Literature Spotlight: Peripheral Presence

In some works of literature, a character who appears briefly, or does not appear at all, is a significant presence. Choose a novel or play of literary merit and write an essay in which you show how such a character functions in the work. You may wish to discuss how the character affects action, theme, or the development of other characters. Avoid plot summary.
~AP Literature Open Essay Prompt, 1994

Peripheral Presence

Having your name in the title of a book doesn’t mean you get to be in the spotlight. Take the classic 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker. The eponymous vampire appears in person surprisingly little, and only once after his initial conversations with Jonathan Harker. Despite this, he still very much deserves the honor of the novel’s title. His actions set the events of the novel in motion, and the main characters talk of nothing else but him. While not directly seen, his actions leave tangible consequences on Lucy, Mina, and Renfield, and his offstage plotting leaves the heroes struggling to keep up, to determine his motives and his next movements before he can execute on them. While he rarely physically shares the same space as our heroes, their knowledge of Dracula’s constant scheming and plotting spurs them to act decisively, take risks, and in a variety of ways give their life’s blood in service of his destruction. In a sense, Dracula is the one who turns them into heroes.

At the start of the novel, solicitor Jonathan Harker is brought to Dracula’s estate in the Carpathians to help close the sale of some British land to the Count. Harker is welcomed into Dracula’s castle, sight unseen, put up in one of the castle’s gorgeous rooms and treated as an honored guest. At home in his castle in the mountains, Dracula clearly feels comfortable enough in his power to invite a random human into his home. He must not see Harker as much of a threat – and, truth be told, he is correct. Harker is not a threat – at first. Through repeated contact with Dracula and his genteel but immutable scheming, Harker becomes more and more aware that he is being held prisoner in the castle, and more and more determined to escape his gilded cage. Finally, he summons up the courage to scale the outside wall of the castle in an attempt to catch Dracula unawares. “The chances are desperate, but my need is more desperate still. I shall risk it. At the worst it can only be death; and a man’s death is not a calf’s, and the dreaded Hereafter may still be open to me.” (P. 93) Dracula’s presence and true nature have given Harker a new perspective on risky behavior, namely, that death is not the worst thing that could happen to him, and that he would actually rather die doing a courageous thing than be slaughtered to the vampires like livestock.

After leaving the Carpathians and traveling to Whitby by sea, Dracula begins turning Lucy. We do not see this happen in person; rather we see our main characters responding to Lucy’s curiously declining health. Over the course of two weeks, all four of the male main characters donate blood to her in a series of transfusions. Each one seems to work until the next morning, when she is found to be even paler and sicklier than before, prompting Quincey to exclaim, “Ten days!…that poor pretty creature that we all love has had put into her veins within that time the blood of four strong men. Man alive, her whole body wouldn’t hold it…What took it out?” (P.232) In this way, Dracula has invoked one of the main themes of the novel: the equating of blood and life. By draining her blood, Dracula is quite literally stealing her life – and by extension, that of the four men who love her. Blood transfusions in this time period were a very risky operation, especially when performed without a proper operating theater. These four strong men who love her are giving their life’s blood to save her – a theme that will continue throughout the novel.

Once poor Lucy has been released from her undeath, the thoughts of the men turn irrevocably to Dracula. Only Harker has seen Dracula in person, and yet all five men feel an intense hatred of the vampire and an intense desire to ensure that what happened to Lucy does not happen to anyone else. Their conversations and constant stewing over Dracula’s whereabouts and motives are a large part of what shapes them into heroes, helped along by their connection with Mina. Harker’s wife is read in to their plans and, though they encourage her to shelter herself from the actual dirty work, she assists them through philosophical conversations about the vampire, his motives, and his nature.

“I know that you must fight – that you must destroy even as you destroyed the false Lucy so that the true Lucy might live hereafter; but it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him, too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.” (P. 420)

Through her sage guidance, the men are able to find a way to pity the creature even as they seek to destroy him – a very heroic attitude to take.

Though their attitude may be heroic, their attempts to act the hero don’t always succeed, thanks to Dracula’s extreme guile and cunning. The men initially urge Mina to stay home while they go about the dangerous tasks involved in the pursuit of Dracula, believing it to be inappropriate work for a woman. This plan backfires when it allows Dracula to successfully put Mina under his thrall. The men catch Dracula in the act – in pretty much the only other physical appearance of Dracula in the novel. After chasing him away and regrouping Mina appears to have survived relatively unscathed, though she is shaken, bitten and bloody. However, when Van Helsing attempts to bless Mina with a piece of sacred wafer it instead burns her flesh, leaving a scar on her forehead. Mina exclaims in the aftermath of this incident, “Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh! I must bear this mark of shame upon my forehead until the Judgement Day.” (P. 406-407) Even though Dracula himself is not physically present – and indeed, is not seen again until the very last pages – Mina’s ‘polluted flesh’ serves as a painful and tangible reminder of the creature’s presence.

Dracula’s presence also has a tangible effect on Dr. Seward’s ‘zoophagous’ patient, Renfield. Dracula’s estate, Carfax, is next door to the asylum, and the reader gradually begins to realize that they can tell whether Dracula is home or away based on Renfield’s behavior. Renfield gives up his zoophagous obsession at one point, and based on his ramblings the reader understands that this is because he believes Dracula is coming to rescue him. Dracula comes home to Carfax, and the reader knows this not because Stoker shows him coming home, but because Renfield escapes the asylum. Seward finds Renfield pressed against the door of Carfax’s chapel, muttering “I am here to do Your bidding, Master. I am Your slave, and You will reward me, for I shall be faithful. I have worshipped You long and afar off.” (P.170) In my annotated edition by editor Leslie Klinger, an annotation on this sequence points out that there has been no communication that we know of between Dracula and Renfield, so “this again seems to be confirmation that Dracula in some way transmits his presence to those sensitive enough to detect it.” Just as Mina is linked to Dracula through his thrall and can be hypnotized into seeing through his eyes, Renfield is linked to Dracula in some supernatural way, and this in turn affects his behavior.

While Dracula may not show his face very often, his presence is keenly felt by all six of Stoker’s central characters. Urged on by Dracula’s seemingly-unstoppable offstage scheming, our protagonists perform (and undergo) emergency surgical procedures, cut the head off of a beloved young lady’s corpse, break into houses, and chase gypsies across foothills – all activities that would be practically unthinkable when we first meet them. From the very first castle wall scaled by a mild-mannered lawyer to the final knife wound suffered by a heroic American cowboy, Dracula’s lurking peripheral presence pushes our protagonists to take ever greater risks, and inadvertently shapes them into the heroes who will ultimately destroy him.

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