Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to be generous to your characters

It's not a new idea that Mina is the hero of Dracula. For example, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, she gets transformed into a Victorian super-spy.

She also has her own Wikipedia page, which tells us that "[l]ike her friend Lucy, Mina is highly idealized: she is described by Stoker as a pure, angelic wife and (symbolic) mother." Well, sorta. Yes, she is utterly dedicated to Jonathan, and learns shorthand so she can help him with his profession as a solicitor. She makes jokes about the "New Woman," suggesting she does not harbor unseemly aspirations beyond being the helpmeet. On the other hand, she is exceedingly smart and resourceful. She is level-headed, unlike the more flighty Lucy, whom Mina keeps having to rescue from her sleepwalking excursions. If the women are idealized, they're idealized in completely different ways: Lucy is the beautiful, trusting, helpless victim. Mina takes charge. It may be that Stoker will keep her within the acceptable boundaries of female behavior, possibly through the offices of the novel's title character; but she's going to put up a struggle.

I think it's significant that Stoker gives a good portion of the story to Mina to narrate. And to do so, he gives her his own considerable powers of observation and description. For example, Mina writes:

There were very few people about, and though the sun was bright, and the air clear and fresh, the big, grim-looking waves, that seemed dark themselves because the foam that topped them was like snow, forced themselves in through the mouth of the harbour, like a bullying man going through a crowd.

Good, huh? Stoker lets this character, who might easily be cast as a victim, be as smart as he is. This is an act of generosity and respect. It also proves extremely useful, since he needs her to tell his story as precisely and believably as possible.

Mina deploys her powers again to excellent effect a few pages later, after rescuing Lucy from atop their favorite seat in the churchyard, where "something" with "a white face and red, gleaming eyes" is bending over her. Mina wraps a shawl around Lucy and attempts to fasten it with a safety pin. The next day, she writes in her journal:

The adventure of the night does not seem to have harmed her, on the contrary, it has benefited her, for she looks better this morning than she has done for weeks. I was sorry to notice that my clumsiness with the safety-pin hurt her. Indeed, it might have been serious, for the skin of her throat was pierced. I must have pinched up a piece of loose skin and have transfixed it, for there are two little red points like pin-pricks, and on the band of her nightdress was a drop of blood. When I apologised and was concerned about it, she laughed and petted me, and said she did not even feel it. Fortunately it cannot leave a scar, as it is so tiny.

For suspense to build, we need the point of view of someone astute enough to closely observe what's going on and describe it accurately. At the same time, she must be plausibly deceived, so that the truth can be revealed over time--and so the unfortunate Lucy can get in more trouble. Mina's attentiveness to the safety pin shows a highly alert, sensitive character making a reasonable mistake. It's true that she gives less thought than might be expected, at least initially, to the red-eyed figure she saw bending over Lucy in the churchyard. But I am willing to forgive Stoker this possible lapse, because of how precisely observed this safety-pin business is. I have done some of Stoker's work for him: I've told myself that Mina's so relieved that she hasn't hurt Lucy that she "forgot" everything else. An author can earn that effort from a reader by creating characters that he himself clearly respects. He's generous in the gifts he gives them, so we want to do the same.

Still, you can maybe pull this off once in a novel. You can't rely on smart characters to get you through your implausible plot points. Stoker can't manage the same trick when other characters, namely Lucy's mother and Van Helsing, get involved. Maybe because Mina's so savvy, he needs these other characters to do something really foolish so that Lucy can be properly victimized. Left to Mina, she'd have been out of danger long ago.

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