Another take on Bella’s submissiveness in Twilight

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Interested in the way Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, like Harry Potter, ‘combines several kinds of appeal’, Anne Klaus and Stefanie Krüger analyse the series’ adoption of conventions from various genres and traditions; they explain: “In the Twilight saga, we find a similar amalgamation of various different literary genres – fantasy fiction for young adults, vampire story, gothic romance, and Arthurian legend. It is a medley, a generic crossing that is – not least due to its focus on an active young heroine – bound to entice a primarily female readership.” (np)

Much of what they say echoes what is being said elsewhere (comments on the Byronic hero, the sympathetic vampire, etc. – I’ll put a couple of quotes below), but I did find their take on Bella (and what others have criticised as Bella’s lack of feminist agency) interesting. I think these authors are the first I have read who see Bella’s transformation into vampire not as a  device or a plotline, so much as a logical trajectory within the YA fantasy genre and a reworking of the vampire tale. I liked their reading of her growth!

According to Klaus and Krüger:

“Bella, who, on the one hand seems to be presented as the femme fragile or damsel in distress concerning her physicality, but, on the other hand, represents a figure of identification for female readers as the independent, strong-willed hero of young adult fiction.” (np)

“Bella’s metamorphosis into a vampire illustrates not only an inward but also an outward ripening, a growing-up-process from teenager to adult that is also manifested in her final motherhood.” (np)

“…the major emphasis of fantasy fiction for children and young adults lies on the heroes’ quests. The same holds for Meyer’s saga as the relatively short battle sequence at the close of the fourth book underlines. Meyer’s main focus is not so much on the final trial of power between the two enemy parties as on her heroine’s inner test of strength in the course of her maturation from an insignificant teenager into a self-confident lover, wife and mother. Meyer casts the spotlight on her female protagonist’s internal struggles with themes like outward appearance, virginity, marriage and child rearing.” (np)

“Bella, like Catherine in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, is, as Carol Senf points out in The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature, a new kind of female victim and female vampire, “[a]ssertive, strong, intelligent, and independent, she clearly wants to control her own life although that desire often brings her into conflict with those who wield authority within her society” (Senf 83). Against the fears of her father and the warnings of the Quileute werewolves, Bella keeps up her relationship with Edward. Her “defloration” is not an act of destruction but a consequence of her own free choice and, what is more, it takes place before she is finally turned into a vampire, which actually is a rescue and not a damnation. Bella’s delicate nature is not her ruin, as it is for so many other female characters, but a reflection of her disposition for becoming a vampire and thus ultimately for the fulfilment of her destiny. As a vampire, she clearly embodies a new trend in late 20th- and early 21st-century vampire literature: the un-dead state is not a punishment for sins committed in life but a very attractive “parallel lifestyle” (Hughes 148-9). Jancovitch argues that “the pleasure offered by the [vampire] genre is based on the process of narrative closure in which the horrifying monster is destroyed or contained” and the “original order is re-established” (qtd. in Wisker 168). Twilight does not kill the monster but elevates it to an ideal of female desire. A new order is established which clears the way for fascinating, never-ending romantic opportunities.” (np)

“Bella Swan, the average and inconspicuous girl who so far has never found her niche within society and does not relate well to people her age (Twilight 9), embodies the “new kid in school” motif commonly found not only in realistic teenage fiction but also in late 20th and early 21st century teenage high school movies such as Sara Sugerman’s Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004) or Ed Decter’s The New Guy (2002). Just as these popular movies feature the difficulty of new pupils fitting into an existing school culture, “[c]rucial establishing scenes for both fictional school stories and school memoirs deal with the departure from home and parents, the first trip to the new school, and the arrival in a scary new place” (Manners Smith 80). Although the school story is fundamentally a British phenomenon, the focus has shifted from depicting boarding schools towards state-funded day schools – most evidently observable in the huge success of Walt Disney’s blockbusters High School Musical and Hannah Montana, both of which are set in American high schools.” (np)

“Bella’s development throughout the four books is undoubtedly evocative of famous fantasy heroes, such as Harry Potter or Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. Just as M. Katherine Grimes describes Harry Potter as insignificant “Everyboy and Everyman” (Grimes 122) in the beginning, Bella seems to lack any signs of being special or chosen. Like other heroes from young adults’ fiction, however, she develops and matures in the course of the story. A significant parallel to popular stories for young adults is Bella’s choice of friends and fellows. Not only does she deviate from her human classmates by getting in touch with vampires, she also defies the vampires’ antipathies against their rivals, the Quileute werewolves, by maintaining her friendship with Jacob Black and his family. By letting Bella choose outsiders and initial foes as friends, the author reveals her protagonist’s positive virtues and makes explicit the importance of impartiality and candour.

“Stephenie Meyer creates a fairy-tale gothic romance with a vampire as the primary, very attractive, love object and an independent, active female heroine who, on the one hand, is still the fragile damsel in distress and, on the other hand, embodies the “new kid in school” motif common in young adults’ literature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Bella befriends supernatural creatures, is confronted with difficult choices, sacrifices her normal life, and ultimately undergoes an inward and outward ripening, a maturation most significantly seen in her final metamorphosis. Through the use of Bella’s perspective and the combination of mysterious gothic, jolts of serious menace, happy versions of teenage normality, and nostalgic romance, Meyer draws away the focus from the traditional “malicious-vampire-versus-helpless-victim” relationship towards the interiority of the active female agent and thus distances the story from the traditionally male-generated vampire myth which reduces the female character to either victim or femme fatale.” (np)

Some other quotes:

“His Byronic nature is certainly one aspect of Edward’s success among female readers of the 21st century as it combines two ideals of the modern man: sensibility and strength.” (np)

“Edward owes many of his characteristics to literary figures of the 19th century. As Meyer admitted in several interviews, it was particularly the story of Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff and his relationship to Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, which motivated her in the construction of Edward.” (np) … “The gothic villain is commonly from the upper classes or of royal blood. Even though Heathcliff’s ancestry is unknown he still holds financial power over the Earnshaw family estate. His economic power is mirrored in the lifestyle of Edward and his family, who can afford the newest cars, live in a remarkable house, wear designer outfits, and never have to worry about money. The Cullens financially certainly belong to the upper class among the vampire families and thus transfer the common class affiliation of the vampire into 21st-century classless America.” (np)

“Edward as vampire is highly fascinating particularly because the focus of the story is not concerned with Edward being a vampire but with Edward being a romantic who happens to be a vampire. Twilight is dominated by a male protagonist whose emotional state dictates his actions which primarily culminate in wooing and protecting Bella. This primary chivalric concern is derived from another genre, which Stephenie Meyer combined with her re-created vampire myth and which is particularly aimed at female readers [Arthurian Romance].” (np)

Despite the lovers being presented as meant for each other, the “knight’s difficult choice between eros and other allegiances” (Fuchs 45), which according to Barbara Fuchs can be found in classic Romance literature, is mirrored in Edward’s endangering his family’s secret by falling in love with Bella. As he points out, he is “breaking all the rules” (Twilight 174). His attempt to part with Bella in New Moon is evocative of the main narrative strategy of romance novels: the postponement of the union between the lovers (Fuchs 125 f.).  However, “the pull of romance towards concluding happiness” (Cooper 81) dominates in Meyer’s saga, which privileges destined love over all worldly problems.” (np)

Ref: Anne Klaus and Stefanie Krüger (2011) Vampires Without Fangs: The Amalgamation of Genre in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Vol 15, No 1

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