By ten o’clock the story had so fashioned itself upon our attention that we could not pause even to light our pipe. — Review of Dracula, The Daily Mail, June 1, 1897
Though the above quote is certainly indicative of one’s experience through the novel Dracula and all it’s horror, the pipe may just help you reach the other side. But, I suppose, in the age of horror films and houses, reading does not really spook us as much as perhaps it did other generations — though I certainly remember two specific Stephen King novels that did me in (as a child no doubt): Cujo and Animal Cemetery (never finished). But, however unmoved we are in the realm of fear, Bram Stoker’s Dracula functions as a fantastic Gothic novel because of primarily how we are pulled into the narrative and what exactly we are bidden to fear.
I am incredibly slow-witted on occasion, and as I began this novel I nearly missed the importance of the structure. The novel is written through a series of journal entries by the various characters, primarily Jonathan and Mina Harker and their friend Dr. Seward. Of course, the immediate aspect this gives the novel is that we are in one sense omniscient and in the other constrained. We have the ability to know and experience multiple vantage points in addition to those just mentioned, yet we are throughout constrained to subjectivity, only briefly coming out of the opinions for a few sporadic newspaper clippings and telegrams.
The effect of this setup is very important to the novel because it is highly dramatic to view multiple first-person accounts yet not suspenseful in the least. For no first-person narrator is going to die and live to journal about it. (Unless, obviously, they are Un-Dead, but then the tone would be dramatically different giving away everything.) This hit me as the first four chapters are all from Jonathan Harker’s journal about his experience in Dracula’s castle. I felt as if any moment could be his last only to realize that the only real suspense will occur when the journal entries cease altogether. And only when Jonathan’s first set of entries close do we begin to actually start worrying about him and the creepiness of Count Dracula.
Stoker also invokes a wide range of contrasts, both in color schemes and literary themes: light and darkness, red and white, sensuality and chasteness. The Vampires, and those becoming Vampires, are constantly referred to as deathly pale with red lips and blazing eyes. A pale or white skin tone usually gives off the association of death, yet red clearly symbolizes the blood and vivacity for life and in this case a voluptuously wanton life. This voluptuousness in death, or the Un-Dead state, clearly contrasts in the case of our characters Lucy and Mina who were only depicted as being perfectly chaste and upright women, until the symbolic blood transfusions.
Lucy Westerna, Dracula’s first significant victim in the novel, goes through a total of four blood transfusions, and each transmission of blood symbolizes the sexual act. This could possibly allude to John Donne’s popular 1633 poem “The Flea” in which the speaker observes to his lady that their blood is already being mixed thanks to a flea that has bitten them both. Therefore, “This flea is you and I, and this / Our marriage bed and marriage temple is” says the speaker to his woman before she (spoiler alert!) squashes the flea as well as his hopes of ever being with her. Lucy in the novel is subject to this same symbolic marriage to four different men and Dracula, her night-time “lover.” Her chastity is compromised, and she enters the realm of the Un-Dead possibly because of it.
Her Un-Dead state further parallels the significance of the four blood transfusions. For at the end of her life and during her Un-Dead state, she exhibits a particular voluptuousness that surprises the characters, even her fiancé to whom she cries with “a languorous and voluptuous grace”
“Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!”
And the effect:
There was something diabolically sweet in her tones — something of the tingling of glass when struck — which rang through the brains even of us who heard the words addressed to another. As for Arthur, he seemed under a spell…
This sensual nature of the Vampires clashes with the Christianity of the main characters fighting them. So much so that Van Helsing’s trial at Dracula’s castle almost echoes Spenser’s Guyon in the second book of The Faerie Queene who must pass through the fountain of naked women in the Bower of Blisse to defeat Acrasia. Van Helsing must also overcome this alluring power of the three sensual Vampires at Dracula’s castle, sensual even when sleeping.
She lay in her Vampire sleep, so full of life and voluptuous beauty that I shudder as though I have come to do murder. Ah, I doubt not that… many a man who set forth to do such a task as mine found at last his heart fail him, and then his nerve, till the mere beauty of and fascination of the wanton Un-Dead have hypnotize him… Then the beautiful eyes of the fair woman open and look love, and the voluptuous mouth present to a kiss — and man is weak (Van Helsing’s Memorandum, 5 November).
Contrasting a horror story with sensuality is highly effective in this novel. Dracula is not a cold-blooded murderer without a motive but a monster who will suck out the blood of women and make them not just followers with him but in some creepy sense married to him — and the characters naturally desire death over this. The true horror would lead to this admission.
Aside from the sensual nature of Dracula and his victims is the common fear we all have in the unknown. Following the first four chapters of this novel is not a thrill because we worry about what will happen to the narrator (as I previously mentioned). Frankly, we don’t care enough about Mr. Harker yet to feel for him, but our curiosity as to what exactly he’s up against rightfully scares us. Good horror movies do this. Signs becomes a comedy once we see the goofy aliens, but perhaps The Blair Witch Project, as dreadful a movie as it is, is more indicative of how not seeing what’s out there is far more frightful.
Van Helsing’s speech at the heart of the novel keys us into this concept. At this point there has been plenty of pointed hints and clues to the reader concerning Dracula’s true nature, but nothing has yet been revealed, and the word Vampire (I think) has yet to surface. Van Helsing, in any case, knows what is going on, and he begins to explain it all to Dr. Seward.
You are a clever man… you reason well, and your wit is bold; but you are too prejudiced. You do not let your eyes see and your ears hear, and that which is outside your daily life is not of account to you. Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things which others cannot?
If we are to adhere to the Professor’s advice, we must accept his assumption that a world apart from ours actually exists, and if this is so, it should strike a type of fear in us, a fear based in humility. Dracula continues to play off this idea that faith is “that which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.” (Van Helsing’s rendition of Mark Twain’s famous quote.) This concept that fully understanding the world of Vampires and hypnotism is impossible must be grounded on faith — a different set of eyes.
Ironically, as the novel progress and Mina is bitten by Dracula, she becomes the one who can see the most, albeit without her eyes. Though often treated as the “weaker vessel” in the novel — one who needs to be cared for rather than helping in the fight against Dracula — Mina becomes one of the leading roles in discovering Dracula’s plans. Van Helsing, despite his apparent misogyny, even often comments on the value of Mina’s mind in the hunt. This is no more noticeable than directly after she figures out how Dracula plans to get back to his castle in Transylvania.
Our dear Madam Mina is once more our teacher. Her eyes have seen where we were blinded.
Mina’s ability to see and feel Dracula’s movements also coincides with the battle the men fight with faith. One half of the novel takes place in a psych ward as Dr. Seward chronicles the strange behavior of a Mr. Renfield. The madman’s death is almost a symbolic foreshadowing of what lies ahead for these men if their beliefs turn out to reveal their madness. A pervasive feeling is therefore felt throughout the book that the characters are actually all mad. “I sometimes think we must all be mad and that we shall wake to sanity in strait-waistcoats” says Seward who also worries that his time spent among the insane is starting to wear off on him while Jonathan also confesses he will go mad if he does not apply himself to something constructive (such as writing his diary).
The call to faith by Van Helsing is then a call to see the unseen, and the Professor does so to men of weak faith. Thus the end in which Dracula’s body crumbles into dust and the physical evidence of their quest is no more, displays that he possibly is nothing more than a psychological double, a dopplegänger, of the characters themselves. Much like the characters fight the moral battle of chastity so too is their faith tested along the way. The fight is, in this sense, against nothing but their imaginations, against themselves.
Dracula the novel has certainly reached far beyond its face value appreciation as a good horror story. The novel wittingly weaves in a range of issues from politics to psychology, the afterlife to the occult, and man’s duty to his inevitable limitations. The novel is humorous but dark as Van Helsing flip-flops and contradicts himself in more ways than our upcoming presidential candidate yet in a rigid seriousness speaks of cutting off the head of an Un-Dead loved one as if it was life or death. We feel horrified and moved with Stoker’s eloquence, his ability to send our curious souls to the edge of the abyss — a cliff, as if the whole novel centered on this idea of being on the fringe — the twilight for lack of a better word — of our existence. We hang in the balance each time a journal entry is completed, each time the sun rises and falls all the while feeling as if the book’s narrative only takes place within the confines of sunset to sunrise, in gloomy tombs with unknown and invisible spirits watching as we curiously linger to discover what happens next. And as the light in our pipe goes out, so too does the sun fade in the distance beyond the mountains, and we begin to understand why the aforementioned reviewer warned us that “persons of small courage and weak nerves should confine their reading of these gruesome pages strictly to the hours between dawn and sunset.” But we buck up in the darkness, relight our pipe, and continue on into the unknown, hoping to find something that doe snot crumble into dust and pass from sight.