Essay: Anti-semitism – Dracula

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  • Anti-semitism - Dracula
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The term scapegoat originates in the Bible, and was originally an animal that is burdened with the sins and wrongdoings of others and then banished. This has evolved into a psychological term used to describe an individual or a group of people that are blamed for external issues. Throughout history, minority groups are used as scapegoats for environmental grievances: poverty, social and political strife, and even natural disasters. One demonstration of the “scapegoat” phenomena was the antisemitism in Europeans during the 1800s, which originated in Russia and Germany (Brinkmann, 2010). Resentment against Jews eventually evolved into organized attempts at persecution through the formation of Anti-Semitic Leagues (Klier, 524), forced migration, and riots. Social, political, and economic issues were subject to dissociation by society, which blamed the arrival of Jewish immigrants and fed into conspiracy theories that Jews were plotting to undermine German institutions and take over the world (Klier, 530).

As a result, many Jewish peoples migrated to Western Europe, settling in areas such as Germany and France, but most heavily in Great Britain (Rudermann, 161). Between the years 1880 and 1924, approximately one hundred and thirty thousand Jewish people immigrated from Eastern Europe and settled in Britain (Brinkmann, 5). Anti-semitic prejudice followed them – Jewish peoples were seen by Brits as a foreign, unwelcome, and an invasive presence. The British blamed Jews for the problems that plagued their cities- poverty, lack of job opportunities, crowding of urban areas, and disease (Brinkmann, 88). This antisemitism eventually evolved into physical acts of violence against Jewish peoples in Britain, including riots, attacks on Jews, and even pogroms: organized massacres of Jewish people (Brinkmann, 4). Antisemitism even found its way into literature- extensive anti-Semitic writings were found in newspapers, articles, and novels.
One very notorious example of anti-semitic British literature is Shakespeare’s Shylock. In the play, the main character, Shylock, is a Jewish merchant who is portrayed as greedy, manipulative, and selfish. He relentlessly pursues Antonio, a man who cannot afford to pay his debt to Shylock, and attempts to collect a literal pound of flesh from Antonio as payment. As a resolution to the play, Shylock is eventually stripped of all his wealth and belongings and forced to convert to Christianity (Shakespeare). It is important to note that the Christian characters in the play live happily ever after. Shylock was written in the 16th century, many years before Dracula’s conception, but captures the anti-semitic tendencies of the English society. Around the time of Shylock’s conception, very few Jews even lived in England, and it was likely that most Englishmen had never encountered one, making the characteristics (physical and otherwise) possessed by Shylock to be purely founded on preconceived, inaccurate notions of what Jewish people were like (Frank).

This was a common theme to anti-semitism in Europe: unfounded ideas and beliefs concerning Jewish people that lacked any foundations in reality. One study done at George Mason University found that when temperatures dropped (lower temperatures were associated with crop failures, sickness, food shortages), persecution in the form of acts of violence against Jewish peoples would increase (Anderson et al, 2015).

Up until the mid-1700s, Jewish peoples were nonexistent in Britain, due to violent riots fueled by blood libels that had eradicated the Jewish population in the 1200s. Blood libels originated not in Germany or Russia, but in England, where they often led to violent attacks on Jewish communities. These accusations were based on the notion that Jews would sacrifice and drink the blood of an innocent Christian child as part of the seder, a Jewish feast in celebration of Passover (Nadler). Blood libels were one of the ways through which Jews became associated with blood. One Russian newspaper title proclaimed that “The Yids … suck our blood!” (Klier 526). However, this was metaphorically referencing another unsubstantiated belief among Western Europeans. In the 1700s, Jews began to return and settle in Western Europe (Vallely). Jobs that were previously reserved for Christians were now able to be held by Jews, which angered and fostered resentment in many Christian westerners, who believed that by holding higher-paying jobs and owning property, Jews were “taking over” (Vallely).

At first glance, Dracula appears to embody a sort of anti-Christ figure, with his aversion to sunlight and holy symbols such as the cross and holy water as well as his ability to literally drain human life. However, when evaluating the historical context in which the novel was written, it becomes clear that the character Dracula is based on numerous offensive Jewish stereotypes, and is wrought with the prejudice felt among Western Europeans against Jewish peoples migrating from Eastern Europe. Dracula encapsulates Western European resentment and fear of Jewish peoples.
Dracula’s Eastern but unspecified origins parallel the migratory status of most Jewish individuals who had fled Russia during the 19th century. Christians living in Western Europe didn’t just see Jews as religiously different, but ethnically different as well. The character Dracula physically embodies what Victorian Protestants believed Jewish people to look like. Harker even comments that his features as “markedly Jewish” and quickly notes his “marked physiognomy” and pays great attention to studying Dracula’s physical traits: a “very strong– aquiline” nose, a “lofty domed forehead”, and “hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere” (Stoker, 23) paint the image of a stereotypically Jewish caricature.

This is demonstrated repeatedly in Dracula, where Stoker doesn’t miss a single opportunity to comment on Dracula’s “foreignness” in every aspect, from his physical appearance to his strange behavior. Even in the way Dracula studies Western literature and culture marks him as a foreigner. Dracula’s attempts to familiarize himself with Western culture are excessive- he even recreationally reads “English Bradshaw’s Guide”, a timetable of the English railway system (Stoker, 28). Although Dracula speaks perfect English, the author observes a “strange intonation”. Dracula is trying almost too hard to be western, very similar to how Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe strived to assimilate into Western society, only to be rejected and maltreated.
Dracula feeds off of the Western European paranoia that their cities would succumb to “foreign presence”, and were especially convinced that Jewish peoples were their enemies, as Christians and as Western Europeans. Dracula characterizes that paranoia. In the novel, Dracula poses a more literal threat, but a threat nonetheless. Although there is only one of Dracula, and several Englishmen, Dracula is cunning, intelligent, and crafty. He manages to almost consistently overpower them, and almost succeeds in “immigrating” to England. However, he is ultimately stopped by the Crew of Light.

Although Jewish religious belief only differs from Christianity in a few aspects, most Christians at the time saw Judaism as the opposite of Christianity, and believed Jewish practices to be sinful. When England passed what was known as “The Jew Bill” in 1753, which allowed Jews to be naturalized as citizens, the Tories declared that it was an “abandonment of Christianity” (Vallely). In Dracula, Dracula has an aversion to traditional Christian symbols like holy water, crucifixes, and communion wafers. Perhaps in the way that Dracula’s consumption of blood distorts Communion, Christians believe that Judaism distorts their faith. Another aspect of Dracula’s lifestyle that is strikingly “un-Christian” is his multiple sexual partners, or at least his sexual relationship with multiple women. The institution of marriage is a fundamental aspect of the Catholic faith, and Dracula twists this institution through his sexually-toned interactions with multiple women outside of the bonds of marriage. By giving Dracula stereotypically Jewish features and making him perversely un-Christian, Stoker could be attempting to make an anti-Semitic statement about the moral and religious status of Judaism.

Dracula acutely captures the anti-Semitic perceptions and accusations against Jewish immigrants in Western Europe during the 1800s. Through portrayal of negative Jewish stereotypes, pitting Dracula against the symbols and figures representing “correct” Christianity, and ultimately showing Dracula being defeated by the Christian figures in the novel, Stoker makes several statements. He expresses the Western European, Christian apprehension of and prejudice against immigrant Jews coming from the East to escape persecution, and distaste for their “foreignness”. By giving Dracula stereotypical Jewish characteristics and having the character defeated by the “righteous” characters in the novel (the Crew of Light), Stoker vilifies Judaism and claims its status as not only ungodly, but unhuman as well.

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