In the classic gothic horror novel, Dracula, the author, Bram Stalker, employs fluid gender roles to depict excessive and repressed sexuality, thus becoming subject to various interpretations. The gender roles are explored through character development, both male and female. During the Victorian era when the novel was written, the definitions of gender were being revisited and structured anew. On the one hand, conservatives were fighting to retain the traditional gender roles while modernism was questioning such roles, on the other hand. For instance, women are represented as providentially chaste or highly sexual, which amounts to a direct critique of the female gender roles at the time, specifically on matters of sexuality. This paper discusses the importance of sexuality and gender in Dracula by showing that the author uses the protagonists to show the breakdown of the traditional gender expectations and definitions as part of modernism.
The Disintegration of Gender Roles and Sexuality in Dracula
During the Victorian era, before 1880, gender roles were clearly defined and the different genders knew what was expected of them. For instance, at the time, women were expected to remain within exact boundaries performing certain duties as dictated by culture and society. Bohme argues that women lived as virgins and the only other option was to get married and play the role of mothers (3). However, marriage denied women all the rights to own property and make decisions. In terms of sexuality, Bohme notes that Victorian sexual morality was “generally represented as bourgeois, oppressively heterosexual, and patriarchal” (3), thus any form of deviation from these standards would be terrifying to society. However, the Victorian feminism of the 1880s introduced new property and marriage laws allowing wives to own and inherit land and wealth. Similarly, women wanted sexual freedom to break away from the many rules that had been put in place to repress their sexual desires. By the time Stalker wrote Dracula in 1897, society was quickly changing under Victorian feminism, and one of the themes in the book is to address these changes.
Women were not allowed to express their sexual desires, but in Dracula, the moment they turn into vampires they break these rules and become highly sexualized. The three weird sisters embody the essence of the “New Woman” who is free to be extremely voluptuous and overtly sexual by openly expressing their desires. For instance, one of the girls offers herself to Jonathan Hacker in a repulsive yet thrilling manner. He recounts, “The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness…and as she arched her neck she licked her lips like an animal” (Stalker 36). This behavior was unheard of among women at the time, but the author uses vampires to discuss the issue of sexual repression for women and the incessant need to break away from such baseless traditions. The three sisters are at the liberty to seduce Jonathan to the extent of promising him an unforgettable sexual experience – something he would live to remember. Conservatives of the time had not adapted to the new normal as introduced by Victorian feminism, and thus authors, such as Stalker, had to use their literary skills to indicate that the times were changing with gender roles and sexuality being redefined.
Similarly, Lucy, a nineteen-year-old girl, turns into a vampire, and immediately her sexuality is transformed. She expresses her sexual desires openly without the fear of reprimand under the societal norms and tenets. At one point she wonders, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as wanting her, and save all this trouble?” (Stalker 56). However, she quickly notes that such thoughts and ideas are “heresy”, and thus she is not supposed to say or express them in any way. Nevertheless, regardless of the societal limitations and expectations, Lucy goes ahead and confesses her love to Mr. Morris even before he can indicate that he loves her. This understanding introduces the aspect of reversed gender roles. During the Victorian age, women approaching men and confessing their love would be considered taboo. However, Stalker was on a mission to highlight how gender roles and sexual matters were being reshaped to fit into the quickly changing world, specifically with the rise of feminist movements in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
However, even with the unrelenting quest by women to express their sexuality and assert their position in society, Stalker is not blind to the resistance of conservative men who will do anything to assert and preserve their patriarchal beliefs. Immediately after Lucy becomes a vampire, thus effectively gaining the right to express her sexual desires, her fiancé, Arthur, kills her as the final act of male dominance over women. Van Helsing is heard instructing Arthur on how to drive a stake through Lucy’s heart. He says, “Take this stake in your left hand, ready to place the point over the heart, and the hammer in your right. Then when we begin our prayer for the dead… strike in God’s name…” (Stalker 201). Interestingly, men think that it is their God-given right to remain dominant over women, which explains why Arthur is killing Lucy in God’s name, according to Van Helsing’s instructions. In Arthur’s mind, he is trying to restore Lucy’s purity by killing her sexually liberated persona. In this case, the author seeks to highlight the long journey ahead for women as they endeavor to exemplify their newly acquired freedom. In other words, the author’s message is that it would not be easy for women to claim their place in a society that had deeply held beliefs shaped by years of patriarchal thinking.
Men also seem to break sexual expectations by exposing female-like attributes in the novel. First, the relationship between the three women vampires (weird sisters) and Dracula is not clearly defined in the story. Additionally, the sexuality of Dracula is questionable, and especially after he asserts that Jonathan belongs to him, it raises the question of homosexuality. Yu posits, “Dracula’s claim that he too can “love” has an obvious homoerotic connotation, complicating the conventional interpretation in terms of the Oedipus complex” (166). The admission of homoerotic feelings in this passage is a clear indication of the evolving sexuality in the Victorian era. Additionally, the Crew of Light – Morris, Arthur, Van Helsing, and Dr. Seward, portrays some female-like attributes in their associations. On the outside, these men are portrayed as brave and god-fearing males with values hinged on integrity – a model of a Victorian ideal male. However, their behavior is highly ambiguous, specifically when handling various circumstances in life.
For instance, they are seen sobbing on each other’s shoulders – a behavior predominantly associated with women. Similarly, men are not expected to be highly emotional and hysterical, but Van Helsing breaks all these rules after the death of Lucy. In the carriage with Dr. Seward, “he gave way to a regular fit of hysterics…He laughed till he cried, and I had to draw down the blinds lest any one should see us and misjudge…and laughed and cried together, just as a woman does” (Stalker 162). The extent to which such female-like behavior is unacceptable in society is captured by Dr. Seward’s admission that he had to draw down the blinds to prevent anyone from seeing Van Helsing in his hysterical moment. However, that act notwithstanding, the two men are acting like women and the author deliberately uses this example to show the changing definitions and societal definitions of sexuality, whether for males or females.
During the Victorian era, men and women were expected to live under certain sexual and gender codes. However, with the emergence of Victorian feminism in the 1880s, these roles started to change. Women were allowed to own property and with it came the need for sexual liberation. Therefore, through his characters, Stalker sought to address some of these themes by painting Lucy and the three sisters as sexually liberated females. On the other hand, men in the story have female-like attributes. Van Helsing is emotional and hysterical while Dracula is suspected to be homosexual. This paper has shown the importance of sexuality and gender in Dracula by insisting that the author used the story’s protagonists to underscore the theme of changing gender roles and sexuality towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Bohme, Christina. Gender in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’: The Sexual New Woman. Grin Verlag, 2012.
Stalker, Bram. Dracula. Grosset & Dunlap, 1897.
Yu, Eric Kwan-Wai. “Productive Fear: Labor, Sexuality, and Mimicry in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 48, no.2, 2006, pp. 145-170.