The Narrative Technique of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula'
"Within stood a tall old man ... without a single speck of colour about him anywhere." With characteristic subtlety, Bram Stoker introduces the titular character in his novel "Dracula"; the blood-gutted king of vampires first appears as completely colorless. Such appearance-versus-reality descriptions are one of several devices Stoker uses in his remarkable narrative technique. He keeps the reader at a distance from the novel's horrific events, an effect he knows will actually heighten the horror.
The Distance of a Diary
Some of the book's most resounding horrors -- Dracula clambering bat-like down a wall, the attack of the vampire women, a mother clamoring for her slaughtered baby -- occur in the first chapters at Transylvania's Castle Dracula. However, they are told at a remove from narrative immediacy: We read them as entries in Jonathan Harker's journal. Written by the character long after the events, these opening episodes avoid the breathless sense of cliched first-person adventures told as the events happen. These are the horrors Harker remembers at a distance, which makes them even more vivid.
Epistolary but Not Fragmented
The entire novel is epistolary, written as diary and journal entries, letters and telegrams, all of which give the reader perspectives from different major characters. However, far from fragmenting the narrative line, the technique actually reinforces it. We grasp the "map" of the novel as piecemeal, but follow the scarlet thread of the evil presence that has come to London from Transylvania, because we perceive that thread -- the outside evil of vampirism -- infecting the lives of Mina Murray, Dr. Van Helsing, Harker and Dr. Seward more intensely with every diary entry.
Count Him Out
In his book "Danse Macabre," Stephen King notes that Stoker "humanizes the outside evil ... by keeping the Count literally outside." He refers to Stoker's most spectacular narrative trick: Dracula, after chapter Four, disappears for long stretches, returning briefly to the narrative to attack Mina, kill Renfield or confront Van Helsing. Stoker never allows this most engaging monster further prominence, not even at the novel's end. Having firmly established the vampiric menace from the outset, the author is content to keep him largely offstage; his absence makes our fear grow fonder.
Appearance Versus Reality
Sarah Backhouse, in "Narrative and Temporality in 'Dracula,'" notes that Stoker "juxtaposed reality with the supernatural" by giving his major players characteristics at odds with romantic-novel expectations. The vampire slayer Van Helsing uses absurd talismans and fiddles with a phonograph diary. Lucy Seward, with her fiance Arthur Holmwood, is stuffily proper by day; by night, she lusts after her bloodthirsty seducer. Even Stoker's decorous Victorian prose describes events of weird sexuality and ferocious horror as Dracula's evil, a snake in tall grass, glides just beneath the prim narrative line.
- Gutenberg.org: Dracula (e-book)
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Epistolary Novel
- Institute for Human and Machine Cognition: CMAPS: Dracula by Bram Stoker (narrative map)
- Danse Macabre; Stephen King (Berkley paperback, 1983)
- The Publishing Lab: Narrative and Temporality in Dracula, page 9
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.