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Old 03-17-2022, 12:26 PM   #40 (permalink)
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Title: Dracula
Format: Novel
Author: Bram Stoker
Nationality: Irish
Written: 1890 - 1897
Published: 1897
Impact: 10

Synopsis: Who does not know this story? If you haven’t read the novel then you’ve surely seen the movies, but here’s a quick rundown. Solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent by his law firm to oversee the final preparations and have papers signed by the mysterious Count Dracula, who lives in Transylvania and wishes to move to England. Once he arrives, Harker finds himself trapped in the mouldering castle, where strange women seem to seduce and then attack him, and he gets weaker and sicker while his host, the eponymous Count, originally an old, frail and wizened man when he met him, gets younger and more virile and stronger by the day. Harker’s stay is extended by the Count, who seems unwilling to allow the lawyer to leave. Meanwhile, back in England, his fiancee, Mina, awaits news of her husband-to-be anxiously, and is troubled by strange dreams, as is her best friend, Lucy Westernra.

Leaving Transylvania and his ancient castle behind, Dracula takes a ship, the Demeter, to England, on board which mysterious deaths occur as he stalks the crew, and on its arrival a storm whips up, driving the ship towards Whitby and wrecking it. Dracula comes ashore in the form of a huge dog, and Lucy, who has joined Mina there on holiday, begins to sleepwalk. Her health also deteriorates, and her admirer, Quincy Jones sorry Quincey Morris - one of three - calls in his friend Dr. John Seward (also an erstwhile suitor for Lucy’s hand) and Arthur Holmwood, whom she has chosen. Despite the rivalry between the three, it’s all good English gentlemen together (even though Morris is an American) and they remain friends, all desperate to do everything they can to help the woman they all love.

Mina, having received information that her fiance, escaped from Castle Dracula, is recuperating in a hospital in Budapest, goes to join him, while Seward calls in his old teacher, Abraham van Helsing. He believes he knows what is wrong with Lucy, but refuses to divulge this to the others for fear of their ridicule. In the event, despite his attempts to ward off the vampire, Lucy is taken by Dracula and though buried, she returns to stalk the town, gaining the horrific reputation of the “White Lady” who haunts the graveyard and eats children. Van Helsing, confiding to the others what he knows, goes with them to where Lucy is buried and they stake her, behead her and that’s the end of her.

Harker and Mina return from Budapest and join the hunt. Mina is attacked by Dracula and cursed to become a vampire unless the boys can kill him. They close off all avenues of escape to him - by rendering the coffins of earth he brought with him useless, and van Helsing reveals that the vampire must lie in the soil of his own country to survive - and basically chase him back to Transylvania for the big confrontation scene where they kill him. Harker slashes him across the neck and Quincey stabs him in the heart, but he dies of wounds already inflicted upon him by the vampire. Dracula turns to dust, probably cursing the fact that he ever left home, and the spell over Mina is broken.

An entire industry, almost, has arisen to tackle the examination, criticism and exploration of this seminal book, with so many theories and themes that it’s almost impossible to take it at face value, which is, as a horror/Gothic novel. So many subtexts have been either woven into the narrative (or been perceived as having been) that to some extent it’s lost its original meaning, and stands for everything now from Victorian sexual repression to comments on, I don’t know, consumerism and nationalism. But while I will explore many of these, I will try to also form my own ideas of what I feel the novel may represent.

One thing it is most certainly not, despite what Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie would have you believe from its strapline, is a love story. Stoker didn’t do love, at least, not love between a man and a woman, as evidenced by his joyless, almost sexless marriage. He would not have had either the courage to directly speak of, or even realised perhaps the nature of, attraction between two men and if this is part of the subtext then it has to be very much hidden. Such ideas would be frowned upon in Victorian society, and while Oscar Wilde might have been a braver man than Stoker, look what it cost him. So on the surface it’s a horror, adventure story which brings in elements from folk belief and the inherent heroism of the English (and one American, who gets killed off) and taps into some of humanity’s greatest fears, with the bad guy defeated and the good guys triumphant.

But it can also be looked upon in some ways, I believe, as a deeply misogynistic story, or, to be fair to Stoker, reflecting accurately the prevalent attitude towards women at the time he wrote it. It’s hard, given his believed aversion to relationships with women (he had female friends, as we’ve seen, but never attempted any sort of deeper intimacy with them, so far as we know) to see this as anything other than a sort of punishment from God on loose women, kind of Jack the Ripper style, if his motivations are to be accepted. The women in Dracula are all weak. Lucy is the worst. Yes, she becomes a vampire and therefore strong for a time, but only under the aegis of the vampire who has made her so; she must surrender totally to him - surrender as totally as anyone can, giving up their very life - before she can be the nightstalking killer she becomes. And she doesn’t last. The - exclusively male - party deals with her, doling out the ultimate punishment, and can a stake through the heart be seen as anything other than a form of rape when applied to a woman? A long, hard, rigid stick penetrating her very core?

Mina is allowed to live to the end of the story, but only really as a motivating force for Harker and as a kind of echo-locater for the men to track down Dracula and kill him, and she takes no part in the killing herself, leaving it to the men to rescue her immortal soul. She is no stronger than Lucy, submitting to the vampire and allowing her life-force to be drained by him. She shows a certain strength in rushing to Harker’s side when news comes that he is in a Hungarian hospital, but in a way that’s just what’s expected of any Victorian fiancee, so it’s nothing terribly special. She never joins the fight, never tries to get Dracula back for what he has done, and spends most of the book pining over Harker and offering glib advice to her friend as to her romantic inclinations.

Lucy is seen as a very loose woman, her initial inability to choose between the three - count ‘em, three! - suitors and her sigh that she wished she could choose them all (surely a shocking comment to make in strait-laced Victorian times) marking her as a woman of dubious morals, and again weak, in that she can’t make a decision; slightly spoiled, too, as she wants to have her own way, have her figurative cake and eat it too. And by characterising her thus, I feel Stoker makes us as the readers unsympathetic towards her, it being reasonably clear what’s going to happen to her. The message here surely can be nothing other than that bad women get what they deserve; bad girls get punished. Had Lucy been of stronger moral fibre, perhaps she could have (in theory at least) resisted the advances of the vampire, but as she has already had her will weakened in being unable to decide who she will marry, she’s a perfect target for the fiend, and goes down as easy as water down a plughole.

There are, I think, no strong female characters in the book. It’s very much a male-driven story, with essentially one major male bad guy and four male good guys, chums bonding together to take on the evil one, with along the way some totty for eye candy and narrative purposes. It’s telling that, Harker himself aside, Dracula only targets women for his unearthly lusts. There’s very much a sense of the establishment of the dominance of the male over the female, with the latter utterly helpless to resist, and even aside from the vampire, the men dominate the women in every way, taking the lead, taking charge and eventually saving one of them while releasing the soul of the one they couldn’t save by, um, slicing her head off and stabbing her. And filling her mouth with garlic. Was Stoker figuratively shutting up all womankind by stuffing up Lucy’s mouth? I’m sorry; it looks like our time is up. Same time next week?

Anyway, I’m no psychoanalyst, so anything I say here probably doesn’t carry much weight, but it seems to me that there are definite undertones of violence towards women and a sense of almost revenge from Stoker: this is what you get for not letting me express myself as I should! Even Lucy’s mother is killed off, and as for the three vampire brides in Dracula’s castle, well, they don’t last either, slain by van Helsing near the end of the book. You could possibly consider them strong female characters, as Harker is helpless before them, but again their power comes from a male figure, the male figure, and when Dracula commands them to leave Harker alone - “This man is mine! I want him!” - they shrink back in terror, so what real power have they?

It strikes me too that there’s a certain sense of xenophobia here. Dracula, the ultimate outsider, the quintessential foreigner, comes to English shores and quite literally takes our women. He is a threat, an unwelcome visitor, and he brings with him his dark, evil ways, corrupting and warping England (more than it is already corrupted) and eventually is dealt with as in most pogroms down throughout history. The distrust of the foreigner is written large in this novel; from the first time Harker arrives in Romania he is aware of being different, of being watched and suspected, and he feels the same sense of unease and disquiet towards the Romanians, wishing he was home in England. It’s hard not to see Dracula’s arrival in, and almost immediate rampage through good old Blighty as an invasion, an attack on English morals and values, evil being literally imported - or importing itself - onto our shores. The cry could easily be raised for the vampire to “go back where you came from”, not that he’d take notice.

As has been endlessly discussed, and reading his biography you’d have to give it some credit indeed, the relationship between Henry Irving and Stoker can be seen to be mirrored in that between Dracula and Harker. The lawyer is imprisoned by the vampire in his castle, called there by him (through the law firm) in a very similar way to how Irving called - ordered - Stoker to come to London and run the Lyceum theatre for him, ensuring he was at his beck and call whenever he needed him. In a very metaphorical way, Irving fed off Stoker the way Dracula feeds off Harker, draining him of all resistance with absolutely no regard for or interest in his own welfare. While Dracula stands in the way of Harker and Mina’s marriage, Irving prevented them from having a honeymoon and it must be said drove a wedge between them that killed any chance they had of having a proper marriage as effectively and brutally as the stake driven through Lucy’s heart. Florence once accused her husband of being more likely to mourn the death of Irving than that of their son, to which the author snapped that they could always have more children, but there was only one Henry Irving!

Irving, despite his callous and offhand manner with almost everyone, his superinflated ego, his contempt for all and his arrogant belief in his own superiority, nevertheless attracted just about everyone he interacted with, as if they were under his spell. He was a dark, malignant presence that nobody seemed proof against (other than perhaps Florence, and she didn’t count as she had no sway over her husband, least of all where Irving was concerned). He seemed, from what I’ve read about him, to have little or no moral code beyond satisfying his own needs, and almost comes across as something other than human. Surely Stoker, even subconsciously, must have been thinking of him and the relationship they shared when he created the character of Dracula?

A seeming fallacy that has persisted is that Stoker based the count on Vlad III Dracul, known as the Impala, sorry Impaler, but the research I’ve done seems to show general agreement that this is not the case. While doing his own research it appears he came across the story and took the name because he liked the sound of it, but it looks just to have been coincidence that the man whose name he gave to his greatest creation was also an evil one who had a thing about cruelty and blood. In fairness, there’s very little of Vlad III in Count Dracula. He doesn’t impale people, he doesn’t dip his bread in their blood, and he’s not a prince guarding his realm. He may not even be a count; for all we know, this could be one of many assumed identities the being known as Dracula has assumed on down the centuries, or even longer. No information is given, no hint offered to how old the vampire may actually be (though when he crumbles to dust at the end it may be inferred that he was only keeping his body together by magic and sheer force of his evil will, and by utilising the life energy of others), or where his title came from.

So really, when you look into it, there’s no reason to believe Stoker based Dracula on the Wallachian prince. It’s far more likely he’s an amalgamation of the legends, beliefs and fears of the folk of eastern Europe, a distillation of the vampire myth shaped to Stoker’s purposes. As I wrote in another section, vampires in folk belief were meant to be monsters, shambling, sub-human creatures with no real brain and no goal other than wanton destruction, and were restricted to the graveyard wherein they had been buried. This would never have done for Stoker, so he had to change the myth, borrowing liberally from Polidori, Rymer, Le Fanu and even Byron to come up with the archetypal vampire. Dracula begins as a feeble, weak, pathetic old man - who yet has the power to inspire dread and terror - and metamorphoses into a strong and vibrant messenger of evil, the perfect synthesis of power and darkness. It’s undeniable that his intention, his nature never changed, but now he has the strength and the shape to carry out his evil will to its fullest, and slake his eternal thirst.

And how did Stoker see himself in the novel, or did he? I don’t think it’s any great stretch to see him in the role of Harker, initially weak and cowed, bowing to the demands of his new master, trapped in a cycle of death, violence and heady lust from which he can’t escape, though when he does, he is able to take his revenge on the creature who had made his life such a misery. But I personally see him more in the revolting and yet somehow pitiable figure of Renfield, Dracula’s true slave, who sits and eats insects and other things in an asylum, waiting, praying, begging for his master to come and deliver him. How can you look at this mockery of a man, crouching in filth and ignorance, longing to be debased and used and humiliated and even killed if it suits his master’s purposes, and not see the willing form of Stoker, inviting degradation and contempt from Irving? And in the end, Dracula treats his faithful slave as Irving did, by using him to his own ends and casting him aside.

I don’t intend to go too deeply into the sexual themes within the novel, not because I don’t want to broach such a subject, but because men and women far cleverer than I, who have studied the novel far more deeply than I have (I think I’ve read it through twice, maybe three times) have already done this idea to death. Nevertheless, any appreciation or review of Dracula would be incomplete without at least acknowledging the element of sex in it. It’s pretty carefully hidden, so that the average reader, certainly at the time, could either ignore it and pretend it wasn’t there, or (rather unlikely but I guess possible) miss it altogether. But when you have a dark monster entering women’s bedrooms and sinking his teeth into their necks, draining them of their will as well as their blood, and claiming them, and the reaction from these women to these assaults, it’s definitely a form of rape, even if tacit approval is given. If you, as a woman, are hypnotised into allowing a man to make love to you, do you consider it consensual?
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