Book Review: Dracula – By Bram Stoker

 

bram stoker dracula.pngLetter TThe definitive gothic novel, Dracula holds it’s place not just as one of the key standards for Gothic fiction, but also as the chief progenitor of vampire lore as a whole. It may have been present before, but here Bram Stoker set the norm for what we expect from the realm of vampires.

The text consists of a number of letters and journals arranged chronologically to form a narrative of events. The story begins with the arrival of Jonathan Hawker to the castle of the count, where he quickly begins to notice that things are not quite as they should be and the count is much more than just an eccentric client. It is the unraveling of this mystery around which the tale is based, taking the reader from the dark foreboding halls of the Transylvanian castle to the shores of England and back again.

I’m somewhat hesitant to distinguish a central protagonist in this novel. The only centralizing figure in the book is Dracula himself, though Jonathan Hawker (despite being absent from a solid third of the text) probably stands as the primary protagonist (a spotlight he shares in the latter half of the book with Van Helsing and John Seward). Even as centralizing antagonist Dracula himself becomes almost a backdrop as the focus of the novel shifts from Hawker in Transylvania to Van Helsing, Lisa and Seward in England. Once gone from his homeland he becomes the darkness in the background, a catalyst for the progression of the plot who enjoys very little screentime.

I believe it’s safe to say that without this book we might not have the trends in literature which have recently arisen (or re-arisen), fiction’s current fascination with the gothic undead. Apart from that the book is an enjoyable read, though it’s not without its faults (which are discussed below).

Memorable Quotes:

-“‘I had heard that madmen have unnatural strength. And as I knew I was a madman, at times anyhow, I resolved to use my power.'”
-“I suppose it is thus that in old times one vampire meant many. Just as their hideous bodies could only rest in sacred earth, so the holiest love was the recruiting sergeant for their ghastly ranks.”

-“Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new, and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young, like the fine ladies at the opera.

Specific Criticisms

My main criticism of this story is that it seems at various times throughout the text there is instilled what I call forced ignorance. This is that thing which occurs either when a character arbitrarily withholds valuable information from another, or a character simply fails to notice things which should be manifestly plain to them.

The first example we get of this is in the opening chapter of the book where Jonathan Hawker is interacting with the townspeople. It is quite obvious that the townspeople either know Dracula’s secret or at least have a very strong feeling in that direction, and yet they most they do is give Hawker a crucifix. One can’t help but feel they thought Hawker was going to his death and yet nobody bothered to pull him aside and say “hey, you know that guy you’re going to meet, this may sound strange but he’s totally going to eat you.”

The next most obvious example of a character withholding valuable information is the good sir Van Helsing, who’s favorite course of action once he figures something out is to basically say “I’m not going to tell you what’s going on, but don’t worry, it’ll all be come clear before too long” even if it coming clear means that we’re going to all but let one of the other characters die. So much time and effort could have been saved if only Van Helsing would have spilled the beans at the very beginning, since it’s fairy obvious that he at least had a strong suspicion that there was a vampire at work (hence bringing in all the garlic right off the bat) – you’d think by the second or third time the girl had her blood drained we might be taking some more drastic actions than just garlic and sitting up with her all night, such as say, putting her in a room without a window (or just moving her to a different house in general).

The handling of Lucy’s situation was actually just poorly handled all around. Even if it wouldn’t have actually been helpful you’d think that with the constant “fluttering at the window” of the bat that somebody would have tried to shoot the dang thing (or again, put her in a different room). They’ll deck out the room in garlic, but for some strange reason never bother putting up a crucifix anywhere.

Probably the best example of forced ignorance is on Hawker’s arrival in England and his outright refusal to read his journal. Sure, one may attribute this to his weakened mental state but it comes off much more as a ploy to keep the plot from advancing too quickly, especially when all throughout the book anybody who actually has some useful information also conveniently has some reason for refusing to divulge it (or not, since alot of times it just seems to be whim).

The second type of just not noticing plain information comes with pretty much everybody involved in the case of Lucy (apart from Van Helsing, who notices but as noted likes to keep his findings to himself). These folks actually have the exact opposite of the problem which Hawker had when he met Dracula. Hawker actually seemed to realize things too fast, he was connecting dots which hadn’t even appeared yet and almost seemed to just guess that Dracula was a vampire on pure fancy. Meanwhile, everybody involved with Lucy can’t make the connection with vampires even with the dots connected for them. Puncture wounds on her neck, vast quantities of blood being lost overnight with no sign of it spilling (and only when nobody is around), bats constantly flapping at the window, strange red-eyed men found in the night, the effectiveness of garlic, etc.

To continue harping on Van Helsing, apart from refusing to divulge valuable information or doing anything to help Lucy besides giving her some garlic and blood transfusions, it seems arbitrariness is just one of his character qualities. For instance upon Lucy’s death Van Helsing has the very good idea of staking her and cutting off her head before the funeral, but after the coffin is closed so nobody will notice. The night before he puts a crucifix in the coffin, but the crucifix is stolen by a servant. Helsing gets the crucifix back, and then for no good reason decides he doesn’t want to stake the vampire anymore, apparently just for kicks and giggles. The funeral still hasn’t been held and the body is presumably still in the casket, Helsing just wasn’t in the mood that day or something. Hesling shows a similar bout of arbitrary when he decides not to stay in the cementary on their first attempt.
Sidenote
There are some interesting connotations which I can’t help but put with a few passages from the text.
One of these I’ve already quoted: “Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new, and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young, like the fine ladies at the opera.
The first half of this quote can still seen in act today, most obviously in debates between theists and atheists, where the latter posit supernatural things being outside the realm of science as something against them.
The second half references either heresy or simply the revitalization of old philosophies (which are often the same thing). Given that Stoker was Protestant but also scientific it could go either way. Regardless, it is quite applicable to either.
Another one of these passages is the following: “To believe in things that you cannot. Let me illustrate. I heard once of an American who so defined faith, ‘that faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.’ For one, I follow that man. He meant that we shall have an open mind, and not let a little bit of truth check the rush of the big truth, like a small rock does a railway truck. We get the small truth first. Good! We keep him, and we value him, but all the same we must not let him think himself all the truth in the universe.”
This bit is similarly quite applicable to both heresy as well as general philosophic thought, though I’m most directly reminded of Chesterton‘s ‘virtues gone wild’ in Orthodoxy.
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