Twilight Recap: Bella and Charlie have finished their almost-completely-silent dinner, and Bella has asked tentatively about the Cullen children and why they don't fit in at school. After Charlie rants extensively about how the town is lucky to have the Cullens, Bella hastily drops the subject.
Twilight, Chapter 2: Open Book
We lapsed back into silence as we finished eating. He cleared the table while I started on the dishes. He went back to the TV, and after I finished washing the dishes by hand — no dishwasher — I went upstairs unwillingly to work on my math homework. I could feel a tradition in the making.
I swear I'm not trying to get hung up on the division of chores in the Swan household, despite blog posts to the contrary, but it frustrates me to no end that Bella -- as the only female in the household -- is apparently expected to be involved in pretty much every stage of food production. She has bought the food, made the food, set the table, served the food, and is now washing the dishes.
The only help that Charlie is offering to this process is to take a couple of seconds to move the plates from table-to-sink, in an admittedly small kitchen. I can't even read "cleared the table" as an indication that he's putting leftovers away, because it's hard for me to imagine that there could be very many leftovers in a dinner that was simply "steak and potatoes" with Charlie going back at one point for seconds.
What is even more frustrating about this is that when Charlie gets finished with clearing the table, he heads off to watch TV while Bella continues to wash the dishes -- it's a school night and Bella has homework, but god forbid that Charlie not get his four hours straight of TV time by sticking around to expedite the washing process by, say, grabbing a towel and being the Official Dryer. If the cooking and cleaning cut into Bella's studies, then I guess that's her fault for being born a girl, right?
This attitude would make sense (while still, of course, being utterly reprehensible) if Bella lived in a family that believed a woman's education was optional-at-best, wasteful-at-worse because the woman is just going to get married and be a stay-at-home wife and then what does she need that education. As the series continues, we will, I think, hear more from Charlie on the subject of marriage and college as he starts to dig his heels in against Bella's romance with Edward -- for now, though, his attitudes towards Bella, schoolwork, and housework seem fairly consistent with that worldview.
The rest of the week was uneventful. I got used to the routine of my classes. By Friday I was able to recognize, if not name, almost all the students at school. In Gym, the kids on my team learned not to pass me the ball and to step quickly in front of me if the other team tried to take advantage of my weakness. I happily stayed out of their way.
I've been staying away from Bella's crippling clumsiness because I'm still not sure what to think about it, but for those keeping score, this is something like the seventh or eighth mention of this "character trait" in the first thirty pages of Twilight.
On the one hand, I was a relatively clumsy teenager, and it's highly probably that "clumsiness at or around puberty" is not a particularly unusual trait. And it's worth also noting that "being bad at sports" -- i.e., hitting a volleyball and having no idea where it's going to end up and if it's going to bean a teammate en route -- is not necessarily a subset of "clumsy" nor is it either a particularly rare trait for teenagers to share. So I'm inclined to give Bella a pass for being clumsy in the little, everyday sense.
What I'm not inclined to give a pass is S. Meyer blowing this relatively normal character trait into epic proportions such that everyone around Bella fears for her safety as well as their own without at least attempting to justify the behavior somewhat in text. Is it an inner ear problem? Is it self-harming behavior caused by her co-dependent relationship with her mother? Is it triggered by some deep-seating feeling that she's worth being hurt? Is it an expression of her desire to be "saved" by the strong, caring parent figure she's yet to really experience?
I'm reading the Percy Jackson series right now, and though the series is not without flaws, I appreciate that author Rick Riordan really justifies his characters' idiosyncrasies. Since Riordan's real life son has dyslexia and ADHD, so do Riordan's characters, but those traits aren't just tossed in for some quick "here's why my character is different" distinction. Instead, the traits are justified within the narrative framework: children of the Greek gods have brains that are hard-wired for reading ancient Greek and absorbing every detail in battle, and these godling abilities are perceived and diagnosed in the mundane world as dyslexia (because English letters move around the page for them) and ADHD (because heightened battle senses that you can't ever turn off are a double-edged trait in the extreme).
Now I'm not saying that all character traits have to have some kind of deep-seated reason that ties thickly into the narrative; I wouldn't have much of an issue with Bella's clumsiness if she was merely clumsy. But Bella isn't "merely" clumsy -- she's epically clumsy. It's such a defining character trait that everyone she meets knows her for this one trait above all others: she hurts herself and the people around her at least once a day. To have a trait like this -- a One Trait To Rule Them All character trait -- it would make sense to at least attempt to explain it in narrative, and S. Meyer never does. The worst part is that, depending on why Bella is so epically clumsy, there's a good backstory there waiting to happen that instead we never get to see. It just seems like such a wasted opportunity.
My first weekend in Forks passed without incident. Charlie, unused to spending time in the usually empty house, worked most of the weekend. I cleaned the house, got ahead on my homework, and wrote my mom more bogusly cheerful e-mail. I did drive to the library Saturday, but it was so poorly stocked that I didn’t bother to get a card; I would have to make a date to visit Olympia or Seattle soon and find a good bookstore. I wondered idly what kind of gas mileage the truck got . . . and shuddered at the thought.
I wonder if Bella had any hobbies at all in her seventeen years of life before Edward Cullen. I know that the poverty of the Swans has been established thus far, so it's plausible that she wouldn't have a suitcase full of books and movies brought up to Forks to keep her occupied, but relative poverty doesn't justify her having no hobbies at all other than cleaning and homework.
Bella isn't impressed with the offerings on hand at the Forks' library, but she can't be much of a library aficionado if she doesn't even look into the inter-library loan program. She isn't thrilled with the bookstores on hand, but in 2005 she must have at least heard of Amazon.com, and yet she doesn't appear to consider the cost of shipping a book to Forks versus the cost of driving to Seattle. She doesn't knit or crochet (yarn crafts are fairly cheap, and were very popular when I was going to college for the first time in 2000), she doesn't scrapbook, and later passages will show that she uses the internet so rarely that she doesn't even understand the concept of a pop-up blocker.
I can't decide if this is the case of an author not knowing or understanding what life would be like for her 17-year-old protagonist, or if this is a case of the author not caring because there's an epic love story to get to. On the one hand, including too many references to technology can date a book badly, and I don't blame an author for not being able to keep up with the times, but on the other hand, it's unrealistic to expect us to believe that Bella's entire life has been sitting around drying dishes and re-reading "Wuthering Heights".
Since we know that Bella doesn't spend her free time hanging out with friends, nor earning money at an after-school job, nor utilizing the local library to its fullest potential, nor doing any fabric-based or paper-based hobby, are we to assume that all her free time prior to this point in her life was spent taking care of every aspect of Renee's life? This could be plausible and might be an additional form of interesting characterization, but the implementation is so sloppy that I honestly can't be sure.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the concept that Bella is perhaps a literary null character* -- an empty shell for the reader to sink into and become the protagonist to whom all the action occurs. In some ways there is a great deal of merit to this theory; Bella has many of the characteristics of an "everyman" character: she's passably pretty but doesn't stop traffic in the street, she's acceptably good at school but isn't going to be valedictorian, she's clumsy and poor at sports which are not rare personality traits for a developing teenager, she's an obedient child while still snarking in the safety of her own mind at the perceived flaws of her parents. She has, in short, a very real personality, but it's a personality that many readers can relate to at least a little; the objection to the null character hypothesis, of course, is that Bella's personality as described above isn't going to fit everyone, and isn't as infinitely adaptable as it's sometimes presented as being.
* Not to be confused with a programmatic null character. I apologize for not being able to resist a good engineering pun in a deconstruction post.
The reason the null character hypothesis works, I think, is that Bella's character may be established in the text, but it is also infinitely contradicted. Bella tells us herself that she isn't pretty, but Edward will counter that every boy in school wants her fiercely and deeply -- is she truly gorgeous without her realizing or admitting it, or is Edward selectively hearing what he wants to hear? Bella assures us that she isn't an exceptional student, but she rarely seems to need to study in order to pass with acceptable colors -- is she really better than she tells us, or are the Forks teaching standards so low? Bella is clumsy and constantly hurting herself and others, but she can flawlessly maneuver her huge vehicle in and out of tight parking spaces -- is she self-harming without realizing it, or does her inner ear induced clumsiness not extend to her hand-eye driving coordination? Bella quietly takes perfect care of her parents, but at the same time disobeys them at every turn -- is she a good girl caught between multiple allegiances, or is she a bad girl manipulating her parents?
The vagueness of Twilight is not, I think, a vagueness of characterization. Bella is characterized, as any other character necessarily would be, every time she speaks or does anything at all. Even her narration characterizes her to us, given that it's shown as her internal thoughts and feelings. No, the vagueness of Twilight is that the many, many characterizations on the page are half-finished, barely-explored, and in many cases utterly contradictory. Once the reader realizes -- even at a subconscious level -- that not everything on the page can be true, it's easy to start picking and choosing characterization details and implied backstories and explanations, and before you know it, you have "Ana-Brand Bella", or "Kit-Brand Bella", or "Gela-Brand Bella" -- the Bella that makes sense to you, the reader, but may not be what anyone else experienced.
Twilight, I feel, is somewhat analogous to a Do-It-Yourself project. Everyone starts with the same picture on the box of what to expect, and most people will end up with similar experiences along the way, but when given vague and contradictory descriptions, it's up to the reader to put all the pieces together in the way that most makes sense to them. Whether this is lazy writing or utter genius is a choice left up to the DIYer.