Female Agency & Sexuality in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
A consumer advocate, lawyer and author by the name of Ralph Nader once said, “Like sex in Victorian England, the reality of big businesses today is our big dirty secret.” According to Nader, the truth behind what businesses truly do today is as hidden and shocking as sexual intercourse that occurred in England in the 1800s. The Victorian era was a very conservative period in time, in which men and women were expected to live by a strict moral code. Published during that period, Bram Stoker’s Dracula contains many hidden layers of sexuality within the characters and the plot. A century after the novel’s publication, Francis Ford Coppola made a film based on this novel, in which he brought to surface the novel’s veiled female agency and sexuality. Coppola was able to take liberties with the novel’s plot and portrayal of characters because he created the film at a more liberal period in time, less than a decade before the 21st century.
The novel Dracula by Bram stoker was published at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when most dangerous jobs were only executed by men, while their women stayed in the safety of their homes. Bram Stoker demonstrates the same social construct in the novel through the character of Mina Harker. After acknowledging the existence of vampires, the men decide to track down Dracula. Mina asks if she can be of company on this journey. Dr. Van Helsing refuses her help on the basis of her gender: “When we part tonight, you no more must ask questions. We shall tell you all in good time. We are men, and able to bear; but you must be our star and our hope, and we shall act all the freer that you are in the danger such as we are” (281). His reply to Mina proves that women did not have many options in life. Van Helsing shuts Mina out of the men’s circle; however, Stoker reinstates Mina into the Crew of Light by giving her the ability to communicate with Dracula telepathically, and therefore, restoring her status as a useful woman in a man’s world. Yet somehow, there is still a closing on female agency throughout the plot; Francis Coppola’s film adaptation of Stoker’s novel sheds more light on female agency as it gives women more power to execute dangerous jobs.
At the end of the film, as the Crew of Light fights Dracula, Mina Harker (who is in love with Dracula in Coppola’s retelling) stands before Dracula to protect him from her husband Harker and the others. Dracula is injured and weak but still needs to be finished off. As the men approach him and Mina. Jonathan Harker stops them and states “No, let them go, let them go.” He adds, “Our work is finished here. Hers has only begun” (Coppola 1992). Unlike Stoker, Coppola gives Mina Harker the power to execute Dracula by herself. Because it was released at a more liberal period in time, the film allows Mina to carry out a dangerous and difficult job of executing not only a vampire but also her lover.
Much like female agency, female sexuality or sexual desires were unacceptable during the Victorian era. A woman could only feel love for one man and one man only. Bram Stoker displays this through the characters of Mina and Lucy. Mina is loyal to Jonathan Harker, so much so that throughout the plot she learns various practices to be able to aid him in his work. Lucy is her best friend who has received marriage proposals from three different men. In the fifth chapter, Lucy wonders, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble? But this is heresy, and I must not say it” (Stoker 91). Even though we can see that Lucy desires more than one man, it is obvious that she can’t legally have them all. Francis Coppola, on the other hand, allows the female agency and sexuality to be brought to the surface. In the film, not only do Lucy and Mina get to kiss one another, Lucy also kisses all her suitors. Mina, on the other hand, has an affair with the count while Harker is imprisoned at Castle Dracula. In one scene, Coppola openly portrays Mina’s sexual awakening. While in bed with Dracula, in a semiconscious state, she admits, “Yes my love, you’ve found me. I have wanted this to happen, I know that now. I want to be with you always.” Coppola gives sexual agency to Mina by allowing her to be able to choose to have an affair with the villain, and drink his blood willingly to join him in eternal life. The Victorian readers would have viewed a woman that commits such actions as unfaithful and impure, but Coppola helps the contemporary viewers to see her as woman who acts at her own will.
With time, people change, grow and evolve. As this happens, society grows and our beliefs transform with us. Bram Stoker’s novel and Francis Coppola’s film models this perfectly. The orthodox beliefs that held Victorian society back were altered during the making of the film in 1992. Because the Victorian era was conservative, Bram Stoker had to suppress the sexuality of his characters. Released over a century later, Francis Coppola’s Dracula literally reveals the hidden layers of female sexual agency that Bram Stoker could not discuss openly. Coppola’s vision and the open-mindedness of the late twentieth century audience allow Stoker’s Dracula to be viewed without the veil of conservatism.