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The Good Girl: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Evolving Ideals of Feminine Conduct

Gothic Victorian literature has a rather interesting formula when it comes to our women in horror: the woman in question is either punished for impure behavior, or she is attempted to be saved by the heroes as a way to uphold virtue. Usually, she exists as a demonstration of some sort: she’s either the horrible warning for others to cause self-examination and repentance, or she’s the source for our male hero to dig deep and fight. She’s the scapegoat or the beautiful thing requiring salvation in order to continue the cycle of social, moral goodness. Often, no middle ground exists; the woman is either impure or godly, sinner or saint, with no rich development of motivation or emotional attachment. Except, curiously, in one arena throughout multiple forms of media: Lucy Westenra of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Published in 1897, Lucy’s presence in the book functions as a bit of commentary upon the social gender roles and literary expectations of the time. As further adaptations demonstrate as well, Lucy changes to meet the requirements of female gender roles of the particular time period, begging the question: is Lucy a pile of contradictions, or the first step toward a multi-faceted female character in horror?

Beginning first with the Stoker novel, we meet Lucy as a typical young woman of her day: she’s wealthy, she’s flirty, and she’s rather young. When I first read the book at the age of 7, I was struck by the fact that Lucy was described as being a mere 19 years old – she was only 12 years older than me. I looked around at the teenagers that lived next door – one of whom was a lovely redhead – and wondered if that wasn’t what the character looked like. The character’s youth was shocking to me. However, for that audience, Lucy’s youth and circumstances were not surprising: socially, she would have been on the track for engagement and marriage around that time in her life. College was not an option for her, nor was a career – she was well on her way to transitioning from wealthy socialite daughter to wealthy, aristocratic housewife. Lucy reflected the typical life cycle of the average, well-off socialite. She also managed to reflect what was expected of her behavior: many praised her as being a pure, good person. She attracts the attentions of Dr. Seward, Quincy Morris, and Arthur Holmwood, all of whom are drawn to her playful nature and virtuous disposition. Lucy’s a lot of fun, but most importantly, she’s a “good girl” who is pure of heart at her core.

Among her positive traits, Lucy’s physical beauty is a given: as an ideal, she’s meant to be gorgeous. We’re meant to look at her and think immediately of the popular girl we are told to aspire to one day become. In fact, so strong is her beauty that it becomes her identifier – she’s known as the Bloofer Lady by working class children in the surrounding area. The name comes from a bastardization of the word “beautiful,” providing a sharp division in her status as a wealthy, refined woman as opposed to her poor, uneducated victims. Dressed in what should have been her wedding gown, Lucy wanders her surroundings preying upon children once she’s joined the ranks of the undead. Curiously, Lucy doesn’t inflict much damage upon the children: they have bite marks upon their necks, but have not been drained of blood to the point of death. It’s as though she’s having a late night snack with an easy target and causing no more harm than say a dog looking for scraps. Lucy could have morphed into a killing machine, but instead, she’s simply a beautiful woman who gives a bit of a nip to kids out at night.

The portrait of Lucy, when her attributes are combined, is a rather curious one: she’s progressive whilst still meeting the standards of decency in Stoker’s time. Thus, she’s allowed to be flirty and have multiple suitors – Stoker presents her as a pure soul, which means that she’s not going to engage in premarital intercourse with her suitors. Moreover, each one of her suitors represents a change in time: Seward is the medical trailblazer; Quincy is the exciting foreigner who embodies the spirit of the Wild West; and Holmwood is the traditional upper class. That she chooses Holmwood means that she selects tradition, rooting her as someone open to evolution and possibility without deviating too far from long-held standards. Lucy gets to be the representation of progress because her progress is considered safe: she’s not engaging in premarital sex, she’s not a bad person, and she doesn’t kill anyone. It’s easy to cast Lucy as the victim in this instance.

Coincidentally, Lucy changes in later cinematic adaptations. In Dracula (1931), she has a greatly reduced role, and dies offscreen. Twenty-seven years later, Hammer Films’ Dracula (1958) finds Lucy’s character combined with Mina’s to become Lucy Holmwood, the sister of Arthur and fiancée of Jonathan Harker. As portrayed by Carol Marsh, this version of Lucy still dies, but she’s turned into a vampire as revenge for Harker killing one of Dracula’s brides rather than the excuse that she was there. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) finds us confronted with a Lucy that oozes sexuality, engages in sex with a wolf, and is frequently nude. BBC One went one better in 2006 and produced a version of Lucy that is married to Arthur, but still virginal because her husband has syphilis. Progressing further, the version of Dracula that NBC aired in 2013 saw Lucy as a lesbian that carried a torch for Mina. As the times change, so do the social reflections of Lucy: in some cases, she’s seen but not heard; in others, she’s far more brash and sexual in her overtones because her wealth and privilege allow her to get away with such behavior. How Lucy is viewed depends upon the time in which we’re viewing her.

This aspect of the character can be both damning and empowering. On one hand, it’s rather frustrating to watch someone who has the potential to shake things up fall so far away from doing so in the source material. Lucy has the chance to become an exciting woman, because she has the wealth to behave outside of custom and the personality that draws others to her – a woman like Lucy is rich enough to be eccentric. She can afford to be different, and yet she chooses virginity and tradition because that’s what’s expected of a good woman of the times. However, one can’t ignore the license that’s been used when adapting Lucy. In more recent productions of the source material, she’s a far more sexually active presence. She’s the outrageous girl who can get away with this behavior because she’s pretty, popular and rich. What does not change throughout these adaptations is the loyalty to her because of her intrinsic nature: no one ever doubts that Lucy is a good person who walks into a bad situation. She’s got the admirers because she’s full of life and a good friend. People are drawn to her because she’s beautiful; they stay because she’s nice.

Perhaps Lucy is a study in the evolution of female gender roles. Stoker plays it safe by making her everything we’d expect the ideal to be, but he places just enough rebellion within her to give her the breakout potential. That’s why we have Lucy in later versions as in charge and yet still lovable. She follows enough of the prescribed gender role attributes without overstepping into alienation territory. Really, this method of execution is rather sly – Stoker presents just enough change to make it tolerable while giving her a familiar, appealing demeanor. The change Lucy represents isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things – she’s more of a friend whose progressiveness is explained away with happy acceptance. In essence, he humanizes the changing role, which is a pretty nifty feat of magic if I do say so myself.

About Erin Miskell

Erin Miskell writes about movies and passes for normal in Upstate New York. An avid fan of inappropriate humor and schlock horror, you can find her rambling at www.thebackseatdriverreviews.com and @bsdriverreview on Twitter.

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