by Kathryn Powers
Kathryn Powers is an International Business and Letters major from Edmond, OK; she wrote this essay in Catherine Mintler’s Fall 2019 “Doubles & Döppelgangers” course.
Most of us are familiar with the famous Dracula, the best-known character among the earliest popular vampiric characters in literature, who even now reigns as the poster-boy for vampires of all sorts. Bram Stoker’s novel, the basis for this common portrayal, also provides a prime example of the dichotomy of the idealized Victorian woman— pure, innocent, submissive, chaste, family-oriented— and the vampiric seductress, though it is seldom acknowledged as such. For example, in chapter four, Jonathan Harker, one of the story’s protagonists, expresses his disgust with the vampiresses, writing that “Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common. [The female vampires] are the devils of the Pit!” (Stoker). Written in the late nineteenth century, it is unsurprising that a male character would find the female vampires so abhorrent, especially when juxtaposed with Mina, who represents the perfect woman from a Victorian perspective. The reason for this disgust goes beyond the physical danger the female vampire presents and lies in the fact that, as common in the portrayal of vampiresses, they are unabashedly lustful, hungry, powerful, and independent. In other words, the classic rendition of female vampires we see in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla serves as a double that monsterizes the attributes that European society deemed inappropriate for women to possess during the Victorian era, reflecting and enforcing societal restrictions on women’s sexual agency, heteronormativity, and general independence through popular literature.
Sexual agency was at the forefront of frowned-upon traits for a woman to possess in the Victorian age, so it was often attributed to vampires. As stated in Gender in the Vampire Narrative,
[the societal] fear of women’s sexuality particularly centres on women who embrace their sexual hungers and who act as agents of their own desire, and the female vampire embodies those cultural concerns. . . . [The image of the “sexual woman as vampire”] arises from the notion of women’s sexuality as inherently destructive if left unchecked and when not controlled by men, and vampiric sexuality is the ultimate in destructive forces. (Hobson 10; Dijkstra 5)
During this time period, society, largely controlled by men, believed men to be beings who craved and needed sex whereas women did not experience these urges. Because of this belief, it was both strange and improper for women to make advances on men. However, as women’s villainous doubles, female vampires are usually incredibly forward, even sexually violent, when attacking their victims. For example, the following interaction marks the moment in Dracula when the men discover that Lucy is near death and is transforming into a vampiress.
In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she opened her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft, voluptuous voice, such as I had never heard from her lips:—“Arthur! Oh, my love, I am so glad you have come! Kiss me!” Arthur bent eagerly over to kiss her; but at that instant Van Helsing, who, like me, had been startled by her voice, swooped upon him, and catching him by the neck with both hands, dragged him back with a fury of strength which I never thought he could have possessed, and actually hurled him almost across the room. (Stoker)
In this excerpt, Lucy illustrates a sudden shift in character, speaking more seductively than her previously chaste, innocent self would have done. Yet despite knowing that Lucy is nearing the final stages of her transition into a vampire, the men still support Arthur in being there with her in her final moments of mortality, being wary but not truly alarmed until they hear the lust in her voice. Their reaction is likely due in part to the fact that such a tone is uncharacteristic of Lucy, and the shift that signifies and finalizes her change into an evil being is not her sudden aversion to garlic, the miraculously healed bite wounds on her neck, nor even the fangs she has now apparently grown—it is the fact that she has suddenly become more boldly seductive. Vampire fangs are terrifying, but apparently not as terrifying as a woman’s ability to utilize her sexuality. One of these supposed dangers is mythical; the other is very real. The emphasis on sexuality being juxtaposed with a monstrous quality such as fangs is telling of what the Victorians feared and of the cultural norms that such association upholds. Also notice that I said “Victorians” and not “Victorian men.” While obviously facing external restrictions placed upon them, women also had an internal fear toward their own independence and sexuality bred from their surroundings. Women took pride in being chaste and not knowing about their own bodies, in turn affecting other women’s perceptions of what womanhood should be. As a result, women also contributed to their own oppression in some ways because that is what they were socialized by their patriarchal society to do.
Also under the umbrella of sexuality implicated as a monstrous quality, female vampires bring forward what Victorian society would have considered sexual divergency, namely homosexuality. Carmilla is the vampiress who exemplifies this taboo topic and holds the position of title character for the story that inspired Bram Stoker to write his most famous work. In the novella Carmilla, written twenty-five years before Dracula in 1872 by Sheridan Le Fanu, the vampiress sets her sights on the narrator Laura, feeding on her repeatedly and developing their relationship into a rather sensual one that leaves her victim feeling conflicted on how she feels toward her. When Carmilla takes Laura’s hand and gazes at her, “It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed [Laura]; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew [Laura] to her, and her hot lips traveled along [Laura’s] cheek in kisses,” (Le Fanu).The sensual nature of Carmilla’s advances would have been heavily frowned upon in Victorian society for both the overt expression of sexuality and the desire of a female for another female. Consequently, as Joanie Faletto states in her article “The Lesbian Vampire Story That Came Before Dracula” regarding this work of literature, “the heteronormative ‘Dracula’ story was much better suited for the larger public interest. The fact that Carmilla was not received with the enthusiasm that Dracula was is proof in and of itself of how the representation of sexuality, and more specifically homosexuality, was inexplicably linked with the monstrous double. The aspects of Carmilla that were villainized could also serve as a form of inspiration for women in their complexity; not blatantly villainizing vampiresses as did Dracula, it did not receive the same attention and popularity as the latter. This disparity indicates that Victorian society preferred the vampire story that upheld their status quo in fully monsterizing the doubles of independent women as opposed to the story that portrays the double as a complex character.
Since Carmilla does offer a complex relationship between Carmilla and Laura with the latter having mixed feelings of adoration and horror toward Carmilla, this common portrayal of female vampires does clearly display some representation of women’s sexuality and agency that society forces them to subdue. However, the relative lack of attention given to the story further highlights the negative connotations associated with this representation in the public. As Faletto’s article states,
The premise of [vampire] novels is that even the most pure of hearts cannot resist the supernatural seduction. This idea was extremely attractive for the Victorian upper class, especially women, whose desires have always been rigidly restricted. But during this time, women sure weren’t the newsworthy demographic. The heteronormative “Dracula” story was much better suited for the larger public interest.
It is unfortunate and ironic that a female vampiric character who has an incredibly complex relationship with another woman connects to the audience because she represents what they must suppress within themselves but is then surpassed in popularity by a more heteronormative novel. While both stories featured monstrous doubles of independent women in the form of vampiresses, Dracula aligns more with Victorian values, so it gained more popularity. Despite the fact that Carmilla does in some ways provide representation for the conventionally oppressed characteristics and desires that people possess, the fact that it is overshadowed by a novel that imposes a far less complex and far more villainous image of the female vampire upon the audience ultimately reinforces the constrictive gender roles of the Victorian age.
Thus far, in the analysis of the sexualization of the female vampire, we have failed to address her male counterpart. One of the ways in which vampire stories reinforced the gender roles in Victorian society is through the difference in the way vampire attacks manifest in relation to sexuality and gender. As stated by James Twitchell, “the vampire myth is loaded with sexual excitement; yet there is no sexuality… The only time sexuality ever surfaces is when the male is victim to the female vampire, the lamia,” (88). For example, in Dracula, Stoker describes Lucy’s encounter with the Count himself in little detail from the third person point of view of Mina. However, he vividly illustrates Johnathan Harker’s encounter with the female vampires in the following way:
I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive… Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer—nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited—waited with beating heart. (Stoker)
Clearly, this excerpt is a far cry from the vague mentions surrounding the way in which Dracula approaches Lucy, as Mina simply describes “something, long and black, bending over [Lucy]. (Stoker). If it were not for the few minor details included to remind us of the women’s vampirism in the above excerpt, one could easily mistake this writing as foreplay. However, a woman making such blatant sexual advances would be completely ludicrous in the eyes of the audience being that Victorian standards restricted the woman’s sexual life and knowledge so greatly that “women… were proud of how little they knew about their own bodies and childbirth,” supposedly not experiencing sexual desire at all the way the men stereotypically did (Steinbach). Concurrently, the unnerving arousal that the monstrous women inspire in Johnathan is illustrative of the way the Victorian society impressed upon women that such lust was akin to evil, able to overtake and turn them into monsters. However, a man who is considered to be on the good side is free to experience such erotic pleasures, even at the hands of the vampiresses. Furthermore, by writing female monsters as lecherous in coming for male victims, authors subliminally cause their male audience to associate both assertiveness and sexuality in a woman with their own oppression or demise, considering themselves potential victims rather than oppressors.
The overarching restriction of women’s independence in these novels encompasses more than just the restriction of Victorian women’s expression of sexuality. In a time period when societal standards were for women to be almost entirely dependent on the men in their lives for everything, Victorian pop culture’s literary vampire exemplifies the opposite end of the spectrum. In both Carmilla and Dracula, the vampiric women illustrate displays of unorthodox independence. For instance, when Johnathan Harker meets the vampiresses, he is about to be their next meal despite Count Dracula revealing that he had given them direct orders to leave him be. Therefore, not only do the vampiresses possess lustful desire and entrancing sexuality, but they also display a degree of defiance toward their male superior and provider, continuing to tease and laugh at him, mocking his lack of insatiable desire. In other words, they boast the most reproachable qualities for women to have in Victorian society. However, it is arguable that Carmilla provides more representation of these qualities through characterization. In the words of Rutherford-Morrison, “Most of the men in Carmilla are oblivious and ineffectual, if not downright stupid at times”. The fact that the two main characters are both women and that they are far more complex than any of the male characters in the story illustrates a clear rebuff of the more typical role reversal.
Along with these unorthodox gender roles, vampiric literature also explores the stigma around anorexia during the Victorian period. As pointed out by Emma Domínguez-Rué, “the act of eating in Dracula becomes not only aesthetically and culturally unacceptable but monstrous and grotesque, the vampire thereby becoming an exaggerated representation of the Victorian culture of anorexia and personifying male fears about women and hunger.” This eating disorder was actually diagnosed and named by the physician of the era’s namesake herself, Queen Victoria. Due to the arising awareness of this illness, it is logical that, like most social issues, it had an impact on the contemporary literature. As Domínguez-Rué suggests, the vampiric woman could absolutely be an extension of the terrible effect of the patriarchal culture’s definition of femininity on women that resulted in such extreme self-starvation. However, we could also see vampires feeding on life of the living as a metaphor for anorexia itself, as the undead do not eat in the human way, thus connecting the lack of eating to the drainage of life, with the vampire being the monstrous middleman between the two.
The attainment of new knowledge about eating disorders in the Victorian era could very well have been a catalyst for this link between vampirism and anorexia, as can be conjectured when juxtaposing the following excerpt from the article “Victorian Era Eating Disorders” with Bram Stoker’s novel.
The young pre-adolescent girls of the Victorian era considered the ability to survive without nourishment as a symbol of sanctity… The fasting of these girls was regarded as a miracle by the society and girls who possessed this special gift of indefinite fast were highly respected and honored. Hence these kinds of eating disorders prevailed in the Victorian era as it received recognition.
In a society within which women were beneath men, existing almost completely if not entirely in the private, domestic sphere, gaining respectable recognition was a hard task to accomplish. Therefore, if depriving their bodies of sustenance for long durations of time, intending to go on that way indefinitely, was what it took to achieve such esteem, they must have felt pressured to do just that, regardless of the toll it must have taken on their health and general wellbeing. However, after Queen Victoria’s physician put a name to the disease, scientists and physicians began producing papers on the matter, which would have increased societal awareness of the disorder and dispelled the idea of it having to do with sanctity.
When Stoker wrote Dracula toward the end of the Victorian period, he included the fact that one could repulse vampires with sacred objects, likely in order to further enforce the evil characterization of the creatures in the minds of a predominantly religious audience. However, it is notable that when considering vampirism to be a metaphor for anorexia, this sacred/profane dichotomy gets complicated. In Stoker’s novel, sacredness is used to ward off the monsters, whereas in the early part of the Victorian era, the honor of sanctity is what encouraged young girls to starve themselves in the first place. Furthermore, while religious beliefs brought on young girls’ unhealthy relationship with food, religious objects repel vampires and their grotesque relationship with what they consider food. These parallels and foils found between Victorian women suffering from eating disorders and the classic vampiress all exemplify another form of the monstrous doubling of women who fall outside the Victorians’ idea of an ideal woman.
Vampiresses remain among the most common figures in pop culture, but we rarely delve into the reason why they are traditionally associated with sensuality, sexuality, and independence. Said reason may appear to be a very niche issue, regarding only Victorian women, but it should concern anybody involved in the issue with gender equality in today’s society, which is everybody. Though often seen as just a sexy costume idea or a character in a television show, vampiresses illustrate the demeaning attitude toward women asserting claim over their own bodies and sexuality that has persisted from the Victorian age into modern society, though women have undeniably made strides in claiming their overdue independence.
These iconic works of literature reinforced the demeaning negativity directed at women for attributes that, in reality, are inherently human qualities. Lust, sexuality, independence—all were monsterized. Popularity among the Victorian people granted vampire stories a stage on which they could remind Europe of the evil they believed a woman would embody by embracing all these things. Meanwhile, men were able to simultaneously enjoy the fantasy of erotic interactions and oppress real women’s ability to engage in these actions without facing a double standard in judgement. Carmilla, due to its complex female characters and themes, is overshadowed by Dracula, and Mina, the woman whom the reader feels obliged to root for is the perfect Victorian woman that they must strive to be.
Getting engrossed in fiction is often a means of escape and forgetting about life for a while, but how could the fiction really serve such a purpose for Victorian women? After all, these women left a world that confined them to purity, to chastity, to obedience, to the favored image, to submissiveness, only to embark on a journey into a world where men seek to drive a stake through the hearts of monsters, of women who represent everything that Victorian women are not allowed to be, think, feel. Because of the literature available and other forms of socialization, along with having few outlets to discover other ways of thinking, popular stories like the classic vampire tales would still be part of the entertainment they consumed. The traditional image of this monstrous double in these stories really makes one start to wonder just what action Victorians found more frightening in a vampiress: baring their fangs or baring their femininity.
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