Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian

  • This summary of The Historian includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Historian Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

The Historian is the 2005 genre-bending debut novel written by American author Elizabeth Kostova. Divided into three parts, the story fuses the history and folklore of Vlad the Impaler and his fictional counterpart, Count Dracula. The novel is inspired by the stories Kostova’s father would tell her about Dracula as a child. She spent 10 years writing the book, which sold just a few months after completion to Little, Brown and Company for two million U.S. dollars. The Historian is the first debut novel to become number one on the New York Times bestsellers list in its first week on the shelf. The novel has been described as combining many genres, including Gothic novel, adventure epic, detective fiction, travelogue, historical thriller, and epistolary. The Historian won several honors, including the 2003 Hopwood Award for Novel-in-progress, 2005 Quill Award for Debut Author of the Year, and 2006 Book Sense Award for Best Adult Fiction.

Written in the epistolary form of diary entries, newsletters, public documents, etc., Part One of the story begins in 1972 Amsterdam. The unnamed female narrator unearths an old leather-bound book with the image of a dragon connected with Dracula on the cover. She asks her father Paul about the origins of the tome, which he explains is a handmade book he found in his desk as a graduate student in the 1950s. Paul gives the book to his teacher, Professor Bartholomew Rossi. Rossi is stunned, explaining that he also found a similar book while he was a grad student in the 1930s. This leads Rossi to study Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, at great length. When Rossi uncovers the mythic lore surrounding Dracula and his relation to Vlad, he begins to study the book intensely. Rossi travels to Istanbul for his research, but he’s ultimately forced to end his investigation and return to his professorial duties. Rossi hands Paul his research papers and declares he believes Dracula is still alive.

Most of the novel remains in the 1950s timeline. Following his meeting with Paul, Rossi vanishes with only the trace of blood on his office desk and ceiling left behind. Paul is sure something sinister has stricken his mentor, and sets out to prove Dracula’s involvement. As Paul begins investigating Dracula, he meets a young brunette woman in the university library. She is reading a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The woman turns out to be Helen Rossi, Bartholomew’s daughter, who has become an expert on the lore of Dracula. Paul tries to persuade Helen into believing one of the librarians is out to quell their investigation of Dracula, but she is unconvinced. When the librarian accosts and bites Helen, Paul confronts and subdues him temporarily before he squirms free. In his attempt to flee, the vampire is run over by a car outside of the library and assumed dead.

Upon hearing her father’s tale, the narrator vows to continue investigating Dracula. She and Paul traverse Europe throughout the 1970s. After awhile, Paul sends his daughter back home, but she does not stay put for long. Upon opening letters addressed to her, she learns Paul has gone off in search of her mother, who was previously thought dead. The narrator ventures to find Paul as a result. Around this time the novel conveys that the narrator is Helen’s daughter. As she continues to read the letters her father left her, she learns more about Dracula. At the end of part one, the narrator visits a monastery in the attempt to locate her father.

Part Two commences with the narrator detailing Helen and her husband’s time traversing Eastern Europe in the 1950s. During their trip, Paul and Helen surmise that Rossi may have been transported by Dracula to his crypt. They go to Istanbul to study the archives of Sultan Mehmed II, which Paul thinks holds the key to the location of Dracula’s crypt. They have the good fortune of meeting Professor Turgut Bora at Istanbul University, who also possesses a similar handmade book as Paul and Rossi have. Bora has access to Mehmed’s archives, and soon a trove of important documents is uncovered. They also spot the librarian they thought was killed by a car in America. He’s is a vampire who has been following the couple. Paul fires a bullet at the vampire, but does not kill him because he misses its heart. Paul and Helen leave Istanbul for Budapest to continue their search for Dracula’s crypt, as well as locate Helen’s mother. Paul and Helen believe her mother may know of Rossi’s whereabouts, as they once met in Romania during the 1930s. Helen learns that her mother had a love affair with Rossi. She and Paul also learn that Helen, Helen’s mother and the narrator are all descendants of Vlad the Impaler.

Part Three begins with Bora exclaiming Dracula’s crypt may rest in Bulgaria. Bora also confesses that he is part of a sect created by Sultan Mehmed II comprised of the Janissaries, meant to defeat the evil Order of the Dragon that is affiliated with Dracula. In Bulgaria, Paul and Helen solicit the aid of scholar Anton Stoichev. From Anton, they learn that Dracula is probably buried in the Bulgarian charterhouse for Sveti Georgi. Paul and Helen overcome several obstacles before finally locating Georgi. At the charterhouse, Paula and Helen find Rossi’s corpse buried inside the crypt. They plunge a silver dagger through Rossi’s heart to ensure he doesn’t become a vampire. Before dying, Rossi explains that Dracula is a scholar that owns a hidden library. Rossi has detailed his imprisonment on a document hidden at said library. Paul and Helen are descended upon by the vampiric librarian as well as monastery officials, all of which seek Dracula’s crypt. When they arrive however, the tomb is empty.

Paul and Helen relocate to America, where they marry, and Helen gives birth to the narrator. Helen falls into a depression, worrying that the vampire bite she sustained will contaminate her daughter. The family moves back to Europe in order to lift Helen’s spirits. Upon visiting the Saint-Matthieu-des-Pyrénées-Orientales monastery, Helen senses Dracula’s presence and gets the sudden urge to leap off a cliff. Helen’s fall is broken by grass. Afterwards, she vows to avenge Dracula by killing him and ridding her vampiric curse. The narrator arrives at the monastery and locates her father. The characters from various timelines unite to defeat Dracula. In the end, Dracula is ostensibly killed when Helen shoots a silver bullet through his heart. In the epilogue set in 2008, the narrator visits a library in Philadelphia. She discovers a collection of ancient works related to Dracula. She inadvertently leaves her research behind. A librarian rushes to return it and gives the narrator a handmade book imprinted with a dragon on the cover. It is implied that Dracula is still alive or someone else is doing his bidding for him.