In Victorian popular fiction, the Gothic tropes of degenerate and evil monsters represent three levels of fear in society: the existence of the fears themselves, the fact that these fears are repressed, and the fear of what could happen if everything lurking under the surface is unleashed. How do people cope with dangers such as this? They create boundaries, binaries, and rules to live by. As other Gothic novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula explores the way these lines are crossed. Two binaries that are broken in the novel include queerness versus the heteronormative and dreams versus reality. The heteronormative is on the verge of collapsing; the line between sleep and wake is continually distorted. The ambiguity and lack of boundaries when it comes to sexuality and gender in Stoker’s Dracula function to show the uncertain, in-between, dreamlike state many Gothic characters like Lucy, Mina, and Jonathan find themselves in, which could ultimately lead to either their downfall or triumph, representing a restoration or destruction of the heteronormative.
A sane person cannot perceive horror in its fullness; this is why dreams are an integral part of Dracula. They serve as messages warning the characters of repressed knowledge they need to discover, as scholar Matthew C. Brennan explores in his article, or they just help them come to terms with the reality of a world with vampires. Accepting this means accepting crossed boundaries like the one separating life and death. Horror represents what is repressed just as dreams do. Connecting this to queerness, Stoker’s connection to theater, as pointed out by scholar Carol Senf, influences the way he approaches gender and sexuality: “The Victorian theatre was a place of sexual nonconformity, and there were constant insinuations of sexual impropriety against theatre people in the Victorian period. Lisa Hopkins argues that the ‘hysteria which so often surrounds Stoker’s writing about gender could well be seen as the product of a radical insecurity on this front’” (Senf 116). This “radical insecurity” translates into boundaries crossed and binaries both destroyed and renewed repeatedly. Are not dreams a kind of stage? In the novel, after Mina saves Lucy from her first encounter with Dracula, she recounts Lucy retelling her version of the story: “‘I didn’t quite dream; but it all seemed to be real. I only wanted to be here in this spot—I don’t know why, for I was afraid of something—I don’t know what” (Stoker 93). The unconscious works through what the conscious has repressed, and it is presented to the dreamer almost like a play. Lucy cannot claim everything she feels as fact; it would be too much for her. Dracula is experimental with gender and sexuality, echoing the transcendence that occurs between dreams and reality in the novel.
How the story is told in itself shows how the characters battle the ambiguity they are faced with every day. The combination of journal entries and nonlinear plot lines shows the kind of effort it takes to make sense of horror, and as Brennan points out, “this subjectivity strongly suggests the fantastic within the context of physical, commonsense reality, much as nightmares do” (Brennan 48). There is no sense of clear boundaries in Dracula. As in this context, frameworks can be created and filled with something different entirely, or such phenomena as nightmares can break any frameworks provided. In this case, what seems binaristic can actually be fluid. Mina, as an information collector, saves herself only through an “expansion of consciousness [that] enables her to integrate her animus” (Brennan 56), “animus” referring to her repressed shadow, using philosopher Jung’s terms. In Jonathan’s case, when he is still confined to Dracula’s castle, he is saved once “he learns the importance of self-knowledge” (Brennan 58), which is just like Mina’s necessary recordkeeping. This “expansion” is an ambiguous, fluid action yet essential at the same time. They need to invert the way they see the world through becoming one with their unconscious, and this is the only way to be free. In terms of queerness, the same is true because in the novel, the breaking of boundaries suggests a life where no boundaries are necessary, as scholar Xavier Aldana Reyes explores.
In the novel, Lucy writes a memorandum—the last the audience reads from her—and the reader experiences this before any of the other characters actually discover the piece of writing. The memorandum is also followed by a series of unopened letters from Mina to Lucy. In many ways, Lucy is too late. She does not have the same level of awareness that ends up saving Jonathan and Mina, so she perishes. On this, Brennan writes, “It represents the ego’s regressive collapse into the initial unconscious state, which completely absorbs and dissolves it. In Martin Bickman’s words, in this pathological case, the negative animus leads to the ego ‘too far beyond itself, to a transcendence that is inextricable from destruction’” (Brennan 53). At the end of the memorandum, after mourning her mother, Lucy dramatically declares, “It is time that I go too” (136). This is an example of how a lack of boundaries is punished in the novel, since Lucy’s fluidity makes her unable to process what is happening in time to save her from destruction.
Now that boundaries have been thoroughly discussed when it comes to dreams and narration in the novel, it is time to turn in more detail to how this connects to queerness. The term “inversion” might seem to contradict the idea of fluidity in Dracula, implying only two sides, but this is not the case. Senf introduces Craft’s ideas in her essay:
Christopher Craft’s formative essay in this regard links the lurid plot of Dracula to gender politics, in part because the more common medicalised term for homosexuality in the 1890s was “sexual inversion”… This was a diagnosis that theorised that the male homosexual had “inverted” supposedly “natural” masculine and feminine traits. In Dracula, the scene at the graveyard where Lucy is brutally put back in her box is because she has “inverted” the normative feminine passive position to assert an active, masculine sexuality. (Senf 118)
There is a terrifying flip in roles that happens to Lucy, terrifying because it is not a part of the web of societal expectations. Lucy transforms from a naïve flirt to a femme fatale, from comfortably feminine to dangerously masculine, as explained in the above quote. When it comes to gender and sexuality, reading Dracula as simply about homosexuality would be ignoring the nuance in the novel. However, “homosexuality is a bedfellow of vampirism in Dracula because they both embody what is beyond the law, even if the law deciding so is ultimately revealed to be the Christian, patriarchal and conservative moral code of Van Helsing and the Crew of Light” (Reyes 131). It is almost too easy to link queerness with vampirism since both often require a suppression of what is natural to them yet unnatural to the rest of the world. Of course, there are no explicitly homosexual acts in the novel, but as Craft understands it, the anxiety that pervades the story is if “‘Dracula will seduce, penetrate, drain another male’” (Reyes 126). But Dracula gets close; when the three female vampires want to drink the blood of Jonathan, Dracula declares, “This man belongs to me!” (39). Additionally, when Dracula forces Mina to drink his blood while he drinks hers—a crucial scene in the novel—he is also physically holding Jonathan down, which feels like another act of ownership and possession, even if Dracula never actually bites him in addition to Lucy and Mina. Reyes echoes Craft even further to claim that “biting is implied and appears only on the brink of taking place” (Reyes 126). Not only does this show “the threat of penetration as an inherent source of male anxiety and fuses fear and desire” (Reyes 126), but it also shows the existence of a brink, the existence of something to be crossed or destroyed altogether, which relates to the idea of fluidity in novel, both in terms of queerness versus the heteronormative and dreams versus reality. There are more “brinks” at stake in Gothic novels than simply the line between madness and sanity.
If “the vampire is inherently connected to sin, but stands as the only real mediator of repressed sexual desire,” (Reyes 128) then are not vampires role models of releasing the repressed, even if they are deviants? Of course this is not celebrated by the characters in the novel or probably by Stoker himself, but a lot of the Gothic fears toward monstrosity boil down to the fear of possibility that such monstrosity can exist in oneself. In an alternate society, releasing what is kept inside could be celebrated. The unconscious expansion that Jonathan and Mina master in order to survive—where Lucy failed—could be paralleled with the act of releasing. Could there be a domino effect beginning after one set of boundaries—the one between dreams and reality—is removed? Reyes’ ideas build on this: “It is precisely in maintaining the vampire’s mobility as a liberating metaphor that a queer reading strategy emerges” (Reyes 129). Such “mobility” is how the characters are able to set themselves free, perhaps even Dracula himself at the end of play. After he is killed, his humanity shows itself, and the readers and characters remember that he was human once. Perhaps his death releases him from the need to repress himself, now that he is at peace in a way where he can let his gender and sexuality exist however they want; he is no longer confined to the binaries of earth.
The in between is such a crucial space. The act of crossing over, similar to the idea of recognizing the existence of a brink, is a necessary step in liberation, giving “the potential for Dracula to provide for new models that criticise the stable identities of both straight and gay, heteronormative and homonormative. The vampire, and Dracula in particular, may act as an oppositional force that can embody the political impetus of queer theory” (Reyes 125). If boundaries are constantly being neglected, maybe there is more to life than the binaries. However, if the parallel between queerness and dreams is maintained, there is the connotation that if everything becomes open, madness can run rampant, since nothing is stable. For example, Lucy
suffers from a susceptibility to bad dreams — a sign of what psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann calls “thin” or “open” mental boundaries, a condition common to schizophrenics, psychotics, and chronic nightmare sufferers. Hartmann’s research finds thin boundaries and people “overwhelmed by their aggressive and sexual feelings” and in people who “may have trouble telling reality from fantasy and dreams,” as well as “difficulty in relationships because they may tend to merge with others.” (Brennan 50-51)
These characteristics fit Lucy once her “bad dreams” about Dracula begin. Instead of expanding her unconscious so that she becomes conscious of everything, the open boundaries ultimately lead to her undoing. She gets lost in the in between. There is a connection to queerness here; perhaps this is what society believes will happen if all the queer people are let loose, if legal and physical boundaries are abolished allowing for chaos. When Dracula and Mina drink each other’s blood, there is
a violation of physical boundaries that symbolizes the violation of psychic ones. Besides this lurid example of Mina’s nightmares, on October 1 she reports another dream replete with imagery of open boundaries — first mist pouring in “through the joining of the door,” and then “all” becoming “black darkness.” Mina alertly wonders if this dream involves “some spiritual guidance that was coming to me in my sleep,” and warns herself to “be careful of such dreams, for they would unseat one’s reason if there were too much of them.” (Brennan 55-56)
While Mina recognizes that she could lose her reason, what if that is what the repressive society wants her to think? Another way to view it is that the dissolving of boundaries is actually a form of liberation. While vampires are by no means the heroes in this story, Reyes brings The Twilight Saga into the conversation to show how vampires have been made into role models for young people, queer and alike, because they can symbolize a sort of freedom.
While vampires can be role models for the repressed, simply seeing them as a symbol of homosexuality is not useful since the connections to queerness and fluidity in general, especially in Dracula, are more nuanced than that. Additionally, Dracula is not necessarily a “good” representation for the queer community, since it perpetuates the stigma of queer people as monstrous, horrific, unnatural, anarchist, etc. However, exploring how the novel breaks boundaries while also taking into consideration the period in which Stoker was writing can help the reader put into context these attitudes toward the queer community while also choosing to see more nuance in the type of liberation possible in the novel.
Brennan, Matthew C. “The Novel as Nightmare: Decentering of the Self in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 7, no. 4 (28), 1996, Special Issue: Dream and Narrative Space, pp. 48-59. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43308268. Accessed 22 April 2022.
Reyes, Xavier Aldana. “Dracula Queered.” The Cambridge Companion to Dracula, 15 Nov. 2017, pp. 125-135. Cambridge Core, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316597217.013. Accessed 17 April 2022.
Senf, Carol. “Dracula and Women.” The Cambridge Companion to Dracula, 15 Nov. 2017, pp. 114-122. Cambridge Core, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316597217.012. Accessed 17 April 2022.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Thank you to Dr. Lee Behlman at Montclair State University for teaching such an incredible class (Victorian Popular Fiction), for encouraging us to look at the literature through a queer lens, and for being one of the best professors and advisors I’ve ever had.