Psychological Time Machine
Modern life just wouldn’t be the same without the vampire novel. Bram Stoker didn’t invent the form, but he crystallized it into the classic story that has spawned so many imitators and variations since 1897. Count Dracula, the main vampire, goes to London for fresh blood. A team of locals becomes aware of his presence and his danger and eventually drives him back to Romania and kills him.
The 27 chapters of the book are collections of documents: diaries, journals, letters, invoices and newspaper clippings, so technically, there is no single narrator. The epistolary form was more common in earlier novels, perhaps to add a sense of authority and help overcome incredulity at the story itself. One result however is that the reader is further removed from the action, which is all described in retrospect, at a distance, as recorded by a journalist after the fact. Stoker overcomes that fault by making the journal entries morph into intense, first-person narratives that are so detailed as to seem like real-time descriptions.
Dracula is a horror story, but it is pretty silly stuff, a sharp-toothed Count biting the necks of fair maidens. I confess I’m not a fan of the horror genre. I find such stories more humorous than horrifying. What’s interesting to me are the themes Dracula presents indirectly, such as fear of vampires. What would it mean if another person bit you on the neck and sucked your blood? What’s that really about?
Pretty obviously, at first glance, it’s about sex, an exchange of bodily fluids between a man and a woman. A dominating, evil man sucks the life force out of a woman. It’s a rape, and much of Dracula carries a misogynist message, despite Stoker’s attempt to fight it by glorifying his heroines, albeit in a patronizing way.
There’s much more going on in Dracula. I think it expresses a strong uncertainty about modernity. Hypnosis, newly discovered, figures prominently in the story (Charcot, one of Freud’s teachers, is cited). The men are proud of their machines, from phonograph to electric lights, to Winchester rifles. Yet there is a subtext that says modernity is extremely fragile, reflected in Count Dracula from the past threatening to overthrow it.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is not mentioned by name, but appears as a deep anxiety about who has a soul and who doesn’t. If we are descended from beasts, what sets us apart? It’s not surprising that wolves, bats, and rats loom large in the story.
Traditional gothic ambiguity is expressed about the past, with a fond nostalgia for a lost age of aristocracy, combined with deep fear of its savage, wild, untamed ways. Fear of female sexuality is obvious and profound in Dracula, embodied in Lucy, the main female vampire, angelic and pure when alive, who becomes wanton and voluptuous as the undead.
The achievements of the French Enlightenment and of rationality in general, are shown to be extremely fragile, liable at any time to be overcome by irrationality and loss of self. This theme is expressed in a deep ambiguity about sleep, which represents both loss of personal identity and the irrationality of dreams. Sleep is described as a trance, similar to the trance of hypnosis, where any kind of evil force might get you. Similarly, madness is a major theme. Much of the story is set in a doctor’s office inside a lunatic asylum, where fear of madness is a constant presence, the ultimate threat to the rational ego.
There are many other fascinating themes to be explored, including vitalism, class tensions, religion, immigration and xenophobia, the meaning of marriage, and so on. Whether Stoker explored these themes consciously or subconsciously, I don’t know, but it’s all in there, and it makes for a fascinating perspective on what educated Europeans were thinking a hundred years ago.