In New Moon, Edward decides to end the relationship permanently after a paper cut on Bella’s finger during her birthday party at the Cullen home has nearly tragic consequences. Unable to rid the world of the threat of paper, the Cullen family leaves town. Without Edward, Bella becomes despondent and self-destructive. Seeking risky pursuits — both because, whenever she is in danger, Edward makes one of his holographic appearances to admonish her, and because the girl simply loves danger — she begins motorbike riding with her Native American childhood friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Whereas Edward was cold to the touch, Jacob is unusually hot. Edward is pale; Jacob, dark-skinned. But both are gorgeous and both harbor secrets. Repeating Edward’s pick-up line, Jacob tells Bella, “Go away. . . . I’m not good.” The girl has a thing for attracting handsome monsters, and she loves every minute of the pain.
In Edward’s absence, Bella actively cultivates pain because it is a “reminder.” One of her friends worries that she is suicidal, but she is not so much in love with easeful death as she is in love with the thrill of the constant risk of death — especially of a dramatic death. As she puts it in her opening voiceover in the first film, “I never really thought about death. . . . Dying for someone else would not be a bad way to go.”
One of the attractions of romanticism is that it counters the reductionist tendencies of the modern world. Romanticism reacts against the elimination of mystery from human life and the reduction of human sexuality to a mere appetite and of love to a contractual arrangement. As Roger Scruton argues (Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), romanticism is a remedy for what ails the modern world — a “morbidly unheroic world,” dominated by “cost-benefit calculation,” which tempts us to regard our own existence as a “cosmic mistake.” The remedy is to “live as if a heroic love were possible, and as if we could renounce life for the sake of it.” Bella is in the grip of precisely such a vision. But we have serious reason to wonder how admirable her vision (or Scruton’s, for that matter) is. Her love-death passion is an escape from the banality of ordinary life: boring high-school classes with dull kids and a humdrum family life. The best thing about her father, Bella says, is that “he doesn’t hover.”
There is an attempt in New Moon to invest Bella’s dilemmas with some sort of moral, perhaps even metaphysical, significance, but the discussion of the soul she would lose in joining the undead is specious and vacuous. The film made me nostalgic for the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV series that extracted much greater humor from high-school existence and treated the loss of one’s soul with moral gravity and dramatic sensitivity. By contrast, Bella worries that if she doesn’t join the undead, she will grow old and become unattractive to the eternally dashing Edward. One shudders at the prospect of an eternity spent pondering self-indulgent romance masquerading as heroic self-sacrifice. Halfway through New Moon some viewers will likely have had enough. Those of us in this non-target audience have an urgent piece of advice for Edward: Just bite her already.