Religion is a heavy weight on the shoulders of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel asks the reader to question the weight and might of religion against the backdrop of the limited power of science. The novel positions religion as the moral arbiter of ultimate good. When all other reason fails religion and religious symbols win against the forces of darkness and ignorance. Christopher Herbert describes it in “Vampire Religion” as a “strong religious thrust” (100). Dracula is a novel fixated with facts and minutia while simultaneously giving way to overarching raids into the occult and divine. As an analogy to the overarching mechanics of religiosity and the divine Stoker positions Van Helsing as a God-like figure, while Count Dracula represents the more obvious devil-like figure. However, it is Van Helsing who carves the moral and religious reasoning that moves the plot forward. In this essay, we will analyze Van Helsing’s semi-deified role, his position as an arbiter between good and evil, and his interpretation of the world.
Van Helsing is an atypical character. Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, Lucy Westenra, Arthur Holmwood, and John Seward are all British. We can confer the status of British on Mr. Morris under the United States previous colonial status and its cultural connection to England. However, the only two characters that are not British or connected to Britain by cultural association are Van Helsing and Dracula. He is described by Dr. Seward as “Professor Van Helsing, of Amsterdam who knows as much about obscure diseases as anyone in the world” (Stoker 105). From his first introduction, Van Helsing is demarcated as other by his place of origin and profuse knowledge. When Dr. Seward was perplexed by Lucy’s illness he looks towards a greater power, in this case, Van Helsing. Mario Vrbančic in his essay “Globalisation, Empire, and the Vampire” describes Van Helsing “job… [is] to make us believe the impossible” (5). It is interesting to note that in many Judeo-Christian traditions God is subtly trying to make his purpose be understood by progressive revelation. For example, in Daniel 10:1 the Bible states, “a revelation was given to Daniel… Its message was true and concerned a great war. The understanding of the message came to him in a vision” (NIV). In the book of Daniel, there are numerous messages that are only understood through the lens of time. Professor Van Helsing comes to the aid of those who seek help with knowledge, which he then reveals in incremental doses. He lords over the Lucy’s sickness and later the chase for Count Dracula with subtle God-like undertones.
During Lucy Westenra’s degeneration into a vampire, Van Helsing hints at knowledge and offers solutions that Dr. Seward, Lucy, and Lucy’s mother are all unfamiliar with and do not understand. In this regard the following excerpt elucidates Van Helsing’s alterity:
Oh, Professor, I believe you are only putting up a joke on me. Why, these flowers are only common garlic.”
To my surprise, Van Helsing rose up and said with all his sternness, his iron jaw set and his bushy eyebrows meeting,
“No trifling with me! I never jest! There is grim purpose in what I do, and I warn you that you do not thwart me. Take care, for the sake of others if not for your own. (Stoker 122)
If we notice, Van Helsing in this situation is taken to be jesting. Dr. Seward himself expresses surprise at the use of garlic but relents under Helsing’s explanation. Van Helsing is dominant and explosive. He dictates the course of action needed to be taken and those around him are expected to follow suit. In this fashion, Van Helsing represents a Judeo-Christion God who is forceful and managerial.
Ultimately, it is Van Helsing who drives the narrative against Dracula. In his speech before they leave to intercept the count Van Helsing says, “for it [referring to Dracula] have to yield to the powers that come from, and are, symbolic of good” (Stoker 298, 299). It is clear that Van Helsing knows what affects Dracula negatively and how he can be destroyed. He ascribes the label of good to religious objects that are embedded throughout the Christian tradition. Gavin Pate in “Vampire God” offers this modern moral critic of the vampire genre; “The vampire offers its victims horrific and contradictory choices when reflecting on their deaths. Will they be butchered and left for dead, or will they be granted the ultimate pardon, the immoral choice of everlasting life?” (261). Dracula plays out this moral dilemma, but the answer is categorical. There is no option. According to Val Helsing Lucy and, to some extent, Mina do not get a choice. He calls it “the curse of immortality,” in other words, something vile. In his judgment he proclaims Lucy an evil “Un-Dead” and further says, “this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the lady we love shall again be free” (Stoker 200). Therefore, Van Helsing takes it upon himself to label aspects of Lucy’s life but casts judgment upon her life once she has metamorphosed into a vampire. He is the driver of the moral struggle against the vampires and their way of life.
If we notice in the text it is Van Helsing who convinces the others of Lucy corrupt nature after her human death. He is the one that brings to light Count Dracula’s sordid and complicated past. While the others tremble with fear and attempt to forget the past (i.e. Jonathan Harker after his encounter with Dracula and before meeting Van Helsing), Van Helsing actively tries to rehash and connect the pieces of the story. He creates the disassociation necessary for them to commit their perceived duty of murder and satiate their desire for vengeance. Jamil Khader in “Un/Speakability and Radical Otherness” states, “the band of witnesses… in killing [Lucy]… frame her murder within a theological narrative of redemption and salvation that invests her death with meaning for them, while absolving them from complicity in her murder” (78). As an avenue for the novel’s moral crises Van Helsing vents in his convictions of good and evil all the while swaying the other characters in their beliefs.
The novel focuses on “a series of passages [that] instructs readers to interpret the tale not just in accordance with a broadly ecumenical religious spirit but in particular theological terms” (Herbert 101). The ideological bent is driven particularly through Van Helsing. He is the one who guides Arthur’s hand to destroy the vampire Lucy. He rants on several occasions about the need to destroy the Count. The reader is repeatedly fed the novel’s moral structure through the eyes and mouth of Van Helsing. Herbert continues, “a vampire, declares the pious Van Helsing, nominally an advanced medical scientist but more a lay priest (and necromancer) and the book’s main religious authority, is ‘an arrow in the side of Him who died for man’ (D, 276)” (101). As Herbert pointedly points out it seems that Van Helsing is the anti-thesis to Count Dracula. Whereas Dracula is barely present and his worldview is deduced more than vocalized, Van Helsing’s worldview is vocalized and incessantly reaffirmed by guilt-inducing speeches to the other characters. He represents the positive versus the negative, thus, Van Helsing sets himself up as good while affirming the evils of Dracula.
According to Van Helsing the “Draculas… were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One” (174). From his Judeo-Christian viewpoint, anything that is different and dark is immediately linked to Satan. Herbert asserts, “the evil Count is above all an emanation of the world of superstition and an image of a terrible menace posed by the superstitious mentality to decent Christian existence” (101). As Herbert points out the push against the Count is reduced to the fight between religious external versus internal forces. Van Helsing considered all things connected to Dracula emanating from the occult. This is diametrically opposed to notions of cleanliness and purity within his Christian Belief system. This notion is highlighted when Mina Harker screams “unclean” numerous times when the Catholic wafer is placed on her forehead (Stoker 187). Therefore, in Van Helsing’s worldview paganism is not only evil but its expansion (represented by Dracula creating more vampires) is abhorrent. As the enforcer of his moral code, for we must remember that while one can barely attribute the death of one vampire to each of the other men, Van Helsing takes the lead in murdering vampires. He kills the three female vampires while holding Mina protected/captive. He also makes it clear that he would be capable of killing a vampire Mina if she crossed fully into the world of vampirism. Consequently, we see throughout the novel the religious fervor on Van Helsing’s part that allows us to see his worldview and how these notions continually shape the argument about good versus evil throughout the narrative.
Dracula embraces the narrative of unyielding religious dogma and uses Van Helsing as a god-like — in the Christian vein — figure to drive this narrative. It is interesting to note that while Helsing’s voice is prominent throughout the book, only one entry titled, “Dr. Seward’s Phonograph Diary Spoken by Van Helsing,” is really told by his voice. The rest of the events and his speeches are the reproductions of other characters. This implies that the effect of his actions and words influenced the other characters immensely. He was the great overseer of their anti-vampiric enterprises and proved to be the consolidator of the two main groups of characters the Harkers and Lucy’s three suitors. In his semi-deified role, Van Helsing pulls in all the elements needed to accomplish their goal and lords over their proceedings in a sanguine but dictatorial manner. It is evident that throughout the text his notions of good versus evil propel the plot and actions of the characters forward. He also stresses his worldview of the forces beyond logical explanation on the rest of the characters. Count Dracula serves as the obvious representation of things evil and dark while Van Helsing serves to highlight the principle of Christianity that fear paganism and strange lifestyles. Throughout the novel, we return to the othering of Van Helsing to highlight the perceived higher moral nature of his character in the representation of the contemporary British and, more so, Christian principles. In effect, Dracula is heavily imbued with religious themes and the most potent supporter and espouser of Judeo-Christian doctrine and symbols is Van Helsing.
Dr. Abraham Van Helsing
Van Helsing is the overachiever's overachiever. Seriously. This guy has so many degrees he's like a one-man university.
We know that he's a professor, that he's Dutch, and that he's an expert in pretty much everything. Besides knowing all about medicine (both modern and ancient), superstitions, and religion, he also lets drop at one point that he has a law degree, too.
But Van Helsing isn't just a walking brain: He has enough personal eccentricities to make him an interesting character. His accent, obviously, makes him stand out among the other characters—he's the only member of the Crew of Light (the group that hunts down Dracula) who isn't a native English speaker.
The only other non-native speaker in the novel is Dracula himself. Besides the accent, Van Helsing has a number of other quirks—for example, he laughs hysterically when things seem pretty grim to everyone else (13.79). He also lets a few interesting facts drop about himself—we know that Dr. Seward saved his life once (9.26) and we know that Van Helsing is married, but that his wife is insane and therefore living in a mental institution (13.85).
In short, Van Helsing's eccentricities make him stand out as one of the most interesting, memorable characters of the novel. In fact, many readers tend to forget about the other members of the Crew of Light altogether, and just remember Van Helsing as the vampire fighter.
Just think about the 2004 movie Van Helsing starring Hugh Jackman. No, that movie doesn't look much like Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Hugh Jackman is certainly younger and better looking than Stoker's Van Helsing, but you get the picture. Van Helsing, as a character, stands out enough that he can be taken out of the context of the original story.