Once in a while, I come across a work of fiction that should be better than it is, and unfortunately Bram Stoker’s Dracula fits firmly into that category. The premise carries the novel through, and the story does have some strong points, but Stoker does a couple of things that undermine the whole work.
The first major problem is that Stoker wrote this as an epistolary novel. I believe this style used to be much more common than it is now, but was already long past its prime when Stoker wrote Dracula, and good riddance. Ideally, the epistolary style adds a sense of realism, making the reader feel like he’s a researcher going through primary documents, rather than reading an artificially constructed narrative. Since much of Dracula is essentially a mystery story, this approach does serve the plot well. However, I found the constant changes in narrator, and the changes in tone, setting, and style that accompanied that, distracting, and it made the novel more difficult to get into. Also, the epistolary style doesn’t do as good a job of conveying action as a basic third-person narration, and overall the novel may have been better if Stoker had simply used the third-person omniscient narrator.
Dracula’s second major problem is that it peaks too soon. The first act, roughly the first quarter of the story, is by far the best part of the novel. First of all, having just one narrator, Jonathan Harker, removes the problems with the epistolary style I mentioned above. Also, the portrayal of the Transylvanian townspeople’s anxiety when they hear that Harker plans to meet Count Dracula does a great job of setting up a feeling of dread. For example, one woman insists that he take along a rosary; Harker, a Protestant, is initially reluctant, but says that he was so impressed by her earnestness and obvious worry that he accepted anyway. Once at Dracula’s castle, the suspense continues to build and build as Harker gradually discovers the count’s true nature and intentions, and ends on a note of near-despair as Harker tries but fails to stop him.
Then it stops and we read a pair of letters from Lucy and Mina talking about the young men who’d proposed to Lucy recently. These letters do introduce some characters who become important later, but the change in tone is so abrupt that the first time I tried reading this novel a few years ago I actually stopped there. The novel does make a partial recovery and much of the rest of the novel is also very effective, but it never becomes as intense as that first act, and feels underwhelming as a result.
As a minor complaint, I’d have liked to see more of Dracula himself. I realise that he’s supposed to be a mysterious figure, but by the end of Harker’s stay at his castle we already know what he is anyway, and we never get to actually see Dracula do very much. Most of the novel is just the other characters talking about him, without much of a payoff.