Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Technology and information theory in Dracula - what's the (secondary) point of this book?

In Dracula, Bram Stoker created a character and a set of images that are greater than the actual book they appear in, a feat neither small nor common.  I know, there were vampire stories before Dracula.  Goethe did not create Faust; Mozart did not create Don Juan. 

So what else does Dracula do?  I'm having a little more trouble there.  I think that's the question at the heart of Prof. Maitzen's ethical protest: "Isn’t it a shame to take this ability and use it in the service of something as prurient as this novel, as dedicated as this novel is (so far) to the cheap thrill of waiting to see how bad things will get?"*  What, though, if Stoker has something else in mind?

Some candidates:

1. A celebration of polyamory.  Count Dracula has his three vampire consorts.  Lucy Westenra receives proposals from three suitors on the same day, and later receives blood transfusions from all three, and also from Dr. Van Helsing.  Later our brave heroes all devote themselves to Mina Harker and make various pledges of undying loyalty.  Mina is married, but her husband's spirit has been destroyed by Dracula, allowing the other men to feed off of the indomitable strength of his wife.  All of this is undone on the very last page.  How much weight should a reader put on the last page of a novel?  Oops, I forgot Dracula.  Lucy and Mina also symbolically marry Dracula.

That one doesn't make me feel any better about this book. Let's try another.

2. A celebration of technological progress.  The tools that defeat the vampire include: the telegraph, the dictaphone, the typewriter, Winchester rifles, steamships, the railroad, and the telephone.  Property rights and the rule of law perhaps also play a part.  Also, in a particularly silly scene, a dog whistle.  Some sort of argument is being made about the primacy of technology and science, a curious thing to find in a book about a supernatural menace.  Dracula is defeated by the application of the scientific method to supernatural phenomena.  Van Helsing and Mina, in particular, are rational and open-minded.  The learn the rules and apply them.  Science will presumably catch up eventually.

I was hoping Stoker was going to do something genuinely interesting with these ideas, but I don't see it.  The rules for defeating vampires includes consecrated Hosts and crosses and whatnot.  Does this challenge our ideas of science or not?  It does explain how the Dracula-as-disease metaphor works so well.

3. One more, a related one.  A demonstrarion of the value of information.  All of that typing and filing has a point.**  Dracula is defeated by the dissemination of information.  Stoker makes this point clear in the plot when, after everyone shares all available information via Mina's secretarial work, the men immediately conspire to conceal information from her, to protect her delicate womanhood or some such idiocy.  They almost get her killed.  Lesson learned: after this, all data is shared.  Mina's telepathic link with Dracula is related, somehow.

H.P. Lovecraft's stories generally make the opposite argument. Additional information causes insanity and death. One is best off not knowing about the screaming chaos at the center of the universe.  In Dracula, knowledge leads to victory.  Stoker is an early prophet of the information economy.

I've come up with some fine, fine nonsense here. Maybe one more day on Dracula. That last page is still bugging me.

*  Note that Rohan is taking for granted Stoker's skill as a writer.  Me too.  Dracula, the prose of Dracula, ranges from pretty good to pretty great, with a lot of the pretty great concentrated in the first quarter or so. A famous bit of Chapter 2:

There seemed a strange stillness over everything. But as I listened, I heard as if from down below in the valley the howling of many wolves. The Count's eyes gleamed, and he said:-

"Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!" Seeing, I suppose, some expression in my face strange to him, he added, "Ah, sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter into the feelings of the hunter."

You have a way to improve that? Dracula is only rarely uncanny.

** But see here, where all of the typing and collating and meetings are interpreted as a budding creative writing program, allowing the characters to express their "passion" for "storytelling," which they share with Stoker, and the author of the post.


  1. This is great nonsense! I've learned something...Maybe Stoker deserved a more careful read on my end...:)

  2. I watched the Bela Lugosi Dracula a while back and concluded that it was a hoot, but fairly empty-headed. A faithful adaptation, then?

  3. Well, if I've given the impression that Stoker's novel is empty-headed, I haven't done it justice. The problem is that it's packed with ideas, that it's too rich, but it's not coherent. I'm not convinced that the author is completely in control of his material.

    I really should watch the Tod Browning Dracula sometime, though. Your post convinced me of that.

  4. I'm really enjoying these posts on Dracula.

  5. Oh, I believe that it is more than good that science defeated Dracula in this book - I'm a big fan of technology and science myself, I think it holds all the answers we will ever need (and is much more real and touchable than religion).

  6. One is free to have whatever naive ideas one wants.