“For the blood is the life:”* Dracula and the Victorian Politics of Blood

By Travis Lau

How do we begin to historicize blood as a fluid material and as a symbol that has the potential to bear a “social life”[1] beyond the body? This essay employs Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) as a case study to consider how Victorian fiction (re)imagined the shifting valences of blood during the nineteenth century. Drawing on the work of historians of medicine on blood and more recent writings on immunity, I contextualize Dracula in relation to the Victorian anti-vaccination as a political movement also preoccupied by the significations of blood.

Blood prior to the Victorian period was understood primarily in terms of social organization as markers of kinship. Such bloodlines defined individual and collective identity and helped to cement alliances between different families and lineages. Furthermore, blood was seen as a vital substance that both enlivened the body and constituted the self (i.e. to think of one’s “constitution” as simultaneously one’s character or overall health). By the nineteenth century, the decline of aristocratic power shifted the purview over blood to the medical establishment beginning to professionalize at training hospitals.[2] Advances in medical techniques and technologies made blood literally accessible, diagnosable, and even transferrable between and across bodies, yet its vitalist symbolics as that which sustained the body persisted.

J. H. Aveling, `Immediate transfusion in England,' Obstetrics Journal, 1873, 1, 303. © Wellcome Library, London.

J. H. Aveling, `Immediate transfusion in England,’ Obstetrics Journal, 1873, 1, 303. © Wellcome Library, London.

Nineteenth-century developments in medical practice reenergized long-standing debates about the nature and capacities of blood. Blood transfusion dates back to the early modern period with William Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system as documented in his De Motu Cordis in 1628. His findings provoked further experiments with transfusion, beginning with Jean-Baptise Denys in 1667, who performed the first of four animal-human transfusions to disastrous results. Over the next 150 years, blood transfusion, as a risky and often lethal treatment option for hemorrhage or humoral imbalance, mostly disappeared out of practice until it was revived in 1818 by James Blundell, who broke with tradition by using human donors. In their experiments with transfusion methods that could prevent blood clotting,[3] Blundell and later James Aveling grappled with transfusion’s dangerous implications of comingled or adulterated bodily fluids. Through intravenous exchange, blood’s status was always uncertain: it could either be nutritive or polluting for the connected bodies of both the donor and the receiver.

Alongside blood’s increasing medicalization during this period, the English anti-vaccination movement took shape around the mid-nineteenth century to become the largest medical resistance campaign ever mounted in European history. Firmly against smallpox vaccination mandates issued by the state, anti-vaccinators circulated propaganda that strategically employed the rhetoric and iconography of the Victorian “gothic body,” characterized by fragmentation and permeability, ever “at risk of violation, penetration, and systematic disruption.”[4] By repeatedly invoking the mythical vampire, anti-vaccinationists exacerbated already-heightened cultural anxieties surrounding bodily vulnerability and permeability. Likening the vampire’s teeth to the physician’s or state-appointed vaccinator’s lancet, propagandists framed vaccination as a sinister health practice which violated bodily integrity and polluted its essence. Vampire narratives like Dracula provided a grim counter-representation of vaccination, which states insisted was a necessary means by which citizens should preserve their health for themselves and for the greater national good.

Snapshot of Stoker's working notes for Dracula. © Rosenbach Library.

Snapshot of Stoker’s working notes for Dracula. © Rosenbach Library.

As one of the characters exclaims repeatedly, “the blood is the life, the blood is the life,”[5] blood purity featured heavily in English national debates. Throughout the nineteenth century, lay and scientific communities believed pure blood to be the key to good health. At the height of English imperialism, pure blood in the Victorian period became attached to notions of national health and superior fitness. If blood was indeed equivalent to life itself, the introduction of infectious matter that could contaminate the English essence was highly suspect. The anxieties surrounding inoculation began over a century before when inoculation entered the English imagination through Mary Wortley Montagu’s importation of Turkish variolation (inducing an immune response through the fluid from a smallpox pustule) and later through Edward Jenner’s vaccination technique (inducing an immune response through the fluid from a cowpox pustule). The former risked exposing the English body to a potentially effeminizing, decadent Easternness, while the latter implied the potential of a cross-species infection. Just like transfusion, vaccination seemed to counter-intuitively establish a toxic connection between two bodies for an uncertain health benefit, especially when many inoculated people suffered permanent scarification and life-threatening side effects. Dracula dramatizes precisely the implications of the fluid circuits created between bodies in procedures like transfusion or vaccination.

“There must be a transfusion of blood at once”[6]

Famously adapted and reimagined on stage and in film, Dracula recounts the story of the failed invasion of England by the ancient Transylvanian vampire, Count Dracula. The novel, told through different narrative forms (letters, journal entries, medical case reports, newspaper clippings), documents Dracula’s efforts to turn the “teeming millions”[7] of London into legions of the undead. After Dracula’s infection of both Lucy Westenra and later Mina Murray, Mina’s fiancée, Jonathan Harker, and Lucy’s suitors, John Seward, Quincey Morris, and Arthur Holmwood, band together with the Dutch professor, Abraham Van Helsing, to form the “Crew of Light,” a brotherhood bound to fight Dracula to the death. Crucial to the formation of this social group are the members’ symbolic acts of blood transfusion.

Lucy, during her trip with Mina to Whitby, begins to develop bizarre symptoms of sleepwalking and anemia. As her condition worsens, Dr. Seward calls in Van Helsing, who urgently prescribes blood transfusion to maintain Lucy’s heart function. Within Chapter 10 alone, Van Helsing transfuses both the blood of Arthur Holmwood and Jack Seward into Lucy. The procedure only receives a few paragraphs of description before immediately shifting to its effects (or lack thereof) on Lucy. In the first transfusion, we only have a description of Arthur Holmwood’s response: “My life is hers, and I would give the last drop of blood in my body for her.”[8] Like blood’s premodern function as a form of social linkage, transfusion identifies and affirms a certain heroic masculinity that defines itself through this act of bodily generosity. As each of the men proceed to transfuse their blood, Holmwood’s remark outlines the parameters of what will ultimately define what it means to be a member of the “Crew of Light”: they must be willing to give every last drop of their blood to preserve one of their own, especially the vulnerable women who are Dracula’s targets. Membership in this collective demands a recognition of Dracula as a threat to its members and England at large and a self-sacrificing desire to accommodate the community’s hematic needs (“[Lucy] wants blood, and blood she must have or die”[9]). Blood quite literally becomes a matter of life or death.

Still from the Hammer 1958 adaptation of Dracula, where Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is giving Lucy (Carol Marsh) a transfusion.

Still from the Hammer 1958 adaptation of Dracula, where Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is giving Lucy (Carol Marsh) a transfusion.

In the subsequent scenes of transfusion, Stoker invokes the politics of blood purity when Van Helsing appraises Holmwood’s constitution as “so young and strong of blood so pure that we need not ‘defibrinate’ it.”[10] Arthur’s blood transfers between his and Lucy’s bodies seamlessly, as it miraculously requires no defibrination (the removal of fibrin or fibrinogen to prevent blood clotting).[11] Blood, whose properties were still believed in this period to animate the body, needed to be pure in order to both cure illness and preserve health. It is no surprise then that Van Helsing underscores the exemplarity of blood from a donor that is a healthy, able-bodied man. In contrast to Dracula’s contaminated bodily fluids, which must forcibly be introduced into his victims’ bodies and then subsequently transforms them from within into creatures that subsist on the blood of others, the “Crew of Light’s” superior blood can counteract the effects of vampirism. Even despite Lucy’s eventual descent into vampirism, the men do not seem to suffer any effects from the potential intermixing of blood during transfusion. The members of the “Crew of Light” are framed as ideal blood donors who are seemingly immune to vampiric contagion, and thus they are rightfully the ones to eliminate Dracula.

Dracula’s staking in the book’s final chapter marks the purgation of Mina’s vampirism and symbolically of the English body politic now “stainless.”[12] Dracula’s disease narrative ends in the triumph of a superior English constitution over that of an infectious, Eastern European other. Yet perhaps the novel’s most gothic element is its lurid representation of the very precarity of blood purity and what is at stake when blood, as the vital core of national identity, becomes threatened.


Travis Lau is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Department of English. His research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, the history and theory of the novel, the history of medicine, disability studies, body studies, and gender and sexuality studies. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Prophylactic Fictions: Immunity and Biopolitics,” explores the British literary and cultural history of immunity and vaccination beginning in the eighteenth century. His academic writing has been published in the Journal of Homosexuality, Romantic Circles, and English Language Notes (forthcoming). His creative writing has appeared in Atomic, Feminine Inquiry, Wordgathering, Assaracus, Rogue Agent, and QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology (Handtype Press, 2015).


* Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal. New York: Norton, 1997. 206. As the editors note, this scriptural line was often used for drug advertisements such as Hughe’s Blood Pills or Clarke’s World-Famed Blood Mixture. Both claimed to rejuvenate the body by purifying the blood.

[1] See Law, Jules. The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010.

[2] See Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 2003 for a history of hospital medicine and the development of anatomical medicine.

[3] See Pelis, Kim. “Blood Clots: The Nineteenth-Century Debate Over the Substance and Means of Transfusion in Britain.” Annals of Science 54(1997): 331-360 for an account of the controversies surrounding transfusion in the nineteenth century.

[4] Durbach, Nadja. Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853 – 1907. 114.

[5] Stoker 130.

[6] Ibid. 113.

[7] Ibid. 161.

[8] Ibid. 113.

[9] Ibid. 113.

[10] Ibid. 114.

[11] An examination of Stoker’s working notes for Dracula (currently housed in the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia) reveals only minor references to transfusion. The few instances of the word “transfusion” appear only on Stoker’s calendar grid that chronologically plots out the novel’s individual entries that make up its narration. It is believed that Stoker drew his medical knowledge from his brother, William Thornley Stoker, an eminent anatomist and surgeon.

[12] Stoker 326.

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