A Vampire's Restraint

Morality among the undead

July 23, 2008
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(Editor’s note: In anticipation of the release of Breaking Dawn on August 2nd, we are providing reviews for the first three books of the Eclipse series.  We hope you’ll find them to be interesting. –JAS)

Twilight is an almost exquisitely conceived first novel by Mormon author Stephenie Meyer.  Drawing upon the popularity of vampires in modern mythology and the conventions of teen romance, she has created a best-selling concept of a vampire with morals in love with a girl without very many.

Is it well-written?  I’d say about as well written as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels: if you thought Rowling was a good stylist, you’ll probably find Meyer her equal.  But Rowling was writing tongue-in-cheek satirical fantasy: Meyer is writing a Gothic romance (the adjective nicely transcending both the traditional and the modern meaning of “Gothic”), and her prose fixates upon the conventions of romance: honed descriptions of physique and physical contact: “I inched closer, stretched out my whole hand now to trace the contours of his forearm with my fingertips.  I saw that my fingers trembled, and knew it wouldn’t escape his notice.”

Romance books are practically required to include such material, and Meyer handles it ably, managing to describe the touchy-feelies of teen romance without being either crass or ridiculous: hard to do.  Judging by the amount of time Meyer’s principal characters spend in such physical petting, and although this book has a tense suspenseful ending and fantasy elements, it’s more properly considered a romance instead of a fantasy or adventure novel.  And because of this, I can’t picture your average guy reading this book and enjoying it–unless he kept skipping to the dialogue.

But it’s the fantasy element of Twilight that allows Meyer to set her conflict up in what will be at least a four-volume epic romance: Isabella Swann, know as Bella, (note the Romantically appropriate heroine name), falls for the mysterious Edward Cullen (also a name Romantic writers would approve of), a pale, god-like boy who is a student at her new high school in the (again, symbolically appropriately named) little backwoods town of Forks, Washington.  And Edward, with his bronze hair, cold white skin. and liquid gold eyes, has an enigmatic passion for her.  Bella discovers that Edward and his adoptive family are vampires who’ve gone on the wagon: while they lust for human blood as their natural food, they’ve learned to live on animal blood and to dwell peacefully with humans, so long as they can stay in cloudy areas (their white skins sparkle in the sun) with ample large wildlife, and no one notices that they don’t have heartbeats, age, or die.

Meyer is also up to the fantasy element: while making slight alterations to traditional vampire lore, she manages to make the vampire characters a believable “other” race: while deceptively human, the closer we get to them, the more we recognize the inhumaness.  Since we mainly stay among the “good” vampires, we feel at times as though we are among Tolkien’s elves: but elves who wear designer clothing, drive hot cars, and have unmentionable eating habits that they are too polite to mention in conversation.  Yet the sight of blood can send them into a frightening shark-like feeding frenzy.

Edward knows his vampire state will mean that a relationship with Bella will be one of temptation and frustration as he fights against his natural urges.  But being a permanent teenager (he became a vampire at age 17, about a hundred years ago), he swings from one extreme to another: first he actively ignores Bella, the first girl he’s ever fallen for, but then he throws caution to the wind and pursues her.  Since he has a moral compass, his unease with his choice drives the series’s main conflict: can he and Bella find love together as undead and living without compromising his principles?

Over the course of the book, Bella becomes aware that Edward does have a further choice: he could inject Bella with his vampirish venom.  After three days of agony, Bella would become a vampire like himself.  To Bella, this sounds like the good life: after a short bout of pain, she can have an eternity of conjugal bliss and undead adventure.  What teenage girl wouldn’t leap at the chance?  But Edward refuses: he thinks Bella is selling human life short, and that if she makes the choice to become undead, she’ll regret it.

Is it a parable?  Or is it just a romance story?  Is Meyer exploiting a choice dramatic situation or trying to tap some kind of message?  Hard to tell.  Twilight, determined by Bella’s first-person narrative point of view, could be female fantasy no deeper than shimmers in a puddle.  And the book gives ample room to voice the conventional young-romance mix of sex, love, and death-longing, the recurring theme of so much teen poetry and art and rock songs: you can practically see the movie posters and hear the sound track already as you read it.  But Edward, the moral compass of the story for all of his toying and sarcasm, might be the way for the author to angle in on a deeper meaning about male and female sexuality.

Edward is the ideal dream boy for Bella, and for almost any female (and “I Love Edward” fangirl clubs have sprung up nationwide): he’s gorgeous, he’s committed, and he prefers to snuggle.  He’s “sexy” in the conventional way: he makes no secret of his raging passion for Bella.  But I suspect what makes him the most attractive is his restraint.  Because he doesn’t throw himself upon Bella and tear into her, but keeps a constant vigilance on his libido, he seems even more alluring.

Unrestrained masculine sexuality is terrifying to women: as talk show host Dennis Prager readily admits, “It’s terrifying to us men too!”  It’s easy to see in Edward’s struggle with his natural urges a parallel to every good man’s struggle to be chaste.  And Bella finds this irresistible.  Her eagerness to kiss and be kissed by Edward means that he has to keep fighting her off as opposed to the usual reverse.  I admit it’s a lot easier in the dating relationship if the man takes the lead in controlling himself, and Bella’s throwing herself at Edward has annoyed more than a few readers.  I can’t tell if the author is applauding Bella’s “girl’s choice” sexuality or criticizing it by showing the havoc it wreaks on Edward.

But in the end, what real full-blooded man could compete with Edward?  Edward is capable of spending night after night in Bella’s bedroom, stroking her face and singing her lullabies, without lifting a finger to deflower her (though we’re told that he wouldn’t mind doing so if he could keep himself from putting tooth to neck).  His constant caressing and heartfelt vocalizations of love probably fills Bella’s love tank, and that of the sighing female reader, but will that reader be able to find a real boyfriend or husband who can follow suit?

Male sexuality seeks to be one–passionately–with the female, and seeks it relentlessly and single-mindedly. I’m not entirely sure that Edward and Bella’s virginal relationship in the first book is the result of Mormon morality as some have speculated.  It could be: or maybe Meyer knows most girls prefer cuddling over copulation, so she’s giving them the full fantasy.  If so, she’s doing them no favors.  The teen girl who takes Edward Cullen as her lodestar will be bitterly disappointed in the real seventeen year old guys she’s likely to meet.   And the seventeen year old boy who tries to emulate Edward’s actions is setting himself up for a hard fall.

But of course, that’s not the book’s purpose.  As lush, dark romance in the tradition of Keats and the Brontes and Margaret Mitchell, Twilight is a likely classic.  As a parable about the sexes, it might have a lesson to imprint on our subconsciouses: we’ll have to wait till the final book to be sure.  But as a guide to real life, I’d steer female readers towards Dr. Laura’s The Care and Feeding of Husbands instead.

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credit: TheMovieDB.org

Regina Doman specializes in writing books based on fairy tales, including most recently, The Midnight Dancers, a novel for teens and adults based on "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." (See www.fairytalenovels.com.) She also writes, edits, and oh yes, is helping her husband raise their seven children in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She’s a member of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, and can be reached via www.reginadoman.com.

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