Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Carmilla from the Perspective of Orientalism

Carmilla from the Perspective of Orientalism
Option #4

     In the essay The Vampire in the House: Hysteria, Female Sexuality, and Female Knowledge in Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, Tamar Hellar comments on the elements of Orientalism found in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Carmilla exemplifies Orientalist stereotypes and binary oppositions, as the vampire and everything that surrounds her are shrouded in Orientalist contrasts.
     Having taken Professor Wilson’s American Indian/Postcolonial Literature class (English 520), I am familiar with the term Orientalism and its significance. To define the term, I simply had to dig out my English 520 textbook, Beginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod. “Orientalism” is a term made famous by Edward Said in his book of the same name to describe the ways in which the Western world views the East, or the Orient. McLeod states that “Said’s Orientalism is a study of how the Western colonial powers of Britain and France represented North African and Middle Eastern lands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (McLeod 39). McLeod notes that “’Orientalism’ refers to the sum of the West’s representations of the Orient” (McLeod 39), and also observes that “Said shows how the modes of representation common to colonialism have continued after decolonization and are still very much a part of the contemporary world” (McLeod 40).
     Upon close examination of almost any text from the 19th and 20th centuries, the term “Orientalism” can be applied as many authors (some knowingly, some unknowingly) have asserted binary oppositions towards what is considered to be odd or ‘the unknown’ in their literature. McLeod states that “Orientalism constructs binary divisions … is a western fantasy … is literary … and acts as an institution” (McLeod 40 - 45). Orientalism essentially uses western or “civilized” stereotypes to compare what eastern and “uncivilized” lands are like and should be like. Nations that do not act in the western “norm” are quite often made to look inferior by drawing binary oppositions between western culture and non-western culture. Once Carmilla is exterminated (or executed), the Baron speculates that evils such as Carmilla could not come from within a civilized land such as Styria, as he “[assumes], at starting, a territory perfectly free from the pest” (318). Since Carmilla and her characteristics are far from the implicit “norm,” nothing of her kind could come from within a civilized society.
     Much of Carmilla’s secrecy is shrouded in binary oppositions and Orientalist ideas, beginning with the crash of the carriage. Le Fanu writes “she described a hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head, who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eye-balls, and her teeth set as if in fury” (257). Laura’s father and Madame Perrodon immediately draw Orientalist oppositions, as Laura’s father describes the men as “ugly, hang-dog looking fellows … They are clever rogues” (257). In reply, Madame Perrodon remarks that “Besides looking wicked, their faces were so strangely lean, and dark, and sullen” (257), yet she is “curious” (257) to hear why Carmilla would be traveling with them to begin with.
     This brings to mind the “return of the repressed”, which is the process whereby repressed elements, preserved in the unconscious, tend to reappear, in consciousness or in behavior, in the shape of secondary and more or less unrecognizable "derivatives of the unconscious." ( This theory derived by Sigmund Freud in his The Interpretation of Dreams, focuses on the subconscious. Because we (or Laura and the villagers of Styria), have repressed certain memories, our thoughts and actions are influenced by what is being repressed. This applies to both what Laura has been taught and what happened in her first encounter with Carmilla as a young girl. Laura’s awakening (282) and new sexual feelings are dually influenced by the “norms” of Styria and what happened to her as a child -- the main reason that she does not give in completely to her newfound feelings is because she has been taught not to. This coincides with Said’s Orientalism, as people of a savage or uncivilized nature are considered to be primitive, and thus more animalistic and sexually free.
     Some of McLeod and Said’s descriptions of Orientalism struck me as imperative to the discussion of Carmilla and Orientalism, especially when concerned with Heller‘s essay. In his criticism, Said states that “Orientalism makes assumptions about gender” (McLeod 45), that “the orient is degenerate” (McLeod 46), but most notably, that “the Orient is feminine” (McLeod 45). Heller explores this notion in her essay when she writes that the “feminine invasion is figured in terms of imperialist anxiety, for Carmilla rides into Styria -- already, because of its orientalism, an only tenuously domesticated zone -- like the return of the repressed colonized Other” (84). I think that Heller’s opinion is justified and quite valid, as Carmilla’s sexuality and sexual nature threaten the male hegemony of Styria (and other Western cultures). Laura states that Carmilla’s “confidence won [her] the first night [Laura] saw her” (262), which shows that Carmilla is clearly unlike the stereotypical 19th century woman -- she is opinionated, assertive, and obviously a major contrast to any female Laura has encountered before. The fact that Carmilla attempts to impose her sexual feelings on another female shows the male fear of losing authority and the restructuring of power. She is described in exotic manner to convey her differences from the town of Styria and the conventional norms -- Carmilla exposes her history with “an ever wakeful reserve” (262), is surrounded by images of “black” (262), and constantly conveys a representation of the unknown.
     After taking a class that focused on Orientalism, it is difficult to read any text without Orientalist oppositions in mind. Knowing that most of the “classics” in literature are filled with Orientalist thoughts and oppositions is difficult to fathom, yet such Orientalist viewpoints must be examined to truly understand the text. While most of the oppositions in this tale were evident, they say a great deal about 19th century beliefs while adding to Carmilla’s mystique at the same time.


Works cited
Definition of Return of the Repressed -

Hellar, Tamar. The Vampire in the House: Hysteria, Female Sexuality, and Female
     Knowledge in Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872)
. Harman, Barbara, and Meyer,
     Susan (ed). The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread
     Victorian Fiction
. USA. 1996.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly. Oxford University Press, New York, 2008.

McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester University Press,
     Manchester, 2000

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