By Alicia Barnes
Dracula is a text that has frequently been described as ‘Modern Gothic’ because of its explicit concerns with contemporary life in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century; as Jonathan Harker writes in his diary at the beginning of the novel, ‘It is nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance’ (Dracula, p. 43). The novel signals its peculiarly modern Gothic by importing its action into modern-day England and makes frequent references to modern technologies. This is distinctly different from eighteenth-century Gothic, which distanced the reader by setting its narrative in medieval Europe. The technologies referenced include transport and communication devices as well as notable scientific developments in fields such as psychology. Overall, the text uses these modern ideas, technologies and apparatuses to produce a patchworked narrative that is part of the fight against the vampire.
The narrative of Dracula  is presented to readers through various perspectives, voices and media. It includes diary entries, letters, telegrams (both delivered and undelivered), newspaper cuttings and transcribed phonograph recordings (an early form of audio capture). The multiple first-person narratives serve to preserve a sense of identity for those who are truly threatened by Dracula’s vampirism, namely Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker (née Murray) and Lucy Westenra. Their diaries and letters, combined with Dr Seward’s scientific case studies, medical knowledge and meetings with Abraham Van Helsing, gradually build a picture of what Dracula is, what his plans are and how he operates. Dr Seward comments on Mina and Jonathan Harker’s efforts to collate these narratives, describing them as ‘knitting together in chronological order every scrap of evidence they have’ (p. 240). Once the communal narrative has been compiled, the reader is granted a privileged position. The novel is this compilation: a book detailing what is known about Dracula as well as how to destroy him.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, knowledge had become both evidence of superiority as well as a means to exert control. Through the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, in partnership with expanding imperialism, Victorians sought to catalogue as many areas of the natural world as possible in order to know and therefore dominate. What was understood as civilised scientific and rational knowledge systems were the key to subjugating and taming the so-called uncivilised corners of the world. We can see this reflected in the narrative’s privileging of knowledge as a weapon against Dracula. The tide begins to turn once the vampire hunters collate their collective knowledge and begin to understand exactly what they are dealing with. In another late-nineteenth-century Gothic novel, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) , a similar weight is placed on the collection of evidence and knowing the antagonist fully in order to defeat him. Even Dracula understands that much of his dominance lies in his ambiguity, hence the Count’s attempt to destroy the manuscript of evidence when he invades Dr Seward’s asylum (p. 304).
Vampire Hunting Technologies
The novel also stresses the need to combine nineteenth-century scientific modernity with both older forms of knowledge (religious) and new spiritualist ideas (hypnotism and telepathy). No one form of knowledge can hope to understand Dracula; as Van Helsing frequently reminds Dr Seward and the reader, ‘Do not fear to think even the most not-probable’ (p. 140), and ‘Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are’ (p. 204).
Alongside the Harkers’s use of stenography (the technical practice of shorthand), telegraphs are deployed where immediate communication is vital, steam transport is used to outpace Dracula both in England and back to Transylvania, and Mina uses a typewriter to transcribe and make copies of both the shorthand and Dr Seward’s phonographic diary. All these modern communication technologies are interwoven with religious items (such as the crucifix and communion wafers), ancient charms (garlic) and spiritualist psychological practices in order to hunt and destroy Dracula. The intermingling of science, religion and spiritualism was not as strange at the end of the nineteenth century as it might be now. In fact, developments in electrical communication, such as the telegraph, were frequently used as metaphors for the concept of telepathy, where minds could allegedly send disembodied messages to each other.
Dracula is a modern Gothic novel because it imports the supernatural, ancient world of traditional Gothic into scientific modernity. Dracula cannot be fought by science alone, nor by religion alone; the hunters must use every weapon in their artillery to counter the threat the ancient Count poses to modern-day England. As Mina comes to realise, ‘In the struggle we have before us to rid the earth of this terrible monster we must have all the knowledge and help which we can get’ ( p. 237).
- Version used: Bram Stoker, Dracula. (London: Penguin Classics, 2003)
- Robert Louis Stevenson Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (1886)
Alicia Barnes completed her PhD in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Surrey (2022).
She works as Research Officer at Queen Mary University of London for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.