Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

The first time I read Dracula was in high school and I read it purely for entertainment. Back then it seemed ok, definitely entertaining but I remember thinking that I didn't know what all the fuss was about. Fast forward 15 years. I signed up for a fantasy and science fiction course on Coursera and Dracula was on the syllabus. I was curious to read it again and see how different my impressions would be.
I don't know whether it's because this time I was watching for more than a bloodsicking monster in order to successfully complete the course assignment or because I am generally more attentive in my reading these days, but this time around it seemed like I was reading a completely different book. It still didn't spook me (people in Stoker's time were much more impressionable) but I did understand why it's considered a classic and is so highly esteemed in the literary circles.
Stoker's theater experience informed him in the importance of voice in character development, which sometimes made it necessary to read out loud but at the same time gave the narrative flavor. Stoker got the regional and international accents to sound authentic and my husband and I still joke around using Van Helsing's reference to an episodic character as "loud and red of face but a good fellow all the same". Another fun Suspence was a vital part of the book and while some ends were never tied it made the generally familiar story seem fresh. I didn't always see the point of how many characters there were and that spoiled the experience a little bit - there are only so many people this reader can keep track of!
My favorite part of this novel was the incredible layering of social, psychological and economic issues. I would've never noticed this before so the discovery was that much sweeter. There were references to the early feminist movement rerred to as the New Woman, classes, position in society, insanity, a look into what it takes to deceive in broad daylight and how to make witnesses more forthcoming with information. I felt like I was peeking in at a real society while reading this novel, because while things like bribes and break-ins may not be a daily occurrence they are a part of life and I liked that Stoker included them in the book.
Reading the novel this time I noticed Mina's references to the New Woman, which made me curious about this movement. Having looked it up I saw that she was in a way an early feminist: she had a job and undertook additional training in disciplines not very common at that time, such as typing and stenography. She was very intelligent and enterprising, and she was the center of the "six degrees of Mina" group (which in this case is more like two than six). Her input was crucial and her health is an indicator of the group's progress. And yet she was traditional in a very old-fashioned way, which combined with the general attitude towards women as feeble-minded and neurotic to the point of ineffectiveness irked me. The more Van Helsing praised Mina's "man's brain" I wondered what the wide-spread opinion about "woman's brain" was at the time. I didn't get a sense that it was particularly complimentary. Without a doubt life for women in the 19th century left much to be desired.
If you haven't read Dracula yet, whether that's because you don't read vampire books or because you only read modern fiction, I highly recommend that you make an exception - this book isn't so much about vampires as it is about 19th century England and about human nature, which isn't subject to time.

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