by Bram Stoker
“Alone with the dead! I dare not go out, for I can hear the low howl of the wolf through the broken window.”
” My very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings”
This novel is the prototype for all subsequent vampire fiction, but for me the main interest was its preoccupation with women’s morality or lack of it, their perceived weakness, and their need to have male rescuers to save them from their inherent or potential wayward natures.
I think this book tells us a lot about Bram Stoker, and the 19th century ‘fin de secle’ obsession with sex, its relationship to morality and death, and Victorian male anxiety about the “New Woman”. I lost track of how many times the word “voluptuous” was used, and not in a positive way.
“The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.”
“There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped thr white sharp teeth.”
There is fascination with the erotic and desire of it here, but fear of where that desire might take you.
Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847, the son of a civil servant. Following study at Trinity College, he married, and later became business manager to Henry Irving, the famous Skakesperian actor and enterpreneur. He wrote Dracula at the age of 50 in 1897, while employed by Irving.
Underneath a conventional life as the epitome of Victorian rectitude, Stoker must have had unfulfilled desires and uneasy thoughts gnawing at him, because he wrote in his diary of a strange dream: ” Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old Count interferes – rage and fury diabolical this man belongs to me I want him” This bad dream, with its homo-erotic undertones must have been frightening to a man like Stoker. This was the germ of the novel, and Stoker transforms these lines into part of Jonathan Harker’s experience in Dracula’s castle.
The novel opens with Harker, a young solicitor and engaged to be married, travelling to Transylvania to finalise the purchase of a London house for a count. The horrors he encounters there almost get him killed, and then almost make him lose his sanity. For me they are the best part of the novel. Dramatic and frightening, they show Harker and Dracula in a deadly fight for supremacy of one, and survival of the other.
” This was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood… the very thought drove me mad. A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.”
After Harker’s escape from the castle, strange and disturbing events begin to unfold in England: a young girl awakes with bite marks on her neck, a ship is wrecked and its crew mysteriously lost at sea, a lunatic at an asylum starts raving about the arrival of his “Master”.
The rest of the novel becomes a pursuit of Dracula by a group of young men, who are presented as the cream of Victorian manliness, but in reality come across as very irrational and emotional, qualities that are frowned upon in the women. Helping them in their quest is a so-called vampire expert, Professor Van Helsing, who indulges in long diatribes about the vampire’s powers and the peril he embodies.
The entire novel is a mixture of letters, diary entries and newspaper extracts, which makes it at times very dull and long winded. Many parts of it seem scarcely credible, such as Lucy, the young girl having been bitten by Dracula, then being given a transfusion a day over four days by four different men.
After the initial section where Harker is prisoner, we hardly see or hear from Dracula again. It all becomes a race against time, to stop the terror he has unleashed, but to be honest it all gets very turgid and boring. The only interesting character is Minna, at first engaged, then married to Harker, and definitely the brains of the entire outfit. She is very practical, getting the timetables for the trains to Transylvania, whereas the men come across as emotional and fragile.
“He grew quite hysterical…he stood up and then sat down again, and the tears ran down his cheeks. I felt an infinite pity for him…he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child, while he shook with emotion.” from Minna’s journal
Even Van Helsing, who considers himself the expert, bows down to Minna’s logic: “Ah, that wonderful Minna! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and woman’s heart.”
“Our dear Madam Minna is once more our teacher. Her eyes have seen where we were blinded. Now we are on the right track once again, and this time we may succeed.”
There is a thread of fear of women’s sexuality running through the entire book. Lucy and Minna are the two female characters showing the possibilities in women’s character. Lucy is portrayed as very beautiful and dangerously wayward, hence her susceptibility to the Count, whereas Minna has a man’s logic, yet a tender moral heart that keeps her one step ahead of being enthralled to Dracula.
This isn’t a great novel by any means. It is interesting for its exploration of Victorian fears, and says more about Stoker’s obsessions than anything else. When you compare it for example to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with its weighty philosophical themes of the ethics and responsibilities of science, and the duty owed by a father to his child, it comes up short. It is still a fascinating story though, as can be seen by the influence it has had on the vampire fiction still popular today. 3⭐️
If anyone has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.