Dracula by Bram Stoker (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003; originally published in 1897. 560 pp)
Born in Dublin, Bram Stoker attended Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in Pure Mathematics. He worked as a civil servant in Dublin Castle before publishing works in dramatic criticism. He is best known for Dracula, a bestseller in his day and is still selling steadily. Stoker died in 1912.
We read from the journal of a young English lawyer named Jonathan Harker who makes a trip to none other than the Castle Dracula in the Eastern European country of Transylvania in order to conduct some real estate business with the Count. On his journey, peasants begin warning him of a creature, loosely translated “vampire”, who lives in the castle. Upon arriving at the castle, Harker finds the Count to be warm and welcoming, but soon discovers that he isn’t so much a guest in the castle, but rather a prisoner and devises an escape to Buda-Pest, where he is later found with “brain fever”.
Concurrently, in England, Lucy, the friend of Harker’s fiancee (Mina), becomes engaged to one of three suitors, Arthur Holmwood. A Russian ship turns up at the docks with its entire crew missing and its only cargo boxes of earth shipped by Count Dracula. Later, Mina’s friend Lucy becomes pale and ill, with red marks at her throat. As no one in the town can come up with a suitable diagnosis, Professor Van Helsing is summoned. Upon his arrival, Van Helsing orders that Lina’s chambers be covered in garlic. Lina recovers for a time, but things begin to take a turn for the worse, and it seems as though the Count’s power over the town is all-pervasive. The question then becomes if Van Helsing and the men of the town can cleanse the town from the new evil, or if the Count will prevail.
Andrew: Donovan, what were your general thoughts on the book?
Donovan: Stoker’s Dracula is imminently readable. His clear, crisp, and precise prose depicts 19th Century London and its grisly underbelly. I appreciate Stoker’s ability to unveil narrative through journal entries. Not only does the reader gain access to the inner thoughts of these characters—and therefore, build the characters nicely—the reader becomes enveloped in the sense of mysterious.
Of course, this side of a century long cultural phenomenon, it is difficult to ascertain a true sense of horror the early 20th Century readers would have encountered. Through our culture, we already know vampires hold an aversion to the crucifix and garlic. We understand how vampires are not seen in reflection and why they live exclusively from sunset to sunrise.
But the sense of mystery found in Dracula’s pages is palpable. Removing the cultural prevalence of vampires, the many odd occurrences noted in the text would baffle. Such feelings are illustrated well in the journal style:
“I began to fear as I wrote in this book that I was getting too diffuse; but now I am glad that I went into detail from the first, for there is something so strange about this place and all in it that I cannot but feel uneasy” (32).
Donovan: Did you have any thoughts on the journalistic writing style, Andrew?
Andrew: I found that there was a dark and ominous tone that Stoker created that is hard to find in a lot of literature. Harker’s journal changes much in even the first two chapters of the book. In the first chapter alone, Harker goes from honored houseguest to prisoner.
“The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far ras the eye can reach is a sea of green tree-tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forest. But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!” (33).
The transformation from tranquility to horror is made absolutely complete when Harker is visited by three vampires in the castle who try to seduce him. I think that a link between sex and vampirism is established quickly in the first few pages of his journal entries. In a Victorian society which rewards female virtue (like the virtue of Mina, for example), Stoker seems to be creating a cautionary moral tale, where he suggests that the sexually impure will not just lose their morals, but perhaps also their life. Stoker, here, is both cautioning against extreme female sexuality and the rise of modernity as well.
“I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck, she actually licked her lips like an animal. . . . Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat. . . . I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited—waited with beating heart” (45).
Andrew: Donovan, did you notice any themes in the book of note?
Donovan: Much like you, I am interested in what Dracula says about gender and sexuality. While it might be common knowledge of which I was not aware, but the vampires in Dracula prey exclusively on the opposite sex. Jonathan Harker spends months imprisoned in Count Dracula’s castle, fearful for his life, and the threat for his life comes not from Dracula but from his harem of vampires.
Additionally, when our Transylvanian immigrant establishes himself in London, Dracula feeds on women.
In fact, the most hubristic portion of the narrative occurs when the group of vampire slayers removes Mina from their plans. The group reasons her feminine nature is too frail for such awful work. They contend,
“A brave man’s hand can speak for itself; it does not even need a woman’s love to hear its music” (253).
Yet, her removal from the group leaves her prone to Dracula’s attacks.
Donovan: Andrew, did you find anything else in the book that you feel needs mentioning?
Andrew: I feel that Stoker is illustrating, through hyperbole, the line between good and evil. Even though Stoker surely intended Dracula to be an novel of horror and suspense, he is still trying to teach his readers something. This can be illustrated in the quote of Professor Van Helsing,
“Thus are we ministers of God’s own wish: that the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters, whose very existence would defame Him. He has allowed us to redeem one soul already, and we go out as the old knights of the Cross to redeem more. Like them we shall travel toward sunrise; and like them, if we fall, we fall in good cause” (340).
Stoker’s writing is just as much a product of genuine Victorian-era concerns as it is a genuine fearful tale. For the imaginative writing, for the cultural ties, and for the genuine horror it imparts upon the reader, I found Dracula to be an incredible read.
Andrew: Any final thoughts, Donovan?
Donovan: It is almost as if Stoker’s vampires illustrate the carnal desires of humanity. With the barrier of death removed, vampires have the freedom to feed and abuse the other sex. In a society founded on the prim and proper, the unfettered nature of a vampire offers extreme horror. Did Stoker intended to critique the rigid mores of Victorian society? Who knows? Nevertheless, the vampire provides stark contrast.
Stoker’s Dracula earns every bit of praise it has received over the last century. I give it high praise.
Donovan’s Verdict: 5 out of 5
Andrew’s Verdict: 5 out of 5
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