Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker amazed me by how thoroughly Christian it portrays it’s 19th century worldview.  Published in 1897, this late Victorian novel doesn’t proselytize, but accepts Christianity like the rising of the Son.  Dracula is about a creature of the darkness invading the world of the light.  More than that, Dracula is about a royal citizen from the land of superstition making a beachhead on the Mecca of Modernity, London.   Dracula is about evil attacking the divine, which is very strange when when you compare this most famous of all vampires to contemporary vamps of the big and little screen. 

Dracula presents a scared world, whereas True Blood and Twilight represent secular vampirism.  How did our pop culture go from women pleading for their hearts to be staked,  their heads to be cut off, and their mouths crammed with garlic, if they were kissed by the vampire, to our modern times where virginal tweens willing dream of letting blood sucking monsters pop their cherry, but only if he’s really really really cute, dresses fabulously, and loves to cuddle.  Talk about living in Bizarro World.

Now, let me set up my definition of evil and divine.  Evil has become a debased word in our language.  For example, we might hear a kid whine, “That’s just evil,” when told he must turn off the TV and do his homework.  Most grownups would use Hitler as their prime example of real evil, but even for that example I will disagree.  I see the word evil coming with a more precise definition.  To be upfront, I’m an atheist, so any discussion of religion by me is from an outside observer.

My definition of evil, is any action that’s under the influence of Satan, whereas the divine, is any action inspired by God.  Modern grammarians will knock my prescriptive definition over more mundane descriptive grammar.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel with easy metaphors.  Light shines from God, dark is Satan blocking the light.  Vampires are agents of evil, stealing souls from the forces of goodness.

I plead with my readers to read the history of vampires at Wikipedia.  I was totally shocked by examples of vampirism showing up in all the cultures of history.  Superstition has dominated thinking for most of homo sapiens time roaming this Earth.  Vampires and similar scary ghoulish characters are deeply rooted in all our folklore, and its very shocking how crazed our ancestors became over common fears. 

Count Dracula is just the most famous vampire in Western pop culture, where Bram Stoker hit a vein of subconscious literary gold.  Dracula is not the first novel about vampires, but Bram Stoker has invented such a successful fictional character, Count Dracula, whose fame is on the order of Sherlock Holmes (1887) and Tarzan (1912), the true eminent Victorians.  Stoker may have used Vlad the Impaler as inspiration for his character Count Dracula, but he is mostly a fantastic fictional invention.

I’ve always avoided reading Dracula because I expected it to be as hokey as the Béla Lugosi films, so I was greatly surprised by how literate and well-written this epistolary novel is compared to all the cheesy films it has inspired.  By using letters, telegrams, diaries, phonograph cylinders, newspaper clippings, etc., Stoker gives an immediacy to his story that the standard third person narrative would have lacked, and was still too confining to express in the standard first person tale.  The novel is full of rich details, especially about living and travel in Europe in the late 1800s.  The story progresses slowly, relying on a slow buildup of horror, with little direct stage time for Count Dracula himself.  This works very effectively to showcase life in 1897, when news traveled very slowly, and generally came by word of mouth or newspapers.

I claim Dracula is a Christian novel because its worldly philosophy is based on the British viewpoint at the peak of its empire, with it’s stout, stiff-upper lip embrace of Jesus, scientific progress and world conquest.  Abraham Van Helsing, a Dutchman, is the real hero of this novel, but he’s not the action hero of the Hugh Jackman film Van Helsing.  He’s an older doctor and lawyer, wise man of science, and early X-Files philosopher, who is deeply religious and accepting of the Christian faith.  Makes no bones about it, Count Dracula is an invader of England and the divinely backed civilization of Christ.

Dracula is an intimate novel, with Van Helsing, the prototype for Rupert Giles I’m sure, as Watcher, leading his merry band of vampire slayers, who must keep their war secret because they know few people can accept the truth about the undead, and nothing they can ever say will be believed, and all their actions will be considered law breaking and criminal.

Out on the border between darkness and light, Count Dracula lives in remote Transylvania, where the medieval mind still dominates the peasant population.  The story begins with Jonathan Harker’s long trip to Dracula’s castle, that chronicles moving backwards in time as he leaves the civilization of the west, heading east, via devolving forms of transportation.  The descriptions of his travels are rich with details, making me think Stoker had made the trip himself.

The story involves two women, Mina and Lucy, and five men, Harker, Seward, Morris, Holmwood and Van Helsing, and takes a leisurely time to unfold.  Each get to tell their story in first person through the trick of the epistolary novel.  This could be confusing with so many characters, but I listened to a version of the novel narrated by John Lee, which was fantastic in its presentation, making quite clear the identity of each narrator.  This novel is well worth the trouble of listening to slowly, in a good audio book edition. 

I especially loved the character of Quincey Morris, a laconic Texan that greatly reminded me of another American cowboy, Lee Scoresby, also inhabiting a British fantasy novel, set in the 19th century, The Golden Compass, and played by Sam Elliot in the film, who has lassoed and hogtied many a laconic Texan role, even to the point of satire, as in The Big Lebowski.  Quincey Morris is a young Lee Scoresby in Dracula, and one of Lucy’s three suitors.

Psychiatry even plays a roll in Dracula, with John Seward, a head of an insane asylum that contains yet another fascinating character in the novel, R. M. Reinfield, whose mind swings between vivid sanity and raving madness.  It’s a shame his story couldn’t have been in on the round-robin of first person narratives.  Reinfield’s madness and Mina’s hypnosis induced telepathy, is used by Stoker in a creative way to drive the plot forward, beyond the standard letter and diary knowledge.  For its time, Dracula is a very creative novel, that remains fresh and powerful in its narrative techniques.

Dracula represents an entire spectrum of communication, from God’s divine will, to the woo-woo world of ESP and the scientific telegraph, to shadowy unconscious minds sending up clues to the conscious minds of our heroes to decipher, while Satan commands his legions of undead with his will of evil whispering out of the darkness.  And here is where we define evil, where dark and light fight for the soul of humans, by claiming evil is the force that chaos uses to conquer order, and the divine is that force that civilizes.  This definition should work for my spiritual friends, as well as me and my secular unbelieving pals.

Dracula is an agent of the devil, so, why do our modern vampire scribes like Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer secularize the vampire, exorcising its true evil nature?  Women often lust for the bad boys of society, and these women writers are making alpha vamps the sexiest of the stereotype.  Why is that?  Maybe women no longer want cavemen, Conan the Barbarian types, but prefer the better dressed, well-mannered vampire, with his suave sophisticated ways.  Or, is the enticing appeal of vampires, their power to give everlasting youth, something all women would sell their souls to get?  But something weird is happening.  Women have switched from wanting Van Helsing and Quincey Morris as males to swoon over, to wanting their fictional dream dates to be Edward Cullen and Bill Compton.

Sookie Stackhouse and her lady friends of Bon Temps, Louisiana, would be considered vamp tramps in Bram Stoker’s time.  If you want to know the philosophical difference from 1897 and 2009, read Dracula and then watch True Blood on HBO.  If we could send Victorian readers a television set and DVR loaded HBO’s True Blood and Deadwood and ShowTime’s Dexter, they would all believe that Van Helsing lost the battle in Dracula, and Count Dracula succeeded in his invasion of the British Isles and eventually conquered the Western world.

And don’t you find it rather ironic that an atheist is pointing out that popular modern entertainment represents the success of 19th century evil over the providence of the divine?  In the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries, the Christians are seen as the bad guys, and portrayed as buffoons impassioned by gun love, but ignored sexually and made cuckolds by lusty wives tempted by bad boys.

I love watching True Blood and Dexter, but then I’m an unbeliever.  It’s what my conservative friends expect of a yellow-dog, scum sucking, NY Times reading, liberal.   What I’m wondering is why all those hordes of Twilight fans, those young girls and their clean-cut moms, women who wouldn’t unzip their jeans for nice boys, and bitch at any bad boy they met, have fallen madly in love with the pretty vampire.  When I grew up, the only good vampire was a staked vampire.  I was taught it was perfectly ethical, even heroic, to kill vamps and Nazis, neither of which had souls.  Now Spike, the Vampire, will go to the ends of the Earth to find a soul and gain the love of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.  We certainly live in topsy-turvy times.

But let’s get serious here.  What is really happening?  Are secular vampires really a product of liberal thought, where every frail human action must be forgiven and understood?  Charlaine Harris presents her vampires seeking civil rights, and compares them to gays coming out of the closet.  But is this going too far, isn’t civilizing vampires wrong?  Isn’t it unjust to compare civil rights and gays to savage killers?   Why does popular culture now romance the evil?  Dexter wins sympathetic feelings for serial killers, so should we expect a lovable but loopy child molester in some future premium channel drama that will warm our hearts?  If we could see ourselves from some outside pop culture viewpoint, would we look like skinheads embracing a warm and fuzzy Hitler?

Or is it just good clean fun, like when we let our tykes play with Grand Theft Auto.  Personally, I wonder if it is wrong, either ethically, or morally, to have the entertainment appetite of a Roman at the Coliseum.  Or can I justify my entertainment tastes by rationalizing that it explores the edges of social reality?  Dracula is good clean fiction, but what has Bram Stoker planted in Victorian times, that has flowered in our modern world, causing us to love the vampire?  Actually, I don’t love the vampire, and still want to see them dusted, so maybe I just jealous of Bill, Edward and Eric. 

This leads to the next level of psychology of vampire stories, the one below good and evil.  Something is happening here, and I don’t know what it is, but I’m thinking it has to do with the changing roles of women in society.  Bram Stoker started it by giving Mina and Lucy, equal time with men, and equal bravery, showing that Count Dracula only converts women to his way of life.  Why are the leading writers of modern vampire stories, Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer, all women?  What would Sigmund Freud make of all of this?

Does the acceptance of vampires merely model the acceptance of male psychology by women?  Vampires are violent killers, but so are men.  Vampires enslave the souls of women, but so do men.  And if biting throats are equated with sexual intercourse, vampires and men both seek to penetrate the female body.  Maybe Harris and Meyers just want tame the savage beast, dress him in romantic garb, polish his behavior and put his lustful appetite on a diet.  If this is true, then the trend of accepting modern vampires is merely women recognizing how far they have to go to get guys to dress GQ and stop our killing ways.

Up till now vampire stories have always been Christian stories because the standard issued weapons to fight vampires were the cross, host and holy water.  Vampire fiction in recent centuries are metaphors for the Catholic Church supplanting the ancient religions and superstitions.  Charlaine Harris’ vampire world has regressed to a pre-Christian pagan worldview in direct conflict with Christians.  Does that mean she’s a witch?  But then her vamps only fight Protestants. 

Contemporary revamp vamps represent a loss of Vatican power.  Is it any wonder Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris stories are set in Louisana, a former Catholic stronghold?  But as the power of God grows fainter, so does the power of Satan.  Vampire Edward is downright prissy compared to Count Dracula.  If this trend continues, the bottle blood drinking vamps of today will be supplanted by even wimpier vamps in the future.  Without God there is no Evil, leaving a reality of random dangers fought by the force of evolution to produce order.  Vampires are supernatural creatures, and if our secular world erases all belief in the supernatural, what happens to vampires?

In other words, atheism kills vampires just like Holy Water.

JWH – 7/20/9

10 Responses

  1. Too Awesome! Dracula is my favorite book of all time. I read it when I was 11 or 12 and was blown away and when I read it later as an adult I was even more enraptured with it. I have read it more times than any other book and I just love it. Though I love other books none can ever seem to kick it out of that top spot in my heart.

    Yours is the first review I can ever recall that heavily pointed out the Christianity of the story. Well done you, especially coming from the fact that you aren’t a Christian ‘reading into’ the book. You recognize it for what it is.

    The reason it is a favorite for me is that I love the chivalry and the righteousness of characters like Van Helsing and Dr. Seward and Morris and Holmwood and Harker. I feel (and it is probably only me) that the women are really strong characters in this book as well. Sure, they are written in the subservient manner of the way women were expected to be at that time, but within those rigid societal structures I think Stoker still managed to give his female characters…at least Mina Harker, not so much Lucy…real strength.

    I also think it is one of the scariest books I have ever read. It builds up with such a gothic sense of foreboding and then delivers with some real thrills, like the scene with Harker and Dracula’s women, and the story of the shipwreck and Seward’s journals chronicling the madness of Renfield.

    It is such an incredible, fascinating, well written and fantastic book…in my humble opinion. I am so glad you took the time to read it. Because of my adoration of the book I am not a big fan of any other interpretations of vampires. Granted, I enjoyed Buffy (the seasons I watched) and enjoy Colleen Gleason’s novels, but those are really exceptions for me. I pretty much stay away from everything else, especially when it comes to books.

    I have no doubt that you weren’t as blown away by the experience of reading Dracula as I was, but I am truly grateful for your thoughtful review and one that touches on some of the aspects of why I love the book so much.

    Being a believer and being an old-fashioned hopeless romantic I am drawn to these characters in so many ways. I am always drawn to stories in which men can have real, emotional, bonding relationships and I see that in the friendships and common purpose of the men in this story. In this society that seems to poke fun at strong male figures, particularly fathers, and tends to write off any story of men having close relationships as homosexual in nature, it is refreshing to me to find relationships in books, on film, on television that portray men as emotional creatures who can have deep intimate relationships with their fellow man without it being sexual. I also like the idea of men being so devoted to the women in their lives that they would literally do anything to protect them.

    I really enjoy Stoker’s novel The Mystery of the Sea for similar reasons. It is a slower building book and others who have read it don’t like it as much as I do, but it is another real favorite.

    I may be back to talk about this more!

  2. Actually, Carl, I was very impressed with Dracula, especially how literary and thoughtful it was. And I believe the women characters were standouts for their bravery and modern attitudes. Evidently, vampire stories and brave women characters go hand in hand. But Mina and Lucy are not Buffy and Sookie, although they might be closer to Bela, although all three modern women willingly yield up their virginity to vampires, Bela is the most old fashion, by wanting to be married first.

    I barely touched the surface of what I could write about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and what it says about 1897 and 2009. In 1897, the evil of Count Dracula is a force that is greater than the free will of the good guys. What does that say? In stories about the devil, characters are free to sell their souls to the devil, he doesn’t just take them. Stoker has Dracula powerful enough that he can completely overwhelm the minds of free men.

    Why is this vampire more powerful than Satan? That’s troublesome philosophically when evil is merely an overwhelming force.

    And why are the victums Dracula converts to vampirism in the novel all women? The men he destroys, but women he enslaves.

    Let’s here more from you Carl.

  3. “And why are the victims Dracula converts to vampirism in the novel all women? The men he destroys, but women he enslaves.”

    Hard to say. This could simply be one of the areas Stoker unconsciously followed the societal standards of the time where women were considered the weaker sex.

    I’ve never been one to believe very strongly in the whole eroticism of Stoker’s novel. While I firmly believe there are writers who set out to write stories purposefully filled with symbolism I also believe there are writers who just write good stories that happen to hold up to all kinds of interpretations about what is behind them. Perhaps Stoker’s is one of those. I’m not saying there are not sexual elements in it, but I also don’t believe the whole story is something thinly veiled treatise about breaking out of Victorian sexual repression.

    However, looking at it through that lens, it could be interpreted to be a rather negative view of women as wanton creatures who are simply temptations to men where as the men are the virtuous creatures. If viewed that way it is certainly a different viewpoint than books and films today where men are viewed as sexual pigs and women as not liking sex (overgeneralizations, obviously).

    “Why is this vampire more powerful than Satan? That’s troublesome philosophically when evil is merely an overwhelming force.”

    Interesting comment in that it makes me realize just how little people understand the Bible (which by and large isn’t that difficult to understand…at least on the surface). Satan certainly is depicted down through the course of history as being evil, but the reality (just go with me on this one) is that the Bible portrays Satan as a deceiver, a tempter, a “roaring lion seeking whom he may devour”…not an actual lion, just a roaring one. And we are exhorted to resist him and he will flee. Interesting how people can take both the concept of evil or Satan AND the reality as written in the Bible and magnify it or him into something big and overwhelming and nigh impossible to defeat.

    According to the Bible, we always have a choice. As you say, Dracula certainly is different in that he has a hypnotic power over women, and men to some degree, and has all these powers: the ability to command wolves, the ability to change form, great strength, eternal life…it is very interesting. I think it is a wonderful example of the personification of the feeling that things are beyond one’s control. Certainly easy to equate the conditions of the world right now, with back-to-back administrations leading us into ever growing chaos with a feeling of things being out of control.

    But to be honest 99% of my pondering about Dracula involves what I like about the story, not searching for deeper meaning. The entire story practically oozes atmosphere. I cannot read it (or listen to it…I have a Barnes and Noble recording with a male and female reader that I particularly enjoy. Don’t enjoy the way she voices Lucy so much, but it grows on you) without just getting lost in the dreary, depressing, oppressive atmosphere of the whole thing. I certainly think it is part of a combination of things that makes me love fall and winter so much. The story made such an impact on me when I read it. And it was probably one of my first experiences of voluntarily choosing to read classic literature (for I consider it such) vs. contemporary.

    Stoker is just so skillful with the way he writes. I get such a sense of time and history reading his words and yet when I read them I honestly don’t feel like I’m reading something written over 100 years ago. It doesn’t feel stuffy or old fashioned in a hard-to-understand way. It engages you right from the start. It does me anyway.

    A bit off the subject, but one of the ways that I love seeing how this story injects itself into more modern stories is a panel in one of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics when Hellboy is off to Transylvania and one of the characters says something to him and he responds back, “Paprika chicken, baby”. Most people I talk to who read Hellboy didn’t get the reference, but I spotted it right away and I smile every time I reread that particular storyline.

    I’ll certainly be back for more, off to watch some stuff with the wife and daughter.

  4. [...] my review of Dracula by Bram Stoker I took a backasswards approach to understanding vampires.  I falsely assumed writers were [...]

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  6. Enjoyed reading your review of ‘Dracula’! This is the first time that I have read such a complex review of this book. ‘Dracula’ is one of my favourite books and I agree with you that it is way-way better than the movie versions. Have you read a recent novel based on the Dracula myth called ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova? I liked that too, but it very different. Today’s vampire novels are very different and I am sometimes amazed at how far vampires have come in the imagination of writers and readers across the ages.

  7. Hey what are the most important metaphors used in Dracula?? do you know??

    • Well Megan, are you asking this because of a school assignment? I’m not an academic person so my opinions won’t mean much. To me Dracula represented absolute evil. Unlike modern vampire stories where women are attracted to vampires, in Stoker’s book, Dracula represents evil so evil that women would prefer to be killed than seduced by Dracula. I assumed Stoker was Christian and he used Dracula as a metaphor for the dark and coldness of evil, whereas light and warmth are metaphors for goodness.

  8. […] from modern fiction you won’t understand what I am about to say.  If you haven’t read Dracula by Bram Stoker this essay won’t mean much.  The origins of all the famous species of undead […]

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