Student Response to Dracula

Monster of Mystery: Who is Dracula?

Despite the old adage regarding assumptions, today the name Dracula is at least of passing familiarity to most. Bram Stoker’s novel holds “a position unparalleled in terms of cultural reception,” as David Punter states, “if there is any modern work which fits the term [myth] adequately it is Dracula” (RJW 259). Though Stoker’s creation was not the first vampire to grace the pages of literature—the world had already met Varney the Vampire, Lord Ruthven, and Carmilla, among others (OUP)—Dracula has become synonymous with vampirism, his character has risen to occupy the patriarchal seat over all vampires, he is “master” (51) of his gothic realm. All discussions of vampires, like all roads to Rome, inevitably lead to Dracula. Published in 1897, Stoker’s gothic masterpiece gave form to one of the world’s most enduring monsters, a figure whose lifeblood has been transfused into multiple adaptations of literature, art, television, and film. And yet, who is Dracula? What sort of beast is he? Can he even be called such, or is he something undefinable, as Mina suggests, a “Thing… not human—not even beast” (267)? Considering Stoker’s novel takes its name from this eponymous villain, he is surprisingly absent from the work, physically present for only a handful of the opening chapters (II-IV, Harker at the castle), the novel’s conclusion (Dracula’s death 417-418), and a smattering of scenes in between (on a London street 209-210, Mina’s baptism of blood 322, the house at Piccadilly 346-347).

Krueger Image 1Rather than the roving and ravenous monster popular culture has led us to expect, the literary figure of Dracula is a silent menace that lurks in the shadows of Stoker’s narrative, drifting in the background like a moonlit mist with only the occasional materialization thrown [Figure 1: Pall Mall Gazette, London, June 10, 1897] in to remind us that the threat is real. Moreover, Dracula does not speak for himself, he has no voice, his silence is “pervasive and almost suffocating” (JH 91). Instead, “his voice and perspective” (AV 238) are given to us second-hand, through the eyes and pens of the protagonists, with all the accompanying biases of these besieged Westerners. The result is that Dracula becomes an ever-shifting body, whose descriptions touch on similar points but are never quite the same, and are often peppered with judgement. The Count is not only a vampire, but a ghost. Harker first describes Dracula generically as “a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache,” clad all in black (46). Later by the fire Harker notes Dracula’s “marked physiognomy,” which includes a “very strong” “aquiline” face, a “thin nose” with “peculiarly arched nostrils,” massive eyebrows, a “lofty domed forehead” with “hair growing scantily around the temples, but profusely elsewhere,” a fixed and “rather cruel-looking mouth” with lips of a “remarkable ruddiness,” and peculiarly sharp white teeth” that protrude over the lips (48). Harker’s description shifts again in the chapel: Dracula now appears “as if his youth had been half renewed:” his hair and moustache are now “dark iron grey,” his cheeks are fuller, his lips are “redder than ever,” and his “deep, burning eyes” are set amidst bloated lids and pouches, and the “filthy leech” wears “a mocking smile” (83-84). In London, Mina sees him as “a tall, thin man, with a beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard,” his face is “hard, and cruel, and sensual” and he has “big white teeth” and red lips (209). Dr. Seward in his journal entry on Mina’s “baptism” describes Dracula as “a tall, thin man, clad in black” who has a scar on his head (from where Harker hit him with the shovel in Transylvania), eyes that flame red “with devilish passion,” a “white aquiline nose,” “white sharp teeth,” and “full lips” (322). In sum, we are given no direct or “objective evidence of what Dracula actually is” (AV 239). In fact, it is only Van Helsing’s study of “arcane legends and pseudo-scientific phenomena” that provide Dracula with any monstrous categorization, “contextualiz[ing] the vampire as an ancient demon or mage who is plotting evil” (AV 240). The only truly horrifying attributes ascribed to Dracula are then his sharp white teeth, red eyes, and the superstitions of an aged Dutchman—which include his abilities to transform into a bat, dust motes, and mist, as well as control storms, wolves, and rats (276-277). While these abilities are admittedly rather terrifying when one contemplates their use against our tender, blood-filled bodies, these are never the aspects that strike fear into our still-beating hearts. Why then is Dracula so terrifying? The answer is what he represents and what he does to others. Dracula is “otherness itself” (JH 88), a monstrous hybrid birthed from an all-consuming “whirlpool of European races,” barbarian tribes like the Huns, Magyars, Vikings, and Scythians who have plagued the Western world throughout history (59-61). Krueger Image 2.jpgMoreover, as Stephen D. Arata notes, Dracula is the invisible other, able “to stroll, unrecognized and unhindered, through the streets of London” (SA 639), his victims unaware [Figure 2: first illustration of Dracula, 1901] of his attack until it is too late, until they have already begun to succumb like “poor, poor, dear Madame Mina” (348), whose head is seared by the Sacred Wafer only hours after tasting the blood of Dracula (336). As an intangible terror “Dracula’s attack seems to come from all sides” (JH 103), and there is nowhere to hide and no way to know when the mist will slip under the door and force his blood upon us. The horror that is Dracula is not defined or contained to a monstrous appearance or threat of bodily destruction, it lies in his ability to “appropriat[e] and transfor[m] bodies” (SA 630), turning them into unrecognizable, silent, others: “for all that die from the preying of the Un-Dead become themselves Un-Dead, and prey on their kind” (253). Though contemporary media has focussed again and again on physical representations of Dracula—especially romantic and sexualized representations (Gary Oldman, anyone?)—what made the original Count so frightening was the mystery surrounding him, he is the darkness personified biding his time until the sun retreats and the world and all who inhabit it fall under his domain, the invisible other whom we cannot quantify, define, or identify, an unknown quantity we cannot protect ourselves or our loved ones from.

Works Cited

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.”   Victorian Studies 33. 4 (Summer 1990). 621-645. Print.

Halbertstam, Judith. “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Skin Shows, Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. London, UK: Duke UP, 1995. 86-106. Print.

Luckhurst, Roger. “Before Bram: A Timeline of Vampire Literature.” OUPBLOG.   

Viragh, Attila. “Can the Vampire Speak? Dracula as Discourse on Cultural Extinction.” English Literature in Transition 52. 2 (2013). 231-245. Print.

Walker, Richard J. “The blood is the life: Bram Stoker’s Infected Capital.” Labyrinths of Deceit, Culture, Modernity, and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool           UP, 2007. 256-283. Print.

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