Carmilla funeral

Illustration for The Dark Blue publishing of "Carmilla" depicting the funeral procession.

J. Sheridan Le Fanu published "Carmilla" in 1872. The story of female vampire Carmilla (also known in the story as Millarca and Mircalla, the Countess Karnstein, all anagrams of "Carmilla") is a Gothic work, noted as one of the first stories of vampire fiction. "Carmilla" is a story of a female vampire that preys on young women (noted in "The Origins of the Queer Vampire"), causing an epidemic in a Styrian town and terror in a young woman’s bedroom.

Unlike other vampire tales, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, the title character is a female vampire, not a male. See more on this subject in the section "The Role of Women in 'Carmilla'" below.

Synopsis Edit

The text of "Carmilla" opens with Laura, the narrator, seeing a strange woman in her nursery at the age of six. The "solemn, but very pretty face" was that of the title character, Carmilla, though the narrator did not know that at the time. Laura narrates, "She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling."[1]

Yet, after falling asleep, Laura has the sensation of two needles in her breast, causing her to cry out. At this point the lady slips out of bed and escapes to underneath the same bed. When the maids of the household try to consul Laura, she tells the reader, "I knew the visit of the strange woman was not a dream; and I was awfully frightened."[1]

The story forwards to when Laura is a teenager, and her father is expecting a visit from the General from the town over. The General plans to bring his niece, his ward, but she suddenly falls ill and dies. The General sends a letter saying that he must go after the monster that did this to his niece and will explain the details when he returns.

When Laura is out one night with her father, lamenting over not having a companion, she sees a carriage tumble over an overgrown tree root. Carmilla, the very same woman that Laura saw that night in her nursery, was in the carriage. Because Carmilla's mother is in a hurry to get to her destination, she places Carmilla in Laura's father's care, leaving hastily in the carriage. After Carmilla rests for a while, Laura is given leave to see her, and the two recognize each other from all those years before. It is in this chapter, entitled "We Compare Notes," that Laura and Carmilla form a sort of friendship.

With undertones (and at times overtones) of lesbian seduction, Carmilla interacts with Laura, growing closer to her even as Laura gets hints of Carmilla's vampirism. First, a travelling hunchback notes an abnormality that Carmilla has: "Your noble friend, the young lady at your right, has the sharpest tooth – long, thin, pointed, like an awl, like a needle."[1] Then, when a picture-cleaner arrives, Laura notices the extreme likeness of Carmilla in the painting of a Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, that her father has in the drawing room.

Soon, Laura has a nightmare:

"I saw, or fancied I saw, the room and its furniture just as I had seen it last, except that it was very dark, and I saw something moving round the foot of the bed, which at first I could not accurately distinguish. But I soon saw that it was a sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat. It appeared to me about four or five feet long for it measured fully the length of the hearthrug as it passed over it; and it continued to-ing and fro-ing with the lithe, sinister restlessness of a beast in a cage. . . . I felt it spring lightly on the bed. The two broad eyes approached my face, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I waked with a scream. . . . I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little at the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still. There was not the slightest stir of respiration. As I stared at it, the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out."[1]
After this nightmare, Laura's heath starts to decline. She continued to have the nightmares, and one night she sees Carmilla at the end of her bed stained in blood. Laura races to Carmilla's room after this episode, but Carmilla is not there. One o'clock the next afternoon Carmilla is back in her room, with no explanations as to why she had gone missing the night before.

Once Carmilla is back, Laura's father notices Laura's illness and orders a doctor. The doctor hears Laura's account of her nightmare and takes notes of the wound just below Laura's throat. The doctor talks to Laura's father, and in a sinister way Laura's father says, "If the right steps are taken, you will be quite well again, at least on the high road to a complete recovery, in a day or two."[1]

That afternoon Laura and her father go for a picnic in Karnstein, a town of ruins. On their way, the father and daughter run into the General, heading to the same ruined town. He joins them in their carriage and starts to relay the story of his own niece and her illness and sudden death.

Carmilla general

Illustration for The Dark Blue publishing of "Carmilla" depicting the General's attack on Carmilla/Millarca.

[Please insert the General’s story here.]

The General, Laura, and her father finally make it to Karnstein, and meet a woodman who then directs them to an old man that knows of the history of the town and its past inhabitants. The woodman notes that the village was "troubled by revenants," vampires. The General, whose niece he believed was killed by the vampire Mircalla (known to him as Millarca), wants to find her tomb to kill the vampire.

Carmilla arrives to the ruined village, but the General immediately recognizes her and goes to kill her. She escapes, and then disappears. Her disappearance ends the nightly terrors the Laura experienced. A few days later the old man that the woodman referred to, the Baron that the General knew, carried out the "formal proceedings"[1] of killing Carmilla (Mircalla) in her tomb: "a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire . . . Then the head was struck off, and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck. The body and head was next placed on a pile of wood, and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away."[1]

The "Conclusion" chapter of this text details the traits of vampires, according to their existence in this story

Historical Significance of Carmilla Edit

Carmilla was the first of it’s kind in many different way and brought about man new ideas and ways of thinking in regards to horror and romantic writing. J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla was published in 1872, years before even the most famous vampire novel of all time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Carmilla’s Influences are seen clearly through both the Romantic aspects and the description and actions of the vampires in both stories. The main points which sets Carmilla apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and other vampire novels is the fact that the Vampire antagonist is a female, and the fact that the romantic aspect delves into homosexuality despite the Victorian morals and cultural guidelines. According to Holly Furneaux in Victorian Sexualities, women did not necessarily have strong sexual desires so when women are portrayed seducing other women, as in Carmilla, it goes against the culture and provides a fresh aspect. It works as a social commentary as well, because the period in which Carmilla was published was also the time when the words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” were just starting to be used.

Carmilla also had several different traits for the vampire than other stories, for example in Carmilla the vampire never turns into a bat and does not bite the victims in the neck, but rather the chest. Almost all early vampire novels, movies, and short stories all have several slight differences between their vampire antagonists. The homosexuality aspect of Carmilla is arguably the most influential piece of the story as seen in other works, as vampires usually have very strong seductive powers and with their vampiric nature are usually able to seduce almost anyone, and in this case even people of the same sex, something which was completely unheard of at the time. This story breaks the gender roles in Victorian culture, which were notoriously rigid and perceived women only as mothers and not actual people with sexual desires, as portrayed in Carmilla.

The Role of Women in "Carmilla" Edit

In many of the stories involving vampires and werewolves. The woman is often the easy target, vulnerable and weak, the scapegoat. The vampires and werewolves and even just monsters, in general, prey on women as they are supposedly easily manipulated. It’s interesting that women are often given this role in an inferior way and there are not too many men in fiction or nonfiction that are victimized by a woman. Perhaps it’s because aggression is not as much in a woman’s nature as it is in a man’s and perhaps this is related to hormones as the root cause of the aggression.

In ‘Carmilla’, a woman was given the role as the vampire or the aggressor (Le Fanu 1872)[2], which is becoming more and more popular in today’s pop culture, such as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (where a woman is even the slayer!) and ‘Twilight’. There is an abundance of stories and media that cast women into the role of the victim and even news media caters to that sensationalism. However, it seems that there are some stories that seem to want to try to reverse that damaging image of woman that can sometimes subliminally have the effect of stripping away the power and dignity of women.

There could be many reasons why women were cast in such a diminished and helpless way. One of them could be to enforce males’ roles of being the protector and to reinforce the fact that women need men, an idea which is analyzed in Hughes work ‘Gender roles in the 19th century[3]. Women need good men to protect them from evil men; men who use women as excuses to release their aggression on. When women are constantly reminded to be careful where we go and who we go with and what time of day and how we look and what we’re wearing, not to invite danger with our appearance, gives men an excuse and a blame for their aggressive behavior, a scapegoat. Women are the scapegoat and throughout history have been the scapegoat to further men’s agendas.  When we compare stories of vampires, werewolves, and monsters this portrayal of women makes the idea of the woman as the scapegoat incredibly apparent and this portrayal, this feeling gets so imbedded within our society that we don’t even realize how these stories are reinforcing the roles of men and women everyday and throughout history until we really analyze them.

Perhaps with more women being given empowering character roles, it will help to give woman a stronger portrayal and translate into everyday society that woman are not always and do not have to be the target or the scapegoat and that we can strengthen ourselves. It’s nice for men and women to be able to work together, but the world should be a safe place for women to be independent too.

References / Footnotes Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Full text of "Carmilla" available through Project Gutenburg.
  2. Le Fanu, Sheridan. 1872 Carmilla.
  3. Hughes, Catherine. Gender roles in the 19th century.

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