Twilight: Breaking Codependence

Twilight Recap: Bella has been to the supermarket for groceries and gone home in time to marinate the steaks before Charlie comes home from work. 

Twilight, Chapter 2: Open Book

   When I was finished with that, I took my book bag upstairs. Before starting my homework, I changed into a pair of dry sweats, pulled my damp hair up into a ponytail, and checked my e-mail for the first time. I had three messages.
   “Bella,” my mom wrote . . .
Write me as soon as you get in. Tell me how your flight was. Is it raining? I miss you already. I’m almost finished packing for Florida, but I can’t find my pink blouse. Do you know where I put it? Phil says hi. Mom.
   I sighed and went to the next. It was sent eight hours after the first.

Twilight was first published in 2005, but the actual setting of the book is a little bit trickier to pin down. There are computers and email and portable music players in the book, but I can't at the moment recall anyone using a cell phone, unless maybe near the end when everyone is coordinating escape plans. Sure enough, in Chapter 19, "tiny silver cell phones" start coming out of pockets, but given that Carlisle is literally handing them out to Alice and Esme, they seem less like day-to-day devices and more like luxury emergency walkie talkies.

So it would seem that, at the moment at least, Bella doesn't have a cell phone for her mother to reach her on and rather than call Charlie's house to verify that Bella has landed safely, Renee has opted to go for the email route, even apparently knowing that Charlie has a dial-up connection (which therefore likely won't be left open constantly) and that Bella apparently doesn't get enough email to justify checking it regularly anyway.

It's hard for me to remember always what my life was like in 2005; heck, it's hard to imagine a time when I didn't have constant Internet access. But I do remember that in my college days in 2000, I spoke to my mother regularly on the phone -- on a cell phone with limited minutes, as I recall -- and we also used email to stay in touch on a daily basis, so I don't think I'm committing an anachronism here to say that Bella's failure to check in with her mother for three calendar days (day 1 was her flight, day 2 was the Biology Incident, and day 3 is today) is a choice on her part instead of a limitation of technology in the novel.

There are, therefore, a couple of interesting things here. Renee is naturally worried about her daughter. Of course, this is not her first time to be separated from Bella -- Bella has traveled to both Forks and California in the past for multi-month-long visits with her father -- but I think it's still natural to wonder if the plane landed, the car didn't crash, and everyone was installed safely into their new routine. Neither Bella nor Charlie has apparently seen fit to inform Renee of these facts, although they must both be aware that she will have these natural concerns. Considering that Bella has had almost nothing to do the past two nights, it's actually quite surprising that she hasn't written a perfunctory "I'm here" note to her mother, and I'm almost tempted to guess that she was so tired and upset and depressed over her arrival and the Biology Incident that she couldn't motivate herself enough to write such a note.

But why are Charlie and Renee incapable of communicating with each other? The story thus far, of course, is that Charlie is still pining for Renee after she left him years ago, so it's possible that their relationship is still strained and potentially fraught with awkwardness, but the two must be able to speak to each other about their daughter. How have they been coordinating Bella's visits all these years? Surely Renee hasn't been tossing Bella into Charlie's car or onto a plane since she was four-years-old and then waiting for her child to take the initiative to call her, right? Is this new reticence to call Charlie based on the fact that this is no longer an implied "visit", but rather Bella's new home, or does it have something to do with Renee's recent re-marriage? Has Charlie said or done something recently to cause Renee to vow never to speak to him again unless absolutely necessary?

Something else interesting here is the implied mother-daughter dynamics at work here. It's been mentioned in-text that Renee is fairly incapable of looking after herself and that Bella is the functional adult in the family, and we see glimpses of that here: Renee can't find her blouse and the new caretaker, Phil, hasn't settled enough into his role to provide this information yet. What's most interesting though, is Bella's reaction: she sighs.

Now, I don't blame Bella for sighing. I've mentioned before that I think the relationship between Renee and Bella is unfortunate at best (if Renee really cannot take care of herself) and toxic at worst (if Renee is choosing not to take care of herself). Certainly I'm not going to say that Bella should accept her lot in life as her mother's handler with cheerful acceptance and move on; I think she'd perfectly justified in being frustrated, tired, and wanting a 'normal' teenage life where she doesn't have to remember her mother's dry cleaning for her. But I do wonder if this sigh is meant to imply this weariness or if there's something deeper going on -- from the following text, it almost seems like Bella has been intentionally not writing Renee because she doesn't like talking to her mother.

   “Bella,” she wrote . . .
Why haven’t you e-mailed me yet? What are you waiting for? Mom.
   The last was from this morning.
If I haven’t heard from you by 5:30 p.m. today I’m calling Charlie.
   I checked the clock. I still had an hour, but my mom was well known for jumping the gun.
Calm down. I’m writing right now. Don’t do anything rash.
The tone in these terse emails is hard to ascertain, but the last one from Renee, in which she addresses Bella as "Isabella" seems less worried and more angry. Surely if Renee was frantic with worry over her daughter, the tone of the emails would be less impatient ("What are you waiting for?") and more concerned ("Are you okay?? Have the vampires gotten to you?!").

The combination of the intention that "I'm calling Charlie" and Bella's admonition to not "do anything rash" seems to indicate more of an implied threat rather than simply a worried woman about to start asking other people if her daughter is okay -- surely, "calling Charlie" to ask if Bella has arrived safely is not "rash", but just potentially a little awkward. On the other hand, "calling Charlie" to complain about Bella's poor behavior would, in fact, seem like a "rash" act in the sense that it could touch off a big fight: Who is she to complain about her daughter being uncommunicative when she walked out without warning seventeen years ago, and another thing... Obviously, everyone would like to avoid that.

But if Bella believes that Renee is poised to call Charlie to complain about Bella, rather than simply checking that she is alright, then we have to reevaluate our opinion thus far of Renee as an essentially sweet, ditzy, disconnected parent into something else: as helpless as she is without Bella, she apparently isn't afraid to assert her opinions forcefully in her role as a parent if she thinks her child is behaving badly. I'm almost concerned that this might put Bella's childhood in an even worse light -- surely if anything is worse than a helpless, disconnected parent, it would be a helpless, forceful parent who expresses discontent not directly to the source (by, for instance, calling Bella to complain), but rather expresses discontent by involving a third-party in an attempt to shame and control Bella (by, in this case, calling Charlie to complain).

   I sent that, and began again.
Everything is great. Of course it’s raining. I was waiting for something to write about. School isn’t bad, just a little repetitive. I met some nice kids who sit by me at lunch.
Your blouse is at the dry cleaners — you were supposed to pick it up Friday.
Charlie bought me a truck, can you believe it? I love it. It’s old, but really sturdy, which is good, you know, for me.
I miss you, too. I’ll write again soon, but I’m not going to check my e-mail every five minutes. Relax, breathe. I love you.
Testy? Sure. Impatient? No doubt. Gets the point across? Yes.

For good or ill, Bella is asserting herself. Forks is as you would expect. There's not a whole lot to write about. Your blouse is at the cleaners, and it's up to you and Phil to handle that stuff now because I'm not in a position to do so. School is good, Charlie is good, a new car is good, nothing to complain about really except the rain. I love you, but I'm not planning to check frequently, so be prepared for that.

It's not an email that I agree with -- I have a very close relationship with my own mother, and a lot of this email sounds extremely terse and disrespectful, almost as if Bella is dictating the terms under which her mother can expect to hear from her from now on. Bella seems to be saying that she will communicate with her mother as it suits her needs only, which is not a healthy, giving relationship. Sometimes our loved ones need to talk to us even at a frequency that we don't ourselves actually need, and then choices have to be made. Bella is making a choice, but she seems to be doing it without real consideration for her mother's needs, and that seems intensely selfish.

At the same time, with that said, it may be that Bella sees this as a chance to assert some independence and distance between her and Renee. Her mother has been relying on her for everything her entire life -- physical, mental, and emotional support -- and perhaps Bella thinks a clean direct email like this may be the way to achieve that: a policy like "Mom, I will email you as I need" will at least cut down on the "have you seen my......." pleas for help.

And yet, I can't help but wonder why Bella wouldn't send almost this exact email immediately on arrival to Forks. Wouldn't it have gotten the same point across, spared her mother unnecessary worry, and avoided a potential scene with Charlie if three days ago she'd written:

Everything is great. Of course it’s raining. I think I'll be waiting a long time for something interesting to write about.
Charlie bought me a truck, can you believe it? I love it. It’s old, but really sturdy, which is good, you know, for me.I miss you. I’ll write again soon, but I’m not going to check my e-mail every five minutes. I love you.

I don't mind Bella being assertive about her personal space, but I wish she could find the gumption to be proactively assertive rather than passively waiting until a boil-over and then having to push back as hard as possible in order to maintain her autonomy. It's understandable that a teenager raised in a difficult environment would behave this way, but it's probably not the most healthy message to communicate to the reader.


Yamikuronue said...

I almost wonder how much more is beneath the surface here. Bella's email sounds a lot like my communication with my own mother - tense, worded very carefully, and as infrequent as possible. This is because my childhood was borderline abusive and my mother has a knack for invading my life, taking over, and making me cry; we can feign a decent relationship as long as we're not in too close proximity so I can hide things she disapproves of and avoid the fights we had almost daily during my teenage years. Didn't Bella say she chose to move away? Maybe her relationship with her mother was so unhealthy that she was desperate to get away - leaving her alone in a new town lacking the skills required to socialize properly with a parent or her peers due to her relative isolation from such a traumatic childhood. Maybe she came to Forks to liberate herself and find herself - and instead jumps right back into a familiarly abusive relationship after all. 

Kit Whitfield said...

In a way, I wonder if Renee sounds angry because she knows how antisocial Bella is. Generally speaking, Bella's attitude towards everyone non-Cullen is to work very hard at minimising contact with them. She'll pretend to listen to the kids who try to befriend her as long as she doesn't have to make any mental effort; she'll do the shopping for Charlie rather than ask him to stock up the fridge; it's very possible that the reason she's ended up as Renee's carer is that she figured out years ago that doing the chores and handling the admin reduced the amount of conversation they'd have to have about it. Generally speaking Bella seems like someone who'd rather go to a lot of trouble on her own than go to less trouble if it involves dealing with other people. 

If Renee knows her daughter, it's very possible that she thinks Bella has received her e-mails but is ignoring them. Maybe the last one is a covert message: "Bella, you may not like communicating with people, but if you don't communicate with me briefly, you're going to find yourself communicating with your father at length. If this is the only way to find out if you're still alive, I'm just going to have to make ignoring me involve more conversation than contacting me." 

A lot of parental discipline seems to rest on the principle of making it more trouble to misbehave than to behave. Maybe Renee is using the threat of social intercourse the way another parent might use the threat of grounding. 

On another subject, am I right in thinking that the comment about the truck is a) The first nice thing she's said about anything non-Cullen, and b) A sign of gratitude that she hasn't bothered to share with the person who actually gave her the truck? 

Kit Whitfield said...

Also: I think I may have mentioned this elsewhere, but ... does anyone else notice that nobody but Renee's e-mailing Bella? No friends from back home at all. Bella never seems to mention friends from Arizona, and she certainly doesn't list them among the things about Arizona that she misses. Now it seems like nobody except Renee misses her either.

It's this that makes me think Bella's behaviour in Forks isn't so much the shyness of someone in a new situation as the prickle of a misanthrope. She wouldn't be the first person to take no interest in people except when she sexually desires them; it's just that it's usually a male role rather than a female one. 

bekabot said...

About the cell phone stuff: could it just be that Bella now lives in Forks, which is in the sticks, and that cell phone service/reception is not super great out there?  Too many trees, not enough towers,  or whatever?  Just a suggestion.  And a tentative suggestion.  And my only suggestion.  Signing out now.  (Bella does sulk: it's both ironic and fortituous that she has literally landed amongst surroundings which agrees with that so well.)

bekabot said...

Ooops.  "...which agree with that so well..."  [deep blush]

Sue White said...

I wonder if Bella remembers that her mother is in a different time zone now?

aravind said...

Sue White  Only if daylight savings isn't going on (which, since we think this is set in January, it shouldn't be). Arizona doesn't spring forward, while Washington (and the rest of the west coast) does, meaning that Arizona jumps time zones.

Sue White said...

I think it would have been pretty funny if Bella had thought she had another hour to torture her mother, so she logged off and started playing computer games.  Then the phone rang. :-D

I wonder if the author remembered the time zones.  Heck, Bella's had time to go shopping after school, so I doubt it was 3:30 when she looked at the clock.  And her mother didn't specify "5:30 your time".  I suppose that could have been implied but I don't imagine these two having their act together that well.

And I wonder if Bella ever will hear from any old friends from Arizona.  She lived there her whole life, you would think *someone* would email to say hi.

Silver Adept said...

We can call it authorial laziness - "Oooh, look, new setting, and I don't want anything complicating, so, excepting for Renee, who's kind of plot-important, we'll just say that Bella doesn't have any friends from Arizona trying to get  a hold of her." - but it's much better to think about what kind of home-and-family situation would have caused this.

Which leads us to another possibility about Renee that follows in the famed Darkest Sketch interpretations of Twilight - Renee is not an incapable ditz, but a master manipulator who seems like an incapable ditz. The kind of woman who "forgets" the dry cleaning so that she can go to the hair salon and then gets angry when her child hasn't yet learned that all of the mechanics of family life are her responsibility, and Renee is not to be bothered with them. If she did that to Charlie for long enough, he might have wanted out for some time and started working to undermine that manipulative skill. Perhaps by "forgetting" something of his own, or taking a harsher tone with Renee about things. Maybe even trying to set her up on an "allowance" for spending and getting really overtly controlling. In an environment like that, well, there are three ways out - separation, murder, or insanity.

Maybe Charlie's alternating controlling and lazy demeanor is how he learned to defend himself against Renee, and he's working on the assumption that Isabella is that same woman, based on their summer visits.

And Bella's misanthropy is probably from a child who never has a chance at being a child, because her mother would always get mad when she wanted to do childlike things (it cut into Renee's time to do her own things, and so the child is selfish). She doesn't want to make friends, because friends only mean trouble and shouting matches and not being able to do anything at all. Unwittingly, Charlie will play right into this rebellious dynamic, and hello, Edward Cullen...

jetso said...

re: misanthropic BellaThough not that uncommon in romance novels and the like. With a parred down cast, the heroine usually has one best friend, and sometimes not even that, with the focus firmly on the romance. When we consider that the narrative is completely disinterested in Bella's pre-Forks life, it has little interest in people-ing it with characters, or really much in the way of memories. She acquires new friends (roles first filled by Jessica & co, later by the Cullens who aren't Edward) and there just isn't any need to bring in characters from her past. Much like how farmboy heroes very rarely have friends, I suppose, because those friends simply aren't very relevant to the larger adventure the book is actually interested in.

Kit Whitfield said...

Though not that uncommon in romance novels and the like. With a parred down cast, the heroine usually has one best friend, and sometimes not even that, with the focus firmly on the romance. 

The point is, Bella talks a great deal about how much she misses Arizona. The narrative isn't completely uninterested; it does tell us what she misses. It's just that she misses the climate and the city and things that don't involve people. Bella's the narrator, and Bella's interested in Arizona. 

Besides, most romances that I've read are interested in female friendships. Female friends are a foil to the heroine, plus they create an air of female solidarity, which is what romance books are based on: one woman writing for others. They may not play a major part in the plot, but they're present for atmosphere.

It doesn't take much to paint a life back home. The admirable Lois Duncan, for instance, writes of a girl moving to a chilling new town against her wishes in Gallows Hill, and handles it very smoothly. Sarah Zoltanne's story revolves around what happens in the new town, but it's clear she has friends back home. She thinks of them occasionally and compares them to her new situation; it's mentioned occasionally that they're corresponding with her less as time passes; they don't take part in the plot, but they do cast a perspective on what's happening to her in it, and they do deepen her character because they help demonstrate that she's a likeable person who cares about other people and who other people can be friends with. 

That's all you need to provide friends back home: the occasional mention of them that doesn't disrupt the plot. When you have a heroine who keeps talking about Arizona and mentions no friends, and add it to the way she seems to dislike all the normal kids who try to befriend her, that's not just an issue of focus, it's an issue of characterisation. 

anti-glitter said...

I'm enjoying the deconstruction of Twilight very much, but I would appreciate it if the different deconstructions were tagged separately.
Perhaps I'm the only one who's obsessive about the world-shattering awfulness that is Sparkling-Vampire-Ville.
 *wanders off to re-read Robin McKinley's Sunshine*

Ana Mardoll said...


Eh, that's fair. I can respect focus and devotion to a cause. I've added a "deconstruction (twilight)" tag and that is now showing on the right sidebar. 

anti-glitter said...

Thank you! I wasn't expecting so kind and speedy a response!

jemand2 said...

weirdly, THIS is what immediately and forcefully jumped out at me:

"It’s old, but really sturdy, which is good, you know, for me."What does this MEAN?  Has she crashed vehicles before?  Knocked them lightly into things, which would destroy something lighter but a tough vehicle could handle?   There was discussion before at how *inappropriate* this vehicle might be for a teen girl, but is this characterization by Bella true?  Did/does Charlie know that and did it influence his choice of vehicle?

Is it the OLD part which is good for Bella?  Does Renee like her to have cheap/old things?  Does the "you know" refer to something they've discussed a lot previously, and if so, WHAT?

Or is it perhaps that Bella has been REQUIRED to constantly put a positive spin on things (at least non FORKS things), and if she doesn't come up with a reason why this vehicle is perfectly suited to her, even if she has to cast about and unconsciously adds a "you know" into the mix, to not do so would go against a strongly ingrained habit?

Loquat said...

Bella's been established as a monumental klutz, so I'd assume sturdiness is something she looks for in all her possessions. Whether that klutziness also makes her more likely to crash her car, I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me.

LectorElise said...

...Okay, this is seriously creepy. Might as well start calling Bella LittleLector. How did I miss this the first time I read this book. That, right there, is classic codependent child behavior. Mom (or whoever) is a source of stress, which can't be acknowledged, because getting angry is BAD. Only mom gets to get angry.  So the best option is to avoid the issue until it must be dealt with. (And possibly people, since all energy is tied up in caring for ONE person, and the thought of having to care for TWO [or more!] is enough to make suicide attractive. And the only known model for interaction is co-dependent care taking.) Then take care of it as quickly as possible, and don't give mom any possible thing to take issue to. The truth doesn't matter. Being a nice, good, un-objectionable girl DOES.

Pamela Merritt said...

I think Bella's passive/aggressiveness is her least appealing trait. It's understandable if she's from a dysfunctional family, but I don't think the author realizes it...

LectorElise said...

That's part of what creeps me out so much. If the author's not acknowledging it, her spot-on portrayal of helpless parent/codependent child/disengaged parent hints at her having lived in a terribly unpleasant home environment at some point. The idealization of the Cullen family supports that interpretation, I think. When all your experience says that the people wielding authority are less capable and less responsible then you, you resent the hell out of anyone trying to play those roles. The Cullens are literally incapable of needing Bella-the-Caretaker, and not very interested in Bella-the-Obedient. Edward may be controlling, but the emotional blackmail he can use is small potatoes compared to a parent-child bond gone bad.

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