THE LADY IS A VAMP: FEAR, DESIRE, AND FEMALE SEXUALITY IN DRACULA
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has not been out of print since it was published in 1897 and it has resurrected itself in such forms as Nosferatu, Joss Whedon’s hit television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the teen sensation Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. There have been countless (often Count-less) versions and imitations in between, but what’s the secret behind Dracula’s immortality?
Though Stoker’s Dracula is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel, there were others before it. John Polidori’s The Vampyre was highly successful and one of the most influential vampire works of the early nineteenth century. Published in 1819 it presented the vampire as sophisticated and charismatic. Sheridan Lefanu’s Carmilla is another such example, remembered mostly for its eroticism, something which features heavily in Stoker’s own work; indeed, it very much drives the novel and goes some way to explaining the vampire’s ongoing appeal.
A wicked, burning desire
The eroticism of Dracula is established early. Harker’s encounter with the vampire women in chapter three is rich with sexual imagery. His description focuses on the bodies of the women. With their ‘golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires’, a typically romantic description, their appearance quickly becomes more suggestive with ‘teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips’. ‘There are kisses for us all’ says one of them, and the scene becomes even more erotically charged when one of the women goes to her knees with ‘deliberate voluptuousness’.
However, as beautiful as they are, Stoker describes these women in a way that marks them immediately as unnatural. They cast no shadow, and Harker experiences both a ‘dreamy fear’ and a ‘deadly’ one at their approach. Their laughter is hard, with a mocking quality, and never could have come from human lips. Harker finds them simultaneously ‘thrilling’ and ‘repulsive’, illustrating a patriarchal hypocrisy regarding women’s sexuality. Their voluptuousness is deliberate, their behaviour accompanied with ‘gloating’, and whilst there is clearly a sexual charge to such vivid focus on the mouth, combining a feeding hunger with a sexual appetite, the fact that she ‘licked her lips like an animal’ marks her as bestial, driven by her lust to become a predatory animal.
Harker is both excited and horrified, as if female sexuality is something to long for and yet fear. Interestingly, Harker remains the passive receiver of this sexual attention, laying down in ‘an agony of delightful anticipation’ and ‘looking out from under [his] eyelashes’ with ‘beating heart’ as the vampire kisses his throat. His state is one of ‘languorous ecstasy’ and he is feminised by his actions, or lack of them, as well as by the words he uses to record the event in his diary. It seems there’s more to fear from a vampire than a loss of blood, for these women have the power to strip a man of his masculinity. Even Van Helsing finds it hard to dispatch them, admitting he finds them attractive. These are the epitome of the femme fatale, inspiring passion and desire whilst revealing and revelling in their own sexual power. Francis Ford Coppola exaggerates this in his film version, the sexual undertones brought explicitly to the fore, and one of the women even sports a Medusa-like headdress to emphasise their role as powerful yet monstrous women.
One of God’s women
Stoker does not limit his exploration of female sexuality to these vampire women. Mina Murray serves as a contrast to these hungry temptresses and illustrates something of Victorian values regarding women. She stands as the virginal woman, pure and dutiful. Van Helsing calls her ‘one of God’s women, fashioned by his own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven’ and her actions in the novel are for the most part those of the idealised feminine.
Yet she is not without her own sexual episode within the text. Dracula visits her and feeds from her in chapter twenty-one, and we are told it is ‘not the first time, or the second’, Mina admitting ‘I did not want to hinder him’. She tells of being in a ‘half swoon’ and of losing track of how long the experience lasted. It occurs in the bedroom whilst her husband lays powerless beside them, impotent you could say, and some critics have suggested that his exhausted stupor may have been induced by Mina’s own appetite. She feeds from Dracula, claiming she must ‘suffocate or swallow some of the -’ and the omission serves to emphasise the sexual connotations of the act. She recounts events with a tone of shame that suggests culpability. Harker may have been guilty of a similar act in chapter three, and with multiple partners, but his experience occurs before marriage, whereas Mina’s transgression is after. When the holy wafer burns her as holy punishment, the resulting mark reminds us of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter, a permanent reminder of her ‘adultery’.
When Mina said in an earlier chapter ‘we should have shocked the “New Woman” with out appetites’ she was referring to a lack of one, though it seems there is plenty to suggest she has a hunger of her own after all. Her friend, Lucy Westerna, however, is presented as having a far more dangerous appetite.
The bloofer lady
Lucy is presented as a contrast to Mina, and her (unfair) punishment is far more severe. We are told almost immediately upon her introduction that she has had three proposals of marriage and she writes ‘why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her’ which considering the time period marks her as something of a coquette or vamp. It may be too much to allow her to propose herself, as Mina suggests the New Woman will in the future, but in having three suitors Lucy is at least allowed to choose, though ‘they’ won’t let her marry all three. The ‘they’ she refers to is the patriarchal society in which she lives and her rebelling against it condemns her to a grisly fate.
Targeted by Dracula, Lucy spends her evenings in secret rendezvous. Mina worries for Lucy’s reputation when she learns of her nocturnal wandering, and though the woman is only sleepwalking there is some suggestion of a certain wantonness to her actions. Later, weakened by blood loss, this seemingly wanton reputation is compounded when she is given transfusions from each of the men. If the sexual symbolism wasn’t already clear in this receiving of bodily fluid, Arthur remarks how his transfusion makes them married. The fact that he is not the first to have done so is something the others keep from him, emphasising this intimacy. Lucy is on the way to becoming something for Victorian men to fear, and Stoker ensures this is clear when he makes a comparison between her and the vampire women when with a ‘soft, voluptuous voice’, Lucy bids Arthur ‘Kiss me!’
Despite these transfusions, or because of them if you read the text as a criticism of female promiscuity, Lucy dies. She becomes the vampire ‘bloofer lady’ (or beautiful lady), and though her ‘brows were wrinkled as though the folds of the flesh were the coils of Medusa’s snakes’, perhaps giving Coppola his cinematic image, she is also described as approaching Arthur with ‘outstretched arms and a wanton smile’, with a ‘languorous grace’ saying ‘come to me, Arthur…My arms are hungry for you’, again combining fear with desire: female lust and vampirism appear synonymous. Seward remarks her voice is ‘diabolically sweet’ and that it affects all of the men, highlighting the impact such a woman could have on society. If this sexual strength wasn’t enough to shock Victorian readers, Stoker has her preying on the local children, much as the vampire women earlier fed upon a baby in a perverted reversal of the maternal. Lucy is clearly unnatural.
Much has been made of how the men put an end to Lucy. Some see ‘the body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions’ as further proof of her sexual liberty, noting the repeated reference of ‘quiver’ as orgasmic, whereas others see a rape-like violence in the scene. Either way, the staking is certainly a phallic act in which the men reassert their dominance over such a free-spirited woman, re-establishing some patriarchal order. Indeed, this is the motivation behind their hunting and destroying of Dracula himself, for his power threatens their own.
The appropriate behaviour of gender roles was something discussed scientifically and philosophically in Stoker’s time, and through literature he has contributed to the debate. However, his position in the debate is not always clear, for he seems to both agree with constructed ideas of femininity, reinforcing them in his novel, whilst at the same time exploring the restricted and repressed by contradicting or at least obscuring such ideas. Rigid social expectations had it that women behaved either as virgins, mothers, wives, or whores. Whilst Mina represents the first three, Lucy and the vampire women appear to be the latter. Whatever strength they have in being sexual creatures is taken away by Stoker in having each killed, so it seems he is in favour of traditional views regarding women. And yet Mina complicates things. Van Helsing describes her as having a man’s brain and a woman’s heart, at once ‘new woman’ and old, and it is through Mina that the men are able to destroy the count. Perhaps Stoker supports the ‘new woman’ after all.
The blood is the life
Whilst critics often equate the exchange of blood with sexual activity in Dracula, some have seen the use of blood as depicting a fear of menstruation, particularly in Mina’s feeding scene. Her nightgown is soaked with blood, she cries that she is ‘unclean’, and Dracula’s own bleeding wound can be seen to resemble the female genitalia. It seems there is more to feel threatened by than female sexuality.
We must remember that the erotic associations we have regarding the vampire come from literature and not from folklore. Doerksen claims the vampire “illustrates the danger of releasing Victorian sexual repression” and in ‘The Censorship of Fiction’ Bram Stoker wrote “the only emotions which in the long run harm are those arising from sex impulses”. It seems he has used Dracula to illustrate this, particularly the sex impulses of women. In fact, in an early chapter cut from the novel but existing as the short story ‘Dracula’s Guest’, Stoker has the first vampire threat as female.
Dracula received a great deal of attention upon its original release, becoming something of a bestseller in its day. That said, it did not enjoy as many sales as other books of the time, and reviews were mixed. Whilst one claimed it wanting “in the higher literary sense”, another admitted it was read “with rapt attention”. It’s likely that this rapt attention is due to a curiosity regarding sexual behaviour, an underlying intrigue despite any outward beliefs in appropriate gender behaviour, though Stoker claimed he wanted to “cleanse the mind” rather than entertain with anything “base”.
Alternatively, it may be that Stoker has used the gothic and the supernatural as so many others have before and after him – to mask sexual fantasy. Perhaps Dracula does not have a reflection because he is a reflection, of the male desire for dominance over fearfully strong women. With his ability to usurp the female role of creating life, his bite a kind of demonic procreation in creating more vampires, and with his consumption of blood as a triumph over fears of menstruation, it may be that Dracula is the ultimate patriarchal fantasy.