Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How character can help plot

So Dracula has been a bit of a slog this week. How can this be, when this week's reading culminated in the still-somewhat-shocking scene of Dracula forcing Mina to drink from a vein in his chest--like "a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink"?

Well, to get to this point, we have to slog through some pretty tedious plot logistics, which are rendered necessary by faulty characterization. If I may be so bold. Yes, I get that this is a horror novel, not a literary novel, and so characterization is secondary to plot. But in this case the plot problem is actually a character problem. Or maybe even a philosophical problem that hampers characterization.

Stoker, perhaps deliberately, misunderstands the nature of heroism. Dracula is fundamentally a story of good vs. evil, but Stoker mistakes "good" for "perfect." His male heroes, in order to be heroes, all have to be indisputably wise, brave, diligent, strong, and solicitous of the weaker sex. But his plot demands that all these perfect guys fail utterly to discern that Mina is being attacked by Dracula while they are out looking for Dracula. This failure would suggest that they are at least somewhat deficient in wisdom, bravery, diligence, strength, and consideration.

But in this understanding of heroism, that can't be. Therefore, we need elaborate explanations as to how this failure occurred that don't entail personal failings in the characters. These explanations are convoluted and ultimately not convincing. Contrary to the author's apparent intentions, they even make the characters look dumb and callous. After all they've been through--all the research, all the collating and comparing of documents, not to mention the wasting away and then the bloody murder of Lucy, which they all saw and participated in...they still have no idea what is happening to Mina.

To be fair, Mina herself seems to have no idea. She, like her husband and the expert Van Helsing, insist on seeing her problem as womanly nerves. She is more tired than usual, pale and weepy--which suggests being "visited" by Dracula is like getting your period. These symptoms confirm for both Mina and the guys that they were right in having her stay at home alone while the men went out to not find Dracula. The fact that it is unusual for Mina to behave this way does not raise any red flags--if anything, it seems to bring relief to all concerned (including the author) that Mina really is (just) a woman. We were right not to bring her along--just look at how exhausted she is from merely thinking about hunting vampires! Whereas we sort of suspect that Mina, if she had gone along, would have found and staked Dracula in a second, while the guys were still leafing through UPS notices, debating the whereabouts of the boxes of earth that Dracula has had shipped to England.

But what if Stoker had a different definition of heroism? Let's say Jonathan is a bit dumber than his wife. Say he's uncomfortable with this--it threatens his sense of manhood, which is already under threat because he's not brave, or at least thinks he isn't. This is understandable. He lives in an age in which women aren't supposed to be smarter or braver than their husbands; moreover, Jonathan has been through some serious trauma in Castle Dracula. We would understand if he were scared and confused, and perhaps too quick to attribute Mina's pallor to a stereotype that he knows, deep down, is wrong. And let's say Van Helsing was once a great vampire hunter. But the years, and the grisly nature of his business, have taken their toll. Some part of him just doesn't want to deal with Dracula. He doesn't want to cut off another head and stuff the mouth with garlic. He's old and tired. Maybe he even has some sympathy for the creatures he has to kill--cast out by God and man, and it isn't their fault, really...Can't someone else take over? I could even see Mina and Dracula having an interesting conversation before know. Mina can't help being drawn to the Count--she knows he's bad, really bad, but so much more interesting than Jonathan, with his endless nattering about real estate and office politics...

So the scared young guy and the exhausted old guy and the smart but frustrated woman make a series of mistakes. Their psychology causes them to willfully misread Mina's illness, allowing Dracula to almost do her in. But they pull themselves together, despite their fear, exhaustion, revulsion, and stupidity, to do what they have to do in the end. Isn't that a more compelling definition of heroism? Overcoming one's flaws to do the right, and hard thing?

On the other hand, who am I to criticize? Dracula has, you know, done all right as a novel. It will no doubt outlast us all. It's a classic. And, again, I know Stoker didn't set out to write a literary/psychological novel. It's just that he almost did. And while I don't write genre novels, and can't really presume to tell others how to do it, it still seems to me that *even* genre novels benefit from having complex, flawed characters. It would make at least this plot more interesting and believable.

No comments: