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“Carmilla” written by Sheridan Le Fanu was in some ways, ahead of its time, in relation of its very strong female presence and lesbian undertones, considering the era as a whole was still very conservative. This was something that was unheard of at the time and very taboo by society’s standards. The focus of the story is the budding relationship between two young women, Carmilla a vampire, and Laura a teenage girl, who is infatuated with the elusive beautiful vampire.
This paper will compare and contrast the societal and gender roles that were broken to create the New Age Woman.
Carmilla manages to make herself welcome in Laura’s home, where she secretly preys on the girl, as well as other girls in the area. Carmilla leads a life that resembles human life, living amongst humans and interacting with them in everyday life, even going as far as having an intimate relationship with Laura. This strongly resembles today’s 21st century vampires more than the vampires of the 19th century.
Today’s depiction of vampires strive to live like humans, drink blood only out of necessity, fall in love with humans, and live simultaneously amongst them. The fact that the two main characters are female, also suggests it’s relation with 21st century vampire literature, because 19th century literature, more often than not, casts a male character at the protagonist of the story. Women were most often reserved for the role of the victim. Carmilla whether it be intentional or not changed that stereotype, she takes over the part of the male, wooing Laura, and having intimate nightly visits, where she seemingly strokes her body and sucks her breast, instead of her neck, which is the most common place for a vampire bite.
Carmilla’s beauty, as well as her femininity and seemingly graceful manner, is another thing she has in common with today’s vampires. This is all rather unconventional, compared to mythological vampires of Carmella’s day and age, who were often described as being ugly. She is a sophisticated vampire, depending more on the act of seduction than a vicious attack or domination, which is often associated with the male version vampires. Although they are somewhat seductive as well. In fact, the description of Carmilla’s nocturnal visits to Laura, even though aggressive, sound more like love making than a violent act. “Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself” (Le Fanu).
This shows how very different, or alike Carmilla is from her male counterparts. In 19th century fiction women were often portrayed as the victims of vampire attacks. This corresponded to the ways of society, considering how social conditioning had pacified women making them powerless to change their fate. “Carmilla” can be read as a criticism on the way many women were forced to live their lives during the 19th century. In Victorian society women can be seen to have functioned like parasites, much like the vampire. The vampire has parasitic tendencies by nature. Women were not expected to work and were forced to rely on the men to support them, therefore, exhibiting parasitic tendencies. The vampire is dead and, in a legal and societal sense, women were dead. They had no rights whatsoever.
Rather than being defined by intellect women and vampires are both mostly defined by their physiology, with detailed descriptions of their beauty and sensuality. The fact that Carmilla, a strong confident woman, takes the place of the male figure can be considered a criticism on how women, at the time, were being forced to live their lives, smothered within the walls of their home and under their families, wanting to break free and be their own master. The image that Le Fanu painted for Carmilla can be considered a positive one for women, perhaps even an attempt at giving them a voice and the courage to break free from the stereotypical and traditional image of the oppressed 19th century woman.
The relationship between Carmilla and Laura, her victim, shows how powerless women were. Laura’s character is the portrayal of the oppressed woman. The reader receives very few details about her, seemingly having very few interests, as well as being nameless in the first half of the story. Carmilla, however, is an exaggeration of what women should strive to become. Due to the oppression, many women were forced to master the art of manipulation in order to occasionally voice their opinion, and Le Fanu reveals this through Carmilla’s extremely manipulative character. She is beautiful and seductive, unlike male vampires who are often aggressive and violent.
Although, at the end of Laura’s narrative, it is evident that Carmilla still exists, in the memory of Laura. Her power over Laura was so strong that she concludes her story with these words; “the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations – sometimes the 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). In the beginning of the story the reader is told that Laura has died, and perhaps Le Fanu is hinting to the fact that Carmilla had succeeded in converting her into a vampire. The end of the story can be seen as a reflection of women’s struggle within 19th century society. Carmilla represents the New Age Woman, who is trying to break free from the traditional role of the oppressed woman and the main male characters in the story represent the male dominant population that try to undermine this battle for equality, by trying to “destroy” the New Woman. However, like Carmilla in the story, the essence of this New Woman survives by way of Laura.
Vampire stories always seem to involve some aspect of sexuality and power. Since the conception of the genre, the vampire has almost always been portrayed as male, and his centuries of experience make him a dominant figure. His act of biting a victim has always either metaphorically or explicitly been linked to sex. Frequently, misogyny prevails in vampire stories. In 19th century literature for example, women are portrayed as pure and innocent, needing to be “saved” by their human male heroes from the sexual temptations a vampire would give them. This same lack of balance between the powerful male vampire and the powerless female human can be seen more in today’s modern depiction of the vampire such as Twilight as well. Carmilla is the symbol of female power as she rejects male love and domination. As a vampire who chooses her victims, her lovers, and her choices. She quintessentially asserts female independence and sexuality. Beautiful and asserting, she challenges the gender norms of the society around her both through her words and actions, but especially through her relationships.
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