Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

'Darkness… Night… Things of the night… Dracula…'

Not that anyone reads this, but I’m contending with a bit of a stumper and could do with some input.

I’m stuck on the question of narrative format in “Dracula” by Bram Stoker (1898), wondering specifically why the author chose to use the epistulo-diaristic mode as opposed to a straightforward first- or third-person approach. It may be a convention of the period; and I’m reminded somewhat of the framed narrative approach Mary Shelley took in “Frankenstein” (1818).

In “Dracula” the mitigating devices of letters and journals render the tale as a historical document as opposed to the sort of ur-story of first- and third-person narrations. By this I mean that in a modern novel it’s essentially a given that the narrator is not producing an actual document; that the book we hold in our hands is actually a ghost: a constriction of one point of view created for a fiction reader and not an archivist. The narratives of most novels, in this sense, do not exist actually or tangibly; whereas diaries and letters definitely do.

“Dracula’s” epigraph calls the book “a history almost at variance with the possibilities of latter-day belief [that] may stand forth as simple fact.” Here and there are comments by the characters on the keeping of this record, and sketches of journalistic convention at the time.

Mina Harker (nee Murray) writes: “I shall try to do what I see lady journalists do, interviewing and writing descriptions and trying to remember conversations. I am told that, with a little practice, one can remember all that goes on or that one hears said during a day” (57).

There are included in the novel, as if pasted into a scrapbook, two newspaper clippings: one from the “Dailygraph,” (80ff), and one from the “Pall Mall Gazette” (143ff). Striking about these -- to a newsman like myself anyway -- is the approach. There are no snappy ledes or nutgrafs, no inverted pyramid. Rather they are chronological and overly detailed accounts not of the news itself but the reporters’ efforts in getting the news.

Organizing the documents into a coherent narrative clearly serves a purpose for the protagonists. They are assembling clues to a mystery. And Jonathan adds: “Mina and I fear to be idle, so we have been over all the diaries again and again. Somehow, although the reality seems greater each time, the pain and the fear seem less. There is something of a guiding purpose manifest throughout, which is comforting” (334).

I feel a distant echo of this tendency toward constricting the relevant past to a coherent historical present in the Netherlandian Dr. Abraham Van Helsing’s inability to use the perfect tense. The learned foreigner’s linguistic shortcoming is most assuredly the author’s invention, but it may be an elucidating one.

Perhaps I’m stuck on this question of narrative because I came to the novel already knowing roughly what would happen in it. “Dracula” is one of those texts so encoded in the pop culture psyche that its outlines can be guessed with some accuracy even on a first in-earnest reading. None of the adaptations, I recollect, concerned themselves with Stoker’s bulky storytelling apparatus.

Five points for anyone who recognizers the quote in my headline. For those who don’t, see this.

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