Having recently caught on TV the three motion picture adaptations of the Twilight saga released so far and found them a now-or-never inducement to take a stab at reading the first volume in Stephenie Meyer’s YA paranormal romance series, I came away from the experience with one overriding reaction: it’s like, OMG, TOTALLY about the WRONG couple! Noooo!! Go Team Jalice XOXO!!
Ahem. Now that my long-buried inner teenager has had her squeal (Jasper and Alice 4eva!!), on to the novel that started the international craze. Whether the book would prove a hit or miss, I was prepared for suitably Hallowe’en-y frissons, having been surprised by the unpretentious sweetness, family focus, and suspense plot of the first Twilight film, which confounded the negative impressions I had formed of a Young Adult novel I expected to be a bizarre, chewing-gum read. My conclusion, 496 pages later? The philosophical issues about love and death raised by the story – with the concomitant tensions arising from such contradictory forces – exert a fascination independent of the naïve writing and unreflective narrative. In a comparison between the book and its screen adaptation I am hard pressed to think of a single instance where the film version of Twilight is not a significant improvement over the novel. Stephenie Meyer’s imagination in all honour, she owes a great debt to the filmmakers for everything from plot development and characterisations to buildup of suspense and discreet cleanup of toxic elements.
The newest arrival in Forks High School, seventeen year-old Isabella “Bella” Swan from sun-baked Arizona (USA) dreads life in the nondescript small town on the Olympic Peninsula (Washington State), one of the rainiest and cloudiest regions in the country. But she is not the only curiosity in school. Beautiful and mysterious, the Cullens keep to themselves as if they belong to an exclusive club. Edward Cullen, in particular, goes out of his way to avoid Bella – when he is not being troublingly rude.
On an icy winter morning in the school parking lot, all that changes in the span of a heartbeat. About to be crushed between two vehicles as a skidding car slams into them, Bella is saved from certain death by none other than Edward. The more he tries to explain away the miracle and fights the strange attraction between them, the more resolved she becomes to figure out what he is hiding. When she does, both find out just how dangerous love can be.
Twilight is essentially a rescue fantasy about a glamorous boy delivering a girl from the mediocrity of her life and waking her emotionally to a special love through his eternal worship. Only this boy has been seventeen years old since 1918, and the thing that first attracts him to the girl is the scent of her blood, at once more exquisite and agonising than anything he has ever experienced in his nearly hundred-year-long existence (Stephenie Meyer’s novel was originally published in 2005; my edition is a Little, Brown and Company media tie-in paperback from 2008). To the girl, on the other hand, love is more important than death, and she is determined to prove it to the boy – even if it kills her. Depending on which reader of the Twilight saga you listen to, it is a match made either in fairytale heaven or in spousal-abuse hell.
Before I continue, I must clarify that the only way I was able to even begin to process the relationship between Bella and Edward was to consciously decide that time and space function differently in the world of Twilight than in the one in which I live, and that this applies to the concept of age. It has been said that vampires are “frozen in time” from the moment they are turned. In other words, they don’t age. At least not physically. But how about their minds? On one hand, Edward’s brooding emotional life is no more advanced than that of any other seventeen-year old, as if every experience he has had since turning a vampire has slid off his sparkly skin like rain instead of being absorbed into his internal make-up. He can certainly behave like a bratty adolescent (consider any scene involving boys interested in Bella), and he generally defers to the guidance of his adoptive parents. On the other hand, time has allowed him to develop his piano playing skills into those of a virtuoso, and his accumulated experiences persuade him he is better placed than Bella to know what is best in any given situation. So which is it – is Edward mentally a teenager or a nearly hundred-year old man? As a courtesy to the author who describes her story not as horror but romance, I chose to pretend that he is a precocious teen with an age complex.
Edward Cullen is a member of a vampire coven who have made a moral decision to abstain from harming humans, subsisting instead on animal blood – to them, the vampire equivalent of tofu, which is why the Cullens jokingly refer to themselves as vegetarians. However, the only one who has completely mastered the instinctive thirst is the family patriarch; the others still struggle with occasional bouts of temptation. Edward comes face to face with the most excruciating temptation of his reformed existence when his craving for Bella puts this moral code to the test. Gifted with effortless mind-reading, he is thrown into even deeper confusion by the impenetrability of Bella’s thoughts. Cue lashings of angst and “ancient pain”.
The first-person narrator of the story, Bella Swan, by nature a loner, is very private and quite self-sufficient, the latter probably partially due to the behaviour of her parents. “You put on a good show,” Edward tells her (page 49). “But I’d be willing to bet that you’re suffering more than you let anyone see.” He may have a point. With divorced parents who are barely there even though they appear to love her, and a self-sacrificing move from a home she loves to a place she detests, Bella could very well be a depressed teen. Although she calls her mother her best friend (105), in the next breath, talking about her relationship with her mother – according to whom Bella grows “more middle-aged every year” – she drops a revealing comment: “someone has to be the adult” (106). Just how heavily this sense of responsibility for her scatter-brained, co-dependent parent weighs on Bella is evident in two of the most important decisions Bella makes: the first sends her away to Forks, the second, at the book’s climax, nearly results in her death. Bella’s father, the police chief of Forks (an inexplicably pointless professional role in the novel but one that is given relevancy in the film), appreciates that Bella has chosen to stay with him while her mother adjusts to newly remarried life, but he is emotionally closed-off and not much of a support. The differences between her family and the close-knit, affectionate, and loyal Cullens cannot fail to have an impact on Bella.
Her age, introvert personality, and family situation also go some way toward mitigating her martyrdom about being the new girl in town. As self-absorbed and tormented by uncertainty as any other teen, Bella is both perceptive and painfully unself-aware. Unfortunately the author did not help me sympathise with Bella’s misery about how freakishly out of place and undesirable she is - being cursed with pallor (her skin is clear and translucent) and clumsiness (which appears to add to her charm in the eyes of others) - because circumstances incessantly underscore her popularity and specialness. Her process of settling into a new school in a new place could hardly be smoother or more ideal. From the first day, girls and boys flock to her, offering friendship. At the first opportunity, boys in her crowd are falling over themselves with eagerness to ask her to a dance, for, as is pointed out to her, the male school contingent admires her whether she deems herself pretty or not (of course she doesn’t). The girls who aren’t dazzled are quickly shown to be unlikeable and jealous, anyway. Jacob, a Quileute from the La Push reservation whose family she knew when they were both younger, also falls under her spell. She is adored by her super-special boyfriend and implicitly trusted by her parents. Then there is the fact that she is the only person whose mind Edward cannot read, and the only human admitted into the confidence of the Cullens, who find her remarkably brave.
Bella is written in a way that presents her as sensitive, compassionate, and sensible. I don’t see any authorial intent to deliberately suggest that she may have a selfish side. Nevertheless, Bella is not merely shy but a bit of a misanthrope. Fellow junior Mike’s friendly attentiveness makes her compare him to a golden retriever; she also imagines him wagging a tail (30,51). Tyler’s remorse and panicked concern upon causing the near-fatal accident in the parking lot causes her to find him irritating and to ignore him. Beyond a single “are you all right” at the sight of his bloodied bandages (61), she expresses no further interest in his welfare. Indeed, she dismisses him as “another unwelcome fan” (69). The very first girl who befriends her and introduces her to fellow students she cannot bother listening to even during that initial encounter (17). That several boys ask her to the dance causes her not embarrassed pleasure but annoyance in a sequence of episodes I suspect are intended to be humorous; instead I found Bella’s inner commentary about her suitors arrogant and petty (chapter four). The irony when Bella describes as standoffish a “girl who had always ignored me at the lunch table” (79) stood out in precious contrast. Notably, too, the girls of her acquaintance “babble” and “prattle” and “chatter”, “completely unaware of [Bella’s] inattention” (17,86, 118). When Edward (who like his foster siblings has always distanced himself from every other fellow student) suddenly beckons to Bella in the cafeteria to join him, Bella feels insulted by her girlfriend’s astonishment at his interest (87). She does not show any concern for her friends’ feelings and thoughts, never asking them anything personal or showing un-self-seeking kindliness toward them. She notices and fends off, repeatedly, their awe about and invitations to her, though. Unless she needs information or has something else to gain from spending time with them (including Jacob), her own interest is reserved solely for Edward. Here, too, the film adaptation marks a positive change: screen Bella is a less passive friend and more assertive young woman, for example encouraging a friend not to wait for a call from the boy she fancies but to phone him: “Take control. You’re a strong, independent woman.”
One of the most curious incidents in the novel takes place on First Beach at La Push, where Bella and Jacob first become re-acquainted. Unlike the earnest, quiet, and relatively smart Bella of the film (sensitively played by Kristen Stewart), the novel’s Bella is sometimes quite deliberately and rather stunningly manipulative. At La Push she determines to use seduction to fish for information from the younger, dazzled Jacob, information he and his family are reluctant to impart (121-3). For a girl who is explicitly described as wise beyond her years and sensitive to boot, and whose physical relationship with her boyfriend is chaste and demure, it seems disturbing and significant that the first and only method that occurs to her of gaining the information she wants is to use a sexual lure. In yet another scene, Bella briefly reveals an additional, eyebrow-raising side to her character: she secretly toys with the idea of deliberately placing herself in harm’s way to ensure that Edward, who has taken upon himself to keep her safe, will not leave her (211). These incidents illustrate Bella from angles which I assumed the author would deliberately include in the character arc as flaws or events that come back to haunt or punish the character and teach her to take responsibility for her actions. Alas, cause and effect appear the sketchiest of concepts in Twilight. Bella suffers no consequences nor even any lasting pangs of guilt for having exploited the humble and decent Jacob; and her suicidal impulse fails to receive authorial attention. In Twilight, characters are not necessarily made to earn their happy endings by working through difficulties; arrogance, for example, is rewarded. It is a type of self-gratifying storytelling wherein wish-fulfillment frequently appears to plays a larger role than, say, plot logic, dramatic structure, and character psychology.
Narcissism is a prevalent trait not only of Bella’s character or her relationship with Edward but of the general tone and style of storytelling. Everyone seems described first, last, and sometimes only in terms of their looks. These looks are generally indicative of where they stand in Bella or Edward’s estimation. The Cullens are out-of-this-world gorgeous; questionable vampires are also beautiful but less so (and the ranking order of beautifulness among them is duly noted, page 376); while the most villainous vampire actually looks ordinary - perhaps the most damning attribute in the Twilight universe (376, 445). Unsurprisingly, while Rosalie (Hale) Cullen is the most striking female Bella has ever seen, she is also uncharacteristically (for a Cullen) spiteful, vain, and bitterly jealous of Bella. Also as expected since he is the hero in a story where external beauty is extolled above everything else, nothing and nobody can touch the gloriousness that is Edward. In one of the most blatant cases of gratuitous objectification I have encountered in fiction, Bella obsesses about his looks from beginning to end (the epilogue, page 481: “my breath caught in my throat. Would I ever get used to his perfection?”). But possessing superhuman handsomeness, speed, strength, and ability to read minds is not enough. Bella’s comment, “Well, it would be nice if I could find just one thing you didn’t do better than everyone else on the planet” is less sarcastic than it sounds (371; also see page 325). Can such a prince be allowed a girlfriend who looks like the student Mike is forced to sit next to in biology class, a girl Bella primly notes has braces and “a bad perm”? Not in Twilight. As I have tried to demonstrate, Edward’s reassurance to his modestly unconfident lady love seems a trifle superfluous: “Trust me just this once – you are the opposite of ordinary” (210). These two are the adored stars of the show, and the reader is never allowed to forget it. Pages 260-320 basically constitute one long ode to to their mutual wonderfulness.
While the superficiality of characterisations and focus on physical attractiveness in Twilight seem extreme, they are hardly unique features in pop culture. Of more immediate concern in a novel written for entertaining young readers is a storyline that victimises the supposed heroine by shoving her into life-threatening situations over and over again (film trailer) without once giving her the means to influence their outcome. She is allowed no opportunity to save herself nor to participate in her own rescue, whether through reliance on her wits or application of physical resistance (fuelled by desperation if nothing else), not even in the climaxing action, as part of a group effort. The film attempts to redress this message by having another female character leap capably into that last fight and dispatch of the enemy together with the men. In the novel, that culminating confrontation occurs off page, is summarised in one sentence, and involves only male characters (461); meanwhile, the full focus during that climax is on the heroine’s suffering. When it really counts, she is made an object of pity instead of being allowed to test and prove her resourcefulness.
Thus, I remain unconvinced by arguments that Bella is truly the heroine of her own story. At the end of the book, she gets her wish, Edward, without having learned anything about the human condition, without having had to redeem herself, and without having paid any price. While Edward’s shining armour is his sparkly vampire powers and his white horse is a silver Volvo, Twilight is still the patriarchal tale, taken to nuanceless extremes, of the damsel in distress rescued by a knight. Bella may possess some assertive qualities including a measure of independence and a mind of her own, but her faculties don’t extend to an active or successful stake in protecting herself. When there is danger, she cannot manage without a rescuing male. While various aspects of Twilight have drawn comparisons to classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, I would argue that Bella Swan’s closest literary relative is in fact Sleeping Beauty.
Nor is Bella’s physical passiveness the only limitation imposed on her ability to take charge. In a reversal of genre conventions that generally see protagonists grow from a position of weakness to a position of strength, Bella goes from a young woman shouldered with perhaps too much responsibility but possessing the intelligence to make smart, independent decisions and look after herself competently, to a girl who is judged too frail, inexperienced, and endangered to be allowed to trust her own judgment or exercise free will. Yes, it is time to take a closer look at her relationship with Edward Cullen.
The relationship between Edward and Bella perfectly demonstrates why an alpha hero typically needs to be paired with an alpha heroine if the romance is to maintain a healthy balance of equality and to make both characters shine. Without a strong heroine to confidently challenge his ideas about right and wrong and demand respect or else show him the door, the overbearing alpha male walks all over the heroine, behaving as if domination is romantic proof of caring and commitment. In Twilight, Edward is in charge of the couple’s journey and he has no intention of sharing control. Nothing happens between him and Bella without his prior approval, and it is for Bella to accept and conform to his wishes, even when it makes her angry or unhappy. Edward decides when she should eat (314-5), when she should take medication (477), whether she should be allowed to drive (104), how long and under which conditions they should remain a couple (211, 479). He dismisses her ability to make rational decisions; when they disagree, he refuses to negotiate or compromise and simply overrules her. He encourages her passivity and discourages her independence and friendships, helping to stifle her growth into a woman and an individual with values beyond the self and its wants. When she protests, he says she does not know what she is talking about and that everything he does is for her own good. Because neither reason, fairness, nor trust will make Edward relinquish power, and because he will utilise superior physical strength if that will serve him as well as read the minds of any person she may confide in, Bella can only get her way through begging, evasion, or secrecy. Earlier I commented on how every time Bella sees or meets Edward she reacts by being awestruck by his beauty, specifically his face. One might theorise that perhaps she does not dwell on his inner qualities because they don’t make her feel good: being with him she tends to experience feelings of deep inadequacy.
By turns avuncular, domineering, and bratty, Edward’s pathological behaviour demolished any intrigue about the enigma he initially represents by setting off all my creep alarms. Neither the novel nor the film challenges his stalkerism, which is presented as romantic acts by a protective lover and therefore does not need to be checked. Bella says, “’You spied on me?’ But somehow I couldn’t infuse my voice with the proper outrage. I was flattered.”; “[Edward] was unrepentant. ‘What else is there to do at night?’” (292-3). When she enquires how often he has come to her house, and the answer stuns her, her fear revolves only around any embarrassing things he may have overheard during her sleep. The fact that he has spent night after night uninvited, unknown to her, in her bedroom does not merit any commentary on ethics or predatorial behaviour. In fact, on an earlier occasion Bella reflects, “I wondered if it should bother me that he was following me; instead I felt a strange surge of pleasure” (174). Bella’s defective sense of self-preservation and her resignation in the face of Edward’s refusal to treat her as a rational equal are among the foremost reasons why I would hesitate to put Twilight in the hands of any impressionable young reader without a serious discussion of its gender dynamics.
So, if Edward is so terrible – or a terrible choice for her – why does Bella love him and want to stay with him forever? Well, for one thing, this is a fantasy with fated soulmates, the type of love story where the characters cannot help but give in to a destiny that has pre-ordained them for each other. And of course there is that overwhelming physical attraction, never to be underestimated in either fiction or real life. Thirdly, remember Bella’s co-dependent mother, whom Bella feels compelled to protect and care for? Bella appears to see some of that same vulnerability, in addition to nobility, in Edward’s desperate struggle to be good. It is a syndrome that recalls fairytales like Beauty and the Beast, and to a degree the mediaeval myths of the virgin and the unicorn. And finally there is the darker facet to Bella’s personality: her attitude to danger and fascination with death. I am not much for vampire lore, but the one novel where I thought the subject interestingly treated, albeit in unorthodox fashion, was Karen Harbaugh’s French Revolution romance, Night Fires, where vampirism means horror, not romanticism, to the infected heroine, to whom human mortality is desirable and redemptive. She is the diametric opposite of Bella, to whom vampirism means perfection and who perceives mortality as a demeaning, unnatural state. True, Twilight is a fantasy and a fairytale, but Bella is a very good reason for why this YA novel cannot be exempted from discussions about teenage suicide and romantic notions of death.
It is not that difficult to see why Edward is drawn to Bella, beyond the scent of her blood which in itself has already singled her out as special (he has never felt the same about any other human’s blood). Both are outsiders and loners who recognise a fellow special being in each other. Bella at once gives him a purpose – to protect her; provides a romantic companion – a century is a long time to be alone, particularly when everyone else in your family has a partner; presents a challenge and a mystery as he cannot read her mind – boredom is a problem for long-time vampires who have seen everything, done everything, learnt everything, and never sleep; and she represents redemption – through her, he can do penance for his past. (Any reader who thinks Edward is exaggerating when he describes himself as a monster might be interested in taking a look at the biology class massacre he is shown planning in Midnight Sun, Meyer’s unpublished, partial manuscript which shows the events of Twilight from Edward’s point of view.)
Numerous paper-thin characters flit in and out of the story, most with negligible consequence for the principals or the plot. Only Bella and Edward have any sort of character arcs (and my use of that term is generous). That said, due to the films I took more interest in two of these characters than the paltry word count allocated to them warrants. The newest members of the Cullen vampire coven, Alice and Jasper, like Edward, attend high school in the guise of being foster children of Esme Cullen and her husband, Carlisle. The only one in the family whose struggle to permanently abstain from human blood seems to hold a questionable outcome - a struggle that therefore is genuinely interesting and affecting - Jasper is also humiliated by the trauma of having no privacy of thought from the smugly superior Edward, who never exhibits any qualms about violation of privacy through deliberate mind-reading (he is able to tune out the ability when he so wishes, which apparently is not very often). Jasper possesses a unique superhuman gift of his own, though: the ability to feel the moods of others and to induce calm or excitement. In contrast to Edward, he seems to use the gift unselfishly, out of kindness. Still, like Edward’s it is a trait that deserves much closer critical scrutiny than it receives in either book or film, but then, one should probably not turn to Twilight with the expectation of anything very deep about either the vampiric or the human condition.
Jasper’s spouse, Alice, is the only female character in the book who plays a proactive, positive, and influential role. Capable, loyal, friendly, and gifted with certain precognitive powers , she is acknowledged as someone who knows how to protect herself and others; in the film, she fights in the final battle scene. The supportive and loving quality of her relationship with Jasper, in which each recognises the other as an equal (film clip of a fight practice session, from Eclipse), is intensely alluring, heightened on screen by the presence and chemistry of the actors (Ashley Greene and Jackson Rathbone). I was not joking when I stated that I wish Twilight would have told their stories instead. As Edward explains, “Alice and Jasper are two very rare creatures. They both developed a conscience, as we refer to it, with no outside guidance. Jasper belonged to another ... family, a very different kind of family. He became depressed, and he wandered on his own. Alice found him ” (289-290). Alice’s backstory is no less haunting than Jasper’s, but their backgrounds are only fleetingly touched on in this first novel of the saga. The hope of finding out more about Jasper and Alice was the sole reason I endured sitting through the film adaptation of Eclipse with its horrendously sordid triangle drama (begun in New Moon). Luckily for me, the pair finally received more screen time in that third installment.
While I consider Twilight severely problematic, in some respects it is an accomplished enough debut novel. At this early stage in her career Stephenie Meyer obviously possessed a lot more imagination and ideas than technical writing skills or psychological perceptiveness. For all that, Meyer’s prose flows smoothly and pleasantly, her grip on conveying emotion, atmosphere, and natural setting are good, and she demonstrates an instinct for propelling the story forward in the style of a pageturner. The pacing is better in the first part of the book than the midsection, where it drags, and the ending, where the book really fell apart for me in too many ways to count. Plotting and understanding of dramatic structure are feeble. Still, tense set-ups full of emotional and psychological potential keep the story going, and humour lightens the angst at regular intervals. I can see how the overall smoothness of the storytelling can make for compelling escapist fiction for adults and be involving enough to be addictive for young readers, who no doubt fill the voids in the writing with the powerfulness of their own imaginations. Nevertheless, a mature reader hoping for something even moderately insightful and nuanced from a story about young love and death may be put off by the shallowness and toxicity of the narrative. For me, personally, this is one of the rare cases where the film worked overwhelmingly better than the book.
If or when Stephenie Meyer’s writing voice outgrows the self-indulgent amateurism on display in Twilight and she puts more thought into her themes and the messages her narratives convey, I may yet become interested in returning to her work to see how she develops the talents that every now and then make Twilight glimmer. (Indeed, while I am definitely not ready to try another of her books anytime soon, I have heard good things about The Host.) But my verdict on her first book must be summed up thus: an original scenario brimming with thought-provoking conflicts turned into a regrettably simplistic novel by immature, narcissistic storytelling.