Upon reading the first nine chapters of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, I think it is safe to say that the text is replete with social commentary on mid-19th century Irish culture. The character of Carmilla, a vampire dating back to the late 1600’s, is representative of the many changes Ireland was undergoing in the mid 1850’s. The text is a vessel to relate Le Fanu’s views on the awakening of female sexuality and the growing Irish Catholic culture of the mid-19th century.
The introduction to this text, written by Robert Tracy, offers good insight into Ireland’s circumstances and Le Fanu’s beliefs during the writing of Carmilla and 19th century Ireland -- if anyone is having trouble understanding the text, I highly recommend reading the introduction. Tracy begins by stating that “Sheridan Le Fanu’s chief interests were Ireland and the supernatural, interests which often coalesced” (vii). The interest in the supernatural is obvious throughout the first nine chapters of Carmilla, but it is interesting to examine the subtext in the Irish sense, rather than the universal stories that focus on British, French, or American ideas.
Tracy writes that “Political issues can be rephrased in supernatural terms when religion is intermixed with politics” (xx), most notably because these issues “aroused as the Catholic Irish began to assert themselves, especially in terms of the central issue of nineteenth-century Ireland” (xix). Much of Carmilla’s dialogue is suggestive of the Irish Catholic church’s teachings and beliefs, and Le Fanu‘s fear of their growing dominance over Irish society. An example of this is when Carmilla, in a discussion with Laura, says “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours … and you shall die -- die, sweetly die -- into mine. I cannot help it, as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others … but trust me with all your loving spirit” (263). This dissertation is reminiscent of the Catholic church’s teachings regarding the “holy trinity” and spreading the Catholic gospel. Carmilla asks for unquestioned trust, similar to religion, and the mention of becoming one is also quite similar to the Catholic view of the afterlife. This is also worth examining when contrasting the Irish Catholic view of eternal life and the archetypical vampire’s version of eternal life. It is also worth noting that Le Fanu’s letters written in the late 1860’s “show an increasing fear of Catholic power” (xxvi). Instead of blatantly writing out against the church‘s expansion, he projected his fears into an innovative vampire tale.
Le Fanu’s story also exudes the tension regarding sexual repression and awakening. With the broadening of the Catholic faith in Ireland and the changing culture regarding sexual repression, Carmilla must also be read as a rejection of the sexual repression of the time. I think that the best example of female sexual awakening can be found after Laura has the dream about the “monstrous cat” (278). Laura describes her encounter, stating that “Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep. The prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill which we feel in bathing, when we move against the current of a river. This was soon accompanied by dreams that seemed interminable … they left an awful impression, and a sense of exhaustion, as if I had passed through a long period of great mental exertion and danger” (282). This passage goes on to describe the caress of Carmilla, as Laura’s “heart beat faster, [her] breathing rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left [her] and [she] became unconscious” (282). This passage, although describing a supposed dream involving a vampire, can obviously be read in a sexual tone, an experience that Laura had only experienced before in a similar meeting with Carmilla. Tracy writes that “In the threat that Carmilla poses to Laura, we can see a fear of female sexuality which reappears in Dracula” (xxvi). The fact that the tale revolves around the feelings of two women is a great example of this, and the manner in which Carmilla serves as an “awakener” is quite symbolic of the fear of sexual awakening in Irish culture of the time.
I also find the whole metaphor of the bite, or the fact that Carmilla lives in part off of Laura, to be quite interesting. Great Britain was imposing its authority over Ireland at the time of this story, something that most Irish grew to detest. Although Tracy does not make much note of it, it is worth considering whether or not the fact that Carmilla drinks from Laura and uses the land could be symbolic of Britain’s occupation and “sucking” of Ireland. Tracy does note that Carmilla is “predatory” (xxiii) in her nature, something that could be said of the way that Britain implemented its will on the country of Ireland.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of Carmilla and Laura, although I expecting Carmilla to share the same destiny experienced by Dracula and other vampires of the time.