Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Dracula and Victorian Concepts of Sexuality

The following post will accompany a special Gothic reading group session to be held on Thursday 2 March at the University of Sheffield, and led by Sophie Barber. If you would like to join us to discuss Dracula, Victorians, and sexuality, email Sheffield Gothic for more details, and remember – we  don’t bite…much!

It seems to be a common misconception that the Victorians did not discuss sex; when we consider our Victorian predecessors, we may be inclined to think of them as somewhat uptight and frigid. However, if we take a look at some of the literature of the period, especially that which concerns vampires, we start to see a society far more obsessed with sex than they ostensibly let on. As Nina Auberach explains in her seminal work Our Vampires, Ourselves every generation creates the vampire it needs as a form of catharsis.[i]  For the Victorians, this vampire functioned as way to talk about sex without fear of public censor.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

I think the best example of such coded discussions of sex can be found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Whether Stoker constructed his novel with sexuality as his primary focus is debatable; but the fate of those who exemplify non-normative sexual behaviour - such as multiple partners or female sexual agency - is suitably severe that even a Victorian readership aware of such imagery would be pleased by the appropriate punishments dished out to the ‘morally degenerate’ characters. Lucy must be purified after she has been infected by vampirism, because she has reclaimed her ownsexual agency, which goes against the Victorian expectation that males bear sexual responsibility. She is described as having turned to ‘voluptuous wantonness’ and attempts to entice her husband to the grave with her. Of course, her husband and his band of helpers must now reclaim their sexual responsibility and proceed to stake her, returning her back to a state of sweetness and purity – even if she is dead. The perversion of vampirism is now undone.

Lucy’s staking is perhaps one of the most sexually loaded sequences in the novel: it is a perverse reimagining of the wedding night. Clive Leatherdale notes that the stake shares ‘psychological connotations as a phallic symbol’ because it sadistically imitates the bodily penetration of a penis.[ii]  Arthur drives ‘deeper and deeper the mercy baring stake’ as his undead bride’s body shakes and twists in ‘wild contortions’. This destruction of the vampire is accompanied by a quasi-orgasmic state, echoing a perhaps painful loss of virginity that Lucy never achieved in her human life. Imagery of blood ‘welling and spurting’ around her heart as she is penetrated with the stake represents the bloody deflowering of a bride, and is perhaps one of the most explicitly sexual references in the text.

Lucy moments before she is staked
Dracula himself is loaded with potent sexuality, and encounters with the undead have a clear sexual subtext by Stoker’s conflation of vampire bites and ‘kisses’. When the Count attacks Mina she is in bed, and if we read such a passage in light of the symbolic value of blood as semen, the attack becomes explicitly about fellatio. Mina is described ‘kneeling over the edge of the bed’ as blood begins to ‘spurt out’. And of course, blood does not spurt. Mina becomes obsessed at an oral level, rubbing her lips as if to ‘cleanse them from pollution’ after she swallows an unknown substance. This, coupled with Stoker’s analogy of a child forcing a kitten to drink milk, makes it easy to see beneath the vampire subterfuge.

Because vampires primarily operate at night, and the Count puts his victims into a trancelike state, it is easy to see the novel as an examination of sexual self-repression. Moral and sexual transgressions are relegated to the sphere of darkness and so associated with dark forces. It is also interesting to note that even the sexual subtext seems to adhere to Victorian standards of acceptability – all sex imagery is explicitly heterosexual. Although the vampire may offer a way for authors and readers to covertly explore certain sexual fantasies it is important to remember that these, for Stoker’s Victorian audience at least, didn’t ever stray from traditional conceptions of sex.

Sophie Barber is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield, with an interest in the Gothic, the Victorians, and Vampires. When not researching Victorian Vampires, Sophie performs her own Gothic Transformations.

[i] Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[ii]  Clive Leatherdale, Dracula: The novel and the legend: A study of Bram Stoker’s Gothic Masterpiece, (Westcliff-on-sea: Desert Island Books, 1993), p. 169.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Gothic Ghibli: Mapping the Monstrous in Princess Mononoke.

Gothic Ghibli is a blog series hosted by Sheffield Gothic , exploring the Gothic flavours of Studio Ghibli films. In this post, Stephanie Reid maps the Monstrous in Princess Mononoke.

Princess Mononoke, or “Possessed Princess” already sounds like a Gothic tale but it is not so straightforward to translate ‘Japanese Gothic’.  In fact, Charles Shirō Inouye goes so far as to say that ‘the term [Gothic] did not exist because the Japanese did not need it’ because theirs is a culture aligned with the supernatural - and, as the opening of the film describes, the Japanese people live alongside their beasts, spirits, gods and demons[i].

The film follows Prince Ashitaka, who is marked by an infectious rot upon his arm that he contracted whilst defending his village from a demon.  On his travels to find a cure he becomes embroiled in a conflict between the forest spirits, and the humans.  San, a human girl raised by the wolf Goddess, Moro, and her pack, is introduced fighting against the destructive humans who seek to consume the resources of the forest for material gain.  When Ashitaka discovers her, San is sucking the blood from her ‘Mother’ Moro’s wound, she turns to silently face him as blood drips down her face and onto her wolf-pelt cloak.  The image is at once strikingly ambiguous; San is aligned with the monstrous, a blood-sucker, and yet the act itself is done out of love for her Mother.

San is outcast for her many skins - even Moro tells Ashitaka “my poor, ugly, beautiful daughter is neither human, nor wolf”.  The liminality of her skins rupture the narrative itself as she is caught between the worlds.  This does however mean that it is possible to ‘map’ tropes of the Gothic onto San’s skins: spectral, abhuman, and haunting.  Not forgetting when she is momentarily rotted by touch of the corrupted forest-spirit, Shishigami! Obviously ‘Gothic’ is San’s own wolf-skin that she wears upon her back, it is both a concealment of her human figure, and masquerade of a more monstrous, bestial form.  Curiously, I find myself wondering how she acquired this skin; presumably, a ‘fallen’ wolf?  In which case, although she wears a ‘dead’ skin, in taking on this wolf pelt apparel, she also animates it.  San, through clothing (which could be considered a distinctly ‘human’ form of ‘skin’) ironically achieves and embodies the liminality of the spirit-wolves, neither alive nor truly dead: Princess Mononoke incarnate.

Another world in which San is caught between is that of the past and the present.  Symbolised through bodily adornments, San is depicted as primal, animalistic, barbaric even with her facial markings, piercings, talismans, and decorative teeth.  Eboshi, the leader Irontown, is the only other woman besides San who wears jewellery, although she is fashioned very much as a ‘modern’ woman very distinct in style from San.  In this way, their adornments locate the women within specific, stylistic, temporal moments; San takes on a costume of the ancient past, and Eboshi in bold prints becomes an icon of the progressive, industrial future.

Much of Gothic is fearful of the past; family curses, lost manuscripts, forgotten ruins, but Princess Mononoke, although in many ways tormented by the remnants of past beliefs and practices with San serving as almost a spectral embodiment of the past, appears much more fearful of the future.  San is, perhaps, quite a fashionable- even modern, monster?  She looks very much the part, covered in blood, stalking her enemies like a beast, but, she is ultimately a girl, abandoned by her family, devoted to her wolf-kin.  The gift of Ashitaka’s necklace, however, is as transformative as her wolf-skin.  It humanises her by re-fashioning her as a monster befitting our modern age, who wears a token of love.

San as a character perfectly captures Gothic ambiguity, being a monstrous body and a figure of sympathy who forces us to re-think the ‘monster’, and instead think upon the modern horrors we have inflicted upon our own green spaces.  A horror, that is unambiguously, global.  Princess Mononoke remains one of the top ten highest grossing films in Japan, along with other Ghibli anime films, and two Harry Potter films.  The film clearly reaches a broad audience and at a time when ‘our’ Gothic is critiqued for its proliferation within the mainstream, and yet Japan’s popular culture is dominated by stories of magic, spirits, and ghosts- despite the absence of a ‘Gothic’ term to describe them. 

Perhaps then, what Princess Mononoke does so brilliantly is to drawn attention to absence; the absence of borders, boundaries – but more pressingly, the consequences of the absenting of spaces entirely.  Mujō is the Japanese concept of leaving things incomplete and we see this both in San’s choice to remain in the forest, fragmented between Ashitaka and the spirits, and in the fate of the story more broadly.  San however, is somewhat completed by the end of the story, she is monstrous but she is also strong and owns this identity, staying true to where she belongs, with the spirits…and the monsters.  Like many of our own Gothic tales, the film falls short of a completely ‘happy ending’ but there is the space for future transformation, hinted at in the potential of regrowth within the forest.  Clearly, Gothic has an immense impact upon how people view, and live, within the world, wherever that may be – but it is possible to map this impact, through monsters, and their transformations.  

Stephanie Reid is a PhD Researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research focuses on representations of skin in Post-Millennial television series – and she welcomes recommendations of strange, scary, or supernatural ‘skin stories’!

[i] Charles Shirō Inouye, ‘Japanese Gothic’, pp. 442-453 in. A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 444.