Exploring the Classics: Dracula

Exploring the Classics Dracula.png

For years it seems as though vampires, werewolves, and zombies have taken over the country.  They heavily populate successful books, movies, and television shows. Much of it appears to be aimed squarely at the Young Adult market, but come to think about it, it's not really a new trend.

Vampires were popular when I was in high school, way back in the 80's. I read many novels about the blood-sucking undead, authored by Richard MathesonStephen KingRobert McCammonDan Simmons, F. Paul Wilson, and Whitley Strieber. It's possible they laid the groundwork for the success of Anne RiceLaurell K. Hamilton, and Brian Lumley. Movies featuring the Undead have not ceased since Vampire of the Coast in 1909, and lately we've been introduced to vegetarian vampires emoting and sparkling in the Twilight series. 

They Thirst
By Robert McCammon

Television has given us a variety of takes on this legend, with the humorous and harmless vampire in Count von Count (Sesame Street ), the melodramatic Barnabas Collins of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, a vampire/demon slaying cheerleader named Buffy, vampires with a heart of gold in Buffy spin-off Angel and the Nick Knight spin-off Forever Knight, and then there's Sookie Stackhouse--a mind reading, vampire dating waitress in a world where vampires have come out of the closet--on HBO's True Blood.

I personally prefer the vampire-as-evil characterization, and am not comfortable with the wildly popular romantic version of a irresistibly handsome teenage-but-centuries-old vampire who dates young girls. That's just creepy.

Vampires are usually explained as Undead--once human but reanimated. They are demonic, parasitic creatures, and they must kill humans in order to live--unless they are 'vegetarians' who live on animal blood. A few stories explain the vampire as an alien life form, or a creature that evolved along a slightly different track of natural selection.  

Even though there were vampire stories before Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, he is usually credited with popularizing the legend. Perhaps because Stoker did not follow proper procedure for obtaining a copyright in the United States, the name "Dracula" was used in many books and movies, so much so that it is as synonymous with "vampire" as "Coke" is with carbonated beverages and "Kleenex" is with tissues.

"Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!" ~ Dracula

{This is a detailed plot summary which contains spoilers}.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, a story woven from the journals, letters, telegraphs, and notes of Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray Harker, Lucy Westenra, Dr. John Seward, and Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Also included are communications from Quincey Morris and the Honorable Arthur Holmwood, news clippings from the Dailygraph, and the ship's log of the doomed Demeter, which provide the reader more information about important events in the story.

My perception of the story of Dracula is that it is less about the monster himself, and more about the reactions of the book's naive and wholesome protagonists. Jonathan Harker is a young, up-and-coming solicitor engaged to a model of Victorian womanhood, Mina Murray. Even Dr. Seward, the administrator of an insane asylum, has a boy-next-door quality about him, especially after we have empathized with him over Lucy's gracious rejection of his marriage proposal.

Arthur Holmwood is as noble as his title, and Quincey Morris is the red-blooded Texan who provides a little bit of rough-and-ready action. Lucy Westenra, Mina's best friend, is so charming and beautiful that Seward, Morris, and Holmwood all propose to her in one day. Her tragic death is pivotal in driving all of the others to destroy the monster, whatever the cost.

The story begins with Jonathan's trip to the Carpathian Mountains to meet Count Dracula and help him with the legal paperwork needed to purchase property in London and transport some of his belongings to his new home. Harker chronicles many details of his stay, sometimes out of sheer boredom, unable to leave due to the isolated location of the castle. Eventually Jonathan realizes he is a prisoner and that if he is ever to see his beloved Mina again, he must escape Dracula's castle.

Dr. Seward's asylum houses an inmate named Renfield, whose zoophagous appetite fascinates the young doctor. Renfield also acts as a proximity detector for Dracula's comings and goings, a fact that the Scooby Gang realizes a little too late to save Lucy. Dr. Van Helsing is brought in by Dr. Seward to help him diagnose Lucy's strange wasting ailment. Van Helsing is a man of science, but has also seen enough of the inexplicable that he keeps an open mind. These men--Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, Quincey Morris, and Arthur Holmwood--give of their own blood to try to save Lucy, and this creates a very strong bond in addition to the love that led three of them to propose marriage. Her death and subsequent redemption at the hand of her fiance Arthur further strengthens their resolve.

When Jonathan finally makes it home and recovers from his ordeal, it is revealed from his journals who the culprit must be, and all the disparate events are now pieced together. Mina's skill with shorthand and a typewriter results in copies of everyone's notes, letters, and journals for intense study. They hide nothing from each other, understanding that their success is hinged on sifting through every scrap of knowledge they can gather about their supernatural enemy. This openness binds their friendship and they feel a fierce loyalty to each other.

Dracula, however, has been eavesdropping, and knows his plan to conquer London is in danger. He exploits their one vulnerability by starting the process of making the pure and virtuous Mina one of his vile creatures so he can control her. But in so doing, he not only provokes the group to redouble their efforts and chase him all the way back to Transylvania, but the link he created with Mina gives them their own GPS with which to track him.

Even though Mina understands herself to be cursed of God (the touch of the Eucharist on her forehead burns a red scar onto her skin), she advises the men to remember the peace that Lucy gained with her real death, and such a creature as the Count might be viewed with compassion as one who also desires to be free of his curse.

In the end, the monster is cornered in a dramatic battle with the gypsies hired to protect the Count. Dracula is dispatched by Harker and Morris, and as Mina predicted, a peaceful look comes over his face before he poofs out of existence.

Sadly, the courageous Quincey is mortally wounded. Jonathan and Mina are so grateful for her release that they name their firstborn after all those involved, but note that their child will be called 'Quincey' in honor of his sacrifice.

Our heroes are older and wiser, having shed their innocent view of the world in order to confront and defeat an unimaginable evil. Their enduring love for each other, and their faith in God and goodness are in the end their greatest weapons.

We are not given much of Count Dracula's back story, even though he is the title character and the stories that have followed tend to focus on the vampire. In Dracula he is seldom seen on the page, although his influence is felt, and he acts as a catalyst so the other characters grow and change . There is a little of his background provided by the Count himself as told to and recorded by Jonathan, and more history from Van Helsing's research. The Count claims to have descended from Attila the Hun, and in his wistful recounting of his family's glory days, there is a foreshadowing of his desire to expand his borders and become a conqueror again.

A vague explanation of Drac's Undeadness is given by Van Helsing, who posits that the Romanian mountains are "full of strangeness of the geologic and chemical world".  He speaks of volcanic activity that results in water with strange properties, gases that can kill or heal, and that the unique nature of the earth's magnetic and electrical characteristics in this area could combine with occult forces to result in the creation of the vampire Dracula. Some of the boundaries that limit Dracula's power and serve as weapons to fight his evil are from nature: garlic, roses, the tides, the sunrise. Others are religious symbols - holy water, the wafer, the cross.

There are some interesting contrasts in this story. Science struggles against mythology and superstition. Blood is a saving sacrifice, but is also sustenance for a monster. Beauty and youth are cursed by soullessness. An evil predator has a rapacious appetite for purity and innocence. The message of redemption permeates the tale.

When reading and discussing this story with my kids, there were a few elements in the story that grabbed our attention and sent us into Research Mode:

  • Communication technology - messages are sent via telegraph and letters.
  • Recording and stenography - Dr. Seward uses a phonograph to keep notes on his patients and record his diary, while Mina is learning shorthand and typing on a new-fangled typewriter in order to be helpful to her husband.
  • Cultural and gender norms - men are noble, polite, and chivalrous; women are virtuous, maternal, and modest. Both genders are presented as brave and intelligent, but the Victorian cultural mindset is unmistakable.
  • Blood typing and transfusions - Dr. Van Helsing transfuses blood directly from Dr. Seward, Quincey Morris, Arthur Holmwood, and himself into Lucy in his efforts to save her. Blood typing was not understood and developed until about 15 years after Stoker wrote Dracula.
  • Eastern superstition and legends - How do legends originate? Are they ever based in fact?

In spite of the virtuous Victorian vibe of the novel, there is a bright thread of sexuality all through the story. Dracula's brides seduce Jonathan Harker with their wanton beauty, and he allows them to feed from him. Dracula preys on the fair virgins at night, hypnotizing them with his gaze and taking blood from them by biting their necks. Unlike most modern novels and movies featuring blood-sucking fiends, Dracula's scenes of violence don't involve geysers of gushing blood and splattering entrails. 

Dracula is not the hero of this story. Although I think there was untapped potential for his character, he is cruel and greedy, and rather smelly. He is not sympathetic except for a couple of brief moments of pity, such as when Mina wonders if perhaps he would be relieved to have his curse of eternal-life-as-a-parasite ended, and again when he is killed and a peaceful look passes over his face, confirming Mina's theory. 

The heroes of this story are clearly the courageous young people who band together and risk their lives to fight a truly monstrous creature. Their dedication to each other and to Doing The Right Thing are elements to be admired. 

We could hardly ask any one, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story. Van Helsing summed it all up as he said, with our boy on his knee.

"We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake." ~ Jonathan Harker, Dracula

Is there a 'classic' you'd like me to explore? Share your suggestions in the comments!