Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a Gothic horror novel that tells the story of Count Dracula, a supernatural being, who is on a quest to find new blood to spread his undead curse. Written as a series of letters, this novel encourages the reader to constantly reassess what they know so far as they accompany the characters on this supernatural and inexplicable journey.
Book Cover by Doubleday & McClure Co., New York, 1899
The Epistolary Novel Defined
An epistolary novel is a novel that is written as a series of documents, usually as letters but sometimes in the form of newspaper articles, journal entries, or logs. Epistolary novels reached peak popularity in the late 18th century but in the early history of the novel, epistolary was considered a prominent literary genre. Modern epistolary novels continue this method of storytelling through documents but now in the form of emails, blogs, videos, or online forms. Regardless of the traditional or modern adaptation, the genre as a whole provides an opportunity for authors to experiment with different voices, styles, and forms. Furthermore, it reinforces a sense of realism and authenticity by presenting the story through multiple point of views without having to rely solely an omniscient narrator. However, the change in narrator/point of view can complicate the plot and unintentionally confuse readers. In other cases, the author may need to justify the reasons for documentation in a specific format.
A Closer Look At Dracula
The mystery of Dracula, in my opinion, becomes richer in detail as we meet new characters and gain insight on their thoughts about the supernatural creature that is dangerously close. With every new character, we gain new pieces of information about the plot and sometimes we get the opportunity to view the same situation from a different perspective. As readers, we gain a deeper understanding of who the characters are as a person through their journal entries and correspondence; these documents provide us with intimate details that would otherwise seem extraneous if they were presented in any other form. For example, from Mina and Lucy’s correspondence we are introduced to their friendship and their individual personalities. Lucy’s voice indicates to the audience that she is a young, carefree girl who is looking forward to everything that life has to offer, including the promise of true love. Through the character’s writings we are able to pick up on important themes/topics. In Lucy’s case we pick up on her femininity and it motivated me to think about what her character represents/reflects about the Victorian time period. In my opinion, Lucy is a loose representation of the “Angel in the House”, a paradigm of ideal femininity dating back to the 1850s which stressed women’s socially generative roles as wives and mothers. In contrast, from Mina’s actions and voice we see her represent the “New Woman”, a term coined in the 1890s that was used to describe a “progressive” independent woman who pursued higher education and/or behaved in otherwise unconventional ways. We learn this information by reading their personal thoughts and how other characters view them, which the epistolary format makes possible, as opposed to being told how these characters are through an unidentified narrator.
Rationality vs. the Supernatural
Throughout chapter two, we see how Jonathan takes note of the strange aspects of Dracula’s home and his demeanor. For example, in May 7th’s diary entry we see Harker take note of the Count’s unusual smile:
“his lips ran back over his gums [and] the long, sharp, canine teeth showed out strangely”(Stoker 24)
Instances like these indicate to Jonathan that something supernatural is going on, but he refuses to accept that Dracula is a vampire. Jonathan is filled with a sense of uneasiness and this feeling intensifies as he continues to observe strange phenomena (e.g. lack of mirrors and servants in the castle). Nevertheless, Jonathan insists on writing only facts, which reflect the arrival of modernity in English life where only reason can explain life and if it can’t, then there is nothing to explain. I view Jonathan’s writing and his skepticism as a defense mechanism. Jonathan uses his writing to calm his nerves and to reinforce the idea that everything can be explained by science. But his rationality renders him incapable of understanding the danger he is in. We later understand through other characters, specifically Van Helsing, that giving in to superstitions is the group’s only protection and the key for defeating Dracula. These different accounts introduce, emphasize, and reinforce the theme of rationality vs. the supernatural. As an audience we connect the information each character provides and we unravel the mystery, while also becoming aware of the social commentary Stoker is making.
Epistolary novels provide us with a new way of understanding the plot, its characters, and the main messages of any story.