Just about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since youJust about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since you can hardly fault an author for failing to maintain suspense if you pick up the book already knowing what's going to happen.
Even with that difficulty, though, I thought the first part of the book --- chapters written as diary entries for the lawyer Jonathan Harker, who has gone to the forbidding Eastern European country of Transylvania, in the Carpathian mountains, to help a local nobleman called Count Dracula sort out his paperwork in preparation for moving to London --- was absolutely spellbinding. Jonathan's slowly unfolding terror as he realizes what the Count is, and finds that he has no way to escape the castle, infects you as you read it. It's amazing that it does this, because these pages are not written in real-time narration. They're Jonathan's diary, so with each entry we know he survived long enough to write it. That doesn't make his encounters with Dracula, once Dracula's pretense of friendship has been dropped, or with any of the other creepy denizens of his castle, any less spine-tingling.
If I was just going to rate that part of the book, I'd give it five stars. That part, Jonathan's captivity and narrow escape, is absolutely word-perfect. But there's more, and while it's still interesting, and still pretty suspenseful, the tension never mounted as high at any other point in the book for me as it did in that first chunk.
Part of the problem, for most of the middle chapters, was the constant shifting of narrative vantage point. Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that everything in it has to be a letter, pages from a diary, clippings from a newspaper or anything else that could be written, or read, by the characters themselves. We meet the two women characters, Mina and Lucy, through their letters to one another; around the same time, we meet Dr. John Seward, a psychiatrist who is treating a really strange patient who eats bugs. All of these people write about very different things, and it can be hard to piece together a narrative from their correspondence and random musings.
Eventually, of course, the things everyone remembers from the movie start to happen: the deserted ship lands (as chronicled by a very excited newspaper reporter, whose article is clipped and saved by Mina), Lucy begins to be plagued by sleepwalking episodes, and then, after one really bad night, she falls mysteriously ill. She is pale, anemic and tired all the time. Here Dr. Van Helsing, the guy who knows vampires, shows up, and the characters try to protect Lucy from her nocturnal visitor, and, later on, to find his lair and destroy him.
(The second high point of the novel for me, as far as suspense and terror go, is the part where they're trying to flush Dracula out and leave him without a place to retreat to during the daytime to restore his powers. He has some huge number of boxes full of earth from his homeland, like forty or fifty, and he has spread them out among several properties in London. The heroes have to find them all, and render them all unfit for Dracula's use by crumbling bits of communion wafer into them, before the sun sets, or else Dracula will know what they're up to and either slip their grasp or kill them.)
One of the things that undermined the tension in a lot of the key places for me --- particularly during the hunt for Dracula's boxes --- was the author's insistence on recording long, mundane conversations in dialect. The characters go around the city quizzing day laborers about recent jobs they've had, to see if any of them were involved in moving the boxes: a reasonable and clever thing for them to do, sure, but did they need to transcribe every interaction in this vein verbatim? I think not. Also, the dialect is really thick, and a lot of it sounds twee to the modern ear, I think.
One of the other reviewers said something about class in this novel: how the middle and upper classes mix freely (e.g., Arthur, Lord Godalming, hanging out with professional men like Harker and Seward, and considering them more or less his equals) but the working classes are shown to be cheerfully subservient. They "recognize their betters", is how he puts it, and I think that describes the tone of the various day laborers' interactions with Seward, Harker and Van Helsing pretty well. So that's a little odd to the modern reader, too, as is the really obvious Victorian idea of women as inherently unsuited to do anything because of their superior virtue and inferior everything else. (I found that *very* annoying, myself. Even Mina, who is very intelligent and resourceful, and who is always gathering and compiling information for the male characters, gets a whole lot of "oh, the poor dear can't handle it" exclusion from both the decision-making and the action).
The characterization of Dracula is very interesting, particularly what Van Helsing considers to be his great strengths and weaknesses. His strength is that he adapts, and also that he was such a smart, brave and ruthless person in life; his weakness is that he does not yet know all that he can do. Van Helsing enigmatically describes him as having a "child-brain", which seems to me to connote a lot of native intelligence and curiosity, but not a very large body of knowledge or experience to draw on. But this is unexpected when you think of how old he is, or the later conceptions of the vampire psyche as one burdened with an excess of knowledge and experience! What was he doing for all those centuries? Sleeping?
Difficulties aside, though, he is a massively interesting not-quite-human character. (I have a special love for those, you may have noticed). I don't know that any movie portrayal has ever captured what a strange and terrible creature he is: Bela Lugosi's suave, sensual Count embodies his capacity to overrule other people's minds, but in the book this just *happens* when he's around, not even necessarily in the room with you. That incarnation of Dracula also didn't include his more predatory-animal qualities. Really, although the sexual and sensual elements are there, I think they have taken on a greater significance in the modern vampire stories than they have here; here, Dracula is far more fearsome than he is beautiful or sexy. I don't think he is represented as being at all sexy in this book; it's clear that vampirism, especially in a woman, is like a sexual awakening (or degeneration, to a Victorian: becoming fallen), but what is sexy isn't the vampire who bites you, it's the power you gain and the loss of inhibitions. Dracula is the serpent, only instead of tempting you, he creeps up on you and makes you just like him. ...more
So this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperativSo this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperative of undeniable power. It is also among my favorite feminist texts, and whenever I open it to look something up, I inevitably find myself rereading entire sections or chapters because I can't put it down.
Nevertheless, I only gave it four stars. I have some criticisms of it, which explain the non-perfect rating, but I love it so much I feel conflicted about that non-perfect rating. I'd give it 4 1/2 or 4 3/4 if fractional ratings were allowed on this site.
The book was first written in 1972, but the edition I have is a revised one from 2005, in which she addresses how much things have changed since she first wrote it, both in terms of science and politics. Politically, the mental-health professions are not the bastions of patriarchy they were when Chesler first wrote about them: lots of women are in these professions, and lots of therapists are feminists, and incorporate feminist principles into their practice. More obviously, our understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illness has improved, and with it our ability to treat them.
Another reviewer criticized Chesler for ignoring actually seriously ill women in favor of healthy women whose disobedience or nonconformity was called illness as a pretext for locking them up; I don't know if this person read the revised edition or not, but in the book I read she does acknowledge disabling mental illness. She goes out of her way to state that she does not wish to romanticize mental illness, nor to argue against any treatment that relieves a mentally ill person's suffering and enables that person to live a longer, fuller life.
She also discusses some famous case histories of women who suffered actual mental breakdowns, who clearly needed help, but who were not really helped by the treatment they got. These women included Zelda Fitzgerald, Bertha Pappenheim (better known as "Anna O."), Ellen West, Catharine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Sylvia Plath.
Far more disturbing to me were her descriptions of real women who were not insane at all, and did not seek treatment for themselves, but who were committed to lunatic asylums by husbands and fathers who wanted them out of the way. Those women include Elizabeth Packard (whose theological opinions differed from her husband's, and whose crime was to speak these ideas in public), Adriana Brinckle (who sold some pieces of furniture she hadn't fully paid for, and was locked up for almost thirty years), and Freud's other famous patient "Dora" (whose father was basically pimping her out to some other guy, and who was quite understandably upset about that).
(She also discusses a FASCINATING study by a psychiatrist named Shirley Angrist that compared women mental patients who had been released from the asylum, women who had been re-hospitalized at least once, and normal housewives, and found that mental health had little to do with whether a woman was pronounced cured or not: rather, the determining factor seemed to be her willingness to keep house and defer to her husband. This study was done in 1961).
There is also a very long section, making up the majority of the book, that contains Phyllis Chesler's own original research, which was a series of detailed interviews with a bunch of women who had been treated for mental illnesses. She divided her subjects up into categories, though she admits there is a lot of overlap between some of them: women who had been in sexual relationships with their therapists, women who had been hospitalized for mental illness, lesbians, feminists, and "Third World women," which seems to be a confusing label for poor women of color. (I say it is confusing because some or all of the women in this group are Americans; "Third World" to me connotes foreign origin as well as dark skin, poverty and disenfranchisement.) All of these women describe experiences that did not help them; only some were ever actually mentally ill; and lots of them, especially the women of color, the women who were institutionalized long-term, and the lesbians, tell horrible tales of abuse. Almost all of the lesbians were committed just because they were lesbian.
There is a recurring Greek-mythology motif that never quite seems to belong; Chesler explores female archetypes from that canon, particularly myths that explore mother-daughter relationships, like those of Demeter and Persephone or Clytemnestra and Electra. These sections were very interesting, and poetic, and gave me new ways to see these stories I've known since I was a child, but they don't really mesh with the rest of the book. There are a few areas of thematic commonality --- one of Chesler's ideas is that women check themselves into asylum so much because we are so starved for mother-love --- but for the most part they seem more in keeping with her later books, which focus on relationships between women, than with this book.
I also really wanted to see her discuss women with developmental disabilities, as the same concerns about institutional abuse and power dynamics apply to them.
Ultimately, I want people to read this, even if it is incomplete and most of the stories it tells are old. I think the ethical questions it raises about how we treat mental illness, and the extent to which we do not treat people with mental illnesses like People Who Matter, and the extent to which the institutions we have set up for those members of our society who can't take care of themselves tend to breed abuse, neglect and authoritarianism, are very, Very, VERY important. So I recommend this to everyone --- not my usual practice when reviewing a book about such a specialized topic, especially a history book, but this one is just that necessary. It shines a critical light where most people are content not to look....more
This is definitely my favorite book by Sinclair Lewis so far. (The others I've read are Arrowsmith and Babbitt). While the social commentary is as shaThis is definitely my favorite book by Sinclair Lewis so far. (The others I've read are Arrowsmith and Babbitt). While the social commentary is as sharp as it is in his other works, the characters in this one are much better realized and more subtly drawn. It's also a much more emotionally complicated novel --- we're not just supposed to laugh at Carrie, as we are meant to laugh at Babbitt, or to root for her, as we are meant to do for Arrowsmith; here, we're meant to do both of those things. Carrie might be Our Heroine, but that doesn't mean she'll always be in the right in this novel.
There are also a lot of really interesting supporting characters. My favorite was Miles Bjornstam, the atheistic, socialistic "Red Swede" who is Gopher Prairie's town crank and resident handyman. But there were a lot of others, too; I was really grateful that Lewis put so much thought into the characters of all these small-town wives Carrie alternately loves and hates --- they could easily have been caricatures (and a few, like Mrs. Bogart, were caricatures), but in this book they were not.
Carrie's husband, too, is written in a very interesting way. Sometimes, he's a buffoon, sometimes he's Carrie's oppressor and antagonist, sometimes he's her ally and sometimes he's downright heroic. In particular, his actions toward the end of the book really bowled me over. ...more
The Afterword to this book says something like, "The Mill on the Floss is earnest, moral and long, and we wouldn't want it to be otherwise." Well, I wThe Afterword to this book says something like, "The Mill on the Floss is earnest, moral and long, and we wouldn't want it to be otherwise." Well, I was fine with the earnest and moral aspects of it, but I do think I might've liked it better had it been shorter.
I loved Eliot's faithful rendering of the strong emotions of the child Maggie Tulliver, and her spelling out detailed moral arguments between or within different characters, but I thought the book went really slowly, and seemed to ignore its own plot much of the time in favor of sketching out miscellaneous scenes from rural English life. And despite its melodrama, the story moved so slowly and haphazardly that I only sporadically felt engaged in it.
Also, Maggie seemed very much like a lot of other heroines from this period. I had started the book expecting to see a very odd, compelling character, but to me she read like an echo of Jane Eyre, Sue Bridehead, Agnes Grey, Marianne Dashwood or any other Victorian literary heroine characterized by a strong will, keenly-felt convictions, an active mind and imagination, a fine-tuned emotional sensitivity, and a childhood or young womanhood marked by poverty and loss....more