Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Dracula cvr

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel we feel we know well, so embedded is the idea of the vampire in our culture.  But the very fact that it has been overlaid by variations on an industrial scale since its publication in 1897 means that Stoker’s version can easily be lost to view.  A close reading opens up a number of themes that tell us much about the late nineteenth century and its anxieties.  Maud Ellmanm begins her introduction to the 1998 Oxford World’s Classics edition by offhandedly calling Dracula ‘one of the most successful pot-boilers ever written.’  If it is a pot-boiler, it is a rich one, capable of endless interpretation.

The novel begins as a conventional journal of an Englishman travelling on business to a remote part of Europe, told in a realist manner.  But Jonathan Harker quickly moves from the known to the unknown as he journeys east, the picturesque becomes forbidding, and his unease increases.  Stoker introduces Gothic elements as Harker penetrates further into the Carpathian mountains, a place of alien customs where his sense of insecurity is linked to a lack of understanding of his environment, and wild nature itself becomes a potential threat.  He thinks he must ask the Count about such ‘superstitions’ as the vampire which he hears being whispered about, not realising that his complacency will soon be shattered when he finds out to his cost that vampirism is far from being an empty superstition.

It does not take long after his arrival at Dracula’s castle for him to become unsettled by his host’s strange behaviour.  Harker’s response is to become like a Gothic heroine as he feels increasingly helpless, until he is totally passive when menaced by Dracula’s harem and swoons in the face of danger.  Yet despite this passivity, in a bizarre way he and Dracula become linked – Dracula puts on Jonathan’s clothes to make the locals believe that Harker is responsible for the abduction of a baby (as if they would be fooled; they know too well the source of the evil that surrounds them).  Then Jonathan pulls himself together and, like Dracula, crawls down the wall head first, seeking to escape his incarceration.  There is a little of Dracula, perhaps, in us all.

Harker is a prime example of the novel’s theme of the masculine under threat, at a time when Victorian certainties about gender were in flux, confronted by the New Woman on one side and the dandy on the other.  Harker, superficially a figure of conventional masculinity and white-collar authority, is helpless as he is toyed with and then discarded by his host.  But he is not alone in finding all he had held to be common-sense drop away from under him, leaving him floundering.  Hysteria (even arch-rationalist van Helsing is not immune from hysterical laughter) and madness are prevalent as the vampire’s opponents struggle against someone who seems to transcend a reliance on reason that suddenly betrays its puniness.  van Helsing, who acts as the ‘good’ father aiming to restore equilibrium, is able to analyse the hazardous situation, by looking beneath the surface; yet he too at times fails to understand the gravity of the situation.

Stoker betrays some ambivalence towards the growing sense of female autonomy the novel exhibits.  Women, living or undead, often possess a confidence lacking in the menfolk.  It can only go so far, though.  Lucy, more of a sexual being than Mina, comes to a sticky end, and Mina, while taking a key organisational role beforehand, is content to remain behind while the menfolk go out on safari to hunt down the Count.  At the end she is happy to assume the role of wife and mother, Dracula gone and order restored.

Stoker was able to tap into and transform societal concerns, and not just about the role of women, whether these were conscious or unconscious.  Boundaries of all sorts are shown in the novel to be thin.  They include those between human and vampire, human and non-human, emotional balance and hysteria, sanity and insanity.  Dracula is depicted as ‘the other’, emblematic of degeneration – both personally, and of the advanced industrial state to which he emigrates.  He represents fears of reverse colonisation, the threat from abroad menacing the heart of Empire.  But he is not creating the threat, rather he is taking advantage of pre-existing weakness and decline.  Dracula is a military man, an old campaigner able to perceive weakness and use it strategically for his own benefit.  He does his homework before setting off for England, using that knowledge to outmanoeuvre his enemies.

In addition to the clash of cultures and uncertainty about the role of women there are anxieties about old versus new.  The bifurcation is not quite what one might expect, go-ahead England versus the sleepy unchanging Balkans, because it is not only Dracula’s castle that is Gothic – the Gothic uncanny is at home in England too, in Whitby Abbey, Carfax, the churchyard that Lucy haunts.  We have our own problems with the crusty past erupting into the present, even without the predatory vampire adding to them.  Despite such fears, the novel’s conclusion seems to be positive, Dracula vanquished, the family and normality restored.  But it is possible that something of the vampire lives on through Mina’s infected blood, a discordant note in the happy tableau of the postscript.

So the novel combines realism with the Gothic, but even as it does the narrative retains a feeling of the everyday, the bizarre supernatural Count Dracula operating within a world that is recognisable and concrete.  While a titanic struggle is going on against this interloper, there is the feeling that ordinary life in England is continuing around the corner, oblivious to the horror.  At the same time there are elements that cannot be incorporated in our common-sense view, such as the absence of Dracula’s reflection, or his ability to crawl down walls, or transform into mist, or a bat.  All of these are inexplicable in terms of the laws that govern life as we know it.

The uncanny elements work against realism’s grain so that the two are in tension.  Our understanding of normality is unsettled, forcing us to wonder what else is unknown to our philosophy, and what other horrors might lurk just beyond the threshold of experience.  The world Dracula inhabits is an expanded reality in which the reader becomes aware that our normal view may be more restricted than we think, but also that that may be no bad thing for our sanity.  The vampire removes stability, except that, as Harker tells us in his final note, there is no independent proof that what we have just read ever happened.  We only have secondary transcriptions, no primary evidence.  For all we know, it could just be made up, a slipperiness of meaning that makes the novel a very modern text.  A potboiler is ephemeral; Dracula, we can be sure, will never die.


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