For those of you not in the know, Twilight is the first of four young-adult novels that introduces 17-year-old Isabella “Bella” Swan and her romantic and adventure-laced relationship with vampire Edward Cullen (a 17-year-old looking 70-year-old vampire). Bella has moved from her home with her mother in Phoenix to the Pacific Northwest to live with her father, a police chief in the small, cloudy town of Forks. At the high school, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to Edward, who lives with a small group of other vampires who’ve decided only to drink animal blood (what Edward wryly refers to as being a “vegetarian”) and live together as a family. When another vampire—this one not so “vegetarian”—passes through the area and sets his sights on Bella, Edward and his family set out to protect her and her family.
Apparently, the novel is extremely popular with teen girls—and I can see why. I think Marjorie Kehe hits the nail on the head at The Christian Science Monitor when she writes “old-fashioned love stories still sell.” And at its core, that’s what this novel is. Kehe links to an interesting article at Salon.com, in which Larua Miller says we can blame the popularity of this modern spin on the old gothic-style romance on Lord Byron, “the original dangerous, seductive bad boy with an artist's wounded soul and in his own time the object of as much feminine yearning as Edward Cullen has been in the early 21st.” Heh. I read Byron both as an undergrad and grad student—and Miller’s right, he still holds his own two centuries later.
But, if the information about influences on Twilight author Stephanie Meyers is to be believed, it would seem Edward shares more in common with another aloof and desired literary figure, that fictional but nonetheless dark, brooding and completely enthralling Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice—a novel with which Meyers says Twilight has loose ties. Indeed, Pride & Prejudice (along with Jane Eyre, with the suffering and dark Edward Rochester, and Wuthering Heights, home to another famous literary “bad boy” Heathcliffe) is even mentioned in Twilight itself.
The connections to such old-fashioned romantic novels explains in part the draw of the novel beyond teenage girls. Miller quotes one woman from an online group made up of adult fans called “Twilight Moms”:
"Twilight makes me feel like there may be a world where a perfect man does exist, where love can overcome anything, where men will fight for the women they love no matter what, where the underdog strange girl in high school with an amazing heart can snag the best guy in the school, and where we can live forever with the person we love," a mix of adolescent social aspirations with what are ostensibly adult longings.However, I didn't find Twilight’s Edward as alluring as Pride & Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy or Bella as strong in character as Elizabeth Bennett. Nor did I find the story as rich and rewarding as Austen’s work. I can’t help but wonder if those Twilight Moms might find Austen and the Bronte sisters’ stories even more enthralling and satisfying? Granted, we probably need to work a little harder with Austen and the Brontes than we do with Meyers, but sometimes really great stories require that.
Though the novel has obvious connections to Austen and Bronte stories, I find Twilight more in line with more traditional Gothic novels such as those by Ann Radcliffe, where the heroine is more helpless and the flawed hero more ideal and powerful. Such stories, Miller explains, still touch on something familiar today:
The traditional feminine fantasy of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man, of needing to do no more to prove or find yourself than win his devotion, of being guarded from all life's vicissitudes by his boundless strength and wealth—all this turns out to be a difficult dream to leave behind.So, while Pride & Prejudice Meyers’ novel may not be, it does touch on something that resonates—heh, at least with the female side of the species. I must admit that I can understand the appeal, though I think, in the end, it is an appetizer to a better thing.
Another interesting note regarding this series is that they aren’t nearly as dark in their gothic-ness as many other vampire novels (i.e., think Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire). In fact, Twilight is notably absent of sex, bad language, drug use and even light on the violence. According to an interview with Meyers with UK’s Times Online, this was more a result more of who she is rather than intention:
Meyer insists that she does not consciously intend her novels to be Mormon propaganda, promoting the virtues of sexual abstinence and spiritual purity; but she acknowledges that her writing is shaped by the values she learnt from her family and the church. “I don’t think my books are going to be really graphic or dark, because of who I am,” she said. “There’s always going to be a lot of light in my stories.”It is partly this aspect of the series that garners some respect among Christians. In Campus Life’s Ignite Your Faith, Stacy Lingle notes additional aspects of the novels that believers can not only take note of but also learn from. At Christ and Pop Culture, Carissa Smith also notes some similar aspects, even as she notes some concern on the prominence of such an intense romantic love in the novel.
Indeed, I share some concern over that as well (not to mention that I find it just a little creepy that a 70-year-old vampire is hitting on a 17-year-old girl—but that might be a “mom” thing). But, to be fair, Twilight is definately not alone in its portrayal of romantic love. Many films and novels—from romantic comedies to Christian romantic fiction to gothic-romances—build an image of love that is unsustainable and, if left uncontemplated, can create unrealistic expectations—as well as a rather self-centered focus—of what it means to love. Smith notes, however, that she’d have to avoid a lot of worthy stories if she were to hold that up as a reason not to read Twilight—and I agree with her on that, too. Like everything else in life, we just need to be more aware of and think through what we read, watch and take in around us—not only to weed out those things that aren’t true about life but also to glean those things that are.
And Twilight does have truth about it—and I resonate most with its theme that we all have a choice of what to do with the life we’ve been given. Often quoted from Twilight is Edward’s response to Bella’s question of why he and his family have chosen not to feed on humans:
He hesitated before answering. “That’s a good question, and you are not the first one to ask it. The others—the majority of our kind who are quite content with our lot—they, too, wonder at how we live. But you see, just because we’ve been . . . dealt a certain hand . . . it doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to rise above—to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted. To try to retain whatever essential humanity we can.”This is a very human struggle being voiced by a vampire—which is one example of many of how this novel uses both human and vampire characters to explore what it means to be human, why we make the choices we do, and the consequences inherent in the paths we walk, both good and evil. And the story and characters are written well enough to make me think about what I might do if I were Bella or Edward. And, in my opinion, while it may not be one of the best stories, this makes me stack it in the category of a good one.
I probably won’t read the rest of the series (the Wikipedia summaries were enough for me), but if you are looking for a light and fun read, you might consider Twilight. But you might also want to pick up Pride & Prejudice, because I’m telling you, Edward’s got nothing on that Mr. Darcy.
Note: I haven’t seen the film, but you can read Ken Brown’s review at C. Orthodoxy or a review at Christianity Today by Todd Hertz.
(Images: Wikipedia and Barnes and Noble)