My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Dracula (1897) by Abraham Stoker has carried over a full century the haunting images of terrifying wolves, vampires and the Un-Dead, Nosferatu, kept at bay with crucifixes and garlic.
From gothic comics to thrillers and horrors in film and fiction, the story of Count Dracula will continue to excite readers for ages to come. But what made this novel by Bram (as in Abraham) Stoker so legendary, so mythic in its telling?
Nosferatu (film, 1979)
To begin, one must look at the time before Dracula in 1897 to get a sense of the century. Keats published his narrative poem ”Lamia’‘ in 1819-20 about a mysterious woman of the night and a true serpent:
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
painting by H.J. Draper (1909)
Also in 1819, John Polidori published his novel Vampyre only to be followed a half century later in 1872 with Carmilla by Joseph Le Fanu about a female vampire.
Now let’s go further back and turn to the Gnostics, those who sought knowledge and transcendence through a derivation and deformation of senses and thought. Such were the Phibionites and their ”Christian Love Feasts” that resemble a scene straight out of Dracula rather than reality.
Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God, Vol. 1: Creative Mythology tells of dark women and dark rituals:
Among the Phibionites were women of extraordinary beauty but held within a ”spirit of corruption” to such a level that resembled the ”hideousness of the Devil” (p 159).
Stoker includes such women, three ”weird sisters” (pg. 55: having such references to Macbeth and the three witches; to the Three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos; and many other ancient lores), two of a dark nature and one who was fair:
”The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood” (p 43).
But this does not keep our young hero, Jonathan, away, as we find a few moments later:
”I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstacy [sic] and waited–waited with beating heart” (p 44).
And now back to the orgiastic ritual of the Christian Gnostics explained by Saint Epiphanius (Creative Mythology, p 160):
For after they have consorted together in a passionate debauch, they do not stop there in their blasphemy of Heaven. The woman and the man take the man’s ejaculation into their hands, stand up, throw back their heads in self-denial toward Heaven–and even with that impurity on their palms, pretend to pray as so-called Soldiers of God and Gnostics, offering to the Father, the Primal Being of All Nature, what is on their hands, with the words: ”We bring to Thee this oblation, which is the very Body of Christ”…And when the woman is in her period, they do likewise with her menstruation. The unclean flow of blood, which they garner, they take up in the same way and eat together. And that, they say, is Christ’s Blood.
Stoker responds best: ”It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import” (p 18).
Stoker goes on to make further references to solar and lunar cultures and religions found in ancient times: ”Can it be that there is a malign influence of the sun at periods which affects certain natures–as at times the moon does others? We shall see” (p 129).. and later… ”What have we done, what has this poor thing done, that we are so sore beset? Is there fate amongst us still, sent down from the pagan world of old, that such things must be, and in such a way?” (p 148).
The most obvious of the solar and lunar influence on humanity is the symbol Tao. Yin stands for the darkness/moon of the woman who is bound by the cycles for her menstruation; and the white portion of the symbol is for the sun/light and for man.
Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God, Vol. II: Oriental Mythology explains:
”The Chinese diagram symbolic of the tao represents geometrically an interplay of two principles: the yang, the light, masculine or active, hot, dry, beneficent, positive principle; and its opposite, the yin, dark, feminine, passive, cold, moist, malignant, and negative” (p 24).
In addition, one needs only reminding of the origins for the days of the week. Sunday, as in Sun + Day, was derived from Solar Day. Monday, as in Mon + Day, was derived from Moon + Day. Saturday, relative to the Jewish sabbath, was originally Saturn’s Day; Saturn being the Roman god of agriculture, more specifically sowing and seed, which did not entirely fit with the Western notion of a day saved for rest. One more connection to note — nota bene — the Russian ship Dracula travels to London in is called the Demeter, which is also the name of the goddess for agriculture, harvest, and fertility of the earth.
Certainly one could afford more study on these issues and themes found in Dracula.
In addition to this, Time and Immortality seem to be of importance in the novel. The Count certainly does plan to live forever, without end. But time in fiction can mean much more than we normally take it for.
Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending (1966) does help the reader to better understand time in novels with his selected word Aevum, which Kermode defines as ”the time-order of novels” (p 72). Kermode continues to explain:
Characters in novels are independent of time and succession, but may and usually do seem to operate in time and succession; the aevum co-exists with temporal events at the moment of occurrence, being it was said, like a stick in a river…
The word aevum was available to the scholastics because the Vulgate translated the Greek aion as saeculum. This left available the true Latin equivalent, aevum, for the new order of time. It appears to be a characteristic of words for time that they are constantly adapted to new human uses. Aion was used by the Gnostics to mean the time of a world of becoming. Then, as we have seen, it became the time of the angels, and then the time of men in certain postures of attentiveness, and especially the mode of certain human approaches to perpetuity (p 72-73).
Time and the world becoming, as in under the Count’s (or in reference, the Aristocratic) rule, are some additional themes one might seek to explore in Dracula.
And it seems Stoker is the actual hero of his own story. We find the great man Abraham Van Helsing (Abraham Stoker) who is described by Jonathan Harker as being ”the man to unmask [Count Dracula] and hunt him out” (p 202).
Some have even referred to Stoker’s old friend and actor Henry Irving, the greatest actor of his era, as being the one who helped inspire the character of the Count since many of Irving performances included dark, foreboding roles. And to look upon the image of Sir Irving one might be right. One might also like to know of Ellen Terry, the greatest actress of her era, who was great friends with Lewis Carroll, and both remained so for their entire lives. Stoker was also friends with Oscar Wilde, a writer of another kind of monster.
But women are of special importance in this novel and that age of men. Van Helsing tells Jonathan that Mina is ”one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth” (p 203).
This statement is a reversal to what Jonathan wrote in his dairy of his last days in Transylvania:
”And then away for home! away to the quickest and nearest train! away from this cursed spot, from this cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet! (p 60).
Little does Jonathan know he is running towards the devil who is now residing in London.
Certainly the ‘New Woman’ in all its various forms in both Mina and Lucy Westenra take shape throughout Dracula since the eponymous character is largely absent or hidden in the penumbra of action throughout the epistolary novel.
Lucy is the one who becomes damned and she is the one who from the beginning flirts with immorality and sacrilege when she writes to her best friend Mina: ”Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble? But this is heresy, and I must not say it” (p 66).
One might think nothing of this little joke, except for the grave undertones it carries through the novel and to this joke’s climax when Lucy must be given four blood transfusions from four men to save her life.
Arthur, her fiancé and unknowing of the other three transfusions from other lovers, later tells Dr. Seward and Van Helsing that since he gave his blood to Lucy they were ”really married, and that she was his wife in the sight of God” (p 188).
In hysterics and in private, Van Helsing remarks to Dr. Seward: ”Then this so sweet maid is a polyandrist [a woman who is married to multiple men at the same time], and me, with my poor wife dead to me, but alive by Church’s law, though no wits, all gone–even I, who am faithful husband to this now-no-wife, am bigamist” (p 190).
And thus this issue of blood and blood transfusions in an age when practical medicine considered bloodletting as proper form until the end of the 18th century in Europe and even practiced elsewhere in the world until as late as the 19th century, about the time of the novel’s publication. Yes, science and religion, the age of beliefs and facts, were pushing and ebbing into the consciousness of men and women alike.
Van Helsing, our stated hero, is a scientist and philosopher, as well as other things. And the novel truly begins to take thematic shape when Van Helsing lectures his pupil Dr. Seward on this age of mis-reason and dis-belief:
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 that 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…
Let me tell you, my friend, that there are things done today in the electrical science which would have been deemed unholy by the very men who discovered electricity–who would themselves not so long before have been burned as wizards. There are mysteries in life…
Can you tell me why men believe in all ages and places that there are some few who live on always if they be permit; that there are men and women who cannot die…
I want you to believe.
[And the pupil replies] To believe what?
[The teacher instructs] To believe in things that you cannot. Let me illustrate. I heard once of an American [Mark Twain] who so defined faith: ”that which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue” (p 206-208).
And Van Helsing continues this train of thought later: ”There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part. Believe me, we are now on the verge of one” (p 221).
Dracula is far more than a simple novel about vampires or the fantasies often presented in film and more modern renditions of the Count, and so this is why this novel is a strong recommend. A fantastic read for any time of the year, lights on or off.
Another topic a reader might consider is the theme of Jealousy, as found in the below:
”The idea of my being jealous about Jonathan!” (p 117)
”’Mind, nothing must be said of this. If our young lover should turn up unexpected, as before, no word to him. It would at once frighten him and enjealous [sic], too. There must be none. So!” (p 142).
”My eye, won’t some cook get a rum start when she sees his green eyes a-shining at her out of the dark!” (p 153). Reference to the Dracula’s wolf’s eyes and to the ”green-eyed monster, also found in Shakespeare’s Othello).
”Devotion is so rare, and we are so grateful to those who show it unasked to those we love” (p 180).
”–will have to pass through the bitter water before we reach the sweet” (p 185).
”I could not resist the temptation of mystifying him a bit–I suppose it is some of the taste of the original apple that remains still in our mouths–” (p 197).
”This staggered me. A man does not like to prove such a truth; Byron excepted from the category, jealousy” (p 209).
”Is it possible that love is all subjective, or all objective?” (p 216)
”Now, since I know it is all true, a hundred thousand times more do I know that he must pass through the bitter waters to reach the sweet” (p 217).
”You are now in the bitter waters, my child. By this time tomorrow you will, please God, have passed them, and have drunk of the sweet waters; so do not mourn overmuch” (p 228).
”His method of tidying was peculiar: he simply swallowed all the flies and spiders in the boxes before I could stop him. It was quite evident that he feared, or was jealous of, some interference” (p 248).
Stoker, Bram. (1897) Dracula. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. Print.
Keats, John. ”Lamia.”