Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Borrowed Fire: What do authors know about their own intentions? Or, Jonathan, you idiot!

I have said it before: Keanu Reeves was the right choice to play Jonathan Harker in Dracula. First, a highlight reel to prove my point:

And now this week's reading. He and the boys have been out looking for the Count, and--amazingly--not finding him. Instead they have just managed to "count" (ha!) the boxes of earth in the chapel, and play with some schnauzers. From Jonathan's journal:

I came tiptoe into our own room, and found Mina asleep, breathing so softly that I had to put my ear down to hear it. She looks paler than usual. I hope the meeting tonight has not upset her. I am truly thankful that she is to be left out of our future work, and even of our deliberations. It is too great a strain for a woman to bear. I did not think so at first, but I know better now. Therefore I am glad that it is settled. There may be things which would frighten her to hear, and yet to conceal them from her might be worse than to tell her if once she suspected that there was any concealment. Henceforth our work is to be a sealed book to her, till at least such time as we can tell her that all is finished, and the earth free from a monster of the nether world. I daresay it will be difficult to begin to keep silence after such confidence as ours, but I must be resolute, and tomorrow I shall keep dark over tonight's doings, and shall refuse to speak of anything that has happened. I rest on the sofa, so as not to disturb her. (Emphasis added, because Jonathan is too dumb to see it.)

Two things. Thing One: after all the vampire-induced horrors that everyone, including Jonathan, has been through, he still misinterprets Mina's pallor as nothing more than womanly nerves--even though Mina has proven time and again she is not subject to womanly nerves. Jonathan is. Which leads us to Thing Two: IF Jonathan had given Mina her due and let her come out with the boys to look for Dracula, she would not have been left alone to be fed on by same.

Overtly, Stoker seems very keen on stifling any hints of feminine strength--bravery, sexuality, taking charge, knowing stuff. Witness Vampire Lucy's punishment when she makes the moves on Arthur. And maybe getting drained by Dracula is Mina's punishment for even vaguely wanting--without forcing the issue in any way, mind you--to be considered an equal. Surely the endpoint is the same: she will need to be rescued and redeemed by men. Still--Stoker seems to be making repeated efforts to reveal Mina's intelligence and strength in contrast to her husband's relative obtuseness and ineffectualness.

If this is the case, and not just me imposing my own beliefs on the story, my question is, does Stoker intend for us to read the story this way? I know, for readers, it ultimately does not matter: we see what we see. But for writers, is it incumbent upon us to recognize our latent intentions and draw them out? Is Stoker's treatment of Mina and Jonathan actually subversive because he did recognize the situation, and decided not to hit is over the head with it? Or do Mina and Jonathan's more nontraditional qualities come across as unintentional?

My Signet Classic version of the novel has an introduction by Leonard Wolf, who asserts that the novel "has embedded in it a very disturbing psychosexual allegory whose meaning I am not sure Stoker entirely understood." If Lucy were the main female character, I would tend to agree. But the dynamic between Mina and Jonathan suggests another level of awareness, if not full consciousness, that men sell women short. In fact, the way Jonathan always has to keep his wife down for her own good makes him a kind of author-insert. Stoker sometimes clumsily reins his female characters in--he may think it's necessary, but he also may suspect it's stupid.

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