Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dracula: the novel

I wish I could tell you exactly why and when my love of vampires began. I'm sure that I must have seen something on television but I can't remember what it was. I just know that I loved the idea of these creatures so much that I immediately wrote into the crackfic Mary Sue fan fiction in my head that I was a special type of vampire that wasn't actually dead yet. So I could still go out in the sun and go inside church, have all the cool powers that vampires have, and drink blood if I felt like it. Before you go judging me, realize that I was about 6 at the time. Also, Ralph Macchio is the one that turned me, but I have absolutely no idea why I chose him as a vampire either. I'm suddenly realizing that this version of vampires is eerily similar to the Twilight vamps. I guess we all know when Stephanie Myer came up with those stories now...

But no, this post isn't about Twilight or about how vampires aren't as badass as they used to be. This post is about the grand-daddy of all vampires, Dracula. Somehow I had managed to go this long without ever actually reading the novel and this was a horrible crime that needed to be corrected. I'm willing to bet that I'm not the only vampire fan who has also committed this sin. I think the greatest problem with this is that because so many of us know Dracula through his various movie appearances, we don't even know what really happens in the original work, at least not completely. So every day from now until Halloween, I will be touching on various movie adaptations of Dracula and how they stack up to the original novel. For today, I'm just going to talk about the book itself.

There will be spoilers here. You've had over 113 years to have a chance to read it, so don't you dare come crying to me about it.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the novel is that it is written entirely in the first person perspective via journal entries, letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles. Pretty much every character in the book, except Dracula himself, takes a turn telling us the events from their own perspective. It is occasionally redundant, but for the most part when an event is revisited, it is to give us a character's unique perspective on it. Quite amazingly, each character has his or her own unique voice. There were occasional moments toward the end of the book where I wasn't sure if it was John Seward or Jonathan Harker talking and I had to go back and look, but for the most part it's very easy to tell who is speaking. You do in fact feel like you are reading journal entries rather than just a narrative. The one part I didn't think this worked so well in were the newspaper articles. Maybe things were different in the 1800s, but when I see "newspaper article," I expect a straight presentation of facts and not the candid experience of the reporter.

The first few journal entries of Jonathan Harker largely focused on the scenery and the food he was eating, and I internally panicked. I became afraid that this was going to be like The Lord of the Rings geography textbook or The Hunchback of Notre Dame's architecture lessons. Fortunately, this faded quickly. I could be wrong, but I think the idea here was simply that these were the simple kind of things a man would write about in his journal on a trip before he gets clues that something may be horribly wrong.

I sense that Bram Stoker was a fan of dialects as some of the commoners they speak to communicate in rather broken English which can be difficult to follow at times. Van Helsing is also not a native English speaker and he frequently gets his verb tense wrong. I found that moderately annoying, but his long winded rants were actually the worst of it. Whenever Van Helsing stumbles upon a conclusion, he spends a good long paragraph using metaphors and logic puzzles that are supposed to help you understand what he's thinking, but in fact generally just confused me more. This isn't Sherlock Holmes where everything he says leads to a point. It's just a maddening jumble of words.

Another slightly odd thing is that all of these characters love each other very quickly. I'm talking about brotherly/fatherly love as much as romantic love. It doesn't take very long at all for nearly every character to tell another that they think the world of them, love them dearly, and would do anything for them. I'm not kidding when I say this happens to every single character. Not only do Arthur, Quincey, and Seward all propose to Lucy, but Mina loves her like a sister and Van Helsing soon loves her as well. Jonathan doesn't simply because he's stuck in Transylvania at the time. Van Helsing decides that Quincey and Arthur remind him of his deceased son and therefore loves them both, and considers Seward his most trusted colleague. He quickly falls for Mina's charm and pledges his life for her and says that Jonathan is one of the most noble men he has ever met. Apparently the Victorian times were a real love fest. I wonder if people wrote slash fiction even then.

I would say that the pacing of the novel feels slow but I'm not entirely sure that's fair. Given that the story of Dracula, at least in part, is entirely known in our collective subconscious by now, my impatience may have just been that I knew pretty much what was going to happen and wished for them to just get on with it. I think it is still somewhat slow though, perhaps because of the way it is written in daily entries. Lucy's death takes weeks with large breaks between the four male characters each giving their blood to try to save her. Van Helsing only leaks little tiny details at a time rather than flat out telling Seward that he's figured out she's a vampire. They go so far as to go to Lucy's grave and stare at her, then decide that they must bring Arthur and Quincey there too to actually kill her. Then he must explain it all to Arthur, etc. etc. The pacing of the whole book goes like this. If you have the patience though, I do think it's an enjoyable read. The first person perspective creates a wonderfully personal account for you as the reader and never feels whiny like the worst first person perspective can (*coughTWILIGHTcough*).

As a female, I found myself particularly struck by Mina's portrayal in the book. I found myself unable to decide if it was progressive for its time or right in line. I figure the easiest way is to provide you with an example.

"Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man's brain, a brain that a man should have were he much gifted, and a woman's heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us, after tonight she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great. We men are determined, nay, are we not pledged, to destroy this monster? But it is no part for a woman. Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors and hereafter she may suffer, both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams. And, besides, she is young woman and not so long married, there may be other things to think of some time, if not now. You tell me she has wrote all, then she must consult with us, but tomorrow she say goodbye to this work, and we go alone." - Van Helsing

She's so smart, she must have a MAN'S brain! And we don't want to upset those women folk, what with their weak constitutions!

"They all agreed that it was best that I should not be drawn further into this awful work, and I acquiesced. But to think that he keeps anything from me! And now I am crying like a silly fool, when I know it comes from my husband's great love and from the good, good wishes of those other strong men." - Mina Harker

If the men say so, I guess it must be right!

On the other hand there's also a lot of talk about how Jonathan and Mina are always very open and honest with each other, to the point that you see that he truly regards her as an equal. Also, the simple fact that they choose to leave her out of everything at this point in the book is how she ends up getting attacked by Dracula. I would hope this is Bram Stoker trying to teach a bit of a moral lesson, but who knows. Regardless, I would say that Mina is, in fact, the strongest character in the book, and I can see easily why Alan Moore chose her to be a leader for The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

There's a lot of things in the book that you never see in the movies, or that often happen in the movies but are simply not here. However, I'm going to save talking about those differences until I get to the movies themselves. I will, however, share with you how Dracula dies, because personally I spent the whole book waiting anxiously to see how it would happen and I figure some of you would also want to know.

On the path leading to Dracula's castle, the main characters surround a band of gypsies returning Dracula in a sealed box. They overtake the gypsies and then Jonathan and Quincey get the lid off the box.

"As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.

But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan's great knife. I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat. Whilst at the same moment Mr. Morris's bowie knife plunged into the heart.

It was like a miracle, but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight."
- Mina

Pretty interesting that they don't actually use a stake, right?

The epilogue gives everyone a loving happy ending, except for Quincey, who gets to be the one to die. Jonathan and Mina have a child that they name after him though, so that makes it alright. Arthur and Seward end up happily married (to each other?) and Van Helsing is apparently in good enough health seven years later to bounce their little boy on his knee.

In the next entry I will be looking at both 1931 versions of the film Dracula. I have every intention of also covering Nosferatu, but I'm saving it to be paired with another movie later in the chronological order.

2 comments:

  1. I'm willing. I also just found out about this: http://www.amazon.com/Dracula--Dead-Dacre-Stoker/dp/0451230515/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1288264090&sr=1-1 which is the official sequel written by his great-grandnephew.

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