Ideals of the Victorian Woman as Depicted in ‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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