Twilight: Sharing Peoples' Stories

[Twilight Content Note: Murder, Abusive Relationships, Winning At Patriarchy.
Extra Content Note: Ableism in text, Misogyny, Jealous Woman Stereotypes]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 15, Bella gets to meet the Cullens.

Twilight, Chapter 15: The Cullens

When we last left our heroine, she was lounging on the piano bench with her prodigy boyfriend while the Cullen family she had come specifically to meet had skedaddled in order to give them some privacy to moon at each other. Bella's happiness at being accepted by Edward's vampire family is marred by her worries over being acceptable.

Or something.

   I sighed. “They like me. But Rosalie and Emmett . . .” I trailed off, not sure how to express my doubts.
   He frowned. “Don’t worry about Rosalie,” he said, his eyes wide and persuasive. “She’ll come around.”
   I pursed my lips skeptically. “Emmett?”
   “Well, he thinks I’m a lunatic, it’s true, but he doesn’t have a problem with you. He’s trying to reason with Rosalie.”
[skipping ahead over why Rosalie is jealous]
   “Oh,” I muttered, still stunned. “Even Jasper, though . . .”
   “That’s really my fault,” he said. “I told you he was the most recent to try our way of life. I warned him to keep his distance.”
   [...] “Esme and Carlisle . . . ?”
   [...] “Are happy to see me happy.

I just... you know?

Let me start again. *shakes head to remove the dust bunnies*

There are times when I try to extend some good faithery to Bella because I think that a lot of the things she does make sense when we view her Watsonianly as a person and remember that different people are different. Like, for all that a lot of people feel Bella should be more scared of Edward and his family because they are vampires who could kill her at any moment, there are definitely times when I can easily imagine a younger version of myself reacting the same way she does around them.

Speaking for myself only here, I remember being a genuinely kind and compassionate teenager who was so keen on giving people a "fair chance" and letting them "be themselves" without being judgey that I absolutely ended up in harmful situations not so much because I wanted to be there (which would have been my right) nor because I was comfortable there, but rather pretty much entirely because I thought self-care was something I wasn't allowed. I thought saying "I'm not comfortable in this situation" was my problem and something I needed to get over. (See also: Broken Glass Guy.) And that asserting a right to self-care would be rude and bitchy. And I thought that because society had been hammering that lesson into me from the day I was born.

So there's a part of me that gets (SO HARD) this overarching need of Bella's that ALL THE CULLENS accept her, with even the slightest hint of deviation being upsetting to her. So she's relieved that Carlisle and Esme like her, but she still needs--very intensely needs--to know and understand why that is so that she can keep doing it and secure their love over the long haul. And she's surprised and happy to be so accepted by Alice, but why was Jasper so standoffish that he wouldn't shake her hand? And oh-em-gee, why aren't Rosalie and Emmett here, WHYYYYYY.

I do get it. I do.

But. This is kind of like Bella's first day at school all over again where she wanted desperately to be accepted and then, somewhat surprisingly, was completely and totally accepted by almost everyone except Edward, but then that wasn't good enough and she was all unhappy about that.

There are good reasons, both then and now, for Bella to be unhappy. After all, Edward wasn't merely rude or standoffish; he was actively hostile and was throwing her murderous looks that even the other students picked up on. And now, the fact that Rosalie is a vampire who is heavily invested in her masquerade, there are very compelling reasons for Bella to be concerned if Rosalie doesn't like her. So I'm not trying to dismiss this right off the bat as Bella just moping about a boy or Bella just unhappy that not everyone likes her right off the bat.

And even if Bella's reasons for being unhappy were as "shallow" as that, that's okay. It's her right to feel down in the doldrums for whatever reason. Because she has depression or because she has low self-esteem or because she has anxiety disorders or because Edward sure is hot and it's disappointed to be hated-on-sight by the cute boy in school or because she had hoped to get along with her boyfriend's family and it's upsetting to hear that someone hates you already. Bella doesn't need a Good Enough reason to be unhappy. She doesn't have a moral responsibility to be upbeat and happy and grateful to the world for whatever crumbs it throws her.

Repeat: Girls do not have a moral mandate to be cheerful and grateful to everyone.

But. Bella is not a person, she is a character. And I really do continue to be frustrated that we aren't given her motives, her characterization if you will, for why she feels the way she feels. She obviously isn't happy that Rosalie doesn't approve of her (and is just as obviously worried that Emmett and/or Jasper may be in the same camp).

So. Why is she worried about that?

This is not a rhetorical question; the answer matters to me. I argued last time that the problem with the preceding scene isn't that Esme is happy for Edward, but rather why she is happy for him: she is happy that he is finally conforming to her idea of what his life should be. That is a very wrong reason to be happy for someone, and even if it doesn't cause harm to Edward, I can absolutely see it potentially causing harm to readers who recognize that they won't be making their mothers happy in that way. (Note to people who don't want to heterosexually pair-bond: IT IS TOTES OKAY TO NOT HETERO PAIR-BOND. If anyone is unhappy that you're not living your life by their rules, that's their problem that they should get over and stop hurting you by pushing their vicarious expectations onto you.)

If Bella is unhappy because she is afraid Rosalie will harm her, that makes her a different character than a Bella who is unhappy because she really wanted to be accepted 100% into the higher privilege group. If Bella is unhappy because she has low self-esteem and anxiety issues and being disliked is a trigger for her, that makes her a different character than a Bella who is unhappy because she doesn't think Rosalie should have the agency to dislike her when the patriarchs of the family have already given their approval. Whatever is going on in Bella's head, matters. 

And for the most part, we're not given an insight into her thoughts. We get her words, her feelings, and her reactions, but very little in the way of reasoning or thought processes. Bella's mind is almost as blank to us as it is to Edward. And that's a problem for us.

It's a problem for us because when Bella starts probing into Rosalie's reasons for why she doesn't like Bella -- a probing which has even more consent and boundary issues than usual when probing into someone's personal reasons for disliking people (and I remind everyone that I don't like you because I don't is a perfectly valid reason for Rosalie to have), because Edward (a) can-and-does read Rosalie's thoughts without her consent and (b) can-and-does disclose peoples' thoughts without their consent -- we don't fully understand her motives for doing so. A Bella who transgresses on Rosalie's private thoughts because she is trying to save her own life from a potentially dangerous vampire is (for me) a more moral Bella than one who treads on boundaries because she's irked at not being accepted right away.

And it doesn't help the case that Edward immediately plays the Catty Jealous Bitch card.

   “What is it that upsets her?” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know the answer.

This is what I mean. No insight into her thought-process; Bella seems to ask simply because the script demands that she do so for our sake rather than for any reason of her own. This is what makes Twilight so hard to analyze and it's why people are able to come away with vastly different interpretations of Bella. The bella-haters can easily interpret this as Bella being shallow and demanding and pouty; the bella-lovers can just as easily read this as realistic concern for her own future and safety; the rest of us are left grasping at the slippery narrative threads, trying to wring some semblance of characterization from the prose.

BURMA! ("Why'd you say 'Burma'?" "I panicked.")

   He sighed deeply. “Rosalie struggles the most with . . . with what we are. It’s hard for her to have someone on the outside know the truth. And she’s a little jealous.”
   “Rosalie is jealous of me?” I asked incredulously. I tried to imagine a universe in which someone as breathtaking as Rosalie would have any possible reason to feel jealous of someone like me.
   “You’re human.” He shrugged. “She wishes that she were, too.”
   “Oh,” I muttered, still stunned. 

And... I mean... what. No. No, this is patently untrue.

Edward struggles the most with what the Cullens are. Edward will spend three and a half books angsting about how hard it is to be a vampire and how he doesn't want Bella to be a vampire and how even if she were in mortal peril, it'd be really hard to vampirize her because then she'd lose her soul and be a murderer like him and angsty-angsty-wank-wank.

Whereas Rosalie sees a dying Emmett and says, fuck it, I'm taking him back to Carlisle. Then they shack up and have perfect sex forever and ever. And she's pretty much entirely happy except that she harbors some VERY understandable resentment at Carlisle for giving her medical aid without her consent (head-canon is that Rosalie did give the choice to Emmett in his lucid moments) and at Edward for treating her with contempt. Which, you know, seems entirely reasonable to me.

Now, yes, Rosalie has strong feelings about Bella waltzing in here and saying nice life you have here, bite me, but she's allowed to have strong feelings about that. Up until now, the Cullens have only turned people who were on the cusp of death. Edward was dying of the flu, Esme had jumped off a cliff, and Emmett had been in some hunting accident too nonspecific for me to be arsed to look up. Rosalie had been raped and left to die on the street. (Alice and Jasper were turned by non-Cullen people.)

Bella is literally the first person the Cullens have ever considered turning without the alternative being "well, if we don't turn her, she'll die". Rosalie is allowed to have feels about this huge change in paradigm, and she's allowed to have those feels without this devolving into "she hates you because you're human/fertile". (Except we don't get that level of nuance because this is the sort of 'feminism' where judging women for their reproductive choices is totes allowed. I.e., not the feminism we do here.)

And, frankly, a Rosalie like that would be more interesting to read. (Imho.) A Rosalie who is saying to the Cullens, what, are we just going to change anyone who asks now and are you serious, have you thought about what the Volturi will do and whatnot is a Rosalie with more complexity than one who is all but you are making a choice that I wouldn't. Because, if nothing else, we already have that with Edward. We don't need two people auditing Bella's choices, and especially not when the narrative plans to hold only one of them (the woman) accountable as a bitchy and excuse the other one (the man) as merely overprotective and head-over-heels in love.

   “Alice seems very . . . enthusiastic.”
   “Alice has her own way of looking at things,” he said through tight lips.
   “And you’re not going to explain that, are you?”
   A moment of wordless communication passed between us. He realized that I knew he was keeping something from me. I realized that he wasn’t going to give anything away. Not now.

I don't even know what this is in reference to. Maybe something about Alice telling Edward that she sees Bella as a vampire? I refer you to Chris' excellent theory that Edward arranges Bella's injuries in Book 2 in an attempt to avoid this under a flimsy "I must dump you for your own good" excuse. I refer you also to Edward's own commentary previously in this very chapter about how stupid it is to bet against Alice. And I refer you finally to my thoughts on how inappropriate it is for Edward to keep Bella from knowing her own future and using her own agency to choose whether to embrace or flee it.

   “So what was Carlisle telling you before?” [...] He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds before answering. “He wanted to tell me some news — he didn’t know if it was something I would share with you.”
   “Will you?”
   “I have to, because I’m going to be a little . . . overbearingly protective over the next few days — or weeks — and I wouldn’t want you to think I’m naturally a tyrant.”

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Considering that Edward has hauled Bella backwards across a parking lot while she windmills her arms and tries not to fall over, the tyrant ship has sailed.

Anyway, blah blah blah, Alice sees some "visitors" coming to visit "soon" ("ALL TIMES ARE SOON," BELLOWS ASLAN FROM THE NEXT POST OVER) and these visitors are curious to meet the Cullens because these visitors aren't vegetarians and aren't interested in settling down in one spot and so they're planning to drop by for a visit. And while they "probably won't come into town at all", Edward isn't "going to let [Bella] out of my sight until they're gone". Which seems like a crackerjack way to get Bella killed, since these visitors wouldn't otherwise even know she exists.

   I shivered.
   “Finally, a rational response!” he murmured. “I was beginning to think you had no sense of self-preservation at all.”

Have I mentioned lately that I hate Edward?

Because, here is the thing: In addition to this being the usual condescending asshole stuff we've come to know and love from Edward, we don't know why Bella is shivering. Edward assumes (which means we're probably supposed to assume as well) that Bella is concerned about her own safety. But there's no reason for Bella not to be concerned about the safety of others.

These visitors are ostensibly coming to Forks specifically to meet the Cullens; Edward says "They know we're here, and they're curious." I'm not even remotely surprised that the movie backtracks on this and has them just sort of stumbling on to the Cullens, because this makes the Cullens seem like really terrible people. Instead of making an effort to go out and meet the visitors away from town, and to answer their questions but also to stress that Forks is under their protection and they really need the visitors to go around, they're instead going to let these visitors penetrate all the way into this area to the Cullens' house in order for this meeting to take place.

Which means that it would be very, very easy for the visitors to grab a "snack" from town (or the reservation) on their way back out.

Bella doesn't know everyone in town, but she visited here as a child and she attends the local school now. She has faces and names for an awful lot of people. It's entirely possible that one (or more!) of those people may die in the next few days, and it would appear that this possibility could be entirely prevented by the Cullens going out to meet their foreseen visitors rather than waiting here for their visitors to come to them. But Edward and the others don't seem to have even considered that possibility.

And that last point -- that Edward and the Cullens' are only concerned about protecting Edward's girlfriend but haven't even considered protecting Charlie or Jessica or Mike or Jacob or literally anyone else -- is enough to give me the shivers. Bella doesn't need to be a great humanitarian, or even to care overly much about the lives of the people around her, to still be given the willies by the realization that these "vegetarian" vampires are still so divorced from humanity and community to even consider the possibility of inconveniencing themselves ever-so-slightly in order to prevent the murder of someone they know.

That's kind of scary, and drives home just how valueless Bella's life would be to them were she not giving Edward vampire-boners.

Anyway, Edward offers to give Bella the tour and assures her that there are no cobwebs or coffins or piles of skulls in the corners. I'm not sure why she would expect there to be so, since she had to literally google what a vampire is, but whatever. Oh, and also he's been playing the piano this whole time they've been speaking. I guess talking is a free action. And Bella cries at his song and he licks her tear. Which is kind of creepy given that she (and we) still don't know how much of his attraction to her is emotional versus food-lust. But is also a good time to mention that, ever since I started this deconstruction, Husband likes to mime licking my cheeks when I cry and going NOM NOM EDWARD TEARS. This invariably cheers me up.

   We walked up the massive staircase, my hand trailing along the satin-smooth rail. The long hall at the top of the stairs was paneled with a honey-colored wood, the same as the floorboards. [...]
   He would have continued, but I stopped dead at the end of the hall, staring incredulously at the ornament hanging on the wall above my head. Edward chuckled at my bewildered expression.
   “You can laugh,” he said. “It is sort of ironic.”

It's a giant wooden cross on the wall that Carlisle stole from his ancestral church or some such shit. This is me not caring. (WATCH ME NOT CARING.) I genuinely liked the movie's Wall O' Gradation Caps better, even if it did perfectly encapsulated the stupidity of Bella being all I can't wait to get out of high school so that I can pretend to be a high schooler forever and ever plotline.

What bugs me about all this is that there's really no reason for Edward to haul out the irony here. Carlisle keeping a cross on the wall isn't particularly ironic since, in this 'verse, sunlight doesn't burn vampires and crosses don't repel them and garlic doesn't hurt them and silver is just another color for their stable of Corvettes and Audis and Maseratis and whatnot. (I am not a car person.) So, I mean, we passed the irony train waaaay back in Chapter 1 or whatever when Edward was walking around in broad, if slightly overcast, daylight.

Now, you could argue that keeping the cross is a little strange and macabre. Partly because it belonged to Carlisle's father who tried to kill him, but also partly because the Cullens aren't Christians and Edward thinks he is a doomed demonic creature who has no soul and will be tormented for eternity or whatever else he can squeeze out of his vampire backstory for maximum angst. So I wouldn't necessarily want a big cross on the wall reminding me of that, but to each his own.

And this kinda raises a problem that has been bugging me since last time, when we got to see Edward's Super Piano Playing Abilities, which is that despite vampires being around for-bloody-ever, they don't really seem to have a culture. And that bothers me. Oh, sure, we've got the Volturi hanging around Italy and being all campy, but vampires in Twilight are so different from humans that it really seems like they should have a distinct culture of their own, and yet don't seem to.

Like, take Edward: He can compose music (so he is creative; not merely frozen in time from when he was changed) and specifically he can compose music that takes advantage of his vampire speed and grace. The music he composes is therefore fundamentally something that only a vampire could play; a human couldn't play this music. Later we'll see the Cullens play "vampire baseball" which, while again it is modeled off of a human pastime, at least has details and changes that make it impossible for a human like Bella to join in. The skills of the vampires fundamentally alter the pastime in question.

This needs to go one step farther into an actual vampire culture. There should be games that only vampires can play (Twelve Dimensional Settlers of Catan?), games that take up the long sleepless nights and interminable years. There should be music that only vampires can make, dances that only vampires can do, art that only vampires can make and appreciate. Edward and the Cullens are perfect at everything, because they're perfect at human things--there should be a whole bushel of vampire things that they are not perfect at, just like humans aren't perfect at every human thing.

And in addition to vampire culture and vampire pastimes and vampire manners, there would inevitably follow vampire religion. These vampires were human and presumably some of them brought the need for religion that some humans have into their vampire lives with them. Existing religions would have to be altered to explain and incorporate the vampire reality; new religions might spring up out of older bits and pieces. Think Scientology, think Mormonism, think Wicca. There should be a vampire Martin Luther who is famous for his interpretation of Christianity which explained how vampires are also God's creatures. (And also God is a vampire, because God is all things and we were made in his image. Or something.)

I understand, I really do, why S. Meyer didn't include all this. World-building is hard and is not necessarily fun for everyone. And that's okay. But! There should at least be hints of this, hints that vampires have culture and religion and art and vampire-oriented things off-screen. Instead we get this weird insistence that all the vampires stay human but are just better at all the human things (which makes the Cullens seem dull and boring for not challenging themselves) and vampire religion is either Don't Care or Angsty Soulless Mournful Sads.

I really don't give a damn about Carlisle's backstory, so let's whip through it. His dad was an Anglican pastor and either he or Carlisle was a crackerjack whittler. (Too many "he" pronouns to keep track of here, especially when I don't give a damn.)

Point the first: Carlisle is hella-old. 

   “Why do you keep this here?” I wondered. 
   “Nostalgia. It belonged to Carlisle’s father.”
   “He collected antiques?” I suggested doubtfully.
   “No. He carved this himself. It hung on the wall above the pulpit in the vicarage where he preached.”

Point the second: Carlisle doesn't know his birth-year. I have a gut feel that this isn't terribly accurate for people born in the 1640s, but whatever. Who the fuck knows, I don't care.

   “He just celebrated his three hundred and sixty-second birthday,” Edward said. I looked back at him, a million questions in my eyes. 
   [...] “Carlisle was born in London, in the sixteen-forties, he believes. Time wasn’t marked as accurately then, for the common people anyway. It was just before Cromwell’s rule, though.”

Point the third: Carlisle's dad was a jerkface.

“He was the only son of an Anglican pastor. His mother died giving birth to him. His father was an intolerant man. As the Protestants came into power, he was enthusiastic in his persecution of Roman Catholics and other religions.

Point the fourth: Carlisle helped his dad be a jerkface and was way better at it because he is smarter and more compassionate and more rational and also he has a pony.

   “When the pastor grew old, he placed his obedient son in charge of the raids. At first Carlisle was a disappointment; he was not quick to accuse, to see demons where they did not exist. But he was persistent, and more clever than his father. He actually discovered a coven of true vampires that lived hidden in the sewers of the city,

Point the fifth: Carlisle has a shitty sense of self-preservation.

   The creature could have easily outrun them, but Carlisle thinks he was too hungry, so he turned and attacked. He fell on Carlisle first, but the others were close behind, and he turned to defend himself. He killed two men, and made off with a third, leaving Carlisle bleeding in the street.”

Point the sixth: And then Carlisle was a vampire and went on a lifelong journey of turning other people into vampires so that they could share his pain with him. The end!

   Carlisle acted instinctively to save his own life. He crawled away from the alley while the mob followed the fiend and his victim. He hid in a cellar, buried himself in rotting potatoes for three days. It’s a miracle he was able to keep silent, to stay undiscovered.

And that's pretty much the end of the chapter. I really don't give a damn about Carlisle's backstory (I wasn't just being facetious), but I do want to note that so far we still have no sense that Carlisle has given Edward his consent to share this story with Bella. And I'm guessing that Edward didn't ask Rosalie for her permission to share that she's a rape victim, and all the stuff that happened around her turning.

That seriously bothers me--it would be a boundary issue regardless, but especially when Edward has the magical power to glean every detail straight from the subject's brain. Edward seems to take a peculiar pleasure in gathering up peoples' grim and painful histories and then trotting them out for Bella's inspection without considering that those stories are not his to share.


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