Lesson Plan: Deconstructing Dracula, the Original Vampire

By Greg Lundberg

In these activities, students will engage closely with the text of Dracula, developing original research and formulating an understanding of the epistolary genre, while simultaneously considering the powerful allure of vampires over our collective imaginations.

When it comes to vampires, Bram Stoker literally wrote the book. Dracula, published in London in 1897, established the genre of the vampire story, and its legacy lives on today, most notably in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but also in a variety of TV series (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more recently The Vampire Diaries and True Blood) and movies (from Nosferatu in 1922 to Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula and so on). In these activities, students will do a close reading of this classic text to develop a “vampire primer,” initiate an original, electronic text research project, or create an epistolary project.

This lesson plan was made possible with the support of the Field Foundation.

View Print-Friendly Format

Email this Lesson Plan

Share Your Comments

Disciplines

  • English/Language Arts

Topics

  • Vampires
  • Epistolary Novels
  • Original Research
  • Literary Tradition and Adaptation
  • Pop Culture

Grades

9-12

Timeframe

  • 2-4 class periods plus optional extensions

Goals and Questions

Essential Questions

  • How does Bram Stoker establish the vampire tradition in his novel Dracula, and how have his ideas and conventions been carried through and/or modified in other forms of the story?
  • What is a vampire, how do we recognize one, and how do we get rid of them once they’ve entered our lives?
  • What is original research, and how might we conduct original research on an author’s use of words and imagery using an electronic text? Along these lines, how might we form a thesis based on this research?
  • What is an “epistolary novel,” and what conventions are associated with this literary genre?

Goals

  • To read and discuss a classic, seminal work of literature;
  • To understand the role this work of literature has played in the development of culture, and especially pop culture, as represented in books, movies, and television shows;
  • To locate and evaluate text in Dracula with the goal of answering specific questions related to vampires and vampire culture, and to quote and explain this text in the creation of a “vampire primer”;
  • To locate an electronic version of a text and to download it onto one’s computer workspace;
  • To conduct original research on this e-text, looking for patterns of language and ideas that may yield insight into this particular story and/or the nature of the vampire story genre in general;
  • Based on these findings, to create a “working,” and then a final, thesis about Stoker’s use of language and/or imagery in the novel;
  • To understand the nature of the “epistolary novel” genre of literature and, based on this understanding, to create a short original piece in the epistolary mode.

State Standards

  • 1A: Students...can apply word analysis and vocabulary skills to comprehend selections.
  • 1B: Students...can apply reading strategies to improve understanding and fluency.
  • 1C: Students...can comprehend a broad range of reading materials.
  • 2A: Students...can understand how literary elements and techniques are used to convey meaning. .
  • 2B: Students...can read and interpret a variety of literary works.
  • 3B: Students...can compose well-organized and coherent writing for specific purposes and audiences.
  • 3C: Students...can communicate ideas in writing to accomplish a variety of purposes.
  • 5A: Students...can locate, organize, and use information from various sources to answer questions, solve problems, and communicate ideas.
  • 5C: Students...can apply acquired information, concepts and ideas to communicate in a variety of formats.

Create a “Vampire Primer”

As Bram Stoker’s Dracula opens, we are following Englishman Jonathan Harker as he makes his way deeper and deeper into the “imaginative whirlpool” of Dracula’s home country, Transylvania. The closer he gets to Dracula’s castle, the greater his misgivings become – the place has a mysteriously oppressive quality that Harker feels but can’t quite put into words. As Harker rides towards the castle, for example, he feels “a little strangely, and not a little frightened” (41). However, instead of taking these signs as a warning, Harker continues his ill-fated journey to the castle – where he ultimately becomes, in effect, Dracula’s prisoner. Suffice it to say that Mr. Harker could have used a primer on recognizing and dealing with vampires! In this section of the lesson, you and your students will use the text of Dracula to put together a “vampire primer” so that future Jonathan Harkers don’t enter the world of vampires naive and unprepared.

Your job is to draw information from the text of Dracula to create what we might call “A Definitive Primer on the Recognition and Subsequent Eradication of Vampires: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need.” Or so we hope! There will be four sections, each of which will open with a key question.

Section One: How do you know you are near, or worse, in the lair of a vampire? (Here students will look for examples in the text where setting details establish the presence of vampires.)

Here’s an example:

A Pack of Wolves Seems Always to Be Near: “There seemed a strange stillness over everything; but as I listened I heard as if from down below in the valley the howling of many wolves. The Count’s eyes gleamed, and he said:– “Listen to them – the children of the night. What music they make!” (Broadview Editions 49).

Section Two: How do you know you are in the actual presence of a vampire? (Here students will look for examples in the text where character description establishes that the strange and ominous creature in their presence is in fact a vampire.)

Section Three: How do you keep vampires away from your friends, out of your house, and away from your stuff?

(Here students will look for ways that the characters “vampire-proof” their loved ones and their homes.)

Section Four: How do you get rid of a vampire once you’ve found one? (Here students will look for ways that the characters both reverse the “vampirification” process and kill, once and for all, a pesky vampire.)

(Note: Some of Stoker’s ideas have been modified over the years by subsequent authors, and students will most likely be familiar with these modifications. Encourage your students, however, to stick with the text of Stoker’s Dracula as they put together their “vampire primer.” Also, encourage them to have some fun with this project – as with many recent renditions of the Dracula story, a little tongue-in-cheek humor might be enjoyable!)

Conduct Original, Electronic Text Research

Stoker’s Dracula has been published many times, in many forms and by many publishers, since London’s Constable Press introduced it in 1897. There are deluxe, edited versions (Broadview Press, 1998; Norton Critical Editions, 1996), “no frills” economy versions (Penguin Classics, 1993; Dover, 2000), and even graphic novels (Puffin Classics, 2006; Marvel, 2010). There’s no telling which text you and your students will be working with. The good news is that the full text of the original novel exists online at the Project Gutenberg website, www.gutenberg.org: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/345

In this section of the lesson, you and your students will conduct original research on the text of the novel, looking for patterns of language and ideas that may yield insight into this particular story and/or the nature of the vampire story genre in general. Based on their findings, students will create a “working,” and then a final, thesis about Stoker’s use of language and/or imagery in the novel. These theses will develop organically based on the search word(s) each student employs – there’s no way to predict in advance what they’ll find. As the teacher, you can help them make sense of what they’re uncovering.

Note: The following lesson presumes that you and your students have read and discussed the novel together.

1. The first thing you need to do is to get a copy of Stoker’s novel into your computer workspace. The easiest way to do this is to click on the “Plain Text UTF-8” download format option – the complete text of the story (along with a short header and some general Project Gutenberg information at the end) will appear shortly. “Select All” and “Copy” to get the text onto your clipboard; open a new document in your preferred text editor (e.g., Microsoft Word), and “Paste” the text into that document. At this point you can format the novel any way you’d like (you can then delete the Project Gutenberg introductory and closing material). Don’t forget to “Save” the document as well.

Note: The document will be long – in 11 point Times New Roman it comes to 587 pages – but don’t fret, your computer’s search capabilities will make short work of your queries!

2. The next step is to formulate a search query, and the best place to start is probably with a word (or words) of interest. Before beginning this process (or even as you and your students read the novel), make a list of “words of interest”: words that seem to stand out, words that are associated with one or more of the characters, or words that appear over and over, perhaps as part of a pattern. (“Blood” might top the list, for example, which could also include body parts such as “eyes,” “teeth,” and “neck”; animals such as “dogs,” “wolves,” and “bats”; and emotions such as “fear,” “desire,” and “excitement.”)

Not that you have some words of interest, choose one of these words and search the full text for it with the goal of finding out how many times it appears. The “Find” command in the “Edit” menu will serve you well here. (When you select “Find,” enter your “word of interest” into the search box; for a slightly more advanced search, select the “Find All Word Forms” check box. It also makes sense to select the “Highlight All Items” check box so that you can more easily find each instance of the word. For accurate search results, either position your cursor at the beginning of the document or “Select All” prior to your search. You can move through the highlighted selections by selecting “Replace” and then “Find Next” – you won’t actually be replacing the selected word(s), but this will allow you to easily work through the text, finding all incidences of the word(s).)

A search for “teeth,” for example, reveals that the word appears 82 times in the novel. That’s interesting, as it’s obviously a repeating word/image in the novel, but so what?

One way to dig further would be to explore the context(s) in which the word appears, opening the way to the following questions:

  • What other word(s) are typically found in close proximity to the word of interest?
  • With what character(s) is the word associated?
  • In what settings or situations does the word often appear?
  • In order to answer questions like these, students will need to read the sentence (and possibly a few sentences before and after) in which the “word of interest” appears. They should make note of the page each reference appears on (though they don’t necessarily need to look at each reference).

So what about those “teeth” references? Early in the novel, Harker describes the Count’s teeth many times, and each description is quite similar: on page 9 he has “sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory”; on page 15, he has “peculiarly sharp white teeth” and then “protuberant teeth”; on page 18, he has “long, sharp canine teeth” and then on page 25, “sharp, canine teeth.” This is already interesting, if only that Harker is so consistent in his description.

But it gets more interesting. For example, as Harker is being driven to Count Dracula’s castle (by, it seems, the Count himself!), the carriage suddenly stops and is quickly surrounded by “a ring of wolves with white teeth” (11). The astute student will make the connection between the white teeth of these fearsome canines and the Count’s own “canine teeth.” It seems likely that Stoker is drawing a parallel between the man/monster and the animal/monster, and it would be useful to formulate a thesis about this mirroring.

Moving through the highlighted words, we come to another scene in which Harker makes special note of teeth, the scene in which, while still a guest in Dracula’s castle, “three young women” appear in his bedroom (with what seems to be lusty intent). Like Dracula and the wolves, they have “brilliant white teeth” (28). As superficially attractive as they are, the link between these women and the more threatening characters in the novel should be clear. Their white teeth signal danger! Encourage students to form working theses like this – their theses may seem rudimentary at this point, but they will continue to refine their ideas as they work through the results of their word search.

In Dr. Seward’s journal of September 20, he writes of Lucy Westenra that “her teeth, in the uncertain light, seemed longer and sharper than they had been in the morning.” And then, tellingly, “the canine teeth looked longer and sharper than the rest” (123). Long, sharp teeth, and the canine teeth at that? The observant student should be picking up on clues to what has happened to Lucy, perhaps known at this point only to Dr. Van Helsing (the book’s vampire specialist) – simply put, Lucy is becoming (or has become) a vampire, due most likely to a visit from the Count himself. These fears are confirmed when later, laying in her coffin, Lucy displays “white teeth” (155).

At this point, students can propose a thesis:

Bram Stoker uses imagery of unnaturally white, peculiarly sharp canine teeth to identify vampires and their animal conspirators; furthermore, he carefully applies this imagery to characters such as Lucy who have been bitten by vampires, as a way of signaling a human-to-vampire change even before the majority of characters are aware of what has happened.

So, can we test this thesis? Going back to our search, and continuing to scroll through instances of “teeth” in the text, we come to Van Helsing’s description of Mina’s teeth, which have, like Lucy’s, grown “sharper” (248). The conclusion, based on our thesis? Like Lucy, Mina is undergoing a human-to-vampire change. The only question now is, will the heroes be able to save her in time?

Create an Original Work in the Epistolary Genre

One interesting aspect of Stoker’s Dracula is the form in which the story is told, which is through journal and diary entries, letters, memoranda, telegrams, and so on. This means that there is no central narrator with a single point of view, but rather a group of narrators whose personal observations combine to form an overall impression of what’s happening. This type of literary genre is known as the “epistolary” novel – epistolary meaning to be contained in or carried on by letters.

In this section of the lesson, students will create a short "epistolary conversation" of their own. There are a couple of options here: students could create their own plot scenarios or you could supply them with a basic idea to expand through their characters’ communications. That said, it would be a good idea to establish a few basic criteria for their stories:

  1. They should have at least three characters;
  2. Each character should speak (or communicate) at least twice;
  3. The characters should use at least three different forms of communication (which could include more modern forms such as texting, posting on a Facebook wall, and so on).

Here is just one possible scenario you could use:

It is 9:10 AM on an average Wednesday, and you’ve just arrived in your biology class. You’re excited because today is the day you and your classmates will be dissecting a fetal pig. However, you’ve also noticed that one of your classmates (you supply the name), a recent transfer to your school, has been acting strangely in the week leading up to the dissection. You are also a bit worried because one of your best friends has been coming to class late for the last couple of days, looks a bit pale, and seems to be ignoring your texts. And are you just imagining things, or does your biology teacher, Mr. Van Helsing, look more anxious than normal? What is that yellowed and fraying piece of paper poking out of his briefcase? Over the next couple of days, some strange things – things that make the fetal pig dissection seem downright trivial – start happening. What are they?

Students can share their epistolary stories with each other by reading the various communications out loud (perhaps with the help of a few of their classmates).

Optional Extension

Since the publication of the original Dracula, the story has been retold countless times in books and movies. Students will probably be most familiar with the Twilight series (both in print and in the movies), but it might be interesting to take them back to, say, the Dracula films starring Bela Lugosi. Ask students to look for ideas in past and present vampire books and/or movies that either sync up with or diverge from themes, details, and ideas presented in the original.

Add Your Own Resources

Educators: Please let us know how you teach Dracula. What online resources do you use? Feel free to add suggestions for other educators, or tell us how you used this lesson plan in your classroom. We want to hear from you!

blog comments powered by Disqus