Romance conventions and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Series

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Lydia Kokkola has explored the generic conventions of Meyer’s Twilight series, considering it in terms of conventional romance and young adult literature. What she has to say is rather interesting. She writes:

“The goal of this paper is to determine whether Meyer’s series simply dresses traditional, conservative views on adolescent carnality in a titillating disguise to appeal to an audience who might otherwise be tempted to satisfy their desires, or whether it breaks genre expectations. Given the series’ popularity, we can assume that it is offering something other texts do not, even though many of the surface elements are highly generic. A closer examination reveals that she is combining conventions from related, but slightly different, genres. I shall investigate Meyer’s series in terms of the genre conventions of adult romance, teen romance and other traditions within children’s literature. My contention is that, although Bella and Edward are a highly conformist couple, Meyer’s pick-and-mix deployment of genre conventions has resulted in the valorisation of certain beliefs which run counter both to those promoted by conservative Christian activists and to those endorsed by the liberal, feminist left.” (167)

Meyer’s series sits securely within the tradition of children’s literature being a tool for socialising the untamed child (Nikolajeva, 2010). Edward is the perfectly socialised young adult: he desires both Bella’s blood and her body, but he can control himself. He responds with gentlemanly grace to Bella’s inability to control her lust. He acts as a modern day Mr Knightley as he educates Bella into mature, sociable behaviour.” (166) Bella and Edward, Kokkola writes, are “pin-ups for the ‘‘True Love Waits’’ (TLW) (2001) movement.” (166)

The generic elements of literary romance have been examined most notably by Denis de Rougement (1983/1940) and Janice Radway (1991), and updated from a feminist stance by Lynne Pearce (2007). These critics, all of whom deal exclusively with writings intended for adults, provide an invaluable starting point for examining how the ‘‘Twilight’’ saga fits securely within the classical romantic genre conventions, which have informed popular romance writing for adults. One of de Rougement’s main claims, which Pearce (2007. p. x) supports, is that the last seven centuries of romance writing are reworkings of Tristan and Iseult. The claim is deliberately hyperbolic and provocative, but seems highly pertinent when examining the formal narrative structure of Meyer’s saga. De Rougement’s claim is also supported by Radway’s (1991, pp. 134–150) formalist plotting of the ‘‘Narrative Logic of Romance.’’ All three studies reveal how fixed the deep structures of adult romance are: they can be identified in the classical Celtic mythology of Tristan and Iseult, as well as in Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet (which are mentioned in the ‘‘Twilight’’ series), as well as the blockbuster romances read by Radway’s informants. Thus points of departure from these established conventions are noteworthy.

When Bella Swan moves to Forks WA, she expects to be dismissed as a clumsy, mousy girl. Like many narrators of adult romances, such as Jane Eyre and Esther Summerson, she is surprised when she attracts male attention. Unlike her literary forebears, however, she uses her attractiveness to manipulate others. She persuades a slightly younger boy, Jacob Black, a Quileute Indian from the nearby reservation, to provide information about Edward Cullen, a boy from Bella’s high school. In line with the patterns identified by de Rougement, Bella and Edward have felt an overwhelming attraction from the moment they met. In line with the courtly love tradition, however, they do not immediately declare their love, but love one another from afar (see Tuchman 1978 on the stages of courtly love).” (167)

The plot of the first novel, Twilight (2005), follows precisely the narrative structure Radway (1991, p. 150) identified for blockbuster adult romances. The later books cannot follow quite the same structure as the couple have already been united, but, as de Rougement shows, the similarities between seemingly different romances lie in the nature of the central couple’s love, and the problems they must overcome in order to be together. For de Rougement (1983/1940), obstacles are so central to the creation of the romance genre that it can be defined in terms of the lovers’ need to seek out obstacles. Only when the couple face an obstacle which has tragic potential can their attachment be considered truly romantic. Following de Rougement’s argument, Meyer’s romance is only possible because Edward has the potential to kill Bella. Once he has gained sufficient self-control to abstain from biting her, other vampires then threaten her, allowing Edward to believe that he endangers Bella by bringing her into contact with them. Even after Bella has become a vampire, and so should be safe from other vampires, her daughter places the couple at risk from the Volturi. In this way, Meyer can maintain the presence of threats and obstacles, thereby fulfilling the norms of the courtly love tradition. Unlike any of the adult romances discussed by de Rougement, Radway and Pearce, however, the main obstacle in Meyer’s series is carnal desire.” (168)

…”in keeping with the philosophy that ‘‘true love waits,’’ Meyer’s series promotes the view that carnal desire, outside marriage at least, is an obstacle that must be overcome if romantic love is to be preserved. So although the presence of an obstacle belongs firmly within the adult romance tradition, the nature of theobstacle derives from the tradition of writing for adolescents (cf. Trites, 2000). Meyer’s didacticism is obscured by one major exception to the view that ‘‘true love waits.’’ Although the TLW pledge only requires sexual abstinence, those who pledge also agree to abstain from sexual thoughts, touching intimately, seeking out pornographic material and all other actions likely to cause arousal. Bella is a virgin bride, but her mind is constantly filled with carnal desire. Presumably, readers are supposed to find Bella’s sexual feelings somewhat erotic. Hence, Meyer finds a way to endorse celibacy, thus maintaining notions of childhood purity, without trivialising adolescent sexual desires.” (169)

A further way in which Meyer’s series resembles adult romances,” Kokkola continues, “is in its use of the obstacle of the third party.” (169) However, Kokkola explains, while “Meyer’s deployment of triangular relationships draws on a long tradition in adult romances, [-p.170 …] it is remarkably rare in the more conservative, adolescent romance genre.” (169-170)

Children’s literature is one means by which youngsters are socialised into adopting adult-approved behaviours and a value system which dictates that power is not, and should not be theirs (Nikolajeva, 2010). And as Roberta Seelinger Trites (2000) has forcefully argued, ‘‘Sexual potency is a common metaphor for empowerment inadolescent literature, so … for many characters in YA novels, experiencing sexuality marks a rite of passage that helps them define themselves as having left childhood behind’’ (p. 84). So although ‘‘rigid oppositions between childhood innocence and adult passion, particularly sexual passion, are difficult to maintain’’ (Higonnet,1998, p. 10), sexuality has retained its significance in adult-adolescent power relations. Meyer’s teenage characters experience sexual desire whilst maintaining de facto innocence in the limited, rigid sense that they are virgins. However, this tension magnifies the importance of sexuality as a rite of passage.” (173)

Ref: Lydia Kokkola ‘Virtuous Vampires and Voluptuous Vamps: Romance Conventions Reconsidered in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘‘Twilight’’ Series’ Children’s Literature in Education (2011) 42:165–179

NOTEAbstract   It is presumed that readers of Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ enjoy the sexual tension between Bella and Edward; a tension that remains unresolved until the couple are married. This very traditional solution to the couple’s carnal desires is just one of many ways in which the novels adhere to the conventions of romance writing for young people. Readers know what to expect and their expectations are satisfied. Fans, however, claim that Meyer’s books offer them something that other texts do not. By comparing the ‘Twilight’ series with the conventions for adult romances, teen romances and children’s literature more generally, I demonstrate that Meyer is combining conventions from related, but slightly different, genres. The result valorises certain beliefs which run counter to both those promoted by conservative Christian activists and those endorsed by the liberal, feminist left.” (165)

NOTE: reference is made to: de Rougement, Denis. (1983/1940). Love in the Western World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.    Pearce, Lynne. (2007). Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity Press.    Radway, Janice. (1991). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature, 2nd ed. Chapel Hill, London: University of North Carolina Press.

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