Ideals of the Victorian Woman as Depicted in ‘Dracula’

Dracula

Vampires are so ever-present in our society that they’ve practically become a part of the cultural zeitgeist of the 21st century. From Twilight to True Blood, The Vampire Diaries to the most recent NBC adaptation, Dracula, vampires are everywhere. But instead of looking at these modern representations, I want to jump back and look at the novel that started it all — Dracula by Bram Stoker. True, Stoker’s novel wasn’t the original vampire story; the vampire showed up in poetry from the 18th century before becoming more commonly recognized with the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre, but it was Stoker’s novel that really thrust the image of the vampire into the cultural conscious. Looking at Stoker’s novel, I want to examine how it puts forth ideals about the women of the time in which it was written, that is, the Victorian Era.

Throughout the Victorian period, one of the predominant concerns was the role of women and the place they occupied in society. One novel from the Victorian era that represents varying types of women is Dracula. Two of the characters that feature prominently in Dracula are Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra. Other female characters worth bringing into the conversation about female representations are the three daughters of Dracula. The way in which Stoker represents females says much about the similarities of views between novels of the time and the Victorian society on the whole. By analyzing the female characters in Dracula, one can begin to understand Victorian views of women in society. This can be done by charting character development throughout the novel.

In Dracula, Stoker depicts some women as overtly sexual beings and depicts other women as pure and chaste beings. These depictions are represented through different characters. The characterization of the women who depict these varying representations are direct reflections of the ideal during the Victorian era. In the Victorian society, women that were pure and chaste were favored. Women that were nor pure and chaste were looked down upon and usually did not partake in societal events. Much like the ideas of Victorians, in Dracula the sexual and unchaste women are depicted as evil; the pure and chaste women are depicted as strong, heroic, and steadfast in relationships.

A modern envisioning of Mina
A modern envisioning of Mina

Mina is the perfect embodiment of the ideal Victorian woman. Throughout the novel, we see Mina as a very loyal and intelligent woman. In the traditional sense, Mina is what the Victorians would consider a perfect wife, or wife-to-be (with regard to the first half of the novel). While Jonathan is missing, trapped at Count Dracula’s castle for months on end, Mina shows grave concern for him. One instance in which we see this is in chapter six when Mina is writing in her journal. She writes, “No news from Jonathan. I am getting quite uneasy about him…” (72). Not only does this one of many occasions display that she worries for Jonathan and his safety, but during his long duration away from her, Mina remains faithful to Jonathan. It could have been just as easy for her to find another man when she thought hope may be gone for Jonathan’s safe return, but she remains faithful and does what she can to get Jonathan back. Also, when she and Jonathan are reunited once again, she takes care of him and remains at his side like a loyal fiance/wife. Not only does Mina represent traditional values of the Victorian woman because of the aforementioned reasons, but she also represents the values of the Victorian woman because she is not sexualized. By not making Mina a sexualized being, Stoker retains Mina’s purity that is so highly favored in Victorian society.

Mina is an interesting character because of how Stoker chooses to represent her. As previously mentioned, Mina is a literary depiction of the traditional woman and traditional values in Victorian society. But along with the traditional woman, she also depicts the “new woman” of the time. Whereas Mina’s traditional woman aspects are more so depicted through her feelings, emotions, and convictions, her “new woman” aspects are depicted through her intelligence. One way Mina is considered a “new woman” is through her job as a school teacher. While this is one way of viewing Mina’s “new woman” characterization, the way it is depicted most throughout the novel is through her intelligence regarding modern technologies. We know her to be very proficient in shorthand, which not many people knew all that proficiently. We see that she can be determined and quite independent when need be, which are also characterizations of the “new woman.” What Stoker essentially has Mina represent is the whole of the Victorian woman. She simultaneously is both the traditional Victorian woman and the “new woman” of the Victorian era. Considering the amount of importance this representation carries, it is no wonder Mina is presented as a good, wholesome, pure woman — the only female who keeps these traits as a constant throughout the novel.

The three daughters of Dracula
The three daughters of Dracula

If Mina is on one end of the spectrum, then the three daughters of Dracula are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. These three women are a representation of the Victorian belief toward women of impurity (i.e., a vastly negative, immoral, sinful idea toward women of this nature). Stoker is linking hyper-sexual females with vampires/vampirism, and vampires/vampirism is linked to evil. If A=B and B=C, then A=C. So, through association, Stoker is linking hyper-sexual females with evil. This is likely how Stoker, and many other Victorians, viewed the sexualized and unchaste women in society in Victorian England.

Aside from Victorians simply thinking the overly sexual and unchaste women in society are sinful and evil, they were also probably looked down upon because of the power they were able to exert over men. We see a case of this with the daughters of Dracula and Jonathan. In chapter three, talking about the three daughter of Dracula, Jonathan say, “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain…” (42). What this passage illuminates is the power these type of women in society had over men. By Victorian standards, these sexual women had the power to victimize men and tempt them into evil. These unchaste women had the ability to challenge the stability and structure of the home, of the family. This would be another reason why impure women were outcasts in society and why Stoker would link sexual women with evil.

If Mina falls on one end of the spectrum and the daughters of Dracula on the other end, then Lucy falls somewhere in that ambiguous area of the spectrum between Mina and the daughters of Dracula. In Dracula, Lucy becomes a character that represents both the good and the evil Victorian woman. We see that Lucy has similar qualities to Mina. She has a similar innocence that Mina possesses. Lucy has three men yearning for her affections because of her pure qualities. Lucy, in the politest way possible, turns down two in order to be with the one man that she loves the most. It also speaks positively of Lucy that her best friend in the novel is Mina. As established earlier, Mina embodies all of the qualities that make for the ideal Victorian woman. Because of this, Mina would not keep female company that could possibly challenge or taint her pure and innocent being. Having Mina consider Lucy a suitable friend with similar qualities, this displays how Lucy represents ideal characteristics of the Victorian woman.

Lucy turning into a vampire
Lucy turning into a vampire

As the novel progresses, we begin to see Lucy’s ideal Victorian woman character become blurred until it has completely disappeared altogether. While Lucy does possess similar qualities to Mina, there is a striking difference that we notice between the two. Lucy, unlike Mina, is presented as somewhat sexual. There is definitely emphasis put on Lucy’s beauty, which is not the case with Mina. It is not an overt sexualization like that of the daughters of Dracula, but apparent nonetheless. (This could have perhaps been foreshadowing what will happen to Lucy.) Dracula gets to Lucy and turns her into an extremely sexual vampire. Lucy ends up being described by the quote, “The sweetness was turned to … heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness” (187). The only way to return Lucy to her former sweet self in death is by stabbing a stake through her heart. Lucy shows characteristics of both the good Victorian woman and the impure, hyper-sexual Victorian woman. By essentially giving Lucy two personalities in the novel, Stoker is showing the ease, ability, and potential in which the ideal Victorian woman can be converted into the evil, unchaste, impure, sexual woman of Victorian society.

Dracula, in one aspect, is a novel about the types of Victorian women and the representation of them in Victorian English society. Through examination of Mina, Lucy, and the daughters of Dracula, we begin to see how Stoker and other Victorians view what they considered to be the ideal Victorian woman. The representation of Mina shows the ideal Victorian woman through purity and intelligence. The three daughters of Dracula represent the evil and social stigma surrounding the impure and hyper-sexual woman in Victorian society. Lucy represents the possibilities for women in Victorian society to go from pure to impure. For all of its greatness in character development, storytelling, concept, etc., Stoker has also written a novel that served as a timely social commentary on women during the Victorian Era.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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24 Comments

  1. Just the thought that my great grandmother could have read this book back before the turn of the century was enough to spark my immediate interest. Legendary book.

  2. I want to begin by noting I mean no disrespect to them who might find twilight enjoyable. Stoker’s Dracula is an incredible book and I can not help but feel sorry for anyone who has ever or will ever write any form of literature including a vampire.

    It’s gotten to the level where if a character has pointy teeth or glitters in sunlight they’ll be compared to the ridiculous cultural phenomenon that is Twilight. I am just beginning to read all of the classics that formed the foundation of modern day literature and even cinema, and honestly as soon as someone mentioned twilight I turn away.

    • Robert Humphrey

      I’ve never gotten into Twilight. I haven’t read any of the books or seen any of the films, and I likely will never read any of the books for watch any of the films. I can just tell it’s not my cup of tea. But I won’t begrudge those who do enjoy it. My hope would be that those who are just so immersed into Twilight are aware of the more classic vampire literature. I would assume the older fans of Twilight are aware, but maybe not some of the younger ones.

      • Nice article, Robert. I enjoyed reading it very much. Even though you say it’s “not your cup of tea,” I’d actually suggest reading Twilight–particularly if you are interested in examining representations of female characters. You’ve done a good analysis here with Dracula, so it might be interesting to see a comparison of the two novels and their female characters. After all, Twilight is almost always criticized for Bella Swan’s portrayal. Just a thought! Keep writing!!

  3. You’ve made a mistake there. They’re actually called the Brides of Dracula, not daughters, so try to fix that as soon as you can. Everything else is fine. You were clear and straight to the point.

    • Robert Humphrey

      There’s actually some ambiguity in what they’re called. You’re completely right that they are commonly referred to as the Brides of Dracula; this is what most people know them by. However, they are never explicitly called that in the novel. Though, in fairness, they’re never called the daughters of Dracula explicitly in the novel either. But there is one point where Jonathan mentions that their noses are like that of Dracula’s. Some have taken this to mean that they are his daughters. And while they could be his brides or his daughters, it’s just as likely that they have no relation to Dracula at all except that they’re all vampires. I would have to go back and double check, but I do believe they refer to themselves as sisters. This could mean that the three of them are blood sisters, that they are actually Dracula’s sisters, or that they are just simply sisters in their vampirism. No one knows for certain what they are in terms of their relationship to Dracula. It’s an interesting point to debate, and I was sure someone would bring it up.

  4. Minaa J.C
    0

    Strong piece. Very vivid detail. The novel gives off an eerie aura and atmosphere which I have always appreciated.

  5. I wish that more of the adaptations had taken on the epistolary elements of the novel, as well as the intricacies of the characters without resorting to making up love subplots – then again, I do love the Coppola adaptation.

  6. Kathryn Talbot

    I am getting tired of the Dracula adaptations. I mean, look at the depth to which your article reaches- already more character development than in a whole movie! I don’t know, I just think there is so much more to explore in Dracula than just sex- look at your article for evidence!

    Great read!

    • Good point! I think most people tend to focus on sex/sexuality in Dracula because of the tendency to read vampires (and horror/gothic genres in general) through a psychoanalytic lens where sexual=evil, chaste/repressed=good. It’s true though, there’s other ways to read it and I personally liked how RH included more of a historical context to his analysis. A possible reason why psychoanalytics are so often brought to the table with Dracula is because Stoker was like very aware or influenced of Sigmund Freud’s writings in some manner. If I’m not mistaken, Dracula was published only like a year to a few years after Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.”

  7. I recently had to read the novel and watch two film adaptions for class, so I’m glad I came across this article! It’s amazing to see what time can do to the way we (society) perceive certain characters. The 1931 film — starring Bela Lugosi — really only uses the pure, innocent Victorian aspect of Mina’s character. While she seems somewhat intelligent, she is constantly overshadowed by the male characters who dictate many of her actions. In addition, the males are constantly coming to her rescue. The film does not allow her character to develop into more than the damsel in distress, which can certainly be related to how Victorian Era society viewed women.

    On the other hand, the 1992 version of the film — which strangely features Keanu Reeves as Johnathan Harker — depicts Mina (who is well played by Winona Ryder) as the “new woman” you discuss in your article. She is intelligent, self-reliant, and can hold her own against the male characters. Though this version follows the novel more closely, there is a major difference in this film: Mina, after marrying Harker, chooses Dracula. Victorian society would definitely have been in an uproar over that!

    This shows, though, that despite the fact that time creates bias, we are still able to see how the original novel influences these adaptions, especially in regards to how women are viewed.

  8. Stoker’s depiction of Mina in Dracula reminded me of Sir Doyle’s depiction of female characters in his Sherlock Holmes novels. In those novels, like most fiction of the time, women are completely desexualized to the point that aspects of them that could be deemed improper are glossed over. For example, there are many cases in which either a female victim or a suspect would write a “steamy” letter, but the contents of the letter, although relevant to the case, would never be addressed. Doyle often described female characters’ appearances as “in the shadows” and often meek and restrained.
    On the other hand, female vampires have always represented a threat to men and societal standards of the time. Female vampires are over-sexualized and this new-found sexuality is often one of the key changes in a female human who has transformed into a vampire. Many television shows including True Blood, often depict female vampires as bisexual with an inclination towards women–an even more direct affront to societal standards.

  9. dlunise

    Twilight was my first Vampire movie, but even Disney have my kids watching vampire stuff…sad.

  10. I definitely agree with your views on each woman. I think the idea of Mina as the ideal Victorian woman is also shown in Dracula’s pursuit and failure to fully convert her. Of course, the men do play some role in that, but she is fairly obedient to their orders. Also, near the end of the book, when she is approached by the three daughters of Dracula, she is frightened and, if I remember correctly, turns away from them. Her resistance and fear are examples of her purity.

  11. Greg Beamish

    Hi Robert,
    Nice piece. The topic of feminist theory and Dracula largely go hand in hand, especially, as you say, with the development of the “New Woman” at the turn of the twentieth century. I believe you are right to assert that Stoker is attempting to make a social observation about society’s views of women within the context of his time.
    I hate to debate the topic of “Authorial Intent”, but I feel I must make a point about your statement, “…Stoker is linking hyper-sexual females with evil. This is likely how Stoker, and many other Victorians, viewed the sexualized and unchaste women…” I don’t believe Stoker chose to depict the monstrosities of unchecked lust in women, I think he was attempting a satire on the incredibly naive perspective men had of women at that time.
    The main word I want to emphasize here is “perspective”. Consider the way the story is written: letters and journal entries. You are indeed correct that Lucy and especially Mina are depicted as “Pure”, “Chaste”, even “Frail”, but we need to consider who it is that provides these descriptions. It’s the men. Within their journals and letters to each other, the men paint the picture of women as they see them. We must take their statements with a grain of salt.
    The other perspective detailed in the story is that of Lucy and Mina. In private letters to each other and personal journals, they reveal to us their inner thoughts, things the men would never dream they were thinking for the women had to create a timid and thoughtless front for their men. Through the letters between Mina and Lucy, we see that Lucy has some grand and rather scandalous imaginings. She wishes she could marry all three of her suitors or even marry Mina if she could. While these considerations are made in jest, the statement shows that these ideas are indeed hidden away in Lucy’s mind. Because of the social demand for women to appear as pure, Lucy’s sexual urges must be repressed and the only person she can talk to about it is Mina. Lucky for us, we get to read all of their correspondences and personal journal entries.
    Jump forward now. Lucy has died. Dracula has killed her and turned her into a reproduction of himself. She rises again as undead. Her demeanor is different. The men describe her as “voluptuous” and “wonton”. She is a woman freed of the repressions she had while living. As the undead she has no fear of death, no fear of social disgrace. She is “wonton”, like a child, unable to control it’s urges for pleasure.
    Stoker uses Lucy as a means of depicting the monster that Victorian male society thought a free woman might be. Their fear of the “New Woman” is embodied in Lucy Westenra’s vampiric form.
    Mina is described differently than Lucy in that she is resourceful, intelligent, loyal, and hard working. Her journals paint the picture of a woman who knows her potential but must succumb to the wishes of the men for her to wait for them to solve everything. Her latent desire is to prove her worth and help the men defeat Dracula.
    Jump forward. Mina has been bitten by Dracula. Her transformation is coming on slowly, it’s a race against the clock to defeat Dracula and save Mina. As Dracula’s infection spreads through Mina, her repressed thoughts, just like Lucy’s, begin to surface. She begins to assert herself and step forward as one of the heroes. She contradicts the men like she never has before and speaks up, making sure her voice is heard. As the tale comes to a climax the men begin to see more and more of Mina’s practical and heroic qualities. She earns their respect. Enough for Van Helsing to allow Mina, the formerly pure, chaste, angelic woman, to carry a firearm, a weapon of death, with her as they travel to Dracula’s castle. The final seal of respect comes when the men shake Mina’s hand. This is a symbol of unity and equality.
    I believe that Stoker created these two characters to embody the dichotomy within the social debate about women at the turn of the 20th century. Lucy represents the fear of a woman’s unleashed psyche while Mina is the embodiment of female confidence and respectability as fellow human beings alongside men. Stoker isn’t necessarily taking a side, but he’s creating a social commentary on the debate over femininity that portrays both sides.

    • Greg Beamish

      Consider this poem written by Jonathan Swift in 1732 (more than 150 years before Stoker’s “Dracula”. It delves into the naive perspective of men and the reality of women’s humanity, even the… poopy parts. I spoke of a woman’s repressed consciousness in my earlier comment. This poem is a sort of physical representation of that repression and what men choose to believe about women. Enjoy. It’s a pretty funny poem.

      The Lady’s Dressing Room
      BY JONATHAN SWIFT

      Five hours, (and who can do it less in?)
      By haughty Celia spent in dressing;
      The goddess from her chamber issues,
      Arrayed in lace, brocades and tissues.
      Strephon, who found the room was void,
      And Betty otherwise employed,
      Stole in, and took a strict survey,
      Of all the litter as it lay;
      Whereof, to make the matter clear,
      An inventory follows here.
      And first a dirty smock appeared,
      Beneath the armpits well besmeared.
      Strephon, the rogue, displayed it wide,
      And turned it round on every side.
      On such a point few words are best,
      And Strephon bids us guess the rest,
      But swears how damnably the men lie,
      In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.
      Now listen while he next produces
      The various combs for various uses,
      Filled up with dirt so closely fixt,
      No brush could force a way betwixt.
      A paste of composition rare,
      Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair;
      A forehead cloth with oil upon’t
      To smooth the wrinkles on her front;
      Here alum flower to stop the steams,
      Exhaled from sour unsavory streams,
      There night-gloves made of Tripsy’s hide,
      Bequeathed by Tripsy when she died,
      With puppy water, beauty’s help
      Distilled from Tripsy’s darling whelp;
      Here gallypots and vials placed,
      Some filled with washes, some with paste,
      Some with pomatum, paints and slops,
      And ointments good for scabby chops.
      Hard by a filthy basin stands,
      Fouled with the scouring of her hands;
      The basin takes whatever comes
      The scrapings of her teeth and gums,
      A nasty compound of all hues,
      For here she spits, and here she spews.
      But oh! it turned poor Strephon’s bowels,
      When he beheld and smelled the towels,
      Begummed, bemattered, and beslimed
      With dirt, and sweat, and earwax grimed.
      No object Strephon’s eye escapes,
      Here petticoats in frowzy heaps;
      Nor be the handkerchiefs forgot
      All varnished o’er with snuff and snot.
      The stockings why should I expose,
      Stained with the marks of stinking toes;
      Or greasy coifs and pinners reeking,
      Which Celia slept at least a week in?
      A pair of tweezers next he found
      To pluck her brows in arches round,
      Or hairs that sink the forehead low,
      Or on her chin like bristles grow.
      The virtues we must not let pass,
      Of Celia’s magnifying glass.
      When frightened Strephon cast his eye on’t
      It showed visage of a giant.
      A glass that can to sight disclose,
      The smallest worm in Celia’s nose,
      And faithfully direct her nail
      To squeeze it out from head to tail;
      For catch it nicely by the head,
      It must come out alive or dead.
      Why Strephon will you tell the rest?
      And must you needs describe the chest?
      That careless wench! no creature warn her
      To move it out from yonder corner;
      But leave it standing full in sight
      For you to exercise your spite.
      In vain the workman showed his wit
      With rings and hinges counterfeit
      To make it seem in this disguise
      A cabinet to vulgar eyes;
      For Strephon ventured to look in,
      Resolved to go through thick and thin;
      He lifts the lid, there needs no more,
      He smelled it all the time before.
      As from within Pandora’s box,
      When Epimetheus op’d the locks,
      A sudden universal crew
      Of human evils upwards flew;
      He still was comforted to find
      That Hope at last remained behind;
      So Strephon lifting up the lid,
      To view what in the chest was hid.
      The vapors flew from out the vent,
      But Strephon cautious never meant
      The bottom of the pan to grope,
      And foul his hands in search of Hope.
      O never may such vile machine
      Be once in Celia’s chamber seen!
      O may she better learn to keep
      Those “secrets of the hoary deep!”
      As mutton cutlets, prime of meat,
      Which though with art you salt and beat
      As laws of cookery require,
      And toast them at the clearest fire;
      If from adown the hopeful chops
      The fat upon a cinder drops,
      To stinking smoke it turns the flame
      Pois’ning the flesh from whence it came,
      And up exhales a greasy stench,
      For which you curse the careless wench;
      So things, which must not be expressed,
      When plumped into the reeking chest,
      Send up an excremental smell
      To taint the parts from whence they fell.
      The petticoats and gown perfume,
      Which waft a stink round every room.
      Thus finishing his grand survey,
      Disgusted Strephon stole away
      Repeating in his amorous fits,
      Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
      But Vengeance, goddess never sleeping
      Soon punished Strephon for his peeping;
      His foul imagination links
      Each Dame he sees with all her stinks:
      And, if unsavory odors fly,
      Conceives a lady standing by:
      All women his description fits,
      And both ideas jump like wits:
      But vicious fancy coupled fast,
      And still appearing in contrast.
      I pity wretched Strephon blind
      To all the charms of female kind;
      Should I the queen of love refuse,
      Because she rose from stinking ooze?
      To him that looks behind the scene,
      Satira’s but some pocky queen.
      When Celia in her glory shows,
      If Strephon would but stop his nose
      (Who now so impiously blasphemes
      Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
      Her washes, slops, and every clout,
      With which he makes so foul a rout)
      He soon would learn to think like me,
      And bless his ravished sight to see
      Such order from confusion sprung,
      Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.

  12. good job ™

  13. Brilliant. Easy to understand yet sophisticated, so many points and views very well explained and helped me a lot. Thank you.

  14. Who is the author of this page? Would like to use for my research paper!

  15. Felipe Mancheno

    I truly enjoyed this article, particularly as a companion to my own reading of Dracula. I know the novel portraits the ideas that where around in that certain era and place, but I couldn’t help to be bothered by such a two dimensional perspective while I read it.
    It amazed me that a man so skilled in portraying the tension of desire (that scene with the daughters in the castle) could later in the novel be completely blind to it, in favour of such a simplistic -and kind of sanctimonious- division.

  16. Great Analysis! really helpful!!!!!

  17. This was helpful for my essay. So sophisticated and I enjoyed it very much. Thankyou!

  18. Part of the “New Woman” persona dealt with the fact that women began to come to terms with their sexual identity and found this as a form of empowerment. But as you’ve made clear in your analysis for Stoker sexuality=evil. So would you say that although Stoke does indorce the intelligent aspect of the New Woman persona, could the way he depicts sexuality be seen as a form of anxiety about the new woman?

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