Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Does Dracula have a psychology?

A few months ago, Carrie Kei Heim Binas wrote a great post about monster psychology. Basically, a monster should have one. Monsters are characters, and just like other characters, they grow more interesting as they reveal levels of complexity.

So, what can we learn about monster psychology from Dracula? Is Dracula complex? Does he have motivations, other than mere bloodsucking*? Does he have a history? Is he at war with himself?

In the first several chapters, Dracula:
  • Disguises himself as a coachman to pick up Jonathan at the crossroads
  • Cooks Jonathan several meals and cleans up after him
  • Lunges at Jonathan's throat when he sees that Jonathan has cut himself shaving, and then smashes the shaving mirror (but not before Jonathan observes that Dracula casts no reflection)
  • Questions Jonathan extensively on the duties of solicitors in England
  • Locks Jonathan in the castle
  • Climbs down an outer wall, headfirst, wearing Jonathan's clothes
  • Kills a baby and feeds it to his wives and sets a pack of wolves on the baby's mother
  • Grins malignantly at Jonathan from his coffin, when Jonathan attempts to bash him in the face with a shovel.
So Dracula's monstrosity is pretty well established: he is powerful, smart, and slippery. He is also a nobleman, whose line--possibly through some fault of his own--has seen better days. Though it's not quite presented this way, there's something amusing and a little pathetic about Jonathan's discovery that Dracula does all his own housework--though he falls down on dusting, like many of us--because he has no (more) servants. Even his wives (daughters?) don't help him, which is rather gratifying. When Jonathan first arrives, he still attempts little touches of nobility, such as serving his guest dinner on gold plates, and leaving him nice notes with his breakfast:

I slept till late in the day, and awoke of my own accord. When I had dressed myself I went into the room where we had supped, and found a cold breakfast laid out, with coffee kept hot by the pot being placed on the hearth. There was a card on the table, on which was written--"I have to be absent for a while. Do not wait for me. D."
I just love that "D."

Anyway, is this ruined but insistent nobility a veneer, a ruse for drawing in innocent victims? Is it a political comment by Stoker? Answer to both questions: yes. But does it also constitute a psychology--a way for readers to understand and maybe slightly identify with D.?

Having discovered that he is a prisoner in the castle, Jonathan attempts to get Dracula talking, to see what he can find out about his situation. Dracula does like to talk, especially about the past. And he has some grudges:

Midnight.--I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvania history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a Boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said "we", and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country. He grew excited as he spoke, and walked about the room pulling his great white moustache and grasping anything on which he laid his hands as though he would crush it by main strength. One thing he said which I shall put down as nearly as I can, for it tells in its way the story of his race.

"We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?" He held up his arms. "Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race, that we were proud, that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back? Is it strange that when Arpad and his legions swept through the Hungarian fatherland he found us here when he reached the frontier, that the Honfoglalas was completed there? And when the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious Magyars, and to us for centuries was trusted the guarding of the frontier of Turkeyland. Aye, and more than that, endless duty of the frontier guard, for as the Turks say, 'water sleeps, and the enemy is sleepless.' Who more gladly than we throughout the Four Nations received the 'bloody sword,' or at its warlike call flocked quicker to the standard of the King? When was redeemed that great shame of my nation, the shame of Cassova, when the flags of the Wallach and the Magyar went down beneath the Crescent? Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed! Woe was it that his own unworthy brother, when he had fallen, sold his people to the Turk and brought the shame of slavery on them! Was it not this Dracula, indeed, who inspired that other of his race who in a later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkeyland, who, when he was beaten back, came again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody field where his troops were being slaughtered, since he knew that he alone could ultimately triumph! They said that he thought only of himself. Bah! What good are peasants without a leader? Where ends the war without a brain and heart to conduct it? Again, when, after the battle of Mohacs, we threw off the Hungarian yoke, we of the Dracula blood were amongst their leaders, for our spirit would not brook that we were not free. Ah, young sir, the Szekelys, and the Dracula as their heart's blood, their brains, and their swords, can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace, and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told."

Dracula's story is the story of a people. Not of a good people or a nice people--indeed, they seem to be a seriously fascist people. But their glories are all in the past, and Dracula, clearly, has not moved on. When Jonathan discovers Dracula in his coffin, he sees in the count's eyes "such a look of hate, though unconscious of me or my presence, that I fled from the place..." In other words, the count is not simply a killing machine, although he is that; he is motivated by revenge for a deep, historical humiliation. One gathers he witnessed these historical humiliations personally, which must make them sting all the more.

Does this history make Dracula sympathetic? Definitely not. Understandable? More intriguing? I think so. The history gives him dimension. It also moves the story beyond a horror that befalls some unlucky people in Transylvania and England. Dracula embodies history, and is embedded in it. Peel back history, or lift its coffin lid, and we find this guy staring up at us. Since we're all part of history, we can't escape, not completely.

To the extent that Stoker wants to make Dracula complex, I think he succeeds. The count is at least as multidimensional as any of the other characters in the story. After all, the main purpose of this story is to scare us, not to set us to contemplating the nuances of human interactions as inflected by class and ethnicity. But the fact that Dracula still has a foot in the human realm, and in human motivations (base though they may be), makes him harder for readers to dismiss once the book is closed.

*By "mere," I do not wish to imply that bloodsucking is a trivial matter. It is a big deal.

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