Parricide and Matricide in Bram Stoker's Dracula
The popularity and endurance of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, writes Phyllis A. Roth, is largely due to the novel’s successful management of ‘a fantasy which is congruent with a fundamental fantasy shared by many others’, specifically, the fantasy of Oedipal parricide.[i] In this sense, writes Roth, the main focus of the novel is ‘the battle of the sons against the father to release the desired woman, the mother, she whom is felt originally belonged to the son till the father seduced her away’.[ii] However, Roth also emphasizes ‘the fantasy of matricide’ which underlies the more obvious parricidal wishes, and ‘that for both Victorian and twentieth century readers, much of the novel’s great appeal derives from its hostility towards female sexuality’.[iii] The novel’s women are depicted as dichotomously sensual and sexless, and as Roth writes, ‘the suddenly sexual women’ are ‘violently and self-righteously persecuted’.[iv] This treatment of women in Dracula is similar to the notion of abjection described by Kristevan theory, which builds upon Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. As Kelly Oliver writes, Kristevan psychoanalytical theory claims that that the symbolic order is not, as it is for Freud, constructed ‘against the murder of the father’, but is ‘constructed against the exclusion of the abject maternal body’.[v] This essay will show how an understanding of Kristevan theory can illuminate the nature of these matricidal fantasies, and reveal Stoker’s portrayal of vampirism as a means of dramatically - and safely – re-evoking and re-enacting the primary exclusion of the maternal body by the patriarchal symbolic order.
In Dracula, writes Roth, ‘vampirism is a disguise for greatly desired and equally strong feared fantasies’.[vi] At the start of the novel when Johnathan Harker is trapped inside castle Dracula, he begins to think of ‘strange things which I dare not confess to my own soul’,[vii] suggesting repressed desires of a tabooed sexual nature. He subsequently describes an encounter with three of Dracula’s vampire brides in sexualized terms: ‘all three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me feel uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear’.[viii] The word voluptuous, as Victor Sage writes, is a ‘ubiquitous part of the code of nineteenth century pornography’ that is often used to infer ‘sexual foreplay’, ‘orgasm itself’, or to describe parts of the male or female anatomy.[ix] When combined with ‘ruby lips’, ‘voluptuous’ acts as what Sage terms ‘a code-switch inviting transference from mouth to vagina’.[x] Here, however, the voluptuousness of the vampire women is described as ‘both thrilling and repulsive’,[xi] evoking the feelings of fascination and horror we feel as infants towards the primordial mother described by Kristevan psychoanalysis. According to Kristeva, in order to achieve subjectivity and enter into the patriarchal symbolic, the infant must first learn to separate from the primordial mother by making her body abject. As Oliver writes, this stage of abjection is experienced by the (male) infant as ‘horror at its dependence on the maternal body’, but also as ‘a fascination with the maternal body that allows an eroticization of the female body’.[xii] In this sense, the desire that Harker dare not admit to himself - the ‘wicked desire that they would kiss me with those red lips’ [xiii] - is that of incest.
However, Dracula swiftly rescues Harker from his voracious brides and, perhaps more importantly, from his own incestual desires, hurling the women from him, and declaring ‘”how dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it?”’[xiv] This is essentially repeating the word of the father; the prohibition of incest which makes the body of the primordial mother forever abject, and which forms the foundations of the phallocentric symbolic order. The wish to kill Dracula, therefore, repeats Oedipal fantasies of parricide, endeavouring to reclaim the mother for the sons.
Lucy Westenra embodies the nineteenth century archetype of the ‘New Woman’, a term used, as Maurice Hindle writes, ‘to describe “progressive” women who asserted their individuality and [sexual] independence’.[xv] Lucy, in keeping with this stereotype, has the choice of three male suitors, and wonders ‘why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her?’[xvi] The novel then transforms Lucy into the physical embodiment of this demonic sexual assertiveness by transforming her into a vampire, turning her ‘sweetness’ to ‘adamantine heartless cruelty’, her ‘purity to voluptuous wantonness’,[xvii] and is even described as a ‘medusa’.[xviii] However, this does not diminish her maternal allure, as we learn that various children have been ‘lured away by the “bloofer lady”’.[xix] In this transformed state, the wish for matricide is more than justifiable, with Dr. Seward proclaiming, ‘had she then to be killed, I could have done it with savage delight’.[xx]
Dracula is essentially the same matricidal story told twice, through the dual transformations of Lucy and Mina Harker.[xxi] In the former, writes Roth, ‘the mother is more desirable, more sexual, and must be destroyed’, and in the latter, ‘the mother is much less sexually threatening and is ultimately saved’.[xxii] According to her husband Johnathan, Mina - although definitely ‘a woman’ - has ‘nought in common’[xxiii] with these ‘awful women’ who are ‘waiting to suck [his] blood’.[xxiv] Nevertheless, the group leave her alone and unprotected (even with the knowledge of Dracula’s plans disclosed by Renfield), allowing her to become corrupted by Dracula, who forces her to suck his blood from the breast in a way that ‘had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink’.[xxv] The horror of this scene is in the regression to anality and orality, associated with pre-Oedipality, which is evoked by the childlike breastfeeding, thus allying Mina’s transformation into a vampire with the abject primordial mother. After the injunction of Van Helsing, another patriarchal figure, Mina realizes what she has become, crying ‘Unclean! Unclean!’[xxvi] at the horror of her own abject state.
For Kristeva, the abject body of the mother is perceived as threatening in phallocentric language because, as Kelly Oliver writes, it ‘calls into question borders and threatens identity’.[xxvii] Though the abjection of the maternal body forms the foundations of the patriarchal symbolic, its position at the borderline of what is thinkable and anterior to phallocentric language also signals, as Kristeva writes, ‘the place where meaning collapses’,[xxviii] the violence of castration and a ‘land of oblivion’. [xxix] As such the women in Dracula are both fascinating and representative of a threat to the stability of the symbolic order that must be subdued or eliminated. This is why the central anxiety of Dracula, writes Roth, is that ‘the sexually desirable woman will annihilate if she is not destroyed first’.[xxx]
In this sense, rather than as a tyrannical Freudian father, Dracula himself can be understood as a quasi-maternal figure, in his threat to the patriarchal symbolic, and in his horrific abject (un)presence. His demonic power, which threatens the annihilation of phallic social structures, is passed on through his vampiric bite (or through breastfeeding - a predominantly maternal occupation), and through this exchange of bodily fluids, anoints his female victims with similar powers.[xxxi] The ‘powers of good’ can thus be seen as endeavoring to break this threatening, incestuous pre-Oedipal mother-daughter bond, aiming to reinstate the powers of phallic monism. Though not described explicitly as ‘voluptuous’ or vaginal, Dracula’s mouth still remains the focal point of his horrific appearance, possessing ‘peculiarly sharp teeth’ that ‘protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years’[xxxii] - a description which, after the meeting with Dracula’s brides described in similar terms, becomes retrospectively sexualized.
The portrayal of sexuality in predominantly oral terms in Dracula can be seen as a means of evoking the horror of the sexually devouring woman who threatens phallic power, as with the ‘brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby’ of the vampire’s ‘voluptuous lips’.[xxxiii] As Roth writes, ‘the fantasy of incest and matricide evokes the mythic image of the vagina dentata […] in which the mouth and the vagina are identified with one another […] and pose the threat of castration to all men until the teeth are extracted by the hero’.[xxxiv]
In Dracula the extraction of these vaginal teeth, or the removal of the threat of castration which the abject mother represents, is equivalent to the extermination of Dracula and the purification of Mina Harker at the end of the novel. On Quincey Morris’ deathbed, following the death of Dracula, he thanks God ‘”that all has not been in vain! See! The snow is not more stainless than her forehead! The curse has passed away!”’[xxxv] Thus, phallic power triumphs, the stability of the patriarchal symbolic is restored, and the primordial mother is successfully cleansed of her threatening power.
To conclude, although most of the anxiety of Stoker’s novel seems to be directed against Dracula - the father figure who has seduced the mother away from the sons - this Oedipal fantasy masks the more painful primary anxieties of the novel surrounding the primordial mother. As Otto Rank writes, ‘through the displacement of anxiety on to the father, the renunciation of the mother, necessary for the sake of life is “assured”, and that this feared father figure ‘prevents the return to the mother’.[xxxvi] In this sense, the matricidal fantasies that the novel dramatizes can be seen as endeavouring to reinstate phallic power through the silencing of feminine authority, and as repeating the abjection of the primordial mother described in Kristevan psychoanalytical theory.
[i] Phyllis A. Roth, ‘Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, in Nina Auerbach, ed., Bram Stoker: Dracula (London: Norton, 1997), p. 411.
[ii] Ibid., p. 414.
[iii] Ibid., p. 411.
[iv] Ibid., p. 412.
[v] Kelly Oliver, ‘Individual and National Identity’, in Kelly Oliver, ed., The Portable Kristeva (Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 226.
[vi] Roth, ‘Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, p. 414.
[vii] Bram Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 25.
[viii] Stoker, Dracula, p. 46.
[ix] Victor Sage, ‘Dracula and the codes of Victorian pornography’, in Dominique Sipiére, ed., Dracula: Insemination-dissemination (Amiens: University of Picardie Press, 1997), p. 34.
[x] Ibid., p. 34.
[xi] Stoker, Dracula, p. 45.
[xii] Oliver, ‘Individual and National Identity’, pp. 225-6. For Kristeva, writes Oliver, ‘Females do not split the mother, but merely try (unsuccessfully) to rid themselves of her’.
[xiii] Stoker, Dracula, p. 45.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 46.
[xv] Maurice Hindle, ‘Notes’, in Maurice Hindle, ed., Dracula, (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 445.
[xvi] Stoker, Dracula, p. 67.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 225.
[xviii] Ibid., p. 226.
[xix] Ibid., p. 190.
[xx] Ibid., p. 225.
[xxi] Roth, ‘Suddenly sexual women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, p. 417. Or thrice, if one were to include Dracula himself.
[xxii] Ibid., p. 417.
[xxiii] Stoker, Dracula, p. 61.
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 48.
[xxv] Stoker, Dracula, p. 300.
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 303.
[xxvii] Kelly Oliver, Individual and national identity’, p. 225.
[xxviii] Julia Kristeva, ‘Powers of Horror’, in Kelly Oliver ed., The Portable Kristeva (Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 230.
[xxix] Ibid., p. 235
[xxx] Roth, ‘Suddenly sexual women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, p. 420.
[xxxi] That the vampires are both dead and alive, evokes the abject state of the primordial mother who, in ‘her’ position outside of the symbolic, remains a not-yet-subject, an un-subject.
[xxxii] Stoker, Dracula, p. 24.
[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 45.
[xxxiv] Roth, ‘Suddenly sexual women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, p. 420.
[xxxv] Stoker, Dracula, p. 401.
[xxxvi] Otto Rank, The Trauma of Birth (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 73.
Hindle, Maurice, ‘Notes’, in Maurice Hindle, ed., Dracula, (London: Penguin, 2011)
Kristeva, Julia, ‘Powers of Horror’, in Kelly Oliver ed., The Portable Kristeva (Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2002)
Oliver, Kelly, ‘Individual and National Identity’, in Kelly Oliver, ed., The Portable Kristeva (Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2002)
Rank, Otto, The Trauma of Birth (New York: Harper and Row, 1973)
Roth, Phyllis A., ‘Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, in Nina Auerbach, ed., Bram Stoker: Dracula (London: Norton, 1997)
Sage, Victor, ‘Dracula and the codes of Victorian pornography’, in Dominique Sipiére, ed., Dracula: Insemination-dissemination (Amiens: University of Picardie Press, 1997)
Stoker, Bram, Dracula (London: Penguin, 2011)