by Bram Stoker
Mina Murray Harker
Mina: so awesome that her dudely compatriots congratulate her on having a man's brain. (Raise your hand if you're glad you don't live in 1897.)
All snide, the-past-sucks remarks aside, Mina is probably the most complex character in the novel and vies with Dracula for the central role. Like Dracula, she becomes a unifying force in the story, binding the main characters together for a common purpose.
But she's a lot more complicated than Dracula—we're given a glimpse of her past, and since we often get to read her journal and letters, we get to see things from her point of view. She's both incredibly feminine and described as having a "man's brain." She's both child-like and extremely maternal. She's described as "angelic" by several different characters, but once she's tainted with vampire blood, she's unholy and incapable of touching the Holy Wafer.
With all those contradictions, Mina's character definitely needs a closer look.
What is this "New Woman," Anyhow?
After going on a particularly long walk with Lucy, Mina says that they ate so much at tea time, they "should have shocked the 'New Woman' with [their] appetites" (8.1). Later in the same paragraph, she says that the "New Women" will introduce the
idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But […] the New Woman won't condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself. And a nice job she will make of it, too! There's some consolation in that. (8.1)
So who is this "New Woman" that Mina keeps going on about?
Well, at the end of the 19th century, when Stoker was writing Dracula, the women's suffrage movement was starting to gain steam. The question of what women's roles should be in society was a biggie. Should they be allowed to vote? Should they be allowed to work in traditionally male jobs? How extensive should their education be? Should they go to college?
The "New Woman" was a term used to describe progressive women, who asserted their independence from men. The "New Woman" was not only more sexually independent, but also more physically independent in other ways—these progressive women actually exercised by cycling, playing tennis, or going on long walks, and ate as much as they felt like, instead of eating tiny portions to maintain their wasp-like figures.
So when Mina says that she and Lucy ate enough to "shock the 'New Woman,'" she means they ate a ton. It's like saying, "we ate more hot dogs than Takeru Kobayashi at an eating contest."
But why bring up the "New Woman" at all? It seems like a random reference, but it's important. Let's look at the second reference: It's about the power dynamics between men and women before marriage. Who should do the proposing? And how much should they see of each other before marriage? According to traditional Victorian social morality, men and women should only see each other in very controlled, chaperoned settings before agreeing to marry. The idea that men and women should see each other asleep is pretty risqué. And the idea that women should do the proposing is also mind-blowing for the time period.
But is Bram for Real?
Is Stoker poking fun at the idea of the "New Woman"? How independent is she?
Mina is a very intelligent, well-educated woman. She's a schoolteacher, which means she earns her own income before her marriage and is financially independent (her parents are dead, so she doesn't really have a choice in the matter). But even while working full time, she studies alongside Jonathan, who is working to become a lawyer. She says she "want[s] to keep up with Jonathan's studies" and that she has been "practicing shorthand" (5.1).
So Mina works full time and has been staying caught up with Jonathan's law school reading? Does the woman never sleep? But she's not doing it because she wants to be a lawyer herself, she's doing it so that she'll "be able to be useful to Jonathan" after they're married (5.1).
So Mina is a strange, contradictory combination of strong intellect and submissiveness—she's the one who figures out where Dracula's likely to go next (26.37) and Van Helsing says that she has a "man's brain" (18.22), but she's also always talking about how brave the men are: "a brave man's hand can speak for itself; it does not even need a woman's love to hear its music" (18.34). She's financially and intellectually independent, but not really sexually independent—we hardly ever hear her described physically, and her relationship with Jonathan seems strangely sexless.
Everyone Needs a Shoulder to Cry On
If Mina seems to be sexless, maybe it's because everyone is too busy thinking of her as a mother figure. Mina's admiration for the men who help kill Dracula is pretty extreme—she frequently remarks on how lucky she is to have so many good, strong men to look out for her. But she looks out for them, too—just after meeting Arthur Holmwood, she lets him have a good cry on her shoulder:
He stood up and then sat down again, and the tears rained down his cheeks. I felt an infinite pity for him, and opened my arms unthinkingly. With a sob he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child, whilst he shook with emotion.
We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother-spirit is invoked; I felt this big, sorrowing man's head resting on me, as though it were that of the baby that some day may lie on my bosom, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child. (17.58-59)
Mina is like everyone's mother—not five minutes after she allows Arthur to cry on her shoulder, she invites Quincey Morris to do the same (after all, he loved Lucy, too). She's always fixing tea for people, or offering to comfort them.
Angel or Demon?
So Mina is an intellectual equal to the men around her, but physically and emotionally submissive to them. She's everyone's momma and seems almost saint-like… until, of course, she's infected by Dracula's blood.
Many readers and critics think of the scene in which Mina is forced to drink Dracula's blood as a kind of rape scene. After all, the scene takes place on her bed, both of them are partly undressed, and Dracula is holding her and forcing her to have intimate contact with him against her will. But there are other possible interpretations, especially given Mina's role as a kind of universal mother figure.
The fact that Dracula is forcing her to drink blood from his "bare breast," like a "child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk" is strange. His blood is compared to "milk" through the kitten simile, and he's making Mina drink from his breast. This could suggest that Dracula himself has assumed a mother-like role… but it's a perverted, diabolical motherhood.
Mina's own saint-like maternity is polluted by Dracula's contact with her. The whole scene is full of symbols of sin and purity, like the red blood staining her white nightdress and the red blood on her white hands. Later, when Mina's face is scarred by the Holy Wafer, it's no accident that it leaves a red mark on her white forehead.
But although Mina's physical body is polluted, stained, and scarred by her contact with Dracula, her soul remains pure. And at the end of the novel, when Dracula's body is destroyed, Mina's body regains its natural purity, as well.