Thoughts: Dracula

16 Apr

DraculaDracula by Bram Stoker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

Men often pit science against God but rarely pit it against evil. Van Helsing’s thinking dulled the nails which feather my bed. I felt like rising from my seat and cheering uncontrollably as when one’s favorite team crushes one out of the ballpark or when a general bellows an inspirational speech invoking the idealistic nobility buried under the soldier’s fear. And yet, when this subjective felicity wanes, I begin again to think through the concept. I noted how people often use Van Helsing’s arguments to defend faith in God but rarely faith in general – an open-mindedness to the unnatural. One must pause and see how Van Helsing does not flippantly partner the unnatural with good or evil. A different factor shades these unnatural occurrences with a moral hue. After the excitement of discovering something inexplicable, and counter to every scientific truth in which he believes, Van Helsing wages his war against a being which he describes as evil only because it brings an unnatural death. He and his group fight to defeat this unnatural experience, not its existence. Or do they?

And what an experience! Stoker must have realized how his epistolary form would suspend his reader’s disbelief in a character who we take for granted today. I bet Dracula would devour Edward Cullin just to regurgitate him. But the Stoker’s structure also transforms the story’s inducing fear from an emotion to something lived. When we embark through the pass in the Carpathian Mountains into Transylvania with Jonathan Harker we shutter at the wolves, stare wide-eyed at the blue flames, clench our fists as the driver grips our arm and hope our very gaze will provide the light needed to see his face. However, this literary form, with limitless transparency into the writer’s mind, has an equally powerful limitation. When executed well, it prevents the reader from gaining the same insights into other characters. Perhaps this limitation sparked the ensuing obsession with Dracula and the legend of his followers. I desperately want to read the story all over again except from Dracula’s diary! When the posse begins their hunt back to Castle Dracula, they do not privilege the reader to any words, actions or reasons on behalf of Dracula other than what they can reasonably deduce. All the anxiety and fear springs from the chase of something, for all intents and purposes, inanimate! I want to know more about the being who holds immense power but remains mostly absent from the documents compiled in this book. The reader learns of his characteristics, again from the deductions of the writers, but little of him, his person, his being. Unfortunately, since Stoker chose to maintain the integrity of the epistolary form, he cannot afford to grant us this wish.

I wonder, though, if Stoker meant to tell the story of Dracula at all – to grant us this wish. I wonder if he meant for the title character to play more of a catalytic role for the real important themes in the novel. Perhaps he would call our yearning for Dracula’s character irrelevant and encourage us to focus on what Dracula’s existence inspired in a group of ordinary people who chose to resist him. Dracula broadens their worldly perspective beyond the confines of the scientific method. He scares them into a rally around love, selflessness, honor and courage. And, if we believe Van Helsing’s reasoning, he inspires them through fear to set him free from an Un-Dead life.

More than any of the writers in this book, I enjoyed Dr. Seward’s journal entries. I felt that, like him, I struggled to understand and solve the horrible occurrences in this story – but mostly to understand. I appreciated his discussions on zoophagous, a microcosmic symbol foreshadowing Dracula’s intentions, his conversations with Van Helsing about not letting “a little bit of truth check the rush of a big truth” and his ability to use scientific rhetoric to describe concepts of the human condition.

I also found his occupation, as a doctor for the clinically insane, worth noting. Any group of people charged with murdering a vampire, the father of the Un-Dead, would endure the scrutinizing eye of the sane. Yet before devoting his days to an “insane” mission, Dr. Seward cares for the insane himself. The very distinction between these two states dissolves away in a dank mist. One might argue that Seward, and all others horse-blinded by science (or by faith in their own reasoning prowess), suffer from insanity while Renfield, who, like Jonathan Harker, has witnessed the power of Dracula, should indulge their sanity. Consider how Jonathan felt cured when hearing Van Helsing’s reassurance that he really did experience the things he wrote of in his journal. The rational explanations of brain fever, etc. imprisoned him, caused him to doubt his senses, his very self, but after believing in the reality of his experience, he feels better, more courageous, and prepared to live!

Oh, but insanity, the shroud of science, the cop-out of rational excuses, anything to help men turn from the belief which cured Jonathan – can Dracula perform anything more fearful? Is the experience of disbelief, doubting ourselves, somber in pity and self-inflicted scolding, not a lower existence than the Un-Dead? wandering about missing the joys and monstrosities of life because we cannot explain them rationally? Dracula hides behind science and the rationalism of the enlightened era, depends on its shroud, though not for his security – after all, what can a powerful dead man have to fear from men? – but to promote our demise into self-inflicted madness and misery. Dracula’s existence, juxtaposed to men’s beliefs in sensory evaluations and logic, causes us to question every security and trust we have in ourselves and the world. Once again we live like babies who cannot make sense of anything in the world, our place in it or who we are. But these shameful doubts and fearful anxieties wash away when we, like Jonathan, believe in the reality of the mystery.

I love how Stoker chose scientists rather than priests and mystics to battle against Dracula. Van Helsing, the soldier angel, Mina, the holy mother of the group, and all the companions held occupations outside of religion. For me, I found this collaboration refreshing, that a writer would reconcile science and the enlightened period with the remaining mysteries of the world by allowing them to face off.

Most importantly, these two sides influence each other. The human mind, the scientific group, has to concede the existence of the unnatural, or at least concede, as to science, their partial ignorance of the world’s full nature. And the unnatural, the evil and mystical, the impossible, realizes how it can no longer move about in the world as it will without meeting resistance, a resistance which exponentially shrinks any space remaining in the world for inexplicable or mystical existences.

Yet no matter the outcome of this conflict, all mankind suffers from the result. We either bruise our pride or squash the mysticism which might let us live courageously should we choose to acknowledge them as true.

View all my reviews


Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Bram Stoker


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6 responses to “Thoughts: Dracula

  1. atoasttodragons

    April 16, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Read this book a ways back. Had read it before, years ago, but didn’t “get it”, then. It truly is a masterpiece.

  2. sarijj

    April 26, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    As always Ben, you move me to consider new ideas after reading one of your posts.
    Love your piece and have to smile. I like how people can read the same book and yet gleam different meanings. I saw this book as a warning against seduction in all forms. Dracula first seduces Jonathan with his castle and money, and then moves on to seducing the ladies. Even Van Helsing seems seduced by the count.
    I wondered if Stoker was shocked or offended by the changes he saw in society as it moved closer to the 20th century?

    • Ben

      April 29, 2013 at 3:26 am

      Ooh…I like it! Good question

  3. unsolicitedtidbits

    May 1, 2013 at 3:40 am

    This is a lovely post. I read Dracula long ago, and your post is so thoughtful that I’m re-thinking the novel!

  4. readinpleasure

    May 2, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Deeply thought-provoking review. Dracula is a re-read on my Classics Club list

  5. Zia Vanger

    October 29, 2013 at 1:51 am

    You know what when I’d read I didn’t like it but when I think back about it I’m tempted to like it.
    Its curious, does this ever happen to you?


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