Before I sat down with it a year ago, I was led to believe that Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be a schlocky read. It was a great revelation when I found that the trashy B-movie reputation surrounding the world’s most famous bloodsucker belies the novel’s heavyweight literary value. Critics and other readers have picked apart the multitudinous messages in what’s already a well-written, highly entertaining horror mystery.
I think you ought to read Dracula for pleasure even if for nothing else, but the book can be mined for some serious cultural/philosophical gold. So if you’ll allow me to get all academic, here’s a rundown of what’s in there.
The Eastern European “Other”
I’ve read critics who have gone so far as to say Stoker’s novel contains anti-Soviet sentiment. Wacky, sure, but the “russophobia” aspect they bring up is not. For those living west of the future Iron Curtain, Dracula was the dark representation of the mysterious occult and perceived savagery of the Other Europe.
The role of technology in the novel is key in seeing this. With the civilized world’s typewriters, phonographs, repeater rifles, etc, not to mention advances in science and medicine, turn-of-the-century England probably felt pretty confident in her understanding of the world and mastery thereof. And then along comes this demonic immortal… thing… from the dark exotic reaches of the Carpathian mountains that cannot be explained, let alone vanquished, by all this technology.
What you have then is a horror story that’s about more than just a monster. Dracula was a very cultural fear, among other things.
A Feminist Take
This is anchored mostly in the comparisons between heroine Mina and her lusty, fiery-haired friend Lucy. Mina is written to be a pretty damn perfect female companion, yet she’s not the one who has three men in love with her. When she’s still human, Lucy pushes the limit of appropriateness with her coquettish nature, but I think the point is driven home (pardon the pun) when Lucy’s vampiric transformation exaggerates her sensuality to a dangerous level. Also, there’s something very weird about how all the men must band together to keep her alive with their blood (through transfusion), and later team up to put her down.
Even after Lucy’s out of the picture (Dracula’s first main victim not unlike how the busty slut bites it quickly in modern horror flicks), there’s plenty to discuss over the concept of female purity/corruption as it affects Mina later on.
Mina’s also a remarkably strong Victorian heroine, by the way, and is as integral to hunting Dracula as her role will allow her. When the male characters pile on praise of how wonderful and strong she’s being, though, it becomes oddly patronizing…
A Freudian Take
Phew! …can I save some time and say that all the stakes are penises?
The funniest part of Dracula, if you ask me, is when Harker is set upon by Dracula’s harem. It’s really just the situation of an Victorian English solicitor getting clawed and gnawed by a trio of buxom bimbos that does it. And I’m sure it wasn’t meant for laughs, but all throughout the novel exists this tension between the facade of Victorian sexlessness and teeth-gnashing lust of vampirism—the clash of two ridiculous extremes. It’s as if the plague of the vampire presents not just the threat of death but of the sinful allure of a sexed-up existence (which remains our favorite thing about vampires).
My two favorite examples of the Victorian attitude toward sex:
- The legs of a household piano were often covered with fabric so they would not be found by guests to be inappropriately arousing.
- An especially inexperienced Englishman once threw his newlywed wife out of the house when he discovered in horror that she, like a man, had pubic hair.
Now I won’t vouch for the truth of them, but stories like these do inform our modern opinion of that period’s prudery. And when you consider this, the fact that Dracula got published in 1897 seems mind-boggling. It’s hard to read the novel without feeling its carnal force heaving beneath the sheet of Victorian morality.
There’s so much more that I won’t bother getting into, but the point is that the book’s depth is unmistakable.
Dracula’s a fun read. It’s a (very) English lit novel I recommend even to people who won’t go near English lit. Spend some time with it—you’ll better understand why it is that vampires just won’t die.