Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker: A Book Review

The Readers Imbibing Peril challenge gave me the extra incentive to reread Dracula. As I mentioned before, it reminded me how much I enjoy Victorian novels.

I'm not going to give a summary; I think most people are familiar with the basic premise, or even much of a "review" as such. Dracula is so much a part of popular and literary culture that it is hard to stand aside and view it objectively; there's too much wound around it. I will say, though, that I don't think it is, on its own, the best Victorian novel. If you want to read one and only one Victorian work for Readers Imbibing Peril, I'd suggest Woman in White.

Instead, I'll mention a couple of things that particularly struck me this read through.

It's a novel about communication and information. The protagonists are determined to record every event. Even before Dracula appears on the scene, Mina is keeping her nightly journal as a discipline and Lucy strives to emulate her. The men, too, keep their records; Seward has his phonograph and Harker his journal. They also collect every scrap of record they can find about Dracula; the novel has several newspaper clippings included. Ultimately, they hope the records will help track the count, and he seems to share that fear since he burns the original clippings and journals, leaving them only the copies. Yet, for all their insistence on sharing, with Mina distributing multiple copies of everyone's work, they singularly fail to communicate at crucial points and that leads to Lucy's death (and undeath) and very nearly dooms Mina to the same fate.

Most of this is due to Van Helsing, the "good doctor," whom I wanted, more than ever, to shake. It's his idea that knowledge has to be planted like corn and left hidden for a while, unrevealed (To paraphrase a very long, elaborate, and ornate explanation) that dooms Lucy, several times over. Granted, he's not in a position right away to say "I'm looking for vampires," but he fails to tell Seward what sort of intruder he's guarding against, and the result is Seward has no idea that he should be awake and in the same room as she is. He strictly forbids anyone to tell Lucy's mother the purpose of the garlic flowers, so of course the woman throws the flowers out (Garlic is all very well in a dish, but a roomful of flowers? One can only imagine the stench!), and so it goes. Mina is nearly the victim of the same secrecy; it is Van Helsing who tells the men that she must no longer be a part of their councils, so she is cut out of the information exchange, and no one notices her growing lethargy as the count switches his attentions to her--not until it is almost too late. The strange thing is, the book gives no evidence of uneasiness with this, no sense that perhaps the "good doctor," whom the characters all admire and reverence, is part of the problem.

There's a strange discordance between science and superstition as well, but this is clearly something the characters and author are aware of. On the one hand, the characters use all the modern devices--typewriters, phonographs, steamships, railways--in their fight against the count, but at the same time, their ultimate weapons--garlic, the crucifix, the wooden stake--come straight out of old folklore (some of which Stoker invented), and the Count's invasion is made possible by the modern banking and shipping techniques. Ultimately, the battle between science and superstition must, I think, be declared a draw.

A side note: I read the Norton Critical Edition which highlighted the difficulty of footnotes. On the one hand, they're handy. They give extra bits of information. They point critical moments out. And, in this edition, they are footnotes, not endnotes. At the same time, I found myself wondering, as I have before, whether or not I might have noticed these things on my own, and wouldn't it have been more fun if I had? Ah well. I suppose I will always have a love-hate with extra-textual information.

I did enjoy the contemporary reviews reprinted at the back of the book.

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