Twilight Recap: It's her first day at a new high school, and Bella has made it to lunch period with her new classmates. As her newest "friend" (a girl whose name Bella doesn't try to remember and whose conversation Bella doesn't try to follow) chatters on about the inner workings of Forks High School, Bella's attention is about to be fully absorbed by something else entirely.
Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight
It was there, sitting in the lunchroom, trying to make conversation with seven curious strangers, that I first saw them.
Astute readers will note at this point that we're all of sixteen pages into this book - not very far at all in a series that is almost 1,700 pages long. So far, the pace has been moving at a fairly solid clip, and the writing has been very economical with detail - we know that Bella is slender, pale-skinned, and dark-haired - and we can perhaps assume that her parents may be as well - but that's about all the description we have of the main characters so far.
The other characters so far in this high school drama have been shaded with the broad brush of stereotypes - Eric is a "chess club type" that seems generally greasy and unpleasant; Jessica (whose name we haven't yet heard) is short and has curly hair, and everyone knows that curly haired girls exist solely to be cheerfully extroverted plot-exposition devices. We don't even have a good bead yet on when the setting is - the trees outside are green, and the sky is gray, but that's about all we have so far.
Thus, it's important to note that this first mention of the Cullen family will have two full pages of lavish description devoted to them in a manner that I feel can fairly be termed a "Wall o' Text" - and a great deal of this description will serve as the starting point for the personalities of the family members. As such, I'd like to deconstruct these two pages a bit.
They were sitting in the corner of the cafeteria, as far away from where I sat as possible in the long room. There were five of them. They weren’t talking, and they weren’t eating, though they each had a tray of untouched food in front of them.
The Cullen family - Jasper, Alice, Emmett, Rosalie, and Edward - attend high school every day, ostensibly because they feel they can "pass" as humans longer in a given place if they start out pretending to be in their teens instead of pretending to be in their 20s and 30s. We've talked briefly before on how taking and retaking high school 10, 20, or 30 times over as part of an immortal masquerade would be many people's personal version of hell, but I can imagine that if you truly craved human companionship then you would make the necessary sacrifices in order to stay in one community for as long as possible.
What's odd, though, is that the Cullens don't appear to be socializing with the other students at school. They sit alone at the far end of the cafeteria and apparently brood their way through lunch - beautiful and unapproachable. I can imagine that a group of immortal beings all several decades old would have very little to say to their high school peers, but I'm not sure that "waiting it out" is going to make the situation better. By the time the Cullens graduate and can start socializing with actual adults, the adults that are "their age" (or, rather, the age they will be passing as) will be these same students, just a few years older.
This creates the curious scenario where the Cullens are willing to submit to something they hate (attending high school over and over again) in order to gain access to something they consider worthwhile (living in human society) while all the while refusing to actually partake in that society. Perhaps this would have made more sense if the "passing" was less of a personal choice and more of a survival necessity, but that angle was presumably dropped once the Twilight-verse vampires evolved into unstoppable god-creatures. Since the Cullens don't need humans for survival and can just lope off to the Alaskan wilderness to live in the raw beauty of the majestic north any time they want, I can't really fathom their reasons for living in the depressingly rainy town of Forks, Washington.
What is particular sad to me about this paragraph isn't just that the Cullen "children" aren't socializing with the other students - they're not even talking to each other. The initial impression I get is that this is a "family" thrown together simply because the alternative - being alone - is just so much worse. I can't even imagine the unbearable sadness of an eternal life, always missing your lost loved ones, forced to live with pale imitations of a family you can never see again, having nothing to say to each other after the decades of simmering pain, resentment, and hatred - all while you go through the meaningless motions of a human life that you can't appreciate and can never truly join.
But, then again, I love wangst, so maybe I'm reading too much into this scene.
They weren’t gawking at me, unlike most of the other students, so it was safe to stare at them without fear of meeting an excessively interested pair of eyes.
This is something of a tricky passage - I think we're meant to take from this that the Cullens' lack of interest in Bella means that she is able to observe them at length and unnoticed without seeming to be rude. However, there is an alternative impression created: that Bella is interested in the Cullens because they aren't interested in her. This could be a healthy response - Bella could be finding polite disinterest as safer and less pressuring than the gossip-mongers and hanger-ons watching her every move for something interesting to report at the dinner table later - but it could just as easily be a terribly unhealthy one.
We've mentioned that the "overly helpful" appellation applied to Eric could be taken as a "creepy and clinging" description, but could just as easily convey the idea that truly worthwhile people are cold and aloof at all times. And if this is the case, then I can't help but think of a particularly apt Dilbert comic.
One of the major problems with the mentality that aloofness is a sign of social standing and "alpha" status within a group is how incredibly isolating it can be. Taken to the extreme, the principle of self-isolation becomes a way of trying to exercise control on one's surroundings by controlling one's own behavior. If I can just exercise perfect self-control, the inner voice assures, then everything will be perfect. You too can be beautiful, aloof, mysterious, and desirable, as long as you never exhibit the slightest sign of your actual emotions - as long as you constantly maintain a perfect mask for the outside world to judge and praise.
The problem, of course, besides the fact that perfect self-control is a meaningless and impossible dream, is that the promise is a lie. There's no guaranteed method to popularity and power, and being quiet and aloof and mysterious is far more likely to get you sidelined in Real Life as uninteresting and boring rather than providing a sure-fire method to high school popularity and accolades. However, reality has done very little to stop the myth of perfect self-control leading to a perfect-life and for every Van Diemen at 17 and Hunger that explores the dangers of pursuing that seductive lie, there are hundreds of books that reinforce self-destructive, self-isolating behavior in the name of being pretty, perfect, and popular.
They didn’t look anything alike. Of the three boys, one was big - muscled like a serious weight lifter, with dark, curly hair. Another was taller, leaner, but still muscular, and honey blond. The last was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others, who looked like they could be in college, or even teachers here rather than students.
S. Meyer and I have very different opinions on the meaning of the phrase "they didn't look anything alike" - three muscularly fit white boys with pale skin and dark eyes look pretty "alike" to me, but again I think we're meant to take from this that the Cullens don't have the same bone structures and physical details that might indicate a common genetic line.
And now it's time to start filling out our TV Tropes bingo card with a little pet peeve of mine - that of characterizing personalities based on personal appearance. Emmett is "muscled like a serious weight lifter", so it's a good bet that he'll be the Big Bruiser - the relatively dumb member of the family who serves as the loyal and brutish muscle. Jasper is tall and lean, which in literary-stereotypes shorthand conveys intelligence and experience, so it's good money that he's The Lancer - he may be smarter and more experienced and generally cooler than everyone else in the novel, but he won't for a moment get to be the star - at best, he'll dish out important advice and crucial strategic planning. And Edward is younger-looking and has bed-head, so he's guaranteed to be the Hero - it's some kind of law.
The girls were opposites. The tall one was statuesque. She had a beautiful figure, the kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that made every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in the same room. Her hair was golden, gently waving to the middle of her back. The short girl was pixielike, thin in the extreme, with small features. Her hair was a deep black, cropped short and pointing in every direction.
Tall, blonde, and beautiful? What are the chances that she'll have a truly horrible personality and be rude and cruel to our dowdy protagonist? Slim to none, I'll guess. Short, dark-haired, and pixie-like? If that girl is anything other than incredibly energetic, full of idiosyncrasies, and the smart one of the group, then I'll eat my hat.
Oh, look, I got Five Man Band bingo!
Obsessive TV Troping aside, I'm uncomfortable with the language used here. It may not be unusual for women in our society to compare themselves unfavorably to other women, but it's not something I think is worth reinforcing or aspiring to. Here we see the first example of many where the Cullens' beauty is placed in stark contrast to Bella's - Rosalie is described as a statuesque model whose very existence hurts "every girl['s]" self-esteem. I find this particularly frustrating because "self-esteem" - literally the appraisal of self-worth - should not, in my opinion, be a relative thing.
My own appraisal of self-worth shouldn't dive in the presence of Jesus, Gandhi, and Kate Beckinsale any more than it should rise in the presence of Hitler, Stalin, and small hairless cats. I think it's faulty and dangerous to judge one's own worth in comparison to others - this comparative judging leads to a whole slew of unhealthy behaviors, and in fact is one of the first things Kate Harding deals with in her Fat Acceptance book, Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. Fundamentally, you cannot be happy and self-accepting of yourself if you are constantly judging and re-judging yourself based on who is in the room with you at the moment; and self-judging behavior quickly and inevitably leads to other-judging behavior - if you value yourself less because of Rosalie Cullen's presence, it's just a matter of time before you start valuing all other girls less because of Rosalie Cullen's existence.
Sadly, this most definitely will not be the last time we see this self-judging of Bella against all the very, very pretty Cullens.
And yet, they were all exactly alike. Every one of them was chalky pale, the palest of all the students living in this sunless town. Paler than me, the albino. They all had very dark eyes despite the range in hair tones. They also had dark shadows under those eyes — purplish, bruiselike shadows. As if they were all suffering from a sleepless night, or almost done recovering from a broken nose. Though their noses, all their features, were straight, perfect, angular.
It should be obvious by now, I think, that Forks doesn't have a strong social welfare network - if a nice-but-strange doctor and his charming wife moved into the far outskirts of town with a passel of adopted teenagers that refused to socialize (either with themselves or the other kids in town), never ate lunch at school, kept strange hours and were pulled out of school entirely on nice days for "mountain hikes", and constantly showed up at school with bruised faces and sleepless eyes, I would expect some kind of welfare investigation to occur.
I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel. It was hard to decide who was the most beautiful - maybe the perfect blond girl, or the bronze-haired boy.
And the prestigious "Comment of the Week" award will go to the reader who provides the best example of an artistic masterpiece featuring an angelic being with purple bruises under their eyes.
They were all looking away - away from each other, away from the other students, away from anything in particular as far as I could tell. As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray - unopened soda, unbitten apple - and walked away with a quick, graceful lope that belonged on a runway. I watched, amazed at her lithe dancer’s step, till she dumped her tray and glided through the back door, faster than I would have thought possible. My eyes darted back to the others, who sat unchanging.
Once again, no matter what you think about the Cullens or about this novel in general, I find this scene utterly tragic. S. Meyer would have us believe that this family cares about each other - four of the five featured here are officially coupled, after all - and that they live together out of love rather than need for survival or fear of being alone. So why are they so silent and avoiding each other's gaze? I can imagine that maybe the Cullens would save the bulk of their conversation for home - no need to draw attention to their oddness further by discussing quantum physics at the lunch table, perhaps - but it seems deeply sad to me that they aren't even communing with their eyes in silence. They're not exchanging meaningful glances or enjoying each other's company - they're looking away from each other, not so they can look at anything in this utterly disinteresting lunchroom, but rather because they want to avoid their gaze.
What's more interesting is how obviously impossible this charade is and how uncommitted they are to maintaining it: they're not eating. Edward will later admit that they can eat human food but that the experience is intensely unpleasant; in the meantime, they daily go to school, buy food in the lunchroom, make no pretense of touching their food, and throw it away entirely as soon as possible. It seems like the Cullens are trying to stand out as odd - why wouldn't they bring lunch bags from home where they could at least obscure the fact that they are openly not eating? For that matter, why don't they go off the premises for lunch period - an option that I'm given to understand is perfectly acceptable nowadays for high schoolers? If Carlisle Cullen can get them permission to skip on sunny days, he can surely come up with some kind of "nutritional diet that can only be fixed at home" excuse to get the kids off the school campus every day at noon.
But, no, they buy the school lunches publicly where everyone can see exactly how much they've bought and exactly how much they aren't eating. It's not just wasteful, it's incredibly attention-getting. Or, rather, it would be in my world - but I suspect that in S. Meyer's world this may be just another acceptable expression of the Cullens' special aloofness; they don't talk to the school students; they don't eat the school food. For me, that would immediately set a group apart as weird, noteworthy, and suspicious - not the sorts of emotions you would want to raise if you were a vampire set on passing as a human. But for S. Meyer - and, presumably, for the rest of the school because Edward can read minds and has not elected to alter the Cullens' daily routine - this would seem to be a perfectly normal outward expression of perfect self-control.
In many ways, Twilight seems to me to be about control. Self-control isn't a bad thing - it's actually a pretty good strategy to not go through life saying every little thing that crosses our minds, eating everything regardless of our intuitive internal cues, and sleeping with people without thoughtful consideration of what may come after. But these examples of "good control" are deemed good because they're examples of control utilized in service to a greater goal: the point of the control is to minimize hurt to oneself and others and maximize pleasure for the associated parties. In contrast, the control in Twilight seems to be about control for the sake of control - passing as humans merely so you can then ignore them, buying food so that it can sit in front of you for an hour before being thrown away, entering into intimate relationships in order to hold the other person at arm's length, both emotionally and physically.
That sort of control is far from healthy and - in my opinion - is less about using control in order to live and more about living your life in order to control.