Thoughts on Twilight
"From causes, which this is not the place to investigate, no models of past times, however perfect, can have the same vivid effect on the youthful mind, as the productions of contemporary genius.... The great works of past ages seem to a young man things of another race, in respect to which his faculties must remain passive and submiss, even as to the stars and mountains. But the writings of a contemporary, perhaps not many years older than himself, surrounded by the same circumstances, and disciplined by the same manners, possess a reality for him, and inspire an actual friendship as of a man for a man."--Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It is hard, after spending much time reading a good story, to immediately go out and pick up another book. A good story requires time to process, to settle the effects over one's imagination and philosophy. I experienced this very thing after my latest trip straight through the Twilight Saga, some days ago; as I set down Breaking Dawn again and wondered where to go next, I knew that the immediate answer was "Nowhere." Edward and Bella's story had touched me, and I couldn't just go jump into someone else's.
Stephenie Meyer's vampire series has created a fan following both large and loyal enough to raise comparisons, however reaching, to Harry Potter. It must be admitted that J.K. Rowling's achievements were higher both in symbolic strength and worldwide appeal; still, Meyer's story ought not be written off as harlequin fluff meant only for the titillation of the silliest members of society. It is generally thought that the attraction of her books is due to the weakness of womankind for romance. This is true in part, but not necessarily in the sense in which the epithet is meant.
Meyer's books do, of course, have some things in common with Harry Potter. Besides both being genre-blended fantasy-based stories enjoying great popularity, both deal with ultimate questions without coming across as issue-driven. There are also multiple layers to both stories, and Meyer is getting what Rowling got several years ago: the praise and dismissal of a culture that reads, enjoys, and criticizes almost entirely on the surface level. As much as I value literacy, it is hard to avoid questioning the merit of pushing all of our children to read, read, read without teaching them how to comprehend the meaning of the literary art. The problems that young people inevitably run into when reading layered fiction are exacerbated by a ruling literary class that appears to concern itself almost exclusively with sex, tragedy, and irony.
Starting with the top level: Where were five- and seven-hundred-page novels when I was in my teens? They're absolutely heaven for a bookworm. Others disagree, but I didn't find the length at all burdensome. The Twilight Saga is a mix of impressively painful suspense that kept me up nights reading and a few odd pacing weaknesses that make for something of an uneven reading experience. Its prose is generally graceful, though the descriptions are repetitive, and the editor missed some obvious mistakes such as an occasional mid-sentence change of tense. Actual horror is generally avoided and the books don't read as "dark", but there are certainly a few grotesqueries. The stories are chaste in the sense that the main characters wait till their marriage to consummate their romance, but very sensual in the telling from the first-person narrative voice of a high-school girl.
It concerns me that pre- and early-teen girls are reading these books. People generally take only what they want to from their reading, and girls that age (some don't outgrow this) are naturally prone to silliness about boys and to thinking and fantasizing obsessively about romance. If that is all, or even primarily, what they take from Twilight, then the books are dangerous for them. Even the most clear direction of the books, which is chastity and self-control, is probably beyond the grasp of a girl whose longing to be desired has outpaced her ability to prioritize virtue or character. If a girl's primary response to the books/movie is likely to be "Robert Pattinson!" or "Taylor Lautner!" or even "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob", she is probably not ready for the read.
But for those ready to retrieve more from a story, there is more to be found, and it is the deeper things that took me through all four books three times in three months--why I'm still re-reading. Perhaps the simplest way to start understanding the deeper meaning is to begin loosely with two very common ciphers: read the vampire parts as symbolic of sexuality, and the romantic parts as symbolic of the relationship between human and divine. Stephenie Meyer is a committed, devout Mormon and a student of literature; both of the above ciphers can be reasonably assumed. Her symbolism is not plain allegory, meant for direct representation (Edward, for instance, is hardly a perfect deity). Rather, her stories offer powerful images of human life and love.
As a story of self-denial and the worth of such practice, Twilight and its sequels have a lot to say to our culture. We are so used to granting ourselves whatever we want and sulking if it proves beyond our reach; we have much to learn from Edward, whose twofold desire for his beloved (for her body and her blood) is kept under rigid control. Edward is a member of a vampire coven that abstains from human blood, living off of animals. When confronted with Bella, he resists at first only barely, running away from the temptation to kill her and her classmates in order to satisfy his vampire thirst. Later he loves her, and his love protects her life from his own need and desire. "And so the lion fell in love with the lamb ..." (Twilight, p. 274) He has grave sins on his conscience from his past, but the one law he has not broken has been that of chastity; he, the male, "protects her virtue" and his own and asks her to marry him. True, he eventually caves on that--fortunately just in time for her to finally understand and make the choice for purity herself.
It is true that Edward and Bella set a lot of bad examples. Despite powerful self-control, unmarried couples staying all night together is a bad idea even when fully clothed. The strength of the books is not always in the strength of the characters, however. Stephenie Meyer didn't go to much trouble to hide the point of her story; the entire series might be summed up in the words of Garrett, a new "convert" to the lifestyle chosen by Edward and his family:
"I have witnessed the bonds within this family--I say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire? ... it seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding--that which makes them possible at all--is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice."1
Meyer's claim--without dropping a syllable about her religion--is that of morality: Self-denial is necessary to family life, and the gains far outweigh the price; its direction is toward peace and harmony and deep bonds. Further, the stories express the ultimately self-sacrificial nature of love through Bella's offering up her life for someone she loves in every one of the four books.
"My stories are about life, not death," says Meyer; they're about "love, not lust."2 Her intentions came through clearly, I believe. And I think that the primary reason Twilight is so immensely popular among women (not just young girls; TwilightMoms.com, for instance, includes a very active forum) is because of that last point. A girl of any age knows the difference between being loved and being used. She may not be able to express it or to see the failure of the males in her own life; she may be so jaded that she almost prefers usage herself; but she is drawn to Edward because Edward passes the one test that proves the difference. Edward's love protects Bella's life and purity from his own desires. A man like that is almost as rare a creature as a vampire in today's culture.
The weakness of womanhood for that kind of romance is such that only the very jaded can toss such a story aside and imagine themselves unaffected.
As a reader and writer, I return to Meyer's books for the understanding of her expression of "life, not death" and "love, not lust". I find something of a writing-hero in her for that. My husband and I have had a quiet weekend at home; I've read Chesterton and L'Engle, Meyer and Dante. And to great historical works like the Commedia, I must 'remain passive and submiss'. To the work of Chesterton I kneel as an apprentice to her master, and I look to L'Engle for the wisdom of a teacher. Stephenie Meyer is also my teacher. But I feel as if I could sit across a couch from her, once I got through being starstruck, and talk over meanings and morals and influences and favorite works and the joy of storytelling.
Till she has time for that, I'll make do with reading her books, discovering the connections to the various great works on which she based her books (Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet, among others), tracing the Garden of Eden retelling that John Granger has noted, and trying to settle the question of whether she intentionally used literary alchemy as a structural device or whether certain references, such as color use, are merely coincidental. She may have written her books simply, but she certainly left detective work enough for the serious reader.
1 Meyer, Breaking Dawn. Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2008, 717-718.
2 Horng, "Will New Bestseller 'Eclipse' Harry Potter?" http://www.abcnews.go.com/WN/story?id=3499052, accessed April 23, 2009.