Bland, interchangeable characters typically make for a serious poke in any novel’s heart. But Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale is unharmed by its slipshod characterization. Conversely, this lack of attention gives the novel a propulsive edge, jettisoning literary concerns to move the suspense relentlessly forwards.

Stoker’s ineptitude has less to do with creating memorable characters than understanding them; unable to carry humans through the tale with the vivid three-dimensionality needed, he instead makes the protagonists little more than broadly drawn, plot-lugging ciphers. For instance, it seems that the Texan Quincey Jones is dubbed laconic on every second page, and his personality never develops much farther than this adjective.

Nevertheless, his creativity finds an appropriate output with the story’s less savory characters, who seem alternately less and more than human. Mostly on the novel’s sidelines, they are relieved of the necessity to interact in the manner of typical people, and Stoker is able to color them in far more interesting ways. The debonair vampire of the title is more intriguing than a thousand Harkers, and yet he is constantly upstaged by a curious mental patient with an unorthodox philosophy of pet-keeping: the madman Renfield, his servant.

Renfield’s calculative insanity is truly fascinating, by far the most innovative character trait in the novel. Unlike normal people, he eats raw sparrows. (And not without a good reason.) He seeks to develop his personal powers by "consuming a multitude of live things", believing that the more life essences he absorbs into his own body, the more vital and powerful he will become. To that end, he captures flies, spiders and sparrows; he feeds the first to the second, the second to the third, and eats the third himself, so as to absorb the life forces of the entire ‘food chain’.

Plot-wise, he serves the important purpose of driving home Dracula’s vast array of powers. Renfield’s blood was not sucked like that of Lucy Westenra; he was mentally corrupted, mesmerized by the force of Dracula’s personality. We are reminded that Dracula is not just strong and quick, but cunning, and above all charismatic. He has talents in all spheres, far outreaching those of foolish vampire-hunters. But another implication is that he is a thing much like a human, and as such, subject to vulnerabilities of his own dark flesh.

David Seed makes it explicit that throughout much of the novel, we only know of Dracula through his victims, gleaning gradual information from a study of "the parallel pathologies of Lucy and Renfield". This masterful use of suspense conveys the idea that Dracula’s spirit is so vital as to leave a bloody wake across the narrative, one which the protagonists must follow to gain the necessary understanding of their quarry.

The manner of his death is tellingly ironic. Although able to grapple with the superpowerful vampire, he is merely a man, and vulnerable to the Count’s mesmerizing gaze. Hurled to the floor, he dies from a cerebral hemorrhage: an overabundance of blood to the brain, symbolizing his fundamental inability to make use of the vampire’s powers. But he is able to grasp reality one final time, and warns the protagonists of the immanent danger to Mina. Having saved her life, he dies redeemed.

Renfield’s fixation with consuming live animals, prompting Dr. Seward to dub him a "zoophagous maniac", seems an unconscious attempt to emulate his vampiric Master’s life-sucking skills -- his steamrolled psyche is simply unable to wait for the promised reward. But crucially, he never manages to inspire the terror that defines Dracula’s relationship with the protagonists, but remains a cryptic, sad outsider until his death. Even when he knifes Seward (spilling blood, but requiring an implement to do so, in contrast with Dracula’s inherent abilities), the doctor sees it as nothing more than a hazard of the trade.

Although we are privy to nothing of Renfield’s life before his incarceration in the mental ward, the conclusion that he was a learned man is inescapable. He talks "elemental philosophy" with Mina, adopting a cultured manner at odds with the cryptic savagery he shows to Seward. Seeming able to claw back up into sanity for limited periods, he pleads for his freedom with glib rationality when it becomes clear that the alternative is death under Dracula’s talons. The vampire’s influence has altered his mind, but not destroyed it. These sudden shifts between madness and stark, desperate sanity make his character all the more tragic.

This intellectualism is reflected in the businesslike manner of his zoophagy; he meticulously sums the amount of life essences in each animal before adding them to the grand total within him. At times it feels like he’s doing tax returns. Perhaps this neurotic attention to detail is a subconscious attempt to distract himself from the truth: he will never attain the vast power that he craves, and is being fooled and manipulated by a force entirely beyond his understanding.

Although a relatively minor character, far removed from the pop-culture fame of Dracula himself, today we see suggestions to dub a pathological obsession with blood-drinking ‘Renfield’s Syndrome’. Like the fictional character, these real-life ‘clinical vampires’ take a "fetishistic and compulsive" pleasure in consuming the blood of all forms of life. There can be no doubt that Renfield would have preferred to be linked with suave, noble and intelligent gentlemen. However, those who eat bugs all day have to take what they can get.

(Homework noded. I'm learning many interesting facts about vampires....)


Ramsland, Katherine. "All About Vampire Killers." Crime Library. 2003. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/weird/vampires/7.html (14 Oct. 2003)

Seed, David. "The Narrative Method of Dracula." Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 40, No. 1. (Jun., 1985): pp. 61-75.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Oxford University Press, 1897.