Stoker's working notes for Dracula suggest the novel's setting is 1893. Dracula's events unfold from May to November in different locations until the characters' experiences converge near London. Events overlap until this point in the novel as characters in different places record simultaneous events in their journals, letters, and other writings.
In May the young lawyer Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to assist a nobleman, Dracula, with a real estate purchase. Dracula is buying Carfax, a run-down estate near London. The villagers who live near Castle Dracula warn Harker not to travel to the castle; one gives him a crucifix, but he's puzzled over the gesture. Harker finds his host polite and attentive, if odd. Dracula has no servants, is unusually strong, and demands Harker work with him only at night. Gradually, Harker realizes Dracula is somehow inhuman. Dracula imprisons Harker, apparently intending to kill him; yet he protects him from three voluptuous, viciously fanged women. After Dracula leaves for London, sending 50 boxes of earth ahead of him, Harker manages to escape the castle and make it to a hospital in Budapest, where he collapses, suffering from "brain fever."
Meanwhile, Harker's fiancé, Mina Murray, is enjoying a vacation in the seaside town of Whitby with her dear friend, Lucy Westenra. Pretty, sweet, and well-off, Lucy wins the love of three men—Dr. John Seward, who runs an asylum near London; Quincey Morris, a Texan; and Arthur Holmwood, heir to an aristocratic title. She chooses Holmwood. Morris accepts the choice manfully, but Seward sinks into depression. He turns to his work, hoping for distraction, and records his observations of Renfield, a patient who eats flies, spiders, and sparrows in hopes of gaining their life forces.
A strangely violent storm drives a ship ashore near Whitby; its crew is dead, and its captain's body is tied to the wheel, a crucifix between his hands. The only survivor is a vicious dog that flees the ship. The captain's log tells a strange story: one at a time, the crew disappeared till only he and the first mate were left. The mate drowned himself, terrified, leaving the captain to bring the ship to harbor. Shortly afterward, Mina finds Lucy, sleepwalking as is her habit, in Whitby's cemetery. She seems weak and has two small puncture wounds in her neck, from a cloak pin, Mina assumes.
Over the coming days, Mina travels to Budapest to marry Harker and bring him home, while Seward and his mentor, Dutch professor Abraham Van Helsing, treat Lucy, who is weak and pale. Van Helsing prescribes strange treatments—garlic flowers, for example—with no explanation and performs four blood transfusions. But he cannot save Lucy. After her death, Van Helsing insists Seward, Holmwood, and Morris must help him destroy Lucy's body. They are appalled, but he proves to them Lucy is an Un-Dead and is attacking children to drink their blood. They enter the tomb where she sleeps and destroy her body but release her soul.
The Harkers inherit a home and legal business in Exeter, meanwhile, but Mina worries about her husband's strength and health. In London for their benefactor's funeral, the Harkers see a thin man watching a pretty young woman. After Harker first breaks down and then can't recall the incident, Mina reads his journals to better understand his distress. She can't believe what he's written. Van Helsing contacts Mina for information about Lucy, and Mina reveals Harker's experiences as she comes to trust the professor. At Seward's asylum, Mina organizes everything they know about Dracula. Meanwhile the men work to find the boxes of earth and sterilize them with crumbs from a communion wafer, planning to corner Dracula and destroy him. But Renfield, Seward's patient and Dracula's follower, allows Dracula access to the asylum, where he attacks Mina, forcing her to drink his blood so she'll become a vampire and serve him. Attempting to protect Mina, Van Helsing touches the wafer to her forehead, where it burns her skin, marking her as polluted and evil. Van Helsing reveals at last information about Dracula's mortal history as a voivode, or war leader, and vampire lore he's largely withheld thus far, and the band of heroes vows to destroy Dracula before he can try again to establish a new reign.
With only one box of earth left, Dracula retreats by ship to his castle. Van Helsing, Mina, and the young men join their abilities to track his route. They pursue him over land and by river as Mina fights to remain human. Van Helsing reaches the castle and destroys the bride-maidens, and the young men fight the workers who are carting the box of earth where Dracula hides to the castle. Harker and Morris kill Dracula, whose body crumbles as the light of sunset touches it. The red mark fades from Mina's forehead as Quincey dies.
Seven years later, Seward and Morris have found wives, and the Harkers have a son, Quincey. Van Helsing holds the boy on his knee and says that someday the child will understand why several men dared so much for his mother.