Dracula (Wordsworth Classics)

by Bram Stoker, Bram Stoker | Horror |
ISBN: 9781853260865 Global Overview for this book
Registered by LittleBigDave of Selby, North Yorkshire United Kingdom on 11/9/2008
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Journal Entry 1 by LittleBigDave from Selby, North Yorkshire United Kingdom on Sunday, November 09, 2008
How Does Stoker’s Text Respond To The Challenge Of
The Phenomenon Of The ‘New Woman’?

Bram Stoker’s exploration of the New Woman phenomenon through the characters of Lucy Westenra, Mina Harker (nee Murray) and to a lesser extent, “The Weird Sisters” represents a reaction to the historical and political influence that women were beginning to have in England in the late nineteenth century. The rise of The New Woman, who fought ardently for women’s suffrage and female emancipation, helped to transform the way that Victorian women asserted themselves. The ambitious New Woman strove to achieve a more valuable and involved role in British society; socially, in the home and in the workplace.
English society’s realisation that these women were discontented with the prospect of a life dedicated entirely to motherhood is what gave birth to the idea that the moral decay of Victorian England and the downfall of its patriarchal reign was being instigated by the rise of the New Woman. “The New Woman smoked, entered boldly into conversation with men and was seen around town riding a bicycle”. (Suzanne Fagence Cooper, 2001, p 66)
Many traits of The New Woman would, in the present day cause little or no consternation in even the most reserved circles; a woman who expressed a desire to pursue a career as opposed to marrying, housekeeping and bearing children would hardly occasion comment, yet in the latter half 19th century the concept of matrimony and maternity being decisions rather than duties was unheard of prior to the advent of the New Woman movement. Subsequently it was met with much scorn and derision.
In Dracula, Stoker exposes an attitude of disapproving hostility by men, towards women who attempt to assert themselves in this way. Stoker portrays The New Woman as dangerously parasitic and morally unsound. This is a typical representation of the opinion held by many Victorian males, and indeed many females not of the New Woman’s generation or bold disposition. Many men felt that their masculinity and authority was being challenged and would eventually be ‘stolen’ by women who would regard them as equals, not as masters. They were seen to be a dangerous threat to male dominance and to the very fabric of Victorian society. In Dracula, Stoker presents us first with the Weird Sister’s who are entirely New Woman. They are seen to devour babies and seduce a wholesome Victorian man with their dissolute and aggressive manner. They are dealt with in the way Stoker believes all New Woman should be, by being destroyed. Secondly Stoker introduces Lucy Westenra to show the reader the threat that New Woman poses to young, easily led Victorian women. Again, men destroy her in order to ensure their rule. Finally, we see in Mina Harker how Stoker feels a Victorian lady should behave in order to remain in favour with male society. Mina is a mother figure and is obsequiously loyal to her men folk. This ensures her survival in the novel.
The Weird Sisters are the novel’s first example of New Women. Along with Stoker’s description of their terrible deeds and their seductive manner the sisters are also used to prepare the reader for Lucy’s becoming Un-Dead. The descriptions of the Weird Sisters are closely paralleled by those of Lucy later in the novel. One of the Weird Sisters is described by Jonathan Harker thus, “The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires” (Stoker, 1993, p45)
and her voice is said to sound like, “the intolerable, tingling sweetness of waterglasses when played on by a cunning hand.” Compare this with Lucy’s hair that, “lay on the pillow in its usual sunny ripples.” (Stoker, 1993, p171)
and her voice when in the graveyard of which Dr Seward says, “There was something diabolically sweet in her tones, something of the tinkling of glass when struck.” (Stoker, 1993, p226)
And we see Stoker is preparing us for the possibility of Lucy becoming like them. Stoker even goes as far as to have Jonathan hint that he recognises Lucy in one of them, “I seemed somehow to know her face” (Stoker, 1993, p45)
This brief fancy is by no means a definitive identification of Lucy, but in a novel so full of oblique and hidden references it is certainly not to be ruled out.
Though Lucy Westenra’s behaviour prior to her transition into vampirism hints to us that she may possess some of the ‘New Woman’ traits considered most undesirable (she is aesthetically attractive to a number of men and she exudes an aura of sexual magnetism long before becoming one of the Un-Dead), she is essentially an innocent; certainly a capricious and flirtatious girl yet ultimately a good person and entirely without malice. “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble” (Stoker, 1993, p63)
. Lucy is used by Stoker to show how susceptible a young, impressionable Victorian female could be to the corrupting influence and the allure of the New Woman’s ideals. The New Woman movement brought with it, among other things, a degree of sexual freedom for women. While this freedom may have been liberating for the young ladies involved it was seen as nothing more than sinful and immoral by Victorian standards. Ultimately it is Lucy’s sexuality and her inability to deny her sexual desires that proves to be her fatal flaw.
After Lucy is ‘bitten’ by the New Woman bug her sexual interest escalates whilst the influence that traditional moral values have on her behaviour dissipates. Her behaviour becomes sexually aggressive to the point of promiscuity. Even before she has changed completely into a vampire she becomes a temptress and, symbolically by way of blood transfusions, has sexual intercourse with each man. This leads to Dr Van Helsing saying of her , “This so sweet maid is a polyandrist” (Stoker, 1993, p234).
Lucy’s blood transfusions, each one performed in her bed by a different man, signify her seduction of each of the male protagonists and also her parasitic tendencies as she drains the life blood from them in order to gain nourishment for herself. After each transfusion the donor is described as being in a weakened state whilst Lucy’s vigour and strength increases. These transfusions also expose another threat that The New Woman poses; that her promiscuity is liable to damage patriarchal society by dividing and conquering. Through jealousy and mistrust her actions are in danger of weakening the solidity of male friendships and causing allies to keep secrets from each other. Like any illicit sexual affair, Lucy’s intimacy with each man threatens to cause contention between her male ‘lovers’. Dr Van Helsing says to Dr Seward shortly after the two have performed a transfusion on Lucy (Dr Seward’s blood, Dr Van Helsing performing the operation), "Mind, nothing must be said of this. If our young lover [Arthur Holmwood] should turn up unexpected, as before, no word to him. It would at once frighten him and enjealous him, too. There must be none!” (Stoker, 1993, p139)
This mistrust also manifests later in the novel, after Van Helsing has related to the group the full extent of the risk that Lucy poses and has outlined his plan to decapitate her ‘corpse’ in order to eliminate the threat. Not in a sexual context this time, the mistrust is evident when Dr Seward chronicles in his diary his doubts regarding Van Helsing’s sanity. Again here we see The New Woman contributing to the breakdown of the relationships between male authoritarians.
Lucy’s death, which symbolises the death of her moral decency and also the death of her chaste reputation and her purity, sees her become entirely a New Woman. As Lucy’s first being bitten induced her to change from being coquettish to a harlot this new transformation turns Lucy into a monster, literally and figuratively. From this point on Lucy embodies all that the Victorian male despised in the New Woman. Dr Seward, when looking at her ‘corpse’ gives testament to her increased attractiveness, “She was, if possible, more radiantly beautiful than ever ... The lips were red, nay redder than before, and on the cheeks was a delicate bloom.” (Stoker, 1993, p213)
This lustful beauty, signified by the red of the lips and frowned upon by Bram Stoker as a temptation to the Victorian male, is put to good use when Lucy attempts to seduce her former fiancé Arthur in the cemetery. Arthur is enchanted by Lucy and seems to be “under a spell” as a result of Lucy’s efforts at seduction and almost succumbs to her advances. It is only due to the intervention of his friends, used to signify Victorian male society, that he is able to resist her charms. As New Woman, Lucy has become a caricature of the derogatory stereotype of a militant, man-hating feminist. Lucy develops a visible hatred for men, even those she once loved, “then her eyes ranged over us” Says Dr Seward, “ Lucy’s eyes in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the poor, gentle orbs we knew.” (Stoker, 1993, p225)
Her attempts to seduce Arthur are not for the purpose of love making, but so she can dominate him, draining him of his strength (masculinity) and making him submit to her as a victim.
Even more repulsive than sexual aggressiveness or a desire to usurp Victorian male rule is the threat that New Woman was believed to pose to children. The New Woman was considered by ‘normal’ Victorian society to be abandoning her responsibilities as a mother. Worse still she was seen as being a real danger to children. This meant, of course that she was a danger to future generations and subsequently considered a danger to the future of British civilisation. Because of Lucy attacking and feeding on children we again see the association between Lucy, The New Woman and also “The Weird Sisters” who appeared earlier in the novel. Like “The Weird Sisters” when they feed upon a baby stolen from a peasant woman and presented to them by Dracula, Lucy is reversing the traditional role of a mother protecting and feeding a child, rather she is hurting children and using them as a form of nourishment. Echoing the condition of Lucy’s male blood donors, the children are described after their attacks as looking, “weak … and emaciated”. (Stoker, 1993, p190)
The message Stoker is trying to convey when he uses the image of women feeding on children is clear; a woman who works and socialises as opposed to staying at home to raise her children is surely a dangerous and neglectful mother. Her children would be weak and emaciated bodily, through neglect and malnutrition and also weak of character and morality through a lack of a proper upbringing from a traditional mother figure. Stoker was acutely aware of the dangers motherless children faced, we even see this when examining Lucy’s plight. It is also significant that the lack of a mother figure contributes to Lucy’s corruption. Though Dracula attempts to change Lucy completely on a number of occasions he is unable to do this until Lucy’s mother has died, here Stoker is showing us the need for and strength of a mother’s love and protection. By attacking children Lucy is showing us the worst possible quality of the New Woman, selfish rejection of the traditional nurturing role.
Anne Cranny-Francis in her article, Sexual Politics and Political Repression in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ goes even deeper with her analysis of Lucy and The Weird Sisters’ behaviour and raises an issue which gives a disturbing insight into the depths of Stoker’s dislike (which seems to be an almost fanatical hatred) for The New Woman. When discussing the episode in which The Weird Sisters devour the kidnapped baby, Anne Cranny-Francis states,
“Recall the initial premise, that blood sucking is to be read in the text as sexual intercourse. The violence committed by the women on the baby is, by implication, not only physical; it is also sexual. They are not only homicidal maniacs, they are also child-molesters.” (Cranny-Francis, 1988, p64 – 79)
By this point Lucy’s vampirism ensures that she is beyond help and will never be returned to her previous state of Victorian woman. Stoker’s response to the New Woman threat posed by Lucy culminates in the band of men ‘killing’ or destroying the un-dead Lucy by driving a stake through her chest and performing religious rituals over the body and around the tomb. This act finally restores her corpse to it’s natural state. No longer dangerously sensual or “voluptuous,” Lucy is now described as, “no longer the foul Thing that we had so dreaded and grown to hate … but Lucy, with her face of unequalled sweetness and purity” (Stoker, 1993, p231).
The act of killing Lucy with the stake is symbolically sexual. The stake being driven into the body is representative of male initiated sexual intercourse. This is effectively restoring patriarchal reign by rendering Lucy a submissive participant and delivering the sexual initiative back into the hands of the men. It appears that here Stoker is implying that the most effective way to combat The New Woman threat is through male aggression; she, or at least her ideology, must be destroyed and women must be restored to their traditionally accepted role.
The character of Mina Harker necessitates a less straight forward analysis. Mina appears as a paradox in the novel. On one hand Mina exhibits some traits, albeit useful rather than sordid ones, thought to be exclusive to The New Woman. As well as being a skilled and efficient note taker Mina is adept at using a typewriter and can easily memorise railway timetables. These things both represent new and advanced technologies of the day and Mina’s mastery of them indicate a masculine disposition as such things would have usually been considered too difficult for a woman to understand. Even Dr Van Helsing says of Mina, “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man's brain, a brain that a man should have were he much gifted” (Stoker, 1993, p250). Quite tellingly Mina also shows New Woman tendencies when presenting her shorthand diary to Dr Van Helsing. Mina is certain that the Van Helsing will not be able to read the diary as a result of its shorthand format and takes pleasure in her small victory over the Doctor when he struggles to understand it and is forced to ask Mina to read it aloud for him, “I could not resist the temptation of mystifying him a bit, I suppose it is some taste of the original apple that remains still in our mouths, so I handed him the shorthand diary” (Stoker, 1993, p195). This biblical reference to Eve’s succumbing to seduction in the garden of Eden is used by Stoker to again align the women of the novel with immorality and temptation. Despite this Mina is still able to redeem herself as, paradoxically, she also epitomises the archetypal Victorian woman; she is a dutiful and attentive wife and unlike Lucy, she is not at all sexualised. Mina also acts as a mother figure to the men of the novel on numerous occasions, comforting the men in their times of grief or worry. She is seen to comfort Lord Godalming and comments of it in her diary, consciously referring to herself in a matriarchal sense, “We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother spirit is invoked” (Stoker, 1993, p245). It is because of her adherence to the more important Victorian standards that she is seen as less of a threat than Lucy. Mina also uses her skills and New Woman traits exclusively to benefit her male counterparts, never trying to assert herself or undermine the males. This is a characteristic of Mina’s that is evident throughout the entire novel. In Mina’s first appearance in the novel she says in a correspondence to Lucy, “When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan, if I can stenograph well enough I can take down what he wants to say in this way and write it out for him on the typewriter.” (Stoker, 1993, p62). Mina even uses the telepathic connection to Dracula that she develops after being bitten in order to aid Van Helsing and the others track down Dracula and kill him.
According to Phyllis A. Roth in her article Suddenly Sexual Women in Dracula it is the combined reasons of Mina’s lack of sexual aggressiveness (even after being bitten) and her role as mother figure that ensure she is considered wholesome and pure and can eventually be saved, whilst Lucy’s overt sexuality dictates that she be killed. Roth says, “[Mina] is much less sexually threatening and is ultimately saved. Moreover, 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, 1977, p62).
Another defining characteristic of Mina includes her complete reliance on and faith in her male acquaintances throughout the novel. Mina Harker often talks in gushing tones of the brave and noble disposition and the strength of character of her companions and of Victorian men in general. In order to ensure she does not become one of the un-dead Mina insists that the men kill her if she transforms into a vampire. This signifies her total submission to Victorian ideals and her desire to be destroyed at the hands of men if she should inadvertently transcend her normal role. Also worth noting is Mina’s apparent guilt when she is bitten by Dracula. Mina’s reaction when she is bitten is to declare herself “unclean, unclean” (Stoker, 1993, p231). and she is insistent that for her husbands sake she can no longer be intimate with him. “I must touch him or kiss him no more.” This is in startling contrast to the predatory behaviour displayed by Lucy who’s attempts to seduce her former lover Arthur preceded her being destroyed. This serves to make Mina even more non-threatening as she is obsequiously submissive and does not attempt to disrupt the balance of power from the men’s favour to her own.
It could be argued that Stoker uses the character of Mina Harker as a form of appeasement to women by depicting her as a woman who transcends normal Victorian ideals but doesn’t become so assertive as to be considered a threat. The implication being that patriarchal society will grudgingly allow a woman to better herself intellectually and surpass traditional gender roles in certain situations but only on the condition that their intent in doing so is benign; for instance, in order to become more useful to their husbands in regards to their career. A woman who displays sexually aggressive behaviour is deemed unacceptable as this reversal of roles is an affront to male masculinity without having any kind of beneficial aspect for the men involved. Stoker maybe insinuating that a woman who pursues an education in order to aid her husband in his career can possibly be permitted into Victorian culture, but to go too far and attempt to stand on an equal footing with men would necessitate that she be castigated by men.
In conclusion, it is apparent that Bram Stoker possessed a condescending view of the New Women movement and believed a hard line approach was necessary in order to quell their uprising. All the New Women in the novel, namely the three Weird Sisters and Lucy Westenra, are violently persecuted until they are destroyed at the hands of men; men who feel no remorse for their actions and indeed rejoice in the destruction of assertive women. Mina, as is detailed above, is saved from destruction due to non aggressive nature, her lack of sexual initiative and her willingness to conform to male ideals.
Although in the novel the victors of the battle between New Woman and the patriarchal Victorian regime are the male characters and the traditional moral values they represented, history shows that this was not the case in the real world. The fight for female suffrage continued in Britain and around the world. Just twenty one years after Bram Stoker wrote Dracula married women in Britain over the age of thirty were granted the vote. Ten years later the women of Britain were granted equal voting rights with men. Women of this era also became skilled workers and made a huge impact in the British workforce. These changes were very empowering for the women involved and with the new found responsibility many of these women were able to gain a sense of independence that they had not experienced before. Subsequently, contrary to the wishes of Bram Stoker and the Victorian male the New Woman movement did not perish under the iron rule of male society but gained momentum and support, culminating in the enlightened and equal Britain that we live in today.
Whilst female emancipation and social equality amongst all races and genders is an admirable and worthy cause it would be interesting to see the reactions of New Woman’s Victorian supporters and critics to the changes that have taken place in British society since the implementation of female equality. What would the people who once considered New Woman shocking or radical, (depending on their opinion of the matter) due to her tendency to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes and engage boldly in conversation with men think of today’s society with it’s culture of female ‘hen nights’, inner city girl gangs and promiscuous female celebrity icons? Would their stance, whatever it may be, remain the same after witnessing the increase of disruptive behaviour in school classrooms and the inability of teachers to adequately discipline children? Would Britain’s dubious accolade of having the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe be blamed on the New Woman movement? If so, would their blame be rightfully directed?


Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker And The Man Who Was Dracula, (Da Capo Press), 2002

C.S. Bloom et al, Nineteenth-Century Suspense: from Poe to Conan Doyle (Macmillan), 1988

Suzanne Fagence Cooper, The Victorian Woman, (V&A Publications) 2001

Robert Frost, Virgins and vampires, (The English Review), 2002

Marie Mulvey-Roberts, The Handbook To Gothic Literature, (Macmillan) 1998

Phyllis A. Roth, Suddenly Sexual Women in Dracula,(Norton) 1977

Bram Stoker, Dracula, (Penguin Classics), 1993

Richard Wasson, The Politics of Dracula, (London), 1966

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