Like many other books of its era, Carmilla explores the relationship between science, religion, nature, and the supernatural. The Victorian era was a time in which science and technology were rapidly advancing. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (published 13 years before the publication of Carmilla) had begun to destabilize Christian ideas about the place of God in the universe, and the machinery of the industrial revolution was upending life in Europe for all social classes. This created a pervasive anxiety about the relationship between nature, religion, and the supernatural, an anxiety palpable in other works of the time period, such as Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While other works responded to the changes of the Victorian era by moving away from the supremacy of God, however, as the characters in Carmilla react to the vampire Carmilla and the illness that her bite induces in Laura, they insist on maintaining their faith in God. From this perspective, then, Carmilla seems to take a conservative position, insisting that God still stands at the center of everything and must be called upon so that good may triumph over evil.
Laura’s father sees himself as both a man of science and of God, since he sees nature and God as being aligned. In his mind, therefore, God is a part of nature rather than a supernatural force. This is clear in his attribution of the illness affecting the young girls in the surrounding villages to “natural causes” and his belief that they are “in God’s hands.” He also uses natural causes to explain Carmilla’s strange nighttime behavior, offering sleepwalking as the “most natural explanation.” Later, after Laura falls ill, he laughs at the doctor who tries to suggest that the true cause of her illness is a vampire. While Laura’s father’s perspective might seem normal and wise to modern readers, the novel portrays his worldview—the idea that God is a part of the scientific world, and therefore the supernatural cannot exist—as naïve at best and dangerous at worst. After all, it is this continued insistence on rational, scientific ideas that almost leads to Laura’s death.
Laura’s father’s worldview is contrasted with Carmilla who, being a vampire, is herself evidence of the supernatural. She hides her true identity by proclaiming a strong belief in science and the natural world, but unlike Laura’s father, she rejects religion and the idea that it’s associated with nature. When Laura’s father tries to reassure them that the illness infecting the neighboring villages is natural and in the hands of God, Carmilla laughs and says, “Creator? Nature!” She separates the idea of a creator from the idea of nature, and insists that the explanation for the sickness is based in nature, not God. She then continues to say that “All things proceed from Nature.” Her rejection of religion can be seen as the result of two things. First, like most vampires, she is harmed by religious activities, a point driven home when she utters a “low convulsive cry of suffering” at the sound of the funeral hymn. In denying God, she attacks an enemy who she feels is trying to hurt her. Second, by insisting that all things proceed from nature, she implicitly suggests that she too is the product of nature. She thus frames herself as being no more evil than any other predator, and her actions become natural rather than supernaturally evil.
However, both of these perspectives are portrayed as dangerous, since conflating nature with the supernatural justifies Carmilla’s evil, and conflating God with nature leaves Laura’s father unable to reckon with the supernatural evil in their midst. Whereas Laura’s father scoffs at the idea of the supernatural, the General scolds him for his stubbornness, arguing that it is foolish to deny the reality of the supernatural. While the General previously shared Laura’s father’s beliefs, once he is confronted with evidence of something “marvelous” (the vampire Carmilla), he comes to accept the existence of the supernatural. Despite this, the General never loses his faith in God. In fact, he seems to become even more closely connected to his faith after his brush with Carmilla, saying that he hopes “by God’s blessing, to accomplish a pious sacrilege” and defeat the vampire. That he does succeed in defeating the vampire seems to confirm his worldview, in which the existence of God is perfectly consistent with both nature and the supernatural.
In the end, the General’s example suggests that the correct way to view the relationship between God and the world is that God is a true higher power—the creator of nature and all within it, including things that can’t be explained by science. This view of the world is what allows the General to even conceive of the possibility of something like vampires (which Laura’s father initially can’t). This view, furthermore, negates Carmilla’s seeming suggestion that her own behavior and existence are simply “natural” and therefore not evil. The book suggests that only by seeing God as the true, ultimate creator can mankind recognize the difference between good and evil, and act on the side of good.
Science, Religion, Nature, and the Supernatural ThemeTracker
Science, Religion, Nature, and the Supernatural Quotes in Carmilla
I saw the very face which had visited me in my childhood at night, which remained so fixed in my memory, and on which I had for so many years often ruminated with horror, when no one suspected of what I was thinking.
“If you were less pretty I think I should be very afraid of you, but being as you are, and you and I both so young, I feel only that I have made your acquaintance twelve years ago, and have already a right to your intimacy; at all events it does seem as if we were destined, from our earliest childhood, to be friends. I wonder whether you feel as strangely drawn towards me as I do to you…”
“You pierce my ears,” said Carmilla, almost angrily, and stopping her ears with her tiny fingers. “Besides, how can you tell that your religion and mine are the same; your forms wound me, and I hate funerals. What a fuss! Why you must die—everyone—must die; and all are happier when they do… I don’t trouble my head about peasants.”
“We are in God’s hands: nothing can happen without his permission, and all will end well for those who love him. He is our faithful creator; He has made us all, and will take care of us.”
“Creator? Nature!” said the young lady in answer to my gentle father. “And this disease that invades the country is natural.”
It would be vain my attempting to tell you the horror with which, even now, I recall the occurrence of that night. It was no such transitory terror as a dream leaves behind it. It seemed to deepen by time, and communicated itself to the room and the very furniture that had encompassed the apparition.
For some nights I slept profoundly; but still every morning I felt the same lassitude, and a languor weighed upon me all day. I felt myself a changed girl. A strange melancholy was stealing over me, a melancholy that I would not have interrupted. Dim thoughts of death began to open, and an idea that I was slowly sinking took gentle, and, somehow, not unwelcome, possession of me…Whatever it might be, my soul acquiesced to it.
“I wish all mysteries were as easily and innocently explained as yours, Carmilla,” he said laughing. “And so we may congratulate ourselves on the certainty that the most natural explanation of the occurrence is the one that involves no drugging, no tampering with locks, no burglars, or poisoners, or witches—nothing that need alarm Carmilla, or anyone else, for our safety.”
“Because,” he answered testily, “you believe in nothing but what consists with your own prejudices and illusions. I remember when I was like you, but I have learned better.”
If human testimony, taken with every care and solemnity, judicially, before commissions innumerable, each consisting of many members, all chosen for integrity and intelligence…it is difficult to deny, or even to doubt the existence of such a phenomenon as the Vampire. For my part I have heard no theory by which to explain what I myself have witnessed and experienced, other than that supplied by the ancient and well-attested belief of the country.
Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism. The body, therefore, in accordance with the ancient practice, was raised, and a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire, who uttered a piercing shriek at the moment, in all respects such as might escape from a living person in the last agony. Then the head was struck off, and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck….and that territory has never since been plagued by the visits of a vampire.
Its horrible lust for living blood supplies the vigor of its waking existence. The vampire is prone to become fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred different ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victims…. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent.
The following Spring my father took me a tour through Italy. We remained away for more than a year. It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.