Twilight Discussion Between Carole & Kate

I started Twilight by Stephanie Meyer a few months ago for a book club and never finished. Therefore, I don't feel qualified to talk (much) about the series. However, my friend Carole has read the three books in print (the fourth comes out in August--since we both criticize the series, I figure a little promotion as an apology isn't amiss) and has become progressively disenchanted. Here are her thoughts. I respond at length in the first comment.

Carole's First Point:

Bella’s flaws, while present in the books, are not clearly communicated as the underlying problem in the story.

From Stephanie Meyer's website:

Q. What are the characters' biggest mistakes in Eclipse, their tragic flaws?

A. Bella's is a lack of self-knowledge; she never would have pursued her friendship with Jacob if she had realized how much more than friendship it really was. You don't give up your friends when you fall in love; however, you do give up your other romantic interests. If Bella had understood herself better, she could have saved everyone a lot of heartbreak. Sometimes that happens when you try to do the right thing.
Carole: The biggest problem with the books is that there is no outside element telling the reader that Bella has a lack of self-knowledge and is handling the relationship with Jacob poorly, except Jacob himself and only at the beginning of the book. The first chapter of Eclipse starts with a note Jacob writes to Bella:

Bella,

[scratched out] I don’t know why you’re making Charlie carry notes to Billy like we’re in the second grade – if I wanted to talk to you I would answer the
[scratched out] You made the choice here, okay? You can’t have it both ways when
[scratched out] What part of ‘mortal enemies’ is too complicated for you to
[scratched out] Look, I know I’m being a jerk, but there’s just no way around
[scratched out] We can’t be friends when you’re spending all your time with a bunch of
[scratched out] It just makes it worse when I think about you too much, so don’t write anymore
Yeah, I miss you too. A lot. But that doesn’t change anything. Sorry.

Jacob
Even though the problem (Bella's lack of self-knowledge) is stated here, it is later blurred by events and, more annoyingly, other people’s actions. In the first chapter, Charlie, Bella's father, says, “You’re hurting Jake’s feelings, avoiding him like this. He’d rather be just friends than nothing.” Edward says his objection to Bella seeing Jacob is Edward's concern for her safety, not because her relationship jeopardizes Edward and Bella’s relationship. (Edward's reaction really is jealousy, but Edward only admits this to Jacob--not directly to Bella--and Edward is always able to rise above his jealousy to do what’s in Bella’s "best interests.") Even Jacob tells Bella she is welcome to come by. (I can buy this, though. Jacob decides he wants to fight for her. Stephanie explains that on her web site, and I can see that.)

Considering Edward's overall reaction to Jacob . . . it felt entirely uneven, especially since Edward continues to exhibit controlling behavior in other minor but concrete ways. Edward goes from being insufferable to being overly magnanimous towards Jacob, to the point of allowing Jacob to do something for Bella.

Near the end of the book, Bella does realize that she can’t be with Edward and stay friends with Jacob because it hurts everyone involved, and she decides to tell Jacob that they can’t be friends. She begins to, but then Jacob tells her that he might die in the impending fight. She freaks out and begs him not to leave. Jacob asks Bella to ask him to kiss her. She does, and during that kiss, she realizes that yes, she does love Jacob, but not enough to not be with Edward.

But she never really makes the difficult choice. Even after the above scene, when Jacob gets hurt in a fight, Bella goes to him. She doesn’t even stop to think that her decision to walk away is the right one. She is still committed to Edward, and Jacob knows that, but when she gets ready to leave Jacob, she tells him she will come back or stay away depending on what he wants. This might seem selfless, but it also allows her to not make the choice. She’s asking Jacob to decide, but the decision doesn’t just affect Jacob’s happiness. It’s also affects hers and Edward’s.

I understand what you [Kate] mean when you say the Buffy writers didn’t portray Spike as bad, they just wanted us to think that. Here it’s the same thing. Stephanie says that Bella not letting go of Jacob is a problem, but the events and characters in the book don’t lead the reader to that conclusion. It’s acknowledged in the beginning and end of the book, but in the middle of the book, it’s forgotten. Not only does Bella associate with Jacob without considering the consequences, but Meyer allows the reader (not counting people like [Kate and Carole who are over the age of 21]) to forget the consequences too. The reader never forgets that Jacob loves Bella [which causes problems for all concerned] . . . but the events are manipulated, so it seems acceptable for Bella to be around Jacob.

Bella doesn't consciously choose what man to be with.

From Stephanie Meyer's website:

Q. What's the deal with Bella just falling in love with Jacob in the eleventh hour of Eclipse? Don't you believe in true love anymore? What happened to blacken your soul, woman??

A. First of all, let me say that I do believe in true love. But I also deeply believe in the complexity, variety, and downright insanity of love. A lucky person loves hundreds of people in their lives, all in different ways, family love, friendship love, romantic love, all in so many shades and depths. I don't think you lose your ability—or right—to have true love by loving more than one person. In part, this is true because you never love two people the same way. Another part is that, if you're lucky, you learn to love better with practice. The bottom line is that you have to choose who you are going to commit to—that's the foundation of true love, not a lack of other options.

Next, Bella does not fall in love with Jacob in Eclipse. Bella falls in love with Jacob in New Moon. I think it's easy to understand why this fact doesn't occur to her. Bella has only fallen in love one time, and it was a very sudden, dramatic, sweep-you-off-your-feet, change-your-world, magical, passionate, all-consuming thing (see: Twilight). Can you blame her for not recognizing a much more subtle kind of falling-in-love?

Does this love devaluate her love for Edward? Not for me. For me, it makes that perfect true love stronger. Bella has another option. She has a really good one. An option that's easier in many ways, that takes nothing—like her family, present or future—away from her. She would have love, and friendship, and family—an enviable human future. But she chooses Edward over all of this. This makes it real for me.
Carole: The last paragraph is where I disagree and get annoyed. I think the love Bella comes to have for Jacob is one hundred times better and stronger than what she has for Edward, but the book doesn’t support that Bella made a choice. In fact, Bella says she has no choice. When she goes to Jacob after he is hurt, he realizes that even though Bella knows she loves him, she will stay with Edward . . . to which she replies:

The worst part is I saw the whole thing—our whole life. And I want it bad, Jake, I want it all. I want to stay right here and never move. I want to love you and make you happy. And I can’t and it’s killing me . . . I never had a choice (emphasis added.)
This completely contradicts what Stephanie says above. She claims that Bella is making a choice, but throughout the whole book, Bella stays with Edward, not because she likes that future better than the one that she could have with Jacob, not because Edward makes her happier (though I think Stephanie believes he does), but because Bella cannot live without Edward. Earlier in the same conversation, Jacob makes the following, very astute observation:

He’s like a drug for you, Bella. I see that you can’t live without him now. It’s too late. But I would have been healthier for you. Not a drug; I would have been the air, the sun.
Putting aside the question of whether Bella needs either man for survival (I quite disagree with that [so does Kate!]), I agree with Jacob. Jacob is more natural, more nourishing, more comfortable. Bella doesn’t disagree with Jacob either. In fact, she tells him, “I used to think of you that way, you know. Like the sun. My personal sun.” She doesn’t explain how Edward is not like a drug (i.e., he’s like water or a breeze or anything else remotely healthy). She even tells Edward the same thing:

You may be brave enough or strong enough to live without me, if that’s what’s best. But I could never be that self-sacrificing. I have to be with you. It’s the only way I can live.
In her answer above, Stephanie says, “Bella has another option. She has a really good one. An option that's easier in many ways, that takes nothing—like her family, present or future—away from her. She would have love, and friendship, and family—an enviable human future. But she chooses Edward over all of this.”

I don’t believe that Jacob is the easier option. According to the book, he’s the harder option because he would be the more painful option. Never once did Bella consider the best option.

Bella admits that had there been no Edward, no vampires, no magic, Jacob would have been the natural choice for her and she would’ve been happy. As I said to you [Kate] earlier, the whole “love is a spell and is inexplicable” thing is entirely beyond my grasp.

Stephanie doesn’t know what makes a good romance good.

From Stephanie Meyer's website:
Q: If you pitched the first book to publishers as a ''suspense romance horror comedy,'' which of those do you think your books are most?

A: I think that it's romance more than anything else, but it's just not that romance-y. It's hard to nail down, but romance tends to be my favorite part of any book or movie, because that's really the strongest emotion. Orson Scott Card is my favorite: The romances are a small part of his books, but they bring his people to life.
Carole: Show me a more "romance-y" book, and I’ll show you a pile of complete and utter blech. I seriously don’t think you could find a more "romance-y" novel in the fantasy genre, so if Meyer thinks she’s anywhere close to what OSC does in his books, she has another thing coming. I think I know what she’s trying to say because I feel the same way: OSC’s romances are great because they are important, but with OSC, the characters fall in love while doing other things, and they have motivations besides their beloved. In the Twilight saga, every thought and action made by Edward, Bella, and even Jacob is motivated by their respective love interest. There’s no action that Edward takes that doesn’t revolve around Bella; there’s no decision that Bella makes that isn’t tied to Edward or Jacob; and there’s no limit to what Jacob will do to get Bella in the end.

Stephanie says that these books started out as a dream, and she kept writing to see where the story goes. What this tells me is that she’s not thinking a lot about character development or motivation or plot as she writes, and any analysis of the book she’s done is after it’s written. I think that style of writing is very different from the kind writers do when they take complete control of the characters. It makes me think that writers who just let the characters do whatever they want are bound to write stories that aren’t as tight, or as thoughtful, or even as interesting as they could be. I might be wrong, though. There might be lots of books that I enjoy that are written that way.

BOOKS

2 comments:

Kate Woodbury said...

Great insights, Carole! Based on what I've heard about Twilight, what you've described, and the little I read in the first book, I think you strike to the heart of what makes the books weak--the problem of choice, i.e. Bella never chooses anything. She's the stereotypical reactionary heroine.

First of all, I completely and totally disagree with writers who say, "Love is a right." This is what Richard P. Evans stated regarding The Last Promise: "I know I will get some criticism from some people who don't get it . . . This is a woman who has been abused, who needs some love in her life. I believe we have the right to be loved. And I have real trouble with anyone who doesn't believe that" ("Evans Moves to Italy in Search of Respect, Time With Family," The Salt Lake Tribune, November 10, 2002, D7).

Which immediately excuses the fact that Evans' heroine is becoming intimate with a man not her husband. And then she blithers on about HIM cheating. As Eugene wrote in his review, "At least he doesn't bring it home like his stupid wife."

In his review, Eugene also refers to the dreadful wheel of fate idea: in The Last Promise, the chick mopes around her villa until the hero shows up to CHANGE HER LIFE. Okay, lady, get a job already! Do your own housework! Oh, sure, she paints, but she never shows her painting to anyone (except the romantic hero). Like Bella, the ONLY thing that defines her is her love interest. That's it. Nothing else.

So "having a right" to love means "having a right to something that gives me definition." I think Mormon (and conservative Christian) romance writers tend to come up with this explanation because for (some) worldly writers, love is already excuse enough, but it isn't an excuse in (many) religious circles; the argument, "But people have the RIGHT to be with who they love" is used to excuse the inexcusable. (Aren't supposed "rights" always used that way?)

Like Evans, Meyer appears to have created a character who has no other resources than being in love or falling in love or being with a guy who might love her. Meyer writes that Bella should be excused for not recognizing that Jacob is falling in love with her as if Bella only has two options: being in love with a guy or not being in love with a guy. But in reality, Bella has other options like getting good grades, for heaven's sake, and finding other friends, and actually spending some time on her own for a change.

So I agree with you: it sounds like Meyer is telling, not showing, Bella's supposed "choices." The disparity here between Meyer's interview statement and Meyer's writing could rest in her desire to make Bella less culpable and therefore, supposedly, more likable. In real life, Bella isn't the heroine. In real life, Bella is self-absorbed, guy-obsessed, and dull: not heroic qualities.

I think this problem of culpability is the difference between the second season of House and Twilight: in the second season of House, Stacy's waffling IS the problem. The waffling makes her culpable. She can't decide who to be with, and she doesn't want to decide, and she forces House to decide, and he doesn't decide the way everyone wants/expects him to decide, but that's her own fault. In the interview you quote, Meyer pinpoints Bella's lack of self-understanding, not Bella's waffling, as the problem, which is nonsense. Even if Bella didn't see Jacob's love coming--and honestly, what teenage girl wouldn't have at least wondered?--Bella has been avoiding choices and confrontations since both relationships began.

Basically, Bella is being dishonest to two people at once. One doesn't have to be in love to figure out that that is wrong. Buffy may not have realized she was in love with Spike in Season 5, but that was no excuse for her treatment of him. One should not have to wait around for love to strike in order to be a stand-up human being. If, as you described to me, Bella has to sneak out of the house to see Jacob (against Edward's wishes), then either she is modifying her behavior for the sake of a bullying boyfriend OR she is lying to a boyfriend who wishes her well. Either way, her action is a choice, making Bella either the ultimate enabler or just a ditzy "I want my cake and eat it too" teenage girl. Neither motivation makes her a heroine, and her desire to paint this or any similar action as a non-choice makes her an irresponsible idiot. And granted, there's a literature for that, but Shakespeare killed off his teenagers for a reason.

I also agree with you that Jacob is the harder option. Edward is harder in the sense that falling in love with unattainable perfection can cause a person a great deal of grief, yet people do it all the time because falling in love with "perfection" takes away the onus of actually having to work at the relationship. The love is just supposed to "happen"; it's just supposed to be right (and "a right") without anyone having to use one's brains or ethics or morals to achieve it. One just waits for it.

However, maybe all this is too harsh: I think your perception that Meyers isn't that interested in character development is spot on. Her interview does sound all retrospective-y. Oh, NOW we know what we want readers to think. But at the time she did the writing, I doubt she was thinking that hard or objectively about her characters.

Scott Wright said...

I read the first one (Twilight?)all the way through to the end. There must be something there or its success would be much less. For a guy, if you don't want to really connect with your emotional side I'd say skip it on those grounds alone. There is really only breathing, lips, brushes of touch, eyes, blah blah blah. The ONLY scene where I think that something cool could actually happen was when Bella was kidnapped by the "evil" vampire. It leads to an intense scene of her in the dance studio where you can imagine seeing the final showdown flashing from all sides and glass breaking etc. I think, all right this should be cool. Bella passes out and we see nothing! NOTHING! What a whimp's way out of showing violence. The only scene that could be exciting and the POV character passes out until it's all over.
I've not even desired to try any of the others for the fact that I've had enough cold fingers brushing forearms to last me as long as a vampire lives.