Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897) Review

8/10

From the very first chapter, Stoker lays on the atmosphere thick. It was a dark and stormy night, when Jonathan Harker made his way east to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. Every sign along the road tells him that he should turn back – the terrified peasants, the howling wolves – but Harker is a decent Englishman and has an appointment. Count Dracula himself is scary foreign nobility. Alone, with animalistic protruding teeth and pointed nails, and overbearing and powerful when he wants to. Stoker’s writing may be a bit wordy and stuffy, and because of that I expected the story to be more subtle, but he is quite explicit in making everything scary and painting Dracula with all the hallmarks of a vampire. 

After the first few chapters of Jonathan in Transylvania we’re in for a bit of a whiplash when Stoker introduces a whole bunch of new characters in England. Their stories coincide with Dracula’s arrival on the island, which goes hand in hand with supernatural omens: a huge storm, a lunatic going mad, an old fisherman thinking that his time has come, and Jonathan’s fiancee Mina worrying more and more. So England at the time was, at least in Stoker’s mind, the most developed and civilised place on Earth, and Dracula comes there to, well, corrupt its decency and take possession.

There is a long part in the first half where everyone is tiptoeing around the word ‘vampire’ and nobody is telling others anything. Lucy’s blood is being sucked every night by what she knows is some flapping thing coming through the window, but she isn’t telling the doctor and isn’t demanding to keep that window shut, while the doctor has boxes of garlic imported to protect her and isn’t telling anyone why. Jonathan did the same in the first chapters, describing Dracula as a vampire without drawing any conclusions about anything, except to exclaim once in a while “God preserve me!”, so he clearly has some thoughts about what’s going on that he isn’t sharing in his letters. I think it is part of the gothic mode of storytelling that the readers know what is going on, while the characters keep fumbling about, but it is driving me insane that nobody is communicating.

The vampire as a monster an sich is not all that interesting, a bit goofy even, but the vampire has always been a magnet for authors to write about themes of forbidden desires, sin, solitude, connection to our animalistic side and immortality. This is the meat of the best vampire stories that circles like a storm around the hollow, cartoony monster in the centre. Stoker did not invent all of this, he took much of it from existing folklore and there have been books written before Stoker’s that already explore some of these themes with vampires, like Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) which is about a lesbian vampire countess (see the topic of forbidden desires). But Stoker fully understood the appeal of these themes, especially the one about sexual repression, and that is what made this book so popular and influential. The whole sexualization of vampires in the latter decades of the 20th century can be traced back to these late 19th century books and Stoker’s Dracula foremost among them.

An interesting part of Dracula that illustrates how this has to do with sexual repression is in the comparison between two characters: Mina, and her friend Lucy. Dracula clearly has a thing for women and seduces and bites them both, the dastardly villain, making them both turn into vampires themselves. Lucy is presented as a beautiful young girl with many suitors but is a bit of a vacuous noodle-head. When she wakes up as a vampire she’s described as looking more sexy than ever and she acts as if she enjoys her new lifestyle, in other words she might enjoy the corruption and become a “slut”, and is rewarded with decapitation. 

While Mina is given some agency and intelligence as a female character by Stoker, as soon as the men start hunting Dracula she is left behind because they are the manly men and she is a woman with a tender heart and she goes to bed when the men tell her to. Ironically, it is this act of leaving Mina alone that causes Dracula to pop up and suck her blood! And of course Mina is keeping it all to herself and not communicating. Mina, the virtuous, chaste and loyal Mina, asks to be killed by her husband if she were to go down Lucy’s route. It’s a bit annoying how Mina is turned into some idealised Beatrice of virtue by Stoker. Dracula himself is barely in the story during all of this, he is simply the embodiment of this nebulous fear of corruption that visits and then runs off sniggering, as it were.

It’s a classic! I liked it but thought it was a bit slow a times. The epistolary form of the narrative (I like using big words, makes me feel smart) got a bit cumbersome, and made me feel like the novel went on for too long. The more Stoker presses upon us how good poor Madam Mina is and how emotional everyone is being and how smart Van Helsing is, the more it turned into a slog. But the character of Dracula and the chase after him with Van Helsing is totally iconic.

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24 Responses to Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    I’ve had quite varied reactions to my readings of dracula so while I think overall I enjoy it more than you, I can certainly relate to much of what you wrote here 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. savageddt says:

    Not my favorite classic, but it had some good moments.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brilliant review, as always, Jeroen. I’m glad you enjoyed it and even though I count this as one of my favorite gothic novels, can totally agree with your criticisms. You’re spot on with the notes on sexual repression. Reading about Bram Stoker’s life, you’ll find a lot of allusions to his potential homosexuality (or at least homoromanticism). It’s always been interesting to me that Stoker was clearly interested in exploring homo/bisexuality in this work, but was also clearly struggling with his own personal feelings, to the point where he named his vampire-hunter character after himself. Anyway, wonderful write-up; can’t wait to see what more vampire novels are in your future! 😝🧛🏻🩸

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    • Thank you Tassara! Yeah, I noticed that Van Helsing’s name is Abraham, just like Stoker’s first name. Are there are homo- or bisexual themes in Dracula? For the future, there are two vampire novels I would like to read: Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and George RR Martin’s Fevre Dream. Have you read those?

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      • Oh, I definitely think those themes are there! Just like you identified Lucy’s vampiric (i.e., sexual) ‘liberation’ and her punishment for that, as well as Mina’s ‘corruption’ by Dracula I think we can apply those same themes to Dracula and Jonathan Harker’s infatuation with each other.

        Both Dracula and Jonathan are obviously attracted to women, since Harker is engaged to Mina and Dracula has his brides, but when the brides swoop in to seduce Jonathan that night in the castle, Dracula shoos them away and tells them Jonathan is off-limits until he’s done with him.

        That, in addition to the fact that the whole vampire thing is quite sexual in and of itself (hello, teeth penetrating skin and drawing out one’s vital fluids) lends itself to a reading that Dracula may be coded as bisexual. Bram Stoker was friends with Oscar Wilde (known to have been in relationships with both men and women throughout his life) and was actually married to Wilde’s former partner, so, at the very least, Stoker was not a stranger to the concept of bisexuality. That could totally be my modern take on the novel, though, so I’m definitely not going to say it’s the correct (or only) interpretation.

        As for other vampire novels, I haven’t read either of the two you mentioned, but Salem’s Lot on my list! I’ve been wanting to explore more horror lately, and that’s one that I’d like to try to read pretty soon. I didn’t even know GRRM had a vampire novel, so that’s news to me!

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        • I can see that about Dracula and the penetrative act of vampirism, thanks! It’s interesting that Jonathan also seems to submit, sexually, when Dracula’s brides want to take him. My first interpretation of Dracula and Jonathan was that Dracula wanted to replace Jonathan at Mina’s side and make Mina his lover. There are moments when Jonathan is locked up in his castle where Dracula steals his clothes and goes out in his clothes, and so almost literally replaces him. In that sense, Dracula could also be interpreted as Jonathan’s repressed sexual self. As if Jonathan is afraid to corrupt Mina and himself by having sex with her, and so Dracula is the monster that Jonathan is afraid to become.

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      • Wakizashi33 says:

        Salem’s Lot is very good imo. I haven’t read Fevre Dream yet.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. bormgans says:

    I’ve never been able to finish it, but is has been over 20 years since I tried. I did love Coppola’s movie version.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Only book that gave me nightmares. Not sure why because it wasn’t really a scary book but clearly it did something 2 my psyche

    Liked by 1 person

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