Monday, July 20, 2009

A 21st c. Darcy

Twilight by Stephenie Meyers (Little, Brown & Co., 2005) 497 pages

Even though I am not quite through the book (I am racing through the last fifty pages), I will venture an opinion. And you know how shy I am about venturing an opinion. I was trying to understand the appeal of this book for teenage girls and tweenies (like my daughter) as well as motherly types (such as myself).

As any sentient being living on this part of the planet knows, the book and film are a huge phenomenon, nearly approaching the hysteria of the Harry Potter series but more appropriate fare for teens rather than children. Indeed, when the first Twilight book came out there was all this blather about the new J.K. Rowling floating about.

What is at the root of it I wondered. I think I understand this better now having read the book. I won't reiterate the plot: if you are a fan you know it; if you despise the franchise you have stopped reading this blog long ago.

And this entry is not even about the quality of the writing (which I find a bit mediocre at times - where was her editor?) or the ingeniousness of the story (which I think is quite clever and fascinating) but more about why it is appealing to women and teenage girls.

When Bella Swan, the Twilight heroine, picks up an omnibus of Jane Austen's novels I had my aha! moment. Meyers effectively capitalizes on the fantasy of the dark, mysterious, and possibly dangerous, hero that many women are infatuated with in both their fantasy and real lives.

In fact, Bella comments on the similarity of the name of her beloved Edward with the names of the male heroes in the Austen novels as she leafs through them, ironically seeking a diversion from thinking about her object of desire, Edward Cullen, but leading the reader (us) directly to the origins of Meyers' narrative template right back two hundred years.

Edward Cullen, the ageless and beautiful (as we are incessantly told by Bella) 17 year old vampire is haughty, sullen and superior (as well as handsome and withdrawn) which sounds suspiciously like my favourite Austen hero Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

Edward, a 21st century Darcy with fangs, initially attracts all with his beauty and superiority as a male specimen then repels with his haughtiness. Initially, only Bella (and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice) come to learn of their more nobler manly attributes: courage, strength, intelligence, and a paternalistic desire to protect, and shield, the woman they love.

Edward Cullen purportedly belongs to a superior class of beings, vampires, as does Darcy (the aristocracy).

In another instance, we see another Austen hero, John Knightley, is scolding, over protective and paternal (much like Edward Cullen) in Emma yet at first Edward Cullen appears bookish and withdrawn like the more subdued Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.

And Bella easily resembles a classic Austen heroine: quirky, smart, seemingly blending in with the crowd with no remarkable attributes yet she easily captures the heart of the hero who notices her for her differences and her indifference to him.

Elizabeth is initially belittled as a potential mate for Darcy: she is too poor, not pretty enough, not cultured enough (or so she is deemed by Bingley's sisters Caroline and Louisa) as is Bella by the rest of her highschool mates in Forks. They can scarcely believe that Edward has singled her out: strikingly pale, clumsy and unathletic, unaware of her own attractiveness, and uninterested in clothes or boys or flirting.

Darcy, like Edward, blames himself for his desired one's misfortunes when sister Lydia runs away with Wickham and damages the reputation of the Bennett family in Pride and Prejudice. Bella's life and family are endangered by the "bad" vampires tracking her. Both men take it upon themselves to right the situation: Darcy will bribe Wickham into behaving honorably towards Lydia while Edward spirits Bella away from the tracker to protect her and her father Charlie. Neither family initially knows the true extent of the men's devotion and selflessness.

Bella prevails in the end, therefore we prevail ... the average girl deemed to be special, beautiful and handpicked by the most desirable boy in town. It taps into that fantasy extremely well.

The book also adds that element of danger that some women secretly seek out: being with Edward can literally kill Bella because of his attraction to her as a human and his need for blood. They are passionate but not sexually active. Some reviews I read implied there was an anti-sex message rooted in Meyer's Mormon beliefs implicit in the book.

Possibly, but I don't necessarily read it as such. I read it as an expression of the teenage fear of the male animal and sexual relations and fear of the unknown: will I be overpowered by him? will I lose myself in him? do I want him that much? am I willing to give up my sovereignty in exchange for sexual fulfillment? Clearly Bella is willing to take that chance ... she puts herself and even her own father in jeopardy as well.

This feeling of the need of girls and women to surrender to a grand passion is alive and well. And many of us are still very susceptible to it. It's quite a ride ...


kathyama59 said...

Fascinating read on the Twilight book. I now see how Stepanie Meyers debt to the Victorian classics goes farther than just reference. By the way, Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights are part of Bella and Edward's reading lists too.

I agree with your thoughts about the appeal of the book to the young ones and older chicks like us as well.

In later books there is a lot of curiosity about and pursuit of a sexual relationship. I thought it was handled well, my daughter felt uncomfortable knowing her young cousin, (14)was reading the series. I pointed out to her that I talked to her about the "facts of life" when she was very young. Her concern was the emotional intensity of the plot combined with the sexual relationship, and she wondered how younger girls would handle it.

I wondered too, but would rather deal with a "teachable moment" than hide facts.

I must admit, I could not put the books down and the girly girl in me (all 20%) can't wait until the next movie comes. I think we all deserve a wallow in a good romance. I certainly enjoyed it.

A Lit Chick said...

Thanks for your thoughts PhD Mom!

Well, after a great deal of resistance I think I am really hooked on this ... I started New Moon and felt quite disturbed in learning of Edward's apparent abandonment of Bella in the early part of the novel. It gets very dark (although my daughter said, "Don't worry Mommy, it it all works out"...") :)

And I can totally relate to the teenage despair at the loss of loved one.

Looking forward to reading your blog!

kathyama59 said...

This blog is actually my virtual handout site for workshops etc. so other than an old essay for grad school, there is not too much of interest there. I just found a kind of writing voice with my supervisor, Rishma Dunlop. I have yet to post any of the work. I guess I am still a closet writer although I am told that getting "published" in a peer reviewed journal is my next required step in my academic journey.

You can read some of my stuff or see my artwork at:


A Lit Chick said...

Yes, I will check it out.