My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though “undiscovered” and “forgotten” works are thrust at us from every corner, I find that the most startling books are often the most famous, the most classic. Supposedly so well known they no longer merit study—we might as well throw them in the trash—they are in reality so omnipresent that we don’t closely attend to them. Their messages skulk and lurk in plain sight, like Count Dracula sauntering through central London.
If the previous sentence calls to mind Gary Oldman’s smoldering turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), this understandable misprision only proves my point. To achieve their conversion of Stoker’s 1897 novel into an erotic Gothic, Coppola and Co. had to bypass the novel’s rather original but not-very-sexy nemesis and go back to Byron and Hamlet and 18th-century rakes for their film’s seductive antihero, while to circumvent Stoker’s sometimes plodding realist aesthetic the filmmakers provided a literally spectacular fin-de-siècle mise-en-scène, whose admittedly impressive effects, borrowed from Symbolist drama and décor, are found nowhere in the actual text. Who is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, really? He speaks for himself:
Ah, young sir, the Szekelys—and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains, and their swords—can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.
Last of a triumphant warrior caste, he portends the return of great power politics to an enervated Europe. He accurately forecasts the break-up of settled empires, and he associates the good with the noble, with the healthful and regenerating pursuit of conquest. It is remarkable that critics have spilled so much Freudian ink over this novel, when its villain uncannily defines himself in language no doubt inadvertently reminiscent of On the Genealogy of Morality. (See Philip Redpath’s Nietzschean critique of the novel.)
While Dracula does invade the bodies and souls of several women—his nameless brides, Lucy Westenra, and Mina Harker née Murray (and, in a passage published only in the American edition, he implies a desire to feast on Jonathan Harker as well)—his motivation seems less the animating and innate unconscious desire posited by Freud than an open indulgence in droit du seigneur.
What distinguishes Dracula from his enemies is not only that he is an aristocrat, however, since one of the novel’s vampire-slaying heroes, Arthur Holmwood, AKA Lord Godalming, is one as well. Rather, Dracula represents a nobility that pre-dates the triumph of the bourgeoisie and its Enlightenment values. In the novel, Lord Godalming magnanimously joins a cross-class alliance that includes Mr. and Mrs. Harker, a clerk and a schoolteacher, respectively; Count Dracula allies with no one, seeking to enthrall his inferiors instead. His sexual threat is only part of a larger menace: that archaic strains of human personality and potential that the modern West believed itself to have expurgated might return and institute an anti- and ante-modern new world order. As Jonathan exclaims:
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, and create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless. The very thought drove me mad. A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.
Dracula himself is almost never presented as erotically appealing in the novel, as an irresistibly wounded Heathcliff or fascinatingly cultivated rake. More often, he acts simply as a fetid brute, with Stoker vividly emphasizing the foulness of his breath and his association with various vermin. He does convert women such as his Transylvanian brides and Lucy into sexually avid seductresses, but this is just one particular sign of his threat to bourgeois society in general, namely, his assault on its highly rationalized nuclear-family kinship rituals, as symbolized by Mina and Lucy’s little Jane Austen idyll of the marriage-market that his storm-tossed arrival in Whitby shatters.
As for his ontological status—is he a supernatural or satanic entity?—allow his chief exegete and enemy double in the novel, the monstrously verbose Dutch polymath Abraham Van Helsing, to explain:
Our enemy is not merely spiritual. Remember that he has the strength of twenty men, and that, though our necks or our windpipes are of the common kind—and therefore breakable or crushable—his are not amenable to mere strength. A stronger man, or a body of men more strong in all than him, can at certain times hold him; but they cannot hurt him as we can be hurt by him.
Not merely spiritual? Or primarily material? Elsewhere Van Helsing speaks a naturalist language of environmental determinism and organic vitalism:
The very place, where he have been alive, Un-Dead for all these centuries, is full of strangeness of the geologic and chemical world. There are deep caverns and fissures that reach none know whither. There have been volcanoes, some of whose openings still send out waters of strange properties, and gases that kill or make to vivify. Doubtless, there is something magnetic or electric in some of these combinations of occult forces which work for physical life in strange way; and in himself were from the first some great qualities. In a hard and warlike time he was celebrate that he have more iron nerve, more subtle brain, more braver heart, than any man. In him some vital principle have in strange way found their utmost; and as his body keep strong and grow and thrive, so his brain grow too.
In other words, Dracula is neither unnatural nor supernatural, but one remarkable development of nature’s manifold potentials. As Van Helsing admonishes his friend and former student, the psychiatrist Seward:
Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young—like the fine ladies at the opera.
What appears to be an archaic demon, spiritual indigene of the mystical “Orient,” or at least of Europe’s Orient, is actually just one more heretofore-unexplored part of universal nature, a “Nature [that] seem to have held sometime her carnival,” as Van Helsing notes of Dracula’s Transylvanian domain. Stoker at his best joins the road that runs from Poe’s psychology to Lovecraft’s materialism: he attempts to create secular horror for the modern age.
Granted, the novel contradicts itself mightily on this point, since crucifixes and consecrated communion hosts keep Dracula at bay, as if he were merely a Christian demon. But these religious and folkloric trappings are the novel’s weakest elements, along with its kitschy insistence, in its final third, on treating its heroes as knightly and saintly in the belated manner of mid-Victorian medievalism à la Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. Even this somewhat regressive Gothicism, though, is consistent with the novel’s vein of contrasting a riotous past with a quiescent present. Jonathan, exploring Castle Dracula, reflects,
And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere “modernity” cannot kill.
This fusion of the archaic and ultramodern will be a feature of much shocking and advanced thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from Nietzsche’s aforementioned pre- and postmodern transvaluation of values to Pound’s poetic credo “Make It New” where “it” encompasses Confucian and Troubadour aesthetics, from Yeats’s summoning the Irish heroes to revolutionary Dublin to Picasso’s sub-Saharan masks in a Barcelona bordello: any time and any place, so long as it’s not the 19th-century West!
Thomas Mann traces fascism to this revolutionary archaism in Doctor Faustus, but Stoker, at least superficially, presents it not as a dangerous political development within the West but rather as an arrival from points East. Read more closely, though, the novel disturbs a simple East/West (and, perforce, evil/good) binary with a set of narrative mirrorings, of fearful symmetries, that many critics have observed.
When first we hear from Van Helsing, to take a minor instance, he reminisces to Seward about “that time you suck from my wound so swiftly the poison of the gangrene from that knife that our other friend, too nervous, let slip,” thus proving Dracula not the text’s only bloodsucker. Think, too, of Coppola and his collaborators’ rightful emphasis on the repressed sexuality that Dracula and his brides liberate in their otherwise libidinally corseted prey. Van Helsing himself is what else but another commanding foreign eccentric, master of seemingly occult powers and hidden lore. He allows in his own words his affinity to the vampiric Count:
Our old fox is wily; oh! so wily, and we must follow with wile. I, too, am wily and I think his mind in a little while.
All of the vampire-hunters’ actions—tomb-breaking, burglary, desecration of the dead, and more—are undertaken illegally, moreover, showing that Dracula is not England’s only enemy of law and order. Van Helsing warns his band that if they fail, Dracula will make them as he is—
It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him—without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best. To us for ever are the gates of heaven shut; for who shall open them to us again? We go on for all time abhorred by all; a blot on the face of God’s sunshine; an arrow in the side of Him who died for man. But we are face to face with duty; and in such case must we shrink?
—yet they have by this time already “become as him,” fellow creatures of the night, exiled from the world of bourgeois virtue, emancipated into the immemorial conflict of conquering peoples whose decline Dracula laments to Jonathan early in the book. Like a nearly contemporaneous fictional narrative of the period, Dracula implies that the heart of darkness is not a place on the world map but an aspect of everyone’s psyche. Stoker, though, writes a rousing popular novel, unlike Conrad’s cryptic expression of tragic pessimism, so he tends rather to celebrate than to lament modernity’s opportunities for imperial-heroic action.
If Dracula’s enemies enjoy one advantage over his primitivist vanguardism, it is their mastery of modern technique. The novel shows its triumphant modernity in its very narrative form: a neatly collated set of documents—letters, diaries, press clippings, memoranda, and more—recorded with such up-to-date means as phonograph, shorthand, and typewriter. (If Stoker were writing today, the whole book would be set on the Internet, as in such recent “screen” films as Unfriended and Searching or popular novels like Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.) This meticulous documentation records the defeat of archaic Oriental evil not only by good Occidental knights and their lady, but more emphatically, this evil’s defeat by modern experts like the physician Seward, the lawyer Harker, and the omni-intellectual Van Helsing.
The novel’s gender politics are relevant to its modernity, as well. While Mina disparages New Women (i.e., late-19th-century feminists) as mannish and puritanical at the novel’s outset, her character development suggests Stoker’s attempt to offer a truce in the Late-Victorian gender wars. Van Helsing praises the technologically adept, masterfully observant, and unwaveringly compassionate Mina as having “man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart.” In other words, she breaks down the Victorian barriers separating “male” reason from “female” emotion to become the androgynous soul later heralded by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Her consequent ability to repel Dracula’s invasion of her mind and heart, which neither Jonathan nor Lucy had managed to do quite as decisively earlier in the novel, leads to the vampire’s final defeat.
All very well and political, but doesn’t Dracula, just considered as a novel qua novel, fall short of the greatness its “classic” status might seem to promise? Its characters are almost all flat and functional, if not simply stereotypical, from intrepid Jonathan to flirty Lucy, from rational Seward to the ludicrous gun-toting Texan Quincy Morris.
The exceptions are Dracula and Van Helsing, with their doubled daemonism, but for as much as Van Helsing talks, he never quite stakes (pun intended) an ideological claim equal in heft and interest to Dracula’s early Nietzschean prophecies. Dracula himself disappears from the novel as a full character after the mesmerizing and oneiric opening chapters set in his country and castle; the novel’s often ineffective final third finds him trying to ship himself in his coffin back to Transylvania with our heroes in pursuit, an absurd drama of package-tracking in place of the conflict of wills and worldviews that might have brought the narrative to its climax instead. (I kept wondering, strangely, what Dostoevsky might have made of the material. Three words: Dracula on trial!) Mina is also a more fascinating character than the rest, but Stoker, himself bound by Victorian ideology, keeps her too pure or prim of soul to be properly conflicted about the promise of power and disinhibition Dracula proffers.
The novel’s realist grounding of its fantastical elements, while crucial to its themes, leads it to feel thinly journalistic rather than thickly imagined in its texture, except for a few high points that read as if Stoker must have dictated them in a trance: Jonathan’s initial Transylvanian journey, the wreck of the Demeter, the final killing of the undead Lucy, and the closing voyage back through the Carpathians. While no stylist—he can’t compare at the sentence level with his fellow fin-de-siècle romancers, Stevenson, Kipling, and Wilde—Stoker is an able mimic of the many voices he records (if too caricatural in his presentation of non-English and lower-class speakers), and he can achieve genuinely uncanny effects simply through precise sensory description and apt metaphors:
To add to the difficulties and dangers of the time, masses of sea-fog came drifting inland—white, wet clouds, which swept by in ghostly fashion, so dank and damp and cold that it needed but little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death, and many a one shuddered as the wreaths of sea-mist swept by. At times the mist cleared, and the sea for some distance could be seen in the glare of the lightning, which now came thick and fast, followed by such sudden peals of thunder that the whole sky overhead seemed trembling under the shock of the footsteps of the storm.
Dracula is admittedly flawed, even considered within its period and genre; it doesn’t owe its longevity to literary criteria alone. Its combination of an occasionally dream-like air, with all the disclosure of unconscious desires implied by “dream,” with forthright discussions of all its period’s hot issues (women! sex! technology! race! immigration! secularism! etc.!), has led the novel to be of interest first to sensation-seeking common readers and then to academics in quest of subtexts more interesting than the texts they subtend. For this reason, Dracula is more enjoyable to read in a Norton Critical Edition than is a novel more intrinsically meritorious and therefore better able to be enjoyed on its own terms.
The Norton edition of 1997 (which has not yet been updated) even gives a little survey of academic literary study and its trends from the 1970s, when the novel first came to the widespread attention of academics, through the 1990s.
We find Phyllis A. Roth exemplifying a Freud-inflected second-wave feminism with her classic essay, “Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” in which she upbraids the novel for its “hostility toward female sexuality” deriving from the male child’s pre-Oedipal fear of the devouring mother. Stephen D. Arata offers the standard postcolonial reading of the novel as a document of panic over “reverse colonization,” with Dracula serving as an image of imperial England’s own bad conscience, “since the Count’s Occidentalism both mimics and reverses the more familiar Orientalism underlying Western imperial practices.” Less persuasive are the volume’s excursions into Marxist and queer theory: Franco Moretti finds in Dracula a figure for monopoly capital, while Talia Schaffer reads him as a stand-in for Oscar Wilde, in two essays that, to my mind, impose allegories on—rather than finding significance in—the novel.
My favorite piece in the volume is an essay that avoids these pitfalls, that manages to be both ingeniously inventive and wholly grounded in the text: Carol A. Senf’s “Dracula: The Unseen Face in the Mirror.” Senf agrees with the other critics that the novel’s heroes exhibit Victorian anxieties over sex, gender, and race, but she emphasizes Stoker’s documentary style to suggest that we need not take their word for what happens to them and for what it all means:
While Stoker’s choice of narrative technique does not permit him to comment directly on his characters, he suggests that they are particularly ill-equipped to judge the extraordinary events with which they are faced. […] In fact, Stoker reveals that what condemns Dracula are the English characters’ subjective responses to his character and to the way of life which he represents. […] Harker’s inability to “see” Dracula [in the mirror] is a manifestation of moral blindness which reveals his insensitivity to others and…his inability to perceive certain traits in himself.
Senf argues that Dracula is a law-abiding libertine, a purchaser rather than a thief and a seducer rather than a rapist, who sadly finds himself at the mercy of a piously judgmental, hypocritically repressed, and xenophobic foreign culture. For Senf, we ought to understand Mina and her men as so many Browning monologuists or Nabokov narrators, perpetrators of moral monstrosities against innocent victims talking themselves into a deluded state of self-righteous justification all the while.
I am not sure if Stoker’s intentions extended so far into proto-modernist experiment, though I do credit him with choosing a narrative form that necessarily implies the partiality of all knowledge and so undercuts the novel’s otherwise solid Victorian rectitude.
Still, unlike the more (Roth and Arata) and less (Moretti and Schaffer) persuasive ideology-hunters who exemplify late-20th-century criticism’s notorious “hermeneutic of suspicion,” Senf attends to Stoker’s actual literary achievement and judges it more aesthetically—and therefore more ideologically—complex than a mere mass of words and ideas shaped less by writerly intelligence than by ambient Late-Victorian prejudice. Senf is suspicious of the characters, but not of their deviser. In her hands, Dracula has the epistemological and ethical complexity of a great novel, even if she leaves us, at least by implication, with the figure of Dracula as misunderstood Romantic that I was at pains to dismiss above.
I have had my doubts about the merit of Dracula since I first read it—well into adulthood, I should note; I somehow missed it in my younger years—but a novel that offers this much substance for reflection must have, to quote Van Helsing, “some vital principle” in it that can’t be put to rest, that even, in its animated undeath, insists on our inviting it in.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!