Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Reading Dracula: obstacles

Wish I could say, after some time's silence, "Back from [some fascinating city]", but can't. I've been busy, that's all- sunbathing, working, watching films, catching up with fb, following a murder case in VN, dealing with some problems (lots of things happened, and there was a creep)... In spare time I read a Tolstoy short story collection, and Flaubert's 3 Tales, just didn't write about them. As you can see, Effi Briest has been put aside.
I'm reading Dracula at the moment.
One cannot have a "fresh" reading of Dracula, everyone knowing something about it. The same goes with Frankenstein or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, both of which I read earlier this year. The feeling is strange- the consciousness that I'm reading for the 1st time a very famous and influential book, the expectation of finding it as good as it is said to be, the wish to compare it to the preconceptions created by popular culture. Sometimes they turn out to be misconceptions. Take Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, discussed here, here and here- Jekyll and Hyde are not 2 beings in the same body, 1 good, 1 evil, and Hyde is actually smaller than Jekyll. Or Frankenstein, discussed here, here, here, here and here, Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster, but Frankenstein is a monster, and the experiment is in fact not a failed experiment as people suggest.
Luckily my so-called knowledge of these 3 books comes from who knows where, not from film adaptations (if I've watched one, I've forgotten it). Tom at Wuthering Expectations once wrote "How many first-time readers miss the actual story on the page in front of them while looking around for Igor and the pitchfork-wielding peasants and "Puttin' on the Ritz"?" That isn't my problem here. My problem is something else.
Look at the 1st chapter of Dracula. Bram Stoker uses lots of details and images to create a horrifying atmosphere:
- A dog howling all night under window.
- Queer dreams.
- People's looks of fear, and whispers ("Satan", "hell", "witch" and "werewolf" or "vampire").
- St George's Day.
- The sign of the cross, a charm or guard against the evil eye.
- The gift of a crucifix.
- The prevalence of goitre.
- Peasant's cart with long, snake-like vertebra.
- Dark firs that stand out against the snow.
- Great masses of greyness.
- Steep hills, ghost-like clouds.
- The driver's haste, and fellow passengers' excitement.
- Dracula's man, who has "a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory", and strong, cold hands.
- Feeling that the calèche goes over and over the same ground.
- A dog howling, "a long, agonised wailing, as if from fear", followed by several other dogs.
- Wolves.
- Horses trembling, snorting and screaming with fright.
- A heavy cloud passing across the face of the moon; darkness.
He causes fear and builds up tension and prepares readers for greater horror ahead. Foreshadowing device. Victorian readers didn't know what was coming, they were scared and their imagination was filled with possibilities and they tried to guess what was going on and what was going to happen next and were eager to find out. I have a faint idea. To Victorian readers, Dracula is only a name, which they take and accept neutrally. To me, the name carries with it so many associations and images, the name is tinted, and tainted. I'm reading it, but at the same time, I find myself looking for something.
Let's see how it goes. 


  1. Very interesting, Di. You touch upon a problem that affects all readers: trying to recapture that "first time" experience with canonical texts. When writing about poets, Harold Bloom famously explained the concept "anxiety of influence" wherein writers are made anxious by their awareness of the influence upon them by previous poets; I think that concept can be borrowed for readers because we also experience the "anxiety of influence" because of prior readings and/or cultural associations. After all, who among us in western culture does not know about Dracula even though readers of Stoker's novel are a small percentage of people. In any case, I hope you enjoy your encounter with the east European vampire (i.e., an elaborately symbolic stand-in for male sexual predators and innocent female virgins in Victorian England).

    1. Oh no no no, don't you give me another preconception.
      I see your point, and indeed we approach many canonical texts with some knowledge of them. For example, I knew the plot of Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment beforehand. However, some works, such as the 3 mentioned above, are worse cases- they're fully absorbed in Western culture and there are references to them everywhere. Books such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary are familiar to readers mostly, whereas I think lots of people who know about Dracula and Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may not care much about literature or even cinema.