It’s not surprising, in the wake of Harry Potter, for a new series to involve teenagers with supernatural powers. The Twilight series has that much in common with J. K. Rowling’s creations. That and huge sales: It was the series’s Eclipse that knocked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows off the top of the bestseller lists last year. The fourth and final Twilight book, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million copies on its first day of release (August 2).
But Rowling’s young wizards have little else in common with Stephenie Meyer’s sparkling vampires. Yes, sparkling vampires. Where Harry and his friends are best known for qualities like courage and loyalty, Meyer’s characters and stories are all about appearances.
The Twilight books tell the story of Bella Swan, a high-school girl who goes to live with her father in Washington state, and Edward Cullen, a classmate who happens to be a vampire. Regarding Edward, Bella liberally spills adjectives like gorgeous, perfect, beautiful, flawless, glorious, and godlike.
By contrast, she describes herself as plain, clumsy, weak, uninteresting, and unattractive, even though she has no fewer than five boys infatuated with her within the first 125 pages of the first book. It’s hard to say which is more difficult to swallow: Bella’s perpetually low self-worth, or the fact that all the other characters are obsessed with her.
Although Meyer tries to portray this pair as a modern Romeo and Juliet or Heathcliff and Catherine (references to whom are glaringly frequent), Bella and Edward’s relationship is more like that of predator and prey. For one thing, the scent of Bella’s blood tortures Edward, who drinks animal blood to keep from killing humans. His restraint is meant to look noble, although courting someone who smells like food could be seen more as a sign of mental instability.
And Edward behaves like a predator in nearly every other way possible. He spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and enters her house when no one’s there — all because, he explains, he wants her to be safe. He warns Bella how dangerous he is, but gets “furious” at anyone else who tries to warn or protect her. He even drags her to the prom against her expressed wishes. He is, in short, one of modern fiction’s best candidates for a restraining order.
So of course, Bella falls “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him,” deliberately endangering her life whenever she has to be separated from him. Millions of real-life teens have also fallen in love with him. Girls and young women describe Edward as “beautiful,” “sweet,” and “mysterious,” and love the way he “takes care of Bella.”
Even more disturbingly, these girls’ moms have fallen for Meyer’s work as well. Shortly before Breaking Dawn came out, Newsweek published a glowing account of how the books are facilitating “mother-daughter bonding.” Some appreciate the books’ portrayal of sexual values:
Meyer, who is Mormon, has said that she doesn’t want Bella and Edward to have sex before marriage. For most romance novels, the “no sex, please,” notion would be blasphemous. But Meyer’s fans have embraced it like a couple of teenagers just cuddling on the couch. Many mothers say they’ve used the books as a way to begin that awkward birds-and-bees talk with their teenage daughters.
But how much is a pro-abstinence message worth when the unconsummated relationship is so unhealthy? It gets even worse after the wedding night in Breaking Dawn, when Bella finds herself trying to cover up a multitude of bruises left by the super-strong Edward. That scene, which Meyer treats with appalling lightness — “This is really nothing,” Bella tells her remorseful husband, insisting that the experience was “wonderful and perfect” — should send a chill down the spine of any parent with a daughter.
With the ostensibly positive messages so undermined, one is at a loss to figure out exactly what families are bonding over. It’s true that passages like the following could be good for a few yuks with the loved ones:
Edward . . . lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.
But the fans haven’t been laughing. Many of them take Meyer and her purple prose unsettlingly seriously. Shared mother-daughter lust over a sparkly, statuesque stalker is weird enough, but the books raise even more disturbing issues than those of controlling vampires and the women who love them. The question that kept fans hanging at the end of Eclipse was this: Would Bella become a vampire like Edward and live with him forever?
This has long been Bella’s dream. Another of her many suitors, a werewolf named Jacob Black, is understandably not so keen on the idea. “That agony [of losing her] I could live with,” he muses bitterly in Eclipse. “But it did matter that she was giving up everything — that she was letting her heart stop and her skin ice over and her mind twist into some crystallized predator’s head. A monster. A stranger.”
One can see his point. Becoming one of Meyer’s glorious and godlike vampires is a horribly painful process, leaving the subject with uncontrollable bloodlust. Bella would have to be forcibly restrained until she could learn to control herself. In fact, she would emerge so changed in every way that her family would not be able to see her again, for vampires are not permitted to tell humans what they are. (Bella only found out about Edward by a lucky guess.)
This is the choice Bella and the great majority of her fans have been so excited about. If it can even be called a choice, for Bella develops a habit of saying things like “I never had a choice,” believing her decision is compelled by a force “so strong that it could not exist in a rational world.” (Meyer and her publisher have promoted the books as being all about choice, with the image of an apple on the cover of the first book to reflect the choice that Eve made.)
Meyer once retorted to critics who accused her of misogyny, “I am not anti-female; I am anti-human.” Whether she was aware of it or not, this was far more than just a flippant remark. Just like the allegedly positive messages about romance and sexuality, any value that Meyer and her characters place on human life is only on the surface. More than once, Edward and his family look the other way — or even provide assistance — when fellow members of their species hunt humans, just as long as those humans aren’t people they know. (The Cullens became vampires without their own knowledge or consent.)
The amazing thing is that, just when one thinks that the system of values here can’t get any more bankrupt, it does exactly that. For in Breaking Dawn, swept off her feet by her romantic fantasy, Meyer recklessly breaks her own rules to ensure that the ending is not just happy, but — in Bella’s word — “perfect.” Bella undergoes almost none of the expected post-transformation struggles or sacrifices; instead, all at once she’s gorgeous, talented, self-controlled, and even more admired than before (and goes from self-deprecating to insufferably vain). Awkward and implausible solutions are worked out to let her keep the relationships she’d given up. And by means of a wild plot twist that is never explained, Bella and Edward get to add to their family. (Bella is still human at that point, but Edward is, technically, a walking corpse without normal bodily fluids.) Even Jacob the werewolf gets Meyer’s idea of a happy ending — which involves both an age-inappropriate relationship and the loss of his own free will.
In the final analysis, Meyer has deprived her characters of both choices and consequences. And young readers are left with the image of a girl who discovers her own worth and gets all she ever wanted, by giving up her identity and throwing away nearly everything in life that matters.
That’s scarier than any vampire.
– Gina R. Dalfonzo is editor of The Point and a writer for BreakPoint Radio.