Twilight: Beginning at the End

Twilight, Preface

   I’D NEVER GIVEN MUCH THOUGHT TO HOW I WOULD die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

Twilight begins with a preface that makes it pretty clear right off the bat that the majority of the novel will be in flashback form, at least from the reference point of the preface.

This is a tricky literary technique to pull off. Properly executed, it can create a great deal of tension, and can make the reader feel an urgent need to race through to the end to get back to where they - the reader - first came into the story and got hooked. How did Henrik end up dangling from that ledge, we might wonder, and how on earth is he going to get back up again? Or perhaps, How could Jennie and Jill end up such bitter enemies when they're so perfect for one another...and will they be able to fix their relationship?

When done poorly, however, this literary technique acts as a very wobbly crutch for a poor author. Please hang on until the end, the author seems to be pleading, I swear things will get interesting eventually.

   I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.
   Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

It's hard to honestly know where to fairly place the Twilight preface. On the one hand, there's almost no suspense over whether or not Bella will die - partly because we already know this is a multi-book series, but also for the obvious reason that main characters rarely do. Indeed, that's one of the reasons why a "will they die?" preface is such a poor literary technique - the reader instinctively suspects that, no, they really won't. It takes a special kind of author to pull off a narrative death like that, and most won't even try.

So Bella's stoic well-I-guess-my-time-is-up act doesn't really build any suspense. The problem is that there's nothing really left after that point. The identity of the threatening "hunter" is kept carefully blank (we only have a gender at this point - male), and the strange phrasing of him looking at her "pleasantly" would seem to indicate that S.Meyer was aiming for an identity-based suspense: Is the hunter Edward? This angle dissolves almost immediately once the story begins, though; it's almost instantly clear that the only threat Edward poses to Bella is of the "spontaneous" variety, whereas the violence the preface hints at is clearly premeditative. The premeditative nature of the violence also contradicts the "pleasantness" of the smile; sadists who revel in hunting and torturing people can certainly smile before the kill, but such a smile is never pleasant.

It's worth noting that the identity of the hunter isn't the only mystery; the identity of the loved one being saved through Bella's sacrifice is also left unknown. These two hidden identities could combine for an interesting situation: what if the "hunter" is a hunter-of-vampires - perhaps a human - and Bella is sacrificing herself to give Edward a chance of escape? Unfortunately, dedicated vampire hunting is pretty much impossible in SMeyer's world (outside of a quick flashback to the 1600's), and it's little wonder - her vampires are never weak or vulnerable, never need rest, and have no weaknesses of any kind. They're perfectly immortal and almost totally indestructible, and it's a damned shame because human hunters would have enlivened the series immensely, injected some much needed tension into the series, and maybe provided some racism parallels (a la "True Blood"), but it was not to be. Eventually, of course, we'll get werewolves and rival vampires, largely because any series requires conflict from somewhere, but so far all the available antagonists seem to behave more like rival tribes fighting over territory rather than orchestrated exterminators.

   I knew that if I’d never gone to Forks, I wouldn’t be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

When I was a little kid, my favorite Disney movie was "The Little Mermaid"; in many ways, it still is. Now, a lot of well-deserved criticism can be leveled at Disney: only recently with "The Princess and the Frog" and "Tangled" have they provided a fairy tale romance that didn't end in marriage immediately after a fairly insubstantial whirlwind romance (usually based more on mutual attractiveness than mutual interests). And even these recent movies still end on a heterosexual marital note; the major change has been that the more recent Disney weddings have felt more like an obligatory tacked-on "oh, yeah, they also got married" aspect rather than the overall goal of the entire movie. In a way, it's progress - but it's very slow progress.

"The Little Mermaid" came out in 1989. The story features a surprisingly strong female protagonist who argues perfectly rationally against her father's racist specist beliefs and who runs away from home to fulfill her literal "fish out of water" dreams. This being Disney, alas, she fulfills those dreams largely by falling in love with and getting married to a human, so her success at her dreams is arguably tied intimately to her choice of husband. This "Family Success" angle admittedly makes me cringe somewhat, but it's also impossible to forget that Ariel ultimately got what she wanted, not primarily because a prince fell in love with her (a la the earlier "Snow White", "Cinderella", and "Sleeping Beauty" movies), but ultimately because she stubbornly clung to her dreams.

With this in mind, I'm inclined to be somewhat charitable to Bella's confession that finding her "dream" in Forks makes her death a worthwhile trade. I suspect, strongly, that her "dream" in question begins and ends with Edward - perfect, godlike, angelic being that he is frequently described as being. However, I would like to believe that Bella's actual dream is that of being a vampire, and that Edward is simply a convenient romantic interest on the road to that end, in the same way that "Prince Eric" is a romantic interest on Ariel's journey to humanity. Indeed, for better or worse, the latest movie in the series - Eclipse - seems to openly hint at exactly this premise: Bella is an awkward, depressed, world-weary teenager because she's the vampiric version of a transsexual - a vampire trapped in a human's body. The alternative premise - that Bella is just another awkward, depressed, world-weary teenager and vampirism + teenage-marriage + never-seeing-her-family-again is simply going to "fix" all those problems - presumably didn't test as well with audiences.

Of course, the problem with the interpretation that Bella's ultimate dream is actually "life" as a vampire and Edward is just a convenient romantic interest along the way, is that it's not a big leap to seeing Bella as a master manipulator who maintains a relationship with Edward only in order to achieve her real dream. In which case she becomes something of a user who compromises on the marriage issue in order to attain her ultimate goal. However, on balance, a Meta-Bella striving towards an existence she can be truly comfortable with might be slightly more likable than a Story-Bella who considers the prospect of having dated an especially sexy guy for a few weeks to be an honor worth dying for.


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