Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: Bram Stoker's Dracula

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Little, Brown and Company
7 September 2005
448 Pages
Gothic Horror
5 Stars
Barnes and Noble; Book Depository, Goodreads

I have loved vampire stories ever since I first read Bunnicula as a child, and my appreciation for them was only solidified the first time I read Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire.  So, it is actually surprising that I have just read the pinnacle of all vampire literature, Dracula, for the first time.

Having never been assigned it in school, I would have had to pick it up on my own, and I had little to no time for that.  But in the years since I've been out of university, it just hasn't been high on my radar.  Besides believing that I knew the story all too well, I was also somewhat intimidated by it.  However, I saw this gorgeous edition on Book Outlet, and I had to pick it up.

As you well may know, Bram Stoker's classic is about a group of people engaged in a horrific battle against Count Dracula, a vampire from Transylvania.  The novel is in epistolary format, meaning that it's a series of letters, journal entries, and articles.  Even though the Count is the main character, none of these are written by him, but rather are from his victims' hands.

Because this book is so old and many people have read it already, this review will include spoilers.  There are a few things I want to talk about that involve major plot points, so if you don't know what happens and plan to read it, flee now.

I really liked the format of the book.  The different points of view all led to slow revelation about what was truly going on.  It also led to the reader being more aware of the truth than the characters.  I really liked the way that the news articles and ship logs added to the story, as well.  The shifting first-person point of view also adds to the suspense by letting the reader experience each character's horror, revulsion, and despair in turn, but also making one aware of how little each person knows at first.

The plot was simple enough, though complicated by all the different points of views.  There are seemingly several subplots that eventually converge together and reveal that they were all part of the same story.  This is one of my favorite ways for a story to be told, and I loved it in this.

One of my favorite branches in the story was Dr. Seward's records of his asylum patient, Renfield.  His insanity and mumbled hints at Dracula's doings were so provoking to me because I really wanted to know what was going on in his mind and what his motives were.  His was one of the only story lines not illuminated by another's point of view, so I was left wondering what his connection to the plot as a whole was until closer to the end of the novel.  I will say that I was somewhat disappointed by the revelation of his role was, though.  For how much attention was given to him and how disturbing his character was, I just wanted more for him.

The other characters were hit and miss for me.  None of them went through any type of substantial character growth, so I either liked them or didn't.

Professor Van Helsing is quite central to the story and is, in fact, the most intelligent out of all of them.  I admired his wisdom, his ability to think out of the box of science, his bravery, and his experience, but I found myself dreading the portions where he spoke at length.  It was just difficult for me to follow the train of thought because he rambled so much.  I would have appreciated it much more if his dialogue was more clipped and concise, and I also think it would have fit his character much more.

Lord Godalming was a needless character to me.  Besides being the financier of all their escapades, I saw no other reason for him to be in this story.  Not all men can be strong, but he didn't even appear weak in a way that was important to the plot or the other characters.  I could have done without him at all.

The pacing of the story was very slow, but I expected it to be because that is true of many classics.  I finished it in a little less than two weeks, so it wasn't a slog, but it's definitely not a book that's easy to fly through.  I would read it a few hours at a time, and then I had to put it down and pick up something lighter.  That isn't to say that good books are necessarily fast paced or easy to read; I'm just saying that this one requires patience.

The tone is very dark and suspenseful, but I admit that I didn't find it very horrifying while reading it.  This is probably because I am desensitized by the 21st century.  Upon reflection, however, it became creepier and more disturbing.  Imagining a terror that before I didn't believe existed preying upon me, fearing the loss of my soul, knowing that what repulses me also tempts me and doubting that I would be able to resist it - those are terrifying things, and they make Count Dracula all the scarier.

Any time I read a classic, I need to understand the context it was written within.  Stoker wrote it toward the end of the Victorian era when a lot of change was taking place in England.  Because of this, there were a lot of fears among the general population, and those fears are presented within Dracula.

The theme that was the most dominant to me was religion/tradition vs science/modernity.  A lot of new technology was being invented and circulated during this time, and Stoker seems to be warning against it throughout the novel.  For example, Dr. Seward, a noted scientist, attempts to solve the mystery surrounding them by pulling apart and analyzing the facts in a logical manner.  This he does to no avail.  But it's Van Helsing's knowledge of folklore and legend that leads to true knowledge.

This is best expressed when Van Helsing confronts Dr. Seward about letting his scientific mind blind him to the truth of the matter:

"You are a clever man, friend John; you reason well, and your wit is bold; but you are too prejudiced.  You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear, and that which is outside your daily life is not of account to you.  Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot?  But there are things old and new which must not be contemplate by men's eyes, because they know - or think they know - some things which other men have told them.  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" (Chapter XIV).

Moreover, it is not guns or technology that guard them against the vampire but crucifixes, Communion bread, and garlic.  

Another theme I found interesting was "otherness" or the foreign versus the known.  Around this time, invasion literature was very popular.  With the increasing globalization of Britain, people were afraid of how different cultures would affect their own.  This is dominantly displayed in the fact that Dracula is not human but a totally different creature, and it's more subtly manifested in his accent, geographical location, and lineage.

Since I live in a world that is much smaller than the world Stoker lived in, I find this fear of the foreign strange.  The Western world is completely globalized, especially America, so I've never really experienced this mindset.  Trying to imagine what it must have been like to see your borders opening up for the first time was a really compelling exercise for me.

Finally, I was really kind of entranced by the sexual themes within the text.  There was definitely a vilifying of any increasing sexuality or assertiveness in women, as was seen in the female vampires.  They were described as voluptuous and beautiful but were still evil and aggressive.  Yet, it was their sexual attraction that could have been the undoing of the men in the story.

"There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear.  I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips" (Chapter III)."

On the other hand, Mina was the picture of purity and Christian ideals, never described sexually, and only assertive when it would best serve her husband or the other men.  The most striking scene in the entirely of the novel was, for me, the only one in which Mina is at all sexualized, and it's because the Count has forced her into a submissive position so he can give her his blood.  From that moment on, Mina becomes unclean, slowly transforming into a vampire and unable to touch anything holy, until Dracula is slain.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this.  It was entertaining but also had depth.  I really love the Gothic tone and setting, as well as the horror aspect, and I know I need to read more like this.

I gave it 5 stars.