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  • Dracula and Chloral:Chemistry Matters
  • Sandy Feinstein (bio)

It has long been noted that nineteenth-century Gothic literature, from Frankenstein to Dracula, addresses the rapid development of the new sciences, including Darwinism, diagnosing disease, new understandings of psychiatric methods, and the limits of technology.1 Like the scholarship on science in Frankenstein, the scholarship on science in Dracula emphasizes the author's ambivalence toward new scientific developments and examines the limitations of the scientific method and its language. Specifically, the vampire in Dracula has been seen in relation to the biological mysteries of blood, disease, and death; he embodies conditions beyond the understanding and cure of all English physic and Western medical practice. As this article will show, the tension in Stoker's novel between the potentiality of science and its limitations alludes not only to Darwinian biology and numerous new Victorian technologies but also to what some Victorians regarded as the science with the greatest potential of all—chemistry.

While there has been wide-ranging discussion of Mary Shelley's use of chemistry2, in particular of her familiarity with the chemist Humphrey Davy's work and the physician Luigi Galvani's electrical experiments, Stoker's attention to science—specifically to chemistry in Dracula—has been comparatively limited in depth though broadly based. Concerns have ranged from questioning Stoker's attitude to science and technology to ascertaining whether he was criticizing or proselytizing its development and increased use. Examinations of the science in Stoker's writing have typically been related to his treatment of women and their sexualization through the new medical treatments of the period.3 In Dracula, such attention has, for example, been placed on blood transfusions and their scientific development and symbolic implications.4 In the novel, transfusion as a symbolic action, with its connection to primal fluids, subordinates the medical science itself. The narrative accords no consideration to blood types and compatibilities, negative reactions, or even infections. Blood chemistry had yet to be understood; it was the idea of exchange and of mutual penetration sanctioned by medical science that underlined the procedure and its importance in defining characters and their relationships to one another in the novel.

Though it lacks the implicitly sexual trappings of a delivery system requiring two participants to exchange their lifeblood, chemistry figures in equally [End Page 96] significant ways. The presence of chemistry to be examined here is the new science of formulas that represented compounds and drugs, using the latest symbolic notation. This new language and its symbolic notation provide a parallel narrative to the threat facing the characters: like the characters' various records of the unfolding events, be they letters, diary entries, or newspaper cuttings, chemistry serves as another contemporary discourse—with distinctive properties, products, effects, processes, and symbolic codes—which, in its unique way, also warns of unrecognized dangers.

No one, to my knowledge, has looked closely at the novel's use of chemistry, combining as it does the allusive and metaphoric language of literature with the new scientific shorthand of drug formulas. Such neglect is surprising, considering the distinctive orthography required to reproduce chemical formulas and how uncommon such language is in literary texts. The product, however, to which the chemical code refers in Dracula—chloral—has come under limited discussion, yet perhaps less than one might expect, considering the literary and critical interest in drugs such as opium, morphine, and even chloroform.5

The specific chemical reference at issue in Dracula is to chloral hydrate, which first appears in Dr. Seward's diary entry for 19 August. Later in the novel, the more commonly used name for the drug, chloral, appears in Mina's 1 October journal entry, when she determines to request a dose of it if she is still unable to sleep soundly. The contexts of the formula's appearance and its use in its various linguistic forms are necessary in order to understand the significance of chloral as formula and drug. Stoker's Dracula provides an important approach to addressing the tendency of science and its practitioners to "deny context and subjectivity," with the result that knowledge is generated by those who do not "necessarily" understand it (Rauch 252-53). As represented...


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