Summary of Dracula

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Dracula book summary

Literary Classic

  • Gothic fiction
  • Victorian literature

What It’s About

An Undead Tale Lives On

Dracula is a Gothic horror tale par excellence and a classic of the genre. It is an exemplary treatment of popular belief in the undead and introduces supernatural characters of terrifying evil. Author Bram Stoker based the story on folk tales and myths but placed it in his time of Victorian Britain – a time that elevated technical progress, empiricism and the scientific mind above all else. Stoker plays to these mainstays of Victorian society by writing his novel in the form of letters and diary extracts – contemporary, unerring, first-hand accounts. Despite this empirical approach, the story takes its readers on a tense journey into a world where reason and facts no longer apply. Dracula marks the starting point of the vampire’s triumphal procession into modern cinemas and popular culture. The various subtexts that pervade the novel – including eroticism and social criticism – further contribute to people’s fascination with the legend of the vampire.

Take-Aways

  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the most famous of all vampire tales in literature.
  • A band of friends become the target of Count Dracula’s wrath. The group sets out on a mission to kill the vampire and save themselves.
  • Stoker based Dracula’s name on the historical figure of Duke Vlad Tepes (1431–1476), also known as Drăculea (son of the dragon), who was renowned for his cruelty.
  • Dracula’s combination of horror and romance make it a classic Gothic horror tale.
  • Gothic novels were loved in Victorian Britain. Their popularity stood in stark contrast to the atmosphere of skepticism and empiricism of the period.
  • The novel only hints at the erotic aspects generally associated with vampire tales.
  • Dracula has inspired a whole slew of vampire stories, particularly in film and cinema. 
  • Dracula as a literary and cinematic figure has long become disassociated from Bram Stoker’s original and has gained a number of attributes not found in Stoker’s story.
  • Dracula is Stoker’s best (and probably only) known novel.
  • “And you, their best beloved one, are now to me flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin; my bountiful winepress; and shall be later on my companion and my helper.” (Dracula to Mina)
 

Summary

Count Dracula’s Castle

Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor from Britain, travels to Transylvania to advise a count on the purchase of a London property. Several strange occurrences and the locals’ fearful reactions on finding out where Harker is headed turn initial excitement into unease and a sense of foreboding. He arrives at the count’s dilapidated castle after a terrifying nocturnal carriage ride through forests teaming with howling wolfs. An old man, dressed all in black, opens the door for him and invites him in. This man turns out to be Count Dracula himself. Harker receives a friendly welcome and spends a few pleasant evenings in conversation with the count. But he grows increasingly concerned when he starts noticing odd things about Dracula, such as the fact that he never eats and doesn’t seem to have any servants. One day, while Harker is shaving, the count appears behind him, and Harker is shocked when there is no reflection of the count in the mirror. Also, the sight of Harker’s blood from a small cut sends the count into a “demoniac fury.”

“Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!” (Dracula to Harker)

Things get more and more sinister, and soon Harker realizes that he is a prisoner. He catches a glimpse of the count climbing down the castle wall from his window like a lizard. Desperate to find a way out, Harker starts exploring the castle. One night, three beautiful, seductive women – all vampires – accost him. Just as one of them approaches Harker to bite his neck, the count appears and hurls the women away from Harker.

The count prepares for his trip to Britain, and a group of Slovak gypsies come to the castle to fill wooden boxes with soil from the chapel. It becomes clear that the count doesn’t intend to let Harker go. In a last attempt to escape and save his life, Harker enters the count’s living quarters in the safety of daylight. He finds the count in the chapel, lying in a coffin unmoving but with his eyes open. Terrified, Harker flees back to his room. The count leaves for England, and Harker finds himself locked in the castle and left at the mercy of the three female vampires. He decides on a desperate plan to escape.

A Figure in the Cemetery

Young Lucy Westenra and Harker’s fiancée Mina Murray are close friends. In a letter, Lucy tells Mina about three marriage proposals she has received – one from Dr. John Seward, a young doctor in charge of a large lunatic asylum; one from an American adventurer from Texas, Quincey P. Morris; and a final one from the young aristocrat Arthur Holmwood, with whom she is deeply in love.

“What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear – in awful fear – and there is no escape for me.” (Harker’s diary)

Mina goes to visit Lucy in Whitby and the two explore the area together, spending many hours in the cemetery next to abbey above the town. Lucy starts sleepwalking, and Mina becomes increasingly concerned about her friend. When a violent storm hits the little harbor town, a Russian schooner runs ashore in the harbor. There is no crew on board apart from a dead seaman, tied to the wheel by his hands. The schooner’s main load comprises large wooden boxes filled with earth. The instant the ship touches the shore, a huge dog jumps off and disappears into the darkness.

A few days after the storm, Mina wakes up in the middle of the night to find that Lucy has disappeared from their room. Mina goes looking for her and finally spots her lying unconscious on a gravestone in the cemetery. Bent over her is a long, black figure with a white face and gleaming red eyes. The figure disappears as Mina runs up to them. In the days following the incident, Lucy initially seems to recover well, but her sleepwalking continues. Also, Mina notices two little marks on her throat. One night, Mina finds Lucy asleep at an open window with – seated next to her on the windowsill – something that looks like “a good-sized bird.” Lucy’s condition starts to deteriorate.  

Mina is increasingly concerned that she hasn’t heard from her fiancé. Finally, she receives a letter from a hospital in Hungary where he is recovering from a violent brain fever. Mina packs her bags and sets off to be with him. They marry in the hospital, and Harker entrusts her with his diary entries from his time at Count Dracula’s castle. Mina decides not to read them.

Blood Transfusions

At his asylum in London, Seward is dealing with a patient named Renfield, who displays odd and often disturbing behavior. He spends his days creating colonies of flies, spiders and birds and then eating them. Several times, he manages to escape from the asylum to go to a nearby dilapidated house. His behavior swings among extreme violence, depression and submissiveness. He often talks about serving an unknown “master” and seems to be able to communicate with bats.

“Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” (Van Helsing)

In Whitby, Lucy’s condition continues to deteriorate. Her fiancé, Holmwood, asks his friend Seward for advice, who in turn contacts his former professor, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. The unorthodox scholar from Amsterdam has experience with unusual illnesses. Intrigued by the case, he travels to Britain to have a look at Lucy. He is concerned about her pallor and the mysterious wound on her neck. Even though he seems to have an idea as to the cause of Lucy’s illness, he tells neither Seward nor Lucy of his suspicions. A bat regularly appears at Lucy’s bedroom window at night, and in the mornings Lucy complains of vague and terrifying dreams. On several occasions, Seward and Van Helsing find Lucy so pale and weak in the morning that their only option is to give her blood transfusions. Both of them, and Holmwood and Quincey Morris, take their turn giving Lucy blood. Despite their efforts, Lucy continues to fade away. As she lies dying, Seward is struck by how long and sharp her teeth look. When she asks for a final kiss from her fiancé, Van Helsing intervenes. Her breathing stops.

The Bloofer Lady

Mina returns to London with her now-husband Jonathan, and she learns of Lucy’s death. Harker suffers a shock when he spots Count Dracula in a crowd while going for a walk. Concerned, Mina decides to read Harker’s diary. She receives a note from Van Helsing asking if he could visit her to talk about Lucy. This conversation confirms to Mina that her husband’s notes aren’t the result of a fever dream, but the truth.

“She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there; the pointed teeth, the bloodstained voluptuous mouth – which it made one shudder to see – the whole carnal and unspiritual appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity.”

Van Helsing grows alarmed when he hears reports of children disappearing at night and returning in the morning with neck wounds and talking about a mysterious bloofer lady – a beautiful woman in black. He tells Seward of his suspicion that Lucy has turned into a vampire and is in fact this woman in black. Van Helsing’s suggestion horrifies Seward, but he agrees to come help dig up Lucy’s coffin. When they open it, they find it empty. Yet when they return the next day, her body is there. Van Helsing and Seward get together with Holmwood and Morris. Van Helsing explains what he thinks has happened to Lucy and tells his friends that the only way to redeem her soul is to kill her a second time. Like Seward, Holmwood and Morris are reluctant to accept Van Helsing’s theory, but they agree to make another nocturnal trip to the cemetery. There they find Lucy, just as she is about to drink a child’s blood. Hissing with rage, she challenges the men, while at the same time trying to seduce Holmwood. Just as he is about to succumb to her evil charms, Van Helsing steps between them with a crucifix, and she disappears into her tomb. The men return the next day, and Holmwood drives a wooden stake into her heart. When her features relax into her former self, he is finally allowed to give her the long-desired last kiss. Van Helsing cuts off Lucy’s head and stuffs garlic in her mouth. The men swear that they won’t rest until they’ve found and killed Count Dracula.

The Hunt Begins

The four men decide to bring the Harkers on board, and they start to assemble all the information they have on Dracula from their various notes, diary entries, letters and newspaper clippings. Mina is instrumental in putting this information together, but after their first meeting, the group agrees to exclude Mina from future meetings for her own safety. The men set off to explore Dracula’s house in London. On the way, they stop to speak to Seward’s patient Renfield, who tries to talk Seward into releasing him. Seward refuses his desperate request. In the foul-smelling chapel at Dracula’s property, the men find 29 of the 50 boxes that the count had shipped to England. They assume that he has moved the rest of the boxes to other places in case the resting place in the chapel was discovered. When Harker returns home in the early morning, Mina’s pallor surprises him.

The Blood of the Vampire

The men make plans to find all of Dracula’s wooden boxes and make them unusable to him by placing sacred religious hosts (wafers) into them. They spend days trying to locate the count’s various properties in London. One evening, a warden calls Seward to Renfield’s cell, and the doctor finds his patient lying on the floor with severe injuries. Van Helsing operates on him, and Renfield briefly regains consciousness. He tells the men about his connection to Dracula and also reveals to them that the count has already found his next victim: Mina. Seward and Van Helsing rush to Mina’s bedroom and find her husband lying unconscious on the floor. Dracula is standing next to the bed with Mina’s face pressed against a bleeding wound on his chest.  Holding up a crucifix, Van Helsing manages to drive the vampire away. Shocked by this new development, the men agree that it safer to include Mina again in their quest, but it is already too late: She has exchanged blood with Dracula and is now under his influence. The full extent of her “vampire’s baptism” becomes clear when Van Helsing tries to protect her by placing a host on her forehead and it burns a red mark into her skin. Mina asks the men to promise to drive a stake into her heart should she turn into a vampire.

“And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin; my bountiful wine-press for a while; and shall be later on my companion and my helper.” (Dracula to Mina) 

The men set off on their mission with renewed determination, as the only way to save Mina’s soul is to kill Dracula. They manage to find 49 of the 50 boxes and make them unusable. At the last property, they meet the vampire himself. They try to overpower him, but his superhuman strength is too much for them. Dracula escapes. Mina finds that her vampire’s baptism has an unexpected positive side effect: She is able, under hypnosis, to get a sense the count’s whereabouts. Her vague impression of water and creaking boards suggest that the count has boarded a ship.  

Showdown in Transylvania

After a few inquiries, the men learn that the count has taken a ship to Varna. Together with Mina, they set off by train to beat Dracula to his destination. Their plan is to seal the wooden box in which he rests before he can leave. They manage to get to Varna before the ship’s arrival but to their dismay, they find that the ship has changed course and docked at a different harbor. When the friends arrive there, there is no trace of Dracula. Another hypnosis session reveals that the count is again traveling on water. They also find that the count’s hold on Mina has lessened. Back to her former self, Mina examines all the facts and concludes that the count must be on his way back to his castle on one of the Carpathian rivers. Determined to catch him before he gets back to his lair, the group splits up: Harker and Holmwood take a steam boat, Seward and Morris take the overland route, and Mina and Van Helsing travel the route that Harker took when he first came to visit the count.

“It was like a miracle; but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.” (Seward)

The closer Van Helsing and Mina get to the castle, the more erratic Mina’s behavior becomes. She sleeps during the day and stops eating. One night, the three female vampires appear and try to lure Mina to them. However, she can’t leave the circle of hosts that Van Helsing has put around them for protection. The next morning, Van Helsing leaves Mina in the circle and sets off to the castle on his own. In the chapel, he finds the three female vampires in their coffins. He resists their seductive beauty and drives a stake into each their hearts. He also puts hosts into Dracula’s coffin, rendering it unusable to the vampire.

Van Helsing rushes back to Mina, and from their vantage point, they see a group of gypsies pulling a cart. Four riders rush up and force the gypsies to stop; they are Holmwood, Seward, Harker and Morris. As the sun starts to set, Morris and Harker push their way through the gypsies, who try to fend off the men. Morris and Harker manage to mount the cart and open the lid. With his knife, Harker slices off Dracula’s head while Morris stabs him in the heart. Immediately Dracula’s body turns to dust. Van Helsing and Mina rush over to the men and find that Morris has been mortally injured in the fight with the gypsies. Clutching Mina’s hand, he sees that the mark on her forehead has disappeared. He dies in the knowledge that his death hasn’t been in vain.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Dracula is a late but classic example of the English Gothic novel, combining elements of horror and romance. Stoker uses the 18th-century literary form of the epistolary novel and a well-known horror motif: the vampire. Stoker tells the story through the diary notes, letters and various newspaper clippings compiled by the main characters. The notes are in chronological order, which means the reader – like the main characters – only gradually discovers Dracula’s true nature and the horror of his evil schemes. The largest proportion of notes come from Mina, Seward and Harker. In contrast, Van Helsing, the vampire expert, hardly ever voices his thoughts and opinions directly. His knowledge only comes to light through the notes of the other characters.

Stoker mostly uses the same type of voice for the various diary notes and letters. In places, they are full of romantic sentiment, but in most parts, they record in factual terms and with almost scientific detachment the gruesome nature of what is happening. This approach contributes to the novel’s feeling of authenticity.

Interpretation

  • The popularity of the Gothic novel in Victorian England can be seen as a reaction against the pragmatism of the time. Stoker uses the age-old motif of the undead and sets it in a modern society in which science claims to have won over superstition. His approach contains an implicit criticism of Victorian rationalism: The heroes of the story need to move beyond their scientific mind-set to defeat evil.
  • Despite the novel’s supernatural theme, it still is a celebration of reason and technological progress. Van Helsing and his friends are successful because of their ability to analyze situations, plan well and make use of technology. All setbacks in their hunt for the count are due to failures in planning, technology or analysis.  
  • Stoker’s novel presents an ambivalent picture of women. Mina Harker is a strong and analytical character who deals with modern technology and has a keen systematic mind. Yet at the same time, her male colleagues try to exclude her from their meetings, claiming that, as a woman, she is too weak to bear the strain of their gruesome endeavor. Interestingly, this approach backfires, and in the end, it is Mina who uses scientific reasoning to uncover Dracula’s plan.
  • Equally ambivalent is the sexual aspect of vampirism. Stoker depicts the female vampires as extremely seductive. Not only Harker but also Van Helsing come close to succumbing to their charms. Yet in the end, both flee from and kill what excites and tempts them. In this sense, the story is an expression of the sexually repressive nature of Victorian England.

Historical Background

Late Victorianism

Victorianism shaped 19th-century Britain, with Queen Victoria on the throne from 1837 until her death in 1901. By the end of her reign, the British Empire had turned into a modern industrial state. Yet at the same time, it held fast to its class system and promoted colonialism. Social tension rose due to increasing poverty and a growing working class on the one hand and the snobbishness and extreme wealth of the industrialists and aristocracy on the other. Victorian society also held onto a traditional, fervently religious morality that Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert inspired. While moral ideals and societal etiquette seemed immovable, science and philosophy progressed at great pace. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his seminal work, The Origin of Species. His findings put into question many basic assumptions, not least religious ones. The scientific method developed as a progressive alternative to blind beliefs. Education reform opened up access to schools for the working class. The increase in literacy and the advent of mass printing also helped advance knowledge and, as a side effect, created a new market for popular fiction.

Development

Dracula is Bram Stoker’s best-known work, one that he prepared meticulously over many years. He wrote the first draft in 1890 under the title The Undead. Shortly after finishing the first draft, he learned about the Wallachian duke Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, 1431–1476) – also known by the name of Drăculea (son of the dragon) – who was notorious for his cruelty. Stoker borrowed the name for his novel without knowing anything further about the historical Vlad but was much more scrupulous in other areas of his research. The geographical details of Jonathan Harker’s travel to Transylvania are all correct, even though Stoker never set foot in Eastern Europe. Similarly, he checked all medical, technical and even linguistic details thoroughly. When it came to the figure of the vampire, Stoker consulted several studies about the superstition. He based many aspects of his vampire on traditional beliefs, though he made up some of them himself, such as Dracula’s need to rest on consecrated home soil.

Stoker took his inspiration not only from folklore but also from literary works that went before. Nineteenth-century Britain had already seen a number of successful vampire stories, including John Polidoris’s Der Vampyr (1819) and Sheridan Le Fanus’s Camilla (1871). The stage had also seen a few plays about vampires in the 1820s. Stoker himself considered a stage version of his novel. Dracula was published – seven years after its first draft – in June 1897, with a print run of 3,000 copies.

Reviews and Legacy

Reactions to Stoker’s novel were mixed. It was certainly no literary sensation, and it didn’t provide much income for Stoker throughout his lifetime. It developed only with time into the classic vampire story it is today. The cinema contributed significantly to this development, even though Stoker’s story was often quite liberally adapted. The first film adaptation was Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens in 1922, even though the producers initially didn’t want to acknowledge the connection to Stoker’s novel. In the earliest Hollywood adaptation from 1930, actor Bela Lugosi plays the role of the count, creating the first lasting image of Dracula. He was later joined by actor Christopher Lee, who played the character first in 1958 and then again in seven other films.

The vampire movie developed into a subgenre of horror and also inspired parodies such as director Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (released originally as Dance of the Vampire in the UK in 1967). With more and more adaptations of Stoker’s story led to the original almost being forgotten, director Francis Ford Coppola decided to return to the source material with his 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Literary interest in Stoker’s novel first started in the 1970s. Since then, the book’s erotic subtext has come to the fore in many more contemporary versions of vampire stories. For example, Anne Rice’s series of novels, The Vampire Chronicles (since 1976) – the first of which was turned into the 1994 film Interview with a Vampire starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise – is full of homoerotic overtones. The sexual subtext is also present in the surge in vampire stories aimed at young adults. Consider, for example, the extremely popular teenage version of the vampire depicted in film producer Stephenie Meyer’s  Twilight series, which was turned into films with Robert Pattinson cast as the fictional Edward Cullen in the main role of the vampire. Stoker’s Dracula has become an icon in popular culture, even though most contemporary vampires are no longer modeled after the image of the count.

About the Author

Abraham “Bram” Stoker was born on November 8, 1847, in the Dublin suburb of Clontarf in a family of seven children. His father was a civil servant and his mother a charity worker and writer. He spent the first seven years of his life bedbound due to some unidentifiable illness. During this time, his mother told him many stories, which, together with the enforced bed rest, probably contributed to his reflective nature and great imagination. He recovered by age eight and started going to school. He went on to win a prize for athleticism while studying at Trinity College in Dublin. In 1870, he started his career as a civil servant in Dublin’s administration of justice. In his spare time, he wrote theater reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail and also published his first short stories. In 1876, he met the famous British actor Henry Irving. Two years after their initial meeting, Irving offered Stoker the manager position at the Lyceum Theater in London, which Irving owned. Against the wishes of his parents, Stoker moved to London in 1878 to take on the position. There he also married actress and celebrated beauty Florence Balcombe. Stoker held the post of manager at the Lyceum until Irving’s death in 1905. He continued writing and in 1881 published Under the Sunset – a collection of short stories – followed by his first novel, The Snake’s Pass, in 1890. During this time, he started his initial work on Dracula. Yet even his most popular novel didn’t provide him with the means to become a full-time writer. A year after Irving’s death, in 1906, Stoker published a collection of memoirs of the actor. His last novel, The Lair of the White Worm, was published in 1911. He died on April 20, 1912, in London.


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