Reading Dracula is a bit of a chore – like giving blood. And at approximately 120,000 words it’s going to keep you turning its pages for quite some time. Bram Stoker, or Brimstoker as his fellow Dubliner, James Joyce, referred to him in Finnegans Wake, opted for some pretty meandering Gothic structural devices in this novel. Thus, we are presented with multiple points of view, and these are conveyed to us through the letters, diaries and journals of Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, Lucy Westenra, Dr John Seward and Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Some newspaper articles and even a ship’s log are thrown in for good measure, which makes for an untidy and rickety edifice. Note that Count Dracula himself – as a narrator – is the only protagonist whose thoughts are unrecorded.
Added to that, two of the main characters go AWOL for some considerable time. Jonathan Harker, after his heroic escape from the Count’s castle, is missing in action for more than a hundred pages, and the same can be said for the Count himself. The Hammer Horror versions and modern interpretations such as the Francis Ford Coppola film rectify this deficiency by eliminating any tedious passages and cutting to the chase.
So, given these caveats, is it worth reading Dracula today? You bet. Despite the existence of Sheridan le Fanu’s tale Carmilla of 1872, and before that John Polidori’s short story The Vampyre of 1819, this is the mythic mother lode for the entire Dracula franchise. Here we have the full paraphernalia of familiar tropes assembled for our delectation: Transylvania, the Carpathian mountains, the Borgo pass, Nosferatu, the Un-Dead, garlic flowers, mirrors, mist, rats, bats, wolves, crucifixes, running water, the stake through the heart and decapitation.
Not only that, Stoker introduces us to some classic lines of dialogue that have stood the test of time and been regurgitated in later film adaptations, e.g. ‘the children of the night. What music they make!’ or ‘our ways are not your ways’ and ‘the nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once.’ There are some unforgettable visuals as well such as Count Dracula slithering like a lizard down the walls of the castle, and the sheer decadence of the three ‘brides’ as they are often referred to. I will have more to say about the brides later.
One thing the modern reader will notice is the way in which the speech of working-class characters is rendered through non-standard spellings. In my view this tends to create a condescending effect. As it is, there are only two other characters who receive a similar treatment – these are the Count and Van Helsing, by virtue of the fact that they are non-native English speakers. So it is that we are presented with Mr Swales at Whitby, whose dialectal idiosyncrasies are rendered as follows: ‘I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss’, Thomas Bilder, the keeper of the Zoological Gardens, ‘Now, sir, you can go on and arsk me what you want’, one of the carriers’ men who exclaims ‘That ‘ere ‘ouse, guv’nor, is the rummiest I ever was in’ and, as a final example, Joseph Smollet with his ‘ye’d better be up arter ‘im soon in the mornin’, or maybe ye won’t ketch ‘im.’ As you can see, these common people also have a tendency to drop their aitches.
This peering down one’s nose at the lower orders manifests itself in other ways. One might point to the fact that the throats of those engaged in any strenuous manual activity are perennially dry and in urgent need of liquid refreshment. Meanwhile the toffs – for whom money is no object – are always happy to oblige their inferiors and cross their palms with coinage so that this raging thirst can be quenched with mugs of ale.
Money plays an important role in the novel. Lucy, for instance, describes Dr Seward as ‘handsome, well off, and of good birth’ and after the death of Peter Hawkins, Mina Harker records that her husband Jonathan has been left ‘a fortune which to people of our modest bringing up is wealth beyond the dream of avarice. Dracula of course is loaded – he has ‘a great heap of gold’ in his castle. And then there is Mina’s undisguised paean to capital: ‘it made me think of the wonderful power of money! What can it not do when it is properly applied; and what might it do when basely used! I felt so thankful that Lord Godalming is rich, and that both he and Mr. Morris, who also has plenty of money, are willing to spend it so freely.’
If you examine the text through a Freudian lens you will find gems such as the following: ‘Holding his candle so that he could read the coffin plates, and so holding it that the sperm dropped in white patches which congealed as they touched the metal, he made assurance of Lucy’s coffin.’ Freud would have had a field day with such masturbatory imagery in this description of Professor Abraham Van Helsing at the tomb of Lucy Westenra.
Not surprisingly, those infected by the vampire’s bite are more often than not female. When one takes into account the remedy – namely the act of penetrating the breast with a wooden stake and cutting off the head – one is inexorably led towards the word maidenhead, where defloration is likened to beheading. In the Victorian era the maidenhead was strictly speaking the hymen, the rupturing of which during intercourse was typically accompanied by loss of blood.
Throughout the novel Stoker displays an obsession with the word ‘voluptuous’ whenever Lucy or the three ‘brides’ are referred to in their Un-Dead forms. Lucy, like the three brides, is a sexy beast and no mistake, but this is wholly because of her transgressive, blood-drinking nature. Initially virginally pure, she becomes lustfully unclean once infected. In other words her body becomes a battleground for the old virgin/whore dichotomy.
The brides are well worth discussing in their own right. In the novel their relationship to Dracula is left intentionally ambiguous. For instance, could they be his daughters? It has also been suggested that they are sisters. Typically, they are referred to as his brides, but perhaps through the power of incest they are all three – daughter, sister and bride. In addition, they are reminiscent of the three witches in Macbeth. That Dracula placates them with a baby to feast on makes one think of Macbeth where the witches use the finger of a birth-strangled babe in their diabolical magic.
It’s certainly possible to view Dracula and Harker from a doppelgänger perspective, namely as embodiments of the bestial and the rational aspects of man. And when it comes to the quest to track down the Count, another mythological and literary source might have played its part. For is it not the case that Harker, Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood, Dr Seward and Quincey Morris are a quintet of Grail knights, with Mina as their putative Queen Guinevere?