Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
The Evolution of the Vampire
The appearance of the Gothic in architecture of the Middle Ages was the start point and muse of Gothic Literary. The lack of simplicity, symmetry, regularity and nonconformation to nature inspired the features of Gothic Literature: horror/ terror, dark environment, paranormal, evil creatures, supernatural entities (vampires, ghosts, werewolves), haunted castles and mansions, isolated setting, violence, death and the sublime. The aim of this paper is to follow and compare the evolution of the vampire from the Gothic classics Carmilla (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872) and Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897) until their film adaptations.
Influenced by Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), Carmilla is one of the earliest work of vampire fiction. First serialized in The Dark Blue magazine (1871-1872) and then reprinted by Le Fanu in the In a Glass Darkly short story collection (1872), Carmilla is the story of a female her gender being important “in the construction of her monstrosity” (Creed 1993, p.3) vampire named Carmilla (anagram of Mircalla) that preys on females. Because of her preference for female victims, the novella is often seen as a lesbian vampire story that challenges the Victorian age ideologies of sexuality ‘as with all other stereotypes of the feminine [the female monster] is defined in terms of her sexuality’ (Creed 1993, p.3). The story ran in one issue of 1871 (December, pp. 434–448) and in three issues of 1872 (January, pp. 592–606; February, pp. 701–714; and March, pp. 59–78).
The plot of the novella is easy to follow and makes an entertaining reading: Laura dreams that she was visited by a mysterious figure when she was six years old and remembers being bitten “as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment” (Le Fanu, 7). Twelve years later, Laura and her English father were supposed to be visited by General Spielsdorf and his niece Bertha Rheinfeldt, bue Bertha dies under mysterious circumstances that are to be clarified later in the novella. As Laura longs for a new companion, a carriage accident brings Carmilla in the care of Laura and her father. The friendship that develops between them is seen from two perspectives by scholars: a lesbian attempt that came from Carmilla or a mother-daughter friendship that Laura never had (both motifs are valorized in the film adaptations). Meanwhile young women and girls die of an unknown disease and Carmilla acts bizarre (refuses to attend prayers, sleeps during the day, sleepwalks outside during the night, claims that the hymns hurt her ears). In chapter 7, Laura finds a portrait of her ancestor, Mircalla the Countess Karnstein, dated 1698 and observes that Carmilla looks strikingly similar to her. During Carmilla’s stay, Laura keeps having nightmares of a large cat-like beast that takes the form of a female. In another nightmare, she sees Carmilla standing the foot of her bed and hears her saying “Your mother warns you to beware of the assassin,” and then wakes up with her nightgown all drenched in blood. Her health is getting worse so her father summons the doctor. After examination, the doctor speaks privately with her father and only asks for her to never be unattended. En route to Karnstein, Laura and her father come across General Spielsdorf and start talking about the strange thing that happened to Laura. Then, the General told Laura’s father that Bertha had the same symptoms, when a mysterious Millarca moved with them for a short period of time, before she died and explains why Millarca is a vampire and how they can kill her. While locating her tomb, the General and Laura were alone in an old chapel and Millarca suddenly appeared. The General and Millarca fly into a rage upon seeing each other. Laura understands now that Millarca and Carmilla are the same person with the help of the General. In the last chapter, Laura explains the grotesque techniques of Carmilla’s murder that she didn’t attend to and her father sends her to Italy to regain her health, which she never fully does.
Therefore, the features of Le Fanu’s vampire are: she is a female, intelligent, charm, beauty, shape shifting, vulnerability to sun light and church related rituals, sleeps in a coffin and strength, feeds on human blood.
The first film adaptation, Byzantium (2012) focuses on the mother-daughter side of the story. In the film, Clara is a prostitute that transformed into a vampire by stealing the map that gave the location of a cave that had the power to do such thing. Enjoying the life of darkness, she transforms her daughter (that she abandoned at an orphanage/ catholic school in order to protect her of such a life, but still provided money for her) and makes her promise she won’t tell anybody. This is another similarity with the novella: during the ball at the General’s residence, the mother of Carmilla also forces her to remain silent. Eleanor respects her mother’s wish for 200 years, until she feels like she can’t keep the secret anymore. When she meets Frank, a teenage boy and fell in love with, she tells him her secret. At first, Frank tells about this to the high school director, which calls for Clara and ends up being killed by her for founding the truth. But in the end, he begs her to transform him in a vampire as well. She does, and her mother sets her free. Clara and Eleanor have similar features as Carmilla: they are both beautiful, charming, intelligent (Eleanor more in comparison to her mother) and feed on human blood. However, Eleanor chooses not to pray on ordinary humans, like her mother, but to only drink from elders that are about to die and always asks them for permission.
The second film adaptation, The Curse of Styria (2014) stays truer to the novella. Lara (and not Laura, as the novella character) is the daughter of an ex Cambridge professor. They both go to Styria and stay at a castle they rented for a week because her father had to complete a study. As in the novella, they awaited for the professor’s co-worker and Lara’s friend, but they didn’t make it because they could not pass the border. Lara suffers greatly because she cannot be together with her friend and that is when Carmilla appears in her life, similar to the way Cramilla appeared in Laura’s life: by a vehicle accident. In this film, the lesbian side of the novella is much more highlighted than the maternal side, Carmilla holding hands with Lara when she influenced her to sneak out and see the view and starts with her and even sharing a few kisses with Lara in the second half of the film. As in the novella, Carmilla finds funerals pointless and annoying. She also feeds with human blood, is charming, beautiful, intelligent and somehow evil because of her vampire nature. In the near-by village girls and young females start acting bizarre and Lara suspects that it is because of Carmilla. Turns out she was right and Carmilla got murdered in the same grotesque as Carmilla from the novella.
Although the films were completely different from each other, I consider that they both represented Le Fanu’s Carmilla beautifully the kind of vampire Carmilla was: intelligent, gorgeous, mysterious and blood consuming entity in both her maternal and lover side.
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker introduces the character or Count Dracula, the classic image of a vampire everybody now has. The plot is more complex than Carmilla’s because Dracula is one of the first Gothic novels that appeared in English literature. The Count is based on Vlad The Impaler (Dracul), voievod of Wallachia that later inspired even video games characters (such as the Castlevania series) “Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed! Woe was it that his own unworthy brother, when he had fallen, sold his people to the Turk and brought the shame of slavery on them! Was it not this Dracula, indeed, who inspired that other of his race who in a later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkey-land; who, when he was beaten back, came again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody field where his troops were being slaughtered, since he knew that he alone could ultimately triumph!” (Chapter 3, pp. 19). Profesor Van Helsing is also speculating the identity of the Count: “He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land.” (Chapter 18, p. 145).
The story is told in epistolary format, diary fragments, newspaper articles and short travelogue entries. Jonathan Harker travels to “the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carphatian mountains” (Chapter 1, p. 6) to help the Count buy some properties in the United Kingdom. The route to the castle is filled with Gothic elements such as wolves, dark forests, the strange circle of blue fire and many others. Soon Harker realizes he is Dracula’s prisoner and he barely escapes alive. Meanwhile, Dracula is stalking Lucy Westerna, Mina Hurray’s friend, and communicates with Renfield, an insane patient that east insects, birds and rats in order to absorb their “life force”. He is the only one able to detect Dracula when he arrives. Lucy suspiciously begins to waste away and Seward (Renfield’s doctor) summons his old teacher, Van Helsing. Van Helsing is able to immediately detect Lucy’s disease but refuses to acknowledge and diagnoses her with blood-loss. Dr. Seward, Helsing, Quincey and Arthur (Lucy’s fiancé) all contribute but she still dies. After her death, many children start disappearing and Helsing knows that this is Lucy’s fault, so he tells the rest of them that she actually transformed into a vampire. They hunt her down, stake her, behead her and fill her mouth with garlic. Around the same time, Jonathan Harker arrives from Budapest, where Mina marries him. The vampire hunters try to learn about vampires as much as they can through folklore legends and superstitions in order to understand his powers and his weaknesses. Mina plays an important role in this act as well, collecting relevant data about him from newspapers and journals. They manage to discover all the proprieties he bought in London and they destroy all his boxes with dirt that he needs to be able to walk there (since Dracula can only walk and rest on dirt from his homeland), however they do not find all the boxes because some of them are sent back to Transylvania. After leaning their plans, Dracula attacks Mina and feed her his blood in order to control her, but not fully transform her into a vampire. Mina helps the group find Dracula’s location using what she received from the Count, but urges the group not to tell their plans in fear that Dracula could be listening. They learn that he is travelling back to Transylvania with gypsies. They manage to ambush him, Harker shears his throat and the mortally wounded Quincey stabs the Count in the heart. Dracula transforms into dust, Mina is cured of vampirism and Quincey dies. The last chapter is a note from Jonathan Harker that describes his life with Mina, their marriage and their son, named after all the men who fought against the Count.
Here, the vampire features are almost the complete opposite of Carmilla’s: the Count is a male, he is old and hideous “with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantly round his temples but profusely elsewhere (…). The mouth, so far I can see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking” (Stoker, p. 24), “his hands (…) were rather coarse- broad with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hair in the centre of the palm.” (Stoker, p. 24). His breath “was rank” (Stoker, p. 24), he did not have a reflection “I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me” (Stoker, p. 32), he could not stand garlic and cold only walk on dirt from his homeland. But, as Carmilla, he had the intelligence, the ability to shape shift (into a large wolf), the Christian related symbols did affect him, he could not walk during the day, the could manipulate others, feeds on human blood and the way he dies is similar to Carmilla’s. Stoker created the classic vampire definition that is to inspire many more plays, films and authors.
There have been many film adaptations of Stoker’s Dracula, starting from the classic Nosferatu (1922) and ending with modern day (a new adaptation of Nosferatu that came out in 2017). But the one that I consider to be as faithful to the novel as it can be and at the same time a cinematographic masterpiece is the 1992 adaptation Dracula. The Count is represented almost as the book described him, however he can shape shift his form into a younger and attractive male that seduces Mina (who looks strikingly similar to his long lost wife, Elisabeta) and makes her have an affair with him while Jonathan Harker still tries to escape his castle back in Transylvania. Lucy also ends up transforming into a vampire and being killed by Van Helsing, Arthur, Quincey and Seward. The ending is magnifically portrayed, one cannot turn his head away from it.
The features of the vampire may differ from Carmilla’s, but they managed to live through out history, molding the definition of the vampire as we know and love today. The novel and films inspired many other creators, new adaptations of Dracula never ceasing to appear (with better and better cinematographic techniques and make up). It also insired many authors, such as Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire, also adapted into a film), Richelle Mead (Vampire Academy), Stephenie Meyer (The Twilight Saga; every was adapted into a film ), Charlaine Harris (whose saga Sookie Stackhouse also inspired the TV show Tru Blood), Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instrument) and many others. The idea of the vampire was adapted and manipulated in various forms by each creator.
In conclusion, the vampire concept survived throughout history thanks to the legends that represent the origins of the Gothic classics Carmilla novella and Dracula novel. Those two masterpieces were only the starting point of the supernatural fiction world that we all know and love today. From literature to films, the vampire maintained the image of the representative undead creature that should send shivers down the spine of everyone who heard of it.
Creed, Barbara: The Mounstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoabakysis (1993), New York: Routledge Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan: Carmilla (1872), Signet Classics, USA Stoker, Bram: Dracula (1897), Signet Classics, USA
Sleep is a physically and mentally vulnerable state; the body is unconscious, unsuspecting, and the mind is visited frequently by an array of distorted images called dreams. Only devilish and cruel predators hunt sleeping prey, when struggle is least viable and victory is guaranteed. The vampire, possibly the cruelest predator in English literature, often victimizes its prey in a dreamlike state; any suspicion of their presence may be mistaken for a strange dream, for weeks, while the vampire feeds, draining their victim of its blood, its life. The vampire has also been known to haunt its victim telepathically, through dreams, drawing the victim ever so closer to their doom. In Le Fanu’s Carmilla and E.F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower,” victimization in a dream has two distinct methods, adding to the intricate caricature of the vampire.
The history of the vampire within English literature has shown that the vampires who victimize their prey through dreams or dreamlike states are the vampires who have sought out their victim for quite some years, even decades. Carmilla first victimizes Laura when Laura is six years old, coming to her, as Laura recalls, in a dreamlike state Laura describes as an incident (Williams Le Fanu 90). More than a decade goes by before Carmilla can victimize Laura once more (Williams, Le Fanu 90-1). AlikeLe Fanu, Benson plays with a tedious and suspenseful hunt of the vampire. The vampire may take years to score their prized prey possibly because their victim must be developed to a certain extent. The vampire’s lust for and almost sexual emotions for the blood of their victim, the very blood that too will run through the vampire’s veins, assumes that the pleasure of the hunt is kin to the pleasure of the kill. Carmilla’s seduction of Laura is not a rapid process, but a long-term endeavor. Concerning Carmilla the vampire, it suggests the idea that draining enough blood to live the vampire lifestyle takes a great effort on the vampire’s part. Carmilla and Laura’s friendship is rather romantic and there are certainly lesbian undertones; bloodsucking is a pleasurable and almost sexual experience for a vampire.
Carmilla has a desire for Laura that Laura is uncomfortable with; after one of Carmilla’s episodes of affections, Laura describes Carmilla’s bouts of strange behaviors as infatuations, which embarrass and frighten Laura (Williams, Le Fanu 113). Carmilla possesses a love for Laura that is not human; their friendship appears to go beyond earthly bounds, Carmilla not only wants to feed on Laura’s blood but to have her as a companion in the afterlife. Alike the nature of Carmilla’s hunt, Julia has been long awaiting the nameless narrator as when they finally meet in the room in the tower she says, “I knew you would come to the room in the tower. . . I have been long waiting for you. At last you have come. Tonight I shall feast; before long we will feast together” (Ryan, Benson 223). Perhaps the nameless narrator is Julia’s first hunt; the use of the word “feast” suggests that Julia has not yet feeded at all since becoming a vampire and her hunt has been a long and sort of amateur styled victimization of the nameless narrator through dreams. Julia’s confession is one answer to the cause of the narrator’s dreams, but it is no consolation as to why she chose him and neither is there an answer to the question “why?” in Carmilla. It is not so obviously stated by Carmilla that she has been hunting Laura for all this time and that she wants her as a companion, but it is insinuated profusely. Despite the motif of dreams in either Carmilla the novel or “The Room in the Tower” the short story, it is Carmilla who enters Laura’s life while it is the nameless narrator who was seemingly prophetically destined to come to Julia.
The nature of Julia Stone’s victimization of E.F. Benson’s nameless narrator seems to involve no bloodsucking, but she has been reaching out to the narrator in reoccurring dreams over the course of twenty years. It is unclear whether Julia is feeding telepathically or luring in the kill to eventually drain him of his blood, the fact that the narrator wakes up from his dreams without any bite marks on his neck is a tell-tale sign that he was not visited by a bloodsucking vampire the night before, but the reader cannot rule out that sometimes vampires can drain life from the victim through other methods such as energy-draining and telepathic efforts. Although because the narrator experiences no fatigue from the dreams, it is more likely that Julia has truly waited that long for the opportunity to physically victimize the nameless narrator. Carmilla appears to be slightly more successful and less tedious in the hunt than Julia, while Carmilla begins to victimize Laura frequently over the course of many nights.
During the dreamlike state or strange dream of the victims, both Carmilla and Julia Stone manifest themselves to their victims in alternate forms. Secrets, deceit, and stealth are key to keeping Carmilla’s true identity unrevealed, while the narrator of “The Room in the Tower” experiences prophetic dreams that are rather obscure in and of themselves that no mortal could have foretold the seriousness of. Benson’s story, particularly, is one that advocates for the common belief that dreams can connect the mind to supernatural and divine entities, visions of sorts that the supernatural can use to haunt the mind. Possibly the nameless narrator is experiencing these dreams as a prophetic vision, which will inevitably lead him to the room in the tower. Julia appears in the narrator’s surreal dream as simply the mother of a boy the narrator went to prep school with, and the evil of the dream is initially connected to the tower, a three-story high tower modeled after the late medieval period. It is obvious to the reader later on that the vampire was to be Julia Stone all along, in that her line, “Jack will show you to your room: I have given you the room in the tower” is the only precise repetition of the dreams over the course of twenty years (Benson, Ryan, 215).
Carmilla appears to Laura in a different physical form than the young, charming, and beautiful women the reader sees by day. Laura describes a dream that begins “a very strange agony” which the reader knows is a result of Laura’s victimization. Carmilla takes the form of a “sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat . . . four or five feet long” (Williams, Le Fanu 115). It is never explained why Carmilla appears to Laura this way. Vampires are characterized as having kin to or the ability to transform into dark creatures that are usually associated with hunting or evil, such as the wolf, the large feline, the rat, et cetera. The large cat image may be associated with sensuality of the hunt and the female is often compared to the feline, long sleek body and graceful. After seeing the large puma-like creature Laura feels “ a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into (her) breast” and then she wakes with a scream, implying that she was woken from a dream (Williams, Le Fanu 116). Carmilla’s powers and the extent of her powers are never specified. Possibly Carmilla put Laura in a stupor that paralleled the reality of Carmilla’s bloodsucking with this terrifying creature of a disguise, one may use this argument because when Laura “awakes” she sees a “female figure standing at the foot of the bed” (William, Le Fanu 116).
Both Carmilla and Benson’s narrator make an effort to justify their dreadful experiences. In The Room in the Tower, dream analysis is a theme and at this time, 1912, modern psychology is emerging. On recalling his vampire experience the nameless narrator has an explanation he is satisfied with that explains the strangeness and the repetition of his dreams, he calls it a fulfillment of a dream and believes that “on the mere calculation of chances, it does not appear in the least unlikely that a dream imagined by anyone who dreams constantly should occasionally come true” (Ryan, Benson 213). The nameless narrator compares it to the experience of expecting a biweekly letter from a friend, dreaming about the occurrence the night before and receiving the letter the next day. This justification is all fine and dandy, but it does not account for the issue that the narrator never would have had his own victimization by a vampire on the brain, his mind has no vampire experience to create this “dreadfully (oppressing) and foreboding” dream (Ryan, Benson 215).
Meanwhile in Carmilla, Laura calls her nightly victimization dreams. She even believes that evil spirits make dreams, that horrifying dreams are natural and their visit is to be expected every now and then (Williams, Le Fanu 117). The result of Laura’s “dream(s)” unravels bouts of melancholy disposition. Laura does not admit she is ill, but Carmilla becomes more devoted to Laura than ever; Carmilla knows that Laura is close to death. Strange sensations become associated with Laura’s dreams, Laura describes them and their aftermath when she explains that “the prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill which we feel in bathing, when we move against the current of a river. . . But they left an awful impression, and a sense of exhaustion, as if I had passed through a long period of great mental exertion and danger” (Williams, Le Fanu 119). What Laura is describing is most likely the sensation paired with the sucking of blood from her neck; the running river sensation is the feeling of the blood within her veins as it leaves the body and the exhaustion is the lack of blood in her system.
It is Laura’s and the nameless narrator’s not wanting to believe there is anything amiss about the strange dreams they have been having that maintains the vampires’ hold over the protagonists for as long as it does. Sheridan Le Fanu and E.F. Benson similarly play with the idea that the hunt of the vampire is a lengthy and artfully constructed act reserved for only the most valued prey. Besides facing the seriousness and lucidity of their dreams and the sensations the dreams are evoking, there is not much more the two could have done; after all, the vampire is one of the most cruel and relentless predators in the history of English Literature.
Isolation in the Gothic Novel: Gender and Genre
In an essay concerning the components of the Romantic novel, James P. Carson frames the difference between Gothic and Romantic attitudes as a “disagreement over values inherent in attempts to represent people” (Matthews). He succinctly describes the difference as one of intent: the Romantic novel evokes depth “in the midst of excess” while the Gothic novel seeks excess and uses divisive methods of description to thus create identity (Matthews). In Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s speculative fiction novella Carmilla, the concept of the female Gothic manifests through the concern of how sexual boundaries can endanger and the idea of feminine incarceration and isolated setting as a means for allowing dark action to occur. Alternatively, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre tells the more extensive story of a woman’s maturity through dreary circumstances and focuses on the emotions and experiences that incite her growth to adulthood, all filtered through the lens of Gothic romance. Through female Gothic conventions, LeFanu and Bronte use a stark sense of isolation as a means for their heroines’ often captive states and to create a sense of individual experience in their gender roles and social class.
In alternate ways, the physical settings create a sense of incarceration in both protagonists. During Jane Eyre’s childhood at Gateshead, the incident in the red room marks a shift in the novel and contributes to Jane Eyre’s standing as a Gothic text by creating a tangible sense of fear and captivity. The red room has an ominous, life-like presence of its own: “A bed supported on massive pillars of mahogany, hung with curtains of deep red damask, stood out like a tabernacle in the centre;…the carpet was red; the table at the foot of the bed was covered with a crimson cloth; …Mr. Reed had been dead nine years: it was this chamber he breathed his last;…and since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion” (Brontë 11-12). Following the foreboding description of the room, Jane believes herself to see her uncle’s ghost and faints from fear, an event that remains with her to adulthood. All of the physical elements of the red room that serve to Jane’s entrapment predict future Gothic themes in the plot as well as show her incarcerated state and lack of control over her adolescent suffering. Despite the unfair and frightening nature of Jane’s experiences as a child, her strong-willed nature allows her to maintain an inherent sense of identity that Laura, the protagonist in Carmilla, is lacking. Laura’s setting in Styria proves to only add to the sense of hidden information and separation from the rest of the civilized world. In the beginning of Carmilla, she describes their castle, referred to as the schloss: “Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary. It stands on a slight eminence in a forest…Over all this the schloss shows its many-windowed front; its towers, and its Gothic chapel…, and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the wood. I have said that this is a very lonely place” (LeFanu). Laura’s economic dependence as well as her loneliness in her remote setting is perhaps what makes her so welcome to Carmilla’s arrival, and the implied monotony and remoteness in her daily life could be what makes her so easily susceptible to danger. Regardless of whether she feels consciously in captivity, her initial loneliness in the schloss lends to her being preyed on by Carmilla, thus entrapping her in a powerless position. Despite their different purposes, the physical settings of both novels add to the idea of captivity for both of the protagonists.
While isolation initially manifests in the physical setting of both novels, it serves as a mirror to the isolation that both Jane and Laura experience in their gender roles. In her childhood, Jane speculates how her life and treatment would have been different if she were male or anything but the frail, quiet, yet strong-willed girl that she is. Furthermore, as she moves on to Thornfield Hall, she experiences an isolated social class of her own as a governess, as she is a woman that is aristocratically below Mr. Rochester and the visitors of Thornfield, but also intellectually above the servants and help of the household. However, despite her position that could otherwise make her powerless, she empowers herself with her sense of identity, especially when Mr. Rochester reveals his past with Bertha Mason to her. Though Jane is poor and has no other options at the time in terms of securing a future, she asserts strongly to Mr. Rochester that she could not be involved with him romantically if he already has a living wife: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now” (Brontë 270). Despite the emotional tragedy for her, Jane adheres to her values and pride and somehow finds power in her isolation. In Carmilla, Laura unfortunately does not benefit from her isolation in the same way. Even as Carmilla feeds on her and her health begins to fail, she is made to be unaware of how dire her situation is. Furthermore, when she is finally examined by the doctor, he informs her father of what he thinks is wrong with her in private, and Laura is hidden from information about her own body. Even when she later asks her father for more information about her withering state, he replies curtly, “Nothing; you must not plague me with questions” (LeFanu). Her father abruptly ends any discourse, and she remains in the dark about her own health. Laura’s isolated gender role serves to show her lack of powerful identity and control over her circumstances. Ultimately, the women experience isolation differently in their gender roles, as Jane’s isolation empowers her while Laura’s seclusion continually incarcerates her.
The female Gothic in both Jane Eyre and Carmilla embodies the use of fear as mode, a physical response to terror, and the isolated experience of the female individual. Though achieved through different methods, both novels use a stark sense of isolation as a means for creating incarceration and developing a sense of individual experience in their female gender roles. However, Jane’s finds a way to empower herself, adhere to her values, and create her own independence against all environmental odds. Laura’s isolation, on the other hand, merely adds suspense to the fearful aspects of the story and serves darkly to hide information. However, despite their different tones and purposes, the isolated settings, regardless of their macabre physical nature, shed light aesthetically on the female experience and arguably create power for the female reader.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. New York: Norton, 2001.
LeFanu, J. Sheridan. In A Glass Darkly. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Matthews, Elizabeth. “Populism, Gender, and Sympathy in the Romantic Novel, by James P. Carson.” ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830 (2012).
Centuries of Paradox
Images of the vampire over time show a cohesive relationship with the genre of gothic literature because of its complex and contradictory nature. Gothic literature’s rise as the artistic interaction between the scientific and the supernatural played with an enticing paradox that extended beyond just themes and motifs. It manifested into the characters themselves. Dating back to the 1700’s, the introduction of a paradoxical character derived from Lord Byron’s many works appears in many vampiric characters as the Byronic hero. Also an aspect of gothic literature, monstrosity served and is serving an important purpose in our culture. Whatever aspects of humanity and society are manifested into monstrosity reveal the deepest fears of said society. When it comes to vampirism, both violence and sexual liberation inform the reader a great deal pertaining to the current state of cultural principles. A comparison of modern vampire imagery and older images in literary texts suggests that our culture is simply enticed by paradox and can empathize with the complexity of vampiric figures. The difference in the components of the paradoxes reveals the ways in which our culture’s values have changed in their origins while a theme of contradiction has stayed present.
As established, gothic literature itself is founded in the paradox of science and the supernatural. The unwavering popularity for the complicated and multifaceted presence of the Byronic hero in our culture over time also supports the claim that we are engaged by paradox. The Byronic hero loathes the reality that he is a monster. He is both creative and destructive, human and monster, sensitive and angsty, and both us and the other. Most of Byron’s poems included versions of the Byronic hero and Byron’s sentiments also support the popularity of the paradoxical existential lens also present in gothic literature. In his poem “Manfred”, Byron writes: “Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most / must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth” (Byron 11-12). Byron’s awareness in general was something burdening his thoughts, and while knowledge was valued and sought after, the truth was something “fatal” and had to be mourned. One typical example of a vampirical Byronic hero is Varney the Vampire who is tortured by his own monstrosity. Although Varney was present in the 1840’s, his archetype can be seen manifested in many of today’s characters which supports our culture’s longstanding fascination with duality and paradoxes. In the Twilight series, the main character Edward Cullen faces a strikingly similar torture to Varney and even Lord Byron. His awareness of his current state weighs on him, and even though he is painfully aware of his monstrosity, he brutes on in a relatively existential way. He knows he should stay away from his love interest but cannot bring himself to do it because he is a pinnacle of the overlap of humanity and monstrosity. Even centuries later, this tragically yet fascinatingly torn character grabs the attention of our society while also evoking our empathy more and more.
An interest in this paradox tells us about our culture’s relationships with individuality and the other. Since the Byronic hero is a form of both pure expression of individuality while also personifying our culture’s fear of the other, its popularity suggests that society and individuals struggle to successfully experience and define ourselves. Because of the natural and often conflicting duality most people experience, becoming indistinguishable from the other is a reason our culture may embrace monstrosity so much. It expertly lends itself to appeal to our individuality. Another more modern and ambiguous version of the vampire appears in the television series Dexter. Dexter Morgan is extremely aware of his monstrosity yet chooses to express it by killing other killers. This raises an enticing ethical dilemma for viewers which supports that the complexity of monstrosity engages our culture. In the very first episode, he says: “Blood. Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge, other times it helps me control the chaos.” Blood is undoubtedly one of the greatest symbols of the vampire in literature and text which is why Dexter can be considered not only the archetype of the Byronic hero but a form of a modern vampire as well. The popularity of both the show Dexter and the series Twilight informs us that our culture can identify with monstrosity while also justifying it through empathy. Dexter battles with his monstrosity, need to kill, and fascination with blood while remaining a controversial figure in the minds of the public since his horrible actions may be resulting in a net positive. One of the reasons society is so enticed by this paradox is because individuals identify monstrosity in themselves while also using characters such as Dexter and Edward as vehicles to accept monstrous parts of themselves.
While the presence of the paradox is apparent through gothic literature and vampiric figures, the aspects that comprise these paradoxes go beyond just violence and monstrosity. The shifts in the paradoxical components are parallel in structure to the shifts in our culture’s fears and expectations. The way vampire images have always been portrayed is shown through the lens of that author’s and/or that society’s cultural standards. For example, Bram Stoker’s personification of the female vampire sends very clear messages about how women fit into society in line with the rigid structure and values they were meant to adhere to. The character Lucy in Dracula by Bram Stoker expresses intellect and sexuality in a way that was clearly threatening for the time since she is effectively punished in the text. Stoker then goes on to imply that since Lucy may have had sexual experiences with multiple men, her punishment for this sexual liberation is death. This text is clearly written by someone who believes in and is enforcing the ideals of a monogamous and patriarchal society. At the time, sin was easily classified as a simple disobedience against religious values: purity is godlike and sexuality is sinful. As the value for religion in our culture has declined since Stoker wrote Dracula, the source from where our culture derives and follows its values has altered following the decline of religion causing society to find ways to reinforce and dictate those values itself. Vampire literature has always contained an element of threatening sexuality, especially when it comes to the female monster. Lillith was extremely sexually liberated and described as being the mother of all monsters while Carmilla was an alluring vampire that drained and seduced those around her. Whether in the bible, in Stoker’s works, or even Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, all threats of women’s sexuality were written at a time or through a lens of a culture with significant religious values. In the show The Vampire Diaries, Nina Dobrev’s character is portrayed as seductive and vampiric with little emphasis on religion or sin. The show is strikingly more graphic and violent than LeFanu’s Carmilla which suggests that while cultural fears used to be intertwined with violating religious standards of purity, our culture now fears violence much more but is enticed by the juxtaposition of sexuality and brutality. Violence is a form of entertainment today because it plays with the promiscuity that sin did during the times of earlier vampiric works.
Paradox is enticing because of more than just its complexity. It allows us to identify with both society and the other at the same time and also is an immersive view into the fears and standards of a culture at a given time, especially with monstrosity and gothic literature. As a value such as religion is losing its impact and power in modern day America, the rise of violence grows as a form of radical entertainment. Gothic literature and vampiric images have consistently played with more than just the other. This genre pushes individuality and challenges the norm in ways that reflect society’s fears, however, as our culture becomes more and more desensitized to violence, this raises the question: what aspects of society’s fears and cultural expectations will the genre challenge next?