Most readers approach re-reading books they’ve liked with trepidation. What if it’s not as good as I remember it? What if I hate it this time? I read Dracula, by Bram Stoker, ages ago. I hadn’t forgotten the story. Dracula is such a major part of Western pop culture that it’s pretty much impossible to forget the story. The last time I read it, however, I hadn’t had five years of literary criticism classes jammed into my cerebellum. I didn’t hate Dracula, but I saw problems on this read through that I didn’t notice before.
I won’t bother to summarize Dracula in this post. If you don’t know the story by now, you’ve been living under a rock. (Besides, there’s always Wikipedia.)
I knew there were gender issues in Dracula. I knew that Stoker made a point of playing up the impurity and sensuality of the female vampires. What I didn’t notice at the time was how Stoker kept harping on about male and female virtues. Mina Harker—until Dracula gets his fangs in her—is held up as everything a Victorian woman ought to be. At one point in her diary, she even mocks the “New Woman.” The men all praise her for her kindness and propriety, though they always seem shocked out of their cravats whenever she has a great idea for their next move. When Lucy Westenra turns into a vampire, she is constantly described as voluptuous or as having voluptuous features. She is rapacious in a way that deeply disturbs the men. Meanwhile, the men—Harker, Seward, Van Helsing, Lord Godalming, and Morris—are lauded for being brave in the face of the danger. There is a lot of unintentional—and exasperating—hilarity when the men and Mina start to withhold information from each other, each intending to protect the other party from worrying too much. (Ironically, this comes after a long section of information sharing, in which the Harkers’ compile everyones’ documents.)
On this read-through, I was also fascinated by Renfield. Renfield is the anti-vampire group’s canary. His madness comes and goes with proximity to Dracula. He and Dr. Seward have fascinating conversations about souls and blood and life. Even though Seward is mostly clueless about what Renfield is talking about, I was intrigued by how Renfield was trying to turn himself into a vampire without having any idea how to go about it.
I was also fascinated by Van Helsing. He is a font of information (though he never tells you how he gets it). He dithers and procrastinates throughout the book, but he still the anti-vampire group’s best hope for eliminating Dracula forever. Through Van Helsing, Stoker gets to show off the years of research he did before he wrote the novel. Part of the fun of any vampire novel is learning even more myths and legends.
Mina Harker was the best character of the lot. She’s an ideal woman (for Stoker, anyway), but she’s also fallible. She’s the smartest person in the book (for all Van Helsing’s erudition). It’s a great pity when she’s shunted aside by the men. But I loved how she got the chance to get a bit of her own revenge in the big confrontation against Dracula at the end of the novel. She deserved that.
I wonder what it would have been like to read this novel back in 1897. It’s almost impossible read it now without knowing something about it or having seen the characters reused in other books and movies. As I read, it was hard not to think of Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Anno Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.