Dracula: Chapter 18

Chapter 18

Summary: Mina asks Seward if she can meet Renfield. To Seward’s surprise, Renfield converses at length with Mina in a calm, quite intelligent manner, professing to understand why he was placed in Seward’s asylum—“Why, I myself am an instance of a man who had a strange belief.” As Mina takes her leave, however, Renfield makes an ominous farewell: “I pray God I may never see your sweet face again.” Later that night, Van Helsing, Mina and Jonathan, Quincey Morris and Arthur all meet to discuss a plan of action against Dracula. Van Helsing recounts much vampire lore; he is interrupted when Morris shoots a very large bat outside. (Morris can’t say whether he hit the bat or not.)
In the wee hours of the morning, Renfield sends an urgent message to Seward. Seward and the other men go to see the patient. Renfield makes a calm but firm appeal that he be released—not for his own sake, he claims, but for the sake of others. When Van Helsing presses Renfield for further details, however, Renfield refuses to give them. He makes a more emotional appeal, but Seward refuses to grant the request. Collapsing on his bed, Renfield makes another foreboding comment: “You will, I trust, Dr. Seward, do me the justice to bear in mind, later on, that I did what I could to convince you tonight.”

Analysis: In this chapter, Stoker establishes a connection between Mina and the only principal character (save Dracula) with whom she is not already connected, Renfield. Readers can only presume that Renfield’s two dark comments—his parting words to Mina (p. 284) and his appeal to be released from the asylum “for the sake of others” (p. 296), warning Seward that the doctor must remember Renfield’s warning later (p. 298)—augur ill for Mina Harker. Renfield presumably does not want to see Mina’s face again because, if he does, it will mean that she has come under Dracula’s control; and Renfield also presumably fears that Dracula will manipulate him, as he has before, and may even cause him to do harm to Mina (“You don’t know what you are doing by keeping me here,” p. 298—i.e., exposing him to further danger from Dracula). It may strike readers as odd that the characters’ establishment of the proper chronology for all of the book’s strange events in the previous chapter does not lead Seward and the others to grant Renfield’s request; after all, Seward himself has previously spoken in wonder about his failure to see a connection between Renfield and Dracula (Ch. 17; p. 273)—although, as we shall see in the next chapter, even now he does not fully grasp the relationship of the two (“…he seems so mixed up with the Count in an indexy kind of way…,” p. 300). “Can’t you hear me, man?” Renfield demands of Seward; “Can’t you understand? Will you never learn?” (p. 298)—and the emphases previously placed on keeping an open mind and learning through experience may lead readers to second Renfield’s questions! At any rate, the chapter establishes Renfield as a potential, albeit unwilling, threat to Mina. The fact that Renfield is aware of what Dracula might force him to do introduces yet another liminal tension into the text, the liminal space between sanity and insanity—we witness Seward’s “pet lunatic—the most pronounced of his type that [Seward] ha[s] ever met with—talking elemental philosophy, and with the manner of a polished gentleman” (p. 283); and we hear the mental patient protesting, “Don’t you know that I am sane and earnest now; that I am no lunatic in a mad fit, but a sane man fighting for his soul?” (p. 298).
Van Helsing’s lengthy discourse on vampire lore evokes the ancient debate in Western literature between personal experience and learned authority: “There are such beings as vampires… Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and the records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples” (p. 286). Of course, for Van Helsing, there is no conflict between experience and authority—appropriate for this character who is presented as exemplary in so many ways. Stoker uses Van Helsing’s speech to lay out more systematically than previously the powers and attributes of the vampire; but he also uses it to again sound the novel’s theme of hope in the face of terror and light in the face of darkness. For example, Van Helsing appeals to his companions’ relative youth as a motivation to fight Dracula: “Some have seen sorrow; but there are fair days yet in store” (p. 288). He also reminds his companions, “Well, you know what we have to contend against; but we, too, are not without strength” (p. 288)—but their strength lies in knowledge, science, and the freedom that vampires lack. The freedom especially proves an important element; and it derives from the fact that, unlike Dracula, they are motivated out of concern for others, and not for themselves. “We have self-devotion in a cause,” says Van Helsing, “and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one” (p. 289). Thematically speaking, what separates them from the vampire—what makes them human rather than monstrous, alive rather than “un-dead” (note how Van Helsing refers to Dracula as “this man-that-was,” p. 291)—is their selflessness, their lack of a desire to dominate and control.