Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the “Monster” of Mental Illness Pt 1: Ambiguity
A theme or commentary of mental illness is threaded through Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the character of Renfield, but it would seem that what this commentary conveys is some what ambiguous. At times Stoker presents the character to the reader in scenes where we can not help but feel sympathetic, and yet at others Renfield acts in ways that, to myself at least, horrify more than Dracula himself.
We are first introduced to Renfield in chapter 5 of the text, and even the character’s introduction seems to set mental illness as a theme therein. Renfield is brought into the readers view in John Seward’s diary as he seeks him out as a puzzle with which to busy his mind (Stoker 51). The simple circumstances of Renfield’s introduction seem to say something about the mentally ill, and views of mental illness. literally, then, as the page is turned the reader is presented with text that seems to indicate Renfield as a victim within this monster tale when Stolker writes, through Seward, “I seemed to wish to keep him to the point of madness” (Stoker 52). How can the reader, at this point, not feel sorry for a guy that is being antagonized by his own psychiatrist? Here in the first few pasages depicting mental illness the reader is compelled to view the mentally ill as victims of the authority that is intended to make them well.
Juxtaposition of this former sentiment is then thrown into the readers view when we are let further into to Renfield’s mind. In chapter six we learn of Renfield’s fixation with “absorb[ing] as many lives as he can” (Stoker 61). In this moment in the text Renfield is clearly offered as a foil to Dracula, suggesting that he–and perhaps the mentally ill–is, or can be, a monster. What makes Renfield a more terrifying monster, in my opinion, is that he is not a supernatural un-dead force, but instead simply a man. He is one of “us,” and an entirely plausible “monster”. As this illumination of Renfield’s character suggests, and other portraits of Renfield as the chapters unfold, is a view of the mentally ill as monstrous, or potentially monstrous.
The dichotomy of perspectives on mental illness presented is somewhat puzzling. Is Renfield a monster or a victim. I began to wonder if the ambiguity itself on the theme is trying to say something. So, I poked around a bit about what societal views of mental illness were like during the time when Dracula was written. What I found was quite telling. The era (the Victorian Era, 19th century) in which Dracula was written and published was one of debate and reform for the topic of mental health. On one hand mental health was not well understood, and many patients were treated, by today’s standards, rather poorly. On the other hand, as the turn of the century approached mental illness was becoming better understood and the treatment of and for the mentally ill was improving. In a sense societies views on mental illness were in a state of ambiguity and reshaping. In the text I feel that Renfield is perhaps the representation of/commentary on the ambiguity surrounding mental illness at the time.
As the novel unfolds it will be very interesting to examine Renfields role, and see where the text takes us in regards to the theme of mental illness.
Here is some very interesting info on mental illness from the time period in which Dracula was written: