Dracula

I reached my goal for the weekend: I finished Dracula, and what fun it was! The ending is very tense and exciting. And so now my rather lame RIP challenge is finished, only one book, and it’s not even October yet. I have time to read more RIP books if I like. We’ll see.

I thought the book was good in a number of ways, most of all, perhaps, because it was a great story. It’s a relatively long novel, but Stoker kept the tension high throughout. He’s fabulous at creating the frightening, eerie mood that this novel absolutely must have. The parts that take place in Transylvania — at the beginning and the end — are the most exciting and atmospheric, but the middle parts in England maintain the momentum.

The book is also good in ways Stoker might or might not have intended: it strikes me as the perfect late 19C novel (1897), reflecting so precisely so many of the period’s preoccupations. It’s about the too-thin veneer of order and rationality that we sometimes think is all of life, and how easily this gets ripped away to reveal the chaos and irrationality beneath. The book is full of train time tables and business accounts, signs of an orderly society at work, but order and rationality are at war with the supernatural. Nice, neat categories such as “alive” and “dead” are disturbed and forced to make room for the “undead” vampire. Up until the very end, the time tables are there, symbols of “civilization,” weapons the characters must wield against Count Dracula, whose powers and actions defy the rules that generally govern humanity.

The book is also about very weird and disturbing gender dynamics, and it’s obsessed with sexuality. You have the typical Victorian bifurcated view of women: Lucy, for example, the innocent, beautiful, sexually-attractive-but-pure, soon-to-be wife and angel of the house at first, who then transforms into a lustful, aggressive, evil vampire who must be killed. The issue is complicated, however, because while the men in the novel insist that Mina, the other main female character, remain out of their planning to destroy Dracula, they soon learn that Mina is precisely the one they need to track him down. It’s her good memory for those train tables and her forceful logical thought that save them in the end. The women in this novel are either perfectly pure or perfectly corrupt, but it is a woman who employs the stereotypically male power of logic to deduce Dracula’s whereabouts at a crucial moment in the story.

And Stoker has way too much fun playing around with images of sucking people’s blood and blood transfusions and exchanges of blood as thinly veiled sex acts. Sexuality is equated with vampirism, showing how a fear of and obsession with sex underlie Victorian staidness. Sex haunts the book, just as do a fear of the supernatural and of death.

I think Dracula belongs to the class of book which is at least as interesting for the ways it reveals something about the culture it came out of as it is for its story and characters. Any book will reveal something about its time and place of origin, but some books sum up what’s characteristic of its time and place so well that that becomes one of the chief pleasures of reading it. This novel is quite like The Monk and The Castle of Otranto in the way they all are often a bit sloppy and sometimes unintentially hilarious (well, maybe this is intentional?) but very good and interesting nonetheless, because of the energy and pleasure that obviously went into the writing and also because of the way they so perfectly speak to their times.

This book certainly has its flaws: I wished Stoker hadn’t bothered with the accents, especially Van Helsing’s, which is horribly distracting, and, like the accent of a bad actor, comes and goes. And not only are the gender stereotypes pervasive, but the national stereotypes are as well. The American character, Quincy Morris, made me laugh; he was from Texas, of course! and was rather cowboy-like. And the farther east the characters traveled across Europe, the more “primitive” and superstitious and irrational the natives became. But the book was just too much fun to let its flaws get to me.

If you’ve read Dracula before and are looking to read it again at some point, I highly recommend this edition. It’s not good for a first-time read (as mine was) because the footnotes are very intrusive and give away parts of the story early on, but it’s excellent for a re-reading. The footnotes are thorough and very funny in places; you can see my delighted posts on them here and here. They are the footnotes of a book-lover as well as a scholar, and they make good reading in and of themselves.

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