“We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”
Reading Dracula was like reading Little Women. Steeped in the film versions, I thought I knew what I would find in the books. Both were a surprise, even though I know films always change things and leave out a lot. When will I learn not to judge a book by a film?
Dracula is told entirely through the journals of four of the six principal players: Mina Murray, whose best friend Lucy Westenra has become mysteriously sick; Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé then husband; the psychiatrist Dr. Seward, who runs a mental institute and Professor Van Helsing of Amsterdam, Seward’s former professor who is an “obscure diseases” specialist. Lucy’s two suitors, Arthur Holmwood, later Lord Godalming and the American Quincey Morris, make up the final six.
There is literally no straight narrative in the structure of the book. Stoker uses detailed journal entries, newspaper clippings, letters, bills of lading to tell the story. I found this to be extremely effective, because by keeping things in the first person, the story has immediacy and suspense as one ‘scene’ cuts away to another and we see how each experience is seen and interpreted in multiple ways. While this device is sometimes distracting or hard to follow here, each character has a distinct and unique voice, which makes it easy to know which character is writing.
Because I am used to film and popular culture portrayals of Dracula I was shocked at how little Count Dracula personally features in the book. In addition to his human persona he shape-shifts into various creatures, but is mostly absent. The book is really about the quest to find and kill him. It is the lore around vampires, the ancient curse that shows up in the superstitious townspeople, the effect of vampire bites on Lucy and Mina and the knowledge Professor Van Helsing has that forms the story.
In film versions, the suave and charming Count is afforded lots of screen time with special effects liberally showcasing his pointed teeth, lips dripping with blood, the (Bela Lugosi’s) famous accent, the bat persona and the abundance of mist whenever he is about to appear. While in these versions he is sometimes portrayed as a sympathetic character in the book he is an evil creature without any redeeming qualities living only to satisfy his evil desires without regard to the human cost.
I was struck by the technological inventions Stoker makes use of that existed at the end of the 19th century. They remind me of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and seem to fit right in with today’s Steampunk subculture.
- Blood transfusions are given to Lucy as Dracula’s fatal bite causes her body to waste away. Dr. Seward transfuses her with Arthur, Quincey, Van Helsing and himself (without knowledge of blood type?) with limited results.
- The typewriter: When it is discovered that Mina is an expert typist, she types up everyone’s journal, in copies, so as to give a cohesive structure as to what each is experiencing; she also types up the notes of their planning meetings.
- The dictaphone: Dr. Seward speaks his journal into this machine that records on a record player, which Mina types up.
- The London Underground and train schedules: Mina is obsessed with the train schedules of the Underground and suburban/cross country trains and has their timetables memorized.
- Hypnotism: In an effort to find the whereabouts of Dracula Professor Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina frequently at sunrise and sunset.
When Dracula flees London for his hometown in Romania, the six follow him knowing they must ritually kill him by stabbing him through the heart and cutting off his head. This is the only way to stop a vampiric future and to save Mina, who although has not ‘changed’ yet, is exhibiting some debilitating symptoms.
As they plan and prepare for their journey in Dr. Seward’s living room, Mina makes a disturbing, but necessary request, of which they all must swear. If she becomes so changed that she poses a threat to herself or to them, they must “drive a stake through me and cut off my head.” And in a scene reminiscent of something out of a Medieval romance where knights on a quest pledge their honor to their lady, the men faithfully drop to their knees one by one and swear, as (“Lady”) Mina asks, to kill her if they are unable to ritually rid the world of Dracula so her soul may rest.
Quincey was the first…He knelt down before her and taking her hand in his said solemnly, “ I am only a rough fellow…but I swear to you by all that I hold sacred and dear that, should the time ever come, I shall not flinch from the duty that you have set us.” And each in turn makes the same vow.
Mention should be made here of Mina. She disparages the ‘New Woman,’ of their independence, their call to buck social convention. Yet, she herself is the prime example of such a woman: smart, intelligent, technologically savvy whose work is key in organizing and pursuing the search for Dracula. It is Mina whose facility with a typewriter and organizational skills, her intelligence and coping mechanism in the face of the horror that is happening to her, her obsession with train schedules that basically saves the day. And apparently, she is also an expert on the the criminal mind through the work of Max Nordau, which Stoker, in a bizarre “show and tell” scene, has her recite his philosophy about criminals in reference to Dracula’s own criminality. The irony of this anti-New Woman aspect about Mina is probably not lost on most readers, so it is curious.
The last quarter of the book does feel to me like knights on a sacred quest to rid the world of evil like Arthur and his knights, or Harry, Ron and Hermione against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and of all the films and books where ordinary people band together against the darkness that would overcome humanity.
Sadly, unlike the notoriety of these epic stories, this particular one will forever stay with the six, because it is too fantastical. No one would ever believe them.
When we got home we got to talking of the old time—which we could all look back upon without despair… I took the papers from the safe where they have been ever since our return so long ago. We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing, except the later notebooks of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing’s memorandum. We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story.
I didn’t find Dracula scary. I found it hopeful and encouraging. And nothing like the films….
Author: Bram Stoker
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Full plot summary
Challenges: Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, #RIPXII