Perhaps no novel has spawned as much fan fiction as Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula, which, while not inventing the vampire, certainly thrust this Eastern European monster into the limelight of modern culture that has since developed into an obsession. Countless retellings, spinoffs, and film adaptations of this classic piece of literature may cause many people to feel they know the story well without having necessarily read it.
But for anyone who has at any level ever felt the siren call of this gripping story, it is gross neglect to omit reading the original text; it is a rollicking, heart pumping, wild ride, as well written as the plot is well orchestrated. With such elements as seductive versions of Macbeth’s three Weird Sisters, decaying castles in Transylvania, madhouses, highly sexual overtones, homicidal mania, trips to graveyards at night, and — of course — the threat of vampires taking over Europe, this classic is anything but boring.
In his introduction to the beautifully illustrated Folio Society edition, John Banville writes that Stoker was a “pot-boiler and man of the theatre, who set out to write a rattling yarn that would freeze the cockles of our hearts and who in the process succeeded, no doubt to his own astonishment, in creating a deathless classic.” Supporting its undying interest are the many deeper currents of the novel beyond its spellbinding plot that invite study and discussion. An area I find particularly interesting is Stoker’s treatment of foreigners in Britain.
Written by a British author, Dracula primarily takes place on English soil with English protagonists, yet three foreigners ultimately dominate the narrative in a primal power struggle, with American heroics receiving top billing. Stoker toured America five times in his life, the first of which was in 1883 when he met Walt Whitman, whose poetry he had admired since 1868. In 1887, he met William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the famous “impresario of the Wild West show,” and in 1888 Stoker gave a lecture on Lincoln and the American Civil War. On his fifth tour in 1895, he met President Theodore Roosevelt, subsequently publishing Dracula two years later.
He was so favorably impressed by the president’s persona that he modeled his hero after him. The novel’s American character, a swashbuckling Texas cowboy named Quincey Morris, emerges as Dracula’s perfect foil. His stark contrast with the villain provides him with a unique and crucial facility in Dracula’s defeat, which in Stoker’s portrayal naturally involves the Bowie knife. The other benevolent foreigner is the Dutch professor, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, who brings the necessary knowledge to the table in order to bring down the fiend from Transylvania and save the seemingly helpless British from their foreign threat.
Stoker’s portrayal of these three foreigners, who seize center stage and possess all the agency and power in the novel, raises questions of British xenophobia. Dracula embodies Britain’s worst nightmare of a foreigner penetrating their island borders as an alien disguised beyond recognition through careful study of their culture. Stoker qualifies his negative portrayal of foreigners by showing Morris and Dr. Van Helsing to be not only unthreatening but beneficial while still remaining clearly “other.”
Though Dracula is thoroughly foreign in customs and language from the British, he is able to disguise himself perfectly as a native Englishman when in London, and therein lies the danger for Stoker. Morris and Dr. Van Helsing retain their distinctive accents from their native countries as well as defining cultural characteristics. Count Dracula invades the country to ruin its people, and Morris and Dr. Van Helsing enter to save them.
In creating the American as the ultimate hero and indispensable member of the “Crew of Light,” Stoker relates his political views of America as an important rising world power and ally to Great Britain in the near future, which proves to be historically true in light of World Wars I and II. As one British character remarks of Morris, “He bore himself through it like a moral Viking. If America can go on breeding men like that, she will be a power in the world indeed.”