Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

4 September 2012

Abraham (Bram) Stoker wrote some 11 novels between his debut (The Snake’s Pass in 1890) and his death in 1912. Of these by far the most famous is Dracula, published in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and Kipling’s Recessional. The novel has a number of striking features:

Intertextuality It is told through a patchwork of diaries, letters, telegrams, memos, ship’s logs and newspaper articles. This:

  • greatly adds to the suspense as you are kept on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens to the different actors, or to correlate a story told by one narrator with the viewpoint of another
  • in the first half of the novel it gives a special sense of mystery and urgency as the characters slowly piece together the different pieces of evidence which we, the reader, have had before us for some time; a detective story
  • gives a sense of verisimilitude or authenticity to the events since they are verified by so many sources, especially the  corroboration of the newspaper reports, ship’s logs, agents’ memos etc
  • adds to the aesthetic enjoyment since it guarantees a number of ‘voices’ in the text, especially the contrast between the female characters, Lucy and Mina, and the chaps, Dr John Seward, Arthur Godalming, Jonathan Harker, Professor van Helsing.

Theatrical influence Though Dracula is his great gift to the world, Stoker was better known during his lifetime as the successful manager of the Lyceum Theatre and dresser to the great Victorian actor Henry Irving. It’s no great leap to see the way the text is divided into scenes described by different characters, and the multiplicity of voices, as influenced by theatrical convention. But the staginess also has several other implications…

Plot Count Dracula tries to move to London with a view to converting its teeming millions to become his Undead slaves. He ships to London and Whitby a number of coffins filled with the Transylvanian soil he needs as a refuge during daylight hours. He imprisons the solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who had gone to his castle to help him. He attacks and converts into a vampire Lucy, the young fiancee of Lord Godalming. She is friends with Harker’s concerned fiancee, Mina. Both are linked through friendship with an American, QuincyMorris and with Dr Seward who manages a lunatic asylum near to the house in Purfleet where Dracula unloads his coffins. When these people stitch together the disparate texts the story has hitherto been told in, they begin to realise what is going on and Seward invites his old teacher, professor van Helsing from Amsterdam to come and help them. Morris, Seward, the safely returned Harker, van Helsing and Mina form a team, the Crew of Light, track down Dracula’s coffins and sterilise them, confront the count himself and force him to flee back to Transylvania. Following him there different members of the Crew first of all sterilise the castle, kill the three vampiresses who ‘live’ there, then finally drive a stake through Dracula’s heart. Quincy is fatally wounded in the struggle. The final comments are written seven years later, when the main characters are happily married, Mina having named her son after Quincy, and there has been no recurrence of vampirism. My son said this reminded him of the final pages of the Harry Potter series.

The magnet of London In imaginative works of the 1890s London always seems a dark, fog-bound place of mystery, corruption and danger. The darkness of Dickens’s later novels has been intensified in the Sherlock Holmes stories (Conan Doyle describes London as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”), in Dorian Gray’s depictions of dunkenness and drug addiction in the docks, in Conrad’s vision of London as having been “one of the dark places of the earth”, even in Kipling’s vision of the city as carrying the seed of its own dissolution and destined to become one with Nineveh and Tyre. It is to this Babylon, the largest, richest city on earth that Dracula comes and, in a short passage in the novel, van Helsing muses that, unopposed and given enough time, Dracula could indeed breed a new race of Undead men and women, who could spread throughout the Empire to conquer the world, giving a Wellsian sci-fi spin to the story.

Moreover, the attraction of the count to London makes you wonder if there isn’t an Undead aspect to the British Empire, something vampiric about it sucking the life blood from its scores of colonies and dominions. 17 years later it would suck young men from all over the world into the great bloodletting in northern France…

Sex and Purity What is vampirism about, what does it do, imaginatively, for us? To the modern reader there’s a lot of suppressed sex going on – the two brief scenes with the three voluptuous vampires who try to seduce then attack Jonathan Harker, then van Helsing are overtly erotic; similarly the Undead Lucy tries to tempt Arthur by with sexual allure. And soft porn eroticism permeates the film tradition which has helped to establish the figure of Dracula in popular culture, from the inept Hammer Horror series to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation. But these are very isolated incidents in the novel which, I think, only highlight the major theme of the book which is Purity, and the Purity of Women in particular.

Once Lucy is dead the focus, in the second half of the novel, shifts to the terrible plight of Mina who has been bitten by Dracula and is slowly turning into a vampire, hence the race against time to find the count and kill him. The long second half describes in tortuous detail Mina’s slow decline, and various male characters think through the full consequences of her diseased impurity up to and including the possible necessity to kill her with a stake through the heart and decapitate her before the transformation has gone too far.

Length & melodrama This helps explains why the book is surprisingly long, 560 pages in the Penguin edition.  It is because, again and again, plot is put on hold while the characters discuss at great length the terrible plight they are in and assume melodramatic postures designed to highlight their Nobility and Virtue. The menfolk are continually falling to their knees before Mina to whom they pledge their lives and service. She acknowledges their devotion and prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice ie to be killed by one of them, if need be:

‘You too, my dearest,’ she said, with infinite yearning of pity in her voice and eyes. ‘You must not shrink. You are nearest and dearest and all the world to me. Our souls are knit into one, for all life and all time. Think, dear, that there have been times when brave men have killed their wives and their womenkind, to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy. Their hands did not falter any the more because those that they loved implored them to slay them. It is men’s duty towards those whom they love, in such times of sore trial! And oh, my dear, if it is to be that I must meet death at any hand, let it be at the hand of him that loves me best. Dr. Van Helsing, I have not forgotten your mercy in poor Lucy’s case to him who loved.’ She stopped with a flying blush, and changed her phrase, ‘to him who had best right to give her peace. If that time shall come again, I look to you to make it a happy memory of my husband’s life that it was his loving hand which set me free from the awful thrall upon me.’

‘Again I swear!’ came the Professor’s resonant voice.

If it is this threat to a heroically chaste and pure woman which drives the second half of the novel, wrapped in elements of horror and Gothic sensationalism, then its purpose is, to my mind, to highlight the Tennysonian element, the high Victorian sentiment of Sir Galahad-style devotion and heroism among the men. Chivalry exists to defend Pure Women. Our modern sex-drenched minds, in pursuit of pornography, dismiss the Victorian moralising as so much puff, intent on finding Freudian imagery everywhere. I argue that a corrective reading enjoys and savours the high-minded Victorian chivalry for what it is, taking it at face value, like the ornate purity of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’, like the elaborate and realistic stained glass windows of the same period.

Invasion literature In the 1880s and 1890s authors such as H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells wrote many tales in which fantastic creatures threatened the British Empire. Stoker’s Gothic tale is a variation on a well-established theme of the invasion of England by continental European influences. It is a very strong, primeval myth for all peoples – the alien, the foreigner with his unclean practices, his impure blood, threatening our virginal (white) women. But it was given extra impetus in the period 1870-1914 by two factors: the growing military threat (from either France or Germany depending on imperial clashes); and growing concern about the decadence and corruption of London. (William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, set the tone with his shocking bestseller, In Darkest England and the Way Out, published in 1890, claiming much of London and industrial England was not much better than the ‘darkest Africa’ which we were claiming to ‘civilise’.)

Myth and legacy Stoker didn’t invent the vampire but he gave it its modern form and set in train thousands of copies in book, comic, film and radio format. Apparently his novel was greeted enthusiastically but only as one among many, on its original publication; the rise of the vampire Dracula as a lynchpin of popular culture dates from the early film versions and especially the Bela Lugosi version of 1931. As of 2009, an estimated 217 films feature Dracula in a major role, second only to Sherlock Holmes’s 223 films.

What is it about the vampire which is so potent a myth? The combination of aristocratic breeding with decadent violence and sexuality? Is it just an enduringly terrifying idea, an archteypal fear of a blood-drinking or a maiming monster? Is it to see (in older versions) our (women’s) spiritual purity – (in newer versions) our (women’s) sexual bodies – threatened to the limit, and then saved? Thrills and jeopardy? On a radio 4 documentary I heard a woman writer say the vampire books help teenagers work through issues to do with sex, especially the transformation from being the ‘nice’ boys and girls their parents brought up, into being highly aroused sexual animals. Maybe. Or maybe the vampire motif just allows the endless repackaging of 20th century pulp themes of horror, dismemberment, sex and violence.

P.S. The name In the Romanian language, the word dracul (Romanian drac “dragon” + -ul “the”) can mean either ‘the dragon’ or, especially in the present day, ‘the devil’ [Wikipedia].

You can watch the earliest adaptation, the German film Nosferatu (1922) on YouTube.

Or Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Worth watching for Keanu Reave’s truly dreadful English accent and wooden performance as Jonathan Harker.

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