Bram Stoker’s Dracula as the Seminal Horror Tale
The novel Dracula written in 1897 by Irish novelist Bram Stoker is a seminal work of the vampire fiction genre. According to Leonard Wolf, the novel is also a “Gothic romance,”
The typical Gothic romance has a beautiful young woman in it, who is pursued by wicked dark, usually Italian, men whose intentions are strictly dishonorable. Her flight takes her to a variety of dismal or dangerous places: subterranean corridors, vaults, crypts, ruins, caves, secret rooms, graveyards… She is rescued <from the fate that threatens her> by a handsome but sexually unthreatening young man with whom, as the book closes, she settles down to live happily ever after (x).
This essay analyzes such aspects of Dracula as its setting, characters, and atmosphere.
The novel is entirely made up of pseudo-documentary accounts of the characters involved in it as well as of a number of newspaper reports. The narration starts with an entry in the diary of Jonathan Harker, a solicitor from London traveling to Transylvania in order to assist a local aristocrat, Count Dracula, in purchasing real estate in England. Once in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan feels welcome but with the passage of time, he realizes that his host will not let him go. While out of his room one night, the narrator encounters three female beings, who try to suck his blood. Although he is rescued by his host in the nick of time, Jonathan grows increasingly suspicious of Dracula, who is never seen in the daytime, casts no shadow, and is not reflected in the mirror. After some preparation, Dracula leaves his castle to travel to England, and Jonathan is able to escape.
The next section of the novel introduces Jonathan’s fianc?e Mina and her friend Lucy Westenra. While Mina is naturally concerned about Jonathan, Lucy exults in a carefree existence. She has three young men propose to her on the same day, namely doctor/psychologist John Seward, rich American Quincey Morris, and son of a Lord, Arthur Holmwood. Having rejected the first two politely, Lucy is happily engaged to Arthur. In the meantime, Dr Seward is in charge of an unusual patient, Renfield, who suffers from insanity. Renfield collects flies, spiders, and birds consecutively and uses each new species to feed the next creature. The patient claims to accumulate “life force” in this way. He also has a deep affinity with Count Dracula, who seems to rule his spiritual and physical life.
The narration is taken further by a newspaper report of a Russian ship, Demeter, coming from Eastern Europe and cast ashore at Whitby, England, after a storm. The only body found onboard is that of the captain, dead and tied securely to the helm. His log is a gruesome story of each crewmember vanishing, one by one, in the course of the journey. Demeter’s cargo is silver sand and boxes filled with earth.
In the meantime, Lucy Westenra’s health begins to deteriorate for no apparent reason. Arthur’s fianc?e seems to be haunted by an unknown presence at night. She suffers from bouts of sleepwalking, one of which leaves her with two bite-like marks on her neck. John Seward turns for help to a renowned scholar, Professor Van Helsing. His old Dutch teacher seems to be knowledgeable but does not reveal the cause of Lucy’s condition. His remedies include symbols of the Christian faith and blooming garlic. John, Quincey, and Arthur, who remain friends, offer Lucy their blood in three subsequent transfusions, but this has no lasting effect. One night, Lucy’s mother is frightened by a wolf in her room and passes away. Her daughter perishes soon after.
Later on, newspapers report the appearance of a “bloofer lady” who sucks children’s blood on the streets of London at night. Van Helsing has no doubt that it is Lucy, whom Dracula has turned into a vampire. He informs John, Quincey, and Arthur, and after providing the latter with indisputable proof, they save Lucy’s soul by beheading her corpse and driving a stake into her heart.
In the meantime, Jonathan Harker is back in England after successfully recovering from his ordeal in Dracula’s castle. He and Mina are married and join their friends in their attempts to annihilate Dracula. The Count turns his attention to Mina, visiting her at night, both to drink her blood and let her drink his own. Thus, he forms a bond with her and can contact her telepathically. However, this also helps the four vampire slayers to oust Dracula from England. The group joined by Mina follows Dracula being transported back to Transylvania in a box with the intention of destroying him until one evening, with the sun almost down, they manage to overtake him. Stabbed in the throat and in the heart by Jonathan and Quincey, Dracula is gone forever, and Mina is free from his spell.
Apart from Count Dracula, the female characters, namely Lucy, Mina, and, to a lesser degree, the three female vampires in the Count’s castle seem to be the focal point of the Bram Stoker’s novel. According to Kelly Hurley, the female vampires and Mina represent a dangerous reversal of gender roles in the late-nineteenth-century England, which signified a challenge to the established social order: the three vampire women… are dangerous aggressors who attack Jonathan Harker with rapacity and “deliberate voluptuousness.” They behave “coquettishly,” as more conventional Victorian women might do, but their coquetry is “ribald,” and their laughter is “mirthless, hard, soulless …. like the pleasure of fiends” (Hurley 201).
The tone of Lucy Westerna’s letters to Mina is playful and airy. Describing Dr Holmwood, for instance, she writes, “He tries this on very much with me, but I flatter myself he has got a tough nut to crack” (Stoker 72). She displays her naivet?: “We have told all our secrets to each other since we were children” (Stoker 72). However, according to Kelly Hurley, ‘Lucy shows some of her New Womanly sexual appetite when she asks, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” so that one is not surprised when vampire-Lucy lures one of her former suitors with “voluptuous wantonness”.’ (Stoker 201) Such behavior was socially unacceptable, hence, the portrayal of Lucy’s decline into degenerative vampirism. As the opposite of the oversexed Lucy, Mina Harker is eventually saved from the vampire’s embrace. She is maternal rather than sexual when she speculates, “We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother-spirit is invoked; I felt this big, sorrowing man’s head resting on me, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child” (Stoker 275).
However, even Mina, who rejects the New Woman attitude, shows herself to be resourceful and rational, to the point that Professor Van Helsing remarks: “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have, were he much gifted – and woman’s heart” (Stoker 281). According to Kelly Hurley, “though Mina continues to resist sexual corruption after being seduced by the vampire, she is still imperfectly feminine” (202). As for the male characters, the time of trouble requires a strong masculine figure, someone with the “stalwart manhood” (Stoker 202) of Arthur Holmwood. However, according to Kelly Hurley, in Dracula, “even the normal male subject, the man’s man, is prone to breakdown” (203). Jonathan Harker, for example, when subjected to an attack by female vampires, is passively waiting for their bites, “I lay quiet, looking out under my eyelashes” (Stoker 51).
Although Count Dracula is defeated in the end, he remains the most imposing masculine figure throughout the novel. This is how madman Renfield describes him, “He was solid then – not a ghost- and His eyes were fierce, like a man’s when angry. He was laughing with His red mouth; the sharp white teeth glinted in the moonlight when he turned to look back over the belt of trees” (Stoker 332).
Dracula’s presence helps to create the atmosphere of horror in the novel. He is the evil incarnation in this quintessential vampire tale. Jonathan Parker describes the Count in this way, “the head turned, and the eyes fell upon me, with all their blaze of basilisk horror. The sight seemed to paralyze me, and the shovel turned in my hand and glanced from the face merely making a deep gash above the forehead” (Stoker 68).
According to Fred Rotting, this degenerate master blood-sucker epitomizes the crisis of virility in the late Victorian England, “bloodlust and sovereign command of natural and supernatural forces make the Count an archaic father of the primal horde, beyond law and free to indulge his inhuman and irreligious desires” (283).
The most vivid passages introducing the atmosphere of Gothic terror occur in the novel’s first dozen pages depicting Jonathan’s sojourn in Transylvania. The following is how Dracula describes his castle, “The walls of my castle are broken; the shadows are many, and the wind breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements. I love the shade and the shadow and would be alone with my thoughts when I may” (35).
In London, the setting changes to that of graveyards, crumbling houses and a lunatic asylum. Gloomy oppressive weather is more common, as described by Mina,
Today is a grey day, and the sun as I write is hidden in thick clouds, high over Kettleness. Everything is grey except the green grass, which seems like emerald amongst it, grey earthy rock; grey clouds, tinged with the sunburst at the far edge, hang over the gray sea, into which the sand-points stretch like grey fingers (93).
The narrative is permeated by the atmosphere of despondence and doom. Here is Mina’s account of her frantic search for Lucy, who left her bed in the middle of the night, “The clock was striking one as I was in the Crescent, and there was not a soul in sight… There was a bright full moon, with heavy black, driving clouds, which threw the whole scene into a fleeting diorama of light and shade as they sailed across” (112).
However, nowhere in the novel is the sense of horror as strong as in the hermetic space of the ship, Demeter, which transports boxes filled with soil, one of which is occupied by Dracula. At night, the phantom terrorizes the crew, as described in this entry in the captain’s log: “It is here; I know it, now. On the watch last night I saw it, like a man, tall and thin, and ghastly pale… I crept behind It and gave It my knife; but the knife went through It, empty as the air” (Stoker 106).
The city of London is contextualized in the newspaper reports of the incidents involving a mysterious young woman. According to Kelly Hurley, this view presents London as a threatening presence, a “labyrinthine city,” “Populated by dangerous hooligans, criminals, perverts, and perverts who can conceal and remake their identities at will, the modern city is a space wherein casual, random encounters provoke terrible consequences, and within which any atrocity might be committed and concealed” (195).
Therefore, the characters, setting, and atmosphere of Bram Stoker’s Dracula characterize it as a Gothic tale of horror. According to Jerrold E. Hogle,
The Gothic has lasted as it has because its symbolic mechanisms, particularly its haunting and frightening specters, have permitted us to cast many anomalies in our modern-day conditions, even as these change, over onto antiquated or at least haunted spaces and highly anomalous creatures. This way our contradictions can be confronted by, yet removed from us into, the seemingly unreal, the alien, the ancient, and the grotesque” (6).
The continuing references to the novel and visual arts adaptations of it in the 21st century testify to the undying appeal of the Transylvanian vampire.