Timeless tales such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Sandman are defining works for the Gothic genre. Their compelling narratives, horrifying monsters, and iconic tropes have surpassed the barrier of time and have permeated into modern culture. One trope that the stories commonly share is the simplistic and unfortunate view of women in their writings. Females in Gothic stories are deduced to either being unabashed harlots that prey on men or sweet and innocent girls in need of protection.
The aforementioned Dracula is a nearly perfect culprit in this accusation. The story has a sufficient amount of female characters to analyze how the sex is represented. Women are seen only in two states; healthy and therefore innocent and pure, or inflicted with vampirism and brimming with sensuality. Readers are first presented with the latter in the Count’s castle. Protagonist in the first few chapters, Johnathan Harker, is faced with many unnerving sights and suspicions once he becomes situated in the castle. While there, he encounters three vampire women. They are described as “thrilling and repulsive” (Stoker 69) as well as voluptuous. On the other end, Mina and Lucy are constantly under watch of the men as if they would break if they are not cared for at every moment. Other readings only support the claim further. The Sandman arguably presents Olympia to be a perfect partner for the protagonist, Nathanael, evident by the theme of his immaturity and her similarities to a child’s toy. The women in The Castle of Otranto are also allowed little depth and serve instead as tools for the men to achieve a higher status. Frankenstein similarly restricts women to be a chance of redemption for Victor and the Monster. Overall, a more complex theme can be derived from these examples.
The innocence of women in gothic stories may work as a device to build tension for male readers. Consider that all the mentioned women are awaiting marriage to one of the male characters in their stories. At one point or another, the lives of the women are either threatened or taken altogether. These moments are some of the most suspenseful and terrifying parts of the stories, mostly when viewed in the male’s perspective. The reason for this is because the women exist in the narratives to give the male protagonist something to lose. They are the first thing they fear to lose other than their own lives, and the story relies on the likely male reader’s own connection to a woman to successfully frighten the reader on the prospect in their own life. In other words, women are somewhat materialized in the tales, evident by most of the stories lacking female perspective. An explanation for their innocence is that it is easier to love and fear for a woman’s life when they do not deserve to die. This gives their death no justification, making it that much more horrific.
As for the sexualized women in the novels, they threaten the protagonist with the thought of betraying the more ideal woman back home. Examples include the vampire women in Dracula and Olympia in The Sandman. Both have the strange power to tempt the men into forgetting their loyalty to their significant other. The only exception may be Lucy once turned undead, as she attempts to seduce Arthur, who was already her lover. However, she still displays the ability to allure and ensnare the men like the vampire women before her. In a way, they are shown to be just as monstrous as Dracula or the Sandman, as they pose this threat. Additionally, the authors clearly endeavor to show their uncanniness compared to the other women, further cementing the claim.
As clearly demonstrated already, Dracula follows this pattern of the two stereotypes of women very closely, and has even more examples of it. A final point that can be made from the encounter with the three vampire women in the beginning is that Johnathan was nonetheless enthralled by the monsters. He felt the strong desire for one of them to kiss him, despite being loyal to Mina. They very nearly succeeded if not for Dracula. An example of when a vampire woman did succeed is later when the team meets the undead Lucy. At this moment in the story it is most clear that women are represented by the two categories. The point is made that Lucy’s “sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness” (Stoker 249). Her charming power affects Arthur, who is described as entranced. Her former innocent self had died, and in its place was the harlot monster that the reader is told to fear. Lastly, one of the most obvious confirmation of a woman’s life as a device for suspense in the story comes after Mina is attacked by the Count. Seeing that the women are nearly worshipped by the men in the story, her turning into a vampire would be worse than their individual deaths. This marks a sense of urgency for the men, who now must defeat the Count before they lose her too.
The two stereotypes are outright confirmed by Dracula. I feel, however, that Stoker wanted to make this pattern present for a reason. One theme that is also explored in Dracula is the emergence of the “New Woman” (Stoker 123). It is a term that describes a more modernized woman who is more independent and certainly more than the two stereotypes. The story may be showing a new extreme of the New Woman. The presence of the vampire women may show what it is like for a woman to embrace this new way of life. Considering the Count himself represents a fear of foreigners, one can argue that the vampire women represent a fear of the effects of different cultures impacting the norm, specifically the vampire culture. This connects to another common theme in the story; sexual impurity. This is mostly seen through the act of blood transfusion, which is implied to be a metaphorical sexual act of sorts. Van Helsing makes this observation, stating that the transferring of blood between many of the men makes Lucy a “polyandrist” (Stoker 213), another term for a polygamist. His logic is that all the men who shared blood with her had made a bond with her similar to a marriage. He even considers himself a bigamist, one who marries another while currently married to his deceased wife, because of his participation in a blood transfusion with Lucy.
Overall, the point being made is that the transferring of blood is almost like having intercourse with someone. Considering vampires feed by sucking the blood out of people, this means they are very much sexually impure, as they are constantly looking for more victims. From this, one can apply this knowledge to the vampire women who represent women who have grown independent and have strayed from the norm. The fear Stoker wants to convey by playing with the ideas of innocence and sexual experience is that a “New Woman” can devolve into this improbable extreme that lusts and feeds on as many men as possible. Therefore, the ideal woman, as embodied by the non-undead women in the novel, are innocent and must be protected. Obviously, the fear is blown out of proportion like Dracula as a depiction of foreigners. Either representation is a problem for a progressive world, as it warns against the integration of foreigners and the growing independence and equality of women.
It also prevents the gothic genre from evolving and exploring new ideas. Had the genre not steered away from the two extreme portrayals of women, the development into the horror genre would not be the same. It is extremely common for modern horror works to contain a female lead. Whether or not all works reject the two stereotypes is debatable, but the distinction between the treatment of women in the two genres is very clear. For example, The Shining would not have had the same Wendy Torrance if the novel was written back in the gothic era. The Wendy of this era blurs the lines of innocence and sexual impurity, as her perspective shows she is capable of being independent and not turning into a monster. This new treatment of women in the genre surpasses books as well. Horror movies such as The Ring and Alien have female characters that break away from the stereotypes, allowing them to have roles similar to that of male characters in old gothic stories, and no longer merely devices for fear.
The gothic genre ultimately is guilty of inaccurately presenting women as overwhelmingly innocent or uncontrollably lustful. Dracula has evidence of both, and it may stem from a fear of women becoming more than objects. Regardless, horror stories now have found other ways of creating suspense, and is no longer at the expense of primarily one group of people.
- “Bigamy – Dictionary Definition.” Vocabulary.com, www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/bigamy.
- Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by Glennis Byron, Broadview, 1998.