Understanding “Dracula”

 

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA IS highly readable, full of action and suspense, and genuinely thrilling. It’s a bit stuffy, and over-written in places, and the end seems rushed in what’s already a long-ish novel, but it’s otherwise highly entertaining. The Count is every bit as nebulous, charming, and frightening as you’d hope, Van Helsing is likable, and intellectually sophisticated. I don’t want to belabor this point, so here’s the short version: this is one of the few books from this period of literature that I feel genuinely deserves the hype it continues to garner.

But you already knew this, didn’t you? Unlike me, who just got around to reading it this summer, you read the damned thing when you were in high school or college. Or at least you read the Cliff’s Notes and copied someone else’s answers on the test. You might have looked up “trephining” and discovered that what Seward and Van Helsing were doing to Renfield was a type of radical open-brain surgery without anesthetic. Someone (perhaps even Stephen King, if you happened to have read his terrific and forgotten non-fiction book Danse Macabre[1. King gets all sorts of accolades for On Writing, which I consider just a so-so guide to writing, while his earlier and better dissection of horror, science-fiction, and suspense stories Danse Macabre is rarely mentioned or read. Check it out, you’ll thank me.]) might have explained to you that when Dracula’s brides “go on their knees” that this was late-Victorian code-language for something decidedly sexual occurring between them and Jonathan Harker.

But there’s plenty about this book that’s not very obvious, particularly since the cultural relationship between Britain and the United States at the turn of the 20th century isn’t very extensively studied in the same school curricula. As it turns out, quite a lot was happening in the years leading up to the Great War. At the time of Dracula’s publication, electricity and moving-picture film-strips (displayed carnival-style in mobile outdoor theaters) were less than ten years old. New surgical and medical techniques—some of which were truly ghastly to witness and not all of which were practiced in the strictest adherence to the Hippocratic Oath— were being invented and tested with increasing regularity. The cutting edge of science wasn’t the lukewarm page-filler it turned into in late 20th century news-streams. Advances in neurosurgery, virology, and the treatment of the insane were exciting and widely-considered topics.

And there were plenty of opportunities to witness and discuss these topics because this was also the era when the cities of the late 19th century world began to swell and take a shape that academics refer to now as metropolis. Urban women, many of whom had at least a partial education, began industrial work in large numbers for the first time, and were able to live somewhat independently of their patrilineal families. Their acceptable leisure activities—reading, shopping, and taking in nickelodeon-style public entertainment—brought them into rather sudden and unprecedented public contact with men. Which isn’t to say that women didn’t mingle with men before this, of course, but rather that what Habermas calls the “public sphere”, places where decisions were made by people with a voice in the making of them, now included an uncomfortably disruptive number of bright, educated, perceptive, curious, perhaps even (dare I say it?) horny, women.

But American women weren’t the only variety of what eventually became known on both sides of the Atlantic as the New Woman. British women, both in England and abroad in British colonies (particularly India if you’ve forgotten your world history), were likewise intensely interested in a number of new female-centric topics that they could bring to the figurative floor of this newly-coed public sphere. Most of the hubbub concerning the New Woman had to do with them doing such impertinent things as going to libraries and reading books (shocking!) in public, but among them were a handful of legitimate cultural revolutionaries; suffragettes of course, but also early proponents of temperance, property rights, certain sexual and reproductive freedoms, and, interestingly, solidifying the superiority of the white race.

Whaaa? you say, in a Scooby Doo voice. You heard me correctly. When most of us think about the New Woman (if we remember her at all beyond her caricature presentations as either a Downton-Abbey-style Flapper or a Mary-Poppins-style suffragette), we don’t immediately think of shocking racists. This, however, is the ugly and mostly-forgotten truth. Much of the critical conversation surrounding Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) has to do with modern readers trying to reconcile her groundbreaking feminist theory with her outspoken support of eugenics and the frankly racist nature of her novel Herland. Chicago’s own Women’s Christian Temperance Union darling Frances Willard took time out while working to convince others of the evils of alcohol to describe “the colored races” as “locusts” in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice. Yikes! These are the two that come immediately to mind because I’ve recently studied them, but the general consensus among scholars is that this first wave of feminism was positively rife with racists, classists, and bigots of all variety, male and female.

But wait, wait, wait, Mark, you say, you’re getting off topic: there aren’t any people of color in Stoker’s Dracula. Oh but there are, if not in obvious skin shade then in sociological intent: Eastern Europeans, the Old-World “other” of the new century. Harker’s description of the non-vampiric inhabitants of Transylvania gives this away:

Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets and round hats and home-made trousers; but others were very picturesque. The women looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them. The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long black hair and heavy black moustaches. They are very picturesque, but do not look prepossessing. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless and rather wanting in natural self-assertion.

After much forking of the sign of the Evil Eye, people crossing themselves and foisting “idolatrous” rosaries on Jonathan, and perhaps the richest description in the entire novel of people’s clothing and mannerisms, we are meant to understand that the Transylvanians, and eventually Dracula’s “gypsy” henchmen, are by the standards of the cultured, phonograph-dictating, typewriter-using, telegraph-sending, white British-American jet-set, decidedly un-hip. They’re superstitious, provincial, and dull of mind; unwilling or incapable of the scientific method, which Seward, Van Helsing, and even eventually Mina herself use to deliberate narrative effect.

Another prominent clue to this racialization of the Count is when Van Helsing (written by the British Stoker with an eyebrow-raising broken phonetic Dutch accent) refers to Dracula as having a “child’s brain” that steadily grows to self-awareness over the course of the novel. In the rhetoric of the early 20th century, the colonial attitude toward non-white races was frequently to portray them not as primitive and savage, which would have apparently been too gauche even for Willard and Perkins-Gilman, but as child-like. Advertisements for colonially-sourced goods were labeled with posters of tiny native children, cherubic and harmless, and in need of the instruction that physical and social sciences gaining popularity in the Western world promised to provide.

Neither is it accidental that Dracula’s home country, his castle, and even the soil from his homeland that he ships across the sea in fifty great wooden boxes, is at the heart of his power. Dracula’s Transylvania is an un-colonized, unconquered land of semi-darkness, where fires burn in the dark forests that no one can explain. Unlike the cowardly “low creature” Bersicker in London who escapes from the zoo, the wolves of Transylvania are huge, wild, and terrifying. Terrifying to all, that is, except Dracula himself, who—despite not being able to eat normal food, tolerate religious symbols, or walk in the sunlight—can control them. It is interesting, but secondary, that the religious and superstitious symbols belay the Count; these are discounted by both Harker and Seward as quaint relics unworthy of the attention of a “man of science.” More to the point: the Count has the ability to disobey the emerging laws of science that Seward, Van Helsing, and the rest think they have a firm grasp on. Dracula, and his land, are the literal frontier of Science with a capital S—the new church of white colonial rule. Beyond its borders lay the things that even learned men (and now women!) can’t and don’t understand and can’t adequately explain with science.

So Dracula, in all its sordid blood-spilling glory, has just as much, if not more, to say about the world in which it was written as it does about anything occult or fantastical. You need only watch HBO’s True Blood to recognize how dopey and (if you’ll pardon the pun) lifeless the vampire mythology is when taken on its own. After the first time someone turns into an animal and the first time the pretty white girl (see?—the racism is still there, too) is bitten, all that’s left is a town full of early 21st century American dipshits trying to keep their post-9/11 lives together long enough to resume eating their fried twinkies at the local greasy spoon. Which is a story, make no mistake; it’s just a story that doesn’t mesh quite as perfectly with fangs and blood and sex as it did in 1897. And herein lies my discovery from this reading: vampire stories, while timeless, are really only as narratively rich as the world they emerge from and thematically draw on.

The Dracula I’ve just read is very clearly a story about the solidification of the Western cultures at the turn 20th century, their reliance on scientific method and discovery rather than religious faith or moral conviction when it came to deciding what was right and wrong, and all the ways in which this combination worried and frightened the living hell out of everyone.

Vlad III Draculea, the Wallachian prince on whom Stoker's vampire was reportedly based.

Vlad III Draculea, the Wallachian prince on whom Stoker’s vampire was reportedly based.

 

 

 

About Mark R. Brand

Mark R. Brand is the author of the novels Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), Life After Sleep (2011), The Damnation of Memory (2011), and the upcoming short story collection Long Live Us (CCLaP; September 9, 2013) as well as the editor of the 2009 anthology Thank You, Death Robot. He is a two-time Independent Publisher Book Award winner and is the creator and host of the video podcast series Breakfast With the Author (available on iTunes). A native of northern New York, he now lives in Evanston, IL, with his wife and son, and teaches English at Wilbur Wright College. He is currently completing a PhD in English with a focus in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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1 Response to Understanding “Dracula”

  1. alex says:

    “And herein lies my discovery from this reading: vampire stories, while timeless, are really only as narratively rich as the world they emerge from and thematically draw on.”

    Excellent point. I suppose that’s why some modern retellings are so dull; the world portrayed that the vampires emerge from is itself dull.

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