The three vampire women who inhabit the more remote regions of Count Dracula’s castle are of great significance to the narrative. Stoker’s depiction of them could be considered to embody the very worst Victorian nightmares regarding womanhood. Jonathan Harker’s reactions after his encounter with them also convey late nineteenth-century anxieties concerning the feminization of men.
Female gender identities were narrowly defined in Victorian society. Women were generally considered to be of two types, either the doting wife and mother, or the fallen woman. The vampire women, or ‘weird sisters’, as Harker calls them – referencing the three witches from Macbeth – could be considered an exaggerated literary equivalent of these fallen women. With their “brilliant white teeth” (p.37) and “voluptuous lips” (p.37), they are portrayed as overtly sexual beings. Their appearance and behavior stand in stark contrast to that of Jonathan’s fiancée, the virtuous Mina, who he describes as having “naught in common” (p.53) with the vampire women.
During his seduction, Jonathan’s reactions to the weird sisters are decidedly ambivalent: “There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive” (p.38). He encounters them in a far-flung chamber of Castle Dracula whilst in an ambiguous state of consciousness, a common motif in Gothic literature: “I suppose I must have fallen asleep; I hope so, but I fear, for all that followed was startlingly real” (p.37). Viewed from within a Victorian context, Harker is portrayed in a somewhat feminized position, with the gender roles reversed, in that he is a man being seduced by women, when in nineteenth-century society men would be expected to assume the role of seducer.
It is arguable that the actions of the vampire women in their seduction of Harker represent newfound anxieties about the emergence of the New Woman. The New Woman was a type of woman who challenged the prevailing Victorian notions of womanhood. Although Mina could be considered a New Woman, with her financial independence gained from having a career before marriage, she discusses this class of women with disdain. Regarding attitudes to marriage, she states that “I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself” (p.89). It would appear that in their seduction of Harker, the female vampires could be considered New Women in light of Mina’s remarks.
Within the context of Gothic literature, Stoker confronts several conventions, one of these being through the role of Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle. In eighteenth-century Gothic novels, such as Ann Radcliffe’s influential The Mysteries of Udolpho, it is a young woman – of a ‘tremulous sensitivity’ and much prone to fainting – who finds herself ensnared in a remote castle and at the mercy of male predators. In Dracula Stoker has subverted convention by having a male character in this role, a detail consolidated by Harker’s reaction to his grisly encounter with the vampire women: “the horror overcame me, and I sank down unconscious” (p.39). He is a man assuming the role typically occupied by women in Gothic narrative.
Mina’s role as a New Woman is supported further during her encounter with the weird sisters much later in the story. The vampire women are shown to beckon to Mina, referring to her as ‘sister’ in their invitation to join their ranks.
Jonathan’s “agony of delightful anticipation” (p.38) when being seduced by the vampires is echoed in Van Helsing’s own anxieties when staking the undead women. He also notes the women’s sexual appeal in similar tones to Harker: “She was so fair to look on, so radiantly beautiful, so exquisitely voluptuous”, (p.370). If Victorian masculinity could be undermined through the threat posed by sexually attractive women, then Van Helsing’s staking of the female vampires could be considered a reassertion of male patriarchy.