Bram Stoker: Dracula
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
We’ve got another ostensible nightmare origin for this horror classic (as with Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”). Stoker had eaten too much crab meat at a London beefsteak room and dreamt that a huge king crab rose from the plate and approached him with open pincers.
Born in late 1847, Stoker was a sickly child who didn’t walk until age 7. (Did this have an effect on his psychology and writing, or was it itself a psychologically abnormal manifestation?) Once he hit school-age and books, the paralysis vanished. He worked in the civil service and as a drama critic, met Henry Irving the celebrated actor, and became Irving’s travel manager and secretary. Stoker worked with Irving for a pittance, and for 27 years. Stoker despised Irving’s parasitic groupies and flatterers. Even though his employment relationship with Irving eclipsed all other relationships, including his marriage (preempting his honeymoon), Stoker found time to earn a law degree and to write (often stories of a divided self). When Irving died in 1905, Stoker was bereft. He suffered a stroke, and there is speculation that he may have contracted syphillis in America. In 1908 came a series of bizarre vindictive letters advocating censorship of eroticism in fiction! Yet try to square this with the worm and snake-hole imagery in the misogynistic Lair of the White Worm (1911). Stoker died in 1912, and his wife battled for decades against plagiarisms and copyright infringements.
The working title for Dracula was The Un-Dead, with Count Wampyr. Stoker read everything he could lay his hands on: “The Vampyre,” Varney, Carmilla, S. Baring-Gould’s werewolf book, etc.
The novel is usually considered flawed, or even “a spoiled masterpiece.” Explanations are feeble or lacking for why Dracula wants to come to England, why he’s so wealthy, how he is existing successfully, etc. But then, literary artistry is not everything; and psychologically perhaps the novel is a great success, functioning more like a fairy-tale or a fever dream. Obviously it’s a story we want to hear badly enough to put up with the stretches of dullness and the undelineated cardboard characters whose voices mostly sound identical.
Stoker, like Shelley, uses a modified epistolary approach, building the story from documents: diaries, letters, stenographic dictations, etc. This rational quantifiable textual world is valued to the point of obsession (and blindness) by the characters in the novel and probably by Stoker himself.
A remark about Renfield is bizarre: “he seems so mixed up with the Count in an indexy kind of way that I am afraid of doing anything wrong by helping his fads” (248). And God is a CPA: “So it will be until the Great Recorder sums me up and closes my ledger account with a balance to profit or loss” (71).
Chapters 1 – 4:
Jonathan Harker’s shorthand journal serves an epitolary and private function — it is intended for Mina, after all — but it is objective and becomes public finally. In fact, it is frantically objective (so that paranoia is heightened). Much of the novel emerges from contemplation on the action that takes place in gaps.
In Dark Shadows, no one cares what time it is, but here we’re obsessed with pinpointing the time, with the superior British maps, with punctuality. No one Harker meets is credited with intelligence nor worthy of respect until Dracula — presumably because Dracula is courtly and hospitable (however insincerely) and deals with a British barrister. Harker tests his own consciousness (15) and always winds his watch before bed (40). All this stands in his way of comprehending his situation! And thus it belies his name, Harker, someone who should “hark.”
Some potential doppelganger hints may emerge when Harker sees only his own face in the mirror (25-26). Calling it a “foul bauble of man’s vanity” (26) provides a nice Victorian moral excuse for smashing it, but typically this refers to female vanity. On the next page, we catch a weirdly charming glimpse of Dracula obviously being the one to do the housework.
The vampiresses provide an interesting moment. Two are like the Count and so recede, while the worst one is the standard of beauty: blond, blue-eyed. So the perversion of culturally-defined beauty is the more horrific. “Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses … and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red…. The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great, wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires…. All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips…. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips” (37).
The description of Dracula includes Victorian popular notions concerning symptoms of sexual excess, especially of “self-abuse.” “Strange to say, there were hairs in the center of the palm…. His breath was rank” (18).These include the Count’s foul breath, but the “weird sisters” don’t stink (or smell of blood at most). So we have an indication of the era’s denial of female sexuality. Dracula ultimately wants to blend in, to draw no attention.
Harker seems to descend into a kind of madness, so eventually the paper-trail disappears. We get no more documents; perhaps that signals a silent type of horror itself.
Lucy Westenra’s name translates at least to “light of the west.” She has no living father, and Arthur Holmwood gets along with and has much in common with her mother. Of her proposals, she reports at length on the first two; Arthur’s is cursorily dismissed (60). Arthur is a bore, but Lucy’s mother is a withering, delicate, idiotic pain in the a**, removing the garlic (133, 143), generating a dynamic of repression and secrecy (110), leaving a fortune to Arthur instead of Lucy (166-167).
Interestingly, Lucy’s sleepwalking seems not to be possession by Dracula. She did it as a child (72) and has been at it again before Dracula’s arrival. Sleepwalking is activity in the nighttime. So at worst she’s just susceptible to Dracula. Yet especially for Seward, Lucy is evil: he is entirely unsympathetic.
Once Lucy blithely declares her polygamous wish, she’s a goner: “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble? But this is heresy, and I must not say it” (59). And what is the “trouble” exactly? Does this parallel the three “brides” of Dracula? In any case, sexual desire, however remotely and indirectly alluded to, and her disinclination for the constraints of this somewhat “arranged” marriage, damn Lucy.
As the “Bloofer” lady, Lucy’s victims are children. Repressed animosity is directed at, or monstrosity is defined as a violation of, the role of motherhood. “He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it” (216).
Violence is blurred with sex in the novel. Many of the killings seem like sexual acts, particularly the staking and mutilation of the undead Lucy, at which scene Seward is alarmingly vicious. The scene is presented as a kind of sanitizing: we have to mutilate to “restore.” But really it also functions as a punishment for sexual knowledge and the violation of the restricted Victorian female role. Thus it is mostly Arthur’s job (216).
Orphan Mina Murray Harker develops skills of shorthand, stenography, train-schedule lilteracy (53, 186), so in ways she’s a “New Woman,” but she’s not sexually advanced and even mocks the “New Woman” (88f), so what is she? Supposedly “She has a man’s brain — a brain that a man should have were he much gifted — and woman’s heart” (234). She acts like a mother to everyone, including Lucy, and as secretary to the group. Is her marriage to Harker truly a shared ignorance, as he proposed?: “Are you willing, Wilhelmina, to share my ignorance? Here is the book” (104).
Her exclusion by the men is a detriment to their success. Overtly Mina cooperates with men, but in a way she has covert commerce with Dracula. The men chase coffins and kill rats while Dracula attacks her. “[He] pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some of the — Oh, my God, my God! what have I done?” (288).
Consider the doppelganger implications between Van Helsing and Dracula, beginning with a few physical features they have in common, much less the language peculiarities. Why did Stoker give (Abraham) Van Helsing his own name (Bram)?
His wife is mad (176) and his son dead (175). But he’s a manipulator! He rambles on concerning the subject of nature’s eccentricities to Seward, almost Job-like, but showcasing. Seward’s interruption is to the point, but dismissed (192). He puts on a wow-and-zow show with the empty coffin — now you see her, now you don’t. In the meantime, Lucy is sucking the blood of kids. When it’s time for the revelation to Arthur, Van Helsing is abrupt and crass (206). He demands total faith from Arthur — trying to keep him as a child (his son)? — and laughs behind his back. He makes reference to Seward as an equal or colleague, perhaps respecting the manipulator in Seward in his own respective world. (Seward has an oppressive kind of power over his patients and messes with Renfield, whatever is supposed to be wrong with that guy before Dracula shows up.)
Pretty bizarre, beyond describing the phenomenon of hysterical laughter, is Van Helsing’s dissertation on King Laugh: “”And yet I can laugh at her very grave — laugh when the clay from the spade of the sexton drop upon her coffin and say: ‘Thud! thud!” to my heart, till it send back the blood from my cheek” (174-175).
Most parents are dead. Lucy’s mother eventually is; Arthur’s father is an invisible excuse to get Arthur off the scene for a while. The group of characters seem to shed family and create a new one, and so form a kind of primal horde, with the boys surrogate sons of Van Helsing, while Lucy is “almost a daughter.” And so the repressed projection of interfamilial sexual fantasies operates, and Dracula with “mother” Mina becomes horror.
Despite the reliance on old lore, most energies go into paperwork and an obsessive business is created (225) which actually tends to hinder any real accomplishments as the characters trace lawyers and boxes and follow train schedules. God is a C.P.A. (71); Renfield keeps a notebook even. Lucy’s “possession” results in an impulse to destroy paperwork (152), a tactic which is Dracula’s (285).
In the last paragraphs, we learn that we’ve been engaged with all secondary documents: transcriptions of the gone originals (378)!
“The effect of repression is to turn a hunger into a horror” (Bantam Edition Intro. vi).
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.