“’The Blood is the Life!’ Monstrous Inheritance in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’” by Brenna Goodwin-McCabe

“The Blood is the Life!” Monstrous Inheritance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Academic Essay by Brenna Goodwin-McCabe


The act of bleeding is fundamentally transgressive, as it reveals what is suppressed, inherited, and predisposed: our mortality and genetics. In bleeding, our internal or concealed nature becomes external and observable. Indicating familial ties, cultural allegiances, and the consequences of trauma and disease, this exposure reveals what is fundamental and unavoidable. Blood symbolizes both social and biological forms of inheritance, an association corrupted in vampire lore. Navigating this correlation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula demonstrates the inversion and perversion of inheritance in the form of biological, social, and legal transference, each as a monstrous force. Similarly, as defined by James Adams in his analytical “Troubled Legacies”, inheritance can “designate the transmission of a host of attributes cultural and biological as well as material and financial across generations” (709), its definition is varied. Because of this, inheritance in Dracula addresses paranoia through unexplained death, loss of legacy, and changing social issues. Utilizing these anxieties, the text’s fixation on documentation and testimony situates and distorts inheritance. As this inversion is aroused by Dracula, multiple variations of inherited transgression are articulated and corrupted in Stoker’s novel.

Intrusive and intrinsic, the biological inheritance depicted in Dracula illustrates both good and detractive instances of genealogical propensity. Exploring the predisposed aspects of female sexuality and gender alongside the implications of Darwinian Theory, the text evaluates problematic sources of inheritance. In this manner, Dracula illustrates Claudette Columbus’ theory on Gothic literature, which suggests that the “property we inherit as we inherit our bodies and our drives and desires has been encoded by nature and imprinted by culture and imprisons us” (399). Additionally, while Dracula negotiates this entrapment, it also presents its alternative in Arthur Holmwood. Losing his father in the narrative, Holmwood rightfully gain his position and rank as Lord Godalming. As Renfield states, “Lord Godalming, I had the honour of seconding your father…I grieve to know, by your holding the title, that he is no more” (Stoker 289). In this instance, the normative legal and hereditary orders have succeeded, meaning that bloodline and social hierarchy can continue.

If Holmwood represents successful biological transference, female sexuality enables its opposition. According to the text, women contain “a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood” (48); their essence is pungent to proper Victorian society. As women can externalize this offensiveness, their sexuality is prone to monstrous corruption. Thereby, Dracula treats female sexuality as a contradiction, one which creates and threatens heredity. Recognizing this paradox, authors such as Elizabeth Signorotti discuss that while women were perceived as “the means of alliance…that binds men together and [also] creates social order” (Signorotti 607), their cultural inclusion was also dangerous. As Levine notes, in her discussion on feminine monstrosity, “Victorian fears about women’s behaviour [had] evolved into a national debate…[encompassing] issues such as property ownership, marriage…inheritance law, and female sexuality” (345). Essentially, if a woman had unmediated sexuality, inheritance became problematic and uncertain.

Reflecting this debate about sexuality, Dracula “examines three divergent types of women [through Dracula’s brides, Lucy, and Mina], all of whom pose some threat to Victorian notions of social order” (Signorotti 346), but who approach this issue differently. As an extreme inversion, Dracula’s brides disregard normative femininity and enact dangerous sexuality, their “deliberate voluptuousness…[being] both thrilling and repulsive” (Stoker 51). Signalling the ultimate perversion, these women actively destroy legacy rather than create it, as show in the devouring of a baby. In addition to this rejection, the brides are dangerous because their capacity for violence challenges and reverses “traditional gender roles…[which] place men in…passive positions” (Signorotti 623). Thereby, these monstrous women exacerbate sexuality by distancing themselves from biological function.

As a reaction for this extreme behaviour, Lucy is placed “firmly under male control and subjected…to severe punishments for any sexual transgression” (620). While “Lucy’s sexuality does not become rapid until her vampiric possession,” her unmarried status and “personality traits [are] potentially dangerous” (Signorotti 621). For instance, when Lucy brazenly states, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men or as many as want her” (Stoker 74), she suggests that she is aware of her restricted position, and is unafraid to satirize it. In addition to recognizing sexuality, Lucy’s genetics are similarly problematic. Responding to her biological or paternal endowment, Lucy’s “initial exposure to infection…[was caused] by her unfortunate inheritance from her father” (Willis 315), Mina notes that “she [Lucy’s mother] tells me that her husband…had the same habit” (Stoker 92) of sleepwalking. As this quality leads to her victimization, “Lucy’s death is not [solely caused by her] sexual transgression, but a failing of her father’s genetic inheritance” (Willis 315), her infection being caused by “both unforeseeable physical misfortune and individual irresponsibility” (315). Thereby, Lucy’s problematic genetic makeup is exacerbated by Dracula’s presence.

As with this genetic and gendered role, Dracula similarly involves Lucy’s legal positioning as an object of inheritance. Once Lucy is engaged, Mrs. Westenra orders that “the whole estate, real and personal, was left absolutely to Arthur Holmwood” (Stoker 200), despite his lack of current affiliation, and the potential of leaving “her daughter either penniless or…[unable] to act regarding a matrimonial alliance” (200). Furthermore, had Lucy “survived only her mother by five minutes, her property would…have been treated at her decease as under intestacy” (200). Under this rhetoric, Lucy is a transferable property, transitioning between her family and husband. With no control over familial property or finance, Lucy is at the whim of male heirs, being both a creator and object of biological inheritance in a system of social transference. Therefore, by separating “Lucy from her inheritance rights…[she is placed] firmly within the male-governed kinship system” (Signorotti 622) which also enacts the “long tradition in which women do not inherit” (622). Through this domination, Lucy’s biological femininity is contained until she marries, when she will be cemented into an established hierarchy.

Mina, like Lucy, inhabits a dependent position. She states, “I never knew either father or mother” (Stoker 197). As an orphan, Mina’s biological position is displaced and problematic. Mina must rely on the charity of others and work to improve her situation, having no financial inheritance suggested in the text. By the end of the novel, Mina is permitted to be Jonathan’s heir, but this is only because of her marriage, through which she is situated in a proper social role. Combining her displacement with femininity, Mina’s biological inheritance threatens the narrative, causing the male figures to restrict and asexualize her. Described as having “a man’s brain…and a woman’s heart” (278) in addition to being imbued “with all the qualities an ideal woman should possess” (Signorotti 625), Mina is continually distanced from her potentially dangerous intellect and sexuality.

Described as having a feminine heart, Mina’s intelligence and practicality are actively navigated towards the maternal role. Mina’s potentially dangerous qualities are designated into a controlled position as the mother of the group. For example, when confronted with a grieving Holmwood, Mina thinks, “We women have something of the mother in us….this big sorrowing man’s head resting on me, as though it were that of a baby that someday may lie on my bosom, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child” (Stoker 273). Consequently, when Dracula attacks Mina he disrupts this archetype and forces Mina to have a blatant sexual connotation, thus placing the men, or her sons, into a less legitimate position. As an “object of exchange” (Signorotti 608), Mina is initially secured through motherhood, but is then transferred into Dracula’s household. Because of this, Dracula violates Mina because of her symbolic and biological implication. In doing so, Dracula upheaves certain patriarchal orders by removing Mina’s motherly framework and igniting her sexual awareness.

As a subset to this biological discussion, the hereditary characteristics of Darwinian theory similarly propagate in Dracula, specifically through the crazed Renfield. A mental patient of Dr. Steward, Renfield represents an alternative version of Hawker, both having experienced Dracula but having reacted differently. In this regard, Dracula retools Darwin’s logic; the “possessors are possessed, heir inevitably in error” (Columbus 402), meaning that genetic predisposition, or inheritance, is concealed and bodily. As suggested by Greg Buzwell’s argument on Gothic duality, this “nightmarish biological lineage…[similarly] denie[s] the specialness of humans” (“Man is not truly one”), and in doing so, rejects the barrier between beast and individual. Consequently, this observation and anxiety flourishes in Gothic literature as “it is a genre obsessed with the eruptions of the past into the present” (Schultz 4), using “historical ghosts” (4) to symbolize the inescapable nature of reoccurrence. Involving this genre, texts such as Dracula suggest that biological regression is inevitable, meaning that all individuals have the capacity to revert to primal behaviour. Entailing the “fear of recurrence, of something coming back” (5), this Darwinian implication is humanity’s inheritance, a biological strain that must be repressed. Problematically, this paranoia also suggests “that the ugly, murderous beast exists within the respectable” (Buzwell “Man is not truly one”), and that physicality or class does not determine behaviour.

Renfield and “his pets…of odd sort” (Stoker 86) indicate this Darwinian fear of reversal. By collecting blood and life, his behaviour reverts to an animal-like psychosis. Steward titles this condition as “a zoophagous (life eating) maniac” (91), a classification which maintains a clear boundary between insanity and normality. For Renfield, “The blood is the life” (172) as its consumption yields power to its absorber, a form of forcibly obtained biological inheritance. At the same time, Renfield’s fixation is problematized by souls; Seward states that “how are we to get the life without getting the soul also?” (318) As suggested by his resistance, Renfield wishes to isolate life from the religious implications of the soul. In this manner, Renfield, while entrenched in Darwinian thought, is also rejecting from the connection between science and soul. Instead, as suggested by Ross Forman’s discussion on metaphorical infection, Renfield desires simplistic and bodily restrictions, unlike Van Helsing, who “seeks to reconcile unconventional spiritual beliefs with the rational and scientific world” (Forman 930). Alternatively, Dracula’s transforming body also involves the beastly mentality posed by Darwin, summarized when Jonathan says, “What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell” (Stoker 114). During these moments of transfiguration, Dracula blurs the line between creature and man. While he physically transforms, Dracula retains specific attributes of both man and creature, combining his consciousness with animalistic violence. In this way, both Dracula and Renfield symbolize the consequences of genealogical inheritance, reverting to and reminding us of Darwinian thought and paranoia.

In lieu of this biological availability, culturally transferable inheritance serves as an uneasy equivalent to genealogical forms. Utilizing this social transference, inheritance could range from “embodied knowledge, culture and praxis…[and] racial memory- [as] all of them appeals to forms of cultural inheritance” (Adams 711). For instance, when Mr. Hawkins dies, the system correctly adjusts in Jonathan’s favour, but only as his employer has left “neither chick nor child. All are gone” (Stoker 187), making it socially acceptable for Jonathan to receive the inheritance. However, because of this cultural arrangement, social transference also forms the vampires’ virally induced kinship. Situated by Martin Willis, in his discussion on disease and Dracula, the vampire interacts with both medical and supernatural lore, as it is “a symbol of Victorian anxieties of impurity and corruption…from illness and disease” (302). In this scenario, germs are directly transmitted from one to another through some form of contact.

Incited by this popularity for parasitism (Forman 927), the vampire enacts a form of viral insertion by “drawing something from the body and introducing something else into it” (936). Linked to the anxiety of non-sequential inheritance, this viral transference likewise permeates Dracula’s confrontation of Mina, during which he explains, “And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, kin of my kin…my companion” (Stoker 340). In sharing blood, Dracula is transferring his genetics into her, and mixing hers with his, a form of “what Van Helsing called ‘the vampire’s baptism of blood’” (381). Because of this, Dracula is utilizing external transference to manipulate biological inheritance, combining viral with genealogical. As a response, when the “devilish passion” (334) occurs, Mina shouts “Unclean, unclean!” (336), a sentiment referring to Dracula’s actions alongside her contact with the tainted and diseased blood.

In addition to this monstrous and pathological inheritance, Dracula’s attempts to install kinship are paralleled by the reactionary heroes. In combatting this transgressive force, the heroes must replicate Dracula’s warped legality to repossess what has been appropriated. For instance, their response to Lucy’s ailment is the “act of transfusing blood, of penetrating…with the phallic needle and…[with] men to deposit their own fluids in her, [a disposition which] conjures up images of gang rape” (Signorotti 623). In this regard, the infusions of “brave man’s blood” (Stoker 181) emulate Dracula’s attack. Instead of fangs, the men use sterilized instruments to fill Lucy with their blood. Thereby, both the heroes and Dracula attempt to insert their patriarchal authority into Lucy, reinforcing domination and lineage while subtracting the undesirable. Because of this, these male figures circumvent Lucy’s genetic predisposition by force, injecting their own forms of kinship or blood. In a perverse game of back and forth, Lucy is passed from one authority to the next, each implanting their inheritance into her to create an immediate unification.

Following these instances of biological and transferable inheritance, the novel similarly fixates on the documentation and testimonial aspects of law, both of which are distorted by Dracula. Utilizing legal documents and references, the text scatters official credentials amongst its personalized accounts to give the reader a broader sense of the story, as with the previously mentioned Mrs. Westenra example. Bordered by this legality, Jonathan’s position as a solicitor initiates the narrative, his departure being the result of a career opportunity. Consequently, this legal fixation transcends these immediate references and comes to be symbolized through journal writing. Mina says, “I had made my diary a duty” (112). Similarly, Steward says “Only resolution and habit can let me make an entry tonight” (191). In both these statements it is made clear that this record-keeping is not for personal pleasure. Instead, each character feels obligated to write, even when disaster occurs, as their descriptions having a practical use against Dracula. When situated as a respectable method of release, Lucy utilizes her document as a final testimony, writing, “This is an exact record of what took place tonight” (173). Upholding the power of this written word, Van Helsing’s insistence upon journal writing is similarly indicative of a larger methodology. In this sense, journal writing is a form of last will, permitting the author to be transcribed beyond the grave.

Drawing from this legal fixation, Dracula utilizes the same system of inheritance, but in a perverse and monstrous manner. While Dracula represents the ultimate threat (Levine 353) to normative structures, at the same time “he who is not of nature has yet to obey some of nature’s laws” (Stoker 283), meaning that Dracula must participate with pre-established systems of inheritance. In partaking, Dracula repeats his ancient human mannerisms, as they are biologically inherent. As Van Helsing describes, “He study new tongues. He learn new social life, new environment of old ways, the politics, the law, the finance” (380). Dracula is obliged to uphold traditional forms of transference and communication. Likewise, while absorbing his victim’s blood, Dracula invokes a contract or vow, mimicking a familiar but inverted order of legal inheritance.

Furthermore, Dracula is conscious of his participation with lineage, and is proud of these inherited characteristics. Jonathan writes, “Whenever he [Dracula] spoke of his house he always said ‘we'” (39) and later declares, “What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” (40) Explaining this reaction, Dracula clarifies that “the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate” (39). Dracula is both a historical remnant and enactor, one who perpetuates this inheritance but also spreads it. In this manner, blood is what makes Dracula who he is. By releasing it, he can transfer not only his character and attributes, but also those of his ancestors, recreating this system of inheritance in a broader sense. Essentially, introducing blood into a system also establishes its history of inheritance. Therefore, it is “too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace” (41) as it elicits both cultural and biological baggage.

Ultimately, inheritance is a continual fixation in Dracula, as it symbolizes that “the old centuries had, and have, power of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill” (47). Thereby, the phrase “The blood is the life” (172) reflects the concepts of Darwinian reversion and the obsession of Dracula’s characters. As Adams notes, inheritance “is an inescapable motif in nineteenth-century fiction” (709), as it is sustained, reproduced, and corrupted as a form of monstrosity. That said, as the book concludes with the birth of a new heir, Quincey Hawker, the narrative suggests that both social transference and genealogical legitimacy gender, sex, and evolution have been reinstituted. Because of this, Dracula’s death rectifies legitimacy and inheritance while restoring blood to its concealed and consuming nature.



Works Cited

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Schultz, Matthew. “‘Give it Welcome’: Gothic Inheritance and the Troubles in Contemporary Irish Fiction.” The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, vol. 10, 2011, pp. 3-17

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