The New Degenerate Woman in Dracula

Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst’s introduction “Reading the ‘Fin de Siècle’” offers an overview of many moving parts of the late 19thcentury.  Throughout the introduction, the authors describe how the time period embodied an “ambivalence of modernity,” where technological and social advances were accompanied by moments of decline and disaster.  Ledger and Luckhurst specifically discuss the evolution of the New Woman, as well as ideas of degenerates, and how sexually active women function in both of those.  In Dracula, Lucy Westenra is an example in which ideas about female sexuality and female independence have moments of coinciding and conflicting with each other during the late 19thcentury. Analyzing Lucy through Ledger and Luckhurst’s introduction to the fin de siècle and specifically through their descriptions of the New Woman and degenerates, allows one to see the comparisons and conflicts within the changes of the advancing new century or what Ledger and Luckhurst call the ambivalence of modernity.

In Dracula,Lucy Westenra is introduced through Mina Harker’s letters and journal entries. While Lucy later goes on to respond to the letters, keep a journal herself, and appear in other characters’ narratives, she appears first and foremost in the intimate written exchanges between her and Mina, her best friend of many years.  That being said, Lucy and Mina’s letters are very detailed and honest because of their close friendship.  Through her exchanges with Mina, it becomes clear that Lucy embodies the double coded idea of the New Woman as described by Ledger and Luckhurst. She encompasses “an image of sexual freedom and assertions of female independence,” but also “dangers of sexual degeneracy” (Ledger and Luckhurst 17).  In one pivotal letter to Mina, Lucy describes how she was proposed to by three different men in a single day.  After describing how she had to reject two of the men, Lucy writes to Mina, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (Stoker 67).  Lucy exercises the female independence and sexual freedom of the New Woman when she declines two of her suitors, as well as when she proposes this radical idea of marrying more than one man, more specifically as many men that desire her. Yet at the same time, she embodies the role of “the degenerate” as described by Ledger and Luckhurst, or the person who is moving “backwards” in the face of so much technological and social advancement.  One of the roles that Ledger and Luckhurst list when describing the idea of “the degenerate” in their introduction is the sexually active woman.  A woman being sexually active is indicative of a lack of control or giving into instinctual almost animalistic tendencies.  While it can be assumed that Lucy is not sexually active because she has not married yet, her statement about wanting to marry more than one man classifies her as both a sexually free and independent New Woman, but also a degenerate who should be condemned for halting the advancement of society and giving in to instinctual urges.  Lucy’s double classification emphasizes what Ledger and Luckhurst call the ambivalence of modernity, or the contradictions that exist within the push for expansion.

Merely a few lines prior to her claim for wanting multiple husbands, Lucy contradicted the idea of the New Woman by emphasizing the stereotype of female weakness and traditional gender roles of women.  She wrote to Mina, “I suppose that we women are such cowards that we think a man will save us from fears, and we marry him” (Stoker 66).  Lucy is lumping herself, Mina, and all women into a stereotype of weakness as a result of their sex.  She builds on the stereotype of female weakness and inferiority by arguing that she, and all women, marry men because they are too afraid to deal with life and their fears on their own.  Lucy paints herself as vulnerable and in need of male protection.  Lucy’s claim not only contradicts her later statement about wanting to marry multiple men, but also contradicts the sentence that directly follows, “I know now what I would do if I were a man and wanted to make a girl love me” (Stoker 66).  Stoker has written two consecutive sentences that both confirm and challenge traditional gender roles in the late 19thcentury.  In one sentence, Lucy lumps herself into a stereotype of female inferiority, and in the following sentence, she challenges traditional gender roles by imagining her behavior if she was a man.  Analyzing these two statements through Ledger and Luckhurst’s introduction to the fin de siècle allows one to see the ambivalence of modernity functioning in a novel written during the time period.

One thought on “The New Degenerate Woman in Dracula”

  1. I definitely agree that Lucy is portrayed as a modern woman with ideas about marriage and love that Bram Stoker thinks are outrageous. These ideas leave her more vulnerable to Dracula’s influence. It’s interesting that Johnathan Harker is also portrayed as a modern man (sensitive, loving, Anglican), and he is also targeted by Dracula. This could suggest that Stoker believed that changes in gender roles in the fin de siècle were dangerous

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