Female sexuality has been a focal point for writers throughout literature, focusing on different factors of the feminine, whether it be maternity, sexual liberty or corporeal freedom. However, much more focus is placed on the denial of femininity seen through the actions of their male counterparts, who reject the sexual liberty of women and their autonomy. This said denial is woven into the narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus and Bram Stoker’s Dracula; both exposing male attitudes towards women and societal fears of feminine sexuality.
This essay will aim to prove that within their novels, both Shelley and Stoker present their own patriarchal society that is inherently fearful of the feminine as shown through the denial of female sexuality.
Being at the center of the romantic movement, Mary Shelley witnessed a time where some women began to gain recognition within the patriarchy. The romantic movement placed an emphasis on the individual and freedom from social constraints. Not only was Shelley surrounded by the proponents of romanticism, but she was also raised by parents who one might label as ‘proto-feminists’; for instance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women, sought to argue against women not being given a rational education.
Gilbert and Gubar state in The Madwoman in the Attic Shelley, “studied her parents’ writings… like a scholarly detective seeking clues to the significance of some cryptic text.” Shelley seems heavily influenced by her mother’s feminist writing and perhaps uses this to form ideas of feminine denial in Frankenstein. Bram Stoker on the other hand was instead writing at the fin de siècle, during the rise of the ‘new woman’. Stoker experienced social change around womanhood and femininity, seeing a new, sexually autonomous generation of women rising from the suppression of traditional Victorian England.
However, it was not uncommon for individuals, particularly men within patriarchal England, to show opposition to the new woman. Societal fears set the foundation for Stoker to construct a novel exploring the zeitgeist of concern around female empowerment. One also could infer that Stoker himself possesses this fear, indicated in his negative portrayal of some female characters in his novel.
The narrative of Frankenstein is centred around Victor’s creation of a humanoid creature, formed from various body parts Victor collects from “charnel-houses.” His mother’s death from scarlet fever encourages his return to Ingolstadt where he wishes to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Shelley uses developmental verbs to describe Victor’s ambition to create life from death, emphasising his determination to “pioneer” and “explore”, however all at the cost of female sexuality.
Contextually, women were still very much suppressed by the patriarchy and expected to fulfill the traditional role as the mother, thus putting the societally given role of maternity at the forefront of their ambitions and goals. However, Shelley constructs Victor to work “days and nights” in order to “[bestow] animation upon lifeless matter”, insinuating that Victor purposefully wishes to remove a woman’s socially given position, usurping the maternal role as an all-powerful creator, “life appeared to [him] ideal bounds, which [he] should first breakthrough and pour a torrent of life in our world.”
In The Psyche Behind Frankenstein: Feminism and Queer Theory, Malaya Nordyke argues how Shelley utilizes Victor “to call out man’s tendency to have the confidence to create, but not the knowledge and capacity to control,” which is accurately portrayed through Shelley’s use of the semantic field of power, “life and death” and a “torrent of life.” The author ultimately asserts Victor’s ambition to become an all-powerful being, who is able to control mortality, however, this consequently leads to the removal and oppression of female sexuality, subsequently reinforcing the patriarchal desire within Shelley’s protagonist to control femininity and reproductive liberty.
Continuing with the idea of men controlling female sexuality, Stoker’s antagonist is seen to force women into sensuality and take advantage of their femininity. In the narrative, the Count is able to synonymize feeding and sex, demonstrating how his being is centered around coition, therefore, his encounter with the women can have a double meaning of consumption and copulation. W.A Tringali makes the argument that due to the dual function of the Count’s bite, “elongation, penetration and fluid exchange [is made] commonplace… allowing a metaphoric discussion of sex without mentioning it,” so it is clear to see that Stoker has created a hypersexual antagonist whose feedings directly link to sex and attack.
With this in mind, one could infer that due to the lack of consent from Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, the Count’s biting of them can be seen as rape. A key moment that further emphasizes this point is in Chapter 21 when Dracula “held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them… at full tension… [and] gripped her by the neck.” The myriad of aggressive verbs embedded within Stoker’s narrative seems to highlight the belligerent and forceful nature of the encounter, which subsequently depicts the violent rejection of female autonomy and empowerment.
Furthermore, Stoker also writes how “the attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.” By alluding the confrontation to a “child” and a “kitten,” something that seems so innocent, yet is really a forceful conflict between the two, possibly highlights the barbarity of the reality of the situation and the actuality of the sexual attack on Mina. The Count’s removal of self-determination from the women serves to depict the power that he holds over their sexuality, and his ability to choose when and how they present the sexuality attached to their femininity. For instance, the attack on Mina happens whilst she is in bed next to Jonathan emphasizing, the Count’s ability to force the women into their sexuality whenever he wants them to.
This rather aggressive form of hatred towards women could be explained through the Freudian theory of Castration Anxiety. Correlating with the Oedipus Complex, in which a boy in the Phallic stage of psychosexual development becomes unconsciously sexually attached to his mother, and rather hostile towards his father, the Castration Anxiety is a fear of loss or damage to one’s genital organs. Freud theorized how “one thing that is leftover in men from the influence of the Oedipus complex is a certain amount of disparagement in their attitude towards women, whom they regard as being castrated,” which forms the idea that men ultimately have a fear of female genitalia, and thus female sexuality. Applying this to Stoker, one can see how there could be a possible fear towards femininity, and a rather violent repudiation of the sexuality of the women in his novel (through the rape of Lucy and Mina), due to this unconscious resentment of female genitalia.
Whereas Stoker’s Count is hypersexualized in Dracula, Shelley possibly creates the opposite, a protagonist that fears the sexuality of women, so much so that he destroys the female monster within the narrative. In Volume Two, Chapter IX, Shelley’s protagonist agrees to the “proposition” to create a female monster of “the same species” that has “the same defects” as the creature, despite not “[understanding] the full extent of” the request. Later, Shelley constructs a realization within him that the two could have “children, and a race of devils would be propagated on the earth.” Shelley’s use of the bleak verb “propagated,” serves to depict that Victor fears the sexuality of the female monster due to her power to create, something that Victor is incapable of.
His apprehension of female sexuality is further emphasized through Shelley’s metaphorical language, stating that the two monsters would create “a race of devils,” clearly rejecting the feminine, and likening it to evil and sin. Consequently, Victor later, “trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged.” Shelley’s creation of an aggressive, “passion” filled destruction of the female monster perhaps symbolises Victor’s insecurity and fear of the sexuality posed by the female monster, an act which Nordyke states “suggests that the feminine is infinitely threatening to Victor,” and that he “is most afraid of the female’s reproductive ability.” Nordyke’s analysis of Victor’s fear resonates within Victor’s question just moments before, “had I the right, for my own benefit, to inflict curse upon everlasting generations?”
The rhetorical question serves to create the impression that Victor is attempting to justify his demolition of the female monster, abdicating responsibility for his innate “passion” to remove female reproductive autonomy from their being. Shelley uses her character of Victor in order to expose the male tendency to destroy female sexuality in an attempt to satisfy their fear of the autonomy women can receive from sexual freedom. Moreover, Shelley’s construction of a male narration of events could possibly serve to symbolize how the female monster has no power over this situation, leaving her to be destroyed and removed of her sexual autonomy with no chance of escape.
Victor’s narration also gives him a voice, something that the female monster was never given the chance of, subsequently leaving her as a voiceless, docile victim who was annihilated at the hands of Victor and the patriarchy. As a Romantic, Shelley will have been aware of psychology and the correlation between action and emotion, therefore depicting that her protagonist actively works to oppress the female monster due to his innate hatred for female sexuality and the power that is given to women who possess sexual liberty; a power that Victor is without.
Opposingly, the Count uses his hypersexual qualities to manipulate the sexuality of the women in the novel. Dracula’s first attack on Lucy takes place in Chapter 8, where Mina Harker describes “something long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure.” The author creates a juxtaposition between predator and prey with colour symbolism of a “black” figure attacking the “half-reclining white figure” of Lucy. The connotations of purity and evil are in place to both signify sexual conflict and to convey Victorian expectations of female purity.
Sexual chastity for Victorian women outside of marriage was essential for their virtue and righteousness, however the Count defiles Lucy’s purity with his attack. This tension and forced submission are also explored in Stoker’s setting. Stoker describes, “there was a bright full moon, with heavy black, driving clouds, which threw the whole scene into a fleeting diorama of light and shade as they sailed across.” The author purposefully utilizes setting, creating a clever dichotomy between the “bright, full moon” and the “heavy black, driving clouds,” with the former potentially representing Lucy, and the latter the Count.
Stoker’s personification of the black “driving” clouds, exhibits a sense of power, particularly over the moon, which is traditionally synonymous with femininity, reinforcing the dominance the Count holds over Lucy. So much so that she is left with “her head lying over the back of the seat,” emphasizing the Count’s exertion of his sexuality and her position of weakness and fatigue. The rape is consolidated later in the chapter when Mina observes how “the skin of her throat was pierced”, confirming the penetration of Dracula’s process. Stoker’s method of conveying the Count’s feeding method as not only sex, but also as rape, puts an emphasis on the Count’s aggressive nature as he controls and manipulates sexuality.
This manipulation is clearly portrayed through the Count’s influence over Lucy, and her transition into a hyper-sexual, predatorial being. In Chapter 16, Dr. Seward describes Lucy as a “dim white figure” who “held something dark over [her] chest,” which later is found to be a “fair-haired child.” One can see that after Lucy is bitten by Dracula, her whiteness and purity has become “dim”, emphasizing the corruption brought about by the Count.
This corruption is then consolidated when “with careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast.” Stoker’s likening of Lucy to the “devil” confirms that Lucy has been utterly tarnished by the Count, so much so that she herself seems to reject the maternal role placed upon women when she “flung… the child” to the ground. Even the typically motherly act of breastfeeding is tainted as Lucy clutches the child “strenuously to her breast,” an act which Rebecca Clippard suggests highlights that “Lucy has clearly chosen independence and personal fulfilment over motherly obligations, even to the point of violence.”
Clippard’s analysis of Lucy’s affront to traditional motherhood presents the possibility that Stoker intentionally crafts Lucy in such a way as to warn Victorian society of the consequences that are attached to the expression of female sexuality, which subsequently suppresses Lucy’s femininity in the process.
Following on with the theme of manipulation, one could suggest that Shelley purposefully causes Victor to subconsciously manipulate the sexuality of Elizabeth in order to expose his repulsion of the feminine. This repulsion is further emphasised by Shelley through her construction of Victor’s dream, crafting him to morph his wife into his dead mother, which subsequently serves to depict Victor’s repudiation of Elizabeth’s sexuality. On the same day as the creation of his monster, Victor dreams of himself walking through the streets of Ingolstadt, where he “thought he saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health.”
The uncertainty of the verb “thought” serves to depict the involuntary nature of the dream, emphasising Victor’s intrinsic need to repress feminine identity and sexuality. In a further emphasis of this point, Victor describes, “I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death.” One could infer that Shelley purposefully creates a dichotomy between ideas of intimacy with verbs such as “embraced” and “kiss” and then the “hue of death”, conveying a stark repulsion felt by Victor towards Elizabeth’s sexuality.
Due to this disgust, “her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother.” It is clear that by this point, Victor’s dream is a representation of his aversion of feminine sexuality. Shelley’s use of the gothic, further exemplifies this idea of not only a “corpse”, but the corpse of his “dead mother.” Gothic literature first began to appear in the public sphere when Horace Walpole released The Castle of Otranto in 1764, meaning that Shelley would have been writing Frankenstein in the early years of the Gothic genre.
With features of mystery, fear, death, and the paranormal, Shelley adopts a very stark sense of the gothic, and perhaps uses it to expose the actions that men take in order to suppress the rise of the feminine? Thus, Shelley’s inclusion of Victor’s dream and a repeated motif of his “dead mother”, both potentially serve to depict the repulsion felt by the male protagonist towards Elizabeth’s sexuality. This explicit denial of Elizabeth’s intimacy by its contrast to his mother’s death, and Shelley’s use of the gothic truly add emphasis to Victor’s innate desire to suppress the feminine and manipulate female autonomy.
It should also be noted that the addition of Victor’s dead mother could implicitly link to Shelley’s own life, as her own mother died whilst giving birth to her. Gilbert and Gubar posit Shelley “may have speculated her own monstrosity, her murderous legitimacy, consisted in her being- like Victor Frankenstein’s creation- a reanimation of the dead.” This argument could imply that Shelley holds deep-rooted guilt that she was, in essence, the cause of her mother’s death, perhaps also striking fear within the author herself regarding maternity and birth? Something that would indicate as a justification of the similar fears felt by her protagonist.
Akin to Shelley’s narrative, Stoker conveys a similar repulsion felt by Victor through his protagonist, Jonathan Harker. Whilst both male constructs are similar in their feelings towards female sexuality, Harker seems to simultaneously employ an interest in the three vampire women at the Count’s castle. Initially, Harker demonstrates a rather juxtaposing attitude towards them, describing two of them as having “great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red when contrasted with the pale, yellow moon.”
Again, Stoker uses colour symbolism to convey an evilness within the women, describing them with “dark, piercing eyes” that almost seemed to be “red,” portrays them in a threatening light. Interestingly Stoker contrasts them with the “moon”, conveying them as the opposite to femininity, even though they appeared to be “ladies by their dress and manner.” Through this, Stoker could be introducing images of darkness and evil, so when witnessing their hyper-sexuality, one could connote their femininity to evil; thereby Stoker implies all female sexuality is dangerous.
If this is again linked to the theory of the Castration Anxiety, Freud writes how “in extreme cases” of the fear of castration, it “gives rise to an inhibition in their choice of object, and, if it is supported by organic factors, to exclusive homosexuality.” From this analysis, one could suggest that the presentation of the sexual female vampires is one of danger and disgust, which could possibly come from an innate homosexuality within the author himself. The amalgamation of a fear of castration with an intrinsic homosexuality could justify the harmful and damaging description of the three vampire women.
Harker goes on to explain how the other vampire is “fair, as fair as can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.” This dichotomous description of the third vampire serves to emphasise Harker’s concurrent feelings of repulsion and intrigue. Furthermore, Harker then describes how “all three has brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips… they made me uneasy.” The author’s construction of an oversexualisation of the three women, describing them with the sensual adjective “voluptuous,” conveys the protagonist’s sense of sexual attraction towards the women which serves as a contrast to his apparent opposition to sexuality, they “made [him] uneasy.”
Carol Senf, regarding this objectification, comments that “in [Harker’s] mind, the voluptuous women are turned into carnivorous animals; and finally, are reduced to a mouth with sharp, white teeth.” Senf’s comment presents the interpretation that Stoker’s reduction of the three vampires creates an implicit suggestion that society and the author himself feel “uneasy” of such obvious femininity. His oxymoronic description, “there was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive,” serves to emphasise a tone of hypocrisy within Harker, but also to expose men being willing to both condemn yet indulge in female sexuality.
Furthermore, Stoker’s adjective “deliberate” creates a predatorial atmosphere, suggesting they are purposefully sexual and perverse towards Harker, which in turn allows him to abdicate his responsibility of indulging in their sexuality. Senf points out that “Harker is openly ambivalent” towards the three women, which consolidates the duplicity of man’s desires, and exposes the hypocrisy of Harker’s fear and indulgence of female sexuality.
One could perhaps infer that Stoker taps into his own fear of the rise of femininity at the time, presenting an almost hyperbolic version of the ‘new woman’ through the three vampire women, who seduce the seemingly innocent and morally correct Jonathan in an aggressive and predatorial manner. It should also be noted that this encounter is narrated entirely by Harker and therefore, the reader is only able to base their estimation of the three vampires around their objectification and oversexualisation; they too, just as the female monster in Frankenstein, become voiceless, docile victims of the patriarchal constructs that surround them.
Not only is Victor’s creation a cause of the suppression of female sexuality, but it is also suggested that Victor possesses an inherent homosexuality which adds to the denial of femininity. Victor declares “the structure of the human frame” was a “phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention.” His fixation on the human body, specifically male, Elizabeth Goldhammer states “signifies his deep-seeded desire to manipulate, explore, and control same-sex corporeality.”
Victor clearly demonstrates his “deep-seeded desire” when he begins to secretly research anatomy and human construction. Shelley emphasises the strength of Victor’s desires, saying that “darkness has no effect upon my fancy,” insinuating both Victor’s obsessive fixation on the male body, and also his determination to create the monster, inherently diminishing female sexuality in the process. Goldhammer argues “the creature is Victor’s supplement, a representation of his creator’s repressed sexuality,” which he is then “forced to confront” when his creation is complete, resulting in him being “unable to endure the aspect of the being that I had created.” Victor being forced to confront his sexuality and consequently fleeing the scene, seems to reflect a rejection of his innate homosexual desires.
The creation of the monster causes the suppression and denial of both his homosexuality and female sexuality, yet he is able to abdicate his accountability by “[running] out of the room,” whilst women are forced to endure the wrath of the monster, such as Justine who is executed as she is blamed for the murder of William Frankenstein. Justine describes “I have no power of explaining it… I am only left to conjecture concerning the probabilities by which it might have been placed in my pocket,” which clearly exerts the position of helplessness that she is forced into by Victor’s actions when rejecting the monster. Justine’s passivity leaves her to be, as Stephanie Haddad states, “an inactive, docile victim of circumstance,” arguing that Justine is incapable of defending herself from the power of the patriarchy. Haddad’s point is a clear indication of how the women in the narrative are subjugated to the patriarchy, and the actions of men, like Victor, who wish to suppress the sexuality and autonomy of femininity.
While the Count is only seen to bite, and ‘turn’, women, it should be noted that he is not confined to one gender. A Tringali states “the vampire can [bite]… anyone of any gender, queering the vampire sexually,” creating the notion that the Count demonstrates levels of homosexuality, giving him a far greater power over not only women, but society as a whole. Homosexuality within the Victorian era was a capital offense due to the 1885 ‘Labouchere Amendment’. The amendment labeled homosexuality as ‘gross indecency’, which in itself exerts the opposition held against non-heterosexuality in Victorian England.
There has been speculation that Stoker himself possessed a latent homosexuality which would have been oppressive during the time of the Labouchere Amendment, possibly causing a resentment towards a society where heterosexuality is the norm. It is suggested that Stoker combats his lack of control as a ‘closeted’, gay man with the creation of an all-powerful antagonist who can express his sexuality freely. Stoker’s position as a writer should also be mentioned, in that he did not gain the same recognition as his acquaintances, such as Oscar Wilde, perhaps fuelling his feelings of inferiority.
The Count acts as a tool for Stoker to live vicariously through, attempting to feel some kind of power in a society that denies him entirely. There is a stark likeness between Stoker and Victor, *in that they both create stronger beings who they use in order to gain autonomy and control, whilst denying the sexuality of the women around them. However, unlike Victor, Stoker creates an antagonist who controls and manipulates both Mina and Lucy, all under the influence of the author himself, demonstrating the innate desire for Stoker to suppress the feminine so that he can feel power in a suppressive society.
Shelley’s protagonist is fashioned in a way that his actions deny women of their sexual autonomy, beginning with the creation of the creature which refutes femininity in a maternal sense. These actions appear to be a search for power in a society where only women possess the autonomy of creation, and he does not, therefore he wishes to create the monster to feel this power within himself.
However, I believe that there could be an ulterior motive embedded within Shelley’s narrative, one that suggests Victor creates the monster in order to feel power within a society that rejects his latent homosexuality, removing maternal autonomy from women in the process. Dichotomously, Stoker seems to incubate a distaste for female sexuality rather than an envy, fearing the ‘new woman’ which appeared to threaten traditional structures of Victorian society. Therefore, Stoker’s portrayal of his female constructs, such as Lucy, as an extreme version of the ‘new woman’ and then punishing her through her attack, could be an exertion of Stoker’s fears of female autonomy and thus his need to suppress it.
Furthermore, just like Victor Frankenstein, Stoker was argued to possess an innate homosexuality, leaving Stoker on the periphery of power in a homophobic, hetero-normative society. Thus, I believe that this led Stoker to create Count Dracula who was able to control all aspects of his life, including the sexuality of his female counterparts and his own, something that Stoker was not able to do. Consequently, I feel as though the suppression of female sexuality stems from the authors’ experience, with Stoker’s sexual insecurity and Shelley’s dire experience with maternity (of herself and her mother), each influencing the concealment and rejection of femininity within their narratives.
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