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Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla
Transcript of Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla
by Sheridan Joseph Le Fanu. The story has been adapted many times,
and has been featured in both cinema
and Japanese anime. What's little known about this work is that
it predates Stoker's Dracula by 25 years. The story is presented as a casebook,
by a man named Dr Hesselius, who is
literature's first occult Doctor. The story is narrated by a young woman
named Laura, who lives in bucolic isolation
with her father in Styria, eastern Austria. Laura has her first vision of a vampire at
age 6. 12 years later, the story begins. Laura's
father informs her that a local friend, General
Spiesdorf, was going to visit with his niece, Bertha.
However, Bertha has died under mysterious
circumstances. One day, a carriage arrives in front of the schloss.
The carriage contains Carmilla, her mother, and a
mysterious third woman, probably a Romany woman.
The carriage turns over, and Carmilla is slightly injured.
Carmilla's mother claims she has urgent (but secret) business
elsewhere, and asks if she can leave her daughter in the
care of the family for a period of three months, until she returns. Carmilla sleeps much of the day, only
coming out of her rooms late in the afternoon.
She and Laura become very close, however, and
Laura's sexual awakening begins, as Carmilla
makes numerous advances. A shipment of family portraits arrives.
Among them is a portrait of a duchess,
dated 1698. The name on the portrait reads,
Mircalla, Duchess Karnstein. And it bears a striking
resemblance to Carmilla... At the same time, Laura has recurring dreams. She dreams she is attacked by a
large cat-like creature, which bites her breasts. Eventually, her health starts to decline. Laura and her father begin a journey to Karnstein,
where they meet their acquaintance General Spiesdorf.
He relates an oddly coincidental story, about meeting a striking
young woman named Millarca at a ball. He's asked to take her into
his home, as her mother has - ready? - urgent business elsewhere,
for a period of three months. The general suggests that the murder of his niece
Bertha could be nothing less than the work of a vampire.
The three then decide to try and locate the crypt of
Mircalla of Karnstein, only to learn that it has been moved. At this point the see Carmilla on the grounds of the ruined castle.
They also encounter a man named Vordenberg, who has been sent
by Imperial Commission. Remember, coincidentally, that it was the
Austrian Empress who had called for calm, and a cessation of exhumations
and stakings. Literary and Historical Significance Le Fanu's story is a typical, and
overtly gothic tale, of a centuries old vampire, preying on the blood of young women. It is believed that one of Le Fanu's intentions
was to focus on the lives of women in his society.
Le Fanu's women exemplify the typical 'sentimental angel' of Victorian fiction. Carmilla is the antithesis, an individual with a complex public life. She's also a powerful victimiser. In terms of a portrait of women in Victorian society,
Le Fanu's women are seen as 'tragic figures who perceive
the inequalities which exist in their own situations and in
society around them, yet they are powerless to affect any significant
changes in these situations'. Carmilla is a tool by which Le Fanu
attempts to call into question literary and social conventions, as well as prevailing moral orthodoxies. Empowering Women?? The paradox of the situation in the story is that
even though women are very close to the centre of
power in social and domestic life, they have almost no
agency or real power in the lives they lead. In that era, women adjusted to their oppression, and almost none of them exploited others or rebelled against their very limited public roles. Le Fanu therefore
ascribes only two roles to women in his story, the powerless victim, and the aggressive/transgressive and powerful villian. The character Laura is the ultimate femme fatale.
She's weak and deferential, unquestioning, and ultimately
passive in the face of her impending mortality.
Unfortunately, her only real quality of note is her naivite,
which means she is too innocent/inexperienced to understand
the sexual advances Carmilla makes, and to speak up about the
nightly attacks and loss of blood that she experiences. Even though Laura is an adult,
she's treated like a child. She's lonely,
ignorant, and vulnerable, and instead of educating
her and informing her, her father keeps her completely
in the dark, even when he learns that she's in danger. Power and Powerlessness As in most stories, the seduction of the victim by the vampire
is subtle, and as choreographed as a dance. Though the vampire
has the power to let the victim live, or to kill her, there are also
certain constraints to which the vampire must adhere. Carmilla only hunts at night, and
it is necessary for her to change shape to
approach her victims. 19th Century women Twitchell claims that, "writers used the vampire
to express various human relationships that the artist himself had with family, with friends, with lovers, and even with art itself. There are many powerful symbolic ideas in this story.
Twitchell suggests that (female) vampires who drink the blood of others are emblematic of the common perception of women as parasites, and, worse, as 'dead' figures both literally and legally in Victorian society. The vampire is also a signifier of the woman as socially and economically dependent on males. And the erotic references?
The lesbian in the story may be just
another ornamental parasite, a representation
of Victorian womanhood. Therefore, we can assume
that Le Fanu's character is nothing more than a figure who will use passivity (or aggression, if necessary) to gain power. It is also suggested that women have no real power or social agency
because they understand neither themselves, nor the world around them.
Laura is also part of a leisured class in society, leading a pampered, leisured
almost feudal existence as a transplanted British expatriate. Discussion Questions 1. According to vampire legend, vampires are
created by others, often unwillingly. To what
extent would Carmilla be evil, given that she
may not have chosen to be a vampire? 2. Consider the ideas of victim/aggressor, and also
of innocence/experience. How would Laura's naivete
make her a perfect victim? Is she repulsed by Carmilla? 3. Google Elizabeth Bathory, the subject of the film today. Who was she? What was she accused of doing? Was she a traditional vampire? Was what she did any different from what Carmilla does? 4. Why do you think that Le Fanu depicted Carmilla as not only a vampire, but as a lesbian? What does that say about society and the social construction of the vampire? 5. Consider the story's ending, and the tragic life of Elizabeth Bathory. Does good triumph over evil? Who defines what is good in society? Are all vampires evil? Consider what you might know about the vampires in Twilight. 6. What is a social orthodoxy? How is it determined? Who decides? What do we do to/with those who do not follow social rules, or who live outside society? Is this moral?? Keywords for the discussion: sexuality, Other, transgress(ive), outsider, misfit, outcast, deviant, witch, bloodsucker. Any other words you can think of?