Within My Last Duchess, The Bloody Chamber and Dracula, there is evidence to suggest that women within the gothic genre as portrayed as victims of male authority, as well as evidence to disprove this argument, instead suggesting that it is the women within the Gothic genre which makes themselves victims. Angela Carter is particularly interested in the portrayal of women as victims of male aggression as a limiting factor in the feminist perspective of the time’[i] Carter, with her modern twist on traditional fairytales places a particular focus on women characters and the hardships they endure perhaps due to their own natural behaviour, whereas Stoker with his tale of vampires is more traditional with the female becoming victims, through his male authority.
My last Duchess enhances this by showing how women in the gothic genre are victims of male authority, through her suspicious death and the duke’s obsession with her beauty. Angela Carter’s, The Bloody Chamber,’ when read as a young women’s initiatory quest for knowledge rather than as the story of an overly curious girl who makes a disastrous marriage, provides its readership with a women-centred perspective that both reflects and allows for social change through individual liminal experience’[ii]. The Bloody chamber takes different forms throughout the book, but continues to serve the same symbolic purpose; it is a place of transformation for the heroine that changed irrevocably.
Each of these chambers is connected with violence and the blood shed when a woman looses her virginity and when she menstruates. Carter uses the chamber to make the connection between women’s sexuality, and the violence that they experience. This brings up the question of whether it is the men who make the women victims or whether it’s a woman’s natural body and mind which makes them victims. After all it is the women who carry the children and are naturally more delicate, so perhaps it’s not the men who make them victims in the gothic genre but the women themselves.
It is the time in which Carter writes which allows her to separate the bloody chamber from stereotypes, as it is a modern poem and therefore she is able to empower the women. In The Bloody Chamber, the chamber is marquis’ room of torture and death. First, ‘the Marquis mentions the custom, no longer followed in what he rather smugly calls ‘these civilised times’ of hanging the bloody bridal sheets out of the window to prove the bride’s virginity’ [iii].
The heroine finds the chamber and puts herself in danger by doing so, she is an innocent girl who knows nothing of the world. ‘The bride appears to be a blank page; she was, she says, a mere seventeen, a girl who know nothing of the world when she married’[iv] The effect of finding the room gives the audience a thrill of the unknown, as well as suspense of whether she will be liberated or if this knowledge will lead to her doom, She later calls herself ‘only a baby when her husband entrusts her with his keys’[v] .
Therefore it could be argued that it is the women who put themselves in the situation of being the victim, because of their natural traits such as innocence, curiosity and fragility, rather than the men in the Victorian era making them victims. This can also be seen in Stoker’s Dracula, it is the natural behaviour of the women in the Victorian era, and it is their innocence which ultimately leads the women into the hands of Dracula. These traits include the women’s beauty and the innocence of life, rather than the male authority putting them there.
In The Bloody Chamber, she realises Marquis’ obsessive objectification through her loss of virginity. She describes it as painful experience and refers to it as a ‘one sided struggle’[vi] this shows how it is the women’s natural traits which lead to their victimisation; it is her ‘naivete which gives him profound pleasure’[vii]. At this point she simply finds no other way but to accept the stereotypical view of a young innocent girl in a relationship with an experienced man, another example of women being victims of male authority.
The key to the bloody chamber is the key to her selfhood and subjugation that will ultimately kill her. The protagonist’s husband clearly considers her an object of exchange and plans to inscribe upon her his continuing tale of punishment for wives’ disobedience’[viii] again showing how women make themselves victims of their own behaviour, Helen Simpson’s interpretation is that ‘I really cant see what’s wrong with finding out about what the great male fantasies about women are’ [ix] The heroine fights against the victimisation, and indeed reverses role with the male in the story, as it is Marquis who dies and it is the female who leaves this chamber and finds happiness.
The Snow Child, another short story within The Bloody Chamber, is ambiguous. In this small story there are two victims, both of them women, in this case the bloody chamber could relate to the hole in the snow that the countess and count ride past, or it could relate to the vagina and virginity of the girl. This expresses how the role of the women within the gothic genre is ultimately as victims, sometimes through their naivety and innocence and sometimes through male authority.
The count sees both of the bloody chambers present as objects for his pleasure, therefore enforcing the role of the men as figures of authority; this is also shown in Stokers Dracula, because it is Dracula and the men of the time who take their pleasure by controlling the women. However, it is the countess who gains the knowledge, not the heroine.
The countess is a striking figure ‘glittering’[x] and ‘shining’[xi], she is dressed in ‘pelts of black foxes’[xii], this is an anthropomorphic image of her sly and cunning sexuality, this again is evidence to suggest that women make themselves victims of male authority, by their beauty and behaviour. The girl dies because she is a victim of male fantasy; the picking of the rose by the countess is a symbolic combination of the perfection of natural beauty and the town as a metaphor, for the inevitable pains of loving.
The count fails to protect the girl from the jealously of his wife and the girl dies bleeding and screaming in pain, again showing how women make themselves victims by their own behaviour. The scene of graphic necrophilia ‘unfastened his breeches and thrust his virile member into the dead girl’[xiii] that follows it ‘perhaps the most extreme image in the whole collection’[xiv] as it expressed the victimisation of women by male authority.
Carter suggests that this image shows that ‘women know men would rather indulge themselves with dead fantasies than accept women as they really are, a depressing and morbid view of human relationships’ [xv] The ending of this tale is also ambiguous, the countess discovers that the rose ‘bites’[xvi] however it is unclear if she dies like the girl or whether she lives. This could be evidence to show that women make themselves victims of male authority within the gothic genre because of their behaviour, that it was the countess action of killing the girl that ultimately lead to her death, and not the count’s male authority.
The time in which the stories were written determine the aspect they portray, The Bloody Chamber was written by Carter in a modern time and therefore she is able to liberate women and be blunter, something Stoker wouldn’t have been able to do within Dracula, because in era in which it was written, it would have been socially unacceptable to do so. Another one of Carter’s tales is The Lady of the House of Love, a story from Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber.
This differs from Dracula as it is the lady vampire who is preying upon men whereas in Dracula it is the male Undead which prey upon women. However, The Bloody Chamber is also similar to Dracula in the outcome of the tale, that it is the woman who is the victims. The young officer’s virginity, something which is represented by the women in Dracula, is a powerful device which means that the power is shifted from the male to the lady in this story. In his innocence, he changed the order of her deck of tarot cards, replacing Death with the Lovers.
She expects to devour him but, for the first time ever, her ritual does not follow the usual pattern and find herself becoming human. The officer is making the women, who usually are the hunter, his victim by humanising her ‘kiss it better’[xvii], he puts her to bed and when he awakes, he discovers that his new lover has died as an old woman. So it is the man who once again who makes the female a victim of his authority , by committing whatever act he wants, in this case for her to be his love.
However, it could be argued that she puts herself in the situation to become a victim of male authority, through her previous behaviour of devouring young innocent men. Stoker portrays women in the gothic genre as victims of male authority, this is similar to Carter in, The Bloody chamber, but differs in the way that they portray this image. The tale is told in sections written by different characters: Jonathan’s and Mina’s journals, Lucy’s diary, Steward’s diary, a record by van Helsing. The cumulative method would once again seem to add up to the truth revealed. The very vagueness of the significance of the vampire prevents a final, neat conclusion about the novel. ’ [xviii] Whereas The Bloody Chamber is told in short stories, the purpose of doing this is to enhance the point of Carter; the message is portrayed through different women and their different situations rather than just one long story like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Dracula expresses how it is the men who make the women within the Victorian era victims because of their behaviour and attitudes. The vampire figure has the haunting quality of nightmare and its association with sexuality is an important indication of the direction the exploration of psychological evil was taking. Mac Andrew argues that ‘The association of evil with sexuality probably reflects a gradually increasing awareness of the importance of sexuality in man’s nature. [xix]
Again corresponding with the statement that, women within the Victorian era are made victims of male authority, Mina Murray is portrayed as the embodiment of the virtue of her age ‘one of God’s women, fashioned by his own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that it’s light can be here on earth’[xx], this differs with Mac Andrew’s argument by suggesting that it is the women within the Victorian era who make themselves victims, for example Mina is described by the men within Dracula as ‘So true, so sweet, so noble’ [xxi] Again giving the suggestion that it is not just the men who make the women victims within the gothic genre, but it’s the women who make themselves victims through their natural behaviour and attitudes for example innocence. Yet it is the male authority which takes advantage of this and therefore ultimately makes the women within the gothic genre victims. ‘Mina Murray is also shown as a model of domestic propriety while her sexuality remains enigmatic throughout the whole of Dracula’[xxii].
The fact that Mina never gives a voice to anything resembling a sexual desire or impulse means that she continues to retain her purity, a social aspect requires of all women in the Victorian era. Mina is portrayed as a successful wife and mother, yet all successes are always in the service of men, this is another way that she is portrayed in the gothic genre as victims of men. Lucy is opposite to Mina in many ways; she is a paragon of innocence and virtue but remains sexualised throughout the story ‘Lucy looks pale and haggard. Mina attributes this to Lucy fretting about something’[xxiii] this is portrayed as fragile women showing that she is weaker than Dracula.
This method is shown continually throughout Dracula, it makes the women look more like victims, this contrasts to The Bloody Chamber where carters makes the women look strong ‘you never saw such a wild thing as my mother’[xxiv] Un-dead Lucy is expressed as a wanton creature of ravenous sexual appetite, which is against the acceptable behaviour of women within the Victorian era. Lucy stands as a dangerous threat to men and their tenuous self-control, yet when she is killed by the men, the purity on her face ensures the men that the world and its women are exactly as they should be. In Victorian England, women’s sexual behaviour was dictated by society’s extremely rigid expectations. This is shown within Dracula and My last Duchess as the women are made victims of male authority through the limitations which are placed upon them. There were only two options for women, they were both a mother and wife or they were a virgin, a model of purity and innocence. If women were not either then they were considered a whore and thus no consequence to society, the impending battle between good and evil within Dracula would hinge upon the female sexuality’[xxv].
Dracula makes the women victims of himself and other men within society, by threatening to turn the two women into their opposites, into women notes for their voluptuousness unapologetically open for sexual desire. ‘Gothic fiction is preoccupied with sexual assault. With the vampire it no longer deals only with sexual innocence in the victim and evil in this victimizer’[xxvi] this brings up the question of sexuality itself the innocent become the victims their own sexuality. In Stoker’s novel the forces of science and religion combine to destroy the innocent thus awakened- Lucy dies as Dracula drains life from her[xxvii]. ’ Whereas in The Bloody Chamber it is the mythical and supernatural beliefs, that make the women ultimately victims of male authority within the gothic genre; through fear of the unknown. In Stokers Dracula, when Lucy becomes a threat by transforming into a vampire vixen, Van Helsing and the other men see no other option but to destroy her, in order to return her to a purer, more socially acceptable state, this differs to carter’s bloody chamber as the women do not have expectations upon them but fight against these traditions.
The men within the Victorian era are intensely invested in the sexual behaviour of women because they are afraid to associate with the socially scorned ‘your girls that you all love are mine already, and through them you and other shall yet be mine’[xxviii] voices of male fantasy have made women victims since Adam and Eve. The vampire figure has the haunting quality of nightmare and its association with sexuality. Both Dracula and The Bloody Chamber have significant gothic elements, they both discuss issues which could be dismissed as untrue, such as the fairytale structure in The Bloody Chamber and the superstitious beliefs of the peasants in Dracula. These elements contribute into making women victims of the male authority within the gothic genre, through male fantasies and the authority in which they control women.
My last Duchess, by Robert Browning also, portrays women and victims within the gothic genre. My Last Duchess is about a portrait of the duke’s late wife, she is shown as a mere object that existed only to please him and to do his bidding ‘That piece a wonder, now’[xxix] he refers not only to the painting but also the wife as she was in life, a mere object, he now regards his wife as a wonder in the painting but was something less when she was alive. The Duke loves the portrait because it only reveals her beauty ‘ pictured countenance’ and none of the qualities that annoyed him. He now has complete control of the portrait and uses it as a pretty object that he can show the visitors.
The Duchess is a victim of male fantasy, he only want her to look nice and did not want her around when he was alive. The Duchess’ general fault in the duke’s eyes was that her heart was ‘too soon made glad’[xxx]. She related easily to that which was around her such as the creatures, fruits and beauties of nature as well as to people of all ranks. Women are victim of male authority particularly here, a woman who loves everything around her and seems to complain of nothing, is a pain to her husband; the duchess is punished for simply being herself. This links to The Bloody Chamber and Dracula, as it is suggested that the women makes themselves victims because of their behaviour, and natural traits, rather than by male authority.
The Duke suggests that the Duchess enjoyed the company of other men and implied that she was unfaithful but this is uncertain. The Duchess died in a suspicious death, possibly poisoned on ‘April 21st 1561 at the age of seventeen’[xxxi], although it is not clear what the duke did to his wife. The painter’s fate is also left obscure through ‘all smiles stopped together’ [xxxii] suggesting a common fate of the pair. Once again showing women in the gothic genre as victims of male fantasises. The technique of the writing of the poem means that it offers anyone reading it out-load a range of possible emphases and hence an interpretation of the Duke’s character. The poem itself is written in pentameters, arranged in couplets.
One reads individual lines to oneself out loud; rhyme in couplets imposes a stately place appropriate to the duke’s dignity’[xxxiii] By writing in Pentameters it means that the rhyme of the poem is at a spread suitable for it to be read as a poem, for example ‘the curtain I have drawn for you, but I’[xxxiv] this is a grammatical error, the pronoun should be me and nor I, but I rhymes with By on the previous line, meaning It flows better. The use of alliterations also used within the poem also adds to the effect of the poem, it helps to exaggerate a particular point ‘The dropping of the daylight in the west’[xxxv] The man he addresses, in My Last Duchess, is the emissary of a certain count whose daughter to duke now wishes to marry. In return for his ‘nine-hundred-years-old name’ the duke confidently expects a large dowry.
But the man he addresses is warned that the counts ‘fair daughter’[xxxvi] has better understand that she must submit completely to the duke’s will, again showing how women are victims of male authority and male fantasises to have pretty, young attractive women in their company. This would have seemed quite typical to readers in Britain c, 1850. ‘The marriage market persisted in the upper levels of society. Conventionally a suitable gentlemen- an old name was a great help’ took another gentlemen’s daughter off his hands in return for dowry in cash, kind or both. ’[xxxvii] The husband would then have full control of the wife’s income as well as her person, divorce was extremely rare and always scandalous, so that husbands might, and a lot of the time did, resorted to various cruel ways of punishing unsatisfactory partners.
The Duke takes an extreme patriarchal and possessive view of women common enough in Victorian Britain, again showing the women as victims within a male society. This is similar to Dracula through the expectations of women, and how the behaviour of men towards women has not altered, but perhaps worsened within the Victorian era. Therefore, it could be argued that the women are made victims of male authority, in the gothic genre, because of the harshness endured by them due to the will of the men, such as the murder of vampire Lucy by the local men. Whereas it also could be argued that it is the women themselves who make them victims of male authority because of their natural traits such as innocence and naivety, as well as the blood of childbirth and menstruation which makes them look weak.