Friday, October 02, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapters 2 & 3)


2 October.

Before reading, I caught up with some thoughts on Chapter 1: Infinite Detox mentioned the deliberate misreadings of Harker's journal, i.e., one of the many ways in which that first chapter begins to allow for the supernatural to penetrate "reality." He and a few other Draculoggers also quoted Stoker's brilliant line of an "imaginative whirlpool," which every author--especially those who cross into fantasy of any kind--must achieve: they must suck us in to the point where we can believe. (In Chapter 2, Harker says that he is "all in a sea of wonders.") And Chloelikedolivia emphasizes transportation between worlds: "it seems that the east is being set up as being connected to magic, superstition, chaos (and paprika), while the west is order, business, and punctual trains."

What I'm struck by is the start of Chapter 2: the "continued" at the top of the page makes Stoker's presence all too clear; he has broken the journal for "dramatic effect." I'm not a fan of this: why bother with journal entries if you're going to add artificially dramatic endings? (That makes Stoker little more than a classical version of R. L. Stein.) But enough of that:

"I could see even in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather." Things like that allow us to connect true horror with its age-old presence: it creeps out of a darkness deeper than sleep. This fits with Harker's constant waffling about events ("it perhaps seemed bigger than it really is") and his attempts to relegate the slight bends in reality/perception to the flexible nature of dreams: "I must have been asleep," begins the chapter. How naturally we assume anything unnatural to be a dream (a hundred years later, we'll be saying hello to Freddy Krueger).

Stoker also continues to emphasize cultural differences: "We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things." (For instance, the ghostly blue lights, which he understands to be an indicator of buried treasure--good--but which the peasants fear as evil spirits--bad.) Take religion, for example: unexplainable events are said to be miracles, but that's a matter of perception. What he's doing here--"But now I am glad that I went into detail from the first, for there is something so strange about this place and all in it that I cannot feel but uneasy"--is establishing an unreliable narrator, a timid and easily frightened speaker, who may not fully comprehend what he sees. What is unnatural to him may in fact be easily explained by custom.

What's interesting in reading this from a modern perspective is that our perception of vampires is different: who sees Dracula as "a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache"? So informed, in fact, that although Harker actually gives Dracula plausible reasons for not being out in the daylight, or not needing to eat, we read right into that as clearly supernatural. As for the bit with the mirror, or Dracula's reaction to Harker's nicked and bleeding cheek, well, these are harder to explain--but we've yet to actually abandon reality. Of mirrors, Dracula warns that we "take care" and beware "vanity": these are good things to remember as we reflect on the novel.


"Let me begin with facts--bare, meagre facts, verified by books and figures, and of which there can be no doubt. I must not confuse them with experiences which will have to rest on my own observation, or my memory of them." This bit, from Chapter 3, builds a bit more on the idea of Harker-as-unreliable narrator: nothing he writes is immediate, and everything is filtered by time and his own attempts to rationally explain things away. At the same time, it gives more weight to those things which he cannot explain, and also helps us to focus on the bits which Harker himself finds to be of value.

Oddly enough, it is not so much what is said that I find of import, as what is implied. Dracula's speech--the "story of his race"--is rather boring, told in the same sort of arching historical hyperbole that bogged down certain parts of The Lord of the Rings for me. However, it shows us Dracula's intense pride--ironically, a very humanizing characteristic: "We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races."

Also, going back to the idea of religion, which I mentioned earlier, there's the idea that "modernity" is a bad thing. That technology has distanced us from things that are actually true. Well, that's even true of 1890s London, and of the split between the comforts of Harker's city life and those of Dracula's old-world ways: "the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere 'modernity' cannot kill."

The main difference between this novel and Infinite Jest, however, is that most of these chapters are filled with plot, and I must say that Stoker is rather good at pacing his slow revelations: the tightening prison, Dracula-as-lizard, his coterie of female vampires, each journal entry brings a new danger to light, and each "fact" that we accept makes it harder to dismiss the next, slightly less credible fact. If it were not for this slow build--if we jumped directly to the killings (as most modern slasher films do), the spell would be broken.

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