About the Author:
I am in my last year of the Visual Arts program. My interest in horror and camp films and literature was piqued when I saw the English course entitled “Scary Monsters.” In tying my program with the course, this essay compares the theme of the femme fatale found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, both from the late 19th century. I remain predominantly interested in visual arts and plan to move on to a B.A. in Fine Arts but literature still inspires my practice.
Prof. Shalon Noble
English BXE: Scary Monsters
Dracula and Pre-Raphaelite Art: The Rising Interest in the Femme Fatale Image
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires are portrayed as monstrous, but female vampires are shown with another level of monstrosity that derives from their sexually tempting nature. The aesthetic of the temptress or femme fatale is also reflected in the Pre-Raphaelite art movement occurring at the same time. The image of the femme fatale is a recurring motif in Dracula as well as in the late Pre-Raphaelite art movement because it reflects the concerns surrounding the woman’s role in the late Victorian society.
Through formal qualities, the femme fatale is presented as the opposite of the ideal modest Victorian woman. In Dracula, Lucy as a vampire and the weird sisters are described in a hypersexualized way. In the beginning of the novel, Jonathan Harker describes one of the weird sisters as having a “deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal” (69). The attention brought to the female vampire’s mouth connotes the sexual nature of this first encounter between Jonathan and one of the weird sisters. Though her sensuality is tempting, Jonathan is also disgusted by it because the gender roles are being reversed in this situation, in that it is a woman making the advances on a man.
One Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse, was particularly interested in femme fatales. Waterhouse’s 1905 painting Lamia features a conventionally beautiful woman who is dressed and positioned in a seductive manner. She is wearing almost translucent fabrics that seem very light and have a feeling of fluidity and smoothness in a sensual way. Lamia’s hands are pulling the knight towards her and her gaze holds him captive. Furthermore, the knight is in a relaxed and vulnerable position; he is sitting and has removed his helmet and sword. This demonstrates the male perception, at the time, of female sensuality being a dangerous force that is a distraction from the knight-like honour of the nineteenth-century British man. Additionally, the soft lighting of these scenes combined with their dress and hypnotizing beauty create an illusion of innocence and harmlessness. Thus, these formal qualities make femme-fatale figures seem even more dangerous. Therefore, all women who exhibit a certain sexual openness are persecuted for their lack of modesty, which was a key virtue held by the ideal Victorian woman such as Mina Harker.
The femme fatale characters in Dracula and late Pre-Raphaelite art are, unlike the ideal Victorian woman, free from domestic or urbanized settings. Lucy during her vampiric period and the weird sisters are either not restrained to domestic tasks or are drawn out of their houses. They are no longer expected to assume a caretaking role. They only take care of themselves. Lucy sleepwalks out of her house in Whitby while under the influence of Count Dracula. She is drawn out of the main town and near a cemetery on a cliff. Moreover, after her full transformation, Lucy leaves her grave and wanders off into the trees. On both occasions, Lucy leaves the structured environment imposed upon her by men; she could not be confined to her room, never mind her tomb. Tama Engelking, a professor of French in the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Cleveland State University interested in early twentieth-century women’s studies, states that during the Victorian period “Women were seen as the moral guardians of society, and as such, those who violated their domestic roles presented the worst possible threat to the Victorian status quo” (363). Therefore, once again, this act of self-assertiveness, before sexual and now societal, is a threat to the role of men because it questions their efficacy in their role and whether this entails men adopting more feminine roles. In Waterhouse’s 1905 painting Lamia, the female figure is set in a nature-inspired environment and has animalistic connotations, which in this case is a snakeskin. Lamia is based on the Greek myth of lamiae: carnivorous serpent creatures who were “sexually voracious as well as bloodthirsty,” and “seduced men for carnal pleasure and then ‘sucked their blood while they slept’” (Baker 15). The natural setting in this painting consists of a dark forest, brush, vines, and wildflowers which resembles most of Waterhouse’s depictions of femmes fatales. Furthermore, draped around the lamia’s arms is a snakeskin, but this shawl is not an act of modesty but rather an act of concealment of her reptilian identity. Therefore, by the male perception at this time, these femme fatales being free from the roles imposed on them by society implies that they are uncivilized or primitive and bestial or animalistic women.
The femme fatale is used as a cautionary tale for women who are more sexually open or independent. In Dracula, after she turns into a vampire, Lucy is shown as a relentless, sexually-open woman driven by a purpose that repulses the men in the story and motivates them to kill her. This occurs when Van Helsing, Sir Godalming, Dr. Seward, and Morris first encounter Lucy as a vampire outside her tomb. Her attempts at manipulation and seduction only horrify her fiancé even more and make him want to ‘fix’ her. Another example would be Van Helsing’s slaying of the weird sisters: “the brutal sexuality of Van Helsing’s revenge, however, suggests that sanity for him is equated with potency or virility” (Pedlar 145). In all cases in Dracula, the female vampires are killed for their behaviour, which, to the Victorian reader, serves as a warning against such independent and unexpected acts. John William Waterhouse painted several stories where a woman with agency, sometimes shown as ill intent, is either cursed, killed, or rejected by society, such as the Lady of Shallot series of paintings, The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy, and notably that of Lamia who, like Lucy, was also seen as a child-killer. The story originates from Greek mythology where the original Lamia, after having an affair with Zeus, was eventually driven to madness by Hera, his wife, to the point where she would devour her own children. This act then, out of revenge and bitter rage, extended to other people’s children, thus contributing to the link between vampirism and a lack of motherhood. Therefore, like the female vampires in Dracula, Lamia is persecuted for her agency, and for simply attempting to obtain what she desired. A woman with a self-set purpose and agency is perceived as monstrous, in that it is unnatural and defies the Victorian social norms. This act of self-assertiveness was a frightening thing because it easily shifted everything in such a restricted society. Therefore, extreme threats required, in the Victorian male’s eyes, extreme measures of elimination which in turn establishes and perpetuates the narrative of unVictorian-like females as monstrous.
The instability of gender norms in the late Victorian era, especially the male perception of how women should act, is portrayed through the image of the femme fatale in a vast array of literature, namely Dracula, and through the Pre-Raphaelite art movement at that time. Through these works, the opposite of the ideal modest Victorian woman is portrayed. These femme fatales are shown to have a seductive and animalistic nature, and that very nature is what leads to their unavoidable demise.
Baker, James K, and Cathy L Baker. “The ‘Lamia’ in the Art of JW Waterhouse.” The British Art Journal, vol. 5, no. 2, 2004, p. 15–22. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41615288. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
Engelking, Tama Lea. “Renée Vivien and The Ladies of the Lake.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies, vol. 30, no. 3/4, 2002, p. 362–379. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23537781. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
Pedlar, Valerie. “The Zoophagous Maniac: Madness and Degeneracy in Dracula.” The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction, Liverpool University Press, 2006, p. 134–158. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjmzb.9. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Broadview, 1897.
Waterhouse, John William. Lamia. 1905, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland.