2. The Role of Women in the Victorian Era
3. Mina Harker: A Portrayal of the Victorian Woman
4. Lucy Westenra: A Portrayal of the Fallen Woman
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula is set in England and Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. It consists of a collection of journal entries, letters and telegrams so that there are several narrative perspectives. The main characters are Jonathan Harker, his fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, her fiancé Arthur Holmwood, Quincey Morris, Dr. Van Helsing and Dr. John Seward.
The novel opens with Jonathan Harker, an English lawyer who travels to Transylvania to conclude a real estate transaction with a man called Count Dracula. On his way to the destination he is being warned about the castle of Count Dracula. Just a few days later Harker learns why: he is kept in prison in the castle and nearly attacked by three seductive, female vampires.
Concurrently with this, his fiancée Mina visits her friend Lucy Westenra and finds her sleepwalking one night. She believes that she has seen a creature with red eyes bending over Lucy what proofs to be true: Lucy has been bitten by Dracula and therefore is slowly transforming into a vampire. As one night a wolf breaks into the house of the Westenra’s, Lucy’s mother gets a heart attack and Lucy herself gets killed. After her death Van Helsing wants Quincey, Seward and Holmwood to come Lucy’s tomb because he wants to convince them that Lucy has transformed into a Vampire after her death. The men see her preying upon a child and get to the conclusion that she has to be destroyed. Her former fiancé Arthur Holmwood stabs a stake through her heart and hereby ultimately kills her.
After this incident Jonathan, Mina, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing start hunting Dracula. One night Mina is also attacked by Dracula but she does not transform into a Vampire. At the end of the novel the male characters finish their hunt by killing Dracula and his three female vampires.
Initially this paper will give an overview about the role of women in the Victorian era during which Dracula was written. This is important in order to identify to what extent the main female characters Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra go conform to those former roles. I will analyse their characters and respective roles in society arguing that Mina represents as a role model of a Victorian woman and Lucy an example of a fallen woman.
As a conclusion I will sum up my findings about the main female characters by contrasting them. Moreover I will explain why both of them have the same fate in one aspect.
2. The Role of Women in the Victorian Era
The Victorian era lasted from 1837 until 1901 with Queen Victoria in power, after whom this era is named. It was a period of strict, stereotypical gender roles which formed a patriarchal society. In this society women were discriminated as being intellectually and physically inferior to men and therefore were dependent on male autonomy (Yildirim 46). Before marriage this male autonomy was represented by a father or brother and after marriage the husband was the one who had the right over the destiny of his wife. Even by law a woman was the property of her father, husband or brother (ibid.). Men did not only own their wives but also their children and all the property. So women were considered as not being able to make decisions or to make a living for their own.
As marital rape and beatings were considered legal (ibid. 47), women had to be obedient and to be of use to their man. Although Queen Victoria herself was a woman, she reduced the role of women to a very subservient one: “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for a man – but with totally different duties and vocations” (ibid.46). In summary it can be said that feminine inferiority was one of the most prominent values of the Victorian era (ibid. 47).
Whereas men were responsible to assure a livelihood, women were solely expected to be a mother and housewife. The education and care of their children and the organisation of the household were exclusively tasks of women. A popular expression for women was “Angel of the house” (ibid. 48) what outlines further important values of Victorian women: morality and chastity. Women had to serve as moral role models in order to be pure and fulfil their role within the family and society (Langland 382). The emphasis on morality during the Victorian period was a significant part of the Victorian self-dramatisation (ibid. 383). If a woman had lost her innocence before marriage, she was denoted as ‘fallen’ to describe that she was not pure anymore and had fallen from the grace of God.
As previously mentioned, women were regarded as inferior to men but that was not the only prevalent opinion. Victorian’s thought was also that there is a distinctive difference between masculine and feminine nature; namely that woman’s nature is characterised by compassion, nurture and the role in the domestic and moral sphere (ibid. 382), whereas men’s nature is characterised by courage and endeavour (Yildrim 46).
After 1840 the roles, rights and responsibilities of women were strongly debated topics (Langland 381) and as the 19th century progressed, women slowly began to question the traditional Victorian regime of patriarchy with increased regularity. The emergence of feminism and the ‘New Woman’ led to several changes in the social, political and legal rights of Victorian women (Yildrim 53) and also changed the traditional image of women. Although the ideas of gender roles changed and male autonomy was weakened, there was no gender equality achieved to that time (ibid. 48). Women were still dependent on men but they took small steps to their liberation of oppression.
During the late 19th century the ‘New Woman’ shocked the society with her gained independence (Genz 97) and gender conflicts became more intense because men’s supremacy was challenged by women’s emancipation (Yildrim 47). E.g. Victorian women acquired a new role in the labour market so that men were not the single earner anymore what challenged their autonomy. Furthermore Victorian women were considered of not having sexual desires but the ‘New Woman’ was challenging this belief so that men dreaded female sexuality (Kalikoff 357).
3. Mina Harker: A Portrayal of the Victorian Woman
Mina Harker is, besides Lucy Westenra, the main female character in Dracula and is introduced to the novel by her husband Jonathan who writes about her in his diary, mainly in the context of recipes. At the beginning of the novel they are not married therefore she is named Mina Murray initially.
Before her marriage Mina works as a schoolmistress, which was an accepted occupation for women of the Victorian period (Mewald 3). Moreover she has some journalistic ambitions: she learns shorthand and typing. Mina basically acquires this practical knowledge to “be useful to Jonathan” (Stoker 75). Therefore she also learns the train timetable by heart “so that [she] may help Jonathan in case he is in a hurry” (ibid. 196). Although Mina is economically independent before her marriage due to her career, she accepts her function as her husband’s helpmate after her wedding. She even seems to be glad about her new tasks as a wife because when she writes to Lucy about being married she mentions the “grace and sweet responsibilities [she has] taken upon [herself]” (ibid. 123). So she does not perceive her new tasks as a burden but as something she seems to be pleased with. By reference to this statement one can also identify Mina’s sense of duty: she is anxious to her new tasks and to write her diary to practise her shorthand and typewriting skills. When her friend Lucy is ill, Mina wants to protect her from Dracula and doesn’t want to leave her. But she is forced to abandon her in order to take care of her husband and fulfil her duty as an ideal wife.
When Mina corresponds with her childhood friend Lucy Westenra, marriage is a frequent topic and seems to be everything they dream of (Mewald 1). When Mina got married to Jonathan she writes in her diary that she is “the happiest woman in all the wide world” (Stoker 123) and that her life will be full of “love and duty for all the days of [her] life” (ibid.). Again Mina mentions her duties as wife in a positive context, namely love and happiness. But Mina not only wants to support her husband with her skills but also feels responsible to support her husband emotionally (Mewald 1): “I do believe that if he had not me to lean on and support him he would have sunk down.” (Stoker 183). Her emotional support of Jonathan can also be linked to her mothering instinct, which can be observed several times throughout the novel e.g. when she consoles Lord Godalming: “I felt an infinite pity for him, and opened my arms unthinkingly. With a sob he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child” (ibid. 236). Mina becomes a mother figure because “As soon as male characters encounter emotional crisis, Mina remains the stable one […]. She decides to repress her own feelings to comfort the male characters. Her mothering instinct therefore establishes her as an emotional haven and a source of faith for the men.” (Mewald 2)
Although Mina is often emotional and slightly hysterical in the beginning of the novel, e.g. when she throws herself on her knees before Van Helsing (Stoker 194), she does not let her emotionality take over control of her but stays in her role as caring mother and wife. She herself refers to women’s role as mother, which was a traditional role of women in the Victorian era: “We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother-spirit in invoked.” (ibid. 236). So Mina is not only aware of a woman’s role as her husband’s helpmate but also as loving mother and wife who “represents a secure home that Victorian men wanted to find in women” (Mewald 2).
Moreover Mina is depicted as a role model of morality and chastity, two further important Victorian virtues. When she visits Lucy in Whitby and finds her friend sleepwalking on a cemetery one night, she previously thinks Lucy cannot be outside because she is only wearing a nightdress. Leaving the house only wearing a nightdress was an improper behaviour for women of that period therefore Mina is worried about Lucy’s reputation. Another example of Mina’s sense of chastity is when she feels uncomfortable as Jonathan touches her in public: “Jonathan was holding me by the arm, the way he used to in the old days before I went to school. I felt very improper” (Stoker 182). Although they are a married couple Mina cannot help herself thinking she misbehaves what shows her distinctive morality. Nonetheless she thinks that these norms and rules may be too strict (Mewald 2) as she realises that “you can’t go on for some years teaching etiquette and decorum to other girls without the pedantry of biting into yourself a bit” (Stoker 183). Despite this realisation, Mina does by no means conform to the ‘New Woman’ because she rejects the forwardness and sexual openness because she wants to adopt a traditional feminine role. At one point in the novel the reader can clearly identify Mina’s opinion towards the ‘New Woman’:
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- Katharina Zeiger (Author), 2013, Female Characters in Bram Stoker’s "Dracula", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/458182