Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel told in epistolary form – meaning the story is told entirely through documents, in this case journal entries and newspaper clippings. Epistolary is a very effective technique for writing certain types of stories, and one that I feel is generally under-appreciated. In Dracula the epistolary form is used brilliantly to enhance the sense of mystery and suspense in the novel, and to add to the overall chilling effect of the story.
One of the ways in which epistolary form enhances the suspense is through the use of first person narration – from multiple sources. In a traditional first-person narration the reader follows a single protagonist, knowing only what they know and seeing only what they see. This can be a welcome insight into a character’s psyche, but can also be restrictive to the author since they cannot add outside information to the story. In epistolary form many characters can contribute first-person narratives to the novel at once, allowing the reader to get inside the heads of many people simultaneously and lending the novel a sense of a truly ensemble story.
In Dracula we are told the story primarily through journal entries from three of the main characters, each of whom have their own opinions and relationship to the central mystery of the novel. When all three characters are in the same place or participating in the same plan, the author’s choice of which journal to show us reveals subtle layers within the story itself. Near the midpoint of the novel, Mina Harker begins to fall victim to the same strange wasting effects that she had noticed in Lucy earlier on. While the Lucy chapters are narrated almost exclusively by Mina, now that the affliction has struck Mina the reader suddenly stops hearing from her and the narration switches to Dr. Seward. In this way Stoker manages to never quite tell us what’s really happening from the perspective of someone who is directly experiencing it. Like the characters themselves, we as readers can only see the effects of the mysterious ailment and theorize about its source.
When the characters are in separate locations or participating in separate activities, the choice of when and how to switch narrators is carefully designed to throw the reader off-guard. The novel begins with a sizable chunk told from the perspective of Jonathan Harker, as he travels to Castle Dracula and meets its namesake Count. Just when the reader has been lulled into thinking that the whole story will be told from this perspective, Jonathan decides to attempt a daring escape from the castle. He ends his journal entry with the phrase “Goodbye all. Mina!” (P.86) – and then the narrative abruptly switches to a happy-go-lucky letter sent by Mina to her best friend about her plans to come visit. We do not hear from Johnathan again for quite some time. The reader to begins to worry – how did his escape attempt go? Did he get captured – or worse? We are shown that Mina suspects nothing, and that the letters which Dracula forced Jonathan to write ahead of time and future-date are arriving on schedule, which just makes us worry more. Telling the story through multiple first-person accounts allows the reader to begin to piece the puzzle together ahead of the characters, increasing the sense of anticipation, or even dread, at what will happen when the characters finally figure it out.
Telling the story through diary entries also creates a unique and intriguing sense of time. Rather than a typical past-tense narrative, each diary entry begins in past tense as the character recounts the events of the previous day or so, and ends by bringing the narrative up to the present, often discussing their feelings or worries in present tense before ending the entry. The next entry jumps forward another day and again recounts the previous day up to the current moment, then stops. This jerky back-and-forward style of narration, oddly enough, places the reader firmly in the present by reminding them that the character who is narrating does not know any more about what will happen tomorrow than the reader does. In a standard narrative form, the reader can generally assume that the narrator already knows how the story ends, and is simply retelling it. By telling the story through diary entries, Stoker heightens the sense of dread and anticipation by reminding the reader constantly that the characters know no more than the reader – and sometimes much less. This technique is particularly effective for horror stories or mysteries – of which Dracula is both – because it maintains the suspense and uncertainty right through to the end.