Until the 19th century, a female vampire character remained a minor theme in literature and art. In books, such heroes as vampires gave a fictional launch for the suppressed Victorian community, and the female expression of the vampiric type was put forward at great social changes regarding women. A gothic Irish novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was inspired by earlier tales of a female monster hunting for young women. Therefore, he decided to create a completely new character in the vampire genre by writing his book Carmilla. The novella was a response to the 19th-century popular imagination. It reflected the great concerns and issues about women`s roles in Victorian society. Thus, Carmilla is a novel that breaks a traditional image of females in the Victorian community. It explores the feminine sexuality that was expressed through vampirism allegories. Moreover, the book describes a lesbian relationship that was a taboo for that time and, through the examination of the female roles in the 19th century, sends feminist messages about the needs of changing an attitude toward women.
At first glance, the novel is tightly constructed. It provides a cathartic and clean conclusion. However, beneath the surface, this story is full of feminine sexual awakening, tension, and desire. The novel explores the unacceptable feminine sexuality for society. It also manifests passion expressed through Carmilla`s feelings to Laura, “How jealous I am you cannot know. You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me, and still come with me, and hating me through death and after” (Le Fanu 44). Carmilla’s character is exploring female sexuality. Moreover, this heroine “represents the dangerous threat of female sexuality with regard to patriarchal supremacy” (Mitchell 3).
The whole story is described from Laura`s perspective. Readers have to trust her interpretation. In her childhood, Laura experienced an incident that had an effect on her. Therefore, it foreshadows Carmilla`s arrival. When she was six, in the middle of the night, she saw a woman in her room. The female caressed Laura and lied down on the bed next to her. Laura was awakened suddenly with the sensation of two needles in her chest. If to interpret Carmilla as a direct vampire tale, then it is possible to say the following fact. Laura was visited by the vampire that desired to possess her. However, if to consider the relationship between these women, then it is easy to conclude that Carmilla`s aim was Laura’s sexual desire. Thus, such a visit had a more sexual meaning. Moreover, Carmilla exposed Laura not only to sexual desire. She also taught her that it could appear independent of a generative purpose. After that event, a pale doctor gave Laura the medicine she hated. Through such experience, she learned that the sexual pleasure and desire had to be feared. This ambivalence pervades the rest of the story. After that, young and lonely Laura lives in a basement with her father and has an isolated life. They encounter a carriage with a female. They learn that the woman has some family issues. Her daughter Carmilla is recovering from the shock and illness while staying with Laura. As the story continues, Laura`s infatuation with Carmilla only grows. She is fascinated with her gestures and appearance. In turn, Carmilla`s kisses and embraces increase. Initially, Laura tries to resist. However, when Carmilla touches her, she feels like she cannot resist her. Due to the sexual deficit and isolation Laura fears and rejects Carmilla`s affection. It happens just as she has feared the sexual desire from her in childhood.
Carmilla is supported by the gothic ending of the story as a metaphor for female sexuality. Through the vampirism, Le Fanu is trying to explore the woman’s sexuality. However, it is too shocking for that time. To do it openly, without genre masking, is impossible. Hence, all desires are described as vampiric. After all, everyone realizes that it is Carmilla`s fault related to the deaths of other young women and Laura`s trouble with health. She is killed with a stake in her heart, decapitation, and burning. Carmilla was murdered by four men. The main point is that female sexuality is so powerful that its force requires few males to deal with it. After eight years, Laura is in Italy. Her father believes that she has to forget those events. However, female sexuality experienced by Laura cannot disappear. Thus, this thing can be only a vampiric. It never dies even with the death of the vampire. The desire to feel pleasure still haunts Laura affected to Carmilla.
To this hour the image of Carmilla returns to my memory with ambiguous alternations – sometimes playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie, I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door. (Le Fanu 96)
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Hence, this novel is exploring feminine sexuality through vampirism. The story shows that this affection has great power. This sexuality was not accepted by the 19th century`s society. Thus, such a female vampire as Carmilla and her earlier influence reflect the changing concerns and ideas about Victorian sexuality and homosexual relations. Moreover, lesbian relations between the main characters were unacceptable for the community of that century. Despite such harsh conditions, Le Fanu managed to describe something unique for Victorian society.
In the Victorian community, the dominant ideology was related to lesbianism being defined as only unnatural sexuality form. Le Fanu decided not to write the story about lesbians in Victorian England, but to create a female vampire solely worshipping other women. With the help of this vampire`s genre, the banned sexuality was triggered to live due to the fact that the deviant behavior of vampires lived in a fictional realm. It was making it much more endurable than homosexuality in the surrounding world. Le Fanu in Carmilla presented more than a vampire tale and bloody adventures. However, it developed a physical and emotional relationship between the vampire and her victim, while also reflecting the Victorian acceptance of female sexuality by the community. Therefore, the lesbian attraction to vampirism was limited.
The novel`s preoccupation with the female identity`s maintenance through female sexuality control expresses general social attitudes toward women of that time. Within the text, such gender power struggles show how women`s role in Victorian society changes. Therefore, a female ability challenges the career, education, and sexual relations within the conventional gender roles. From a psychoanalytical perspective, femininity can be defined as the monstrous feminine which means “feminine excess [that] exorcises fears regarding female sexuality and women’s ability to procreate” (Gamble 253). Some believe that femininity excludes all monstrous and aggressive behavior forms. This suggestion means that women can exist only passively as victims. Hence, Carmilla has the ability to show a female from the opposite side, as a sexual and dangerous image. Therefore, it is a direct challenge to the traditional acceptance of any woman as a pure, asexual, and passive creature. The monstrous femininity is expressed by the vampire through her image of beautiful female hunting only for young girls and being obsessed with them. Her specific interest in other women strongly suggests her homoerotic tendencies.
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In terms of sexuality, lesbianism arises in many discussions. Some persons believe that lesbianism is the third gender, which separates the female and male opposing constructions. Hence, Monique Wittig summarizes that “lesbian is neither a woman nor a man as she exists beyond the categories of sex” (Butler 113). This position only leads to the situation, when female and male opposite constructions are submitted to social paradigms. The similar discussions provide social constructions, which can be argued at all foundations of gender definitions. They put an emphasis on the crucial needs to continue their re-examination. In the same way, it can be seen in Carmilla, when the vampire challenges the Victorian society`s attitude toward same-sex relationships through her argument that she does not have the unnatural sexuality. On the contrary, she states that regardless of her sexual orientation her sexuality is natural. She is a part of nature, “This disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature – don’t they? All things in heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so” (Le Fanu 36).
This passionate speech declines all opinions that homosexuality is an unnatural state of a person. Even more, it only supports the fact that the creations of nature rule their life and ability to produce a tight connection with all living things. It proves the point that all humans are the same from the fundamental perspective, despite the social definition or sexual categorization of preferences. Overall, Carmilla was not the first novel concentrated on a lesbian vampire as a way to break through the traditional vampiric genre conventions. Therefore, this story is focused on the relationship among women, where vampirism is used in a general framework to smooth the arguable homosexual aspect in Victorian society. However, not only lesbianism became a great challenge for those people, but also a feminist notion expressed in the novel.
Carmilla`s image is breaking the limitations not only of the traditional literature but also of ordinary thinking in society. Signorotti states, “Carmilla, is the vampire tale that most readily defies the established patriarchal system of kinship… and that most provokingly challenges nineteenth-century notions of the ‘contamination of lesbianism’ and the female ‘psychic sponge’” (610). The vampire genre became popular in the 19th century when for the Victorian community was the time of demanding greater rights for women, including social, economic, or political authorities. Therefore, in the literature, there were the works introduced focusing on the women`s rejection of the male-dominated society. The correlation between vampires and females was a frequently used theme in books. Meanwhile, feministic ideas were gaining greater attention. Carmilla can be seen as the story that views the female vampiric origination, as derived from male fears. It seems like a new form of dangerous and powerful women. Carmilla appeared as a new vampire and female visualization. It is a destructive and dangerous image though being beautiful. For instance, in the novel, the appearance of Carmilla is described as stunning. The maids are explaining: “She is I almost think the prettiest creature I ever saw. She is absolutely beautiful…and such a sweet voice” (Le Fanu 21). Despite many strange circumstances and unusual behavior of the main heroine, her beauty gained her unquestionable acceptance and entrance in the victim`s house. In the beginning, Carmilla starts showing a great affection toward Laura. However, even with such an attitude, Laura is not afraid because of the vampire’s beauty. Hence, Carmilla is described as a beautiful though extremely dangerous and powerful creature.
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The vampire’s character is viewed as feminine and a maternal threat to patriarchy. She wants to remove Laura from the patriarchic restrictions of that system. Carmilla`s position reinforces the male attempt to make nature being subjected to masculine power. However, the vampire has the power not only as a strong creature but also as a female. Thus, her predatory nature and power undercut the men`s ability to dominate the world. Carmilla`s vampirism sends a feminist message. She decides to choose women, not men. Her choice is putting an emphasis on the female role in the story. The reason is that men are excluded from her affection. Laura says, “If my father’s room had been at that side of the house, we would have called him up at once to our aid. But alas! He was quite out of hearing” (Le Fanu 54). This quote shows how feminism is promoted in the novel. The main point is that the inconvenient location of the father`s room removes him from the household. It shows that men cannot be essential in helping to solve the situation. In a real patriarchal society, a man could not be removed so far from a woman. Hence, this detail is lessening her father`s role in the novel.
In this story, the male role is significant. In the book, men are first to realize that the vampire is a reason of spreading chaos in their community. When the doctor examines Laura, he understands that the cause of her symptoms is a vampire. He tells about the conclusion only to her father. Together they decide not to tell Laura about the reason for her sickness. Therefore, they hold power over the woman by keeping this secret. It is an authority that the females in the household are not able to have. Moreover, the doctor gives a strict order not to leave Laura alone. Such an attitude is showing a stereotypical view of women. It means that they are too fragile to take care of themselves alone. Another character that also discovers the truth about the vampire is General. This hero tells Laura the truth. Without his help, she would never realize that Carmilla was a vampire. The male presence becomes even more critical because they save Laura from Carmilla. Overall, in the novel, it is possible to see the patriarchal reality women have to leave with. However, at the same time, it is possible to see some feministic messages that rely on the first equality ideas that appeared on the 19th. The main message is sent via the image of Carmilla as a highly beautiful and powerful feminine creation.
It should be noticed that Le Fanu`s novel was a serious breakpoint in Victorian society. It was important to show the feminine sexuality, lesbianism, and feminism themes in the story. Carmilla is one of the first literary depictions of the female vampire and as well the lesbian creature. Due to the analysis of this novella, it is possible to realize how some ideas depicted correspond to the issues in Victorian society toward women. Moreover, homoeroticism in Carmilla is still confined to the vampirism outlets. The novel can be considered as one of the first examples of the relationships between the characters breaking not only the traditional genre of such literature about vampires but as well the ordinary image of a female of that time. The lesbian relationships exploring female sexuality helps to make the the toe book more challenging.