Rebecca Payne examines how our understanding of Bram Stoker’s Lucy Westenra may have more to do with misogynistic interpretation than who she was meant to be.
Bram Stoker’s Lucy Westenra is a character who has always haunted me. When I recently reread Dracula (1897), I couldn't help but feel her, once again, reaching her cold, dead hand to pull me back into her dark lair. As a queer, femme woman, how should I understand Lucy over one hundred years in the future and several lifetimes of social change away?
In Stoker's novel, Dracula is a shapeshifting vampire that finds victims throughout England, aboard ships, and at home in his castle. The book follows his path of bloodthirst through a cinematic lens told through newspaper articles and observers of strange happenings. Lucy is Dracula's first victim, one we know intimately. As a vampire, Lucy would be destined to feast eternally on the blood of others, but she is given a mortal death by three men who devise how to murder the vampire inside her by driving a wooden stake through her heart.
After the Count bites Lucy, the descriptions of her corpse in the crypt are eerily unsettling. Several men hover over her dead body and deliberate how to destroy the monster within the “little girl” — their words, not mine. Lucy is a grown woman, not a child. They debate sawing off her head and eventually settle on penetrating a wooden stake through her heart, “driving deeper and deeper the mercy bearing stake.” In their deliberations, they repeatedly remark that Lucy’s body has been “filled with the blood of five men” in reference to the blood they each administered through transfusion, but the phrase draws attention to itself. She is “filled with the blood of five men.” After they have killed the vampire inside, one suggests another should kiss her dead lips. When I first read the crypt scene, I hoped the story would turn toward revenge — Lucy versus her predatory male suitors. It didn't.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that Lucy is a fabrication of the male gaze. She is a victim, often understood to represent Victorian ideals of sexuality, and her beauty is the sole signifying characteristic up until the crypt scene. However, the actions of Stoker’s characters challenge gender norms despite what they declare aloud. Many of his characters make grandiose, derivative, and misogynistic statements about the nature of men and women. Lucy’s best friend, Mina, is described as having a “man’s brain” by the men around her because she is intelligent, organized, and takes meticulous notes in a journal. Mina is the mastermind behind Dracula’s demise but is kept from executing the plan because she is a woman.
However, several chapters earlier, Mina braved the night alone, rescuing a sleepwalking, half-naked Lucy. Stoker makes Mina the hero, despite what the men around her have to say about it. Likewise, men cry in the novel and shortly after discuss women’s overly emotional nature, and women hold back tears to put on a courageous air for the men around them. Like any great writer, Stoker asks his readers to consider the merit of their assumptions through his characters.
There was no formal language identifying queerness when Dracula was written. According to David J. Skal’s Something In the Blood (2015), Stoker and his wife Florence had what was interpreted at the time as non-traditional sexualities. Stoker had close and passionate romantic relationships with men, and Florence was sexually disinterested in men. Vampires were a medium where he could explore and challenge convention–enter Lucy Westenra. If read through a homo-normative paradigm, maybe Stoker just wanted to punish Lucy for being a beautiful woman. Still, despite her bombshell appearance, Lucy is more dynamic than her alluring appearance, and why should her beauty belie her substance?
Three suitors have just proposed to her when she strolls into the story. She is forthright, fatuous, and seemingly obsessed with all of them, wishing aloud in a letter to her best friend, Mina, that she could marry them all instead of having to choose. To note, assertiveness and a harem of husbands was not a popular Victorian puritanical ideal. And it’s not just men who adore Lucy. Many characters are stricken by her. Mina constantly remarks on Lucy’s beauty and sensitivity and describes loving Lucy “with all the uses and tenses of the word.” Does Mina mean she’s in love with Lucy too? Mina is fiercely protective of her friend, and both characters fall into despair when they separate. We know Lucy best through her correspondence with Mina, which portrays a genuine and deep friendship based on mutual love.
In many of Lucy’s letters to Mina, her language is feigning and dramatic when referring to her suitors. She focuses on how incredible they all are, yet the sentiment is so excessively doting it nears performative. Why does Lucy need such flowery, obsessive descriptions? Is it because she is a narcissistic character, singularly focused on men? Possibly, but the statements from Lucy about her appearance are at odds with how her admirers see her. In a letter to Mina, Lucy declares that she is disinterested in dress and new fashions; she calls the whole thing a “bore.”
Further, we know that Lucy cares about politics as Stoker makes her and Mina “New Women.” Women did not have the right to vote in England and, thus, did not have power or social currency when Lucy and Mina were created. Marriage was the path to financial security. It wasn’t until twenty-one years after Dracula was published that women obtained the right to vote. That didn’t mean, however, that women weren’t resisting the stringent laws in which they operated. In fact, women were organizing in groups to challenge subordinate marriage roles and reconsider their role in society.
It isn’t that Stoker avoided giving Lucy depth; it is that we, as readers, have integrated a male-centric idea into her character. There is the unavoidable misogynistic language throughout the story about her. Still, Stoker has not written Lucy solely as a damsel in distress but as a woman who has close female relationships and challenges societal norms. Was Stoker using Lucy to challenge or mock our presumptions rather than perpetuate them?
Perhaps regardless of Stoker’s intentions, the film has perpetuated the idea of Lucy as a victim. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Lucy is flirtatious and forward with men when she first appears in the film. Shortly after, she is sexually assaulted by the Count, who has shapeshifted into a werewolf. Since the only way the viewer has been prompted to understand Lucy is through her lasciviousness, her assault could be read as punishable by a culture primed to blame the victim. The depth of Lucy’s relationship with Mina does not enter the film, and Coppola also chooses to write out Mina’s problem-solving nature. In this adaptation, the men devise and execute Dracula’s death with brute force, not Mina’s careful calculation and attention to detail. In fact, in this retelling, Mina falls in love with Dracula.
There is an indisputable allusion to sexual violation in Stoker’s novel. It makes sense that Coppola would choose to include it. Stoker has Lucy’s suitors discuss whether or not certain characters should kiss her corpse’s mouth after thrusting a stake repeatedly into her body. Later, Mina is forced to suck from a wound in Dracula’s chest and afterward responds with feelings of guilt and uncleanliness. Solely understanding these women, as Coppola does through their sexual identities and desirability, leaves little room to understand them as fully fleshed-out protagonists of the entire novel.
Suppose Stoker wanted us to read Lucy as a flat, uninteresting “little girl” as her suitors see her. In that case, it seems strange that he would show us the power of female vampires in Dracula’s castle several chapters before introducing us to Lucy and transforming her into one. When the Count traps Mina’s fiancé, Jonathan Harker, in the castle, he becomes immobilized by the power of female sexuality in one of the most vividly sexy scenes in the novel. Stoker was not underestimating Lucy by turning her into a vampire. He freed her from constraint. He allowed her to be beautiful and capable of acting on her unrestrained instinctual desire. He gave her a superpower. While we don’t get to follow Lucy’s path on a bloody binge (because the men destroy the monster inside her), we get to question who the monsters are in this story.
Lucy can be interpreted in myriad ways, but understanding her from her desires, actions, and relationships in the context of her fabrication by a queer author makes it hard to see Lucy as a stand-in character merely supposed to represent an idea. The perpetuation of this concept has been reiterated through film and deserves to be re-examined. We should reread Lucy into existence through Lucy’s wants and her own words.
Rebecca Payne is a literary and historical horror enthusiast passionate about the ways that writers have used the genre to explore gender and identity. She is a Northwestern MFA candidate based in Chicago.