What has saddened-and-delighted me the most, however, are all the absolutely wonderful characterization details and plot "alternatives" that have been brought up in the last few weeks. We've had several suggestions that the Cullens' situation would more adequately lend itself to college or homeschooling, where their home could be a veritable garden of learning. In this scenario, Bella could be drawn to Edward for his erudition and charm, having met him at their after-school job at the local burger joint (where Ed doesn't take lunch breaks because he's a vegetarian, natch). The draw of immortality in this case would be the offer of unlimited learning and self-improvement - a draw that I myself would feel acutely, having realized yesterday that if I never buy another book again, I still have enough unread material to last me for the next 7 years, minimum. (This realization simultaneously pleases and horrifies me - at least partly because a good chunk of my reading material is review requests that all need to be finished yesterday).
Other readers, on the other hand, have posited a darker story, where the Cullens' willingness to return to high school despite their obvious hatred of it is spurred by them being essentially time-locked at their physical ages (that is, the ages at which they were turned into vampires) and constantly drawn to others their own age in a desperate-but-futile attempt to recapture what was lost. In this case, the family members are simply serving time until they accomplish whatever goal is tenuously keeping them alive, or until their distaste for the other members of their "family" (here showcased by their obvious anti-social body language and refusal to converse with one another) drive them to complete isolation and potentially suicide.
What is interesting to me is that while I don't much care for the writing and plot in Twilight, I would totally read and enjoy all these nuanced spin-offs that are being suggested - it's really enough to make me quite sad for what could have been. Of course, some of this may be the simple matter of standing on the shoulders of a giant (or, at least, a highly published author), but if the view is good up there, who is going to complain?
In short, I summarily demand that all of you stop doing whatever it is you've been doing with your lives and instead start writing these incredible alternate Twilight-verse fan fics that keep being proposed, because they sound awesome. Just please don't make the vampires sparkly. *grins*
Now, on to the actual post:
Twilight Recap: Bella has caught her first glimpse of the Cullen family whose unearthly, preternatural beauty has absolutely captivated and astonished her. She seems further overwhelmed by their almost unattainable level of aloofness: not only are they not talking to any of the other students, they're not even talking to each other.
Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight
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.
I really must give credit to Kit Whitfield for so clearly pointing out that while the concepts of "masterpiece" and "model" are both valid ways to describe a character, they are concepts that are not given to much overlap and don't work and play nicely as a combined description. Someone may be as lovely as an angel or as beautiful as a fashion model, but it's very difficult to imagine the person that could be equally well described as either - and seeing the two descriptions combined in this fast-and-furious manner almost comes off as a rather lazy attempt to just generically stamp the Cullens as "hawt" and then move on.
|Raphael's St. Catherina + Elle Macpherson in Sports Illustrated|
The similarities are eerie!
Once again, it's hard to know what to make of Bella's character as a result of this inner monologue. Is Bella is a modern girl whose notions of attractiveness are defined and formed by the fashion magazines aimed at her target demographic, or is she a studious girl who is deeply influenced by art history and ancient standards of desirability? Since we later see Bella reading "Pride and Prejudice" more often than "Cosmo Girl", I think we're meant to assume that she's the latter - an unworldly girl slightly out of phase from her more fashion-conscious peers - and yet if that's the case, her inner voice doesn't seem to ring very true at times.
“Who are they?” I asked the girl from my Spanish class, whose name I’d forgotten.
Bella, as we've noted before, doesn't remember the name of the girl she's been sitting with throughout lunch and the last two class periods. This wouldn't be especially noteworthy - I myself am notorious with names - except that she does remember "overly helpful" Eric's name, despite the fact that she's spent significantly less time with him than with this new girl. Whether this is just a natural quirk, or indicative of Bella being more interested in Eric than in this nameless curly-haired girl, we've yet to determine.
As she looked up to see who I meant — though already knowing, probably, from my tone — suddenly he looked at her, the thinner one, the boyish one, the youngest, perhaps. He looked at my neighbor for just a fraction of a second, and then his dark eyes flickered to mine.
He looked away quickly, more quickly than I could, though in a flush of embarrassment I dropped my eyes at once. In that brief flash of a glance, his face held nothing of interest — it was as if she had called his name, and he’d looked up in involuntary response, already having decided not to answer.
I glanced sideways at the beautiful boy, who was looking at his tray now, picking a bagel to pieces with long, pale fingers. His mouth was moving very quickly, his perfect lips barely opening. The other three still looked away, and yet I felt he was speaking quietly to them.
Later in the novel, we'll learn that Edward has the ability to read people's minds, and this scene is meant to be foreshadowing this fact. Apparently, Edward sits through lunch period in silence with his mental antenna up and any time anyone mentions the Cullens in their lunch conversation, he rapidly reports it to the others. This is supposedly meant to ensure the safety of the Cullen clan - if anyone gets suspicious enough to pull out the torches and pitchforks, they'll have advance warning to clear out of Dodge.
Why any of this is necessary considering that his 'sister' Alice has the ability to see the future is anyone's guess, but I find this terribly amusing because I like to imagine Edward reporting in all seriousness to his 'siblings' every time someone in the cafeteria points out in private conversation what tossers the Cullens are for buying food, ripping it to pieces with their hands, and throwing it away like there aren't people starving right now in China.
My neighbor giggled in embarrassment, looking at the table like I did.
“That’s Edward and Emmett Cullen, and Rosalie and Jasper Hale. The one who left was Alice Cullen; they all live together with Dr. Cullen and his wife.” She said this under her breath.
Strange, unpopular names, I thought. The kinds of names grandparents had. But maybe that was in vogue here — small town names? I finally remembered that my neighbor was called Jessica, a perfectly common name. There were two girls named Jessica in my History class back home.
Twilight was written in 2005, and thanks to the wonder of the American government, we can and do have lists of the most popular American baby names that year. (Whether or not the website was available when this novel was written is another question.) The only one of the "unpopular" names listed above that didn't make the Top 1000 Names list for that year was "Rosalie", although the diminutive "Rosa" came in strong at #407. In fact, "Edward" (#134) was a more popular name that year than "Bella" (#208) - although to be fair "Isabella" was a whopping #6. The practical upshot of this, though, is that the Cullens' names actually weren't all that "strange" or "unpopular" when Twilight was published if they were still being dispensed regularly to new babies that year.
|@ Social Security Administration|
I think we're informed that the Cullens' names are old, unpopular names in order to drive home the point that they were all named several decades before our story is set. If you're going to do that in a novel, though, you have to actually use old, unpopular names rather than old names that have never stopped being popular - and the problem there is that no one really wants to moon over a modern literary hero named "Hyman" or "Fagin". J.K. Rowling may have brought back "Hermione" from the brink of obscurity, but that sort of success with a older name working in modern literature is probably the exception rather than the rule.
“They are . . . very nice-looking.” I struggled with the conspicuous understatement.
“Yes!” Jessica agreed with another giggle. “They’re all together though - Emmett and Rosalie, and Jasper and Alice, I mean. And they live together.” Her voice held all the shock and condemnation of the small town, I thought critically. But, if I was being honest, I had to admit that even in Phoenix, it would cause gossip.
This is my favorite scene in the Twilight movie, because Jessica says to Bella that she shouldn't bother getting interested in the un-paired Edward because "nobody here is good enough for him." To which Mike Nelson quips, "No, you're just not related enough for him!"
What I like best about this description, though, is that this is the first instance I've seen of Bella being mentally harsh to someone before immediately backing off and realizing that she's being unfair: she "critically" notes the "[small town] shock and condemnation" before being honest that, actually, the behavior of dating your foster-sibling would be considered odd pretty much anywhere in mainstream America.
What is debatable is whether or not the Cullen behavior would be considered odd pretty much everywhere. I've read somewhere (and I wish I could find this article again) that many anthropologists believe that cultural incest taboos are based somewhat less on the actual fact of being related to one another and more on the familiarity of growing up with someone in the same close-knit group. Supposedly, quite a few European monarchs had difficulty consummating relationships where the relatively unrelated couple had nevertheless been raised together in the same household from childhood and subsequently found the physical aspect of marriage to be psychologically distressing. On the flip side, there are apparently quite a few examples of monarchies where the couple were siblings or close cousins, but had been raised so separately that adult consummation of the marriage was apparently not overly difficult for the parties involved.
If the cultural taboo against incest is based on familiarity, therefore, instead of strict relativity, then the Cullens' behavior would be considered odd in most circles regardless of how "small town" the local attitudes are or aren't. Both the book and the movie, though, simply make the point that the Cullen Couples aren't technically related, and Bella is instantly okay with the foster-sibling dating and all that it implies. Of course, part of this immediate acceptance on the part of Bella (and the reader) is that we already know there's more to the Cullen family that meets the eye: the Cullens, in fact, not only aren't related but also haven't been raised together - they are functionally adult life-partners who choose to pretend otherwise as part of their masquerade.
However, having said that, when I was wracking my brain trying to think of a modern community where dating a foster-sibling or step-sibling would be considered acceptable, I couldn't help but think of some religious communities where keeping young people within the community faith is ranked at higher importance than, say, securing a spouse outside your immediate circle of childhood friends and family.
Last year, I read several books on modern polygamous cults, including "Escape", "Stolen Innocence", "When Men Become Gods", and "Under the Banner of Heaven". One thing that really struck me was when one FBI investigator said that interviews with escaped women usually resulted in "family tree diagrams" that were literally covered in lines - one woman was, if I recall correctly, married off to her mother's husband's father, so she had become through marriage her mother's step-mother... and her own step-grandmother! Several of these books also noted the climbing incidence of congenital birth defects resulting from inbreeding in these tightly controlled communities - a fact that I found particularly heart-breaking.
Now, while Stephenie Meyer is a member of the mainstream Mormon church, I am not suggesting that this description of the Cullen family is meant to be a proactive statement in favor of the fundamentalist Mormon polygamous groups. Instead, I think that S.Meyer's description here is another example of lightly fluffy writing that simply fails to examine the deeper implications of a family that - to all outward appearances - is defined by figurative incest. And the only reason I mentally linked the Cullen family to modern polygamous cults at all is because my brain pretty much hyperlinked there from "Is there any culture on earth where this behavior wouldn't be considered odd?" to "Oh, well, actually that wouldn't be so odd in some of the communities I read about last year..."
However, I do think it's interesting that once the connection has been made, the Cullens do seem a little like a religious cult if you don't know that they are actually vampires. They're quiet and isolated - living out in the woods, keeping to themselves, rarely socializing even amongst themselves. The kids keep erratic hours and are pulled out of school frequently for special instruction in the mountains. The parents encourage the children to date amongst themselves rather than seek relationships outside the family - behavior that would in almost any context be considered highly usual. And no one has ever seen the children eat the school fare - they buy their lunch, sit quietly in a corner of the room, and then throw everything away at the end of the period.
Really, the more we see of the Cullens, the more surprised I am that absolutely no one has staged an intervention for those poor kids.