(Part 1 here)
This post assumes you have read it. Here’s a cheat summary if not.
Did I enjoy Dracula? The first four chapters, when Harker is visiting Count Dracula on business in Transylvania, were terrific. Gothic, tense, absorbing. When Harker cuts himself shaving, when he looks out the window and sees Dracula scaling the castle wall like an insect … that’s great stuff. Then I noticed that Harker started doing things that were unintelligent, like breaking into locked rooms that his scary host has told him to avoid, but, remembering that as a 21st century reader I know what all of Dracula’s odd behaviors signify, while Harker doesn’t, I tried to be charitable. Another great scene is when the ship carrying Dracula, the Demeter, arrives in the midst of a great storm (the Gothic flourishes are so fun) on the English shore, with the crew is disappeared and the dead captain, clutching a crucifix, tied to the wheel. There’s a lot of great story telling here.
The novel is an epistolary one, meaning it is written as a series of letters, and sometimes news clippings (more on this below). I guess the book was originally conceived as a play with one of Stoker’s good friends as Dracula. The effect is to mute the action, because as a reader you are never “there” when the good stuff is going down. It has already happened. I guess the fact that the letters are written from the point of view of characters who only know part of an unfolding series of events might enhance the suspense, but I found most of the vampire slayers so incompetent that it didn’t work that way for me. Surprisingly, there isn’t all that much action, perhaps because had the story been staged, complicated action sequences would have been too difficult to enact. There is talking. A LOT of talking. I would guess the ratio of talking about what to do to actually doing it is 10 to 1.
I did enjoy the book, although I was always reading it through the lens of all the other vampire stories I consumed first: Stephen King, Ann Rice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampire romances, etc., and a lot of the time I was thinking about how this version was similar to and different from those others, as well as about big picture themes like gender and sexuality, science versus superstition, etc.
There is so, so much to say about this book. But here are a few things I wanted to talk about:
These people are obsessed with writing things down. I know it’s an epistolary novel, but still! They even write about writing. This journal entry from Mina is typical:
There may be a solemn duty, and if it come we must not shrink from it. I shall be prepared. I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing. Then we shall be ready for other eyes if required.
Yes, because the typewriter is just the thing to foil the undead!
Also from ch 14:
I am so glad I have typewritten out my own journal, so that, in case he asks about Lucy, I can hand it to him.
I am sure there’s a lot to be said about the power of the written word, about publicity and privacy, about writing as exorcism, as therapy, etc. But my super intelligent reaction was “WTF”?
1. About Mina
She is strong and smart, but she’s also got that masochistic streak — and not the fun kind. After nearly being killed in a traumatic encounter with Dracula, she says:
“And oh, my God, my God, pity me! He placed his reeking lips upon my throat!” Her husband groaned again. She clasped his hand harder, and looked at him pityingly, as if he were the injured one, and went on.
She also gets kicked out of the Scooby Gang after their first meeting. It’s like Stoker changes his mind mid stream. At the end of Mina’s Journal in chapter 18 we get this muddled logic from Van Helsing:
Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain, a brain that a man should have were he much gifted, and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us, after tonight she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great. We men are determined, nay, are we not pledged, to destroy this monster? But it is no part for a woman. Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors and hereafter she may suffer, both in waking,from her nerves, and in sleep,from her dreams. And, besides, she is young woman and not so long married, there may be other things to think of some time, if not now. You tell me she has wrote all, then she must consult with us, but tomorrow she say goodbye to this work, and we go alone.
So what kind of a brains do Van Helsing and his crew posess? Hmmm…. well, Mina starts exhibiting the same symptoms Lucy had, and Dracula lives thisclose, yet nobody thinks for a second that Dracula has gotten to Mina. Is it because of her “man’s brain”? They notice she is tired, and send her to bed. Over and over. Finally, Renfield enlightens them, they arm themselves and rush to Mina’s room, where they have this exchange:
Outside the Harkers’ door we paused. Art and Quincey held back, and the latter said, “Should we disturb her?”
“We must,” said Van Helsing grimly. “If the door be locked, I shall break it in.”
“May it not frighten her terribly? It is unusual to break into a lady’s room!”
3. My favorite scene
Of course, it’s when they do break in and find Mina with the Count:
His right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white night-dress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare chest which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink. As we burst into the room, the Count turned his face, and the hellish look that I had heard described seemed to leap into it. His eyes flamed red with devilish passion.
How many dissertations were launched by this tableau? So many overlapping metaphors and allusions. Mina as mother giving her blood. As suckling babe. Sex kitten.
Dracula even sounds downright Biblical when he says:
And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, kin of my kin, my bountiful wine-press for a while, and shall be later on my companion and my helper.
4. The menages
Dracula escapes (of course) and then there’s this weird moment between Mina, her husband, Jonathan, and Van Helsing:
Then she raised her head proudly, and held out one hand to Van Helsing who took it in his, and after stooping and kissing it reverently, held it fast. The other hand was locked in that of her husband, who held his other arm thrown round her protectingly.
Mina has already shared her literal marriage bed with Dracula. So how many people is she married to, exactly?
And that isn’t even the first suggestion of a threesome in this book. There was this exchange earlier, when Van Helsing was transfusing Lucy. He mentioned Holmwood’s notion that exchanging blood makes Lucy his bride:
Said he not that the transfusion of his blood to her veins had made her truly his bride… If so… Then this so sweet maid is a polyandrist, and me, with my poor wife dead to me, but alive by Church’s law, though no wits, all gone – even I, who am faithful husband to this now-no-wife, am bigamist.
Everyone says Dracula is a book about transgressing boundaries — geographic, gendered, sexual, bodily, material and spiritual. So why not have three — or 4 — people in a marriage?
5. Bloodsucking = sex, blood = semen.
I always knew that there were these linkages, but I never realized how darned obvious they would be. Then again, perhaps they are obvious to me because I am a 21st century reader. For example, this one from Mina, after her episode with the Count in her bedroom:
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?”
What? Some of the WHAT? I am dying to find out what she meant, because I have NO IDEA. ! ;)
And when Van Helsing says not to tell Arthur that other men have given their blood to Lucy, it’s because he might get jealous (chapter 10)
No man knows, till he experiences it, what it is to feel his own life-blood drawn away into the veins of the woman he loves.
6. The gang rape of Lucy
But all of this pales (heh) in comparison to the top scene for the kind of deep analyses favored by a certain type of highly educated literary critic — the stabbing of Lucy. Lucy had been beautiful, the perfect chaste, virtuous woman, with no fewer than three suitors. But somehow — and it was never clear to me in reading the text — she was susceptible to Dracula. She had to have invited him in at least once, naughty girl. Or maybe she thought he was a homeless person in need?
Eventually, after multiple
fuckings blood suckings, she is turned, and starts killing infants. This makes sense. If the perfect woman is maternal, then the opposite of the perfect woman is a baby killer. I loved it that Lucy went around killing babies and trying to seduce everyone. Terrifying stuff.
The more evil she is, the more beautiful and the more alluring. Or is that the reverse? From Chapter 16:
She still advanced, however, and with a languorous, voluptuous grace, said, “Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!”
There was something diabolically sweet in her tones, something of the tinkling of glass when struck, which rang through the brains even of us who heard the words addressed to another.
In other words, they are all getting off. Together.
As horrible as it is to the men, several of whom are in love with her, and one of whom — Arthur — is engaged to her, they must go to her grave and kill her. Here’s how it is described:
Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercybearing 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.
Whew. I need a cigarette. How about you?
7. Dracula as alpha male
Ian Holt, a Dracula authority and coauthor of a sequel, has written that:
There have been many schools of thought on why Dracula and vampires hold such sway on the masses. In my opinion, the root is that Dracula represents freedom. Dracula is not bound by the rule of law or man’s self-imposed morality. He has the strength of ten men. His powers over the human mind allow him his pick of women. These are all powerful fantasies to many an adolescent boy.
For women, Dracula represents the ultimate alpha-male. Wealth, power, will and strength define him. He exists on a higher plane than human men, appealing to the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality.
Holt here assumes that female readers place themselves in female character positions in the novel. We know better than that. But does Dracula represent the alpha male? Is this a romance, with Dracula trying — but failing — to find his soul mate? I know that’s how the 1992 film adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola understood him, but I don’t see it in the book at all. While I find a lot of sex in this book (assuming a depth reading) I don’t see much romance. I was never sure what motivated Dracula, exactly (he’s upset that his former glories are former. He wants control and power, but over what, and why? Or maybe I am not supposed to ask why someone would want control and power), but it’s not love.
It is easier for me to connect Dracula with the alphhole heroes of the past in romance than with the vampire heroes of today’s romance novel. The obsession with consent and coercion, with moral and sexual purity, with control of women, was there in Old Skool romance.
Consider these passages:
With a mocking smile, he placed one hand upon my shoulder and, holding me tight, bared my throat with the other, saying as he did so, `First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions. You may as well be quiet. It is not the first time, or the second, that your veins have appeased my thirst!’
And Mina, confused about her complicity:
I was bewildered, and strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him. (chapter 21)
Women engaging in sex against their will, or their better judgment, impossibly alluring men, the attempt to find happiness with the average Joe, all of that is echoed in some ways in older romance novels I have read. And not just older ones: the idea that female sexuality is dangerous, fraught, powerful, debilitating, and in some way bad for women (and men), is still with us in many a romance novel today.
But, to get superficial for a minute, Dracula was not good looking, a prerequisite for a romance novel hero. Here is Harker’s description when he first meets him:
His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.
Except for the strength and vitality, and the “cruel-looking” mouth, there’s little here to compare to romance heroes of today or yore. But Dracula is the strongest, the most free, the most alluring and intense. And that’s who the hero is in most romance novels.
There’s so much more that could be said about this book. For example, I was very interested in Van Helsing as physician/researcher, and of course in Dr. Seward and his patient in the asylum, Renfield. I think I am going to use Renfield as a case study the next time I give a hospital talk on waxing and waning decisional capacity! But this is long enough.
Have you read Dracula? What did you think?