Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with the Vampire’ (1976) was the first Gothic novel to offer a revisionist portrayal of this figure. Rice presents the vampire as a guilt-ridden hero who moves from his peripheral position in earlier texts to a central role as the story’s narrator and protagonist.
As a vampire child and one of the main characters in this novel, Claudia is the first female figure of ‘The Vampire Chronicles’. Her dual existence as both woman and child confirms that her identity is problematic in terms of gender issues and social order. Furthermore, she can be read as a dangerous threat to male supremacy as represented by Lestat in this text.
Her character can be psychoanalytically described as the “monstrous feminine”, which is a term that critic Sarah Gamble defines as being the “feminine excess [that] exorcises fears regarding female sexuality and women’s ability to procreate”.
Barbara Creed adds that this classification is a simple reversal of the traditional male monster, but “as with all other stereotypes of the feminine […] [the female monster] is defined in terms of her sexuality”. This expression then highlights the “importance of her gender in the construction of her monstrosity”.
When Claudia first enters ‘Interview with the Vampire’, she epitomises innocence and female passivity as the six-year-old girl who becomes Louis’ first victim. The true complexity of her character is only revealed when it becomes clear that she possesses an adult psyche that is forever trapped within the body of a vampire child.
In many ways, the paradoxical traits of her character resemble Carmilla from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella of the same name. This article will discuss the vampire child in Gothic literature by exploring various components of Claudia’s character in ‘The Vampire Chronicles’, and in doing so will also explore how certain aspects relate to the traditional vampire child in Carmilla.
Gothic critic Margarita Georgieva states that the nature of the Gothic child is defined by its “absence, loss, uncertainty and mystery”. These features are undeniably evident in Claudia possibly because her character was inspired by Rice’s five-year-old daughter, Michele, who died from leukaemia the year before she wrote ‘Interview with the Vampire’.
Rice reincarnates Michele through the character of Claudia, who is a six-year-old orphan that enters the novel as one of Louis’s victims. She is later given immortality by Lestat in a desperate attempt to create a vampire family of his own.
On their first meeting, Louis describes her as a “jointless doll […] [with] satin hair” that was crying next to her mother’s corpse. This terminology denotes her identity to that of an idol according to his perspective, and though he abandons her before she is fully dead, they are later reunited by Lestat.
Her position within their vampire family is secured by Louis’ annihilation of her human family as, the “drinking of the child’s blood stands for the complete consumption of a family [because] it obliterates the memory and history of its members”.
Additionally, Lestat engages in a parental masquerade on the night of her death when he pretends to be her father. It arises once again during a subverted act of breastfeeding whereby he becomes her substitute mother and feeds his blood to her in order to complete the transition.
Louis recognises the contradictory terms of her vampire identity immediately afterwards when she still “held [Lestat’s] wrist to her mouth, a growl coming out of her […] [but] then she looked at him with the most innocent astonishment”. He admits to being mesmerised by her new form and states that, despite her lingering childlike physicality, “[s]he was sensual […] her eyes were a woman’s eyes; I could see it already”.
These terms highlight the paradoxical state of her new form as she now possesses an angelic and seductive exterior that disguises her underlying deadly nature. In order to both emphasise the peculiarity of these contrasting features and separate her mortal identity from her immortal identity, he clarifies that “[s]he was not a child any longer, she was a vampire child”.
When considered in relation to Carmilla, Claudia’s rebirth appears to mirror certain details of Le Fanu’s text such as Laura’s first meeting with the vampire child which occurs during her early childhood years when she appears as a strange night-time visitor.
Her ethereal beauty is noted in Laura’s description of how she was “so beautiful and so indescribably engaging” despite possessing an inner “coldness” that was “beyond her years”. Her gentleness during their first encounter is similar to Lestat’s initial care with Claudia and even suggests a return of the absent maternal figure through the subverted union of a mother breastfeeding her infant.
Laura describes how Carmilla initially lulls her back to sleep only to be suddenly awoken “by a sensation as if two needles ran into [her] breast very deep at the same moment”. Her depiction of this embrace evokes an image of painful penetration that highlights the deadly nature of Carmilla’s true self despite her outer facade and also signifies the loss of Laura’s childhood innocence.
From the moment of her transformation, Claudia embodies the silence that is an inherent trait of all female Rician vampires, and as a new-born vampire, she is described as being “mysteriously quiet”. Louis stresses the uncanny nature of her silence in his revelation that “mute and beautiful, she played with dolls, dressing, undressing them by the hour. Mute and beautiful she killed”.
The repetition in this sentence reveals her clinical approach to hunting despite her youth and inexperience. Initially, they believe that her silence means she is content in her role as their vampire child and spoil her with fine clothing and dolls.
Louis’ aforementioned tendency to further dehumanise her is now duplicated by Lestat as he plays with her “as if she were a magnificent doll”. They ignore obvious signs of her psychological development, such as her interest in the works of “Aristotle or Boethius” and her ability to play Mozart by ear, and simply declare her “a mystery [because] it was not possible to know what she knew or did not know” anymore. Her evolving maturity soon becomes evident through the refinement of her killing technique, which relies heavily upon the realisation that she can use her childlike innocence as a masquerade to lure unsuspecting victims to their death: “[T]o watch her kill was chilling. She would sit alone in the dark square waiting for the kindly gentleman or woman to find her, her eyes […] mindless [..] Like a child numbed with fright she would whisper her plea for help to her gentle, admiring patrons, and as they carried her out of the square, her arms would fix about their necks, her tongue between her teeth, her vision glazed with consuming hunger.”
Her manipulation of her victims before killing them is another feature that can be found in Le Fanu’s novella, as Carmilla assumes the masquerade of a young and sickly girl to fool Laura’s father into welcoming her into his home. This practice can be analysed through Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of the “masculine protest”, which calls for the female figure to “masculinise herself” by imitating characteristics of the male figure according to the social paradigm of gender performativity, or alternatively, to “make use of her feminine weapons to wage war on the male”.
Both Claudia and Carmilla exemplify both aspects of this theory; firstly, by emulating the masculine behaviour of actively seeking out their object of desire in an effort to fulfil their primal need for sexual relations or blood, and secondly, by acquiring a facade of helplessness in order to both ensnare their victims and deceive the patriarchal figureheads of their texts.
Both characters also appear to spend their immortal lives mourning the loss of their biological mothers as is depicted by their hunting patterns. Claudia’s penchant for female victims is revealed in Louis’ discovery that “she did not kill indiscriminately. She fell into demanding patterns […] [and] seemed obsessed with women and children”.
Her exclusive pursuit of mothers and daughters illustrates her fixation and jealousy of the familial bond between women who represent an intimate relationship that she is denied in her immortal form.
Additionally, her fixation with these particular victims suggests that she seeks out women through whom she wishes to live vicariously because they embody the elements of maternal love and freedom that are missing in her life. In other words, she searches for external projections of herself when choosing her victims.
Her killing process includes a ritualistic unification of her victim’s corpses as detailed in her murder of two female servants. The arrangement of their bodies foreshadows her later death with Madeline, as this particular pair is found with “the arm of the mother fastened around the waist of the daughter, the daughter’s head bent against the mother’s breast.”
Their deathly union is similar to the layout of the burnt vampire corpses which will be found with “Madeline’s lovely red hair mingled with the gold of Claudia’s hair […] Madeline still bore the stamp of her living face […]. But the child, the ancient one […] Claudia, was ashes.”
Similarly, Carmilla is obsessed with finding female victims and preys specifically on young girls. She demonstrates her maternal grief in an alternative manner that sees her perform the role of substitute mother to Laura, which encourages the development of their bond and the subsequent fusion of their identities.
Her pursuit of Laura resumes twelve years after their first encounter in her bedroom. When Laura recognises her “pretty, even beautiful” face as belonging to the same lady from her childhood memory, she feels repulsed by Carmilla, but this sensation is quickly repressed when Carmilla claims to have had a reciprocating vision of Laura.
Her ability to manipulate Laura is further demonstrated by her false claim that she does not “know which one [of them] should be most afraid of the other”, and moreover, that if Laura “were less pretty [she] should be very much afraid of [her]”. These apparently mutual confessions are significant because they highlight a blurring of their identities, and illustrate Carmilla’s ability to gain her victim’s trust by suggesting that they have always been connected to each other.
Rice admits that the numerous doll analogies used to describe Claudia are intentional because they emphasise the paradoxical blend of “innocence and beauty with a sinister quality” that her character conveys.
Georgieva asserts that, while the doll-and-child motif has always been a feature of Gothic texts, over time it has “acquired some of the threatening qualities ‘unnatural’ mothers […] attributed to the child”. It can also be argued that these analogies are employed in an attempt to further dehumanise her as they become more prevalent when Louis starts to realise the increasingly contradictory state of her inner psyche and outer physicality. He regards her with a repulsion that mimics Laura’s feeling towards Carmilla as he details her transition from innocent child to one whose face became “more and more […] doll-like […] [as] she became an eerie and powerful seductress.”
Her ability to seduce Louis resembles Carmilla’s ability to enthral Laura into “foolish embraces [from] which I used to wish to extricate myself [but] her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms”.
Louis dismisses Claudia’s power over him by once again reducing her status to that of an idol by calling her his “doll […] That’s what she was. A magic doll”. He gives her countless porcelain dolls that act as her doubles because they are designed to be “replica[s] of [her and] always wear a duplicate of [her] newest dress”.
This practice stresses his need to still view her as a child despite his knowledge of her maturing mentality, which subsequently shows his inability to see her as an equal. Doubling can also be found in Carmilla when Laura finds an old portrait of her maternal ancestor and claims that the picture’s image bears an uncanny resemblance to her vampire companion. She also discovers additional revisions or doubles of Carmilla when she discovers her previous identities as “Mircalla” and “Millarca”.
Claudia’s desire to gain freedom from her vampire fathers appears to stem from her awareness of the powerlessness of her position within their family. When considered from a psychoanalytic perspective, this can be read as a natural stage of childhood development and exemplifies Freud’s notion of “the neurotic’s family romance”, which is a fantasy system that occurs during the “liberation of an individual, as [they] grow up, from the authority of [their] parents”. Although this phase is essential for the child’s self-awareness and social skills, it inevitably creates tension within the family unit.
Nonetheless, Freud dismisses this side-effect as a necessary conclusion since “the whole progress of society rests upon the opposition between successive generations”. This process begins at a young age when the child sees the parents as their “only authority and the source of all belief” whom they desperately wish to emulate. But as their intellect develops, the child compares their own parents to others, thus destroying their former belief of the parents’ exclusivity and causing the child to become critical of them.
Claudia’s awareness of the unconventional set up of their family unit awakens in her a subsequent desire for revenge and freedom, which proves to be a major catalyst for her descent into madness.
The “family romance” occurs twice in her development: on the first occasion, she casts Louis in the maternal role and focuses her energy on replacing Lestat as the dominant head of the family unit. On the second occasion, she wishes to eradicate Louis’s maternal role by leaving him to start a new life with Madeline as her parent and protector. This is a traditional depiction of the family romance because the wish for freedom comes from the child’s natural desire to gain independence from its parental figures.
It only happens when Claudia has confidence in her survival without them and wants to rebel against their tendency to control and condition her according to their specifications. The innocent disguise of her youthful appearance masks the inner turmoil of her adult mind and lulls them into a false sense of security as she plots vengeance for their crimes. But her failure to survive without them becomes evident when she is unable to gain a new physicality over time.
This confirms her helplessness, which in turn anticipates her inevitable demise when considered psychoanalytically through Bettelheim’s claim that “only if the maiden grows into a woman, can life go on” for her. Claudia can be viewed as a personification of this statement because her inability to reproduce or become an adult woman proves to be her downfall.
As a result, she becomes increasingly hopeless about her physical entrapment and wishes to embody a woman’s form. Her later attempt to literally become a double of herself by attaching a female vampire’s body to her decapitated head, leads to her final death.
Claudia’s lack of knowledge about the events surrounding her human death is similar to many other Gothic children, who are generally “aware that what they have been told about their early life may not be the whole truth. Some feel incomplete; others suspect a secret, while others are plainly informed by their supposed parents that something has for long been hidden from them”.
Her intention to discover the truth surrounding her death creates in her an ominous silence that does not go unnoticed by Lestat. He confesses to feeling threatened by her, which suggests that she is only considered a real danger to her patriarchal figureheads when they recognise her state of transgressive womanhood or her monstrous femininity.
Their fears are confirmed by Louis’ realisation that “[s] he is not a child any longer […] I do not know what it is. She is a woman,” while Lestat threatens to “break [her] into a thousand pieces” if she continues to challenge his supremacy.
As her anger towards Lestat continues to gain momentum, she voices her frustration by raising the notion of reproduction. She suggests that together they “could people the world with vampires, the three of us,” only to be informed by Lestat that she would not have the strength to complete the transformation.
He antagonises her further by speaking about the beauty of womanly “endowments that [she] will never possess”. These scathing remarks, as well as his reluctance to discuss the true events of her death, add to her mounting frustration and encourage her revenge plot. Her ability to do so without any hint of remorse marks the maturation of her state of mind.
She finally succeeds in gaining her independence from him when she gives him a false peace offering in the form of two young orphans that she has poisoned using a deadly concoction of absinthe and laudanum that will “put [him] in [his] coffin […] forever.”
While devising her plan, Claudia uncovers the details surrounding her death including Louis’ involvement in the process. Her discovery allows her to manipulate him into helping her avenge their mortality by killing Lestat and in doing so, confirms her status as a threat to the patriarchal authority of their little family.
Her excitement at the thought of murdering Lestat illustrates her lack of humanity as she admits that “the secret is […]. I want to kill him. I will enjoy it.” Her demeanour during this confession takes on an uncanny reptilian quality that repulses Louis once again; he recounts his reaction to seeing “her tongue [move] suddenly between her teeth and [touch] her lower bottom lip in a strange flicker that sent a mild shock through my body […] I felt something palpable and helpless in my hands”.
His response to witnessing this gesture mirrors the revulsion that Laura experiences when she realises Carmilla’s ability to shape-shift into a “sooty-black […] monstrous cat” that attacks her before reverting back to her original form.
Fred Botting argues that the imagery of this feline creature presents a negative view of female sexuality because it represents Carmilla’s “sexual, primitive regression and independent femininity”, as well as the feral threat of violence that lies within her.
He states that the ability to shape-shift is a significant reason why her presence is a risk to the social order of the text because it implies that she does not have “a singular or stable nature or identity”.
Her embodiment of different versions of the self despite her role as the “Other” (or the outsider of the text), is a characteristic of many subsequent Gothic tales, such as Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ for which her character was a huge inspiration.
This chameleon-like quality also allows her to move effortlessly between even the strictest of familial and sexual boundaries as defined by patriarchal society. Although Claudia does not share Carmilla’s ability to shape-shift, her reptilian demeanour in the above passage reminds the reader that her identity is equally ambiguous.
Soon after they relocate to Dollarspe, Claudia and Louis begin to drift apart and eventually they seek out new companions. Claudia wishes for a substitute mother and finds a suitable match in doll-maker, Madeline, with whom she becomes fascinated when she discovers her ability to create a “lady doll”.
She tells Louis that Madeline’s doll shop is filled with numerous versions of the same baby doll that bears a striking resemblance to her dead daughter, and coincidentally to Claudia as well. Despite their similarity to her, she has no interest in them and instead requests a lady doll to signify her inner maturity.
Her dramatic destruction of this figure, which she crushes with her hand, “popping it so it bobbed and broke in a heap of glass that fell from her open, bloody hand”, foreshadows her own gruesome death which happens soon after this performance.
Firstly, however, she convinces Louis to turn Madeline so that she can replace him as her vampire companion and substitute mother.
In order to prove her devotion to Claudia, Madeline burns the doll shop and erases any remaining memory of her other daughter. The fire prefigures the burning to which Claudia and Madeline will soon be subjected as Lestat, Louis, and the reader of ‘Interview with the Vampire’ are all led to believe that Claudia meets her death after a short trial in the Thèâtre des Vampires when the coven find her guilty of the ultimate vampire sin: the attempted murder of her creator.
They condemn her to final death as punishment for her crime against Lestat. It is not until a much later text of ‘The Vampire Chronicles’ that Armand confesses his participation in the true events of her demise, during which he reveals details of her attempt to attach herself to a female form that may give her the strength to create the vampire progeny that her original childlike state could not.
In ‘The Vampire Armand’, he recounts how, on her request, he decapitated her in order to re-attach her head to the body of another adult vampire that would give her the form that she had always desired, but instead created “a writhing jerking catastrophe” that was “a botched reassemblage of the angelic child she had [once] been”. Unable to reverse the damage, he puts this spoilt version of Claudia into the sunlight to be destroyed.
Armand’s revelation raises the notion of multiple deaths which is a typical feature of the Gothic genre and can be applied to both Claudia and Carmilla.
In total, Claudia dies on four occasions: Her first death is a false death which occurs on the first night Louis drinks from her and is overcome with guilt and certainty that he has murdered her.
Her second death is her human death which happens when Lestat drains her and transforms her into a vampire child.
Her third death is a staged death as it is her assumed destruction while wrapped in the arms of Madeline.
Her fourth and final death is Armand’s experimental head transplant that leads to her sunlight burning, which takes place in the same location as Madeline’s earlier annihilation so that their remains are found mixed together.
Similarly, Le Fanu’s text suggests Carmilla’s ability to experience a similar number of deaths as discussed in relation to doubling. The first allusion to Carmilla’s other lives (and deaths) arises when Laura recognises that the lady in their old family portrait of Countess Karnstein is an identical “effigy to Carmilla”.
Later on, she also discovers that Carmilla has had various other lives as women known only as Mircalla and Millarca, which subsequently reveals previous attempts to inhabit their family home and bloodline.
In addition to these revelations, Carmilla also experiences a violent death at the hands of the novella’s group of men once they realise that she is a vampire. Their method of killing her is also decapitation, which can be considered in Freudian terms as a castration that de-masculinises the female demon “who has expressed an inappropriately masculine and active sexual desire”.
This act is then also symbolic in terms of being a phallic subversion of her earlier penetration of Laura, thus suggesting that her death ensures gender roles have been returned to their proper state by the end of the story. Yet there is a strong implication that Carmilla has cheated death once again and survived their attack as insinuated by Laura’s admission that she can still “hear the light step of [her] at the drawing room door”.
The corresponding traits between Claudia and Carmilla strongly suggest that the figure of the vampire child in Gothic literature exemplifies social concerns regarding female sexuality and autonomy.
Both characters demonstrate how the vampire child personifies feminine vulnerability and female transgressiveness as shown in their dependence on the display of an innocent façade in order to successfully hunt and survive.
Additionally, they seem to exhibit a shared grief for the loss of their human lives, particularly in relation to their inability to experience maternal love. The absence of this familial bond appears to have a strong influence over their behaviour, which raises the issue of the texts’ subliminal messages concerning the importance of woman’s role as mother and nurturer.
Finally, the punishment and removal of these vampire children by the end of their stories imply that proper social order will not tolerate female figures that embody the problematic traits of the monstrous feminine.