Twilight: First Impressions, Rigid Judgments

Content Note: Infertility, Miscarriage, Stillbirths, Racism

Twilight Recap: It's the first day at a new school for Bella, and she's still trying to learn the names and faces of all her new classmates. In the school cafeteria, she catches her first glimpse of the Cullens children: five beautiful adopted/fostered children cared for by Dr. Carlisle Cullen and his wife Esme. 

Regular readers will have noticed by now that I usually start these posts with some quick framing quotes from the text before diving into my commentary for the week, but I'd like to depart from that structure for a quick moment and walk you through my morning so far.

I booted up my copy of Twilight this morning to find where we'd left off last time. As soon as I saw the next passage, I remembered exactly what had caught my eye in my first read-through, and I knew precisely what I wanted to talk about: the pitfalls of judging others in general and a little bit of personal insight into why you shouldn't make snap judgments about people based on their reproductive decisions.

Because today's Twilight passage starts out talking about infertility and adoption, I wanted to illustrate the blog entry with a photo that played off of that. I went to Google Image Search and keyed in "adoption" and my eye was immediately caught by this beautiful photo of a new father gazing lovingly at his adopted daughter. Now, I've been taught that it is both courteous and appropriate to host images with my own bandwidth instead of using other people's bandwidth, and when I saved off the image file to my local computer I was a little surprised to see the name of the photo was "grosspicture.jpg". My exact thought process went thus:  

"Gross Picture"? Huh?? Oh, I'll bet the father in the picture has the last name of "Gross". Or, I suppose it could be the photographer's name. Well, whoever it is, I'll bet they got teased a lot as a child. Still, I'd better rename the photo with their full name so that when I upload it, people won't get the wrong idea.

Sadly, however, this was not the case: when I clicked over to the site host to get the full name of the photographer and/or model, I found that the site host was actually a completely terrifying site that is covered in racist screeds and which I hope is meant to be heavy-handed satire, but I fear it isn't. The site did at least give credit to the actual source of the picture - this is a photo from the NY Times article about Cowboys' linebacker DeMarcus Ware, and the adoption of lovely little Marley after Ware and his wife suffered three failed pregnancies. And if you can read the NY Times article without sobbing profusely, then you're a less emotional person than me.

Now, it should come as no surprise to anyone that there are people on the internet who are horrible, hateful, and just plain wrong, and any attempt of my own to point that out would be at least a decade late to the party and would really just boil down to a repeat of this classic XKCD comic. However, this particular incidence of just plain wrongness stood out at me because, in looking for a picture of "adoption" to illustrate a post about how you shouldn't judge people based on their adoption choices, I inadvertently found a site that thought it was quite appropriate to do exactly that. Irony!

I just wish the irony hadn't been served with a heavy slice of racism, and I feel sort of depressed to share the same planet with the people who author that site.

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight

   “They look a little old for foster children.”
   “They are now, Jasper and Rosalie are both eighteen, but they’ve been with Mrs. Cullen since they were eight. She’s their aunt or something like that.”
   “That’s really kind of nice — for them to take care of all those kids like that, when they’re so young and everything.”
   “I guess so,” Jessica admitted reluctantly, and I got the impression that she didn’t like the doctor and his wife for some reason. With the glances she was throwing at their adopted children, I would presume the reason was jealousy. “I think that Mrs. Cullen can’t have any kids, though,” she added, as if that lessened their kindness.

Now it's time for a little bit of personal sharing, which may or may not be "TMI" for everyone - if it does turn out to be too much information, I apologize and I'll try not to make this a habit.

My husband and I are struggling with infertility at the moment. We've been trying to conceive for awhile now, and we're currently on our second IVF attempt. If there's one thing I can tell you about infertility, it's that when you want to have kids and you can't, it sucks pretty bad. The treatments are astonishingly expensive, and very few American health insurance companies cover much, if any, of the process. The medications have incredibly painful side effects - manic-depressive cycles, extreme nausea, and intense abdominal cramps - which will shatter your nerves at a time when all you can think about is all those studies that say that one of the biggest determining factors in IVF success is your stress level. No pressure, haha!

I myself haven't slept more than a couple of hours in the last 3 days because a medication I have to take at night has the same effect on me as a 6-pack of Red Bull. During the day I crash and burn and everyone at work asks me why I look so tired, while I work up excuses to avoid the subject. Husband and I haven't told anyone in Real Life about this IVF process except a few close friends and family because possibly the hardest part of the IVF process is the very-likely prospect of failure. We've already lived through one failed IVF process where every single one of our embryos suffered arrested development (i.e., they stopped growing) before we even had the chance to put them inside for implantation, and it's very possible that this second attempt may end the same way, since the doctors believe the problem is genetic in nature.

Now, I tell you all this not so that you'll feel sorry for me (please don't) and not so that this blog can become an infertility blog (it won't), but rather so that I can honestly say here that I don't see Jessica as being out-of-line with her 'qualifier' that the Cullens' adoption policies may be less out a gracious desire to heal the world and make it a better place and more because they simply want children and adoption is the only way they can get them. There's absolutely, 100% nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't (in my opinion) automatically make you "really kind of nice" - at least not any more than any other parent with a wanted child.

I said last week that while adoption can be a good thing, it's not an automatic good. People can and do adopt children for many reasons, just as people have children in general for many reasons. Some people adopt because they feel a higher calling to share their good fortune and loving home environment with a child that might not otherwise have that blessing; some people adopt simply because they very much want to have children in their family and can't accomplish that dream any other way. And then there are some truly oddball reasons for adopting, like when Bianca Cappello adopted a child because it was the only way she could convince Archduke Francesco de Medici of Tuscany to marry her and make her an archduchess - that particular adoption may be fascinating for many reasons, but probably we shouldn't automatically deem the act "really kind of nice" of Miss Bianca, because it really probably wasn't (even if it did work out well for the child in the end).

I say this not because I think Bianca Cappello is some kind of typical adoptive parent (I don't), but rather to illustrate that, to my way of thinking, actions are rarely in themselves good or bad, at least not in the "moral" sense of those words - most often, it is the intention behind the action that makes it good, bad, or neutral. Like any action, adoption can be undertaken for good reasons, for bad reasons, and for completely neutral reasons. I'm reminded of George MacDonald's book, "The Princess and Curdie", where the wise godmother points out to the titular Curdie, "It is a good thing to eat your breakfast, but you don't fancy it's very good of you to do it. The thing is good, not you."

The problem with Bella is that she can't seem to reserve judgment on people - everyone she has met so far today has been instantly classified as good or bad, usually within a few minutes of meeting them. Eric and Jessica are obviously bad in her mind - the two have been described in the most unflattering of terms and their descriptions have been carefully worded to convey unpleasantness. Eric is gangly, suffers from skin problems, has shiny oily hair, and is "over-helpful". Jessica "prattles" and will be mentally condemned by Bella three times in a single conversation for failing to recognize the Cullens' greatness: once, for being so small-minded as to find the sexual coupling of the adopted siblings shocking; twice, for failing to immediately agree that the Cullens are obviously really kind of nice (here Jessica is condemned for jealousy); and a third time for pointing out that Bella shouldn't waste her time chasing Edward (here Jessica is condemned for sour grapes). The Cullens, on the other hand, have already been classified as good in Bella's mind, and seemingly nothing will be able to change her judgment on that front. Her snap judgment is even odder in light of the fact that we really only know a few bare facts about the family:

  1. The father is a doctor of some kind. 
  2. The children are all adopted or fostered. 
  3. The children are all astonishingly beautiful. 
  4. The children don't socialize much at school.

That's pretty much all we know about them so far, and none of those points really screams "sainted family of saints" at me. Indeed, except for #2, the above points seem like the perfect setup for a family of Libbies.

   “Which one is the boy with the reddish brown hair?” I asked. I peeked at him from the corner of my eye, and he was still staring at me, but not gawking like the other students had today — he had a slightly frustrated expression. I looked down again.
   “That’s Edward. He’s gorgeous, of course, but don’t waste your time. He doesn’t date. Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him.” She sniffed, a clear case of sour grapes. I wondered when he’d turned her down.

Of course, we've mentioned before that one of the hardest things about analyzing Twilight is the degree to which the narration is thickly filtered through the character of Bella Swan. Maybe it's not that Bella makes snap judgments about the people around her (Jessica & Eric = Bad; Cullens = Good), maybe it's that the goodness and badness of those characters has already been established in the mind of the author, and Bella is just able to pick up on those characteristics with the astonishing quickness of an author-insert character.

The problem with this, however, is that we can't really confirm whether Bella is judgmental or psychic because most of her snap judgments are never confirmed or denied properly in the actual text. Jessica's "clear case of sour grapes" is a perfect example: I'm fairly certain we never hear one way or another whether Edward "turned her down" in the way that Bella is assuming. If it had turned out that Bella's hunch is right, then we could take from that fact that Bella is either incredibly good at reading people or has a direct line to the author; if Bella's hunch turned out to be wrong, she would be a human and flawed character that occasionally jumps to the wrong conclusions. Instead, however, we never hear one way or another whether or not Bella's assumption is correct, and it feels like this is less a matter of the author forgetting to resolve a dangling characterization and more a matter of the author feeling like the characterization has already been resolved by virtue of Bella's fiat - I think we're just supposed to take as fact that Jessica asked Edward out in the past and he blew her off because Bella has said so

What's even more interesting is that if this is the case - if Edward has a history of turning down all the pretty girls at the school for dates and Jessica is one of his spurned suitors - then Jessica is being far more gracious than I would expect of a jilted suitor in a modern American high school. Given a family of relative outcasts who seem more interested in dating one another and honing their graceful beauty to perfection than going out with the local high school hotties, I can think of a few juicier insults than, essentially, He's so hot, and we're so not. Burn!

47 comments:

Gordon said...

That was one (of the many) thing(s) I could never reconcile in Twilight: Bella's description of the Cullens vs. the actual actions they take. And as you get further into the series, the discrepancy gets more and more glaring.

As you've mentioned, the Cullens do everything they can to remove themselves from human society.Alice's power makes them rich, but they just seclude themselves in the woods with fancy toys and to hell with the rest of the world. They occasionally house vampires of the non-vegetarian variety, with the only caveat that they don't hunt in Forks or the surrounding area. In Breaking Dawn they house close to twenty such vampires for several months. They don't alert anyone to the massive deaths(Daily? Monthly? Who cares, as long as it's no one they know...) that the Volturi are responsible for in Italy. There are countless other examples.

They have amazing and extraordinary talents that could be put to use in some inconspicuous way, but they don't. At least Carlisle saves lives, what claims do Esme, Edward, Emmet, Jasper, Alice, and Rosalie toward being objectively "good" people?

Nathaniel said...

Your posts are proving to be clarifying to my own experience with this book. Bella is a singularly unpleasant, shallow person, and yet the author seems to regard her every opinion as 100% correct, her every judgement the final word on the subject. Unless she disagrees with Eddie-kins of course.

I've heard some people speculate that Bella is meant to be as empty and shallow a character as possible so the girls reading it can fill themselves in her place. I suspect that Bella is such a loathsome character that enjoying the book require one to mentally flee from her.

Charleen Merced said...

Pretty good post Ana. Although I have a different opinion of Jessica. To me, Bella always seemed a bit dim-witted about the danger around her. Jessica, on the other hand, i found to be very intuitive. I took those narrations to mean that she GOT IT; she knew there was something off with that family, hence her apprehension.

Kit Whitfield said...

Bella's wondering when Edward turned Jessica down always struck me as one of her most spiteful moments. There's another equally likely explanation: Edward turned down somebody Jessica cares about and she's annoyed with him for hurting her friend's feelings - but Bella never seems to consider that other people might care for each other unless they're Cullens. Everyone else tends to have selfish motives assumed.

And even if Jessica had been turned down by Edward, what, no compassion at all? All Jessica would be guilty of, after all, is wanting the same thing Bella clearly wants herself. It's painful to be turned down, and being attracted to an attractive boy is hardly unnatural. The fact that it's called 'sour grapes' is curiously objectifying towards Edward: it's not a matter of hurt feelings or even injured pride, but more as if he's some kind of prize that she's sneering at Jessica for presuming to aspire to. Jessica should realise that Edward is out of her league, but Bella considers herself completely entitled to his attention even when he's acting as if the last thing in the world he wants is her company. All based on nothing more than a superficial attraction to his looks and style.

All in all, it comes across as Bella assuming, based on nothing, that she understands the Cullens immediately and this person who's known them longer than two minutes doesn't understand them at all. People call Edward a stalker, but I think he and Bella work on the exact same assumption, which is that being attracted to someone gives them rights in regard to them. It's not an assumption they extend to anyone else - Jessica has no rights regarding Edward, and none of Bella's many suitors have rights regarding her - but Bella and Edward tend to act as if they know they're destined for each other. It's understandable that people would think this stalkerish in a boy, but really I don't think Bella's any different.

--

I've heard some people speculate that Bella is meant to be as empty and shallow a character as possible so the girls reading it can fill themselves in her place.

Wow. That's a pretty misogynist speculation right there. Since when are emptiness and shallowness traits that girls identify with?

Charleen Merced said...

A compassionate, intuitive Jessica is much more interesting than an expositionary character who is nice enough to take the new girl under her wing, but still makes a point of sulking over that one time Edward turned her down.


Well...I never said she was compassionate per se. I think Jessica is your average popular girl. She doesn't like danger or getting into trouble, as opposed to Bella. I don't know whether it was this book or another vampire book, but there is some mention of human staying away from vampires because they can sense the danger. I think Jessica feels that "seems dangerous" vibe.

Jessica actually acts more level headed and very much her age throughout the book. In a few chapters, when both girls go to the next town, Jessica again acts very level headed in a dangerous situation, i.e. run response. Whereas Bella is all gun-ho yay danger. Jessica's attitude toward Bella is completely understandable after that.

Kit Whitfield said...

Why would we assume Jessica is popular? The movie aside, her behaviour towards Bella in the book doesn't necessarily indicate that she is: after all, she has nothing better to do than chat to a newcomer who isn't interested in making friends with her. A girl who was popular because she was a nice, likeable person would probably have plenty of other friends to keep her occupied and wouldn't bother to persist with someone so unresponsive; a girl who was popular because she wielded social power aggressively would, you'd think, make it clear to Bella in some way who was boss and wait to see how best to handle her.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well...I never said she was compassionate per se.

Oops, I was tying in your and Kit's comments for my own personal canon. :D

Why would we assume Jessica is popular? The movie aside,

This is such a problem for me, personally, because the book is SO vague at points that it's easier to fall back on the movies as canon.

Even in the movie, Jessica's relative popularity is questionable - when she runs up to interupt Mike/Bella's moment in gym, she seems like she's trying to glom onto the REAL popular girl to get some secondary attention. (The book seems to be going this route, too, but it's hard to tell at times.)

I think we end up assuming that Movie!Jessica is popular, because if there's one thing movies have taught us about high school, it's that SOMEONE has to be, and it's ridiculous that Bella would be as popular as she seems to be in the book after more than a week or two of silent moping and generally not making friends with people.

I think this is a major disconnect between Book and Movie - people seem to naturally sense that being attractive and aloof is not automatically popular, and thus Movie!Bella and Movie!Edward become this little private duo, intensely into each other, but not really popular with anyone else. Whereas Book!Bella and Book!Edward are able to interact with people at school whenever they want and people act thrilled that the Olympian Gods deigned to speak to them. :P

after all, she has nothing better to do than chat to a newcomer who isn't interested in making friends with her.

I kind of see Jessica as me in school - I, too, had wildly curly hair and was useful for exposition. :D

a girl who was popular because she wielded social power aggressively would, you'd think, make it clear to Bella in some way who was boss and wait to see how best to handle her.

One more reason why I liked the movie better - there's a LOT of submissive posture on Bella's part that makes the whole scene really work: it's clear that Movie!Jessica is keeping her friends close and her potential enemy (Movie!Bella) closer.

"Vampires Suck" also had a good take on it:

"Hi, I'm Jessica. I'll pretend to be your BFF, but if you touch Rick, I'll cut you." *switchblade*

:P

Gordon said...

Kit: A girl who was popular because she was a nice, likeable person would probably have plenty of other friends to keep her occupied and wouldn't bother to persist with someone so unresponsive; a girl who was popular because she wielded social power aggressively would, you'd think, make it clear to Bella in some way who was boss and wait to see how best to handle her.

It's just an extension of Stephenie's general lack of charaterization for the "unimportant" characters. Most of the human characters, with the exception of Charlie, can be summed up in one word. Renee is just "flighty." Angela is "nice." Eric is "nerdy." Lauren is "bitchy." Mike is "average." Meyer needed a character who would come off as being in control, but also helpful enough to provide exposition, so she mashed two character archetypes(probably a composite of people she didn't like in high school) together and we have Jessica.

Now if I were writing this "first day of school" scene (and I realize it's easy to say this from outside the writing process) the expositive duties would have passed to Angela, and Jessica would have been an icier character, probably making snide, yet humorous, comments about people as Angela talked about them(a much closer parallel to Rachel McAdams' character in Mean Girls, though less deliberate in her meanness). That would have given them both much more consistent characterizations throughout the series.

Of course, when it comes to characterization, the "unimportant" characters get off easy, when you consider how well the "complex" characters make out. Jacob the nice-guy-rapist, anyone?

Seekingsomething06 said...

Wow. That's a pretty misogynist speculation right there. Since when are emptiness and shallowness traits that girls identify with?

Empty character-wise. Actually, there's a quote from Meyer saying that she deliberately made Bella kind of vague, so it would be easier for girls to "slip into her shoes." Her words, not mine.

Like Dana over at Reasoning With Vampires, I'm going to hold that quote against her. You don;on't deliberately weaken your character's...character for the reader. How a character feels and reacts to the events in a novel are a huge part of the driving force of the plot. This is the reason why Twilight is hard to read. Meyer made a character for a mass audience, but the individuals in the audience are so different from each other that Bella The Protagonist has very little to do, because she has no specific interests or history from which she can think and react. Hence the reason why Twilight is more about Bella the Victim of Circumstance, rather than about Bella the Doer.

Gordon said...

Ooh, or Quil-the-wise-cracking-pedophile?

Kit Whitfield said...

Actually, there's a quote from Meyer saying that she deliberately made Bella kind of vague, so it would be easier for girls to "slip into her shoes." Her words, not mine.

The odd thing is, I found Bella's voice to be very distinctive: all that carping left a strong impression. Possibly it's that confusion Ana was talking about between authorial voice and character voice: by telling us which characters are important and which characters are dismissable on behalf of the plot, Bella comes across as not very nice. An author's ruthlessness with fictional characters doesn't play very well in social interactions.

Ana Mardoll said...

I think you're probably right about the source of the disconnect: If Bella's judgmental attitude is really "narration", then (a) the reader can't dislike her for it and (b) it stops being a part of her characterization in general. Really, if all/most of her mental attitude is merely narration that couldn't have otherwise been provided in a first-person novel, then she becomes an extremely empty character indeed.

I wonder if that's why new authors often struggle with first person. I find first person VERY hard to write, and tend to favor third person as a voice...... Hm.

Carrie said...

I always interpret things like Bella's judgmental attitude as authorial shorthand to code characters that we should and should not be concerned about. Jessica is girly (and therefore bad, perhaps?) exposition and Bella's attitudes about her allow the reader to quickly categorize her as such. It is the same thing as always with S. Meyer: she writes vaguely either for the sake of identification or because she's more interested in other things (vampires). However, as you are cleverly pointing out, Ana, her shorthand has all kinds of fairly uncomfortable implications for the world of the text.

On the subject of Bella's popularity/absence thereof, I'd like to point out that the fact that Jessica is basically wasting her time with Bella means very little about her popularity. She could easily be doing it because she's lonesome and a new friend sounds good to her. However, it's also the case that Bella is something of a commodity. She's new and everyone is interested in her. It would be to Jessica's advantage as a girl of any social standing to have all of the information possible on Bella. Perhaps it is even a sign of Jessica's popularity that no other girl tries too hard–the queen bee has already got it covered.

In other news, that picture is adorable and sweet and racists are not the kind of people I like being near to ever at all.

Nathaniel said...

To clarify, yes, I meant that Bella is so minimal as a character that she is meant to disappear. Others have gone over the total fail behind that proposal.

I think why Bella's unpleasant and superior sniping towards others in her mind got to me so much was because pretty much by definition I was never going to fill myself into her place. Thus I actually had to examine her personality, to the extent she had one. I was left feeling quite repulsed.

At one point, I actually counted positive thoughts towards others vs. negative thoughts towards others who weren't sparkly. It was something like 3 to 36 in the first 100 pages. The relentless snide remarks made me hate her more than any other character I have read, even Edward. Even if he is smug, superior and sarcastic, at least I don't have to wade through his head.

The chatter above about Jessica reminds me of another thing that really bothered me about the book. Bella is quite, aloof and has absolutely no use for any non sparkly person. Yet somehow that attitude makes her the most popular and sought after person in the school, with multiple boys hounding her and girls doing their best to hang out with her. It make no sense. Yet there it is.

SkyknightXi said...

This insistence on being able to identify with a protagonist or deuteragonist, on there having to be SOME obvious overlap, keeps confusing me. Why is this so crucial in the first place? I hardly think vicarious experiences are the primary, let alone sole, reason people read stories. Never mind that this kind of character hollowing strikes me as something that's going to make it difficult to involve a healthy number of precepts. Every way Bella would react would fill in the hollow; how much could the hollow take before reader avatar intentions are thwarted?

The Dread Pirate Matt said...

I agree. A well-characterised protagonist should allow you to empathise, even if you actually hate the character. Having a "character" as an empty vessel doesn't really work in fiction.

It reminds me of a short story I read in high school which was called (IIRC) "The Book of And", which was about an author who extracted all the extraneous details until all that was left was "and and and and and". As it continues, the narrator begins to insert events from his own life in between the ands.

Kit Whitfield said...

I find first person VERY hard to write, and tend to favor third person as a voice...... Hm.

I'm the opposite: I absolutely hate the omniscient narrative voice. (To write, not to read.) I just can't do it: so much of life is influenced by how we perceive things that being unable to get an idiosyncratic perspective on stuff makes me go all flat. I've written the third person (second novel, for instance), but even then, I had to write about how that particular person perceived things and stick exclusively to their point of view. I need both a first-person perspective and a situation for that person to occupy before I get any kind of chemistry going at all.

--

I hardly think vicarious experiences are the primary, let alone sole, reason people read stories.

It's going to vary from story to story, but I think you could make a good argument that vicarious experiences are entirely why people read stories: what is the experience of reading fiction if not experiencing things that didn't actually happen to you? There are other things you can get as well, of course, like a fine writing style, but you can get those equally well out of poetry or non-fiction. Any fictional character's experience is going to be vicarious to us.

I think it's more that Bella's experiences are supposed to be enjoyed so uncritically by the reader that's the problem. In an earlier comment I speculated that Bella's main narrative purpose is to have things - romance and attention, mostly - that the reader can enjoy, as it were, for themselves. Which is more than vicariously experiencing them; it's appropriating them. I've long thought that Twilight is a book that isn't really meant to be read; it's meant to be fantasised about, misremembered, adapted in the imagination, repurposed and reshaped and entered into. (It's notable, for example, not just how easy it is to put a whole lot of different interpretations on everyone's actions in it, but how often someone will insist that something's an essential part of the story when the text simply doesn't support them.) I think you don't so much read Twilight as inhabit it.

And maybe one reason why it's so easy to inhabit is precisely because Bella's so negative about so many things. Because she views everything except the Cullens with incurious distaste, it all remains shadowy and sketchy. Being so, it's that much easier for the reader to adapt for their own purposes: Bella just doesn't take enough interest to tell us things that would contradict whatever the reader wants to see in Forks. A nicer narrator would be more specific, not just because she'd be a distinct personality (because Bella's definitely that), but because she'd have the openness to Forks that would make it more of a real place and less of a dream world.

Kit Whitfield said...

Speaking of incurious distaste, does anyone else find Bella reminiscent of Humbert Humbert? Sexually obsessed, physically revolted by people who don't meet their standards, self-centred, ruthless in pursuing what they want, and callously, utterly incurious about everyone who isn't their dream-Lolita.

Carrie said...

Haha, Kit, all of this talk about an empathy-worthy, but possibly not identification-inducing protagonist actually made me think of Humbert Humbert, too. I was just musing about it when I came to your comment.

Bella does not remind me of HH, however. I think that if I could pick up on the idea that Bella was /supposed/ to be detestable, or that the romance between her and Edward was at all a problematic thing, or if I could ever empathize with her/her monstrosity, or even if it was more pronounced than bitchiness, I think the case would totally there. Also, HH is actually a monster in a lot of ways, whereas (please correct me if I'm wrong) Bella is mostly just a very distasteful person. She's a pale shadow, in every way, of Humbert Humbert.

It'd sure help the comparison, too, if Meyer were able to produce prose with even a fraction of the beauty of Nabokov's, too.

Perhaps, however, this is merely my knee-jerk reaction to having my favorite novel compared to Twilight.

Kit Whitfield said...

@Carrie - oh, I wouldn't put Twilight and Lolita in the same class for a moment - though I'm currently 're-reading' Lolita on audiobook (read by Jeremy Irons, which I'd highly recommend if you're interested in audiobooksl) and I'm quite surprised to find how pacy it is; alongside all its verbal pyrotechnics, it's as shamelessly suspenseful as a pulp novel. (Personally I find it much more suspenseful than Twilight, but then Twilight always interested me more as a cultural phenomenon than as a story.)

And I wouldn't assume that Nabokov and Meyer were both going for the unreliable narrator; I think Bella's supposed to be reliable and it's infelicities in the writing that make her seem untrusthworthy. But I do think there's an interesting point of correspondence: when a narrator is sexually obsessed with a single individual, or a single sexual aspect, to the point where everything that contrasts with or thwarts that desire is rejected ... well, you wind up with a misanthropic sensualist whether you're trying to write dreamy romance or to twist the reader into elegant contortions just because of how fiction works. They're not similar books, but they have this one interesting similarity because of the obsessiveness of the narrator.

Redwood Rhiadra said...

Bella is quite, aloof and has absolutely no use for any non sparkly person. Yet somehow that attitude makes her the most popular and sought after person in the school, with multiple boys hounding her and girls doing their best to hang out with her. It make no sense. Yet there it is.

Hard-to-get syndrome, maybe? (Or whatever you call it when someone seems more attractive because you know you have no chance to be with them.

Gordon said...

Hard-to-get syndrome, maybe? (Or whatever you call it when someone seems more attractive because you know you have no chance to be with them.)

Bella has no draw, though. in order for the "more attractive because I can't have them" to work, yo have to be attractive in the first place. We're told Bella isn't anything special to look at and she shows no particular interest in anything(other than the Cullens). She never demonstrates her intelligence, or any particular kind of wit. She all but completely ignores the people around her. She barely musters up the energy to appear politely half-interested in what they say. After the "newness" wore off, they should have lost interest in her in that way.

Silver Adept said...

This disconnect is a problem. No character should know that much that quickly without a reason why...and Ed's the mind-reader, not her.

Maybe, as a solution, we should believe we're reading Twilight as Isabella's recollection of how she got to where she is? A memoir of sorts, written from the third person about a girl named Isabella (names changed to protect the innocent?) to try and hide the fact that it really should be a first-person narrator who has the benefit of hindsight to make everything much clearer? Movie!Bella says as much at the beginning of the movie (either that, or Vampires Suck does it, and I'm conflating the two...) That would allow for the psychic omniscience, the single-line characterization, and the rest - future-"Bella" already knows all of this and is not interested in rehashing the boring details in her haste to write all the action down. We can speculate further as to why she would need such a sloppily constructed memoir (she's being hunted down by the Slayers, it turns out vampirism is degenerative on a long-term scale, etc), but that might at least help explain the problems of the narrative.

Carrie said...

Maybe she's telling Renesme (is there a single worse name? I'm serious) the grand story of the titanic love that brought the child about. Maybe, in later books, she got Renesme's pedophilic mate to helpfully chip in, telling his part of the story. Maybe Renesme was so disgusted at her mother's telling of the story that she got her father to narrate Midnight Sun to her in the hopes that the story made sense. Perhaps, just a couple of chapters in, Renesme was so disgusted and upset at her lineage that she used her very, very special powers to murder everyone.

Perhaps? Anyway, saving the story for posterity makes some amount of sense to me. I guess.

Kit Whitfield said...

We're told Bella isn't anything special to look at

If I remember right, this is just Bella's opinion; Edward says something to the effect that she only thinks she's unattractive because she didn't hear what every boy in the school has been thinking about her. She's insecure about her looks rather than actually unattractive; between Edward, who can read minds, and the behaviour of every boy around her, I think the only possible conclusion is that she's extremely pretty. That's one of those occasions where she actually isn't a reliable narrator, interestingly: clearly she's capable of being wrong about some things.

I have the sense that she's generally only wrong when she underestimates her own importance - and since she has no problem demanding Edward's attention, it doesn't look like her insecurity runs that deep. If she were really insecure, you'd expect her to avoid him because she anticipated him saying, 'What are you doing following me around, you pathetic loser? And geez, have you ever heard of showering?' or words to that effect: approaching him at all would strike her as courting humiliation.

My interpretation would be that Bella can't possibly acknowledge to the reader that she's pretty because vanity is one of the unforgivable sins of conventional womanhood; however special she is, she absolutely mustn't go around thinking she's all that. On the other hand, we the readers have to believe she's pretty because we're supposed to enjoy having what she has, and that includes beauty. So far, so simple. The real problem is the way she considers herself free to demand explanations from Edward when he's trying hard to avoid her.

That needn't be about looks, of course; you could argue she's just a girl with a strong sense of her rights - though the attention of a boy who wants to avoid you isn't really a right. But be that as it may, Bella is someone who goes very forcefully after whatever she wants; not being good enough to get it isn't part of her thinking - which rather makes all the disparaging remarks she makes about herself feel like lip service.

If she were a real person, the only explanation I can think of is that she would have extraordinarily high standards of beauty. Edward appeals to her because he's so exceptional-looking, everyone else in the school looks ugly to her because they're ordinary people, and she looks ugly to herself because she's almost as beautiful as Edward, but not quite. If we considered a 'Cullen' as a unit of beauty, we could say that Edward is one Cullen, Bella is 0.95 Cullens, and everyone else in the school ranges from, say, 0.3 to 0.8 Cullens - but as far as Bella is concerned, anything less than a full Cullen is ugly.

Since she's a person of snap judgments who seldom has mixed feelings - she either adores people or looks down on them - that might actually make a degree of sense: she's as binary about beauty as she is about everything else.

As she's fictional, though, it's probably just a simple case of narrative ambivalence: if we're being Bella, we want to be pretty but we don't want to be vain ... and also, when we think we're unattractive in real life, we want to be, like Bella, wrong. Bella can give us Edward, romance and drama; she can also give us the hope that when we judge our looks harshly, it's only because we don't realise other people find us lovely.

Silver Adept said...

It's certainly not a great explanation (although I do kind of like the idea that the story is aborted because the child has decided that everyone responsible needs to be staked or killed), and if we go that route, aren't we intruding on Lestat territory? I thought sparkly-vampires are supposed to be the antithesis of the Anne Rice brooders (or at least orthogonal to them.)

Ana Mardoll said...

I'm delighted by the idea that Twilight is a retrospective to tell to Renesmee, and thus being rushed, colored-by-memory, and inaccurate is something of a feature rather than a bug. The idea that she slaughters everyone at the end - or that vampirism becomes a degenerative condition - is just icing on that particular cake.

Is it less Anne Rice-y if there's no homoeroticism? Twilight is pretty annoyingly adamant so far that there are no gay people in Forks. Ever. At all. I'm hoping we'll get some nice Edward/Jacob subtext later on, but I'm not holding my breath.

I also feel very strongly that the "Cullen unit" of beauty must be strong-armed into modern parlance with the understanding that no one ever truly reaches One Cullen, not even Angelina Jolie. It'll be like Absolute Zero, but less useful to physicists......

cmerced said...

@Silver Adept

"Isabella (names changed to protect the innocent?)"

But, Bella's name IS Isabella. I'm confused as to what you are saying...

Silver Adept said...

@cmerced What if "Isabella Swan" is a pseudonym adopted by the writer of this memoir to try and protect herself from the Angry Mob that tends to hunt vampires? She wants to get her story down, but she doesn't want people to come find her and kill her and her child. If we've already established that Bella is an unreliable narrator at best, because she's glossing over details in her recollection, it's not that much more of a leap to suggest that the names and places in the account are also unreliable. Especially if you follow our speculative path that "Bella" is writing this down because for a reason in the future.

cmerced said...

Ohhh I see what you mean. But that might be a moot point because of that vampire that has super tracking ability (or the fact that Bella, presumably, can't be tracked cause of her blocking ability).

Also, what angry mob?

Moreover, I know we are just playing with theories and ideas but, maybe it's worth noting that the unreliability and glossing of the details can just be ascribed to Stephanie Meyer rushing through the book. It is her first book after all.

Silver Adept said...

Maybe vampires can't track her, but people might be able to. And when they get on the warpath, they tend to bring other people into it with them. The proverbial pitchforks-and-torches Angry Anti-Vampire Mob would not be unheard of if someone did manage to put two and two together and decide to stake Bella.


It's totally worth noting that this is a first book. But part of what we're doing here is to try and take the text on the text's terms - talking about the author and their foibles is cheating, slightly, and isn't providing us with a plausible in-text reason why the text is constructed the way it is, why Bella knows too much for someone who's supposed to be the new kid, and other things like that.


Plus, speculating like this, as Ana has pointed out, opens up avenues of storytelling that would have made Twilight a much better book, and one that hangs together as a narrative.


And we get cool stuff like the Cullen Unit.


Oh, and Ana, a lot of small-town America is adamant that There Are No Deviants Here, which includes anything from gay people, to pedophiles, stopping off at fetishes, strip joint regulars, and people whose BDSM kink is "Christian Domestic Discipline". along the way. Suffice to say, there are plenty of people there who fit the Deviant bill, but are kept in the closet by societal pressures and firebrand preachers.

Amaranth said...

"I think you don't so much read
Twilight
as inhabit it.
"


I'd wonder if that's not exactly what the author intended. Twilight has an almost palpable ambiance to it, and it's one of the qualities that translated well to the screen. One thing that struck me about the movie was how much I noticed and appreciated the "mood" of the setting. The ambiance came through. Maybe Meyer didn't set out to create a powerful story, per se, but
rather to create a powerful place where people could insert their own
fantasies. (In which case, perhaps she should look into MMORPG creation...)


If that's the case, then I'd have to say she succeeded, however inexpertly. I've noticed that the sorts of stories that tend to explode into cultural phenomenons almost always have that quality: the world is so powerfully conceived that it begins to live on its own, outside and beyond canon. People start inserting themselves in it. Star Trek and Harry Potter immediately come to mind.


However...did the creators of Star Trek and Harry Potter set out to create a living world, or did that just happen as a natural byproduct of a good story? Maybe part of the reason Twilight is so bad is that Meyer believed if the world was powerful and real enough, a good story would naturally flow out of it...when in fact it's usually the other way around?

Praveendk said...

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Brin Bellway said...

You're in the wrong thread for that. Did you mean this one?

Reader of Books said...

Someone asked, What good are the Cullens to humanity?

Why, the Cullens are in hell, but they are angels so they can withstand being around the lesser beings (that make them salivate). They are martyrs to the cause of godly beauty! (I may have picked this up from another deconstruction online somewhere. Curse you, Trainwreck Syndrome!)

Sofia said...

Bella rigidly holding to snap judgements is particularly interesting considering her interest in Jane Austen. I read somewhere that "Twilight" is supposed to parallel the plot of "Pride and Prejudice" (ditto "New Moon" and "Romeo and Juliet"). Having read both books, I can't see it. Mostly because one of the major themes of P&P is the unreliability of first impressions. Elizabeth Bennet spends the first half of the book judging people on very little information, and then the second half being proven wrong. Bella, on the other hand, never faces a situation which challenges her prejudices. Except when Edward tells her she's pretty, as pointed out above. Along with Meyer's abuse of Shakespeare in "New Moon", it makes one wonder whether she actually reads other people's books, or just absorbs them through pop culture. Or maybe she has read them, but as pointed out in an earlier thread, thinks that having read a book once gives one the ability to name-drop the author without having to think any more about the story.

Lila said...

Re vicarious experience (@Kit Whitfield and @SkyknightXi ), I agree that reading a story is a form of vicarious experience--but not necessarily experienced *as one of the characters*. I rarely, if ever, put myself into the persona of one of the characters in a story. I may identify with them in an "oh, I completely know how that feels" kind of way, but I don't imagine myself AS them.

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