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.