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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Notes on Dracula

Saturday, July 03, 2010

I am currently reading my way through Dracula, one of those innumerable books that I should have read long ago (especially since my research concerns the gothic!) but have somehow never got around too, until now, when the kindly summer break from teaching gives me some precious time to read what I want to read. I don't have the energy or inspiration to string together any coherent thoughts, but here are a few jottings of interest:
  • The novel seems quite deeply misogynistic, with women playing the role of passive beauties, as if from some pre-Raphaelite painting: pale, delicate, teary-eyed. They are victims of Dracula himself, but subject also to the passions of the men who seek to protect them. Lucy is particular evidence of this, literally sleepwalking into her seduction, with her three different lovers failing to save her by giving their blood (the sexual metaphor is barely concealed). Mina Harker, initially seeming more empowered with her intelligence and charisma, also fades out of the narrative as the men seek to prevent her from pursuing the vampire further - although at least she is allowed full knowledge of the demonic forces at work upon her. 
  • Equally biased is its presentation of the lower classes, who are almost invariably drunk, or need the incentive of drink in order to divulge crucial information to the middle class doctors and solicitors who are the novel's heroes. Stoker does, however, clearly attempt to render dialect accurately: the Yorkshire conversations are almost illegible, whilst one can hear the Cockney in the London passages.
  • In many ways, the construction of the text is its most interesting aspect, like Frankenstein it being comprised of a tissue of different sources (journals, recordings, letters and telegrams) that offer slightly different perspectives on events. Unlike Frankenstein, though, it is hard to detect any real difference between the journals and reports of the distinct characters. Mina, Seward, Harker all possess rational voices, trustworthily objective and strangely reliable in their recounting of events in great detail. This seems to artificially contrast with the voice of Van Helsing, a sort of nineteenth-century Yoda, with an affected tendency to invert his sentence structure, and use strange, faux-theological metaphors.
  • Also of interest is the novel's close engagement with contemporary science. Technological developments, such as the telegraph and phonograph, as well as the railway, play an important part in the plot (the pacing of the plot would, indeed, be impossible without these devices of quick communication). The theories of Charcot and hypnosis also feature prominently. 
  • Against this modern instinct, is a conservative Catholicism. The text is explicit in presenting Dracula as opposed to God, and the full paraphernalia of Catholic ritual is brought to bear against him: indulgences, the Host, crucifixes. Renfield's mantra "the blood is the life" is intoned liturgically throughout the novel.
All the above are, implicitly or obviously, criticisms that I - without researching or thinking about the novel more deeply - might level at it. Closer investigation might well add some nuance to my off-the-cuff notes above.

However, it remains to be said that in spite of the numerous loopholes and artifices in the plot (how convenient that Harker encounters Dracula at his castle, whilst his wife Mina is the first to encounter him in Whitby when he moves to England), it is undoubtedly thrilling. The use of letters and journals creates a delicious dramatic irony, as the reader can see the explanations falling into place before the characters can; we are the analogues for the impressive intellect of Van Helsing, the only other one to perceive the truth the moment Lucy is attacked in England. However, probably the most effective part of the novel is Harker's first journal; his sense of bewilderment as he is locked in Dracula's castle - in spite of the modern reader's familiarity with vampires and the name that is synonymous with them - is palpable.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:27 pm

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