Bram Stoker seems like a such a conservative. He pursued a career as a government clerk until a better opportunity in entertainment presented itself. As manager of a hugely successful actor and theatre, he and his primly beautiful wife reveled as they walked amid high society. His novels abound with staunchly Victorian ideas and prejudices.
Yet he created in Jonathan Harker the most famous male rape victim in literary history.
Arguably, the scene wherein the Brides attempt to (in effect) have a fanged gang-bang with Harker as the ‘guest of honor’ remains one of the most memorable in the whole book. Only two major film adaptations omit it in some form or another–the 2006 version with Rafe Spall as the doomed solicitor, and the 1979 John Badham film based upon the famous Deane-Balderston play which takes place entirely in England. Hammer Studios, as ever operating on a budget, had John van Eyssen menaced by a single bride. Perhaps to make up for it she actually sank her fangs into him–a fate that doesn’t happen in the novel nor most films. Francis Ford Coppola openly described how the scene seized his imagination, how he was disappointed to rarely view that scene in its full glory. Little wonder he staged it in the most elaborate fashion to date — half nude Brides ripping Harker’s clothes, nipping as his nipples with their fangs to draw blood, sharing four-way kiss with the handsome young man in their clutches.
Count Dracula rescues (if that is the word) Harker from this fate better/worse than death, but with the equally disturbing statement “This man is MINE!” That line, lifted from the book, carries with it all kinds of disturbing/titillating implications. The 1968 BBC production had Denholm Elliott deliver it with all the lustful possessiveness out of nightmare–in keeping with Colin Redgrave’s performance of Harker as Dracula’s bitch (that production blended Harker with Renfield).
What remains frustrating is how vapid Harker tends to end up in most productions. Gustav von Wangenheim is a plump German bureaucrat who laughs at superstition then crumbles into terror when faced with its truth in “Nosferatu.” David Manners in the Lugosi film is a nonentity (and the actor knew it — he wanted to play Renfield!) At least in the first Hammer Dracula film, Harker got to be a vampire hunter, albeit a none-too-competent one (where was your cross, man!?). Bosco Hogan in 1977’s “Count Dracula” (with Louis Jourdain) seemed like a nice enough chap, but that was all. Julian Wells in “Lust for Dracula” surely wins awards for the most outré Harker — a lesbian mad scientist who has drugged an unstable Mina into thinking she (Harker) is a man.
In retrospect, Keanu Reeves seems so much better now. At least he had much more to work with, including an overt attempt to show his relationship with Mina to be a great if quiet love. Perhaps what failed in that production in this respect is the intangible thing called chemistry–Reeves is an extremely gifted character actor with the looks of a leading man.
Return now to the novel. What do we know, or are allowed to learn? Harker is in his twenties, an ambitious middle-class solicitor. In retrospect, this immediately offers a source of interesting conflict. Most of the protagonists in “Dracula” are at least wealthy or at least somewhat upper class. Mina and her fiancée both are a step or two (at least) below their immediate circle. Shades of Stoker’s life when you think on it. Jonathan Harker has a foster-father in Mr. Hawkins for whom he works and who makes the young man his heir. Another parallel with Stoker, who had two powerful relationships with older men in his adult life–the poet Walt Whitman and the actor Sir Henry Irving. Harker shows intelligence but narrow-mindedness. He feels genuine temptation as well as horror at the prospect of vampiric rape at the hands (and mouths) of three beautiful she-creatures. Confronted with the prospect of facing a pack of hungry wolves he panics. Later, he steels himself and escapes from the Castle in a wildly dangerous and hair-raising manner. When eventually found, he’s suffering from shock and exposure. Unsure of whether his memories can be trusted, he has an anxiety attack upon seeing Dracula in London, youthened (presumably via fresh blood). Joining the others in the process of hunting down the Count, he eventually discovers his own bride has not escaped the fate he so narrowly avoided. Mina has been bitten by a vampire. His response manages to be both startling and melodramatic–offering to ultimately join Mina in undeath rather than let her spend eternity alone.
For a moment, let us consider that. Is he sincere in that offer? Assume for a moment he is. Now imagine all the different ways that offer might be taken. Does he want to be ravished by a vampire, perhaps even turned on at the thought of his beloved sinking her fangs into his throat? Or is he really so utterly devoted to her that an eternity as a walking corpse feeding upon unwary victims seems a worthy price to pay for a union with Mina? Then again, perhaps he doesn’t really mean it, but is simply trying to make her feel better.
At the end, Harker drives a knife into Dracula himself, slicing the vampire’s throat open. As presented in the novel, this should not have worked, not unless Harker succeeded in decapitating the Count. But that is a different issue. What follows is a post script, relating how Harker and Mina now have a child they call Quincy (after the one fatality among the vampire hunters). They take a trip to Castle Dracula with their son, and visit again those strange and now-empty halls where Harker was imprisoned and terrified and very nearly ravished. What a very odd thing to do! Don’t you think? Or maybe not. Nostalgia for a defining event in one’s life can draw a person to a place that was once a source of trauma. So too can a wistful desire to feel younger, more alive precisely because of the danger.
But why is Harker himself doing these things? We have no way of knowing for certain. Stoker simply didn’t give us enough to say definitively. In “The New Annotated Dracula” Leslie S. Klinger even makes the point that Harker’s journals that form for first fifth or so of the novel must be a fabrication, that whatever really happened to Harker was something he (or his family) wished to keep secret. Another veil between the audience and the character.
Future productions of “Dracula” await, sooner and later. Finally giving the romantic lead of the book (i.e. Harker) his full due seems like a worthy goal for them to aim for.