Lucy) are likely representative of Stoker’s take on a (hopefully) “foreign” Victorian custom that – through vampirism – has the potential to permeate within Victorian practices. Additionally, Stoker’s choice of Mina as the narrator was likely intentional. Mina moves from first being confused between seeing Dracula’s figure as a “man or beast” (equating beastliness to Dracula’s foreignness) to being primarily concerned with protecting Lucy’s “poor condition” from being witnessed (101). One may argue that Mina, in attempting to protect Lucy from Dracula, was both looking out for her safety, but as importantly her Victorian virtue and values. Perhaps Dracula finds he cannot be both a “stranger” and a “master” after all (27).

The “I Hate Women” Speech

Passage: “To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators – anything they like – but let them be quiet – if they can” (Braddon 208).

Within the first lines, we see Braddon contrasting the phrases “weaker” and “stronger” as they relate to a woman’s sex. Braddon’s juxtaposition of these words helps to demonstrate the power of women throughout the novel. This comparison also allows for Braddon to bring Robert’s conceptualization of womankind into fruition while simultaneously identifying specific strengths of women through the misogynistic lens of Robert’s character. For example, we see the use of words like “noisier, persevering, and self-assertive.” All these qualities can be interpreted as strengths, but Robert implies that they are more of an annoyance. This passage also employs repetition of the phrase “let them.” Braddon likely intentionally made this choice to draw readers’ attention to the subsequent cluster of occupations. These were likely the occupations that women were becoming employed in for the first time throughout the Victorian era. Perhaps this passage represents Robert’s unease with the idea of fluctuating gender roles, but his content with societal changes, nonetheless.

Contextually, Robert’s brooding in this passage serves as a build-up to the following paragraph in which he “savagely” thinks to himself: “I hate women … they are bold, brazen, abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors” (Braddon 208). Unlike the original passage, this line elicits stronger feelings of unrest. More importantly, these passages together connect to our discussion from class about whether Lady Audley’s Secret as a publication was invested in supporting the movement for women to have more power. Despite his passionate dislike for women, I believe that Robert’s opinions seem progressive in the context of the Victorian era. For this reason, I believe that the novel did help to push notions of gender “equality” upon victorian society. 

On a separate note, the original passage foreshadows events related to Lucy’s ‘power craze’ towards the end of Volume II and leading into Volume III. I believe this is the case because Robert had recently made claims to Clara (in the prior chapter) that he knew who the individual guilty of committing George’s murder was (readers are unaware that he is referring to Lucy at the time). Additionally, “let them be quiet – if they can” seems to solicit a sense of action. This may relate to future events in which Robert silences Lucy by preventing her from using her ‘indirect power’ to manipulate her husband into doing whatever she wills him to do.

The Scandalous Nature of Lucy’s Black Ribbon

Passage: “It was neither a locket, a miniature, nor a cross: it was a ring wrapped in an oblong piece of paper – the paper partly printed, partly written, yellow with age, and crumpled with much folding” (Braddon 17).

The first thing I notice is the cluster of words used in the middle of the passage by Braddon to elicit the importance of the paper previously enveloped in the ring. The repetition of the letter “p” was likely not an accident either (i.e., “piece of paper – the paper partly printed, partly…”) as it draws the reader’s attention to the piece of paper more so than the ring (Braddon 17). The age of the piece of paper is quickly made apparent to readers, but Braddon does something interesting here by contrasting words like “oblong” (the rectangular nature of which I interpret as showing elements of care) with words like “crumpled” or “folded” (Braddon 17). Perhaps this is indicative of how Lucy’s feelings towards the contents of this piece of paper and the ring have not changed (or become stronger) with the advancement of time, in that this once neatly kept paper has become worn with age. Another interesting element is the way in which the passage opens: “It was neither a locket, a miniature, nor a cross” (Braddon 17). I interpreted these as being commonplace items worn by women in the Victorian era, which when juxtaposed against Lucy’s paper and the ring may subtly imply that there is a sense of scandal, secrecy, or longing in Lucy’s actions.

Contextually, this passage is introduced in the novel directly after Michael Audley’s proposal to Lucy (which she is obviously not elated during). Braddon also makes readers aware of the fact that Lucy is “clutching” a “black ribbon about her throat” during the proposal (Braddon 16). This passage reveals what Lucy keeps at the end of her black ribbon. Collectively, these may foreshadow a scandalous event in Lucy’s future, which may result in her death or some sort of equivalent social ousting.