Thursday, April 19, 2018

Dracula Gender Tropes and Victorian Sexual Panic

Almost 2000 years ago, in AD 54, St. Paul wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians, wherein it states (verse 11:8), “For neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” Taking this to heart, over the centuries, men took possession of their creations and liberated them from the burden of property and legal rights, in order to shelter the fairer sex from the quotidian mental toils of earthly existence.

By 1792, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s time, most women had conformed to this arrangement:

Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, everything else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.

Minister William Jay, at a wedding in Argyle Chapel, Bath, on August 16, 1801, gave this lesson: “Nothing will increase your influence and secure your usefulness more than being in subjugation to your own husbands.” This submission and corresponding protection had a legal name, feme covert, meaning women relinquished their property and surrendered their self-determination upon marriage in exchange for their husband’s protection.

The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which passed Parliament fifteen years before Dracula was published, changed these rules:

A married woman shall, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, be capable of acquiring, holding, and disposing by will or otherwise, of any real or personal property as her separate property, in the same manner as if she were a feme sole, without the intervention of any trustee.

From this fertile liberal soil springs Mina Harker, a stark contrast to the typical Gothic woman. It is wrong to classify Mina as the Woman-In-Peril archetype, because though Dracula targets her, she is empowered with her typewriter and shorthand, organizing diaries and case studies. She is no damsel-in-distress by choice. Indeed, she uses her agency to foil Dracula’s assaults. When the men intend to withhold the extent of Dracula’s evil, she argues, telling them, she “had read all the papers and diaries, and that [she and Jonathan], having typewritten them, had just finished putting them in order.” Arthur reacts by asking, “Did you write all this, Mrs. Harker?”, which today certainly seems condescending.

Simultaneously, though, Mina retains her traditional role as a virtuous woman and good wife. She is faithful to Jonathan when he is months tardy and holds motherly values dear. Self-sufficient enough to travel to Prague, she nurses Jonathan to health, and they marry. Later, she independently decides to read his diary and consults Van Helsing.

Later, she comforts Arthur writing, “I felt this big sorrowing man’s head resting on me, as though it were that of a baby that some day may lie on my bosom, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child.” Only when Jonathan stops telling her their secrets does Dracula gain access to her chamber, but even then, she fights back. In fact, she allows Van Helsing to use her hypnotically as a window into Dracula’s mind.

If Mina is the Mother figure, Lucy, by contrast, is the Whore or Fallen Woman. The young beautiful narcissist attracts a bevy of admirers: Quincey Morris, Dr. John Seward, and Arthur. They all want to marry her, and she relishes their attention. Later, all three “strapping men” (in Van Helsing’s words) will replenish her blood before she succumbs at last to Dracula’s thirst. In the end, together with Van Helsing, these same men stake her in the grave, ending her Undead life, but not before she commits a mortal sin—Not the violation of the child’s neck, but displaying prurience in public, indeed before her husband’s friends:

Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come! (Ch. 16)

Dr. Seward describes her tone as “diabolically sweet.” Luckily Van Helsing intervenes with his “little golden crucifix,” a symbol diminished in size to show its sublime power as a conduit of the ineffable. Later, Van Helsing explains to Arthur the peril his Undead wife represents:


Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu. (Ch. 16)

The three sisters in Dracula’s castle foreshadow Lucy’s fall from grace. He feels guilt writing, afraid that Mina might someday read his words:

All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.

In a saucy twist, Dracula would later get revenge by ravishing dear Mina’s pretty neck while she lies beside Jonathan.

Dracula also represents a Gothic sexual trope, the Vampire, its bloodlust paralleling sexual desire. Dracula is bisexual, feeding on sailors and maidens alike, as well as claiming both Jonathan and Mina. After the episode with the three sisters, Dracula berates them, saying, “This man belongs to me.” In this class, we have learned the vampire “invoke[s] horror and terror because of its power to allure and provoke one’s repressed desires” (Hasanat 2). In Dracula, Jonathan’s repressed homosexuality comes alive in his sultry description of Dracula whose “white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; the mouth was redder than ever” (Ch. 2). Stoker allows Jonathan to contemplate forbidden desire without ever mentioning homosexuality.

Dracula is a frustrating novel, possessing legitimate moments of well-constructed frights, but its overlong narrative often dawdles and rambles, and time has rendered much of its dialogue comical. Take the instance the men are rushing to save Mina from Dracula. They know Dracula is in her room:

Outside the Harker’s door we paused. Art and Quincey held back, and the latter said, “Should we disturb her?”

“We must,” said Van Helsing grimly. “If the door be locked, I shall break it in.”

“May it not frighten her terribly? It is unusual to break into a lady’s room!”

Van Helsing said solemnly, “You are always right. But this is life and death. All chambers are alike to the doctor. And even were they not they are all as one to me tonight. Friend John, when I turn the handle, if the door does not open, do you put your shoulder down and shove. And you too, my friends. Now!”


Even so, Dracula is a capstone of Gothic literature, and its antagonist is perhaps horror's most notorious villain. Dracula’s feeding extinguishes life, and his nourishment constitutes anti-sex, the destruction of life. Dracula is not the summit of human terror though. The Twentieth Century proved beyond doubt humans were the real monsters.


Works Cited

The Bible. The American Standard Version, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 11:8.

“Married Women's Property Act, 1882”. 1882 Act of Parliament. 45 & 46 Vict. Ch. 75.

Hasanat, Fayeza. “Lecture 2: The Gothic of the 1790s.”

Jay, William. “The Mutual Duties of Husbands and Wives; a Sermon [on 1 Pet. Iii. 1-7] Occasioned by the Marriage of R----- S-----, Esq., of M-.” Preached in Argyle Chapel, Bath, 16 Aug., 1801. Available Online.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by George Stade. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792. Project Gutenberg, Urbana, Illinois.


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