Illustration by Kate Holterhoff
Eclipse comes out on DVD tomorrow and I have a confession to make: I’ve read the Twilight series. More than once. And I am not ashamed. Stephenie Meyer may not be much of a writer, but her books (as the book jackets point out) have “entranced millions.” I think I know why. Hint: sexy vampires and werewolves are only part of the appeal.
So why are these books so popular? It isn’t just the vampires, despite our current cultural obsession with them. Critics of the books and movies often point to abstinence as a central theme of the books and I agree. Abstinence and its weird, sexually charged appeal (we always want what we can’t have) are an important part of the Twilight universe, but they aren’t the reason people finish these books.
Here’s the crux of my theory about Twilight. Despite the bad prose, overuse of the word “chagrin,” and poorly drawn characters, Twilight books are a pleasure to read because they completely eschew complexity. The rhetoric of Twilight paves over those gray areas that make our universe such a pain to live in. I’ll give you two examples. The first is from Edward’s explanation of “vegetarian” vampires. Bella has asked him about why he hunts animals instead of people:
He paused. “I can’t be sure, of course, but I’d compare it to living on tofu and soy milk; we call ourselves vegetarians, our little inside joke. It doesn’t completely satiate the hunger—or rather thirst. But it keeps us strong enough to resist. Most of the time.” His tone turned ominous. “Sometimes it’s more difficult than others.”
It seems obvious that Edward should resist his impulse to suck blood because giving in would mean murder. In the Twilight-verse we don’t need to question which impulses we should be resisting and why: vampires should resist biting humans, werewolves should resist their impulse to violence, and gays should resist… never mind. My point is that in Meyer’s universe there is no ambiguity about what is right and what is wrong; the choice is always clear.
In our universe, however, we don’t know which parts of ourselves we should resist and which parts we should accept. Adolescents in particular struggle with this question. If sucking blood is indeed Meyer’s way of talking about premarital sex—as many critics argue—the simplicity of Edward’s decision does a great disservice to a very real dilemma faced by its target audience.
My second example is taken from the fourth book in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. Edward and Bella have just married and are on their honeymoon. As Bella prepares to “go all the way,” she considers commitment and its role in alleviating her own insecurities:
How did people do this—swallow all their fears and trust someone else so implicitly with every imperfection and fear they had—with less than the absolute commitment Edward had given me? If it weren’t Edward out there, if I didn’t know in every cell of my body that he loved me as much as I loved him—unconditionally and irrevocably and, to be honest, irrationally—I’d never be able to get up off this floor.
Can you hear Stephenie Meyer’s voice there? It’s hard to miss. Bella is able to face the prospect of having sex and making herself vulnerable to another person only because she knows in “every cell” of her body that he loves her. In the Twilight-verse, love alters us so permanently and visibly that we can be sure it will endure forever.
In our universe, we are always vulnerable in a relationship, no matter how committed our partner may be to us on paper. Love changes people in our universe, too, but not with the permanence that Bella ascribes to Edward’s feelings. Relationships endure because we grow with them, not because they were perfect from the beginning.
The simplicity of Meyer’s universe makes it a soothing place to inhabit. In her universe, you always know what the right thing to do is. But of course we don’t. In her universe, you can always be sure of love.
But of course we can’t.
If you want to know more:
- Just in case you were wondering: Team Jacob, hands down.
- I linked to an article from Bitchmagazine by Christine Seifert above. I love this article, with one exception. Seifert claims that Meyer has created a new genre of literature: abstinence porn. Abstinence porn is not new; in fact, it’s one of the original genres of modern literature. If you don’t believe me, go read Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded.
- I should probably explain why I’m covering vampire lit on a rhetoric blog. I realized halfway through reading the series that I was paying more attention to the argument the books were making than the story they were telling. I do this often with literature and it irritates my friends endlessly. It’s just a book, they say, why must you read into everything? Because fiction argues, that’s why! When I try to make this point, I always think of Wayne Booth and The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booth looked at non-didactic fiction (stories that aren’t about “making a point”) and even there he saw arguments. Even fun and light literature, like Twilight, is rhetorical because it requires an author to create an entire universe and then convince us, the reader, to inhabit and accept that universe. Even if we don’t usually think of fiction as argumentative, we certainly act as though it is. When books are banned, the justification is usually that those books promote witchcraft or encourage swearing. We recognize instinctively that to read and enjoy a story, we must identify with it. Fear of that identification is what leads parents to want to protect their children from Harry Potter. If they identify with Harry, they’ll like magic and, for some reason, Satan. Sorry for the long footnote.
- If you’re hungry for more Twilight crit, I recommend this blog. Thanks to Hilary Franklin for sending this to me.
Theorizing Twilight: Critical Essays on What's at Stake in a Post-Vampire World3.47 · Rating details · 19 Ratings · 3 Reviews
Since the publication of Twilight in 2005, Stephenie Meyer's four-book saga about the tortured relationship between human heroine Bella Swan and her vampire love Edward Cullen has become a world-wide sensation--inciting screams of delight, sighs of derision, and fervent pronouncements. Those looking deeper into its pages and on screen can find intriguing subtexts about eveSince the publication of Twilight in 2005, Stephenie Meyer's four-book saga about the tortured relationship between human heroine Bella Swan and her vampire love Edward Cullen has become a world-wide sensation--inciting screams of delight, sighs of derision, and fervent pronouncements. Those looking deeper into its pages and on screen can find intriguing subtexts about everything from gender, race, sexuality, and religion. The 15 essays in this book examine the texts, the films, and the fandom, exploring the series' cultural reach and offering one of the first thorough analyses of the saga....more
Paperback, 237 pages
Published July 28th 2011 by McFarland & Company