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.

1 comment:

  1. I never made the connection to the condition of Hysteria to the story "Carmilla" before, but it totally makes sense. When you said 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." I was able to draw the same parallels as you directly to the theme of vampirism. I also enjoyed your interpretation of the female vampire as a metaphor or symbol of female sexuality and that it "is a force too strong and mysterious for men to understand."