Of the vampire tales to date, Bram Stoker's Dracula has unquestionably become the most popular and the most critically examined.

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Of the vampire tales to date, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has unquestionably become the most popular and the most critically examined. It constitutes, however, the culmination of a series of nineteenth-century vampire tales that have been overshadowed by Stoker’s 1897 novel.  To be sure, many of the earlier tales provide little more than a collective history of the vampire lore Stoker incorporated in Dracula, but Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s little known Carmilla (1872) is the original tale to which Stoker’s Dracula served as a response. In Carmilla Le Fanu chronicles the development of a vampiric relationship between two women, in which it becomes increasingly clear that the lesbian relationship between Carmilla and Laura defies the traditional structures of kinship by which men regulate the exchange of women to promote male bonding.

On the contrary, Le Fanu allows Laura and Carmilla to usurp male authority and to bestow themselves on whom they please, completely excluding male participation in the exchange of women, as discussed by Claude Levi-Strauss and Gayle Rubin. Stoker later responded to Le Fanu’s narrative of female empowerment by reinstating male control in the exchange of women. In effect, Dracula seeks to repossess the female body for the purposes of male pleasure and exchange, and to correct the reckless unleashing of female desire in Le Fanu’s Carmilla. In Victorian days when women hardly even recognized the existence of sex, female sensuality was portrayed as being unhealthy. No good woman had anything to do with sex; therefore a sexual woman must have been a bad one, a predator. In this repressive pre-Freudian atmosphere, sex and death became synonymous.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century the central figure in vampire tales was a male whose relationships were used to depict various conflicts in contemporary society. James Twitchell observes in The Living Dead: a Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature that nineteenth-century writers mainly used the vampire “to express various human relationships, relationships that the artist himself had with family, with friends, with lovers, and even with art itself”. Other critics note that the vampire, a dead body that drinks blood and preys on innocent victims to sustain its own life, acts as a complex metaphor: it could represent the economic dependence of women; the parasitic relationship between the aristocracy and the oppressed middle and lower classes; unrepressed female sexuality; eugenic contamination; enervating parent/child relationships; and, of course, sexual relationships deemed subversive or perverse in hegemonic discourse. 

Perhaps most interesting is Nina Auerbach’s contention that the demonized (or vampirized) woman in nineteenth-century literature and art really depicts a “hero who was strong enough to bear the hopes and fears of a century’s worship”.  Auerbach’s comment may be true in some instances, but by and large the majority of women in vampire tales, at least in the early and mid-nineteenth century, were far too marginalized and victimized to be seen as heroic; like the male protagonists of those tales, who brutalized them, women vampires were generally perceived as loathsome and diseased.

Dracula is Stoker’s response to Le Fanu’s portrayal of female empowerment. If Le Fanu frees his female characters from subject positions in the male kinship system, Stoker decidedly returns his to exchange status and reinstates them in that system. Stoker’s female characters are the “supreme gifts” whose exchange finally binds Dracula’s “little band of men” together. In Dracula Stoker creates what Fredric Jameson would call a “laboratory space” to carry out “experiments” on female characters, ultimately achieving an “imaginary vengeance” against the rising power of women, particularly against women who tried to assert control over their own sexuality. It is usually assumed that Stoker sought vengeance against women in Dracula because of his hostility toward prostitutes who had infected him with tertiary syphilis. But the root of Stoker’s struggle with women’s sexuality can be traced to his relationship with his wife.

In 1878 he married Florence Balcombe, who one year later gave birth to their son, Noel. Stoker’s granddaughter believed that Florence “refused to have sex with Bram” after Noel’s birth, which has led to the perception of her as a “cold,” “aloof” woman who was “very anti-sex”. Whether or not she was sexually frigid is debatable. What is clear, though, is that her behaviour toward her husband was unconventional -- that sexually she did not fulfil her part of the marriage contract. In creating Dracula, then, Stoker was probably less concerned with achieving vengeance against a particular group of women who had infected him than he was with asserting control over a whole range of women, who, like his wife -- indeed, like women throughout Victorian England who had welcomed the ‘New Woman’ movement -- had violated conventional expectations about women’s sexuality. Rather than embrace sexually self-determining women such as Laura and Carmilla, Stoker placed the women of Dracula firmly under male control and subjected them to severe punishments for any sexual transgression.

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Stoker’s overriding concern in Dracula is the threat of rampant female sexual desire.  Carol Senf rightly points out that this ancient, aristocratic vampire who preys on the wives and fiancées of England’s working class reveals, among other things, the “power that negative social values from the past often have over the present”. As Troy Boone further concludes, the novel suggests that “a new understanding of sexuality and decay is necessary for any attempt to attain social order and growth,” and that for all its apparent “`reification’ of dominant political beliefs, [Stoker’s text] exposes the dangers of failing to challenge their authority”. Both Senf ...

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