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Over the weekend, I finished re-reading Dracula by Bram Stoker. In this post, I want to gather together my thoughts about it, and, primarily, to say that it was better than I remembered it or expected it to be. Those familiar with my LJ style will have guessed already that this is likely to be a long post – so long, in fact, that I have been writing it over several days on my word-processor before pasting it in here. Thank the gods for LJ cuts, eh?

Thanks to various clues I can’t be bothered to list here, I’ve worked out for definite that I first read this book when I was nine years old. I read it at least twice more while a teenager, but before the present re-reading, hadn’t read it for at least 10 years (i.e. since I was seventeen). This means that reading the book this time had the overall feeling of returning to an old friend, but also that enough time had passed for me to feel like I was discovering that friend anew.

I’ve also changed enough since I last read it to be able to read it now in a quite different way. Even the first time I read it, I was already seeing it in the light of Hammer’s 1958 Dracula (starring, you guessed, Christopher Lee), and since then I’ve made a point of seeing virtually every retelling of the story it’s possible to see (including the recent and lamentable Van Helsing). On past readings of the book itself, I didn’t bother to try to distinguish between the original and its retellings, and quite happily let myself ‘see’ images from all the films I’d seen as I read the story. Now, I’ve developed enough critical awareness to at least seek not to do that. It’s never entirely possible to ‘unsee’ adaptations of a story once you have seen them, but this time I did at least aim to imagine how Dracula would have seemed to the people reading it when it was first published, without all the baggage of its later incarnations. The result was quite a different experience for me, and I think more enjoyable.

So, on to what I thought as I read it:


Let’s start by making full acknowledgement of some of the book’s flaws.

I’m not the first to notice this, and I won’t be the last, but Stoker’s vocabulary seems significantly limited at times. Not one female vampire throughout the entire book, for example, is not ‘voluptuous’. Any reader will get thoroughly sick of hearing about the teeth of both the vampires and sometimes also the human characters ‘champing’ (a lame word in the first place, let alone after the 10th occurrence). And my sympathies soon failed to be aroused by references to ‘poor Lucy’, or my imagination stirred by the unendingly ‘laconic’ utterances of Quincey Morris.

Less of a literary weakness, but still annoying nonetheless, are some inconsistencies with the dates of the journal entries, letters, etc. which make up the novel. For example, after Mina leaves Whitby to go and tend to Jonathan in Budapest, Lucy writes a letter to her, still from Whitby on 30th August. Yet the next entry from Lucy is a diary entry of 24th August, in which she says that she has returned home from Whitby to her mother’s home in Hillingham (chapter 9). Similarly, the estate agents, Mitchell, Sons & Candy send a letter to Lord Godalming on the 1st October: remarkably prescient, since they were actually asked to do this by Jonathan Harker on the 2nd October (chapter 20). These grate occasionally, and it’s remarkable that they weren’t picked up during the process of publication. But then again, I’ve never noticed them on any previous readings of the book, because I didn’t bother to look much at the dates of the documents. So I suppose it probably doesn’t have a significant impact on most readers.

A neutral observation: vampirism and sex

The theme of vampirism as a metaphorical means of exploring fears about rampant or illicit sexuality seems like a hackneyed old line to us today. Even by Stoker’s day, it had already been thoroughly established in works like J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872). But even if the inclusion of this theme doesn’t exactly count as a great literary achievement, it’s still interesting on a historical level to look at the way Bram Stoker uses it. He may not have intended it to do so, but it does give us an interesting window into Victorian attitudes towards sexuality (as does almost any vampire story / film for its own day).

There’s plenty to be said, of course, about male domination of women, the symbolism of the penetration of the vampire’s fangs into the flesh, the relationship between sex and death, etc., etc. But the main thing I want to notice is the way that scenes involving vampires are portrayed by Stoker in terms which almost exactly match specific sexual acts, with only a few words changed here and there.

Check out, for example, the following scene, in which Lucy, now a vampire, is destroyed / put to rest by her former fiancé, Lord Godalming, as a metaphor for their mutual orgasm. Given all the blood involved, it could be seen as having overtones of the taking of her virginity which would have occurred on their wedding night. It also certainly carries a heavy dose of voyeurism, given that it takes place in front of several people, and is also described by a third party (Dr. Seward, who had himself proposed to Lucy and been turned down):

‘Arthur placed the point over the heart, and as I looked I could see its dint in the white flesh. Then he struck with all his might.
The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it; the sight of it gave us courage, so that our voices seemed to ring through the little vault.
And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth ceased to champ [thank goodness!], and the face to quiver. Finally, it lay still. The terrible task was over’ (chapter 16).

Note also the following, in which Mina is attacked by Dracula and forced to drink his blood, as a woman’s description of being forced to perform oral sex:

‘He pulled open his shirt, and with his long sharp nails opened a vein in his breast. When the blood began to spurt out, he took my hands in one of his, holding them tight, and with the other seized my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some of the – Oh, my God, my God! What have I done?’ (chapter 21).

Is Stoker just struggling in these scenes for inspiration from the closest experience he has to what is being described? Or is he quite deliberately setting out to use the action as a metaphor for sex, either to give greater literary impact to his work or simply for titillation (in a sufficiently distorted form for it to ‘pass’ in Victorian society)? The answers, I suppose, depend on whether you see Stoker as a great writer of literature, or simply a penny-dreadful merchant.

Positive points

So, what’s actively good about the book? Well, plenty in fact. For a start, it is vivid, gripping, well-paced and generally well-structured: none of them necessarily markers of a great work of literature, but they all help.

The book also has a clearly identifiable and strongly expressed central theme: that of technology, western modernity and information versus superstition, eastern barbarity and medievalism. Its sympathies are firmly with modernism and technology, and it can actually be read as a product of a white-hot Victorian world of optimism about the future and self-confidence in the achievements of (western, or specifically British) man. Its message about information, science and technology is far more positive than Frankenstein (although that’s not to say either is better than the other for that reason). The difference in fact is probably due partly to a shift in general attitudes between the time when Frankenstein was written (1818) and the publication of Dracula in 1897, and partly to the different social milieux of the authors: Mary Shelley part of an elite Romantic rebellion against the certainties of the Enlightenment era, and Bram Stoker the son of an Irish civil servant and later both lawyer and civil servant himself.

To see how the theme is expressed, let’s start with Dracula’s homeland. Transylvania is dark, cold, home to wild animals like wolves, possesses only simple, traditional technology and is full of superstitious and easily-manipulated people who will never explain exactly what it is they are afraid of. When Jonathan Harker first goes to Dracula’s castle, there is a great deal of material along the lines of ‘The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most Western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule’ (chapter 1). His means of transport get less and less sophisticated as he goes on: from train to public coach to Dracula’s own carriage. The same motif is also used at the end of the book, when the central characters pursue Dracula back towards his castle. Van Helsing and Mina Harker set off by train, but cannot get closer than 70 miles away from Dracula’s castle this way, and have to approach it along poorly-maintained roads via horse and cart / carriage. The last mile or so of the journey, indeed, has to be completed on foot in the snow, after their horses are killed by Dracula’s vampire women. Meanwhile, Dracula himself goes up river perfectly successfully on a simple tow-boat followed by a crude wagon. Lord (Arthur) Godalming and Jonathan Harker attempt to follow him in a steam-launch, but are thwarted by rough waters which cause it to break down: so the landscape is hostile to modern technology.

Moving on to the man himself, Dracula himself is of course pivotal in bringing about the confrontation between the modern, western world and the old world of medieval superstition which is the core of the book. It’s made clear several times by Van Helsing that, after several centuries holed up in his castle in Transylvania, he is now doing something new by attempting to come to London and bring his vampirism into a new arena. For example, ‘He is experimenting, and doing it well: and if it had not been that we have crossed his path he would be yet – he may be yet if we fail – the father or furtherer of a new order of beings’ (chapter 23). Almost everything about him is of the old world: power over animals, ability to create a fog, dust, foul stench of decay, constrained by natural phenomena such as sunrise, sunset and changes of tide, and feudal brutality towards ordinary labourers he employs (e.g. the crew of the ship whom he picks off one by one on the way to Whitby, or Petrov Skinsky, who is charged with handing over Dracula’s box / coffin to Slovak boatmen and then has his throat ripped out). However, the danger inherent in him really comes from the fact that over the course of the book he is learning to move around and succeed within the bright, new world of Victorian London. Indeed, we are almost invited to feel that if he'd stayed in his natural home of Transylvania, everything would have been fine and he could have carried on in his usual manner without anyone (worth caring about) being inconvenienced by it. He uses Jonathan Harker early on in the book a) to buy his house in London, Carfax (still dusty and semi-ruined, though) and b) to learn all about British life and customs. When in London, he at first employs labourers to move his boxes of earth about and agents to arrange his affairs, but increasingly finds that he can do these things himself in person, thus reducing the trail of paperwork by which Van Helsing and team can track him down. The reason Dracula ultimately fails in his mission, however, is that he doesn’t quite manage to adapt himself to the new world well enough or quickly enough (although tension is created at some points as we fear that he will). Hence, he is eventually forced out of it by able and self-confident Victorians, and has to retreat back via traditional methods of transport towards Transylvania.

By contrast, the ‘gang’ of central characters is entirely of and at home with the new world. They gather information like bees, compiling over the course of the book the documentation which it consists of, and frequently re-reading diaries, letters, etc. to uncover previously unrecognised clues about Dracula which will help them to defeat him. Meanwhile, anyone under Dracula’s spell (e.g., at various points, Lucy, Mina and Renfield) becomes silent and reticent, and it is almost impossible to get any information out of them. The modern eye may not pick up on the technology the characters use as they battle against Dracula straight away, because it doesn’t seem new to us. But tools and techniques which they make use of that were actually pretty cutting edge at the time include: numerous telegrams (often utterly essential to their success), shorthand, typewriters (including a ‘Traveller’s’ typewriter), wax cylinders, endless trains, blood transfusions (unfortunately without any apparent knowledge of varying blood groups), hypnotism, an operation to relieve the pressure of blood on Renfield’s brain after he has been fatally wounded by Dracula, contemporary methods of psychoanalysis on Renfield generally, the steam launch I already mentioned and even a telephone at one point. Most representative of the modern world in the book is, of course, Van Helsing, an accomplished scientist and master of several branches of learning, and thus a perfect antithesis for Dracula.

The conflicts between the central group and Dracula also frequently centre around modernity and technology. The failure of the steam launch in the hostile territory of Transylvania is one example. A similar case, expressing the advantage which technology gives to our heroes, occurs when Dracula has headed off back to Transylvania by ship, and they know that they have several days to spare before they need to pursue him, since they can get there in only about three days by train. Telegrams keep them constantly informed of the progress of Dracula’s ship on its way back to Transylvania, allowing them to discover when and where it eventually docks, while Mina is also able to warn the men via a telegram that Dracula has left his house at Carfax and is heading towards them (chapter 23). As a converse example which shows how crucial the telegram in particular is to their success, Lucy’s final death and transformation into a vampire occurs because of a tragic mistake whereby a telegram is misdelivered, so that Van Helsing and Dr. Seward each think the other is watching over her, but neither actually is (chapters 11 to 12). And finally, when the group catch Dracula in Mina’s room and chase him out, he has time (thanks to his preternatural speed) to set fire to all their collected diaries and wax cylinders: meaning, of course, that he robs them of their original documents, and makes it unlikely that anyone will later believe their story (chapter 21 and ‘Note’ at end). Their stock of information is only saved by more manifestations of modern technology: a) the fact that Mina had typed all the diaries up in multiple copies using carbon paper and b) the fact that they had put at least one copy of the typescript in a safe in a different room.

Despite all this, though, just as Dracula almost manages to make himself stronger by adapting to the new world, our heroes make themselves stronger than they would be with all this technology alone by also drawing on a) the power of traditional religious symbols and b) the knowledge gathered from old superstitions. The message? Very Victorian: drive forward into the brave new world, but don’t forget your religion, or what can be learnt from tradition, in the process.

Finally, I believe that significant credit needs to go to Bram Stoker for his characterisation of Mina Harker: again, perhaps not necessarily on a literary level, but certainly on a socio-historical one. Mina is strong, intelligent and the driving force behind the compilation of orderly information for the group. Not only does she gather and type up all their documentation, but she also memorises train timetables so that they are fully in command of their transport options, and frequently inspires the men in the group on with her bravery and honour. Here, she contrasts significantly with Lucy: the men of the group seek to help Lucy essentially because they fancy her, but they seek to help Mina because they admire and respect her. She also stands in marked contrast to Jonathan Harker, her fiancé / husband. While he is rendered weak and deeply troubled by his experiences in Transylvania at the start of the book, she is strong, capable and level-headed throughout: even when she is having to fight Dracula’s demonic influence over her. Indeed, it is only through Mina’s help and inspiration that Jonathan eventually regains his strength in order to fight Dracula.

It is also Mina who provides Van Helsing with the information he needs to work out for the first time that Dracula is active in England, and in fact her to whom he first reveals that everything Jonathan had written in his diary about Dracula was true. ‘Oh you so clever woman!’ comments Van Helsing when she tells him how she has typed up Jonathan’s Transylvanian diary for reference. ‘I long knew that Mr Jonathan was a man of much thankfulness; but see, his wife have all the good things’ (chapter 14). Later on, he comments, ‘Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has a man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination’ (chapter 18).

For the early parts of their battle against Dracula, Mina is a key player, typing up and compiling information for the group, participating in discussions about what should be done and acting as secretary in group discussions. Yet even as Van Helsing is praising her in chapter 18, he also suggests (and is followed in this by the other men) that Mina should no longer participate in the struggle against Dracula, or even be told what is going on any more, for her own safety. She, told of this, notes in her diary that ‘though it was a bitter pill for me to swallow, I could say nothing, save to accept their chivalrous care of me’. So, Mina is to be cut out of the information loop, to the full agreement of all the men, and to her gracious disgruntlement. The result is then immediate: the first night that they go off to work against Dracula and leave her behind and uninformed is the very same night that he first begins to feed on her. The men don’t even realise for two more days, because she is now so far outside their field of concerns. And of course the result is a terrible threat for all of them, since she is now in Dracula’s power, and may even turn into a vampire like him. So, another nice clear message, and this time a little more radical: cut women out of important affairs, and not only will it be unpleasant for them, but they will fall back into the power of medieval superstition, to the detriment of all.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 24th, 2004 11:52 pm (UTC)
That was really interesting - I think I need to read Dracula again, as I've hated it every time I've read it in the past. I've always suffered from the general complaint that Stoker isn't a good enough writer to successfully sustain a work done in the epistolary style. In order for such a novel to work, each character should have a strong - and ideally instantly recognisable - voice. I've always found myself thumbing back to the beginning of sections so I could remember whether it was a male or female character who was writing, never mind being able to distinguish between Mina's and Lucy's tones. My last read was also somewhat hampered by the fact that the last Dracula film I'd seen was Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which makes it kind of hard to take any of it seriously.
Jun. 25th, 2004 02:54 am (UTC)
the last Dracula film I'd seen was Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which makes it kind of hard to take any of it seriously

I bet! :)

You're right about the problem with the unidentifiable voices, though. I didn't have any problem remembering whether the 'voice' at any given time was female or male, but some of the entries by Dr. Seward and Jonathan Harker did get hard to tell apart, especially towards the end of the book where they were doing increasingly similar things.
Jun. 26th, 2004 06:30 am (UTC)
"There’s plenty to be said, of course, about male domination of women, the symbolism of the penetration of the vampire’s fangs into the flesh"

Don't forget the gay aspect too, thinking of Dracula saying he wants Harker for himself.

"I’m not the first to notice this, and I won’t be the last, but Stoker’s vocabulary seems significantly limited at times."

I'd be tempted to go the whole hog and say that Stoker is a pretty bad prose writer. Dracula works because of all the potent themes that percolate through it, perhaps not entirely consciously. By contrast, Frankenstein as an elaborately structured novel of ideas.

"The difference in fact is probably due partly to a shift in general attitudes between the time when Frankenstein was written (1818) and the publication of Dracula in 1897, and partly to the different social milieux of the authors"

Hmm. There were a great opponenents of technological progress in Victorian literature though; arguably Dickens, but also Ruskin, Morris, Butler.
Jun. 26th, 2004 09:45 am (UTC)
Don't forget the gay aspect too, thinking of Dracula saying he wants Harker for himself.

Yes, indeed, this is definitely there too.

In fact... *muses*... one thing this means is that the character of Dracula can be read as a spurned homosexual lover of Harker, with his whole revenge against Harker and his friends motivated by this. I'm interested now, because this is something that's often also true of the villains in classical epics (I mentioned this briefly in my equally long post on Troy). OK, so the films I'm referring to there are from the 50s and early 60s, not the Victorian era. But Ben Hur at least was based on a Victorian toga play: I wonder if that theme was there in the original? I'm intrigued to know how firmly ensconced into western literature this 'topos' is now, and when it first appeared.

I'd be tempted to go the whole hog and say that Stoker is a pretty bad prose writer. Dracula works because of all the potent themes that percolate through it, perhaps not entirely consciously. By contrast, Frankenstein as an elaborately structured novel of ideas.

Ah, but the whole point of this post is to take the unfashionable stance of defending Dracula! I'll admit it may not be the best book ever written, but I wanted to argue that it's not actually too bad, even if it isn't quite in the same league as Frankenstein. I've come across a lot of criticism of it since I last read it as a teenager, and hence picked it up this time expecting to find it pretty turgid. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.
Jun. 26th, 2004 10:33 am (UTC)
Ben Hur is quite an interesting illustration, with the gay subtext included in it by Gore Vidal (at least if you believe his account of matters, rather than Charlton Heston's). I suuspect that sich themes do permeate Western writing in so far as they were present in various forms of classical writing (the Iliad in particular) and then later sublimated into more acceptable variants. I must admit to not having seen Troy, largely because of a largely negative reaction to Gladiator (though Derek Jacobi was as good as ever in it).

I certainly don't mean to decry Dracula (which I would rate more highly than Jekyll and Hyde, to take one example); but I do think it works because the sum is greater than the parts.
Jun. 26th, 2004 11:07 am (UTC)
I must admit to not having seen Troy, largely because of a largely negative reaction to Gladiator (though Derek Jacobi was as good as ever in it).

Derek Jacobi is always good!

I will say that if you didn't like Gladiator, you're probably wise not to see Troy. I don't really consider either of them great works of art in themselves, but my interest in the Classical Receptions aspect is such that it completely overshadows the issue of whether they're good or bad films for me: I'm just so wrapped up in what they can tell me about modern responses to the Classical world, that they become a source of never-ending fascination to me for this reason alone.

Indeed, it could be said that much of my enthusiasm for Dracula really stems from me seeing the book as an artefact of social history, rather than a work of literature. I'm a historian, so I can't help this: I'll gladly analyse complete trash if it gives me an insight into the attitudes of its time. Then, I come away having enjoyed analysing it, and it's easy for me to confuse this with having enjoyed whatever it was for its artistic merits. Hence, I think of myself as really loving both Troy and Gladiator, but I suppose that when I step back and think about why, I have to admit that it isn't because they're profound and moving works of cinematic genius!
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