Dracula begins with the diary kept by Jonathan Harker—an English solicitor, or lawyer—as he makes his way from England to Eastern Europe. Embarking on his first professional assignment as a solicitor, Harker is traveling to the castle of Count Dracula, a Transylvanian nobleman. Harker hopes to conclude a real estate deal to sell Count Dracula a residence in London. Harker plans to take copious notes throughout his journey so that he can share the details of his adventures with his fiancée, Mina Murray.

In his first diary entry, on May 3, Harker describes the picturesque countryside of Eastern Europe and the exotic food he has tasted at the roadside inns. He notes several recipes that he plans to obtain for Mina. Harker arrives in the northern Romanian town of Bistritz and checks into a hotel Count Dracula has recommended to him. The innkeeper gives Harker a letter from the count. The letter welcomes Harker to the beautiful Carpathian Mountains and informs him that he should take the next day’s coach to the Borgo Pass, where a carriage will meet him to bring him the rest of the way to the castle.

As Harker prepares to leave the next morning, the innkeeper’s wife delivers an ominous warning. She reminds Harker that it is the eve of St. George’s Day, when “all the evil things in the world will have full sway.” She then puts a crucifix around his neck. Though he is a practicing Anglican who regards Catholic paraphernalia as somewhat idolatrous, Harker politely accepts the crucifix. He is somewhat disturbed by this exchange, however, and his uneasiness increases when a crowd of peasants gathers around the inn as he boards the coach. They mutter many “queer words” at Harker, which, with the help of his dictionary, he translates to mean “were-wolf” or “vampire.” As the coach departs, everyone in the crowd makes the sign of the cross in his direction, a gesture that a fellow passenger explains is meant to protect him from the “evil eye.”

The journey to the Borgo Pass takes Harker through incomparably beautiful country. At dusk, he passes by quaintly attired peasants kneeling in prayer at roadside shrines. As darkness falls, the other passengers become restless, urging the coachmen to quicken their speed. The driver whips the horses into a frenzy and the coach rockets along the mountain road. One by one, the passengers begin to offer Harker small gifts and tokens that he assumes are also meant to ward off the evil eye.

The coach soon arrives at the Borgo Pass, but there is no carriage waiting to ferry Harker to his final destination. Just as the driver offers to bring Harker back to the pass the next day, however, a small, horse-drawn carriage arrives. Harker boards the carriage and continues toward the castle. He has the impression that the carriage is covering the same ground over and over again, and he grows increasingly fearful as the ride progresses. Harker is spooked several times by the wild howling of wolves.

At one point, Harker looks outside the carriage and sees a flickering blue flame burning somewhere in the distance. The driver pulls over without explanation, inspects the flame, then returns to the carriage and continues on. Harker recounts several more stops to inspect similar flames and notes that at one point, when the driver gathers a few stones around one of the flames, he seems to be able to see the flame through the driver’s body. Eventually, Harker arrives, paralyzed by fear, at the dark and ruined castle.

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Though Stoker wrote Dracula well after the heyday of the Gothic novel—the period from approximately 1760 to 1820—the novel draws on many conventions of the genre, especially in these opening chapters. Conceived primarily as bloodcurdling tales of horror, Gothic novels tend to feature strong supernatural elements juxtaposed with familiar backdrops: dark and stormy nights, ruined castles riddled with secret passages, and forces of unlikely good pitted against those of unimaginable evil. Stoker echoes these conventions in this chapter, as the frantic superstitions of the Carpathian peasants, the cold and desolate mountain pass, and Harker’s disorienting and threatening ride to Dracula’s castle combine to create a mood of doom and dread.

Read more about Dracula as a Gothic novel.

As contemporary readers, we may find the setting vaguely reminiscent of Halloween, but Stoker’s descriptions in fact reveal a great deal about nineteenth-century British stereotypes of Eastern Europe. As Harker approaches Dracula’s castle, he notes that his trip has been “so strange and uncanny that a dreadful fear came upon [him].” Harker’s sense of dread illustrates his inability to comprehend the superstitions of the Carpathian peasants.

Read important quotes about the foreignness of Transylvania to the novel’s English characters.

Indeed, as an Englishman who “visits the British Museum” in an attempt to understand the lands and customs of Transylvania, Harker emerges as a model of Victorian reason, a clear product of turn-of-the-century England. Harker’s education, as well as his Western sense of progress and propriety, disables him from making sense of such rustic traditions as “the evil eye.” To a man of Harker’s position and education, the strange sights he witnesses en route to the castle strike him as rare curiosities or dreams. He already begins doubting the reality of his experience: “I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming. . . .” Harker’s inability to accept what is unknown, irrational, and unprovable is echoed by his English and American compatriots later in the novel. Harker’s experience suggests that the foundations of Western civilization—reason, scientific advancement, and economic domination—are threatened by the alternative knowledge that they presume to have surpassed. Western empirical knowledge is vulnerable because it has summarily dismissed foreign ways of thinking and, in doing so, has failed to recognize the power of such alternative modes of thought.

Read an in-depth analysis of Jonathan Harker.

Harker’s description of his ascent to the castle as “uncanny” foreshadows the psychological horror of the novel. In 1919, Sigmund Freud published an essay called “The Uncanny,” in which he analyzed the implications of feelings and sensations that arouse “dread and horror.” Freud concludes that uncanny experiences can arise at two times. First, they can arise when primitive, supposedly disproved beliefs suddenly seem to be confirmed or validated once again. Second, the uncanny can arise when repressed infantile complexes are revived. Most academic criticism of Dracula relies heavily on such psychoanalytic theory and argues that the novel can be seen as a case study of repressed instincts coming to the surface. Indeed, such a reading seems inevitable if one considers Freud’s model of psychosexual development, which links the first stage of this development—the oral stage—with the death instinct, the urge to destroy what is living. The vampire, bringing about death with his mouth, serves as a fitting embodiment of these abstract psychological concepts, and allows Stoker to investigate Victorian sexuality and repression.

Read more about foreshadowing throughout the novel.