Dracula is one of the great gothic novels: if not the great gothic novel. It’s hard to over-estimate its impact on gothic literature and horror; the vampire figure has now become so ubiquitous (thanks, Twilight) that a modern reader is inclined to find more that is camp and comical about Stoker’s opus than that which is terrifying.
All of which makes it something of a tricky novel to teach, as I have discovered in recent months. What possessed me to start the A-level course with a 420-page 19th century novel is entirely another question; nothing says “fun” to a 16-year-old like a book so chunky they can’t even fit it in their bag. For a modern reader, there’s also something faintly laughable about much of the book; for example, Jonathan Harker’s letters in the opening chapters are less likely to inspire sympathy than irritated cries of “he’s obviously a bloody vampire, you moron.” But Stoker popularised, if not invented, so much of what we commonly accept as “obvious” ideas about vampires that we do Harker and the rest of the characters a disservice by assuming their knowledge is as developed as ours.
There is much that I really love about Dracula; I have a deeply held affection for Dr Seward and, if I was Lucy, I would marry him ahead of boring Arthur Holmwood. I would, however, have a harder choice between Seward and the amazing Quincey Morris, who is such a weirdly chilled-out character amongst all the supernatural drama that I sometimes wonder what he’s doing in the book at all. As the plot moves forward and Lucy’s transformation must be first reversed and then avenged, I also love the developing team dynamic between her suitors as well as Dr Van Helsing, Harker and the inestimable Mina – more on her in a minute. In guiding my students through the text, I have taken to annotating the highlights of this theme with #squadgoals, which is obviously extremely hilarious and knowing in lessons, but something I am now concerned about seeing used in an essay (I once described the linguistic technique “fronting” to a class as “Yoda-speak” and then saw the latter term replicated in a worrying number of exam practice essays). Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for Dracula’s continuing popularity is the fact that it is, at times, genuinely quite frightening; the most effective of which, I think, is the arrival of Dracula’s ship at Whitby in the midst of almost-suffocating fog, with the dead captain tied to the wheel. I suppose these days we are too desensitised to some of the intended scary moments here – the death of Lucy’s mother and the moment when the Vampire Death Squad confront vampire Lucy in the graveyard – which is a bit of a shame; I think you have to put yourself in the frame of mind to be willingly chilled by what happens in Dracula, and much of the gothic canon.
My principle issue with Dracula is probably a well-worn path and can be summed up using one of the my favourite phrases: DAMN PATRIARCHY. This is something else which I am known to use in lessons, just in case the exam question is ‘Explore all the ways in which Dracula is an engagingly sexist novel’. Firstly, Lucy exists solely for everyone to fall in love with. She is constantly described as sweet and beautiful and, worse, as “poor child,” simultaneously patronising and infantilising her. The main reason everyone gets upset that she’s “ill” (for which, read: has been bitten by a vampire nobody knows about yet) is that it makes her less attractive and, when vampire Lucy is finally vanquished, they all just seem relieved that she’s hot again. Worse is the treatment Stoker metes out to Mina, who is one of my favourite characters of Victorian fiction. Despite having passivity forced upon her early on, as she stays at home and worries about Jonathan, Mina quickly emerges as the best character in the whole book (don’t disagree with me about this. You know I’m right), desperately trying to protect Lucy, throwing a similar amount of effort into saving Jonathan from his own mind. Were it not for Mina, the narrative couldn’t exist; it is she who transcribes much of the story, painstakingly writing out Seward’s journals, rewriting Jonathan’s own letters and diaries and, of course, keeping her own communications in order to tell the whole story. As they didn’t have photocopiers in 1897, Mina clearly also writes the whole thing out more than once, as assorted copies of the dossier exist at various points. And what does Mina get for her troubles? She gets to be the secretary in a team of vampire hunters. Wow, Bram. Just wow. She also gets patronised with amazingly sexist comments about how she has “a man’s brain” and told she’s basically really brave for a girl. All the men are obsessed with keeping her safe and what happens? She gets bitten by Dracula! Because she is surrounded by idiots. Mina deserves better. Frankly, I’ve always felt she deserves Quincey, because he is cool and can probably ride a horse.
My other small complaint is the ending. The last hundred pages or so are really, really exciting, with everyone racing around trying to kill Dracula and save the world, and then, once the job is done, Stoker clearly thinks, “hurray, I’m finished. Time to have my beloved stolen by Oscar Wilde” or something” (by the way, this particular literally love triangle is completely a thing). Perhaps some of Van Helsing’s waffling and split infinitives in the middle could have been omitted in favour of a more satisfying conclusion.
Dracula is, and deserves to be a stone-cold classic. It is too long and it makes you want to give Mina a copy of The Female Eunuch or something, but it thoroughly merits its place in the classics canon.
I’m participating in the 2016 Classics Challenge, hosted by Stacey at The Pretty Books. This was my second classic of 2016; the first was Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, which I reviewed here.