In a tale possessing elements as seductive, sensual, and strange as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the complexities of its narrative—formed by the interacting forces of story, discourse, and narration—may easily be overlooked in one’s eagerness to explore such stimulating diegetic content. But in the case of Carmilla, the narrative method significantly influences the narrative—that is, the narrative discourse is not a mechanism through which the diegesis is presented, but a dynamic force that creates as it presents. Given this, an analysis focusing on the text’s intricate narrative structure and related stylistic elements, not least the way language operates within it, offers a more complex interpretation of the text’s themes. In this essay, I will explore the power dynamics at work within Carmilla by examining how Laura, our primary narrator, communicates the events of her past and how subtle ambiguities and contradictions within that narration indicate the subversive possibilities of language itself. Finally, if the narrative’s ending appears to restore and validate the patriarchal status quo, I would further argue that a close analysis of narrative elements leads to a different conclusion: that the subversion enacted by the character of Carmilla is not finally suppressed insofar as it is also embedded in the text that bears her name and also, significantly, her most striking contradictions. In the story’s concluding paragraphs, Baron Vordenburg discusses the vampire’s ‘power of the hand.’ The evidence of Carmilla is that it is not just the vampire who possesses a powerful grip, but also a narrator who, through ambiguity and language slippage, enacts her own subversion in a (posthumous) vampiric relation with a reader.

    Le Fanu’s initial prologue establishes Carmilla as a frame tale and offers a significant foreshadowing of the narrative that follows. Composed by an anonymous writer who has ostensibly published the text before us, we discover that the “Narrative” following the Prologue is a “case” on which a “Doctor Hesselius” has written an “Essay, with his usual learning and acumen.” Adrienne Antrim Major points to this textual framing as a genre convention of the Gothic mode—“a ‘female mode,’ in which women write for women”—but one with particular significance for the narrative that follows (154, 162). But also, in prefacing a fictional text in a scientific, medical context, the binary opposition of the real and unreal is evoked and blurred—foreshadowing how the narrative method goes on to deconstruct such logocentric ideas. The Prologue also establishes a self-reflexivity about the act of narration itself, not least narrative’s tendency toward prolix reproduction. The writer informs us that attached to the “Narrative”—which the Doctor came to possess through a “corres-pondence” we assume to be written— there is an “elaborate note” which references an “Essay” that will make “but one volume of the series” of Hesselius’ “collected papers.” This textual replication, stemming from and interconnected by the “mysterious subject” at hand, calls our attention to the manner in which narratives are formed and thereafter subject to interpretation.

    In particular, the Prologue anticipates some of the main narrative’s linguistic nuances and ambiguities. For example, the writer’s use of the French word “précis” in reference to the Doctor’s essay seems an arbitrary insertion—inviting us to ponder precisely why he does so. Further, he quotes the Doctor’s assertion that the narrative we are about to read involves ‘some of the profoundest arcane of our dual existence, and its inter-mediates’ (71-72). The only precise meaning to be drawn from this opaque statement is that it allows—indeed, begs for—a multi-plicity of meaning, of possible interpretations.  Having read Carmilla in its entirety, we return to this passage and surmise that “dual existence” may be related to such dualities as human/vampire and reality/dreams, but what encompasses all of these possibilities is the process by which we encounter them: a dual existence of reader and text, mediated by a narrator.

    Of course, any first-person narration calls narratorial reliability into question. But if such questions regarding truth and reliability make Laura’s narration intriguing, even more so is her tendency to be self-referential about that very question, both in terms of her trustworthiness and her control over the events being retrospectively narrated. Early in the narrative she declares, “Judge whether I say truth” and “I am now going to tell you something so strange that it will require all your faith in my veracity to believe my story” (73, 76). In asking the reader to judge, Laura attempts to establish her own reliability by apparent transparency and inviting scrutiny—reliability seemingly enhanced by the fact that such self-referential insertions adhere to genre conventions and thus to the status quo. Similarly, she often makes implicit reference to her narratorial power and agency: “What was it that…struck me dumb…and made me recoil…? I will tell you”; “…never but once afterwards did I witness on her part a momentary sign of anger. I will tell you how it happened”; “It would be in vain my attempting to tell you…”; “I am going to tell you now of a dream…” (85, 93, 103, 106, emphasis added). The constant reiteration of “tell you” serves to remind us continually of the degree of control our narrator exercises over her reader. At the same time, it also speaks to Laura’s heightened awareness of that reader, and thus her narrative’s consequent careful construction for that audience.

    Though what Laura does “tell us” is often rather contradictory. One of the most striking of these contradictions involves the distinction between herself now, in the narrating instance, and her younger self, in the story. Early in Chapter I she informs us, “I, at the date of my story, only nineteen. Eight years have passed since then” (73). But in Chapter IV, she says, “I now write, after an interval of more than ten years, with a trembling hand…” (90). This has a few possible implications: we may take these declarations at face value and accept that four chapters have been narrated over a duration of four years, emphasizing the notion of careful narrative construction; or it is an innocent error, causing us to question not only her reliability but her capability; or we have caught her in a lie, a lie which curiously duplicates Carmilla’s own deceit in regards to her age. Further, if there is some ambiguity or contradiction in Laura’s narrative concerning her person, this in turn mirrors a curious duplication in the intended audience of whom she is so conscious. An explicit revelation of the nature of that audience occurs when she records, “In some respects [Carmilla’s] habits were odd. Perhaps not so singular in the opinion of a town lady like you, as they appeared to us rustic people” (91). This speaks to a singular and specific addressee. However, several pages prior she writes, “You, who live in towns, can have no idea how great an event…” (84). The phrasing of this, “who live in towns” instead of “who lives in a town,” sounds more aptly addressed to a plural “you.” Now, hypothetically her addressee could live in multiple towns, but even then, “who live” does not seem to properly correspond to a singular subject. The ambiguity in the phrasing is significant insofar as, in a text striated by duality, it suggests that Laura may also write for a dual audience—us?—and that has implications for how we perceive other such linguistic ambiguities and slippages.

    Indeed, from the beginning of Laura’s narrative the idea of language or co-existent languages is emphasized. Laura claims that she grew up amidst a veritable “Babel” of French, German, and English, the latter only maintained by her and her father “partly to prevent it's becoming a lost language among us, and partly from patriotic motives” (73). The referencing of these motives reminds us that language sustains structures of power which, in this narrative, is patriarchal power. That patriarchy is presented as the presiding structure of authority in the diegesis is evidenced by the treatment of Laura’s mother. In Chapter I, Laura says, “My mother, a Styrian lady, died in my infancy… Madame Perrodon…whose care and good nature in part supplied to me the loss of my mother, whom I do not even remember, so early I lost her” (73). Thus, the dead mother manifests Lack, in her own physical absence, and also in the space of Laura’s mind—underscored as a crucial circumstance given Laura’s note that Perrodon can only provide “in part.” But her status as Lack is compounded with a status of Other, as the mother is the only character who is Styrian. This is a position marginalized by Laura’s father, for he deploys the English language to undermine local discourses. For example, Laura points to how he calls the native tradition of coffee and chocolate his ‘dish of tea’ (99). His disregard for the local language and custom is perhaps directly related his unabashed exploitation of his locality. Laura’s narration begins, notably, with a meditation on the nature of money in Styria:

In Styria, we, though by no means magnificent people, inhabit a castle, or schloss. A small income, in that part of the world, goes a great way. Eight or nine hundred a year does wonders. Scantily enough ours would have answered among the wealthy people at home. My father is English, and I bear an English name, although I never saw England. But here, in this lonely and primitive place, where everything is so marvelously cheap, I really don’t see how ever so much more money would at all materially add to our comforts, or even luxuries. (72)

Given that Laura has no personal dealings in the family’s financial affairs, and that never having been to England prevents her adequately comparing her family's situation with “the wealthy people at home,” her speech must be a repetition of what her father has said. The metaphorical colonization implied by subjugating Styrian custom through English language, combined with the literal colonization evident in the father’s use of the land for economic advantage, suggests the extremity of the mother’s subjection—her colonized identity—and, consequently, the domi-nance of phallogocentrism.

    This evident patriarchal structure of power is reinforced by how the characters are named. Carmilla and Laura are given first names, more intimately individual.  The men, contrarily, are given generic titles representing prototypical male positions of au-thority: father, doctor, general, priest, baron. The two men given surnames, General Spielsdorf and Doctor Spielsberg, have names so similar that it merely reinforces the fact that they represent genres of men as opposed to individuals. Further, those titles signify the extent of their control of female sexuality: fathers arrange marriage, doctors have license with the body, generals direct the use of physical/violent force, and priests espouse the sanctity of virginity. This is represented most explicitly when Doctor Spielsberg conspicuously informs Laura, rather than asking her, “You won’t mind your papa’s lowering your dress a very little.” Laura says she “acquiesced,” having to rationalize her passive surrender by thinking it “only an inch or two below the edge of my collar” (111). This act of coercion is reinforced by the doctor’s evasion of Laura’s questions regarding her health and her father’s order to not “plague” him with them (114). In general, the patriarchy operates through such control of information. On several occasions, Laura is aware that her father is conversing with another man about her, visibly but inaudibly.  Her subsequent questions regarding the content of these discussions are to no avail. In light of these moments, Laura’s description of her condition resulting from her “dreams” is telling:

My father asked me often whether I was ill… I persisted in assuring him I was quite well. In a sense this was true. I had no pain, I could complain of no bodily derangement. My      complaint seemed to be one of the imagination, or the nerves… (106).

Considering this claim never to have felt physically ill, has the “illness” arisen due to the dreams themselves or to the men’s anxiety over them? Seeming to operate in the fashion of Foucault’s power/knowledge, their possession and withholding of “medical” information in effect may be producing the illness, bringing it into existence by insisting that it has one. Such manipulation of meaning, meaning created for a female by males, again reinforces the phallogocentric nature of the society in which the story’s events occur.

    It is these same men who form the “Imperial Commission” that kills Carmilla during her vampiric sleep: driving a stake through her heart, cutting off her head, and burning both head and body. Like most vampiric killings the violently gendered nature of this act, in conjunction with Carmilla’s defenselessness, makes it a metaphorical rape. Interestingly, though, Laura is not present to witness the act that she describes, making for a very anticlimactic end to the novella. She informs us, “My father has a copy of the report of the Imperial Commission… It is from this official paper that I have summarized my account of this last shocking scene” (135). By excluding Laura, they strip from her the only source of passion she has ever known—passion which manifested itself in scenes as intense as “I ran to her [Carmilla] in an ecstasy of joy; I kissed and embraced her again and again”—and replace it with the epitome of indifference: a dry, bureaucratic piece of paper (108). In this way, patriarchal forces initially triumph, ridding the world of Carmilla and, through the generation of the “official paper,” tainting future awareness of the true, multifaceted nature of her existence: how her beauty and manner disarmed those in authority, traumatized patriarchal structures of power, and allowed her to engage in a sensually and emotionally pleasing/nourishing relationship with Laura.

    But if Laura could not sustain Carmilla’s grand subversion of power as the events occurred, she does so in the retrospective narration of them: not least by resurrecting and repeating the figure of Carmilla as duplicitous vampire text. In short: reading Carmilla is like reading Carmilla. Consider Laura’s own role of reader within the story. She often refers to her inability to understand, to know Carmilla: her “persistent refusal to afford me the least ray of light”; “her agitations and her language were unintelligible to me”; “respecting these extraordinary mani-festations, I strove in vain to form any satisfactory theory” (89, 90). However, at times Laura does read Carmilla successfully, as on this occasion: “I saw Carmilla’s eye follow him for a moment with a sly, dark glance” (109). In the latter case, Laura reads Carmilla more astutely, examining a sidelong glance, interpreting it, and finding a subversive purpose in the gesture. Performing a similar gesture in our own reading of Carmilla, we inevitably come to suspect that Laura subverts the apparent patriarchy-supporting veneer of her own text with nuanced repetitions and situated ambiguity.

    A significant instance of repetition that actually implies and thus validates this notion of subversive narration occurs after Laura and her father overhear Mademoiselle tell Madame of her cousin, “mate of a merchant ship,” whose face became hideously distorted after sleeping in full moonlight. Almost immediately after, the father complains of feeling mopey and quotes this passage to Laura: “In truth I know not why I am so sad:/ It wearies me; you say it wearies you;/ But how I got it—came by it” (78-79). The striking repetition lies in the fact that the quote is originally spoken by a ship merchant, Antonio, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—a play in which Portia, a powerful woman, works around the strictures of her patriarchal society, manipulating the law and men around her. In uttering this, Antonio, unbeknownst to his friends (and perhaps himself), is lamenting Portia’s dis-ruption of the strong homosocial bond between himself and Bassanio—a bond many scholars assert to be “homo-erotic” (Newman 33). Laura’s father’s seemingly unconscious association of the two merchants indicates the subterranean movement of language, reinforcing the notion that language power inheres also in its signifying movement force: words to now just represent meaning, but in their associative movement simultaneously affect that meaning. Though given the specific subject matter evoked—homosocial patriarchy under threat by the interpretive abilities of a powerful woman—even more arresting is the conspicuous parallel drawn to the narrative of Carmilla: a mirroring of the text-within-the-text. That this particular thematic allusion is embedded in the father’s dialogue implies also that subversive possibilities are already intrinsic to that which appears to be supporting the patriarchal status quo—language itself.  This is equally true of Laura’s own narrative, a text that apparently reasserts patriarchal authority while simultaneously undoing that authority through the movement of language.

    One of the most important effects achieved by this movement, often a situated repetition and therefore recontextualization, is a subtle rendering of Laura’s actual complicity in her relationship with Carmilla. For example, after quoting one of Carmilla’s bizarre speeches in which she declares her love and indirectly her vampirism, Laura informs us, “And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling [my italics] embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek. Her agitations and her language were unintelligible to me. From these foolish embraces…” (89). Laura frequently makes such dismissals, calling Carmilla’s more ardent expressions “crazy talk” and “wild nonsense,” condemning them as irrational, and thus distancing herself from them and consequently from Carmilla (99, 100). However, note the use of “trembling” as an adjective for that erotic embrace, for it is curiously repeated a few paragraphs later [my italics]:

I now write…with a trembling hand…

Sometimes…my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again…breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever." Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling. (90)

We might interpret Laura’s trembling as a sign of fear, if it were not for the use of that very word immediately before. And given that previous usage, trembling in this instance is not associated merely with eroticism but orgasm, a movement from desire to fulfillment of that desire, the repetition of trembling a connective fiber. Now Laura trembles, the repetition serving to consensualize the moment of passion, and therefore undermining Laura's seemingly rational reactions to Carmilla that conform to patriarchal expectations. If Laura truly finds such agitations and language “unintelligible” then why do her own agitations and language respond so sympathetically?  Furthermore, Laura’s strangely orgasmic description of Carmilla is repeated later, in sentiment and in words, but this time about herself, when she describes a dream-like state [emphasis added]: “warm lips kissed me…My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn; a sobbing, that rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me, and I became unconscious” (106). The “dream” setting of the moment is rather unimportant, the line between reality and dreaming constantly blurred in the narrative. Again, this duplication, a repetition of specific words, appears to consensualize the erotic nature of an interaction designated elsewhere inappropriate.

    Laura also contours her language in a way that creates significant moments of ambiguity. One of these instances, like the Merchant repetition, points to the notion of subversive narration itself. After the description of her and Carmilla’s erotic embraces, Laura tells us she strove to find a “satisfactory theory” for them:

It was unmistakably the momentary breaking out of suppressed instinct and emotion. Was she, notwithstanding her mother’s volunteered denial, subject to brief visitations of insanity; or was there here a disguise and a romance? I had read in old story books of such things. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade… (90-91)

Here Laura seemingly talks about Carmilla, but given the con-sensuality of these passionate moments she is pondering, it is surely ambiguous; Laura could just as well be speaking of her own instinct and emotion. This is particularly significant in light of her strange suggestion that such moments might be “a disguise and a romance.”  The notion that Carmilla could be a boy in disguise is ridiculous, and Laura seems to admit this in noting, “But there were many things against this hypothesis, highly interesting as it was to my vanity” (91). However, disguise and romance is not ridiculous as it pertains to Laura’s role in the passionate moments—her narratorial one: through the use subtle repetition, she “disguise(s)” the “romance” of a consensual emotional, erotic moment. That the phrase implicitly refers to Laura’s narration is further suggested by the mention of old story books, as Laura’s reading of narratives that subvert conventional gender norms mirrors our reading of her narrative that does the same thing.

    Laura’s occasional situated ambiguity also serves to undermine the patriarchy of the diegesis. For example, after describing her childhood vision of Carmilla she says that afterward a “pallid and elderly” doctor with a “saturnine face, pitted with small pox” gave her medicine that she “hated.” Immediately her next paragraph begins: “The morning after I saw this apparition I was in a state of terror” (75). While she ostensibly speaks of the female dream figure, the placement of this sentence, in conjunction with the eerie portrayal of the doctor, makes it ambiguous—implying that the patriarchal forces supposedly helping her may be more harmful than the vampire. A similar ambiguity occurs later within those same peculiar dreams. Laura claims she heard “a sweet and tender” voice say, “Your mother warns you to beware of the assassin” and then sees Carmilla standing “in her white nightdress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood” (106). But this strange interjection echoes the moment in the anteceding chapter when Carmilla tells Laura how she was vamped after her first ball: “I was all but assassinated in my bed” (101). The repetition of "assassin" makes the warning ambiguous, for it could be Carmilla’s assassin—an interpretation encouraged by the symbolic innocence/ purity of her “white” dress and the fact that the blood begins not at her mouth but her chin. Further, that Carmilla’s assassination was preceded by her attendance at a ball—an event that Major calls “that heterosexual sublime of meeting and breeding” (160)—serves to reaffirm the connection between patriarchy and victimhood.

    Laura’s narration creates another telling ambiguity in her portrayal of the character of Baron Vordenburg. After Laura, her father and the General arrive at Karnstein, they seek out a woodman who explains the village’s history and says its desertion was due to vampire “trouble.” When the General asks if the woodman knows the location of Mircalla’s tomb, he replies, “Not a living soul could tell you that now” (128). We are led to believe this statement is true as the General himself attests to the woodman’s reliability a moment before, telling Laura and her father, “These rustics preserve the local traditions of great families, whose stories die out among the rich and titled so soon as the families themselves become extinct” (126). However, almost immediately upon his arrival, Baron Vordenburg easily finds and reveals the lost tomb. This apparent contradiction of the woodman’s claim is made even more interesting by Laura’s description of the Baron as he first enters: “…one of the strangest-looking men I ever beheld… [he] seemed to wear a perpetual smile…” (132). In conjunction with the woodman’s claim, Laura’s use of the word “perpetual” makes the nature of the Baron ambiguous, even suggesting he might be a vampire himself. This is further implied by conspicuous repetition. In asserting “strangest-looking,” and in calling the Baron “the stranger” even after having introduced his name, Laura echoes the very language she used to describe Carmilla upon first seeing her: “…the visit of the strange woman was not a dream” (133, 75). Similarly, before she learns Carmilla’s name, Laura refers to her as “the stranger” on four separate occasions (83, 87). Furthermore, “strange” is used countless times throughout the narrative to describe both Carmilla and the effects she induces in Laura—for example, when Laura claims she had “the strangest illness under which mortal ever suffered” (105). Such repetitions associate the Baron with Carmilla, and moreover with vampirism, rendering his identity ultimately ambiguous. Given that it is he who enables the men to kill Carmilla, this ambiguity is particularly ironic and subversive:  it would mean it was not patriarchal power that destroyed her, but the actions of an Other who, perhaps, is one and the same.

    Significantly, the narrative’s key moments are striated by Laura's ambiguity. One such moment is the General's attack on Carmilla in the chapel at Karnstein. Laura tells us Carmilla walked in with “a peculiarly engaging smiling; when with a cry, the old man…caught up the woodman’s hatchet…On seeing him a brutalised change came over her features…he struck at her with all his force…[she] caught him in her tiny grasp (131). The use of “brutalised” as opposed to “brutal” paints Carmilla as a victim, and her thwarting with a “tiny” hand emphasizes her frailty and his cruelty. In light of the narrative’s ending, this description is even more significant. Laura, speaking to the narrative instance, tells the audience:

…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. (137)

Her claim to have seen Carmilla as a writhing fiend is strikingly incongruent with the actual description of what she initially saw. Moreover, even though this is not the first time Carmilla is referred to as a fiend in the narrative, it is the first time Laura uses the term, which before was embedded in the General’s intradiegetic narration and in his dialogue. By forming the discourse in this fashion, Laura distances herself from the term and, consequently, from deeming Carmilla as such. Similarly, Laura accomplishes this by presenting the two separate images of Carmilla, and then ending upon hearing her “light step.” In doing so, she suggests that the girl and the fiend are separate, irreconcilable. Given the final hearing of the light step, she implies that, for her, it is the girl, finally, who Carmilla really is.

    All of these repetitions and ambiguities seem to culminate in the narrative’s final chapter. Most of this chapter consists of Baron Vordenburg’s explanation of Carmilla and vampires, both in Laura’s own summary and his intradiegetic narration. This goes on uninterrupted for several paragraphs, but just prior to the second-to-last, Laura inserts: “We talked a little more, and among other things he said was this.” In departing from an uninterrupted mode here, Laura implicitly indicates the importance of what follows, and that is the Baron saying:

One sign of the vampire is the power of the hand. The slender hand of Mircalla closed like a vice of steel on the General’s wrist when he raised the hatchet to strike. But its power is not confined to its grasp; it leaves a numbness in the limb it seizes, which is slowly, if ever, recovered from. (137)

What is most peculiar about this meditation is the contention of numbness, for the General never mentions feeling it. Neither does Laura ever admit to numbness in a particular “limb” grasped by Carmilla, despite being touched by her multiple times. But significantly, Carmilla’s hand has numbed Laura—albeit a numbness of a different sort than the Baron appears to suggest. Recall that Carmilla’s orgasmic description began with Laura saying, “[she would] take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again.” And after such moments occurred, Laura tells us she would say to Carmilla: “I don’t know you—I don’t know myself when you look and talk so” (90). To not know oneself, and not know the other with whom one is in contact, implies a loss of sense or consciousness—numbness. Similarly, Laura’s orgasmic description of herself begins, “Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck” and culminates in “…my senses left me and I became unconscious.” Regarding this a few paragraphs later she says, “The narcotic of an unsuspected influence was acting upon me, and my perceptions were benumbed” (106, emphasis added). So, the vampire’s power of the hand is revealed to be sexual, and a sexualization that in a way specifically subverts patriarchy. For as it is the rhythmic pulsing of Carmilla’s hand that leads to the tumultuous breathing, the sobs, the trembling, her hand is thus the active instrument in generating climax—a symbolic usurpation of the phallus. Significantly, it is not just the more masculine, phallic movement of pulsing that produces this jouissance féminine, but the feminine movement of caressing, an action subverting the phallogocentric society of the diegesis even more powerfully.

    But the power of the hand does not belong only to Carmilla. Given that this multiplied capability of feminine sexuality is rendered through a multiplicity of linguistic slippages—all the contradictions, repetitions, and ambiguities that permeate the text—the Baron’s description of the hand also seems applicable to Laura’s own: the writing hand. This calls to mind Irigaray’s theory of l’écriture féminine, the suggestion that women have multiple “sex organs” compared to the singular status of the phallus, and that accordingly feminine language is more fluid than the masculine. Of this, Irigaray notes, “her language… sets off in all directions leaving “him” unable to discern the coherence…contradictory words, somewhat mad from the standpoint of reason, inaudible for whoever listens to them with ready-made grids, with a fully elaborated code in hand” (28-29, emphasis added). Is this not exactly what Laura’s narration effects? Taking up the masculine pen, our narrator cunningly manipulates language with feminine diffusion. She succeeds not only in her own narrative, but in subverting the narrative whole, Major noting how the “fevered eroticism and explicit pleasures” within Laura’s story escape from "the sup-pression of masculine analysis” that is implied by the Prologue’s scientific framing of the story (155).

    But the narrative of Carmilla does not only employ a language that is subversively feminine; it is a language moreover vampiric, in its action against unsuspecting readers. Carmilla, we are informed, is limited to names, like her alter egos Mircalla and Millarca, which anagrammatically reproduce “without the omission or addition of a single letter” (136). This technique is echoed by Laura’s narrative: a clever rearrangement of word order akin to Carmilla’s scrambling of letters, enabling Carmilla, as vampire text, to perpetuate its existence in a way not unlike that Carmilla the character does. In Chapter V, called “A Wonderful Likeness,” Laura asks her father if she can hang the picture of Mircalla—who is of course actually Carmilla—in her bedroom. A wonderful likeness indeed, this placing of the framed Carmilla within the space of the bedroom mirrors the placing of Carmilla the text, a framed narrative, within the space of our own reading.  Laura’s room is, throughout the narrative, the intimate site of Carmilla’s vampiric act: so, too, does our own reading occur in a space in which the text acts upon our preconceptions of the world that is in vampiric fashion. The vampire Carmilla insinuates her way into patriarchal society, ostensibly adhering to its structures while subtly undermining them. So, too, does the narration within which she is not quite framed, as subversive repetitions in language artfully perpetuate Carmilla’s subversion via the text that bears her name.

Works Cited

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Le Fanu, J. Sheridan. Carmilla. The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. Ed. Alan Ryan Harmondsworth. NY: Penguin, 1987. 71-137.

Major, Adrienne Antrim. “Other Love: Le Fanu’s Carmilla as Lesbian Gothic.” Horrifying Sex: Essays on Sexual Difference in Gothic Literature. Ed. Ruth Bienstock Anolik. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2007. 151-66.

Newman, Karen. “Portia’s Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 19-33.


“This I know is paradox”: Narrative Method and Language Subversion in Le Fanu’s Carmilla

Claire Anderson