Monday, October 11, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The somewhat disappointing demise of Dracula

It is done. Dracula is finished. And what an ending it is, or isn't, for the title character.

Our heroes have been racing toward Castle Dracula, trying to intercept the cart bearing the Count's coffin before the sun sets. They've split up into various parties, and the actual death scene is narrated by Mina, who's watching from a short distance away with Van Helsing. Here's how Dracula dies:

By this time the gypsies, seeing themselves covered by the Winchesters, and at the mercy of Lord Godalming and Dr. Seward, had given in and made no further resistance. The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well.

As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.

But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan's great knife. I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat. Whilst at the same moment Mr. Morris's bowie knife plunged into the heart.

It was like a miracle, but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.

I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.

I dunno. I guess I was expecting a little more drama. The racing-against-the-sunset thing is all right, but I was sort of expecting Dracula to at least say something before crumbling into dust. Or to present a greater danger to his killers, to put up some kind of fight. Earlier we got a hint of this, during an unsuccessful attempt to do him in:

Harker evidently meant to try the matter, for he had ready his great Kukri knife and made a fierce and sudden cut at him. The blow was a powerful one; only the diabolical quickness of the Count's leap back saved him. A second less and the trenchant blade had shorn through his heart. As it was, the point just cut the cloth of his coat, making a wide gap whence a bundle of bank notes and a stream of gold fell out. The expression of the Count's face was so hellish, that for a moment I feared for Harker, though I saw him throw the terrible knife aloft again for another stroke. Instinctively I moved forward with a protective impulse, holding the Crucifix and Wafer in my left hand. I felt a mighty power fly along my arm, and it was without surprise that I saw the monster cower back before a similar movement made spontaneously by each one of us. It would be impossible to describe the expression of hate and baffled malignity, of anger and hellish rage, which came over the Count's face. His waxen hue became greenish-yellow by the contrast of his burning eyes, and the red scar on the forehead showed on the pallid skin like a palpitating wound. The next instant, with a sinuous dive he swept under Harker's arm, ere his blow could fall, and grasping a handful of the money from the floor, dashed across the room, threw himself at the window. Amid the crash and glitter of the falling glass, he tumbled into the flagged area below. Through the sound of the shivering glass I could hear the "ting" of the gold, as some of the sovereigns fell on the flagging.

We ran over and saw him spring unhurt from the ground. He, rushing up the steps, crossed the flagged yard, and pushed open the stable door. There he turned and spoke to us.

"You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest, but I have more. My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed. Bah!"

With a contemptuous sneer, he passed quickly through the door, and we heard the rusty bolt creak as he fastened it behind him. A door beyond opened and shut. The first of us to speak was the Professor. Realizing the difficulty of following him through the stable, we moved toward the hall.

This promises much for the ultimate showdown. But now, at his long-awaited death scene, all he gets to do is glare, and then zip! All over. He is not granted so much as a "Bah!," let alone a threat to make the lot of them his jackals when he wants to feed.

One reason for this may be the choice to show the scene through Mina's eyes. As I've repeated to the point of tedium, Stoker seems to recognize Mina as both the smartest and the bravest person on the whole team. Van Helsing certainly says as much, though he tends to do it in a patronizing tone, neutralizing the threat Mina presents. For instance, after the men have lost the trail, Mina uses logic to figure out where Dracula is going:

When I had done reading, Jonathan took me in his arms and kissed me. The others kept shaking me by both hands, and Dr. Van Helsing said, "Our dear Madam Mina is once more our teacher. Her eyes have been where we were blinded. Now we are on the track once again, and this time we may succeed."

Like one of the characters said on Mad Men when Peggy came up with her first slogan: "it was like a dog playing the piano." Mina, far more than a simple victim, comes close to rendering the whole posse of men irrelevant--she's smart and physically brave; only her weakness from the "vampire baptism" would seem to hold her back from being able to destroy her attacker herself. So I sense that in having her narrate the killing of Dracula, Stoker is somehow trying to give Mina her due, while at the same time making sure the male heroes have something important (and traditional) to contribute. Because of her social position, she can't do the actual deed, but she can at least tell the story of the deed.

But because she is an observer and not a participant in the action, she's not engaged in the life-and-death struggle with the vampire. This means the opportunity for any kind of existential struggle is lost--for example, Dracula looking into his killer's eyes and saying, "Zo. You are like me after all. I didn't think you had the guts..." Or, had it been Mina who killed him, he might have made an almost persuasive appeal to her latent desires for power and freedom: "We shall rule the night. We shall fly together through darkness, through fields of stars. These twerps here shall be our jackals. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life proofreading Jonathan's legal prose?"

Again, I realize the book is not intended to be psychologically challenging on this level, but it almost is, in so many places. Even here, as Mina sees the "peace" on the Count's face, we're reminded that this hasn't been a simple story of good and evil, that it's had to be squished a bit to fit in that box.

Also, my theory here is not airtight. Why couldn't Mina observe and narrate a more complex scenario? Maybe she could even have wanted to intervene, to help Jonathan, who always needs her help? She could try escaping from the holy circle Van Helsing has set up around her, throw herself again and again against the force field...

I don't know. Maybe Stoker just wanted the whole thing to be overwith. Or he didn't want to risk giving the Count any final statements that could lead to doubts about the rightness of his killers' actions. But I think the ultimate issue is this: like Mina herself, the novel is far more intelligent and interesting than its tradition--in this case, its genre--allows it to be.

Anyway, what can we learn from this, as writers of contemporary literary fiction? A genre frame--like the Gothic novel, the detective novel, the romance, etc.--can give you some wonderful creative constraints. But if you're going to challenge those constraints, you really have to break all the way through. Don't just mosey up to them and poke at them, or your readers might not realize what you're doing.

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