Study Guide

Dracula Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Bram Stoker

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Blood

This one is practically a no-brainer – of course blood is important in a vampire book. But what, exactly, do all the references to blood mean? Renfield is the only character to really explain it, and he does so in fairly reasonable tones to Mina:

"I tried to kill him for the purpose of strengthening my vital powers by the assimilation with my own body of his life through the medium of his blood – relying, of course, upon the Scriptural phrase, 'For the blood is the life.'" (18.16)

So, according to Renfield, anyway, to consume someone else's blood is to consume some vital part of his or her life. If you consume enough of their blood, you gain their "vital powers" (and, obviously, they die).

Of course, we have to take Renfield's explanation with a grain of salt, since after all, he's locked up in an insane asylum for a reason. But his explanation does make a certain amount of sense, when you compare it to what Dracula is up to – he appears to have gotten younger after moving to England and feeding on Lucy. She becomes weaker as he becomes stronger. Perhaps Renfield is right – maybe in the world of Dracula, consuming someone else's blood really does allow you to "assimilate" some of their "vital powers."

Communion and the Sacred Wafer

As long as we're talking about drinking blood, we should pause to think about the Christian ritual of Holy Communion (a.k.a. the Lord's Supper or Holy Eucharist). Holy Communion is a kind of reenactment of Jesus' last meal with his disciples the night before he was crucified. He ate some bread and had some wine, shared it with his friends, and told them that the bread represented his body and that the wine represented his blood (he knew he was about to die). He also instructed them to remember him whenever they had wine and bread. Christians of almost every sect perform some version of Communion, eating bread or wafers and drinking wine. However, one of the main differences between Catholic Communion and most Protestant Communion is the Roman Catholic belief that, during the rite of Communion, the bread and wine consumed actually change to become the body and blood of Jesus. (This is called "transubstantiation," for the "changing" ["trans"] of substance.)

So when Van Helsing shows up with "Sacred Wafers," what he has are Communion wafers (bread) that have already been blessed by a priest. And since Van Helsing is Roman Catholic, he believes in transubstantiation – that the wafers only look like wafers, but are actually the body of Jesus. That's about as holy as you can get in the Christian tradition.

Why is this important in Dracula, you ask? Well, at its most basic level you could view the Christian rite of Communion as being about gaining strength from consuming someone else's blood. Is vampirism a twisted version of the most sacred of Christian rituals? That makes vampirism pretty darn unholy. And maybe that's why the Sacred Wafer that Van Helsing brings is so effective as a vampire repellant. The Sacred Wafer and vampires are like opposite ends of a magnet – they simply can't touch, according to a fundamental physical (or spiritual) law.

Dracula's Move to England

At the time Bram Stoker was writing Dracula (1897), Great Britain's world-wide empire was starting to crumble. Other countries, like Germany and the US, were starting to gain power both economically and politically. A lot of British people were worried that Britain would lose its status as the greatest world power. That's why some literary critics, like Stephen Arata, have argued that Dracula's move to Britain reflects British people's worry that foreigners (especially from the east) would invade Britain. If Britain really was becoming weaker, as people feared, maybe foreigners – even people from countries that Britain had formerly colonized – would come and take over. For more on this interpretation of Dracula, check out Stephen Arata's article, "The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization" (there's a link to it in our "Best of the Web" section).

Windows and Doors

If Dracula's immigration to Britain can be read as an allegory about foreigners invading England, it seems reasonable that border-crossing in general will be important in Dracula. Individual homes are like mini countries for Dracula to invade, so Stoker spends a lot of time describing Dracula's entrance into various homes. The vampire is unable to enter a house where he hasn't been invited, which is why he spends so much time in the form of a bat hovering around Lucy's window, and why he entices her outside while she's sleepwalking so that he can drink her blood there. It isn't until he's gotten a wolf from the zoo to break through her window that he's able to enter her home and drink her blood in the comfort of her own bedroom.

Sleep and Sleepwalking

In the world of Dracula, if you don't want to have your blood sucked, you better down a lot of Red Bull, because being asleep tends to get you bitten. When Jonathan Harker is staying at Castle Dracula, the Count warns Jonathan not to fall asleep in any room but his bedroom. When Jonathan falls asleep in another room of the castle, he almost gets bitten by the Brides of Dracula. Lucy is an easy target because she sleepwalks: once she's asleep, Dracula can influence her more easily and make her walk out of the house, where he can suck her blood.

Why are half-asleep people more easy targets? Well, obviously, sleeping people are less able to defend themselves physically. But their guard is down in other ways, as well. The novel suggests that almost everyone (even Mina and Van Helsing) have some kind of secret, deep-rooted desire to be bitten – they just keep it repressed most of the time. But when they are half asleep, or sleepwalking, the desire bubbles to the surface. When asleep, their conscious minds aren't able to keep that naughty desire under wraps.

Maternity and Motherhood

The only real mother we meet in this novel is Mrs. Westenra, Lucy's mother, and she dies pretty quickly. Mina takes over as everyone's mother, and boy is she good at it: not five minutes after she meets Arthur Holmwood, she has him crying on her shoulder like a baby:

We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother-spirit is invoked; I felt this big, sorrowing man's head resting on me, as though it were that of the baby that some day may lie on my bosom, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child. (17.58-59)

Motherhood sounds almost holy here: it's an instinct, or a "spirit" that can be "invoked" and that helps women "rise above" everyday stuff. Contrast the passage about Mina, above, with this description of vampire Lucy:

With a careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone. The child gave a sharp cry, and lay there moaning. (16.19)

If vampirism and blood-sucking can be read as a twisted version of Holy Communion, female vampires can be read as twisted, diabolical mothers. Instead of saint-like mothers, they get all voluptuous and scarily sexy. Instead of nurturing children against their breasts, they feed on children and chuck them on the ground.

Technology and Superstition

Bram Stoker, as you've probably noticed, is totally obsessed with trains. In the world of Dracula, trains are representative of Stoker's wider interest in the latest, most up-to-date technology. It's hard for modern readers to remember, but all the technologies mentioned in Dracula – Seward's phonograph, the telegrams, the trains, the blood transfusions, Mina's typewriter and even her shorthand – were super high-tech in 1897. If Stoker were writing today, the technologies would obviously be different. Instead of recording his journal entries on a phonograph (an early recording device), Dr. Seward would blog about his patients. Instead of sending a telegraph to warn the men that Dracula was on the move, Mina would whip out her iPhone and send a text.

Why does Stoker include all these details to show how up-to-date and high-tech his characters are? Well, one effect is to create a contrast between the science and technology Van Helsing and his crew have on their side with the tradition and superstition governing the world of Dracula.

But even though the good guys in Dracula are able to use technology to their advantage in many cases, it has its limits: the blood transfusions don't save Lucy's life, and a blip in the telegraph system keeps Seward from getting Van Helsing's message in time rush to Lucy's aid. Technology and science, it seems, don't have all the answers. In fact, Van Helsing, Seward, and the others actually have to get over their faith in science, logic, and modern technology in order to defeat Dracula. They have to accept, first of all, that vampires exist, and they have to re-educate themselves, learning ancient traditions and superstitions, to figure out how to kill a vampire. The Winchester rifles that Quincey Morris brings are great against the Szgany in the final fight scene, but killing Dracula requires something more primitive – a big knife and a stake through the heart.

Modernity and History

Another effect of all the science and technology in Dracula is to create a contrast between modernity and history. Dracula is, after all, centuries old. He lives in a crumbling old medieval castle, and the surrounding countryside is filled with superstitions and traditions. Jonathan Harker describes his travel from Britain to Transylvania as being like a trip back in time, and that transition is represented by (surprise, surprise) the punctuality of the trains. The further he gets from Great Britain, the center of modern civilization (in Harker's opinion), the less reliable the trains are. So Dracula could be read as representing history or the past, and Great Britain as representing the present. If that's the case, maybe Dracula's "invasion" of Britain is meant to remind us of the way history has of influencing or haunting the present.