An Interpretation of Le Fanu’s Carmilla

Engaging in a critical dialogue with some of the most prominent discourses of the day like Immanuel Kant’s theory of the self sufficient individual and Derrida’s theory of friendship, Leela Gandhi in her book Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship discusses the political ideologies of some largely forgotten anti-colonial activists in fin-de-siècle and early twentieth century England like Edward Carpenter, CF Andrews and Henry salt, and identifies their politics with one which intends to “renounce the privileges of imperialism and elect affinity with victims of their own expansionist culture(1)”, and uses it to suggest a radical postcolonial site of resistance in the present world, deriving sustenance from what she terms  “radical kinship”, that is, identifying and forging alliances with the marginalized Others of different cultures and nationalities and in the process reconstructing their subjectivities, as an alternative to the two dominant theoretical ideologies defining the postcolonial ethics, that of “oppositional but repetitive forms of cultural nationalism” and the quietest discourse of hybridity or contrapuntality(6)”. In her discussion of homosexuality in the chapter Sex, Gandhi highlights the anti-colonial stance of Edward Carpenter who uses his marginalized position of a homosexual as a political tool to not only denounce the laws of sexual difference and the act of base sexuality intended towards procreation by which governs the hegemonic conception of a heteronormative individual by celebrating the “intermediate types” whose hybrid nature allows them to indulge in the “wealth and variety of affectionate possibilities which it has within itself” but also to form sympathetic and therefore radical solidarities with the racially marginalized individuals, who too are denied are denied an identity in the ‘civilized’ community, getting defined as the primitive, sexually undifferentiated Other.

This discourse of “resistance in interaction”, as Elleke Boehmer puts it, informs the homoerotic relationship between Laura and the ‘vampire’ Carmilla in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla,  first published in the Victorian periodical The Dark Blue and later included in his famous collection of horror stories In a Glass Darkly in 1872. The story is narrated by Laura, who at its opening, describes herself as living an isolated life with her widowed English father besides a ‘picturesque’ forest in Styria, which, in the colonial discourse, as Count Eric Von Stenbock in his True Story of a Vampire puts it, was seen as “…a flat, uninteresting country, only celebrated for its turkeys, its capons and the stupidity of its inhabitants. In the very beginning of the novel, Laura’s identity as a quintessential Victorian woman is undermined by her constant craving for a female companion and her subsequent defiance of the hegemonic Victorian ideologies by forging strong alliances with her governesses and a “few lady friends”., though confined within the castle, the physical emblem of the ideological heteronormative discourses governing the society.

Laura, as she narrates her history, recalls the “first occurrence in…[her] existence, which produces a terrible impression” upon her mind, when one night, she appears to wake up to find a “pretty lady” leaning over her bed, towards whom as Laura puts it, “I looked…with a kind of pleased wonder…She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me and drew me towards her, smiling…I felt immediately soothed and fell asleep again. I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly”. The young lady in Laura’s dream not only acts as a surrogate mother to her, but also makes her fully respond to a homoerotic arousal. The dream therefore allows Laura to transgress the hetero normative boundaries defining the system of relationships in society thereby introducing her to the multifacetious dynamics of a homosexual bonding.

Much later, Laura and her father witness a coach accident outside their castle which introduces them to its victim Carmilla, whom Laura immediately recognizes as the lady who appeared in her dream. Interestingly, even Carmilla recognizes Laura from a similar dream she had in which Laura was the “young lady”. This mutual mirroring of Freud’s uncanny effect forges solidarity between them which soon redefines itself as a radical kinship which defies the heteronormative bonds established by patriarchy.

Acting as her lover, guide, companion and confidante, Carmilla opens up many realms of thoughts and feelings hitherto closed to Laura and also simultaneously experiences a liberation of a similar kind. “I took her hand as I spoke”, Laura writes,” I was a little shy, as lonely people are, but the situation made me eloquent, even bold. She pressed my hand, she laid hers upon it, and her eyes glowed as she looking hastily into mine, she smiled again and blushed”. One important aspect which marked their relationship was their gradual estrangement from their familial domains which treated them as empty signifieds to be imbued with only those signifiers which would help maintain and further the dominant discourse. Thus, while Carmilla refuses to discuss her family with Laura, the latter also decides not to disclose to her father Carmilla’s midnight visits to her, thereby denouncing, as Carpenter puts it in Love’s Coming of Age,  “ marriage, monogamy and the family cell”, finding in each a  life sentence for “ the immense variety of love”, :the differentiation of…needs of the human heart” , the understanding and tolerance of other loves”. This enablement of rejection gives them a sense of not only belonging to each other, but also to look at the world from an alternative point of view, and this political position allows them to employ a shared marginality to forge a sense of togetherness with other marginalized people. Thus, Laura and Carmilla form multiple affinities with other women irrespective of their class and culture, thereby participating in the creation of an alternative family grounded on political ideologies which challenge the white bourgeise structure of the family based on what Adrienne Rich terms “compulsive heterosexuality” to include ideologies which dissolute the boundaries defining the absolutist discourse of the normative order.

Thus, in the funeral scene, Carmilla’s rage against the constructed Christian religion which she finds “discordant” can be seen as as denouncing what Jeffrey Weeks calls the absolutist tradition which believes that disruptive power of society can only be controlled by a sharply defined morality entrenched in particular sets of social conditions-marriage, heterosexuality and family life, and rather posits an alternative ecopolitics which deconstructs the binary between the ‘natural’ and the ’unnatural’. Talking later about the “illness” which overtakes Laura and the other village women, Carmilla comments, “this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from nature, don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth and under the earth, act and live as nature ordains”. She further criticizes Laura for defining the dead women as ranger’s daughter and the swineherd’s wife, saying “I don’t bother my heads about peasants”, thereby bringing into focus the idea that social categories of class form a part of discourse of politics, which as Jacques Ranciere in The Politics of Literature puts it, “is the construction of a specific sphere of experience in which certain objects are posited as shared and certain subjects regarded as capable of designating these objects and of arguing about them”, the representative subject here being Laura’s father and other patriarchal figures whose ideologies are completely constructed by the hegemonic order.

Foucault in History of Sexuality observes, “the multiplication of discourses concerining sex in the field of exercise of power itself: an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail”. Carmilla and Laura’s relationship on the other hand, due to a shared sense of empowered marginalization, is able to participate in a radical inventiveness, practicing what Foucault calls “new life-styles not resembling those that have been institutionalized”, thereby creating an alternative politics operating on mutuality and not hierarchy which make the patriarchal figures incapable of understanding and defining it within hegemonic discourse, thereby viewing it as an “illness” and “malady”.

It is therefore interesting that the first realization that Carmilla is a vampire occurs when Laura’s father, while arranging portraits belonging to the ancestral line of Laura’s mother, comes across the portrait of Marcia Karnstein, dated 1698, and significantly unframed, which resembles Carmilla. As Richard Dyer in Children of the Night: Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism puts it, “The analogy with homosexuality as a secret practice works in two contradictory ways. On the one hand, the point about sexual orientation is that it doesn’t show, you can’t tell who is and who isn’t just by looking; but on the other hand, there is also a widespread discourse that there are tell-tale signs that someone ‘is’. The vampire myth reproduces this double view in its very structure of suspense”.

Thus, this discovery of Carmilla’s identity can be seen as a metaphoric recognition of her as the Eastern European primitive other, a state of being which as Darwin puts it,” the western nations of Europe have immeasurably surpassed and [now] stands at the summit of civilization”. This therefore projects Carmilla as someone who threatens the heteronormative discourse governing the society. In the late nineteenth century Victorian literature, vampires are usually identified with the non-British racial characteristics exchanging blood with young English women. Foucault in History of Sexuality discusses blood as a symbol of sovereignty and national ownership and therefore the entire trope of the invasive Other draining English life blood can be seen as demonstrating reverse colonization, which as Stephen Arata in Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-siècle England defines it, is the fear that’ what has been represented as the ‘civilized’ world is on the point of being colonized by ‘primitive forces’”. Carmilla throughout the story is being imbued with several non-English characteristics which define her as the racial Other, for instance her thick dark hair, rich complexion, unintelligible tradition and religion and her aberrant behavior. She is also described  as a sooty black animal during her midnight wanderings, clearly alluding to, as Barbara Creed argues in Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts , the dominat view of a lesbian body as being animalistic in nature.

Carmilla therefore, as the uncivilized cultural Other, the primitive Other and as the racial Other, for the dominant heteronormative society becomes the source of violence towards the white woman, an act which becomes the symbol of the most dangerous form of insubordination and therefore ultimately gets subjected to the traditional means of vampire extermination. But though this neat conclusion seems to point towards the idea that in the society, such forbidden kinships always get asphyxiated by the dominant order, it can more conclusively read as a defiance of that very conventional assumption, though at a fantastical plane. For, since Le Fanu suggests, “the vampire victims must become vampires themselves” , there remains a distinct possibility that all of Carmilla’s victims, including Laura, who dies a few years after writing the narrative, will be resurrected as vampires and will continue to forge these radical alliances. Sue Ellen-Case in her insightful essay Tracking the Vampire examines the manner in which lesbian vampires destabilize the normative equations of heterosexuality as fertile and therefore life and homosexuality as sterile and therefore dead by deriving erotic pleasure from sterility, thereby occupying, to use Carpenter’s term, “an intermediate space” which enables them to undo the boundaries defining heterosexual society. By forging a radical solidarity defined by a political deconstruction of the existing discourses through their shared sense of marginalization, Carmilla and Laura’s relationship not only critiques the ideological determinism which defines the heteronormative “imagined community” of the imperial society, but also exults in its role as a possible cure for the very same society, which as Carpenter in Civilization :Its Cause and Cure puts it, “ is more and more rapidly becoming a mere formula and husk within which the outlines of a new and human society are already discernible. Simultaneously, and as if to match this growth, a move towards…savagery is for the first time taking place from within”. 




One thought on “An Interpretation of Le Fanu’s Carmilla

  1. Pingback: The Girl Who Bathed in Blood (Second story in the Time Blood Trilogy) | The Twilight Fun Blog

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