Melodrama in young adult fiction – a discussion based on Twilight

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Katie Kapurch presents an argument for analysing adolescent literature with an eye for melodramatic conventions (and in an historical framework based on the genre of melodrama). She uses Twilight and Jane Eyre as test cases and it is an interesting argument and worth consideration. Citing fan responses to Twilight, she asserts:

“…melodramatic conventions, particularly occasions of exaggerated suffering prior to a joyful reunion, speak to contemporary readers….” (p.164)

“Intriguingly, Twilight fan responses are comparable to reader sympathy with another pair of fictional lovers: first-person narrator Jane Eyre and the secretive, brooding Edward Rochester, who, like Edward Cullen, also happens to be ridden with guilt and in need of salvation only the heroine can supply. Sandra M. Gilbert offers a central insight into the appeal of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), explaining how the novel challenged Victorian literary norms in part through the intensity of characters’ expressive discourse, another tenet of melodrama:
Unlike most of her predecessors, too, [Brontë] endowed her main characters— hero as well as heroine—with overwhelmingly powerful passions that aren’t always rational and often can’t be articulated in ordinary language. This sense of unspeakable depth or fiery interiority imbues both Rochester and Jane with a kind of mystery that has always been charismatic to readers. (357)” (italics added to indicate Gilbert quote, Kapurch, p.165)

“While the Twilight and Jane Eyre readerships are not identical and cannot be regarded as one homogenous group, awareness of their sympathetic and empathetic reactions permits us to consider both texts through the framework of melodrama. As works characterized not only by similar heroines, heroes, and romantic plots, Brontë’s and Meyer’s novels share a melodramatic reader response. An exploration of melodrama’s significance in these female coming-of-age stories, then, yields insight into the important relationship between Jane Eyre and the Twilight Saga––while offering some justification for the latter’s appeal––and ultimately works to invigorate scholarly appreciation for melodramatic impulses in contemporary young adult fiction.” (p.165)

“…there exists an absence of scholarly treatment of melodrama in texts about and for youth—particularly adolescent literature—in spite of its profound visibility today. Nevertheless, recognizing and naming the formal characteristics of melodrama, without fear of its historically pejorative connotations, offers critics addressing young adult literature a tool for advancing interpretations of political, social, and cultural messages ascertainable only through that mode. In the 1995 preface to his important and continuously cited study of melodrama, The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), Peter Brooks articulates the capabilities of melodrama: “the melodramatic mode no longer needs to be approached in the mode of apology. We know about its limitations, its easier effects, and its more inauthentic thrills, but we have also learned that it is an exceptionally supple and adaptable mode that can do things other genres and modes can’t” (xii). While the poignant validation of life’s trivialities has always been part of the appeal of melodrama on both page and stage (Brooks; Booth), these are the very moments to which many modern readers, especially female youth, are still drawn, but for which they often are still derided by critics. Accordingly, appreciating melodramatic moments in young adult fiction might help to further a regard for affective responses cited by readers, validating the seriousness of coming-of-age experiences.
Theorizing the melodramatic impulse in young adult literature, then, not only offers scholarship another lens through which to view texts but also works toward the project of recognizing the emotional lives and cultural preferences of youth.” (p.166)

Jane’s and Bella’s insecurities speak to a perceived otherness that parallels the overt monstrosity of their love interests. These counterpoints not only explain the heroines’ sympathy for and points of connection with these men, but may also explain why the texts hold such appeal for readers who sympathize with these characters.” (p.168)

The plots of both texts adhere structurally to conventions of melodrama, particularly as they articulate dreams and suffering. According to Brooks, who addresses melodrama’s connection to the bildungsroman and romance, “In the typical case, . . . melodramatic structure moves from presentation of virtue-as-innocence to the introduction of menace or obstacle, which places virtue in a [-p.169] situation of extreme peril” (31).” (Kapurch, pp.168-169)

While villainy functions as a kind of “motor” for the plot (Brooks 34), the melodrama’s conclusion typically ends not only in resolution, but more importantly, with an ending that audiences would also perceive as a “happy” one (Booth 9). As Brooks concludes, the melodramatic narrative “ends with public recognition of where virtue and evil reside, and the eradication of one as the reward of the other” (32).” (p.170)

“…within the context of each novel’s framework, the heroine’s choices are consistent with melodramatic morality, [-p.174] in which right and wrong are clearly delineated as recognizable options. This insight has important implications not only for interpreting Bella’s agency in the context of seemingly antifeminist values, but also for understanding other contemporary young adult works in which extreme choices are contextualized in outwardly limited frameworks.” (pp.173-174)

“Not surprisingly, as Jane and Bella are both characters consumed with habitual self-doubt and self-consciousness, their anxieties are also reflected in melodramatic terms through dreams, specifically nightmares. Melodrama is “preoccupied with nightmare states, with claustration and thwarted escape, with innocence buried alive and unable to voice its claim to recognition” (Brooks 20). Thus, in many ways, the nightmare as melodramatic moment validates and elucidates truth; dream states reflect sincere human experiences.” (p.174)

“Booth asserts that “One of the rules is that the hero and heroine must suffer distress, persecution, and separation, and that their suffering must continue unabated till a few moments before the final curtain, when they emerge happy and united” (10).” (p.176)

Once cataloged, the suffering experienced by Jane and Rochester and Edward and Bella prior to their happy reunions might be described as excessive. Yet just as suffering is necessary for the happy resolution offered by the melodrama, so, too, is excess, which Brooks relates to the meaningful way in which melodrama speaks to the ordinary and the contemporary: “those melodramas that matter most to us convince us that the dramaturgy of excess and overstatement corresponds to and evokes confrontations and choices that are of heightened importance, because in them we put our lives—however trivial and constricted—on the line” (ix). Thus, the extensive and excessive suffering endured prior to the couples’ respective final reunions not only serves to place their subsequent happiness in perspective, but also functions as a major point of appeal for popular audiences of melodrama.” (p.178)

“Referring to nineteenth-century audiences, Booth justifies melodrama’s attractiveness: “The popularity of melodrama is not difficult to understand. Presenting its public with a world of fulfilled dreams in contrast to a miserable monotonous reality in which virtue did not necessarily prosper, nor villainy suffer, melodrama nullified distress and danger by directing them to the ultimate happy ending” (40). Perhaps the same could be said for today’s readers of the Twilight Saga and other contemporary young adult literary works marked by melodramatic impulses; melodramatic conventions, such as a plot driven by villainy in order to ultimately delineate good and evil, and narrative devices like expression, dreams, and suffering, are perhaps predictable, yet comforting. What are the ideological implications of such reliable melodramatic impulses in addition to the legacy of Victorian novels in contemporary young adult fiction? My analysis, which sets out the formal characteristics of melodrama through a comparison of Brontë’s and Meyer’s novels in order to invigorate interest in the scholarly recognition of melodrama in adolescent literature, only scratches the surface of this important question.” (p.178)

“An understanding of melodrama’s appeal could thus be more completely achieved through a reception study focusing on readers’ responses to the Twilight Saga. In addition, researchers could pursue the legacy of Victorian fiction in young adult texts today and explore the function of melodramatic structures in contemporary novels––especially paranormal romances trailing in the wake of the trend Meyer helped inaugurate.” (p.179)

“…although an adult-oriented culture is often quick to trivialize adolescent suffering (in the context, for example, of a teen relationship’s break-up) or angst (especially anxiety about change and growing up), melodrama as a genre confirms the sincere, human feelings that seemingly ordinary circumstances can elicit. For this reason, serious attention should be given to melodramatic moments in young adult literature, for the mode can better explain characters’ experiences and popular works’ connections to canonical literature. Such considerations also give credence to representation of adolescents in fiction and the very real, affective, and empathetic responses shared by readers.” (p.179)

Ref: (emphases in bold blue, mine) Katie Kapurch “Unconditionally and Irrevocably”: Theorizing the Melodramatic Impulse in Young Adult Literature through the Twilight Saga and Jane Eyre. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 37, Number 2, Summer 2012, pp. 164-187

reference is to: Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, and the Mode of Excess. 1976. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1995.

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