Women in Fiction: Dracula vs. Frankenstein
I recently finished Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When a friend found out I’d liked the classic monster story, her immediate response was “Frankenstein is better…”
I’m not sure whether I agree, though.
I certainly have more fond memories associated with Frankenstein, which I read (multiple times) during my undergraduate career. So my memories of the story are closely tied to memories of learning and living with my college friends. I read (and re-read) Mary Shelley’s compact monster story, discussed it in multiple seminars (with one of my favorite professors), wrote (and edited, and re-wrote, and re-edited…) multiple papers on it. And most of those discussions took my favorite analytical perspective (namely, a feminist one).
So when I think of Frankenstein, I think of an allegorical warning against men attempting to co-opt the female role of creator of life (since Frankenstein’s attempt to create life results in the creation of a monster). I think of a story framed by the conceit of a woman as the ultimate judge and audience (since the narration commences as a letter to the sister of the man who comes across the monster-chasing Frankenstein). I think of the female author. And I think of women as emblems of virtue and peace in a world of unnatural and violent men.
But might Dracula compare to Frankenstein as a story that represents an empowering perspective on the feminine?
I never engaged in classroom discussions or essay-drafting on the story of Dracula, but it strikes me as a story about virtuous women fighting against being preyed upon by dangerous men.
I might be offended by the notion that women need to be protected from men, or that they are portrayed as precious and incapable of fighting for themselves, were it not for the fact that Dracula (like Frankenstein) is an epistolary story. Through the letter-writing of the various characters, women are both recipients of the story and authoritative voices creating it. Though Lucy is passively sweet (and succumbs to the evil Dracula), Mina Harker joins the men in her story in seeking out and destroying the monster who threatens her (and the rest of the world).
Certainly, the author is male (and therefore less easy to forgive for his precious portrayal of women). But Stoker’s decision to involve a married woman in an adventure is laudable. Marriage is not the be-all and end-all for women, Stoker’s story implies. Domestic felicity is not the only aspect of a woman’s life worth note—she has an internal life, the ability to think “like a man,” and an identity of her own.
The female soul, in Dracula, is not just worth saving, it is shown to be capable of powerful corruption. The feminine is more than the idyllic foil to the masculine (as detractors might identify the flat female characters in Frankenstein)—the female characters drive the plot and play essential roles in controlling it.
Just reflecting on my initial impressions of Dracula, it seems like Stoker wrote a more feminist text than Shelley did with Frankenstein. It’s less of a straightforward allegory (in my unschooled thoughts, at least) and more of an adventure story that happens to involve women in active roles. And, as far as women in fiction go, I happen to think that active and developed characters are always a step forward.
What do you think? Is Frankenstein or Dracula a better representation of women in fiction? Are my initial thoughts on Dracula way off base? Let me know!