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Episodic Structure In Dracula By Bram Stoker English Literature Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In the late 19th century, Bram Stoker released one of the most widely recognized and successful novels in the epistolary or episodic form, Dracula. An epistolary novel is also called a novel of letters, because the narration takes place in the form of letters, possibly journal entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, doctor’s notes, ship’s logs, and occasionally newspaper reports. An epistle is an ancient term for a letter. (“Dracula.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism). The epistolary novel is an interesting literary technique, because it allows a writer to include multiple narrators in his or her story. This means the story can be told and interpreted from numerous viewpoints. Dracula is mainly narrated by several narrators who also serve as the novel’s main protagonists; Stoker supplemented the story with occasional newspaper clippings to relate events not directly witnessed by the story’s characters. By formatting his novel in an episodic format, Stoker enhanced the reading experience, helping this astonishing and exhilarating classical story become clearer and seem more believable to the reader.

An advantage of an episodic novel is that it helps the reader understand the character’s motivation. Dracula in one sense is a unique novel that moves away from traditional narrative styles in order to narrate an episodic story through different textual documents. Stoker’s work also strengthens the significance and value of the text. Normally, when reading a book, one does not understand the motivation of the character due to lack of knowledge and/or understanding on the subject. This is usually because one does not know the other characters’ perspective. This is not the case in Dracula. Because Stoker used the episodic method in his novel, the reader now knows what each and every character’s motivation is. The structure of this novel helps one identify the situation, get to know each position (person), explore each position, and analyze what they have learned. This structure allows one to see things from someone else’s perspective. By replaying a scene from the viewpoints of all the characters, one may get a clearer picture of what actually happened, how the other person sees the situation, and his/her motivation. For example Mina states in her diary: “I have been working very hard lately, because I want to keep up with Jonathan’s studies, and I have been practicing shorthand very assiduously. When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan, and if I can stenograph well enough I can take down what he wants to say in this way and write it out for him on the typewriter, at which also I am practicing very hard…. I may show it to Jonathan some day if there is in it anything worth sharing, but it is really an exercise book” (Stoker 61). This quote form the book shows why she wants to keep a diary and what it will help her with later on in her life.

The plot was very easy to follow because of the episodic structure. In literature, plots are the individual scenes and events that are tied to each other more through a simple chronology than through any particular cause-and-effect relationship. Due to the episodic structure of this book, as the narration goes on, one starts to understand the emotional and logical makeup of the characters based on their journal entries. It also allows the author to experiment with multiple styles of writing in a single novel. Some examples are: Dr. Seward when he sees ill Lucy, “How shall I describe what we saw? On the bed lay two women, Lucy and her mother. The latter lay farthest in, and she was covered with a white sheet, the edge of which had been blown back by the drought through the broken window, showing the drawn, white, face, with a look of terror fixed upon it. By her side lay Lucy, with face white and still more drawn. The flowers which had been round her neck we found upon her mother’s bosom, and her throat was bare, showing the two little wounds which we had noticed before, but looking horribly white and mangled. Without a word the Professor bent over the bed, his head almost touching poor Lucy’s breast. Then he gave a quick turn of his head, as of one who listens, and leaping to his feet, he cried out to me, ‘It is not yet too late! Quick! Quick! Bring the brandy!'” (Stoker 164). Dr. Seward’s is an orderly narration of the sequence of events based on his scientific mind. Another character, Mina, says in her diary: “Oh, but I am tired! If it were not that I had made my diary a duty I should not open it tonight. We had a lovely walk. Lucy, after a while, was in gay spirits, owing, I think, to some dear cows who came nosing towards us in a field close to the lighthouse, and frightened the wits out of us. I believe we forgot everything, except of course, personal fear, and it seemed to wipe the slate clean and give us a fresh start. We had a capital `severe tea’ at Robin Hood’s Bay in a sweet little old fashioned inn, with a bow window right over the seaweed-covered rocks of the strand. I believe we should have shocked the `New Woman’ with our appetites. Men are more tolerant, bless them! Then we walked home with some, or rather many, stoppages to rest, and with our hearts full of a constant dread of wild bulls” (Stoker 100). Mina Harker’s entries are more emotional and given to the mind of a lady. Dr. Van Helsing, a scientist, says in a letter to Dr. Seward: “Tell your friend that when that time you suck from my wound so swiftly the poison of the gangrene from that knife that our other friend, too nervous, let slip, you did more for him when he wants my aids and you call for them than all his great fortune could do. But it is pleasure added to do for him, your friend, it is to you that I come. Have near at hand, and please it so arrange that we may see the young lady not too late on tomorrow, for it is likely that I may have to return here that night. But if need be I shall come again in three days, and stay longer if it must. Till then goodbye, my friend John” (Stoker 127). Dr. Van Helsing on the other hand is a more scientific man with a touch of ruthlessness and softness. And finally, it allows us a three-sixty view of the plot from the eyes of each of the characters. In general, the scenes in a book with an episodic structure could be rearranged almost at random without hurting the work as a whole.

Besides just focusing on one character and confusing the readers, Stoker’s use of episodic structure in the book helps keep the readers’ interest in the novel. The episodic story works through accumulation of meaningful “episodes”-events, scenes, even cameos. Carol Senf says, “An episodic story structure may seem random at first, but connections emerge and grow in significance. Only when the novel is halfway over, the reader gets it and the story has done its work by piecing together the fragments like a jigsaw puzzle.” The author uses suspense as a storytelling device rather effectively throughout the story.  As Franco Moretti (an Italian literary scholar) claims, “Stoker does not want a thinking reader, but a frightened one” (12). There are a fair number of parts in which the reader is left suspended on the edge of seat, eager to find out what is to happen next.  For example when Harker is trying to escape from Dracula, he says “I shall not remain alone with them. I shall try to scale the castle wall farther than I have yet attempted. I shall take some of the gold with me, lest I want it later. I may find a way from this dreadful place. And then away for home! Away to the quickest and nearest train! Away from the cursed spot, from this cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet! At least God’s mercy is better than that of those monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep, as a man. Goodbye, all. Mina!” (Stoker 60). Then the story abruptly switches to Mina’s diary, leaving the reader in awe. However, there were parts where suspense could be used in a manner that would enhance the gravity of the plot.  Nonetheless, the book is written in a unique way that allows suspense to be used easily and effectively built up.  Dracula is written in first person like many other novels but then it differs slightly.  The book starts off as a first person journal of the first character describing his experiences, but then it switches to someone else’s journal, then to letters between two characters, and later to a newspaper article.  It follows this pattern roughly throughout the book.  At various points, the plot builds up with one character’s journal and then it jumps to another character’s journal, so one must read through it before the exciting conclusion to that particular event is revealed.  At other times deductions must be made on what a character has written to ascertain what has occurred.  There is a good example of this when the first character, Jonathan Harker, is imprisoned in the castle close to sunset and knows that the Count will attack him that night.  His journal ends as he describes what he might do to escape. But the success of his escape is not evident until the first part of his fiancé’s journal is completed.  This sort of suspense can be quite frustrating and annoying at times. Thus its purpose is often defeated and the plot suffers. But there is also the more common type of suspense used where the character is on the verge of an important discovery or he is in a dangerous predicament but the author is slow to divulge what is to happen. When the suspense was used properly, it proved to be both interesting and very dramatic thus keeping the reader’s attention.

Due to the fact that Stoker used a series of journal entries and letters as his novel, the plot seems believable. As stated above, Dracula is narrated by means of a series of diary entries, letters, newspaper cuttings and memoranda written and collected by the band of friends who oppose the Count. This narrative style is based on the epistolary style which became popular in the eighteenth century. This form of narrative lends an air of immediacy and authenticity to what is, as the characters frequently remind us, a fantastic and improbable story. Before the book begins, Stoker states, “How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them” (Stoker 1). According to Hustis, their determination to “keep the record,” rather in the manner of a witness statement or other official report, tells us that they are simply writing down what happened, close to the time when it happened. There is no time or space for imagination to play its part. (4). This method of telling the story increases the suspense in the novel in two ways. First, if the narrative had been recalled some time after the event, one would know that the character survived. But during Harker’s terrifying stay in the Count’s castle, his daily diary entries give us no clue as to whether he survived. The sudden end to his diary entries at the end of Chapter four leaves us, literally, with a cliff-hanger as he attempts an escape down the castle wall and precipice. Second, each character is limited in his or her understanding of what is going on. Their narrow scientifically-based viewpoints will not allow them to believe in vampires, so they cannot possibly draw any useful conclusions from the baffling events that befall them. The readers, with the benefit of more familiarity with vampire lore and greater openness of mind than the characters, understand more than they do, and they are able to piece together their records before they can. Therefore, one constantly wonders whether the characters will work out what is going on in time to save themselves from the Count’s scheming. One disadvantage of the epistolary style of Dracula is that their attention is drawn to the fact that all the characters sound the same, with the exception of Van Helsing, whose dialogs are scientific and important to the story and past history of Dracula himself. However, this sameness can be seen as strength in the light of the fact that Stoker was drawing attention to the limitations of the Western scientific viewpoint, which is too narrow and custom to social behavior to include the alternative reality embodied by the Count. The novel is narrated very effectively by multiple voices- Jonathan’s journal of his trip to Transylvania, Mina’s diary, and Seward’s recorded journal, as well as letters and newspaper items. The pace is relaxed and atmospheric and the characters richer than one might expect, making the novel seem true.

The epistolary form has certainly been around a long time. It is pretty popular and fiction writers have often seized on the form as a framework for stories and novel like Dracula was a successful epistolary novels. This diverse format added a lot to this wonderful book by adding different types of text. By using such a device, the author assumes an omniscient or all-knowing point-of-view, but he also forces all the action into the past. Stoker successfully used this format of writing in an exhilarating and fast paced thriller which people know today as… Dracula!


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