Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Staking Salvation: The Reclamation of the Monstrous Female in Dracula

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Staking Salvation: The Reclamation of the Monstrous Female in Dracula

Article excerpt

Victorian Sex and the (Mostly) Single Girl

The concept of the Angel in the House--the pure, virtuous, non-sexualized female--is one of the most monolithic and immobile depictions of Victorian womanhood. First labeled as such by Coventry Patmore in his 1854 poem, The Angel in the House (later expanded in 1862), Victorian women, so it would appear, were either genteel young ladies or bad little children, either supportive helpmates or destructive slatterns, either chaste paragons of morality or lost and loose women. While Patmore might have created the label, he was not the only one who gave direction to England's women. Sarah Stickney Ellis wrote a series of conduct manuals, Mrs. Beeton told women how to manage their homes, and Hannah Mores improving tomes were forced upon young female readers. Toward the end of the nineteenth-century, Victorian fears about women's behavior evolved into a national debate known as "The Woman Question," which encompassed issues such as property ownership, marriage contracts, inheritance law, and female sexuality, among others.

These competing ideologies are especially evident in Bram Stokers 1897 novel Dracula, and the issues regarding feminine behavior that are raised in Stokers novel and other works of the period have long-reaching tentacles. In many ways, we find ourselves not far removed from the Victorian notions of womanhood, in that the social and cultural position of women is one that has been a constant ground for examination well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), Ms. Magazine's first issue in 1972 in which Gloria Steinem famously put Wonder Woman on the cover, Susan Faludi's Backlash (1991), and more recent debates about Sarah Palm's footwear choices and Hillary Clintons pantsuits and political ambitions, indicates that the Woman Question is still with us and shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. Moreover, we see depictions of vampires and femininity in our current culture, as well, in places such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the television show, which ran from 1997-2002 and the comic book series, which launched in 2007) and The Twilight Saga films (2008-2012). Vampire stories might have predated Dracula, but it was Bram Stokers novel that thrust the genre into the pop culture spotlight in both the late nineteenth-century and ensured its enduring popularity today.

Good Girls Gone Bad: The Perils of Feminine Sexuality

In Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel, Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes that early English conduct books construct a parallel between immodesty and insanity, for as one manual intoned, "an Impudent woman is looked on as a kind of Monster; a thing diverted and distorted from its proper form" (5). Dracula's brazen--and therefore monstrous--women do not adhere to standards of middle class morality, and Stoker gives us three very different portraits of womanhood, all of which play into Victorian anxieties about female sexuality and gender roles. From the nameless writhing vampires who attack Jonathan Harker, to the overly sexualized vampire-in-waiting Lucy Westenra, to the seemingly traditional Mina Harker, Stoker examines three divergent types of women, all of whom pose some threat to Victorian notions of social order and sexualized hysteria. When Stoker sets up feminine sexuality as diametrically opposed to femininity and does so in terms of insanity and monstrosity, he draws from a heritage that long reveres the idea of chaste, modest, non-sexual beings as the standard for Englishwomen and deviations from this norm as grotesque. As Bowena Mohr writes, "whatever is at stake in Stoker's novel--Englishness, class stability, gender and sexual identifications--it is a text that anxiously defends the social, political and sexual ideals of a conservative, middle-class, masculinist ideology" (80). Constructs of feminine behavior, overlapping with the burgeoning field of psychology (marked by Breuer and Freud's 1895 Studies on Hysteria), created a fertile ground on which Dracula was created and can be interpreted. …

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