The following post will accompany a special Gothic reading group session to be held on Thursday 2 March at the University of Sheffield, and led by Sophie Barber. If you would like to join us to discuss Dracula, Victorians, and sexuality, email Sheffield Gothic for more details, and remember – we don’t bite…much!
It seems to be a common misconception that the Victorians did not discuss sex; when we consider our Victorian predecessors, we may be inclined to think of them as somewhat uptight and frigid. However, if we take a look at some of the literature of the period, especially that which concerns vampires, we start to see a society far more obsessed with sex than they ostensibly let on. As Nina Auberach explains in her seminal work Our Vampires, Ourselves every generation creates the vampire it needs as a form of catharsis.[i] For the Victorians, this vampire functioned as way to talk about sex without fear of public censor.
|Bela Lugosi as Dracula|
I think the best example of such coded discussions of sex can be found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Whether Stoker constructed his novel with sexuality as his primary focus is debatable; but the fate of those who exemplify non-normative sexual behaviour - such as multiple partners or female sexual agency - is suitably severe that even a Victorian readership aware of such imagery would be pleased by the appropriate punishments dished out to the ‘morally degenerate’ characters. Lucy must be purified after she has been infected by vampirism, because she has reclaimed her ownsexual agency, which goes against the Victorian expectation that males bear sexual responsibility. She is described as having turned to ‘voluptuous wantonness’ and attempts to entice her husband to the grave with her. Of course, her husband and his band of helpers must now reclaim their sexual responsibility and proceed to stake her, returning her back to a state of sweetness and purity – even if she is dead. The perversion of vampirism is now undone.
Lucy’s staking is perhaps one of the most sexually loaded sequences in the novel: it is a perverse reimagining of the wedding night. Clive Leatherdale notes that the stake shares ‘psychological connotations as a phallic symbol’ because it sadistically imitates the bodily penetration of a penis.[ii] Arthur drives ‘deeper and deeper the mercy baring stake’ as his undead bride’s body shakes and twists in ‘wild contortions’. This destruction of the vampire is accompanied by a quasi-orgasmic state, echoing a perhaps painful loss of virginity that Lucy never achieved in her human life. Imagery of blood ‘welling and spurting’ around her heart as she is penetrated with the stake represents the bloody deflowering of a bride, and is perhaps one of the most explicitly sexual references in the text.
|Lucy moments before she is staked|
Dracula himself is loaded with potent sexuality, and encounters with the undead have a clear sexual subtext by Stoker’s conflation of vampire bites and ‘kisses’. When the Count attacks Mina she is in bed, and if we read such a passage in light of the symbolic value of blood as semen, the attack becomes explicitly about fellatio. Mina is described ‘kneeling over the edge of the bed’ as blood begins to ‘spurt out’. And of course, blood does not spurt. Mina becomes obsessed at an oral level, rubbing her lips as if to ‘cleanse them from pollution’ after she swallows an unknown substance. This, coupled with Stoker’s analogy of a child forcing a kitten to drink milk, makes it easy to see beneath the vampire subterfuge.
Because vampires primarily operate at night, and the Count puts his victims into a trancelike state, it is easy to see the novel as an examination of sexual self-repression. Moral and sexual transgressions are relegated to the sphere of darkness and so associated with dark forces. It is also interesting to note that even the sexual subtext seems to adhere to Victorian standards of acceptability – all sex imagery is explicitly heterosexual. Although the vampire may offer a way for authors and readers to covertly explore certain sexual fantasies it is important to remember that these, for Stoker’s Victorian audience at least, didn’t ever stray from traditional conceptions of sex.
Sophie Barber is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield, with an interest in the Gothic, the Victorians, and Vampires. When not researching Victorian Vampires, Sophie performs her own Gothic Transformations.