„Deconstructing Dracula: The Reality Behind the Myth“
“When it was published in 1897, Dracula became one of the many contemporary titles that pitted humans against monsters. Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells, among others, all published in the same genre at about the same time. Yet it is Dracula that readers cannot forget.” 1
When we hear the name “Dracula”, nearly everybody in our society today immediately thinks about vampires, horror and Transylvania. The material has been commercialized throughout the last century, dozens of different films and theatrical versions have been brought to life which concern themselves with the history of the dark count, the king of all vampires. The actual story is hereby often distorted, the themes of the novel forgotten and the material reduced to often rather cheap horror stories without the deeper aspects of repressed female sexuality or the threat of modernity that critics have dealt with so often. But what are the actual themes of the novel? In the following I want to explore some of the themes, taking into consideration a few papers by contemporary scholars, and then have a look at how far those themes have actually been constructed.
And I want to start out by making the rather extreme claim, that there is no Dracula at all in the novel. What I mean by that will become obvious in the progress of my argument.
I want to start out with some of the feminist arguments and interpretations concerning Dracula, as the novel offers a variety of passages which can be referred to here. Also, these feminist readings sounded, while I was working through my secondary literature, the most interesting and appeared to be the most commonly discussed.
Dracula has often been said to owe its “great appeal (…) from its hostility toward female sexuality”.2 But what does the author Phyllis Roth actually mean by this statement? Is female sexuality actually that present in the novel itself?
To answer this question, I want to start out from the beginning and have a look at certain passages which are often named in the context of a gender related analysis of the novel. The first and most obvious point that there is to make to support this argument would of course have to be that, with the exception of Dracula himself, all vampires are female in the novel. Dracula himself appears as the great seducer, who draws the females in and eventually turns them into evil creatures. (One has to mention the exception of one of the protagonists, Jonathan Harker, who was made a claim upon by Dracula during the first chapters. Yet, these almost homoerotic aspects of this story are a different story, and shall not be the primary topic of this paper, hence I decided to mention this one incident, but not go deeper into it. Also, in the same context it is probably worth mentioning, that although Dracula tried to make Jonathan his own, he never succeeded in doing so, because the man fought with all of his willpower to escape the count's castle – even if it meant climbing out of his window and down the walls. One could again see this as a reinforcement of the strength of the willpower of men – as opposed to the weakness of the females. But I will go deeper into this aspect at a later point.)
The first and most significant part in the direction of the female sexuality as a threat occurs very early in the novel, in chapter III, when Jonathan Harker encounters the three females vampires in the castle. The way in which this encounter is described is probably the most sexual passage of the whole novel.
“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.” [p. 42]3
Here we have the first description of these vampires, and we can clearly see how the way the protagonist sees them is clearly sexualized. The word 'voluptuous' will be used later on as well, always in connection with a female who has turned, or is about to turn into a vampire. Now we can clearly see that these women are not even primarily scary as vampires, because the features of vampires are not even mentioned much. What is mentioned is their ruby lips and the contrast to their white teeth. Also the protagonist himself states that these “fair” (as he calls them a few lines before) creatures cause a burning desire to awaken in him. They are the seductresses in person. In the paragraph right after the above quoted passage, the protagonist thinks about his fiancée back home, Mina Harker, who turns out to be a model for the Victorian idea of the ideal woman. He thinks about how his thoughts alone will cause her pain. He is the morally outstanding gentleman, who is living in a society in which women are not permitted to be sexual. In fact women are not really permitted to be anything, but passive. And these three vampire women are just the opposite of all of that. In his essay “Kiss Me with Those Red Lips: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula”, Christopher Craft4 recalls just that scene to make an important point about the inversion of the Victorian ideal of gender. Instead of being passive, modest and morally outstanding, these three vampire women possess qualities which are commonly attributed to the Victorian male. They are actively sexual, their description is almost aggressive to a point. They surprise Jonathan in his sleep, and even as he awakens, he remains passive, a part of him hoping for the women to seduce him. This is an interesting kind of reversion of the gender ideals which can be seen in several ways throughout the whole novel. One thing is always the same though: the sexualized women are depicted as dangerous, voluptuous and morally corrupt – in other words: they are a danger to the world order established by the Victorian males.
Christopher Craft beautifully phrases that at the beginning of his essay:
“Immobilized by the competing imperatives of “wicked desire” and “deadly fear”, Harker awaits an erotic fulfillment that entails both the dissolution of the boundaries of the self and the thorough subversion of conventional Victorian gender codes, which constrained the mobility of sexual desire and varieties of genital behavior according to the more active male the right and responsibility of vigorous appetite, while requiring the more passive female to “suffer and be still”. (…) Stoker (…) anxiously inverts this conventional pattern, as virile Jonathan Harker enjoys a “feminine” passivity and awaits a delicious penetration from a woman whose demonism is figured as the power to penetrate.”5
When reading the book, it occurred to me that this kind of pattern did not only concern the three vampire women at the beginning. The story basically revolves around the two women, Mina Harker, and Lucy Westenra. Both of them represent the image of the ideal Victorian woman in the novel. And both of them are attacked (if you wish to put it that way) by Dracula in an attempted seduction. One of the women, Lucy, fails to resist the dark count and becomes his first victim. After Lucy's death, Dracula goes after Mina as well, but she manages, by her faith and strength of character, to resist the dark count.
The interesting aspect here is the development of the seduction of Lucy though. Before she gets bitten by Dracula, she represents the image of an ideal Victorian woman – so ideal and fair, that she receives three marriage proposals in one day. On the other hand one could argue, that Lucy was already sexualized before she encountered Dracula.
Namely in the section where she writes her friend Mina about her marriage proposals. The fact that she received three in that short period of time could also be seen just the other way around. She herself states in the novel that her friend Mina must think that she's an horrid flirt. [p. 59] And also, a little later on she complains about the fact that women have to decide and are not allowed to marry three men – which is an incredulous demand for a woman during Victorian times. Lucy wishes to be somewhat active here, to be allowed to live so that she can be happy, regardless of society's rules and conventions. Mina on the other hand never makes any kind of statement in that direction. She seems to be the stereotype for a graceful woman living in conformity with the rules which Victorian society dictates upon women.
I have read some critics argue, that Luca and Mina are both standing for Victorian womanhood, but I would like to disagree here. Indisputable, Lucy is portrayed as a somewhat perfect woman, but she features some traits of character which make her seem rather modern. So maybe one could read the novel in the direction that these traits of character are just what leads to Lucy's undoing. After all, Count Dracula has to be invited in before he can seduce a victim. That means that Lucy had to invite him in in the first place. Clearly this argument can easily be turned against me, as one could just as well say, that Mina then has to let him in later on as well – which is true. But in my opinion, Lucy is being portrayed in a more feminine, erotic way from the very beginning of the novel.
In any case, after she has been bitten by Dracula, the portrayal of her changes drastically. Just as the three vampire women, she's suddenly described with red, voluptuous lips, and her whole behavior seems to hold a certain amount of eroticism. She's becoming the seductress, which becomes evident in the scene of her death, when she asks her fiancé Arthur Holmwood to kiss her one last time, and Van Helsing stops the man from doing so, his words and reaction making clear that a dangerous threat is lying behind this kiss:
“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.
'Not for your life!' he said; 'not for your living soul and hers!' And he stood between them like a lion at bay.” [p. 146]
And here I want to quickly come to the character of Van Helsing, who, to me, was one of the most interesting characters of the whole novel. He is a doctor, but features many traits of character which seem to make him more like an excorcist or metaphysician.
It has often been discussed, that Dracula can just as well be seen as a pledge to the old times, listing the dangers of modernity. When thinking about that subject, I found this an interesting argument, as there are a lot of inversions in it, which mainly concern the characters of Dracula and Van Helsing. They each seem to be a different side of the same coin. When reading the novel I had the feeling as if none of the characters was ever really fit to fight Dracula, except for Van Helsing. The novels here plays with interesting oppositions.
1 Quotation taken from the cover of Bram Stoker's Dracula (Norton Critical Edition).
2 Roth, Phyllis A. “Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker's Dracula. ” Literature and Psychology 27 (1977): 113-121
3 All of these page numbers refer to the Norton Critical Edition of Dracula: Auerbach, Nina et. al. (Ed): Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997; In the following I will only give the page number to this edition in brackets when I quote passages from the novel.
4 Craft, Christopher.” 'Kiss Me with those Red Lips': Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula.” Representations 8 (Fall 1984): 107-133. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
5 Craft, Christopher.” 'Kiss Me with those Red Lips': Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula.” Representations 8 (Fall 1984): 107-133. Berkeley: The University of California Press. p. 108