A Tale of Two Women: Sexuality, Morality, and Destiny

in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

by John O’Connor

In Bram Stoker’s gothic thriller Dracula, Stoker spins a tale about a ragtag group’s triumph over the menacing Count Dracula.  Dracula, of course, feasts on the blood of the living in order to remain undead. Much of the novel is concerned with Dracula’s feeding on Lucy Westenra or Mina Harker, and the consequences these feedings have. In fact, it is the difference in the final consequence of the respective assaults that is categorically indicative of Stoker’s views on sexuality and gender roles.  Lucy, who is portrayed as ditsy, promiscuous, and occasionally insolent, stands in sharp contrast to the character of Mina. Mina is chaste, submissive, and at the same time, intelligent. Herein lies Stoker’s own take on the ideal woman: he believes the idyllic women ought to be, perhaps first and foremost, chaste and submissive. Yet, in a divergence from the majority of his Victorian peers, Stoker also believes that a woman should be intelligent.  The diametrically opposed fates of Lucy and Mina serve as a testament to Stoker’s view on women. Lucy’s supposed death, transition into vampiress, and subsequent final death by stake are, in Stoker’s eyes, a fate fitting her moral character. Similarly, Mina’s survival is earned by her own moral character. Dracula, therefore, advances an argument for a hybrid Victorian woman: a woman who is simultaneously pure and intelligent.

When Lucy is first introduced in the novel, she is characterized as a particularly beautiful girl.  Mina says that Lucy “was looking sweetly pretty in her white lawn frock; she has got a beautiful colour since she has been here [Whitby]” (Stoker 65).  Yet, it quickly becomes clear that Lucy’s physical gifts are hardly innocent. Immediately after mentioning Lucy’s tan, Mina also comments on the fact that “the old men did not lose any time in coming up and sitting near her when we sat down” (Stoker 65).  In Victorian England, and in the mind of Stoker, even inadvertently attracting the attention of a few old men was a grave sin of promiscuity. According to Phyllis A. Roth in her criticism “Suddenly Sexual Women in Dracula,” Lucy’s promiscuity was always bubbling under the surface.  Roth says that “[Lucy] must have been so [promiscuous] long before [her transition to vampiress], judging from her effect on men and from Mina’s description of her” (Roth 414). Of course, Stoker’s idea of promiscuity is very different from the modern idea of promiscuity. In fact, a case can be made for the idea that, to a certain degree and in certain circles, promiscuity no longer carries a negative connotation.  Regardless of the degree to which promiscuity is frowned upon today, it is infinitely more accepted than it was during Stoker’s life.  

The second “sin” Lucy commits that seals her fate is her supposed disrespectful treatment of her suitors.  Roth says that compared to Mina, Lucy “is the more rejecting figure, rejecting two of the three ‘sons’ in the novel” (Roth 417).  Simply saying no to two of three marriage proposals is hardly grounds for death by stake, but in the repressive climate of Victorian England, such action is patently insolent.  Feminist criticism, which seeks to unearth the ways “literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Brizee 5) is fairly unified in their claim that Dracula contributes to the oppression of women through its condemnation of Lucy.  In “Those Monstrous Women: A Discussion of Gender in Dracula”, Carol Senf confesses that in Stoker’s treatment of Lucy, “Stoker was a traditionalist about gender issues. He longed for the time when the roles of men and women were distinct and when attempts to deviate from those prescribed roles were met with repression, hostility, and death” (Senf 7).  Yet, it is Stoker’s final requirement of a woman, intelligence, which of course Lucy does not possess, that cements him as both profoundly Victorian and cautiously modern: a hybrid.

Mina is, at the same time, both pure and intelligent.  Most importantly, in a time when “barbaric and often downright ludicrous pseudo-science served to construct female sexuality and female desire as diabolic and vampiric” (Parsons 57), Mina is pure beyond a doubt.  Unlike Lucy, she is neither insolent nor promiscuous. In Roth’s words, “Mina is never described physically and is the opposite of rejecting: all the men become her sons, symbolized by the naming of her actual son after them all” (Roth 417).  Yet it is not just her purity that spares Mina from the curse of the vampire. Mina’s additional and exceptional intelligence is also key in her evasion of a carnivorous, undead eternity. One particularly potent example of Mina’s intelligence occurs when Mina and the men stake out the city where Dracula’s boat is supposed to arrive in hopes of killing him.  The men, however, are outsmarted by Dracula when the boat is rerouted to Galatz. Disappointed, the men quarrel about how best to get to Galatz. Mina then swoops in with her knowledge of the train tables and informs the men of the next available train to Galatz. Stupefied, Van Helsing can say nothing else but “wonderful woman!” (Stoker 293). While this impressive intelligence may have seemed threatening to most Victorian men, to Stoker, it was absolutely admirable.

In contrast with the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s ideal women who would “cast her best, fling herself” (Patmore 4) for her husband’s “condoled necessities” (3), Stoker prefers a woman who, though still remaining pure in morality and sexuality, is “capable of chaf[ing] against those rigid roles and manages to accomplish heroic acts when she is outside that traditional role” (Senf 7). That is the crux of Lucy and Mina’s fate. Lucy suffers and dies while Mina survives because Mina encapsulates Stoker’s own angel in the house, while Lucy does not.

In Dracula, Stoker is a man straddling two continuums. On the one hand, he is every bit as sexist as the stereotypical Victorian man.  He yearns for a society in which women are both chaste and submissive. On the other hand, unlike the majority of his peers, Stoker also values intelligence.  At a time when most men would feel threatened by a woman possessing equitable if not superior intellect, Stoker embraces such a trait. Perhaps, as both a British subject and an Irishmen, Stoker is accustomed to hybridity. Regardless, the modern reader must take Dracula and Bram Stoker for what they are: a novel and a man delicately balancing tradition and change.

Works Cited

Brizee, Allen. “Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/01/. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.

Parsons, Maria. “Vamping the Women: Menstrual Pathologies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, go.galegroup.com.proxy.bc.edu/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=T001&resultListType=RESULT_LIST. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.

Patmore, Coventry. “The Angel in the House.” 1854. William Makepeace Thackeray, academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/thackeray/angel.html. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.

Roth, Phyllis A. “Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Literature and Psychology, phuhs3.weebly.com/uploads/5/4/6/6/54662253/dracula-2.pdf. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.

Senf, Carol A. “Those Monstrous Women: A Discussion of Gender in Dracula.” Children’s Literature Review, kathyfreeman.weebly.com/uploads/5/4/9/1/54914679/those_monstrous_women_by_carol_a._senf.pdf. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Williams, Pharell. “Pharell Williams Lyrics.” AZ Lyrics, www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pharrellwilliams/happy.html. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.