Book Review: Dracula
There are plenty of entertaining film versions of Dracula but none really captures the style of the novel. Plus, most movies take exceptional liberties with the story.
Bram Stoker’s novel begins with Jonathan Harker arriving at Castle Dracula, in Transylvania. He is there to deliver real estate papers for the count to sign prior to his moving to England. Plenty of peculiar happenings warn Harker that Dracula is a vampire, but before he can do anything, he finds himself prisoner, and the count on his way to his new home.
After a dramatic arrival via shipwreck, Dracula takes up residence in Whitby. It isn’t long before he is stalking Lucy Westenra, slowly draining her of blood and life. Lucy comes under the care of Dr Seward, whose sanitarium is adjacent to the count’s new home in Carfax Abbey.
When Seward is unable to identify the cause of Lucy’s illness, he enlists the help of his mentor, Abraham van Helsing. As they begin to suspect that this is the work of a vampire, the men scramble to protect Lucy, but Dracula proves wily enough to outwit them. Soon poor Lucy dies, but not entirely, for now she returns as a vampire. Van Helsing and Seward enlist the help of Arthur Holmwood (Lucy’s fiancée) and Quincey Morris to release Lucy from her undeath.
Now the count sets his sights on Mina Harker. It is up to van Helsing, Seward, Jonathan, Arthur, and Quincey to keep Mina alive. Armed with occult weapons, they begin tracking down Dracula’s lairs scattered around Whitby and London. By this point, Dracula has infected Mina with his tainted blood, which causes her to slip into quasi-vampirism.
Realizing he is in danger, Dracula flees back to Transylvania. Van Helsing, Mina, and their crew track him all the way to Castle Dracula, and there they dispatch the vampire with a swift beheading and a knife through the heart then stand back to watch as he crumbles to dust.
While most movies follow this general plot, what makes Stoker’s novel distinctive is that it is in epistolary style. There is no omniscient authorial voice, but rather the reader is presented with a series of journal entries, letters, and recordings made by Dr Seward, Mina, Jonathan, and Lucy, with a few passages by van Helsing himself.
The use of letters and journals as a narrative device grounds the story in the contemporary world of the 1890’s. These are characters who live by train timetables, current medical practices, and other features of modern society. In effect, the journals emphasize that these people live in a recognizable world which is being infiltrated by a monster from folklore. No one wants to believe there really is a vampire, even though all the evidence points to it.
One curious aspect of the story is Mina’s encroaching vampirism. When van Helsing attempts to protect her by placing a communion host against her brow, it burns her skin and leaves a scar. The mark symbolizes the psychic connection she has with Dracula. Every dawn and dusk, she slips into a hypnotic state which grants her some awareness of what the old vampire is up to. This piece feels like it foreshadows J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which Harry’s lightning bolt scar represents his psychic connection to Voldemort. It makes me wonder if Rowling was inspired by Stoker in this regard.
One downside to Stoker’s novel is the gender stereotypes. Both Lucy and Mina are sweet, innocent angels (though Mina exhibits a quick mind). All the men worship them and wish to protect them, often by keeping them in the dark about what is going on. It becomes frustrating that the women are portrayed as helpless and in need of saving. Mina, at least, finally exerts her authority when she realizes she can see into Dracula’s thoughts; she ends up insisting on being part of the final chase to capture and kill the vampire.
I first read Dracula when I was 17 and a second time in my late twenties. At the time, I was not accustomed to reading epistolary novels, so while the story was engaging, I did find the style a bit of a slog.
This time, however, I thoroughly enjoyed how Stoker structured the story. It falls into a five-act structure:
1) Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Castle Dracula
2) Dracula’s arrival in England, and his stalking Lucy Westenra
3) Van Helsing’s efforts to save Lucy’s immortal soul
4) Dracula’s stalking Mina Harker
5) The search for Dracula’s lairs and the final chase into Transylvania
Once I recognized this structure, I found the segments exciting, as they were always driving toward the next climax. The only part which still seems slow to me is the preparation for the final act, as van Helsing and his crew are preparing to track Dracula to Transylvania. But the final chapter, with its race against the sunset, is quite thrilling.
I love revisiting novels and discovering that I engage with them quite differently now. In about ten years, I will be ready for another visit with Dracula.