Kevin Fanning's Journal

The Transylvania Twist

10.05.09 | 42 Comments

So, wow, initial reaction, right off the bat: Dracula’s kind of a dick, right? Almost, dare I say, a monster?

Yeah, I know, duh, but I was raised on a steady diet of Count Chocula. This is my first time reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula1 and its made for a delightful change to encounter such a wholly creepy vampire, one who is without question intent on Very Bad Things. He’s really quite self-actualized, as creatures of the night seem to go. Most of the vampires who inform my experience are almost sheepish about their true natures: OK yes, they’re undead, but they’re just hoping to pass in polite society. Think Buffy‘s Angel, True Blood‘s Bill Compton, Louis from Interview with the Vampire, Cassidy from The Preacher comics, The Infamous Cullens, and the one that sired them all, Bunnicula.

The bulk of what we’ve read so far centers on Jonathan Harker’s reactions to Count Dracula. Although we meet Lucy and Mina in Chapter Five, all we know about them so far is that they seem to be engaged in the earliest recorded rendition of The Telephone Hour. But we have a good sense of Harker at this point, and what struck me most was how submissive he is as a protagonist.2 This is pointed out to us right away, in Chapter One. After noting the driver’s impressive grip as he hoists Harker into the caleche, Harker says:

…I felt a strange chill, and a lonely feeling came over me, but a cloak was thrown over my shoulders, and a rug across my knees, and the driver said in excellent German:—…

Hey are we on a date here? Seriously, get a room, you two. There’s more of this in the following chapter, upon his first meeting with Count Dracula (“…his hand grasped mine with a strength that made me wince…”) and the purpose is to draw parallels between the Count and the driver, but the effect is that Stoker quickly erases any impressions we might have that Harker is some kind of manly-man. Clearly, this is a guy who, when faced with a locked door (of which the castle seems to have no shortage), will merely shrug his shoulders and shuffle glumly off in another direction, rather than attempt to shoulder it open or attack it with some sort of high-flying kick.

In fact his only act of rebellion, once he’s grasped the nature of his situation (i.e. that he is a prisoner in Count Dracula’s castle), is to fall asleep somewhere other than his bed. Not exactly matinee idol stuff. But this does lead us to one of the major set pieces of the book so far, and the fullest depiction of Harker’s submissive nature: his encounter with the three Brides of Dracula. Harker is awoken from slumber to find himself being lusted after by three voluptuous young women, but rather than saying or doing anything, he just lies there and waits for them to do something (anything!) to him. “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips,” he writes, and later:

Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer—nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited—waited with beating heart.

Which, can I just say: how hot is this scene? I mean we’re talking about necks but we’re not exactly talking about necks, right? I definitely read that scene like ten times over in the quiet confines of my bedroom, just to make sure.

So what does this all mean? How do you read Stoker’s characterization of Harker? Is the author using Harker as a stand-in for the mood of the Victorian era? A reflection of a society fearful of acting on the perceived impropriety of their most base desires? Or is Stoker himself complicit in the repression of the era, giving us in Harker what is essentially a Victorian Mary Sue?3

It’ll be interesting, as we continue on, to compare the relative strength and fortitude of the female characters. Anyone who’s read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can surmise that Mina’s going to be one to watch. I made light of their boy-craziness above, but maybe Mina and Lucy are simply less repressed than Harker? And maybe that’ll end up being a source of strength for them? I’m excited to find out, he wrote, pressing the “publish” button forcefully, like a real man does.