What’s the point of Renfield?

I’m re-reading Dracula at the moment, a book I’ve come to like more and more, despite vampires being a bit over-exposed at the moment, culturally speaking. Stoker always surprises me by being so much better than the Sunday writer it’s tempting to think of him as, because Dracula was his only success, and writing wasn’t his main occupation. There are occasional clunky moments, such as his always having to justify (never entirely convincingly) the plague of journal-keeping (and intimate journal-swapping) that overtakes the denizens of London at the same time as the plague of vampirism, but whenever he writes of the dreadful Count, Stoker is possessed of a real inspiration for the power and weirdness of his central creation. There’s a genuine sense of how wily and dangerous the Count is, having not only survived centuries, but having managed to retain what Van Helsing calls a “child-brain” at the same time: an ability to keep learning, to keep experimenting with the limits of his supernatural powers, and to negotiate them with a changing, modern world. There are also flashes of really weird and wonderful surprise, such as when Jonathan Harker slashes the Count with a Kukri knife and not blood but pound notes and gold sovereigns gush forth, something which seems both shocking, funny and peculiarly meaningful all at once.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula‘s Tom Waits’ Renfield

However much I like the Count, though, I’ve always had a problem with Renfield. Compared to the dark, dashing, elegant and dangerous Dracula, he’s so boring. He seems to serve absolutely no plot purpose other than to add to a generally Gothic atmosphere. I feel I have to forgive his presence in the book (though, on this most recent re-read, I’ve been surprised at how much page-time Renfield gets), simply because he fits in with the whole Victorian fascination with madness, and a lunatic like Renfield is just the sort of slimy refuse you’d find clinging to the sump-drain of an otherwise upstanding Victorian Gentleman’s dark unconscious. But I’m less forgiving of Renfield in film adaptations, because films — particularly films as worked-over as Dracula — usually pare back the plot to its absolute essentials, and Renfield, to my mind, is anything but a plot essential. Including Renfield in a film seems like nothing but an excuse for some over-the-top character actor to ham it up, something that’s no doubt great fun for the actor, but boring for this audience-member, at least.

As far as Stoker was concerned, of course, Renfield is in the novel because the waxing and waning of his madness acts as an “index” of the comings and goings of the Count. But by the time Dr Seward works this out, this is just a minor point for the reader. Perhaps if I wrote up a chart of where Dracula was and when, it might tally wonderfully with Renfield’s bouts of frothing mania, but it still adds nothing to the tension of the novel — Dracula’s very dark, shadowy silence in the middle portion of the book is far more compelling than Renfield’s outbursts could ever be.

But on this latest re-reading, I’ve been paying attention to the problem of Renfield, and I think I may be beginning to understand him. I think it’s best to see Renfield as a necessary counterbalance to the dark fantasy figure of the Count. It’s precisely because the Count is so cool, elegant, poised and powerful that we need an embodiment of his opposite — almost like a realistic portrait of how a genuine, non-supernatural vampire would be. Renfield is the real vampire, the one we might find in our world, a disgusting creature whose monomania makes him eat spiders and flies, whose over-careful and all-too-logical defences of his sanity only go to prove how mad he is, and who, after having given in to the impulse to devour his little menagerie, feels just as disgusted with himself as his carers (and readers) do. All these things have to be invested in Renfield because Stoker can’t put them in the Count; but because they are part of the whole picture of predatory vampirism — the non-elegant, non-sexy side — there’s a sort of imaginative need to have them in the novel. Whether Stoker intended it or not, this shabby shadow of his otherwise aristocratic Count has to come through. (And it’s interesting to note that Renfield, in the novel, if not an actual aristocrat, was at least a highly educated gentleman who moved in aristocratic circles before he went loopy.)

Hannibal Lecter, part Dracula, part Renfield – trussed up like a vampire in a coffin, and are those bars or fangs?

Dracula isn’t just the source of so many vampire novels and films, it’s also at the fountainhead of another modern genre, the serial killer story. And this makes much more sense when you blend Renfield and the Count into one figure. That’s when you get the sort of monomaniacal, over-clever but bloody-handed and unbalanced psychopath you see in Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs (where again we get the high/low split of the serial killer into the lofty Lecter and the lowly Buffalo Bill, only this time it’s Lecter who’s locked up and Buffalo Bill who’s loose), as well as countless other serial killer films. Just as Renfield makes obsessive notes of his fly-and-spider eating experiments in a little folded-up paper notebook, so the serial killer of Se7en puts together the scrapbooks that make up the film’s title sequence; just as Buffalo Bill invests his obsession with transformation into his keeping and breeding of Death’s Head Moths, Renfield obsessively collects insects (including “The Acherontia Atropos of the Sphinges, what you call the ‘Death’s-head Moth'”). And just like Count Dracula, these serial killers have borderline supernatural abilities in being able to kill with such horrendous violence then disappear into the night.

Judi Bowker as Mina from my favourite Dracula adaptation, the 1977 BBC Count Dracula

The major difference between Dracula and Renfield, though, is in how they treat Mina Harker. Renfield, still at least partly human, wants, despite his hunger for blood and life, to protect Mina from Dracula, though at the end gives in, and — in his one and only genuine importance to the plot of Dracula — lets the Count into the asylum where Mina is staying. And from this point it is she, not Renfield, who acts as an “index” of the Count’s activities. In effect, she becomes a female Renfield, and it is at this point that Renfield, now superficial to the plot, is killed, most bloodily, by the Count. And here we get another moment from Stoker that never fails to surprise me, as Mina insists that, even while the men track down the Count with the sole intent of killing him in revenge for damning her to Hell, they have pity on him. (After all, she says, “perhaps… some day… I too may need such pity.”) Mystically linked to the Count as she now is, she can also provide information as to where he is and what he’s doing. And so Stoker touches on another archetype of the modern serial killer myth — the serial-killer hunter, or psychological profiler, who can enter the mind of the killer, to the dangerous extent of empathising with, even becoming taken over by, him.

It’s all there in Stoker’s novel.

Comments (24)

  1. J.J. Hitt says:

    Pretty much the way I’ve always felt about Quincy: why add a cowboy? It isn’t to provide dialog, there are already plenty of characters for that. It isn’t to kill Dracula, Jonathan Harker has sufficient motivation to that. Why does this story have a cowboy in it?

    1. Jeff Palac says:

      To show how gun obsessed America is and will always be. Now more than ever!

  2. Cheryl says:

    Renfield is that one character that Dracula has driven mad and that still retains their humanness. Look at how he takes care of the flies, and when they start to die he goes mad. Renfield was one of the few that Dracula never really controlled, including Helsing. These two characters must have had minds that were so busy and cluttered that he just found them madden and didn’t want anything to do with them. Or they were to unapproachable in intellect for his child-like mind. Renfield was a fairly smart man before he supposedly went insane (Dracula caused this of course). But one will continue to ponder the rantings of Renfield and wonder why Stoker used this character for a long time to come.

  3. Madeline says:

    I love your viewpoint on the Renfield sup plot. It really emphasizes the importance of him despite the common view that it is an unnecessary addition to the novel.

  4. Franco says:

    Blacula is the best rendition of this story, it’s only reasonable that this is the type of movie that really captures the feel and image of the novel

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    Just added it to my film rental list…

  6. Andrew Moores says:

    Just reading Dracula for the first time and licking it. Had to google ‘what’s the point of Renfield?’ and it brought me here. Definitely food for thought, thank you.

  7. Andrew Moores says:

    *Liking !!!

  8. Murray Ewing says:

    Thanks Andrew. Like it or lick it, as long as you bite it! 🙂

  9. momo says:

    The thing that always drove me nuts about Renfield (and to a lesser extent Lucy) is how does he initially get connected with the Count?

    He is in the insane asylum BEFORE the Count comes to England. (The 1992 movie solved this by making Renfield Harker’s predecessor).

    Was there some point I missed where Renfield goes from his own lunatic to being the Count’s thrall?

  10. Murray Ewing says:

    I agree. If I remember right, in the 1922 Nosferatu, Renfield is Jonathan Harker’s boss, who sends Harker to Dracula in the first place, implying there’s some sort of plot from the start. After seeing that, or the 1992 film, it’s always a disappointment to read the novel and not find some explaining link between the two. Perhaps Stoker thought it was just Renfield’s particular type of madness that made him resonate with the Count in some telepathic way..?

  11. Jim says:

    Renfield knows of Dracula (a.k.a. The Master), even though he s already in the asylum when his character is introduced. Point: there is an established connection between the two. According to the novel (iirc), there is no clue as to what the connection is, it just ‘is’. Dracula knows of England, but he has most likely never been there, and we don’t know where this knowledge is derived from. He seems to have an ability to see from afar to some degree. This sometimes seems be a two-way mode of communication. He seems attuned to Renfield in such a way. Or perhaps it might be better to say that ‘Renfield is attuned to him’. Any discussion of their connection is purely speculation, based upon “cannon” (original story). I would put forth that, if nothing else, Renfield was probably his first contact with “England”, even if this original (pre-story) contact was nothing more that a psychic connection / communication from afar. Perhaps Dracula reached out with his mind and found Renfield (the mind most attuned to his own), and the contact drove Renfield mad. Or perhaps Renfield was travelling (for whatever reason) and became entangled in Dracula’s web, to the point that it drove him insane. One thing we can say about the relationship is that Renfield acknowledges his connection to Dracula as a subordinate, whether from fear or worship, by his use of the term “the Master”. Another thing we can say is that Renfield’s mental instability is certainly due to his contact with Dracula. Whatever the original connection is, I’ve always associated their relationship as pre-existing, and necessary to the story as it both foreshadows and reflects (explains) some events. He’s certainly more important (to my mind) than, say, “the Cowboy”.

    1. RR Dunwear says:

      I find it makes the most sense if we take the prequel chapter that was published posthumously by Stoker’s widow as ‘Dracula’s Guest’ as the story of how Renfield encountered Dracula. Slightly similar to Harker, except that he’s an Englishman abroad travelling (not on business), who decides to venture out walking in the area despite warnings and happens upon an abandoned village. He’s nearly attacked by a female vampire, but saved by a supernatural mist/hailstorm and a huge wolf that licks at his throat all night, but lays on him and keeps him warm. He is rescued, and it turns out Count Dracula sent a note to tell them where to find him and order his rescue.

      An invitation to the castle is made. And that’s the cliffhanger. We never get the man’s name…

      Everything makes sense to me if that was Renfield.

      1. Murray Ewing says:

        Yes, I agree. Renfield needs to have had contact with Dracula, really, for it all to make sense!

  12. Murray Ewing says:

    Good point, Jim. Renfield is certainly more important than ‘the Cowboy’, who may be there just to make up the numbers (three would-be husbands to balance Dracula’s three ‘brides’). Renfield, as a character, certainly provides food for thought… If only he weren’t so annoying!

  13. Kyle says:

    The Renfield subplot adds an important layer of suspense to Dracula while also furthering the overlying thematic concepts that Stoker tackles with the novel.
    Renfield is one of the largest sources of dramatic irony throughout the novel. From early on in the novel, the reader is aware (or at least, very strongly suspects) that the originator of Renfield’s behavior is the Count. Conversely, it is not until very late in the novel (circa chapter 19) that Renfield reveals to Dr. Seward and his colleagues his relationship to the very monster that the crew has been hunting. Thus, the course of Renfield’s life in Dracula creates suspense as the reader watches the protagonists slowly reach the conclusion that a key clue in their search for the Count remains where they least expect it, and yet not hidden at all: in Seward’s mentally deranged patient. Personally, I find that Renfield’s plot almost echoes that of Cass Mastern of All The King’s Men; just as Cass Mastern serves as a sounding board for Jack and a gauge of how much he has come to understand, Renfield is something of a symptom of the Count, and the more that Seward and the others come to understand him and his “zoophagy,” the more they can understand Count Dracula and his own consumption of life.
    The Renfield subplot further serves to hint at Stoker’s thematic statements about the nature of life and its methods of sustenance. If Dracula serves to contend that all life must sustain itself by feeding upon other life, and that no living being does not take life from some other one to further itself, Renfield’s consumption of spiders and flies and birds contributes to his message. Summed up well by Renfield himself: “The blood is the life! The blood is the life!” (121).
    If Renfield had been omitted from the novel completely, I think it reasonable to believe that the novel would be completely different, if not incomplete. Not only would Dracula lose some of its most (in my opinion) wonderful, suspenseful, and engaging quotes (e.g. “…I did what I could to convince you tonight;” 212), but the novel would lose all of the dramatic irony and thematic value that Renfield brings to the work as a whole. Renfield is perhaps as important to Dracula as the Count himself; his plot is one of the reasons why Stoker’s novel transcends as one of horror, suspense, and terror.

  14. Murray Ewing says:

    Thanks for that, Kyle. And yes, the more I think about him, the more I see Renfield as being necessary to the novel in terms of structure and meaning. I suppose, though, what led to my asking the question in the first place is that whenever Renfield appears, in the novel or film adaptations, my heart sort of drops. Yes, he provides plot structure and thematic material, and as a human being he’s both deeply pitiable and sort of horrifying in terms of what he’s become, but even then I don’t think he quite earns the amount of page time/screen time he gets. When he appears, it’s rather like being cornered at a party by someone with only one topic of conversation: interesting at first, but then, more and more, you realise you’ve plumbed the depths of this particular person but they’re still going on and on… I do intend to re-read Dracula soon, though, and I may find my views changing!

  15. Chris Edwards says:

    I’m so glad to see you’re still active in the comments here, because I did a study on Dracula (and Bram Stoker) as a senior project a decade ago, and Renfield also struck me as an odd-man-out in a story where the odd-man-out is supposed to be the first victim.

    But, I think I figured out his purpose in the narrative. Look at it this way: if Renfield was removed entirely, what would the reader know about the behavior of Dracula and vampires overall?
    The reader would know far less, and vampires (though not Stoker’s invention) were not a commonly-known character type. So Renfield, as a (literal) captive character, allowed Stoker to describe the behavior of a vampire WITHOUT digging deeply into Dracula himself. If Stoker used Dracula to describe vampires in this kind of detail, it would destroy the sense of mystery that Dracula carried, and really betray the character. And, by showing Renfield as a cruder version of a vampire, the reader gets a sense that Dracula is some kind of special, ancient version with far greater power.

    So, one reason Renfield doesn’t work in movies is that modern viewers know what a vampire is supposed to be. Renfield is a useless character. I think the only way to use Renfield properly in a movie would require that Dracula not be introduced until maybe halfway through. That lets the viewer understand vampires in terms of Renfield as the villain (and they’d need to make him a decent villain, rather than time-wasting filler), before they are confronted with the far more powerful Dracula. A bit like how we didn’t see much of Darth Vader (or better yet, his master), but through the other characters we understand how evil they are.

    Overall, it’s Renfield that allows the reader to understand vampires, and it’s Renfield’s weakness that allow you to understand how powerful Dracula is.
    I hope to re-read the book soon, when I get time. It’s the type that often has more to discover. Currently I’m obsessing over Westworld and Stranger Things; you’d probably like both those if you also enjoy Dracula this much.

  16. Murray Ewing says:

    Thanks for that Chris. This post is still the one that gets the most hits on my blog, so Renfield is obviously a character who intrigues people! I think you’re right about Renfield acting as a mouthpiece for Dracula. I recently saw the Tod Browning film for the first time in ages, and realised how much Renfield is there to explain Dracula — and he’s perhaps the best Renfield in films, for me. He even gets some genuine scares of his own!

    But of course there’s also Van Helsing who does some explaining about vampires. There’s probably a division of labour between the two along some significant line — Van Helsing with an academic knowledge, Renfield with a lived experience. Again, a re-read of the book is looming…

  17. Ruth Williams says:

    Listening yo Dracula on audiable. Read many years ago. I have not thought much about Renfield’s character. He is part of the story. I got the impression that he had somehow meet along the way. Not sure if in this blog but I never got that Dracula raped Lucy or Mona. No blood glow. Has ED. Per Uarbo count St Germain vampires unable to have sex. Next I am going to listen to Frankinstein

  18. Doc Maw says:

    I think that Renfield has another purpose over and above all the excellent ideas here. As a human who succumbs to Dracula and ends steeped in madness, Renfield highlights the heights of Harker’s heroism as, when trapped in Castle Dracula and within the direct power of Dracula himself, Harker resists Dracula’s influence choosing to die rather than become evil. Surviving falling from the castle window, he then becomes one of the main protagonists in bringing about Dracula’s downfall.

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