Thursday, September 30, 2010

Female Hysteria And Sexuality As A Means Of Control

Tamar Heller explores the idea of a “hysteric” girl in his writing “The Vampire in the House.” This discussion blossoms into a conversation about female sexuality and epistemology (nature and scope of knowledge) of said sexuality (Wikipedia). Heller describes these ideas through the analyzation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” an 19th century ghost-story in which it’s narrator, Laura, describes her encounters with a vampire. Heller uses a multitude of sources to relay his ideas about the mystery that femininity presented to Victorian-era men.

The first definition we receive of female hysteria comes from American physician Weir Mitchell. He uses a metaphor to paint the picture: “A hysterical girl is…a vampire who sucks the blood of healthy people about her.” He goes on to say that, “…I may add that pretty surely where there is one hysterical girl there will be soon or late two sick women” (Holmes 78). This shows that Mitchell believes hysteria to be contagious among women. It also shows his underlying beliefs that women are something of a burden, needing to feed off of others in order to survive. In Le Fanu’s story, Laura becomes very sick after a mysterious houseguest, Carmilla comes to stay with them. Laura only begins to recover after it is found out that Carmilla is a vampire who has been preying on her at night. Heller makes a crucial point when he says that, “the parallel between this story and Mitchell’s image of the self-reproducing hysteric suggests an interdisciplinary cultural dialogue: not only, for doctors, is the hysterical woman like a vampire but, in takes like Le Fanu’s, the vampire can be read as a figure for the hysterical woman” (Heller 78). Carmilla is languid, prone to sudden outbursts of anger, and does not sleep or eat. Symptoms of hysteria were faintness, insomnia, nervousness, irritability, loss of appetite or libido, and the general tendency to be a nuisance. The connections between Carmilla and hysteric women are obvious. Heller tells us that there were two main theories for female hysteria. The first was to ascribe the hysteria to sexual frustration or desire. The second theory blamed the female’s sensitive nervous system. However, “a series of metonymic associations in Victorian physiological theory, however, linked the female reproductive system not only to nervousness and hysteria but also to women’s capacity for sexual arousal, suggesting that nerves were, as Cynthia Eagle Russet says in Sexual Science, ‘apparently synonymous with female sexuality’” (Heller and Russet 78).

Victorian-era men were extremely bothered with this hysteria because it took the conventionality out of the woman. Hysteric women were not the plump, quiet, abiding, ever-smiling beings they had grown to associate with femininity. Rather, hysteric women were often skinny from their loss of appetite, and pale and irritable from their lack of sleep.

In Le Fanu’s story, Carmilla is first introduced to Laura when her carriage is in an accident and the fainted Carmilla is carried from within. Also in the carriage is “a hideous black woman, with a sort of coloured turban on her head, who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning decisively towards the ladies with gleaming eyes and large white eye-balls, and her teeth set as if in fury” (Le Fanu). This image reveals “what lurks beneath the surface of conventional femininity” (Heller 84). We see this nastier side of femininity in “Carmilla”, as well. Laura singing a hymn sets Carmilla off into a rage: “It (her face) darkened, and became horribly livid; her teeth and hands were clenched, and she frowned and compressed her lips…” (Le Fanu). “As Carmilla’s face darkens, she becomes what figures like the black woman in the carriage symbolize in nineteenth-century racist and sexist iconography: the woman as angry, demonic, and animalistically sexual other…” Heller explains (Heller 84). In the last pages of “Carmilla”, it is found out that she is a vampire and thus she is brutally executed. Heller muses, “If, as Helene Cixous says, ‘the hysterical woman is the woman who disturbs and is nothing but disturbance’ we can see what happens to such disorderly women” (Cixous and Heller 89). That being said, we now have reason to believe that “Carmilla” serves also as a warning to women to not stray from their pre-determined roles.

Another interesting element of “Carmilla” that Heller explores is that of lesbianism. When reading the story, the lesbian elements are very apparent and plain to see, even if they do make one do a bit of a double take. Carmilla’s interest in Laura is identifiable from the very beginning of their relationship. Carmilla states, “I cannot help it; as I draw nearer to you, you, in your turn will draw nearer to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit,” while laying cheek to cheek with Laura with her hands about Laura’s neck, kissing her cheek (Le Fanu 263).

The question now becomes: does Laura understand this interest? Does she return it? After describing Carmilla’s beauty with great detail and passion Laura says, “Heavens! If I had but known all!” (Le Fanu 262). “What is intriguing about such a comment in light of the general’s definition of female innocence as utter ignorance, is the tantalizing and perhaps purposeful vagueness of ‘all’: Laura’s ‘Had I but known all’ suggests that she very well may have known some,” Heller states (Heller 87). Trying to make sense of Carmilla’s behavior, Laura wonders, "What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade, with the assistance of a clever old adventuress" (Le Fanu 265). This possible explanation she tries to rationalize shows that although Laura does not even see that their could possibly be same-sex lovers, she is on her way to understanding her reaction to Carmilla’s touches.

With that underlying realization, Laura says, "Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, ‘drawn towards her’, but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging” (Le Fanu 260-261). Later, Laura talks about a “pleasurable” feeling she identifies with Carmilla. “The orgasmic overtones of this language of tumultuous sensation resonate in the dreams Laura has once Carmilla starts to suck her blood, dreams in which it seems as if ‘warm lips kissed me’ as she feels the classic hysterical symptoms of ‘strangulation’ and ‘convulsion,’ says Heller (Heller 85). The turn from feeling “engaged” towards Carmilla to having obvious lesbian feelings towards her comes when Carmilla begins to pay Laura her nightly visits. Had Carmilla not been a vampire, maybe just an overly emotional friend, would Laura’s feelings have progressed so? I’d argue that Laura’s feelings would have stayed merely inquisitorial. Laura has led an extremely sheltered life, her only companions being her nurses and her father. That being said, it seems only natural that she would have such an interest in a new friend. I believe that her feelings would have stayed borderline, never venturing so far as we see they ultimately do.

The fact that women may know more than previously thought about their sexuality was very troubling to Victorian-era men: “This anxiety sprang from a fear, even if as yet only partially articulated, of the sexual implications of such friendships, while also belying a wariness about the formation of emotional bonds that might hinder a girl’s entry into the world of heterosexuality” (Heller 87).

When Laura is six-years-old she is visited by a mysterious woman at the foot of her bed that lies down with her and bites her breast (just as Carmilla later does, in fact, Laura recognizes Carmilla as the mysterious woman when she meets her again and it is obvious that the two mysterious women are one in the same). This incident proposes that Laura “knows too much too soon about sexuality” (Heller 83). Laura tells her nurses and father about the incident and their anxiety is clear. Being the concerned and loving father he is, Laura’s father calls on a priest and a doctor to see his daughter. But these males are “…desiccated and elderly, too impotent to stave off a powerful and predatory female sexuality” Heller explains. Thus we see worry not only for Laura but for the fact that there is a force too strong and mysterious for men to understand.

Heller gathers information from Helen Stoddart’s reading of “Carmilla” as well. He collects that “this type of misogyny implies a class allegory in which decadent aristocrats are pitted against the virtuous ascendant bourgeoisie” (Heller 88). In simpler terms, the misogyny shown by Laura’s father and his contemporaries is a metaphor for the struggle between old, established views (that may very well be outdated) and the new “moral” views of the rising class. Carmilla and her lesbianism represent the “decadent aristocrat,” holding outdated views (female power) that Laura’s father, priest, and doctor, who represent the new class, are threatened by and yearn to change. This is an “attempt to normalize the authority of the bourgeoisie family (upper class)” (Heller 88). Gaining the power back is not the only goal of the bourgeoisie, though. They want to stamp out this fact that lesbianism is a way for women to pass and acquire knowledge. Victorian era men only hold the upper hand in society because they make sure to keep women in the dark, so to speak. “That one can make such a link in “Carmilla” between female mind and body—between sexuality and knowledge—is revealing a historical moment in which lesbianism and women’s education were starting to be metonymically (one word being substituted for another) linked,” Heller declares (Heller 88). Through this bonding between women, they become “independent of male control” (Heller 89).

Heller offers many different points and perspectives throughout his paper but in his last paragraph he describes the literary and social importance of “Carmilla.” He tells us, “For, despite the strenuously brutal efforts of male authority to erase women’s sexual knowledge, this desire continues to haunt their writing, just as Laura ends her narrative imagining that Carmilla, her image shifting from innocent angel to knowing demon with ‘ambiguous alterations’, is at her chamber door,” (Heller 91). Even though the male authority struggled so determinedly to keep women’s sexuality a secret from them, it is clear that the possibility of women gaining control of their bodies and minds it is still something they feel poses a great and underlying threat.


1. 1. Contrast, By. "Epistemology." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 30 Sept. 2010. .

2. 2. Le Fanu, Sheridan. "Carmilla." In A Glass Darkly. New York: Oxford UP, 1872. 243-319. Print.

3. 3. Hellar, Tamar. The Vampire In The House: Hysteria, Female Sexuality, and Female Knowledge in Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872). Article.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wuthering Heights: Part 2

While reading Wuthering Heights, the comparisons to the Twilight Series became very apparent. While reading the Twilight books, I noticed many of the Wuthering Heights refreneces but did not fully understand them till now.
The main theme connecting the two books I think, is that of obsession. Also, I think that this obsession theme goes further than jsut Wuthering Heights and Twilight. It seems to be there in every vampire novel/movie/whathaveyou. Humans have a certain obsession with vampires and vice versa.
Heathcliff has an obsession with Catherine that transcends her death and goes on to punish everyone connected to her...Hareton, Linton, and Edgar.
In Twilight, Edward also shows this obsession although it is very different from Heathcliff's obsession. Edward's main concern in life is keeping Bella safe. He does whatever he can to do this, sometimes sacrificing his family, and almost always sacrificing himself.
In both of the books, the obsession seems to win out over love. In Twlight, Edward knows that he is no good for Bella but his obsession/love for her wins out over this notion.
Same for Wuthering Heights, one would think that because Heathcliff loves Catherine so much he would want to do right by her daughter, young Catherine. But no...Heathcliff can see nothing besides his deep need to get revenge on Catherine in any way, shape, or form possible.
In Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer uses a number of quotes to compare the relationship Bella has with both Jacob and Edward to the relationships that Catherine has with both Edgar and Heathcliff. Bella and Catherine both have two great loves.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wuthering Heights: Part 1

First off, I am in love with this book. I knew I would like it but I had no idea how much I would connect with it.
What stood out to me the most were the main themes of love and revenge. The fact that the two were separated by so thin a line did not surprise me either. Perhaps if I had not read the book while thinking about love and revenge I might not fully understand why the two are so similar...BUT...since I did, it now seems that the two are one in the same.
Not only are they one in the same, but it seems like they are a direct result of one another. Born out of eachother, if you will.
The first example of this would be in Heathcliff and Hindley Earnshaw. Though we don't understand his reasoning (yet?) Mr. Earnshaw sees something in young Heathcliff that he instantly falls in love with. So much so that he brings him home and treats him as his most loved son for the remainder of his years. Out of this love for Heathcliff from Mr. Earnshaw, Hindley begins to grow a deep hatred for Heathcliff that will last throughout the remainder of his years: "So, from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house; and at Mrs. Earnshaw's death, which happened in less than two years after, the young master had learned to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent's affections and his privileges; and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries." In the beginning, one can feel sort of bad for Hindley. Being usurped as favorite son IS something that would leave a lasting resentment but as the novel goes on, we begin to see that Hindley's dislike for Heathcliff is much more intense than that. It is this treatment of Heathcliff that makes the reader feel for him (Heathcliff). Out of Hindley's hatred for Heathcliff springs a lifelong need for revenge. This hatred starts the cycle of revenge for the entire novel.
Heathcliff also has a need for revenge: "I'm trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don't care how long I wait, if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do!"
We also notice that in childhood, Heathcliff and Catherine work on their revenge together: "... they forgot everything the minute they were together again: at least the minute they had contrived some naughty plan of revenge." Perhaps this begins their twisted love affair. Because they were once allied revenge-seekers they cannot truly seek revenge on eachother later in life. This could be why Isabella bears the brunt of Heathcliff's revenge tactics...We know that Heathcliff is very intelligent; if he wanted to he COULD find a way to direct his cruelness at Cathy but he doesn't wish to cause her direct pain.
Even more blatantly obvious than this revenge relationship is that of Catherine and Heathcliff. It begins when Catherine marries Edgar and has not stopped by the end of our assigned reading. Obviously, Heathcliff and Catherine have an extremely intense love: "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same..." "If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it" says Catherine.
Heathcliff plans and carries out his revenge on Catherine for the rest of the novel. Also, Cathy knows that Heathcliff is trying to exact his revenge on her for marrying another. This fact is forgiven, just as Catherine's betrayal to Heathcliff is, because their's is a love that cannot be denied or altered.
It is obvious that Heathcliff's form of revenge is cruel, especially to the poor, innocent Isabella. But at the same time, we can't help but to commiserate with him because this revenge is born out of the extreme, undeniable love between Heathcliff and Cathy. Even though his methods are hateful, I couldn't help but root for him a bit.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Vampyre

What caught my eye the most in Polidori's "The Vampyre" was Ruthven's plea to Aubrey. This seems to connect back up with the "oath" in "Giving Up the Ghost." This need for companionship, for closeness, is still apparent:
Assist me! you may save me -- you may do more than that -- I mean not life, I heed the death of my existence as little as that of the passing day; but you may save my honour, your friend's honour...I need but little, my life ebbs apace -- I cannot explain the whole -- but if you would conceal all you know of me, my honour were free from stain in the world's mouth -- and if my death were unknown for some time in England...Swear by all your soul reveres, by all your nature fears, swear that for a year and a day you will not impart your knowledge of my crimes or death to any living being in any way, whatever may happen, or whatever you may see."
Again, a vampire has entrusted his secret to a human and desperately needs him to keep it (his secret). On the other hand, upon finishing the story, it seems that Ruthven has been deceiving Aubrey all along. It could be that Ruthven planned getting "killed" so that he could force Aubrey to promise to tell no one of his secret until after he'd married his sister. Although this is extremely sinister and not like the friendly Darvell in "Giving up the Ghost," it does show that Ruthven (or vampires in general) have a need for humans--twisted as that need may be.

I found it interesting that even though Ruthven is sort of evil, he never chooses to kill Aubrey. It would have been quick, and definitely easier than going through to whole courtship process with Aubrey's sister. This shows me that Ruthven does actually have a connection and maybe even affection for Aubrey.

Giving Up The Ghost

The first time I read "Giving Up the Ghost" I found it extremely boring and could barely keep my eyes open. However, upon reading it for a second time, I found it much more interesting. I never thought about how the vampire evolved over time and looking back that seems a huge point to miss. It is interesting how when the vampire character was first introduced it was something friendly. The vampire is obviously still mysterious, but it wasn't so menacing as one might think nowadays.
I really liked the quote on page 13: "He was a being of no common order, and one who, whatever pains might take to avoid remark, would still be remarkable." This quote validates everything I know about vampires and humans. In books, movies, TV shows, or any other medium, humans are always intensely interested in their vampires. The example that comes to mind first would be that in the Twilight Series. Bella is obviously in love with Edward, but I think it is also very clear that she is in love with the "idea" of vampires. She has a respect and sort of a fascination with all of the vampires she encounters, even the ones that threaten her life. Bella is not the only human that is intrigued by the Cullens, either. Everyone at her high school is awe-struck by them. Not only for their beauty but because it's obvious that they are something else. This statement could also be proven through "Interview With a Vampire." The vampire is telling the interviewer this crazy story of his long life and how he killed all these people, fed on rats, and encountered these terrifying beings. And still, the interviewer stays and listens. I personally would not stick around to hear how someone killed countless other humans knowing full and well that I could be next.
Again, it's this crazy, irrational fascination humans seem to have with vampires.
"Giving Up the Ghost" also made me see that the fascination might just go both ways. "This oath-to preserve Ruthven's honor by concealing his predatory life and apparent death-has absolute binding power..." "...the oath signifies instead a bond between companions that is shared and chosen, one far from the Dracula-like mesmeric coercion we associate with vampires today." This oath says that not only do humans need vampires, but it is vice-versa as well. We have seen time and time again vampires entrusting the secret of their identity to one human against their better judgement. I think that this only strengthens the argument that vampires have more human tendencies then we think. The oath shows that vampires have that human need to feel close to another being. This feeling is often achieved by sharing something personal. All in all...vampires need love too!