Twilight: White Elephant Gifts

Twilight Recap: Bella has officially left her home in Phoenix and is about to step off the plane on Washington soil. This move represents a major life change for her: she's about to go from being an adult in her old household (as manager of the finances, food, and transportation) under her mother to being considered a "typical teenager" (subject to some implicit limitations of freedom) in her new household under her father.

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight

I'd like to take a moment to talk about some "meta" stuff first, before delving into the meat of today's post. Looking back over my Twilight posts so far, I'm not sure whether or not to be concerned about the pacing - we're still on Chapter 1, but because I've been so busy pouncing on the literary foreshadowing that I've been so interested in, I've ended up jumping ahead more than is strictly necessary. I swear going to try to make a conscious effort to stay within the pace of the text, but having said that, I'll like to point out one more overarching theory that I'd like to keep in the back of everyone's mind as we move forward.

   Charlie gave me an awkward, one-armed hug when I stumbled my way off the plane.
   “It’s good to see you, Bells,” he said, smiling as he automatically caught and steadied me. “You haven’t changed much. How’s RenĂ©e?”

This scene is important for two reasons. First, we learn that Charlie calls Bella "Bells" (as opposed to the "Bella" - quite literally, "beauty" - nickname that everyone else uses) and, second, we see the first instance of Bella's crippling clumsiness. We will later be told outright that this exaggerated handicap has supposedly always been part of Bella's life, but it's interesting to me from a literary perspective that the first mention of this defining personality trait occurs as Bella steps off the plane onto her hometown soil.

I've already started building my "case" that Bella's maturity into adulthood is marked with increasingly childlike helplessness, and her crippling clumsiness definitely fits in with that picture as it serves as an excuse for Bella to be carried everywhere by strong men sworn to protect her from herself. However, I also present the supposition that this first in-text example of Bella's clumsiness marks the beginning of her character derailment from the person that Bella implicitly must have been in order for her past exposition to make any sense, to the person that she explicitly has to be in order for the future plot to occur.

As part of this "meta" moment, I would like to concoct some terms for these two complimentary theories. The first concept - that the archetype of womanhood is here defined by an inability to independently care for oneself - I will call "Female Maturity Equals Helplessness". This concept explains why Bella needs a man to protect her effectively, and why Renee needs a man (or, at the very least, the child of one) to make sure she is fed, clothed, and financially solvent. The second concept - that the movement of Bella into this helpless maturity will require systematically picking apart her established character - I will call "The Character Derailment of Bella Swan". This character derailment is especially interesting to me because it effectively splits the character of Bella into two distinct and vastly different people - Story-Bella, who explicitly has the literal hand-eye coordination of a crippled bat in order to propel the story forward, and Meta-Bella, who implicitly has the necessary hand-eye coordination to effortlessly maneuver her huge truck in and out of tight parking places without causing so much as a scratch, despite the fact that the author desperately hopes you won't notice.

In essence, the first theory describes where Twilight takes us, and the second tells us how we'll get there.

Moving back to the text, it's raining when Bella steps off the plane in Port Angeles, and though I was a little disappointed to see that we aren't told whether it's a heavy rain or a persistent drizzle (in my experience, the difference is crucial to S.A.D. sufferers), I do like that Bella accepts the rain calmly as something she already expects and is (for the moment, at least) at peace with. Charlie is waiting for her with his police cruiser - evidently, he doesn't own a civilian vehicle, which further cements my belief that those two week "visitation vacations" in California must have cost him airplane fare, as I'm sure the good people of Forks couldn't go without one of its limited number of police cruisers for an entire two weeks.

   Charlie was waiting for me with the cruiser. This I was expecting, too. Charlie is Police Chief  Swan to the good people of Forks. My primary motivation behind buying a car, despite the scarcity of my funds, was that I refused to be driven around town in a car with red and blue lights on top. Nothing slows down traffic like a cop.

Bella gets a lot of backlash for being spoiled and self-centered, so I should give credit where it's due and say that this seems like a reasonable explanation for wanting a car of your own as a teenager. Of course, this being a town of no more than a few thousand people, probably Charlie's car doesn't slow down traffic as much as it would in a big, anonymous city, but Bella's a city girl and probably doesn't realize the difference between big city / small town social dynamics. Moreover, I can see how having your dad drop you off at a underage-drinking tailgate party would be awkward enough without having said dad be the town chief of police. This "refusal" on Bella's part to be chauffeured around by her father also provides an actual topic of conversation for the hour-long car drive to Forks: namely, the subject of Bella's new wheels.

   “I found a good car for you, really cheap,” he announced when we were strapped in.
   “What kind of car?” I was suspicious of the way he said “good car for you” as opposed to just “good car.”

Perhaps it's necessary in this family characterized by silence, lies, and appallingly poor communication, but Bella is definitely much more suspicious here than I would ever be. If Charlie had said this to me - I found a good car for you, really cheap - I would have assumed that he meant he'd found a good car for me, rather than the alternative: that he'd found a good car but he had first dibs on it, having finally realized that with ownership of a civilian car, as an alternative to a marked police cruiser, comes the freedom to get away on long road trips, as well as the ability to visit the local XXX naughty video store inconspicuously. And while some women may love a man in uniform, I'm not sure I can imagine riding to a nice dinner in a police cruiser - in a small town like this, someone is going to assume you were being taken in for being drunk and disorderly, rather than being politely wined and dined, right?

   "What year is it?" I could see from his change of expression that this was the question he was hoping I wouldn’t ask.
   "Well, Billy’s done a lot of work on the engine - it’s only a few years old, really."
   I hoped he didn’t think so little of me as to believe I would give up that easily.

Here we have another example of the bizarre verbal wrangling and half-truths that are apparently everyday occurrences in the Swan household, and which will liberally litter the pages of Twilight. Why does Charlie bother to lie by omission here by dancing uncomfortably around the subject? It seems incredibly strange that Charlie would introduce extra tension into their already strained relationship by dancing around the truth on a subject that (a) she has every right to know, (b) she is going to find out soon enough for herself, and (c) isn't really worth hiding to begin with. All this coy avoidance makes Charlie seem like a shady used car salesman - was the car also owned by a little old lady who only took it to church on the weekends, Charlie?

   “When did he buy it?”
   “He bought it in 1984, I think.”
   “Did he buy it new?”
   “Well, no. I think it was new in the early sixties - or late fifties at the earliest,” he admitted sheepishly.
   “Ch - Dad, I don’t really know anything about cars. I wouldn’t be able to fix it if anything went wrong, and I couldn’t afford a mechanic. . . .”
   “Really, Bella, the thing runs great. They don’t build them like that anymore.”

So the "good car" is now almost certainly a manual transmission, and very likely gets terrible gas mileage and probably won't pass a state emissions test. On the other hand, it probably is very easy to repair, assuming (a) you know what you're doing and (b) you can locate and afford the probably rare parts that likely aren't manufactured anymore. These aren't unimportant issues - a "cheap" car can end up costing thrice its weight in gas and repairs, which is why car shopping is so tricky when on a tight budget. Bella is probably young enough to not have a lot of experience with lemon-y cars, but then again she probably was in charge of the car shopping for Renee, so maybe she is aware of these problems.

   “How cheap is cheap?” After all, that was the part I couldn’t compromise on.
   “Well, honey, I kind of already bought it for you. As a homecoming gift.” Charlie peeked sideways at me with a hopeful expression.
   Wow. Free.

Ah, wonderful. In keeping with Twilight themes, Charlie - as a man and thus head of the household over Bella - has decided what is best for his daughter and has moved forward with practically irreversible steps to procure this ideal future for her without any actual discussion with her. Now, in what I would term "functional" families, most fathers would have a discussion with their daughters about this important buying decision, maybe something along the lines of, "Hey, Bella, I found a really good car for you, and I'll buy it for you as a homecoming present, if you like it. Why don't we go test drive it as soon as you're settled in?", but Charlie isn't hampered by this bothersome need to communicate since he is blessed with the god-given ability to know what his daughter needs, as well as a close enough relationship with her that he can instinctively divine her wants, as well - or, at the very least, he can divine what her wants should be, which is really close enough.

Or, in perhaps plainer words:

"Well, gee, Dad, thanks for the white elephant gift. I absolutely appreciate being saddled with a car I didn't pick out, may not reflect my personal tastes, almost definitely will not adequately meet my needs, and which I will feel unable to trade in for a different one, since doing so will likely be taken by you as a figurative rejection of your love. Did you also buy me a pony while you were out shopping?"


Kubricks_Rube said...

When Bella reacts to the "good car for you," I don't think she fears that her father will use the car himself, but that he bought a large, safe, uncool car that he will feel better about her driving than whatever car she would have picked out for herself.

And I don't think he drags out the description of the car to mislead her but to ease her into the truth of the car's age- probably because those weeks in California (and the reason he had to go to California to see her) have prepared him for the exasperating, Veruca Salt-y, "put my foot down," attitude Bella always gives him, not to mention her disdain for the small town she is mysteriously choosing to live in.

I see the car not so much as a white elephant as a preemptive strike. Knowing how (successfully) demanding his daughter can be (even though as you say we never see Story-Bella honestly tell anyone what she wants), he acted fast to prevent her from getting her way on a potentially expensive issue.

None of this lets dad off the hook for not asking the important question about what happened in Phoenix and why she's coming to Forks. The overall family dynamic, both what we see and what it implies about how things got this way, is deeply disturbing.

TheDreadPirateM said...

Most of this sequence seems to me to be just bad dialogue. Rather than allowing the characters to have a natural conversation, SMeyer seems to want to make it more "literary" by having characters talk past each other.

Charlie: "I picked out a good car on your behalf." (Clumsy attempt to do a favour for his all-but-estranged daughter, i.e. good intentions albeit with flawed execution, although Kubricks_Rube presents an acceptable alternate hypothesis.)

Bella: "I picked out a car which I think is appropriate for you." (Sullen teenager reaction to overbearing parent.)

Unfortunately, Oscar Wilde SMeyer is not. It's like trying to turn Bella into Nabokov's "flawed narrator" without giving her any flaws through which the reader can interpret her actions. (As an aside, that might work as another take on Meta-Bella, 'the unconsciously compulsive liar'.)

Beng3493 said...

Does the white elephant picture belong to anyone? Does it have like a copyright?

Ana Mardoll said...

The white elephant is not my image and it is (presumably) under copyright. I found it via a Google Image search one year ago and believed that my use of the picture fell under Fair Use. I am unsure if that is the case, however, and have been planning to remove the images from my older posts.

A good place for free images is here:

Ana Mardoll said...

This kind of makes me tear up. I wanted to say that I love how you kept Charlie and Billie with names that still sound (or can be nicknamed as) like Charlie and Billie. But I'm more impressed at how you made Ben and Charlize CARE about Billie.

Reader of Books said...

"Now, in what I would term 'functional' families, most fathers would have a discussion with their daughters about this important buying decision, maybe something along the lines of, 'Hey, Bella, I found a really good car for you, and I'll buy it for you as a homecoming present, if you like it. Why don't we go test drive it as soon as you're settled in?' "

Man, don't I wish I'd grown up in a functional family. The scene, when I read it originally (unsuspecting...), felt like a conversation between my father and me. And that dynamic was more like "I'm your father, you're my little girl and you're never growing up, so everything I say is law--therefore you will not have an after school job in high school, nor will you learn to drive, and you will attend my church despite growing certainty that you're not religious, let alone Christian." So I may be injecting a lot of personal history into this thought, but...

The setup seems to be that, just like every family, this one is rather messed up as such things go. If Bella had a perfect home life and her parents were loving, caring, and still let her become a sparkle-pire, there might be a teense less drama than there was. Despite it being mostly in her head.

A minor quibble only. :)

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