Welcome back to the book club discussion of Young Kim’s adaptation of Stephenie Meyers’ TWILIGHT, Volume One. Yesterday we talked about the construction of the novel, today we tackle the content.
Jennifer: In a scene where Bella is talking about Edward’s “strange behavior” during their first lab session together, he literally does NOTHING in the art — it’s several pages of him just sitting there.
Anika: Jen, your capslock amuses me because that is a documented complaint about the books and movies as well: these characters never do anything! It’s not just Bella who is predominantly passive; everybody, and especially the Cullen family, spends a lot more time being than doing.
Which brings us back to something you’ve all mentioned: this is considered an explicitly female story. Sometimes I imagine the whole of Twilight is a secretly brilliant social commentary. Even taken at face value it brings up questions about why this is “coded feminine” and what that means for the audience.
But we can start with something simpler: what parts of the story or the characters do you like or dislike?
Caroline: Ladies, I’m going to level with you. Once upon a time, I was in high school.
I know, I know. I don’t admit to that a lot. A lot of people I know will tell stories about things that happened to them in high school — wonderful or things or traumatic things, but, whatever. Things that had an impact on them. Personal relationships that had meaning. I don’t do that, so much. I transferred to a new school at the beginning of ninth grade. It was a school that was small, and tight knit, and everybody who was there had these intertwined histories (everybody was somebody’s cousin). In four years, I never felt like I got to be part of that. I didn’t love high school, but I didn’t hate it, either. (That was middle school. Middle school is the worst.) My memories of high school are basically of four years that were just gray. Day following day, nothing ever changing, nothing mattering, nothing feeling like it was going to last.
During this time period, I had a recurring fantasy about, quite seriously, meeting a boy at the skating rink. (I probably got it from watching The Wonder Years. I didn’t even go to the skating rink but maybe twice.) The boy in the fantasy had no distinguishing characteristics that I can recall. The entire substance of this fantasy was that the boy thought I was special and he was from somewhere else. Before I make my younger self sound too pathetic, I dated in high school. Not a ton, but I had a boyfriend when I was in tenth grade, and I went to senior prom. I belonged to school organizations and I read and thought and talked to friendly people about intriguing things. I didn’t literally sit around leading a gray life and waiting for someone from somewhere else to make my life interesting. It’s just that, when I was at my most emotionally self-indulgent and, thus, in the memories that stick , that’s what sticks with me.
And that is why Bella Swan’s story speaks to me, even at the same time I’m embarrassed that it does. As Anika alluded, I think it’s (unintentionally) appropriate meta that Edward’s “intriguing behavior” consists of absolutely nothing. What resonates with me about Twilight is that Bella wants someone to be fascinated by her, wants to be singled out.
The details don’t matter so much. It’s the pure, visceral id-drippingness of the whole thing that gets to me. It probably helps, really, that nothing about Edward is particularly my type, that he’s kind of a square, that ‘golden eyes and marble skin’ don’t really say ‘sexy’ to me. It lets me focus on Bella’s gazing — and her wanting — more than who or what she’s gazing at. or what actions she takes.
Which is probably a good thing, because about all she’s done so far is google “vampire.” The plotting doesn’t quite live up to the emotional weight, is what I’m saying.
Sigrid: Oh my god, who does not want to be special? Moreover, it’s fine to want to be special for doing something awesome, for winning the race or fighting cancer or saving the kingdom or making your way back home. But sometimes a person just wants to be awesome in a hoodie and pajama pants on the couch at two p.m. What I’m saying is, it would be great to win the adulation of the kingdom, but wouldn’t it also be great to be adored without having to change anything about yourself?
If you have this fantasy, I recommend spending a weekend with a border collie. If you love the experience, get a border collie. If you don’t love your time spent with an animal that does nothing but gaze at you worshipfully and beg you for instructions, then you’ll know this is purely a fantasy for you.
If adult women get to have their problematic fantasies about Pretty Woman, girls and women get to have their problematic fantasies about Twilight. Bella Swan may not be taking a lot of actions in the story, but she most assuredly has agency. She has thoughts and opinions and views, and she reacts to the world around her in believable ways. She does not make the decisions and conclusions that I would make, but that’s not what agency is about. Agency lets a person make decisions that I think are terrible, because I am not controlling that other person.
Caroline: I, personally, would enjoy your version of the story wherein Bella considers devoting her life to either the vampire or the werewolf, but then decides to get a puppy instead.
I can see that being hard to stretch into four books, though.
As far as the choices Bella does make — well, she basically has this guy telling her that he wants her because she is special. He also tells her that because of his essential nature (and through no fault of his own), the very fact that he wants to be with her is dangerous. Bella is a character with free choice, which is what all the talk about protagonists with agency wants her to have. She’s not being taken prisoner, she’s not in any way forced to be around Edward. Even when she understands he is dangerous and why, she keeps making choices to be near him.
Is that how we, as readers, want her to exercise that choice? Well, that depends. If I was her parent, I would be saying, “God, honey, get the hell away from this guy!” and I would start googling “Van Helsing” and “vampire slayer” to figure out how to drive this family out of town (Is that a story viewpoint we ever see? The parent of the kid dating the dangerous supernatural dude?) If I’m a young reader looking to Bella as a literal model for my future behavior, I hopefully am also saying, “Girl, get away from this guy!”
On the other hand, as somebody reading a fantasy that I recognize as a fantasy, it gets more complicated. I absolutely understand the viewpoint of someone who gets to this point in the story (“He is dangerous! But he sparkles! I am so conflicted!”) and wants nothing to do with that fantasy. For me, though, I can’t imagine making the choices Bella makes — I wouldn’t want to make the choices Bella makes because as I mentioned, Edward = kind of a bore — but I want to see what happens because I care about her.
I’m not reading this like a Jane Austen novel, in other words, where the heroine works through her personal struggles to end up with the right guy in the end. I’m thinking more of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer, the heroine of that book, has money and freedom to make whatever choice she wants. She gets a marriage offer in the first few chapters, from a handsome lord who is a great guy who has his own castle. If I were the heroine of that book, it would be three chapters long and end with us partying it up in the castle. But Isabel decides she needs to go other places and experiences other things, and makes a long series of choices the reader suspects she shouldn’t be making. There is no happily ever after, but that wasn’t the point anyway.
Now, I should say that Stephenie Meyer is not writing a Henry James novel. Possibly she thinks she is writing an Austen novel. In a lot of ways, the reader has to take Twilight as a romance novel (which I’m defining here as a book in which the romantic resolution of the two main characters is the ultimate object of the plot) in order for it to make any sense at all. Yet, I personally have no interest in it as a romance novel, because I don’t much care about Bella and Edward ending up together. In that sense, I’m shooting myself in the foot because there’s no way the end of the story is going to be satisfying to me. The best I can hope for is that the ending will be totally crazycakes. Not to give too much away.
I should let someone else talk.
Anika: I’m fairly certain Stephenie Meyer thinks she is writing a Bronte novel. Just saying.
I have a teenage daughter. She read Twilight and a third of New Moon and she hated it. She hated it so much she stopped reading it and even though all of her friends, and I, have explained that after New Moon is when the story gets good, she refuses to pick it back up. Kiki can’t stand Bella Swan, she doesn’t want to relate to her or care about her — her favorite literary heroine is Luna Lovegood; she wants to be and actively tries to be like Luna. But Kiki and I have been able to have the same intelligent discussion we are having here with her Twilight-loving friends. The main criticism of Twilight I hear is that it is directly harmful to the teenage girls who read it, and the main reaction is that someone has to stop them from reading or liking it. That someone has to save them from themselves. Because obviously the best way to prove that a teenage girl needs to have and take control of her own choices is to take them away or make them for her. I over-care about the Twilight argument because I think that reaction is so much more damaging to teenage girls than any paranormal romance novel will ever be.
I like Alice best. Generally, I like the supporting cast better than Edward, Bella and Jacob. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know them in this first volume of the graphic novel.
Jennifer: After all this intelligent discussion, it would probably just be a jerk move at this point to rattle off the story’s flaws. We’ve all HEARD about the story’s flaws, after all — they’re what all the social discourse about this book makes so clear. In terms of storytelling, I mostly found this volume (which I realize is only half the first book) utterly boring. Bella and Edward have the same exact conversation fifteen times, and nothing at all happens. I expect either action or character development in my stories (and, ideally, both), and this had neither. Then there’s the fact that Edward repeatedly has to swoop in (literally) to save Bella’s life, which is tiring. We talk about Bella’s agency, and she may indeed have agency, but what she doesn’t have is autonomy. She literally would have died at least twice in this brief volume if not for Edward, because she is in no position to take care of herself. I don’t need all my female protagonists to be Buffy or Xena, but I’d like them to have SOME amount of self-sufficiency.
But ultimately, my issue is just that this isn’t the fantasy for me. Sigrid asks, “Who wouldn’t want to be special?” and I raise my hand and say, “Me.” My high school fantasies involved my group of friends and me pitted against the world, working as a team. I never wanted to be a chosen one; I wanted to be a sidekick, or a member of an ensemble, inter-reliant on a group of people I loved. Even my romantic fantasies never involved a stranger — they were more likely to be about a male friend, or a celebrity. My high school experience was full of highs and lows, not endless grays. Bella in this volume has tons of potential friends banging down her door, and she persists in ignoring or dismissing them to focus on this one dude she finds inexplicably appealing. She’s having an IDEAL time as a stranger in a new town, yet all she can do is mope and whine. This is impossible for me to relate to, and nearly impossible for me to understand. And coupled with truly awful writing in the captions and dialogue, this story just… does nothing for me.
I don’t think it’s wrong for anyone else to like it. I don’t think it’s single-handedly destroying our youth, and I think young girls should be allowed to read whatever they like. But I think the criticisms are more than valid.
Caroline: Oh, it’s totally valid. The decision to divide the book into two parts, besides being an obvious cash grab and an example of the comic’s structural problems, is particularly egregious because most of the prose novel’s plot happens in the second half.
Besides that, Jennifer is right on the money to observe that, while Bella subjectively feels isolated and out of place in her new school, the narrative doesn’t support that with any good reasons. She has no conflict of note with the other students, and they’re not doing anything to exclude her. I don’t demand a narrative where Bella is constantly being oppressed by her classmates (I often find “everybody picks on the hero(ine)” to be one of the less attractive features of “chosen one” stories), but there ought to be something to make her feel this way. I think you get a little bit more of that in the prose novel (like, I didn’t mind her liking Edward so much because all of the guys in the school seemed to be possessive jerks who made him look good in comparison). But I think it’s fair to say that the narrative largely validates Bella’s self-centeredness, and that’s a problem.
I don’t find the part of me that identifies with Bella to be particularly attractive. It’s fair to say that I relate to this book because, when I was sixteen, I was kind of an elitist asshole. I don’t think all books have to be morally instructive, though, not even books for teenagers. For that matter, I recognize that my reading of Twilight is idiosyncratic, and so I assume that there are readers who get something out of it that is totally different. Maybe there’s someone who benefits from reading about Bella’s determination to follow her own heart. I’m sure there’s someone who can’t identify with Buffy or Xena’s personal and physical strength, and needs the reassurance that a powerless girl in a world of more powerful people still has a role to play.
And I’m sure plenty of people are sure the story sucks, but find it fun to read anyway. As a reader who can skew to the elitist side (that paragraph about Henry James up there, y’all? I’m so sorry about that), Twilight is a good reminder that sometimes I get a visceral kick out of stories, even when my brain tells me they are terrible.
Anika: I think Twilight is difficult to discuss without feeling defensive no matter what side we fall on. Which is ultimately why I over-analyze it myself (and to myself!), and bring it up to these kinds of discourse. Reading a book is a personal experience, what we get out of it is what it is. The movies and the chatter and the fanworks and the merchandise and the rest of the shared experience fascinates me as much as Edward fascinates Bella. So thank you for the discussion. I hope it continues.