Carmilla, a tale of a female vampire who preys on young women, centers on the anxieties associated with female sexuality. Le Fanu was one of the first writers to depict a female vampire, and he consistently associates vampirism with eroticism. The disguised vampire Carmilla’s longing for Laura is primarily sexual, and her craving for the blood of young women suggests that female sexual desire—particularly homosexual desire—is inherently threatening. Despite that Carmilla frames female sexuality as negative, the mere fact that Le Fanu acknowledges the existence of female sexuality is a divergence from the traditional gender roles of the time period, which often prevented women from demonstrating any sort of sexual desire.
Le Fanu emphasizes the sexual nature of Carmilla’s attraction to Laura even more than the vampire’s violent nature, as it is her “looks” that “won” Laura over. This asks the reader to see an intimate connection between vampirism and sexuality. Laura’s first encounter with Carmilla, which occurs twelve years before the main plot, sets this relationship up. Laura dreams of a young woman who crawls into bed with her, who “caressed” her, an act that soothed rather than frightened her. Years later, Carmilla engages in similar behavior, crawling into bed with Laura and treating Laura like her possession. Carmilla’s behavior resembles that of a passionate lover, though she never outright says that she sees Laura as anything more than a friend. While Laura has conflicting emotions for Carmilla, she can’t deny that she is fascinated by Carmilla and wishes to be close to her, feeling an intense physical response to Carmilla that certainly indicates an attraction.
Laura’s simultaneous attraction to and fear of Carmilla relates to the fact that Carmilla is free from the control of men. While she is with Carmilla, Laura is allowed to exist within a world that is not entirely controlled by men, which causes her to respond both physically and emotionally to Carmilla’s temptation. When Carmilla first arrives, Laura, confused by her guest’s displays of affection, wonders if perhaps Carmilla is a male suitor in disguise. The only way she can understand Carmilla’s desire is by believing that she might be a man, which shows the extent to which female sexuality was repressed. Not only does Carmilla experience sexual freedom, but she also has earned physical freedom from men by consistently escaping capture by the men who seek to destroy her. As a result, she never needs to conform to typical expectations—her permanent youth, and the presence of only her mother, ensures that she never needs to marry or rely on any man.
Laura’s feelings for Carmilla grow into both “adoration” and “abhorrence,” a “paradox” which reflects the uncertainty she feels towards sexual freedom. Le Fanu is explicit that Laura’s escalating illness is sexual in nature, and that Laura can only be “cured” once the source of her illness, Carmilla (and, specifically, the attraction they both feel for one another) has been eliminated. The illness comes to Laura in a female form, and she is overcome with “strange” sensations that both frighten and fascinate her. The result of these sexual encounters is shown to be deadly. Despite that Le Fanu defies gender norms by depicting female desire, he ultimately restores traditional norms by showing female desire as dangerous, and by making men—who are otherwise pushed to the fringes of the story—defeat Carmilla. Thus, as is traditional, men are the heroes who defeat the dangerous, erotic woman. At the end of the book, Laura’s father travels with her around Italy in an attempt to “cure” her, thereby placing her back within the norms that she escaped through her relationship with Carmilla. However, Laura is not wholly cured; it seems that she no longer wishes to be placed within a masculine narrative now that she has experienced the freedom that Carmilla gave her.
This complicated ending embodies the ambiguity about gender norms at the heart of Carmilla. On the one hand, it seems that Le Fanu is advocating for a degree of gender equality, implying that women have the potential to be just as evil and sexual as men. Furthermore, Le Fanu doesn’t wholeheartedly condemn lesbianism, despite the prejudices of the time. Since Laura doesn’t want to escape the consequences of her relationship with Carmilla, it seems that the relationship has been, in some way, freeing and liberating to her. However, Carmilla’s sexuality is still shown to be dangerous (as shown by Laura’s illness) and worthy of punishment, evident in Carmilla’s eventual defeat. Overall, then, the book takes no simple moralistic attitude towards gender and sexuality, challenging some norms and beliefs while upholding others.
Women and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Women and Sexuality Quotes in Carmilla
The first occurrence in my existence, which produced a terrible impression upon my mind, which, in fact, never has been effaced, was one of the very earliest incidents of my life which I can recollect….I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her….I was now for the first time frightened.
“Before then I had no idea of her danger. I have lost her, and now learn all, too late. She died in the peace of innocence, and in the glorious hope of a blessed futurity. The fiend who betrayed our infatuated hospitality has done it all. I thought I was receiving into my house gaiety, a charming companion for my lost Bertha. Heavens! what a fool have I been!”
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…”
In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thought about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her…” You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.”
“The time is very near when you shall know everything. You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish. How jealous I am you cannot know. You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me, and hating me through death and after. There is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature.”
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.
….and of having spoken to people whom I could not see; and especially of one clear voice, of a female’s, very deep, that spoke as if at a distance, slowly, and producing always the same sensation of indescribable solemnity and fear…Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself.
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.