Oh, classics. There are classics that are classics because they’re actually good and/or innovative writing, and there are those that are classics because of how they influenced future pop culture, not because they’re good in and of themselves. Dracula is firmly in the second camp.
My sister is very into history and classic novels. We have pretty different tastes in books, but recently decided to read the three classic monster novels – Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll & Hyde. Neither of us had read Dracula before, and both went in completely blind.
I’ll be honest – this might be one of the worst classics I have ever read. I hated it almost from the beginning. It was repetitive and slow, all the characters were flat caricatures, it was rampant with casual (though common for the time) sexism, and there was only one point in the entire 488 pages where I even felt a smidge of a thrill.
It feels a bit wrong to judge Dracula completely by my ~modern sensibilities~, given it was first published in 1897. It was the premire vampire novel, after all, and I appreciate how it paved the way for the modern vampire genre and horror as a whole. I also understand the overt sexism and suffocating religious themes that just absolutely pervade the entire thing. One quick Google search will give you much better commentary than I can about how Dracula reflects Victorian fears of sexuality and secularism. So it’s interesting from a social science perspective, but I was reading it as a novel, and as a novel it just sucks.
The overt sexism bothered me the most. Like I said above, I understand why it’s there. But it was just exhausting to read. Two of the main characters are women, and they are both complete stereotypes made up of everything Victorian men wanted women to be. Lucy and Mina are often contrasted – Lucy is an unmarried virgin, Mina is a modern married woman; Lucy is vain, Mina is muted; Lucy has many suitors, Mina has one. The introduction to my sister’s version of the book talked about how, though Lucy technically fits the Victorian ideal of purity, Mina, the married (read: non-virgin) woman is the one who eventually defeats Dracula, and claimed that shows that maybe Stoker was more progressive than he meant to be.
But I found Lucy and Mina more similar than dissimilar. First of all, the book barely passes the Bechdel test. Second, to me it seemed less like Mina was Lucy’s badass foil and more like she was the ideal married version of a woman, while Lucy was the ideal unmarried version. Neither of them did anything unless it served one of the men in their lives, and both of them obsessed endlessly over what ~sorrows and trials~ their men may have been going through and what they could possibly do to help. The conclusion was usually to shut up and be “bright and cheerful.” (If I never read the words “bright and cheerful” to decribe a woman again it will be too soon.) When Mina does occassionally remember that she’s a real human person and not a robot programmed to serve men, the men compliment her as having a “man’s brain and a woman’s heart.” Gag me.
The sexism bothered me the most out of anything, but the pacing was also just really slow. Dracula is written in the form of the diaries of all the main characters, with some newspaper articles and clippings thrown in. I don’t understand how these characters had time to do anything they wrote about in their diaries, because then they would sit down and write everything out in excruciating detail. Every single day was recounted from the waking moment until they were literally falling asleep holding a pen. Stoker left out zero – z e r o – detail. Conversations were written word-for-word, including the greetings and closings that modern writers know to skip, because it will bore their readers to death. Mina even goes farther and explains why she’s writing everything down in such detail, multiple times, before she then explains everything. Even when the diary format was actually okay, Stoker would put in some foreshadowing and then immediately act on it, leaving no room for suspense to build.
That lack of suspense is ultimately why I have to say I hated this. I could forgive the sexism and the writing style, given the era it was written in, if it was actually scary. But it’s just not. We barely meet Dracula except for at the beginning, and at that point he spends his time going on and on about real estate and legal matters. There are a few scary-ish sightings and weird, supposedly-chilling encouters throughout the book, but the writing style stifled any creepy feeling I might have had. The only moment when I felt any sort of thrill was near the beginning, when Jonathan is trapped in Dracula’s castle, and he sees a woman run into the courtyard screaming for her child. Dracula sics the wolves on her, and Jonathan can only watch as she gets torn apart. He’s powerless, trapped, and terrified, and the reader is too. That made for a scary moment. But for me, that was the only time Stoker put the plot together in a way that was really horrifying. The rest of the time it just felt tedious.
I’m glad I read this, just to say I have, but I’m also glad I didn’t spend more time on it than I did. I give it two stars out of five, and the only reason it gets two is because it gave us the modern vampire. Here’s to hoping our sisters’ monster book club only gets better from here.
I read Carmilla recently; it’s vampire fiction that predates Bram Stoker by a good 25 years. I’d be curious to know if you liked it better. I expect not though; it’s paced like a Victorian novel, not like anything modern…
I would have bailed pretty quickly, I think. Speaking of sexism… I watched Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer the other day. *Everyone* Santa, elves, reindeer are all complete assholes. Yes, I get they need to be unaccepting of Rudolph’s disability to make the story work, but the way they treat the women is abysmal. I was watching with my college aged daughter, and every time someone said something sexist, we just looked at each other and shook our heads. Some classics are probably worth abandoning at this point.
I have to admit I completely skimmed the last several chapters and big chunks of some of the wordier characters. I did want to see what happened but it’s just not worth it to read every single word with something like that. Lol, I haven’t seen Rudolph in forever! I’m not really in danger of watching but I’ll have to skip that one next time it comes up.