When a mysterious foreigner named Count Dracula sails to England from Transylvania,
Victorian life is flipped, and traditions become flipped along with their lives. Women are not acting like women, and men are not acting like men. The blame is traced back to the impact of Dracula. Dracula quickly becomes a threat to Victorian tradition and Victorian society. However, Dracula does not become a threat because of his ability to drain the town members of their blood or kill them–his biggest threat to Victorians is his threat to motherhood. Motherhood is something in most cultures that is sacred, but that began to change during the Victorian era in England with the peak of modernity and the “new woman”, and Dracula embodies that threat to motherhood. To display this alteration, Bram Stoker paints a homicidal male monster, the farthest thing from a nurturing mother, into a motherly figure. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stoker paints Count Dracula as a motherly figure for the readers through the maternalism of vampirism which serves to ultimately critique women and motherhood of the Victorian Era.
Motherhood in the Victorian Era was ideal. Women were raised to have children and raise them. It was also the biggest achievement for a woman to have children and create more life. However, it also became more of a duty than a natural and beautiful event. It started to become a duty to the state and ultimately a strenuous full-time job. Along with the pressure to have children, infant mortality rates soared. This led to women being blamed, and also men establishing rules for women to prevent death like breastfeeding. Women became resistant to rules, social obligations, and motherhood though. This led to the birth of the “New Woman”.
A “new woman” is a term that was established in the late nineteenth century, in 1894, three years before Dracula was published. “New woman” is a term used to describe women of the nineteenth century who were “less constrained by Victorian norms and domesticity than previous generations, the new woman had greater freedom to pursue public roles and even flaunt her “sex appeal… She challenged conventional gender roles and met with hostility from men and women who objected to women’s public presence and supposed decline in morality” (Ohio State History Department 1). Mina even makes a comment about “new women” when she says, “some of the ‘new women’ writers will someday start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself. And a nice job she will make of it too!” (Stoker 87). In the beginning of the text, Stoker has already established his views on female sexuality and modernity, and explicitly shows he is discussing “new women” in his novel. Just a few pages later, Mina is at Jonathan’s bedside taking care of him, before they are married, which shows she herself is a “new woman” like the other women in the text, which Stoker paints in the novel as something that complicates motherhood.
As a pushback to modernity and its relation to motherhood, Bram Stoker satirizes and creates women as monstrous mothers in Dracula and also in some of his other works. This common theme exemplifies that this is a deep-rooted personal connection to his ideas of modernity and motherhood. Critics relate his portrayal of women in his works to his own wife and mother. Senior Lecturer in English at Sheffield Hallam University, Lisa Hopkins, says, “Stoker’s wife, Florence (who had earlier received a proposal from Oscar Wilde), did indeed divorce sexuality and maternity: ‘Stoker’s granddaughter believes that Florence refused to have sexual relations with Bram after the birth of their child’, while his strong-willed, proto-feminist mother provided a dominant and lasting influence on both his life and his writing” (8). What this quote is saying, is that his negative portrayal of mothers in his novels is related to the experiences in his own life. His wife Florence began to neglect her womanly duties after the birth of their child by refusing to have sex with him. This led to Stoker separating sexuality and female obligation. And, he thinks with the “new woman”, they choose liberation and sexuality over being a wife and a mother. A woman is split between mother duties and wife duties, and Stoker’s wife neglected her duties as a wife. She became resistant like the women in the novel. There was also his mother, who was a modern woman and a feminist way before the term was coined, and that had an impact on his upbringing and his writing.
He often writes against the modernization of women in his writings as a reaction to his experience with being raised by one and being married to one. In his early novel, The Snake’s Pass, which was written seven years before Dracula, he paints women as insane and unfit mothers. The novel is about the King of Snake’s who preys on children. A mother who has a child fall victim, showing she does not properly watch her child and loses him, to the King becomes mad, and in the end, she is killed by the King’s powers and left with a mark from the King, like Dracula does with Mina and Lucy to assert male dominance and the service of women. Although it came out before the “new woman” became identified and defined, it can still be equated to his resistance to modernity and his resistance to the women he has been around. Dracula can be seen as his fear of the “new woman”, which further establishes his stance on female sexuality and modernity that has been braided into his writing for years.
Like in other Stoker works, motherhood in Dracula is monstrous, and it is embodied by a monster. Motherhood functions in the novel through Count Dracula’s vampirism. One of the dominant parallel traits is the area where he has his victims feed from on him– the breast. This symbolizes breast feeding, which is a common practice for mothers in the beginning of their baby’s life. In the intimate and forced scene between Dracula and Mina, the blood transfusion is described like a breastfeeding. As Dr. Seward and the other men watch the event take place, he describes it as Dracula “forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast… the attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink” (Stoker 247). This scene not only shows blood sucking, it resembles breast feeding. The word “milk” and “child” is even used to describe it. It’s like Dracula is a mother, and Mina is his child. It’s even lowering Mina’s level and intellectuality to that of a kitten’s, which is a baby cat. She is not a mother yet in the novel, so she is reduced to being treated and perceived as a young child.
Breastfeeding was the number one characteristic of motherhood in the Victorian era. Literary Theorist, Victorian Literature specialist, and author Jules David Law says, “Dracula’s plot of fluid exchanges is haunted by the cultural fantasies surrounding maternity, nursing, and milk” (148). During this period, infant mortality rates were high, so men encouraged women to breastfeed to nourish their babies. Yet, breastfeeding is done by an immortal male in the novel to nourish women with blood. Biting the neck was a common way to transfer blood between a vampire and human, but Stoker has the bites take place on the breast to further enhance the idea of maternity in Dracula’s vampirism. Because the real society of England was concerned about breastfeeding and transmission that may have occurred–including drugs and alcohol being passed into the baby through breastfeeding– Stoker enhances the threat that exists in motherhood by having a character that is viewed as “tainted” and monstrous breast feed “children”. This is saying “new women” are “tainted” because they are free of restriction, drink, smoke, and have sex which harms the baby in one of the most innocent and prominent ways of consumption during the era–breastfeeding.
Another trait of vampirism overflowing in maternal innuendo is Dracula’s ability to literally birth new life. His children are the vampires he creates, and the women in the novel are some of them. If women are not mothers in the novel, they are Dracula’s children. One can even say he gives birth to Lucy and Mina in the text, because he transforms them both. Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire, which is giving birth to her into another form or life. And with Mina, he breastfeeds her and nourishes her like it’s his child. Dracula is a monster but he is maternal when the actual women in the novel are unable to be. He even comments on his own maternity. Dracula tells Mina, “And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin. My bountiful wine-press for a while, and shall later on be my companion and helper” (Stoker 253). Although there are suggestions of marriage in this piece of dialogue from Dracula, he is also suggesting birth and creation. He says she will be his daughter like the other vampire women. He also hints at creation when he says “flesh of my flesh”, which is from the bible in the union of Adam and Eve. Although it is categorized with marriage, one can also include that Adam is saying Eve was created from his flesh and bones, so she is a part of him. In the story of Adam and Eve, God made a woman for Adam. This woman was made out of Adam’s own flesh and body, so she was like his creation that was made for him and from him. This is what Dracula is saying, he birthed Mina so she is his daughter, but she will also be more.
Dracula’s ability to give birth to Mina and others in the novel has been described by critic John Allen Stevenson as “radically different” than traditional reproduction. But, he says even though it appears different because they are vampires, it actually mirrors human sexuality and reproduction (142). What this means is that Dracula’s form of “motherhood” is closely linked to traditional motherhood, it is just a unique form of motherhood. It is a parallel to actual motherhood with the “new women”. It is something that is viewed as different, strange, and scary because the person reproducing is a threat to men, but it is traditional birth; it is just birth by an outsider which both Dracula and the “new women” are. And throughout the novel, he is constantly trying to reproduce by trying to hoard all of the available women, but the men stop him. They stop Dracula from “giving birth” because they fear this new type of motherhood Dracula exudes–a motherhood with monstrous, disastrous, tainted mothers. Like with the transfer of fluids like breastmilk, the men fear if these “new women” have children, those children will become like them and change the molding of the society that exists. But change is typically unaccepted in a community because the roles and rules are at stake, and the patriarchy is always afraid of losing their position of power. By saying vampire reproduction mirrors human reproduction is saying they are the same. One has just been hyperbolized into something monstrous and scary because it is not socially normal or acceptable. This is how the men view modern women having babies–as outsiders they do not want to create the next generations.
These dissected elements are constructed by Stoker this way on purpose, for they are working in the novel to critique women and their maternal abilities or transformations. Instead of women being nurturing in the novel, they are dangerous when around children. After Lucy becomes a vampire, her repressed desires start to burst through her body. Lucy and the vampire sisters all favor feeding on children, those society expects them to nurture and raise. When Lucy becomes a vampire, she becomes a monster who seduces and feeds on children. Seward even reduces her existence to a demonic or monstrous one when they come in contact with her after she has changed. Seward says, “I call the thing Lucy because it bore her shape… With a careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone” (Stoker 188). This scene depicts how men see women who embrace sexuality and modernity. Lucy is displayed and perceived as nothing but a malicious monster. Seward even calls her a “thing” and a “devil”. She is also called a dog. Seward reduces her to an animal, and refuses to address her as a woman, or even as a human. When children are in her possession, they are in danger because of her now animalistic nature. Which is how men imagine modern women to be as mothers–dangerous, carefree, and unclean.
The child against her breast, again, displays that symbol of motherhood, but Lucy rejects it by killing the child which makes her a monster. And, Stoker paints her as malicious as possible by using words like “careless”, like killing a child had no impact of her. It’s like the maternal instinct is dead or non-existent in her, and all she wants is to kill children. The men see her as a devil like Seward describes because she is rejecting motherhood and doing it in an extreme way.
Researcher Laura Linneman says, “It is traditionally believed that women have a natural maternal instinct and nurture children, but this generally accepted notion is deconstructed as these women not only reject motherhood, but are nourished through draining the blood from children. The women’s behaviors are so atypical that Harker must convince himself that these women are not women at all” (5). The female vampirism is so far from what is socially normal and acceptable for women that the men do not even look at Lucy as a woman anymore–she is dehumanized and viewed now as a “dog”, a “devil”, and a monster. Feeding on humans is a forced lifestyle for Lucy, but she chooses to feed on children which is what creates the fear of monstrous motherhood in women like Lucy. She doesn’t feed on other women, or men, she feeds on children. Because of this, it enhances the idea of women as monstrous mothers. They are demonic killers, they are not mothers.
Stoker is also saying is that modern women are so unfit to be mothers, even a male monster who murders is a better fit for a mother than they are. If modern women are not dangerous or absent, they are simply unfit to be mothers. Mina says, “I felt this big, sorrowing man’s head resting on me, as though it were that of the baby that someday may lie on my bosom, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child. I never thought at the time how strange it all was” (Stoker 203). This quote can be related to modern women being unfit mothers. Although a few lines before this quote Mina says women have a “mother-spirit” that can be invoked, what she looks back on and realizes is that this is all crazy for her to be a mother or think about being one. She was not cut out to be a mother. Being a mother is a full-time job and she has knowledge and strength that can be applied to another job out in the world. She even has a job as a school mistress before marriage, which women did not do in this era because being a mother was a full-time job. She is not saying comforting him is weird because he’s a male adult crying, he’s grieving; she’s saying it’s weird because she begins to talk about children and motherhood and realizes she does not want that for herself. Although she is a maternal figure for the group of men the entire novel, she never reflects on motherhood or children until this point. And, she realizes being maternal comes natural to her, but being an actual mother is weird and does not suit her modernity.
Feminist Journalist Erica Spiller says Lucy’s threat and resistance to motherhood is “in taking the power and knowledge away from men by having too much of it herself. By taking on the attributes of men she is also casting aside her desire for motherhood” (6). Mina’s intelligence strays her away from motherhood. Through her knowledge and skills, she has masculinized herself, and lost her desire and ability to be a mother. She is masculine, which gives her different skills and desires than female ones like motherhood. Instead, she is into technology, wants to stay in the workforce, and is like one of the guys with her ability to talk about gadgets and other things. She is strong, intelligent, and independent which conflicts with maternal abilities.
Although she is not perceived as a sexual threat, her intelligence threatens the continuation of life through birth. As the book progresses, she begins to constantly think about the strangeness of her becoming a mother and becoming less maternal, until she simply disappears in the end. And, it has been shown in many gothic novels that mothers are either monstrous or absent. This absence is due to lack of ability to be a good, or perfect, Victorian mother. Around the Victorian era, the idea began to float around that motherhood was not natural, it was something complex that had to be learned. This idea also led to women fearing becoming a mother. So, not only is Mina questioning her desire to become a mother, she is reflecting (since it is past tense) on how she possesses maternal abilities–like comforting the men in their time of grief or distress–when it is said to be acquired through learning. Motherhood is confusing to Mina, and she decides to reduce it to some strange, foreign, thing like the town does with Dracula.
Yet, Spiller also comments that the “closing of the novel represents the return to a gender-specific interest in motherhood with Mina to fulfilling her womanly obligation to reproduce” (6). It is crucial to note that no women become a mother in the novel until the “threat” dies. Some readers define this detail of this book as restoration after the threat dies. When Dracula is alive, all of the mothers are either absent, monstrous, or child-like. He is the only mother that exists in the novel. However, when he dies it is like the threat to society dies and the society and its traditions are restored to their previous state. After Dracula dies, Mina becomes a mother. Although she has proven to be the “ideal” Victorian woman and a maternal figure to the men in the novel, Dracula kept her from being a mother because he represented the tempting modernity and transformation of society. Now that the threat is gone, she is restored to her traditional female role and has a child. Because Lucy caved to her modernity and sexuality, she has a tragic end in the novel. Although the threat dies, and society believes things are restored, gender roles are not the same, the flip just continues quietly.
Instead of accepting his death and the birth of a child as a celebration of restoration and the continuation of motherhood in the Victorian Era for the future, it can be viewed as the women beginning to embody the “threat”, for the men have to step up and raise Quincey at the end of the text. Like it is previously stated, if mothers in novels are not corrupt, they are absent. When Mina is no longer a maternal heroine, she births a child and is absent in the end. Instead of womanhood being restored, Mina’s silence and absence after Dracula’s death in the end of the novel can be looked at as the further progression of the female modernity and resistance to motherhood. Mina has now embodied the monster, or modernity, or threat and she is now absent. She has always showed traits of the “new woman”, for she is educated in different forms of technology that doctors and journalists use and also possesses other special skills and knowledge. But, Dracula was the tipping point that caused her to embrace her modernity and resist motherhood. This leads the patriarch to have to step in and raise their children since the mothers became unfit or simply resistant. What this means is men step in is climax at the end. Because women are failing. Jonathan is not just a patriarch but has to assume the motherly role that Mina neglects in the end of the novel. This is apparent with Mina and Jonathan’s son Quincey.
Although Mina is the one who constructed this novel comprised of letters and other forms of communication, the novel ends with Jonathan. Mina is silenced, or absent, after her child is born. Jonathan is the only one who comments on the birth of their son. He says, “our boy’s birthday is the same day as that on which Quincey Morris died… His bundle of names links all our little band of men together; but we call him Quincey” (Stoker 326). He even later adds that Quincy was on Van Helsing’s knee. Jonathan and the men decide to name the child themselves, and after themselves. It’s hinting at who’s baby it is–little Quincy is all of the men’s child. They all band together to raise him. He is their child. Men were not as involved in their children’s lives in the Victorian era, but Jonathan claims the baby by saying “our”, and the other men are involved in the upbringing of the child. But, there’s no mention of Mina. She is not the one holding their child, and she is not mentioned in his name anywhere.
Hopkins compares the closing note with Van Helsing to the art Madonna and Child, which is an ideal image of motherhood (7). The art portrays Mary and her son Jesus. Mary is the ultimate goal for motherhood, since she birthed and raised Jesus. She is a symbol of perfect and virtuous motherhood and a goal women strive to mirror. Victorians desired perfect mothers and ideal motherhood like Mary portrayed, but instead things shifted. In the novel, instead of Quincy being in his mother’s lap like in the Madonna and Child artwork, he is in Van Helsing’s lap. It is a small detail, only a half of a sentence, but it is loaded with revelations about motherhood. The woman has been replaced by the man. Van Helsing is not even directly the father of the child, but he stepped up to help raise the child, which makes the child partly his, which is why the child has his name. Readers have no idea where Mina is, what she is doing, or anything. Jonathan only says she is a brave woman. Through this small scene, readers can see Mina is not as present as the father, which is a flip of parenting. However, it was necessary for men to step in with the rise of the “new woman”, because motherhood became less ideal since it was swimming in duty, pain, and restrictions. So, after the threat began to infect women around England, they were no longer able to be mothers, men had to assume the role.
In gothic fiction mothers only exist in three ways: as bad or unfit mothers, as corrupt or wicked mothers, or as absent or dead mothers. Bram Stoker takes this gothic tradition and a common theme in his works and paints the monstrous mother in Dracula. Stoker puts motherhood on the shoulders of, the opposite of a nurturing mother, a homicidal male monster. His reasoning behind this is to pose a critique on women and motherhood of the Victorian era. Not only is he poking at women by saying even Dracula is a better fit mother than them and their rising modernity, he is also showing the flip of Victorian traditions that comes with modernity and a change in society and tradition. Not only did Stoker show women as unfit mothers, he hints at what would happen if women stopped being mothers– the men, like Jonathan, would have to step in and raise their children.
Like Stoker’s wife, the actress Florence, motherhood reveals a transformation for women. It leads to a continuation of submission or it leads to resistance. Mina was a maternal figure throughout the novel, but when it actually became her turn, she was not around. Modern women are always displayed as monstrous like Lucy or absent like Mina. This is why Quincy has six names, by all the men who raised him. The same can be said for the real Victorian era. Men began to pose all of these suggestions and rules like breastfeeding, dieting, and other ways to prevent infant mortality that maybe women began to say enough is enough, and handed the babies to the men to see if they could do as they preach. Whatever was the cause, roles began to reverse and shift as women began to become modern. In real life, though, if not Dracula what factor caused this shift of motherhood, technology? Art? Novels? What was England’s monster?
Have you read Dracula? What did you think of it? Did you have a similar interpretation or a different one? Do you have any great book recommendations that have a similar theme or is just a great vampire book? Comment it all below!
For my other post on Dracula, on female sexuality, click here!
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