Thursday, October 27, 2011

Re-Reading Dracula: Was Mina Murray Harker Always This Kickass?


Because I don't remember being as impressed by her in middle school, the first time I read Dracula. 

It's not that her character isn't problematic. She is, certainly. Mina is obviously a literary example of "The Cult of Domesticity," a campaign started by Queen Vee herself to make women feel special and empowered that they were so able to be protected and sheltered by the menfolk, while still finding time to do the darning. In the early sections with Lucy, Mina makes snide little remarks about the New Woman.

Some of the "New Women" writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the "New Woman" won't condescend in future to accept. She will do the proposing herself. And a nice job she will make of it too!
The copy I picked up at the library is apparently from the Young Adult section, and has some "Questions for Discussion" in the back. One of them is "How are Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra similar? How are they different? Can you see how they are friends? Do you relate to either one of them?"

Well, let's break this down. How are they similar? Well, in their sections together at least, they are the same character--virtuous, noble, beautiful, well-mannered, beloved, proper. How are they different? Lucy's rich, Mina's middle-class. Lucy doesn't work, Mina's a schoolteacher, thus she's probably a bit more educated. Oh, and Lucy sleepwalks.

All these are characteristics that differ only in the sense a brunette is different from a blonde; all surface.

So can I see how they are friends? Obviously, yes. They're the same person, after all. Do I relate to either of them? At this stage in the story, not very.

It's a sad, sorry road to go down to tear down female representations in this book; let's face it, save for Van Helsing, the male characters are all the same, too. Yes, even Quincey Morris, for all his American slang, is just like the others: virtuous, noble, brave. No one has a temper. No one cracks silly jokes. But you're missing the point attacking the story on this level, since it's all part of the allegory jazz Stoker was going for: virtue, though maybe not as exotic or enticing as the evil Dracula represents, wins every time and should win. Whether or not that makes you barf, it's how most stories end, even if they're not as black and white about it as Stoker.

Yet somehow, once Lucy dies and the characters team up to hunt down Count D, Mina is able to break through her revered angel role to take action that most heroines of her ilk would swoon at. She's still nauseatingly revered, but at least she earns it big-time. More than anything, she slowly reveals some god-damn depth.

Mina is incredibly intelligent and crafty. Who comes up with the idea to hypnotize her once Dracula does that voodoo he does so well on her, the hypnotic sessions thus enabling everyone to know where he's headed? Not Van Helsing. She does. She takes that very trauma and victimization Dracula wielded on her and turns the tables on him. That's frankly badass.

And who knows the train schedules by heart, so they can beat Dracula to his final destination? Mina. Yeah, she memorized it originally so she could faithfully trail her man, but she uses that knowledge for a higher purpose once the fight commences. Who organizes all the notes and transcribes everything into one fluid report? Muh-Muh-Mina. And who joins the gang in toting a gun and pointing it at the Count's purveyors at the end, standing in the bitter cold, Dracula's mark on her forehead? Wilhelmina.

That's all pretty revolutionary for a female character in 1897. So what happened to her character once women's rights got more into gear in the 20th and 21st century? No guns, no organizing search parties. She becomes instead Dracula's romantic interest, his mistress. What the hell?

Dammit, Coppola! And everyone else!

Frankly, I'd rather see her priggish and uptight, and remain that way. That may play right into her role as the Angel of the House, but at least she doesn't also become Angel of the House and Poster Child for Undead Erotica. In other words, modern interpretations such as Coppola's make her a victim not only of Dracula, but of the Madonna/Whore complex. This isn't sexual liberation here, since many times she's still hypnotized and manipulated by Dracula's power.

Stoker's Mina is far more effective, because she shows sympathy for Dracula without lusting for him. After displaying her wicked intelligence and hot secretarial skills, she then turns around and makes what I find a genuinely moving speech to the men, regardless of the Little Eva Syndrome that surrounds her character.

I know that you must fight. That you must destroy even as you destroyed the false Lucy so that the true Lucy might live hereafter. But it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him, too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.
And at the bloody end, as she's poised with gun pointed at the gypsies, as she watches her husband brutally destroy Dracula:

I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in [Dracula's] face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there before.

To me, that impartial empathy for the Count speaks worlds more about her character, and makes her far more endearing, than any romance with him would have. And believe me, this is coming from someone who usually eats shit like that up. Yet this empathy never weakens her resolve, either.

Just as much as the shotgun and the leadership skills, I think her ability to understand there's a trapped soul within Dracula is Mina's most shocking and refreshing trait in this genre. Someone as deliberately malicious as Dracula is not supposed to earn any sympathy--not from a late Victorian audience, and certainly not from the leading lady. A well-meaning Quasimodo, yes; not a lecherous Claude Frollo. As for contemporary audiences, we've disappointedly proven that though we're more accepting of that kind of sympathy now, the lady can only feel it if she's also sexually attracted to the villain in question.

Mina's not a perfect representation of a female with stamina and brains, not by a long-shot. She still considers herself subservient to the strong menfolk for defending her, and her everyday interactions aren't what you'd call dynamic. But frankly--and hopefully this isn't equatable to turning a blind eye to racism in early Hollywood--she's the best you could ask for at the turn of the twentieth century, so far as literature of this type goes (remember, even the feminist Ann Veronica of H.G. Wells' book by the same name isn't all that much better).

So, graphic novelphiles, should I read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? I love the idea of Mina leading the League, especially if it's mostly by her wits instead of any superpower. However, I find it too much an easy way out having Jonathan dump her and all that; in the original novel, he's completely devoted to her. Still, props to Alan Moore for recognizing Mina's potential. Plus, y'know, Invisible Man and Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde. That's cool, right?


  1. Excellent take on Mina! My last Dracula read was quite a while back so I'm fuzzy on some of the plot details you mention, but I'm always game for "Analysis that Shows Female Characters Can Be Strong in a Non-Cookie-Cutter Fashion."

    It took me a while to realize that Victorian fictional heroines are a lot more varied and interesting than Dickens would have you believe (although I like Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam). I have an especial love for Wilkie Collins since he excelled at strong women characters and let them get away with (for the time) some pretty ruthless actions. Elizabeth Gaskell's got some nice heroines as well, particularly in Wives and Daughters.

    As a final note (and getting back to your original point), I despise the Dracula love triangle of Mina/Dracula/Jonathan. It reminds me of the Phantom of the Opera triangle which, in the musical, is watered down from an interesting art vs love quandary into "Hmmm, Raoul's got the title but the Phantom is a sex god!"

  2. "Hmmm, Raoul's got the title but the Phantom is a sex god!"

    >Shudder< Yes, that helped kill my teeny-bopper fanaticism for Phantom back about ten or so years ago. Still get a kick out of the book and the Chaney movie, but once they turned Phantom into a masked Fabio, I checked out.

    You also have to give Thomas Hardy credit for creating some late Victorian heroines of actual character. True, Tess's ultimate fate was a bit trite, but at least he showed a great sympathy for her while leaving her flawed and relatable. Plus, like I've said before, I'm a total Bathsheba Everdene fan. She's strong, flawed, and tempestuous, and hey--spoiler alert--gets a happy ending! Again, not a perfect feminist portrait, but he was trying!

  3. The Phantom and his sexual mastery always amuses me because (at least in the musical version), I'm always left wondering where he gets off bragging about his dark sexy powers when he's been holed up in a basement all this time. I mean, where's he getting all this knowledge? Does he nab a stray dancer every few months? Did he memorize the Kama Sutra? Do he and Madame Giry have some kind of friends-with-benefits thing going?

    Pfft. All talk and no action, this Phantom guy.

  4. Hee! So true. Another thing that get to me is why, in every version, the Phantom never has rickets. He's in the dank darkness, what, all the time? Not to mention the Vitamin D deficiency he should have goin' on. Well, that could explain his sallow complexion in the novel, at least.

    But, yeah, a lot of posturing on his part, I think. He has a lot of time to practice his sexy poses and bullshit talk.

  5. Awesome post!

    I did a similar deconstruction of Mina in the various Dracula movies some time back. so I am glad to read your interpretation of the text.

    I will disagree with you on one point. Mina and Lucy are different. Lucy is the "old world woman" she just wants to get married and be taken care of by a rich man. Mina is the "New World Woman", she learns to use the state of the art technology (of the time) and fights and is the source of the knowledge the men need to do battle (as you have pointed out).
    Whether or not Stoker was aware of this I don't know.

  6. Tim, I left a comment on your post (which was terrific) explaining more of my opinion on the Hammer and Coppola versions.

    I agree, of course, that Mina is far more independent than Lucy, but I don't think Stoker or Mina acknowledges this. Or maybe Stoker does, in a way: it's only when Lucy, the"Old World Woman" dies, that Mina's role as the "New World Woman" asserts itself. We first learn what she's capable of when she triumphs over the Count's assault, not succumbing to it like Lucy.

    And yet Van Helsing at the end says someday Mina's son will know how much the men fought for her freedom. Um, I think Mina took care of herself just fine there, Van Helsing. So whether or not Stoker's aware of the implications, he still tries to tie her character to Lucy as a fellow "damsel in distress" even at the end. That's why I still claim that on some fundamental level, Mina and Lucy are alike--they both share the same mentality that "the men are the smart ones because they can protect me". Where they differ is in their actions: Lucy succumbs, Mina fights back. And that's a subtle, subversive touch on Stoker's part to make Mina even more independent than the character herself realizes, whether it was a conscious move on the author's part or not.

  7. I hope it is a conscious one on Stoker's part.

    Like you I have a lot of love for Mina, I think she is a great character. I do see where you are coming from though that her growth comes at the cost of Lucy's death.

    And I also felt that Movie-Mina is often cheated out of her due. I think Winona Ryder was great too, but the love plot has to go; it weakens a character already fighting to assert some independence.

    On to your question, is Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" a good read? Yes. Mina is very much in charge of this group. Please don't let the movie version color how you view this, if you have seen it.

  8. Tim, Laura, I think you both miss just how liberated a woman Lucy is. IIRC Even before Dracula turns up she's asking Mina such questions as "Why must I marry just one man?" I seriously got the impression that she was't exactly keeping herself for marriage and may well have had a test ride with each of her suitors. This of course makes her all the more vulnerable to Dracula's charms.

  9. Hmm, good point, PlanetNiles. I sound really harsh on Lucy, but I'm not, actually. I like her; she's the only truly light-hearted character (y'know, before the vampirism). It could be she's less old-fashioned and dependent, and simply more childlike in her character (thus the innocence behind her "why must I marry just one man" question).

    And it's interesting to note that when she's a vampire she acts sexually liberated, far more than Mina does (the book's Mina, again). Yet Stoker of course paints her vampiric form as evil and corrupt, symbolized by this overt sexuality. I mean, see also his treatment of the "voluptuous lipped" sisters of Dracula. Conversely, modern adaptations seem to think the opposite, and that's why they only give Mina agency in the form of lusting after Dracula. However, Lucy's only ever "free" in Stoker's writing when as a vampire she's destroyed and her spirit goes to Heaven--completing "The Angel of the House" motif.

    So I still think she--and Mina, at this point--are meant to stand in for angelic, dependent womanhood. Dracula corrupts them both, but only Mina triumphs, which is the strongest indication of (almost) feminist leanings in the novel. But you do make a good point that Lucy had potential, that the Count then abused.

  10. You make good points, but I would argue that Mina was never like Lucy. Lucy had no depth; she was sweet, pretty, boring, and seemed to think of little but marriage and men. We never saw that from Mina. She loved Jonathan and she was worried about him when he was gone, but what healthy relationship wouldn't be reflected in that?

    From the very start, Mina had a job, was level-headed, protective of her friend at any cost, bright and observant, and kept a good log of what was going on. She was never the typical Victorian female character, and Lucy was there to show us that contrast. To me, at least, it was pretty sharp.

    Lastly, I think that Mina was only so subdued in the beginning because she hadn't yet received any call to action. Even in real life, it's hard to test someone's true character and see what they're capable of without confronting them with some level of adversity. A school teacher usually has no reason to be a badass on a day to basis, after all.