NB: Spoiler alert
Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, New York: Little, Brown and Co. Books for Young Readers, 2005.
My rating: *
I read this book to see what all the fuss was about, which has been further amplified by the appearance of the films. Twilight and its sequels have spawned a whole imitative sub industry in the form of other novels and television series. But for all the author’s claims of an original take on the vampire myth – it has all been done before and recently. One example is the True Blood novel series which appeared slightly before Twilight and which has been made into a currently airing television series. And of course there are the seminal late 90s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. All of these series feature adolescent females and their troubled relationships with male vampires some decades, if not hundreds of years, older than themselves. What is new perhaps is the complete and utter complicity of the female in her eventual destruction.
Unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t think of anything positive to say about Twilight. There is little to recommend it either in terms of style or content. As numbers of others have remarked, it reads like bad fan fiction which has by some stroke of luck been published by a mainstream publisher. A couple of decades ago, it is the sort of material that an adolescent writer would have kept firmly under lock and key in their bedroom drawer so as not to risk the extreme embarrassment of it finding any other readers apart from themselves. One can also remark on the similarities with porn fiction in the way it is structured and written, but it is porn without the sex. Indeed one notable critique describes it as ‘abstinence porn’.
The story focuses entirely on the obsessive relationship between a 16 year old girl, Bella, and a self described ‘monster’, Edward, a centenarian vampire who remains physically fixed at the point of his death at the age of 17. Numbers of critics – from a feminist standpoint in particular – have pointed to the abusive nature of Bella’s relationship with Edward, the latter not only engaging in classic emotionally manipulative behaviour but also fulfilling all the criteria of a bona fide stalker. Bella occupies the masochistic female victim role – Edward’s appalling behaviour proves nothing more than ‘how much he loves her’.
The author, Stephenie Meyer, claims that the books are all about ‘choice’ and in a perverse and limited way this is indeed true. But most of the choosing is done by the male protagonist, Edward, and it all involves stringent self-denial – both in relation to his predatory vampiric desire to kill Bella (and all those around her) by sucking their blood, and also in his much vaunted sexual abstinence, given the contact of his strong vampire body with a weak human one could prove potentially fatal to Bella. As for Bella herself, her choice merely involves the complete and utter self-indulgence of her fixation on Edward and the annihilation of any separate identity in the process. She has no hobbies, no friends (in spite of overtures from others), no career ambitions and no moral or physical sense of self-preservation.
As critics have pointed out – all the agency rests with Edward. If Bella is the first person narrator, it is Edward who acts as subject in these novels. He makes the decisions which keep Bella alive and provides her with the emotional focus which gives structure and meaning to her existence. The decisions he makes not only involve making sure that he doesn’t kill her himself but also involve continually ‘saving’ her from car accidents, potential sexual assault by muggers and being killed by other vampires. When Edward disappears in the second novel, Bella goes into a catatonic suicidal state which lasts for months. This is matched later by Edward’s own suicidal condition when he mistakenly believes Bella is dead.
In the final novel, Breaking Dawn, Edward’s ‘noble’ self-denial – denial of himself as a vampiric predator is finally overcome by Bella’s own will to self annihilation when in the fourth novel, they marry, engage in one night of rough sex, which following the Gone with the Wind model results in instant pregnancy and no further sex. The pregnancy destroys Bella’s body and she has to be transformed into a vampire in order to ‘save’ her. The loss of virginity and pregnancy becomes a violent loss of purity which can only lead to death and to transformation into a monster – a problematic model to say the least. But perhaps one might argue facetiously that this might merely be designed to provide a bracing warning about the dangers of teenage sex and teenage pregnancy to adolescent readers of the series.
Numbers of fans have strongly protested at this (inevitable) outcome – even sending petitions to the publisher. Thus it would appear that what attracted them to the series was the odd stand off between two forms of self-destructive subjectivity – one of a most stringent and painful self-denial, the other of a complete indulgence in the dubious pleasures of emotional, moral and physical self annihilation. Teenage pregnancy and being turned into a vampire were probably not what they had hoped for their heroine.
The series, due to its immense popularity has also been frequently described as the ‘new Harry Potter’, but for all its faults the Harry Potter series did at least engage with a wider external social and cultural world with some historical depth. It raised quite sophisticated (if somewhat conservative) questions about social structures and ethical responsibility to others, both in relation to friends and to the broader community. At a literary level it also entertained readers with basic Latin magic words and intriguing neologisms such as ‘pensieve’, a combination of the French word ‘penser’ (to think) and the English word ‘sieve’, to describe a magical device which allowed a person to store their memories for future use either by themselves or others. There is none of this engagement with the social and political world or with language invention in the Twilight series.
If Twilight and its three sequels were not so overwhelmingly popular one could safely ignore them, but the question that has fascinated me is why have they become such a mass phenomenon? One reason perhaps is that they provide validation for the self-indulgences to which adolescence is prone, but I would like to suggest a further reason. Perhaps what attracts fans to the Twilight series is akin to the impulse that currently attracts people in such large numbers to forms of religious and ideological fundamentalism. In a cultural conjuncture which has seen the crumbling of rigidly defined social structures and belief in universal and socially well-defined paths to salvation of various kinds, it is endlessly difficult taking emotional and ethical responsibility for one’s own life and subjectivity.
For all the rhetoric of romance, the relationship between Edward and Bella is one that Jean Baudrillard would no doubt approve of thoroughly – it is all about the pleasures of seduction, power and self-annihilation, not about love. Making somebody (or something) else responsible for how we exist in the world is a welcome relief from the relentless day-to-day uncertainties and responsibilities foisted on us by the human condition. One can then wallow in the emotional opium of self-abandonment – temporarily at least – until it eventually, as it always does, goes horribly wrong. There are no shortage of warnings on the dangers of such a path, warnings which have been insistently repeated over millennia by countless social commentators and philosophers.