Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.
That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.
One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.
Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.
Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.
But there are some books from the 1890s that still feel to me as fresh as if they were written yesterday. You know the book I mean, so I won’t rehash it again.
Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?
I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.
Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?
On the most obvious level, Dracula is about a vampire who comes to England. However, in the century-plus since its publication, critics have written all sorts of analyses of the meaning of Dracula. Dracula is “invasion literature.” Dracula is about tradition vs. modernity. Dracula is about Victorian sexual mores.
Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?
My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.
But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.
As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.
This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.