Book: Dracula - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Dracula
Tuesday, 11 January 2005 at 08:38 pm
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Author: Bram Stoker

Details: Originally published 1897; Pub 1994 Penguin Popular Classics; ISBN 0-14-062063-X; Gutenberg Text

Verdict: Dracula surprised me by just how bad it is.

Reasons for reading it: All kinds of people in my circle have been going on about vampires for various reasons, so I thought I should probably read the original text in order to be able to participate in such discussions.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man found me a copy.

Dracula definitely comes under the heading of a book you want to have read more than you want to read it. I don't generally mind prosy Victorian stuff, but this is really over the top. And you really would think it would be pretty hard to make a novel about being pursued by vampires dull, but Dracula manages it. I really struggled to get through it, to be honest.

It rambles all over the place, spends forever describing the scenery, repeats the same dramatic scene with only slight variations until it becomes the exact opposite of dramatic, and generally, the pacing is a complete and utter mess. Of what should be the two climactic scenes, Harker's escape from Castle Dracula happens offstage and never gets more than a passing reference, and the final confrontation with Dracula happens in a single short paragraph, most of which the monster spends asleep, for heaven's sake. The characterization isn't much better; it tends to rely adjectives trying to be epithets, with a smattering of national, gender and class stereotypes.

To be fair to Dracula, I think it is spoilt partially by over-familiarity. I've seen far too many parodies of the whole gothic setup to take the real thing seriously. And the book also chooses to spend the first two thirds presenting everything to do with vampires as mysterious, and we only get an explanation from the expert Van Helsing towards the end. This might possibly have worked when the book was first published to create suspense (though to be honest I rather doubt it; it's not the kind of mystery that you can work out, so the having the 'revelation' so late just feels like cheating), but for a modern reader, it fails before it even starts. The reader knows perfectly well that vampires can do all these physically impossible things, and that they are vulnerable to garlic and Christian symbols, and even simply the fact that the book is so famous means that there's no mystery that all these paranormal happenings are caused by vampires.

The world set-up in Dracula is really odd. Not so much because it's a world with vampires in it, but on the 'mundane' level of the gender relations and the way religion works. Female sexuality is regarded as so disgusting that it's only referred to in descriptions of the vile monsters that are female vampires. 'Nice' women are there to be rescued and protected, even though Mina Harker is in fact rather a strong character. The only acknowledgement she gets for having more sense than the heroic, manly men is occasional praise for having a 'male' brain combined with a 'female' heart, whatever that's supposed to mean. Also, Dracula is very, very slashy; I tend to regard that reading in that kind of thing as basically a bit puerile, but in Dracula it's almost impossible to avoid homoerotic connotations.

As for the religious aspect, all I can say is that it's deeply strange. There's not actually much mention of religion for the first two thirds of the book, except for Van Helsing's use of crucifixes and Communion wafer to ward off vampires. But as the book builds up to the final damp squib where a crisis should be, with Mina in terrible danger and the party dashing off across Europe in pursuit of Dracula, they all suddenly get really religious. There's quite a lot of the kind of icky Christianity which makes suffering noble, but what's really weird is the relationship between God and the vampires. If the mere sight of a crucifix can have such dramatic effects on vampires, you would think that God hates them sufficiently not to allow them to exist at all. What really squicked me, more even than the detailed descriptions of medically unlikely blood transfusions, was the idea that once someone has come into the power of a vampire, God abominates them.

The only thing I can really say in praise of Dracula is that some of the sentimentality is quite successful. There are too many tragic deathbed scenes and heroic sacrifices and too much touching devotion and all that sort of thing, but some of this at least is done reasonably well, even if completely excessive. I was quite sad about Lucy Westenra's fate even though it's spun out over far too many chapters when action should be going on. And there's a tiny little vignette where Mina offers comfort and hugs to Arthur and Quincey, even though it was socially unacceptable for a married woman to be intimate with other men, which I found quite touching.

On the whole though, Dracula has far more weaknesses than strengths. The supernatural background is just as silly in the original as in any parody; the vampires' powers and vulnerabilities are completely arbitrary and this makes the whole plot seem very contrived. And the execution of this already rather shaky idea is just unbelievably awful.


Moooood: boredbored
Tuuuuune: Indigo Girls: Prince of darkness
Discussion: 9 contributions | Contribute something
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:January 12th, 2005 09:31 pm (UTC)
53 minutes after journal entry, 05:31 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I'm pretty sure I've never said it was anything other than a pulpy potboiler. It's the kind of thing where some elements of it are so abominably awful and/or not plausible that one gets into serious wondering about reliability of narrators and what's not being said, though I discovered after drafting a story on the theme that redacting it as a vampire turf-war in which Quincey Morris is also a vampire has already been done; in the universe of Jim Butcher's "Dreseden Files" supernatural noir, which I have reviewed at various points over the past year, the publication of Dracula is a scheme by one kind of vampire to get the means of disposing of another kind of vampire out there in the public awareness, and works very well in disposing of the ones who work that way.

[ I think my tendency to look for underlying real stories and reasons why narrators would be unreliable, in cases where the simpeler explanation is "It's a Bad Book Dammit", may be a bit excessive. ]
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:January 12th, 2005 09:39 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 05:39 pm (rysmiel's time)
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Addendum; both the geography and the slightly faster development of recording-device tech definitely place it in an alternate universe. [ Yes, I'm the kind of person who notices that while not thinking the same thing about the vampires. ]

Second addendum; in the unlikely event of your wanting to read a Dracula novel that's actually good, and stays focused on the source rather than going off into the wild Wold-Newtonning of Kim Newman's Anno Dracula et sequelae [ which starts a few years after Dracula's triumph over Van Helsing and subsequent marriage to Queen Victoria ], my recommendation would go to Loren Estleman's rather nice The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count, though most editions of it do tend to have the subtitle Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula all over the front in large garish red letters.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:January 13th, 2005 07:32 pm (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 08:32 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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A propos of Dracula-era recording technology, there was a BBC World Service sale of CDs today in aid of the tsunami appeal, and I picked up, for novelty value, a CD of brown wax cylinder recordings from 1891-03. (The oldest recording I had before that was from the 1920s (Elgar conducting his Cello Concerto in 1928, plus a freebie CD that had music ranging from a Bessie Smith track dated 1923 to nineties Britpop on a single CD!); this adds three decades to the age in a single fell swoop.)
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:January 12th, 2005 09:53 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 10:53 pm (livredor's time)
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I'm pretty sure I've never said it was anything other than a pulpy potboiler.
Oh, I didn't expect it was going to be better than it turned out because you (or anybody else) had said good things about it. Just because it's a classic so I assumed it would have some kind of merit.

one gets into serious wondering about reliability of narrators and what's not being said
One of the things that really annoyed me was Mina continuing to be a perfectly reasonable narrator even in the later sections. There was so much emphasis on the idea that since she'd been contaminated she couldn't be trusted, and yet you continue to get her diary still as the sweet, loving Mina and without at all contradicting anybody else's version of events. I kept expecting her to be lying or (unwittingly) conspiring with Dracula and there's just no hint of that.

a vampire turf-war in which Quincey Morris is also a vampire
Well, the problem with that is that Morris is the only major character who doesn't get to do any narrating. So there's no place where you can even ask the question about whether he's a reliable narrator or not.
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kathrid: default
From:kathrid
Date:January 13th, 2005 07:49 am (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry
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The world set-up in Dracula is really odd. Not so much because it's a world with vampires in it, but on the 'mundane' level of the gender relations and the way religion works. Female sexuality is regarded as so disgusting that it's only referred to in descriptions of the vile monsters that are female vampires. 'Nice' women are there to be rescued and protected, even though Mina Harker is in fact rather a strong character.

What you are actually complaining about here is that it is looking at gender politics through Victorian eyes, which is what I would exptect from a Victorian book. All over the world at this point it was thought that female sexuality was evil, or at least corrupting, and this opinion was at it's most strident in the english speaking world (ie. Britain and America). All the literary heroines were essentially sexless and any woman who showed and sign of wanting sex was ostracised from society.

You have to remember, this was the age when women were often so sexually starved that they got hysteria (and amusingly the doctors worked out that vaginal massage worked to cure hysteria, hence the invention of the vibrator).
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:January 13th, 2005 09:56 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:56 pm (livredor's time)
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it is looking at gender politics through Victorian eyes, which is what I would exptect from a Victorian book.
The thing is, it's not exactly the only Victorian book I've ever read. And I don't think the whole century was as monolithic as it's often portrayed. It may be that other books from the same period have an equally weird view of gender relations and sexuality, but they don't tend to go on about it so much, it's just assumed that the reader shares the mindset. But Dracula keeps having the characters make comments about how different men and women are, in ways that don't seem to be reflected in how the characters actually behave.

All the literary heroines were essentially sexless
I honestly don't think that's the case. I mean, look at any of the Brontë stuff, Wuthering Heights particularly. I don't think even the women in Dracula are sexless either, they just express their sexuality in particular ways.

You have to remember, this was the age when women were often so sexually starved that they got hysteria
Well, this was the case for some women in some strata of society. I am pretty sure there are women who are sexually frustrated / repressed in modern society too. I mean, the scary American chastity pledge stuff is spreading over here, and it's really mainly women it's being pushed to. So I think it's simplistic to imagine that the whole Victorian era had one single view of sexuality.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:January 13th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 08:56 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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Harrumph. I don't remember it being bad. OTOH the last time I read it was <checks> 1992. Possibly my sensibilities would be further refined now. (I've stopped recommending rysmiel books I liked which I haven't read more recently than that.) Or possibly not. But in any case, if the book's really that bad, how come it became a classic?

The reader knows perfectly well that vampires can do all these physically impossible things, and that they are vulnerable to garlic and Christian symbols, and even simply the fact that the book is so famous means that there's no mystery that all these paranormal happenings are caused by vampires.

There's plenty of books nowadays where it's fairly obvious to the reader, if not the characters, what's going on; which are not any less enjoyable as a result.

Dracula is very, very slashy; I tend to regard that reading in that kind of thing as basically a bit puerile, but in Dracula it's almost impossible to avoid homoerotic connotations.

Whoa! I don't remember any of that! After seeing Francis Ford Coppola's (travesty of a) Dracula film and remarking there was an awful lot of sex in it, somebody told me it was all there in the original, if a bit more subtle. I picked up the book afterwards and had a flick through, and still couldn't see any evidence of it. Possibly I'm going to have to reread it again now.

what's really weird is the relationship between God and the vampires. If the mere sight of a crucifix can have such dramatic effects on vampires, you would think that God hates them sufficiently not to allow them to exist at all. What really squicked me, more even than the detailed descriptions of medically unlikely blood transfusions, was the idea that once someone has come into the power of a vampire, God abominates them.

I'm not entirely sure G-d comes into it at all. The effects in the book could be put down entirely IIRC to inherent physical qualities of holy and non-holy objects.

And as for blood transfusions, I don't think that's actually incorrect for that period. Anticoagulants had yet to be discovered, and blood transfusions were indeed done directly person-to-person. (I don't know the history of testing for blood types -- which there is no evidence for in the book -- though.)
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:January 13th, 2005 09:41 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:41 pm (livredor's time)
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Harrumph. I don't remember it being bad.
I've read worse things.

OTOH the last time I read it was <checks> 1992.
Wow. I'm surprised you remember so much detail from it.

Possibly my sensibilities would be further refined now.
Possibly. I'm sure my not liking it is primarily a matter of taste; there are plenty of things I like which are not at all refined.

(I've stopped recommending rysmiel books I liked which I haven't read more recently than that.)
I can see the sense of this. Trouble is, I'm not that big on rereading books (unless I really love them), so I pretty much need to rely on the fact that I trust my tastes even from several years ago.

There's plenty of books nowadays where it's fairly obvious to the reader, if not the characters, what's going on; which are not any less enjoyable as a result.
I agree this can work in general principle. I just felt that the timing is wrong, somehow. Van Helsing knows all along what's going on, and there seems to be no good reason for him not to reveal anything to either the other characters or the reader sooner than he does. It's not the kind of book where, for example, the characters are carrying out an investigation into something that may be known to the reader. So when the background is revealed, it seems arbitrary.

After seeing Francis Ford Coppola's (travesty of a) Dracula film and remarking there was an awful lot of sex in it, somebody told me it was all there in the original, if a bit more subtle.
It's really not all that subtle, particularly considering the period. There's quite a lot of implied relationships via a third party, eg comments on the strong bonds between Lucy's three suitors and Van Helsing via their relationship with Lucy. They actually directly compare the blood transfusions to sex, and Van Helsing comments on how dodgy it is for Lucy to be receiving transfusions from so many different men.

Or a really weird letter from Mina to Lucy in which Mina says something on the lines of, my husband loves me and I love you, so of course my husband loves you too. And apart from the tone of Mina and Lucy's letters they seem to do an awful lot of sleeping together and undressing eachother for no obvious reason.

A lot of the way that vampires view their human victims are described in quite explicitly sexual metaphors, obviously based on quite a dodgy view of sex. But I can see why some people regard vampires as sexy (people who are prepared to pretty much ignore consent issues, which I am emphatically not). There's little that absolutely can't be interpreted in an innocent way, but you have to be trying, I think.

I'm not entirely sure G-d comes into it at all. The effects in the book could be put down entirely IIRC to inherent physical qualities of holy and non-holy objects.
Yeah, I can see that makes some sense. That would make the extremely icky theology only in the minds of the characters, which is a bit better.

And as for blood transfusions, I don't think that's actually incorrect for that period.
I was really hoping that it was mainly Stoker's lurid imagination, rather than something that actually went on. And even within the story it's described as something that was not standard medical practice, it's more a near-innovation of Van Helsing's. There were various aspects that struck me as implausible, not just the direct person-to-person thing, but the implied volumes involved sounded way off, though admittedly it's never stated in so many words.

I don't know the history of testing for blood types
I think actually understanding the molecular basis for it happened relatively late - off the top of my head I'd say second half of twentieth century. I'm pretty sure that from the earliest days they at least tried to use close relatives as donors if at all possible. The general idea that there are incompatible blood types is very hard to miss if you've tried the technique at all.

*looks it up* Yeah, Wikipedia says that they knew about type matching from the beginning of the 19th century.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:January 13th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:19 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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Yeah, I saw that too and was really surprised. I don't get the impression of blood donation being mainstream by the end of the nineteenth century; indeed one of the big differences between WW1 and WW2 was the saving of many lives in the latter due to getting blood to them in time.

<googles> Ah, found a site which says that blood types were only discovered in 1901, and the ABO system in 1909. That makes more sense.

I suspect the "start of the nineteenth century" in Wikipedia is a mistake for "twentieth"; I'm not sufficiently sure of this to consider changing the Wikipedia article, though.
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