Vampire Love

My niece, like about a billion other teenage girls, is a big, big fan of Stephenie Meyer’s series of books. When we were having a bookish chat over Christmas I said I’d read Twilight; I was most intrigued to know what all the fuss was about. I do find these big phenomenon fascinating, because at the heart of a cultish bestseller like this, there has to be a potent fantasy casting its magic spell. Twilight is a love story between a 17-year old girl, Bella, who has come to the wettest, dreariest part of the US to be with her father, after her mother has remarried. Hold that thought in your mind, it’s important. Heroines of love stories never have their parents around, are orphans in an ideal world, but need to be isolated in any case. There she becomes attracted to a boy of unearthly beauty, Edward Cullen, whose family tends to keep its distance from the rest of the school crowd. When Edward saves her from a fatal road accident by sheer superhuman strength, she is instantly aware that he is, as the saying goes, different from all the other boys. Yes, indeed. It turns out that the Cullens are vampires, but of an unusually civilized kind. They have learned to overcome their animal instincts and will not attack their own, choosing instead to take off for long periods of hunting in the wilderness. But when Edward and Bella fall in love, their relationship is unusually fraught, as her attraction for him is partly romance and partly straightforward hunger. The dawning sexuality in which the narrative is steeped is necessarily strictly contained, as for all Edward’s tender love and chivalry, there’s always a risk he might just forget himself and eat her.

Such a possibility is a masterstroke designed to send a thrill down every teenage girl’s spine. Doesn’t desire itself, with its urge to possess and consume, always inherently contain the threat of destroying the object it wants so badly? But that would be the end of that, so no, of course Edward isn’t about to eat her. What he does instead is protect her, ever more strenuously, ever more courageously as the story progresses. To begin with, Bella simply wanders into trouble, over and over again, but by the end you could be forgiven for seeing her as actively seeking her own destruction, partly out of a fascination with sacrifice, partly out of the pleasure of dicing with death and having Edward rescue her from the very brink. So what Twilight sets up is a fantasy of love as a place of perfect safety, perfect rescue. Much emphasis is placed on the inseparability of Bella and Edward, the fact that Bella cannot let Edward out of her sight for a moment without being panicky and scared, and the sheer, tumultuous bliss she experiences when she is with him, in a relationship that hovers on the edge of sexuality whilst firmly foreclosing its possibility. Hmmm, I thought, interesting.

My first inclination was to view this as a very moral book. In an age of graphic and insistent sexuality, it glamourises constraint in relationships and reintroduces old-fashioned virtues of chivalry, respect and romance. The vampires are exemplary in their desire to choose the path of virtue and to curb their animal natures. Bella, like most teenagers, can’t ‘explain’ anything to her parents, and the enforced secrecy is what almost leads to disaster. I was a bit astounded to learn that this vampire romance had been written by a Mormon mother and then, in retrospect, it did make sense. But as I poked around the internet having a look at other reactions, I was surprised by a Catholic website that took great exception to the books. There was a passing reference to the unpalatable theme of the undead, but what really got to the mother who was writing was the fact that these young people were toying with sexual feelings at the immature age of 17, and in one shocking scene had spent a night together (in an entirely chaste way). Madness is rarely wrong, just misguided, and so that gave me food for thought.

And so I wondered more about love and romance and the shaping fantasy behind the book. The dominant feature of Edward’s and Bella’s relationship is its symbiosis, which is to say that they merge into one another, they want to create a little universe in which only the two of them exist. Inside that world, Edward is all powerful and protective, Bella utterly vulnerable and protected. In other words, the relationship returns Bella to the first and most potent of all love affairs – the one with the mother. When babies are born they get a very powerful experience of love in their mother’s arms. It’s the place where we all learn what we think is meant by that capacious ragbag of a word ‘love’, and the experience will determine how we respond to love, give love and what we want from love, possibly for the rest of our lives. It’s a founding moment, and one that casts a long, long shadow. That first experience seems to fade as the child grows up and separates from the mother. Now, separation should not be confused with the end of love for a parent, no, it’s the end of one kind of love and the beginning of another that is better because not based in dependency. Family relationships can be deeply loving with all parties contentedly separated, but some children can think they have moved right away from the parental domain out of dislike, and yet still find themselves conducting endless angry, frustrated conversations with the parent lodged in the back of their mind. Separation is a healthy thing, for all concerned, although mothers in particular are often dazzled by how hard it is to give their children up to the world. And daughters can find it harder than sons to break away from their mothers because they are the same gender, destined to be similar. Often the first chance the daughter has to make a decisive break with her mother is when she falls in love.

It’s inevitable that love affairs are haunted by the ghosts of relationships past. All early romances are destined to be about recreating perfect mothers in the people we love. The more perfect the ‘mothering’ we receive in a relationship, the better it’s likely to look. Although not necessarily for the children who have formed what are sometimes called ‘wobbly’ attachments with their first carers. If the mother (or whoever) has been significantly distant, absent or over-demanding of the child, then it’s more than likely the child will have the same images of perfection in his or her head, and long quite desperately for a love relationship. Once inside it, however, they will find either a) their feet head rapidly for the door or b) they behave badly, capriciously (despite all good intentions), criticizing their loved one whilst throwing themselves into their lap screaming ‘Deal With Me!’ Well, there’s a little bit of that in all relationships, of course, but as with most things, it’s a sliding scale. Still, I digress. Relationships are the place where we hope to experience the homecoming of symbiosis, of feeling at one with another person, seen, recognized, understood, loved just as we are, protected, special. But they are generally the place where we work that early relationship out in an adult context of mutual give and take, tolerance, compromise and hard work. It’s the place where we really understand what it is to be separate and loving – not in the relationship out of sheer, helpless need and thus crippled by low self-esteem, not requiring perfection from the other person because our survival seems to depend on it. Unconditional love is what all children must have; but love between two adults must be conditional on the good-enough behaviour of all concerned, or else potentially destructive inequalities result.

Which brings us back, finally, to Twilight and Bella, who arrives in Forks motherless, and thus ready to embark on the adult adventure. Only in her love affair, Edward, as a mothering figure, is almost too perfect and too powerful. As the novel progresses, so Bella regresses, becoming ever more incapable of looking after herself, ever more threatened by dangerous external forces, until at the book’s climax she is literally carried about, bundled up in the arms of Edward’s family as if she were indeed a little baby, the gap between her clumsy incompetence and the vampires superhuman perfection mirroring the gap of development between the child and the parent. When I thought about that, I thought about the outrage of the Catholic mother, whose possessive control of her children brooked no opposition from competitive vampires. Even seventeen was too young an age in that mother’s eyes for the hint of separating sexuality to be whispered into her children’s imaginations, but possibly the chasteness of the relationship actually made it worse, as if a mother’s place could clearly be usurped and accomplished better by some pretty stranger. And it makes sense, too, that the big question facing Bella in the remainder of the series, is whether or not she should become a vampire. It would only be by raising herself to their standards of development that the relationship could ever be an equal one. Overall, I felt that Twilight was an intriguing halfway house for teenage girls, a fantasy of symbiotic love with a twinge of controlled sexuality, the lure of delicious regression in the arms of a safe hero, and the offer, distant but powerful, of a painful process whose accomplishment would finally mean a relationship on equal terms. No wonder it’s been so very, very appealing.

26 thoughts on “Vampire Love

  1. What an interesting analysis. I haven’t read the book but what strikes me about it is how it’s a lot like the Victorian Dracula–danger, attraction, seduction–except the vampires are nicer. What concerns me about it is that it reiterates a Victorian model of sexuality: passive, weak female, strong rescuing active male. It doesn’t surprise me that a Mormon mother wrote it. After all, isn’t it part of Mormon belief that a woman can get to heaven only if her husband pulls her through the earthly veil?

  2. Lilian – yes, it’s a lot like that! All the Victorian ingredients, plus charm and civilisation. But I feel as you do about Bella’s increasing passivity, and wonder how following books in the series deal with that (or indeed whether they deal with it). As for Mormons, I really know no details about their religion whatsoever, but the belief you quote sounds tremendously romantic.

    Bluestocking – Well, one was sort of enough, really. I thought it was fun, and I am sure I would have consumed them all in my younger days, but I feel that that kind of romance is perhaps not quite where I’m at nowadays. Edward doesn’t look like anyone’s mother, does he? It’s only in creating and maintaining a safe environment, in the extraordinary interest he displays in Bella (I certainly never had a boyfriend question me for two days about the intricacies of my life) and the constancy of his presence that his behaviour echoes a very precious and appealing kind of (mother) love.

  3. Yeah, I’m with Lilian. Passivity in female characters is one of my pet hates. Actually, it’s really only a pet hate if the animal in question is huge and fire-breathing. I can imagine losing patience with Bella toot sweet. Eat her, Eddie, just go ahead and eat her. Here’s the salt. But what did your niece have to say about all this, Litlove?

  4. i also find it interesting that you read the strong rescuing male as a mother figure. quite a break from the way feminist theory would have us read such a character.

  5. I think you should read the last one, Breaking Dawn, for lots of juicy stuff on motherhood. i would love to hear what you make of that one, after this brilliant analysis!!

  6. Doctordi – Lol! I’d love to know what you think of a book like this, after having read it. It may of course strike you very differently. I haven’t emailed my niece yet, but I do know she loves the books. I’m really interested to hear what she has to say now that I can ask more precise questions! Emily – well, no, not really a break. Ever since Julia Kristeva challenged the idea that the father provided the supreme figure in the child’s identity formation (which would have been the early 80s, I guess) romance criticism has been unanimous (if it chose that particular kind of theoretical approach) in seeing the male hero as a return to the early relationship with a phallic, all-powerful mother. Diana Holmes wrote a book entitled Romance and Readership in Twentieth Century France that has very good introductory sections detailing this kind of thought, if that interests you at all. Yogamum – ooohhh, vampire motherhood – now there’s a thought! Thank you very much for that heads up (and your kind words) – I’ll definitely have to read that one.

  7. Well, thank you so much for writing about this book so intelligently, so I can learn something about the book without having to read it! I mean, I’m sure reading it wouldn’t be bad at all, but I don’t see it happening … and I’m very glad to have some insight into the popularity of the series.

  8. What a fascinating analysis! I have no intention of reading any of these books but have wondered what the fuss was about. Even as a teen I doubt I would have read these books, maybe the first one just because my friends did. I much preferred strong girl characters, girls on adventures and girls alone and if I couldn’t find that then I read science fiction because I was not much interested in romance but more interested in a different kind of danger and excitement. So given your mother/daughter analysis I’m not sure what that says about me, but there you have it🙂

  9. Thanks for reading Twilight, and providing this useful analysis so that I know what to expect when my children hit it in about five years time.

    The Edward/Bella relationship is not unlike my first love affair: my boyfriend was smothering and controlling and because I was young and insecure I thought it was love. A good lesson to learn early, methinks.

  10. Wow. This is fascinating; I’ve never heard that idea before. I’m totally going to have to analyze my own book for this now.

    Though, speaking only of relationships in general, my education leads me to mistrust such one-sided power/surrender in a relationship. Not because I believe men and women are the same (I’m actually fairly conservative and traditional in my roles-opinions; husband the head of the wife, and all that), but because I see that one-sided relationship as half a step from a controlling, then abusive, relationship.

    And either could look the same from the outside.

  11. Pingback: Untangling Tales » Hero as Mother?

  12. Your analysis is fascinating. I eagerly read through Twilight and have yet to read any of the others in the series. I, ultimately, was a bit disappointed that Bella seemed to start out as such a strong young woman, making her own decisions, etc., and then did what all young women seem to do in first love: become so weak, losing that personality to her love. On the other hand, I LOVE vampires and liked the twist of these “good vampires” in this book. I also liked the fact that the book was so sexy without explicit sex (we’ve lost that art in our society, and I am so glad to see that teenage girls are hooked on a book that has, to some degree, brought it back). I had no idea the author was a Mormon, but that makes a lot of sense.

  13. Dorothy – ooh no, not a book for you, I don’t think. You’d be having the same response as Stefanie and Doctordi!🙂 Stefanie – they broke the mould when they made you, my friend, so none of the normal rules apply.🙂 I think you like your horror a bit more horrifying than this, but it was fun to read and analyse. Charlotte – lol! Yes, your daughters may well get interested, unless something else has come to take its place in the meantime. I wonder how many young girls have a similar structure to their fantasies or their early relationships? Nancy Friday in her book My Mother, My Self, argues that the close relationship daughters and mothers have is in fact a key to understanding the desire for a rescuing Romeo. That’s another very interesting book, by the way. Iliana – what a wonderful article that is! Thank you so much for sharing the link. Amy Jane – I see exactly where you’re coming from in fearing an unequal power structure as a springboard for much worse. I think an awful lot of bad behaviour gets excused in the name of love. I read your link post with great interest, too. Doctordi – oh what a treat the blogging world is in for when you get to grips with Twilight. I’ll look forward to that no end.🙂 Emily – I couldn’t agree more – the vampires are pretty cool, all things considered. As ever, it’s romance that messes people up!🙂 I also liked the restraint – the postmodern in art is often about showing everything, and more, and yet representations that include the imagination are ultimately far more powerful.

  14. I started to read the first book in the series, but was hugely put off by the relationships of the characters, which seemed very unhealthy, to me. I have an objection to what I would call “emotional pornography” — writing that reinforces the male-female relationship as one of submission and rescue. It’s an inevitable thread in all romance writing, even with strong female heroines … there’s always a submission/rescue element.

  15. David – reading your comment, I wonder whether I made it plain enough in my post that I also think the relationship as it stands is unhealthy. It may be a fantasy to return to a state of perfect security in strong arms, but for most of us, fantasy realised is nothing short of psychic disaster. The relationship between Edward and Bella at this stage could go either way, although from what I’ve been reading elsewhere, it sounds like the outcome is not growth and individuation. There’s a lot that’s not quite healthy with romance, including the lack of knowledge about the other person that it implies, but it unarguably exerts a huge pull over the imagination.

  16. David – lol! Quite, and fully deserving of the upper case!

    Gentle Reader – thank you! I like to perform that service of reading books so others don’t have to. Bring ’em on!🙂

  17. Wow. Practically everyone I know loves the Twilight series and I leafed through it at the airport but ended up not buying it because nothing my eyes laid on looked remotely interesting. You can get a good feel for a book by leafing through it and the feel I got was that I outgrew this type of writing when I was 12. Still it has bugged me a lot that everyone I know loves it and I wondered why (but not enough to read the books). You’ve given a very intelligent and plausible explanation for that. I think the Catholic mom is a bit weird, though.

  18. What a wonderful deconstruction of this book – when I’ve tried to discuss this book (or series) with friends I’ve always broken down into incoherence because I couldn’t properly articulate what I found so disturbing (and yet, appealing in a “I would have loved this when I was a teenager” sense) about the story. Now I have a nice link to direct them to🙂 While it would be an utter waste of your time reading the rest of the series (the writing doesn’t improve, and Bella takes passivity to new heights), I do regret that we’ll never read your thoughts on them – particularly the spectacularly bad “Breaking Dawn”.

  19. What an interesting post. While I knew about YA novels getting on better without parent figures around, it didn’t occur to me that the Bella/Edward relationship was mimicing the mother-child relationship. So does Bella seek out (or fall into easily) this sort of relationship because her relationship with her mother was lacking? I read the first two books, but with vampire stories, a little bit goes a very long way with me, and Bella was just a little too passive for too much of the story. I wonder what it says about society/readers that this whole genre is huge now (if looking at the books on the racks at Walmart is any indicator…).

  20. Honeypiehorse – I can never resist the cultish things – they always have something fascinating at their heart. I’m relieved you also think Catholic mom is weird. Didn’t strike me as a healthy attitude at all!🙂

    Celia – I’m very interested in issues around motherhood, and when one of the other commenters said that Breaking Dawn was all about a half-vampire baby, well…. I may just have to read that volume after all. And thank you for such very kind words – I treasure them!

    Danielle – I think that there is a magnetic attraction in young people towards an intense, symbiotic relationship. It’s the best of love as they know it, and it makes sense then to expect it or to try to recreate it. And often for girls, it’s easier to do this when they have broken away from their real mothers. Or else they need such a relationship in order to break away, so that they shouldn’t be without the best of their mothers when they’ve moved beyond them. So I think that’s why it’s such a huge phenomenon with young girls. It acts out a fantasy for them, in a nice safe way (good old books! they always have ways to soothe). But the older one gets, I think the more wary one becomes of that sort of all-encompassing love and the passivity that goes with it.

  21. I loved all 4 books. I’m 28. I really didn’t have an issue with Bella being passive. Its not as though the book is saying its ok to let your boyfriend walk all over you. I think if you take the vampire part out of it, its a sweet teenage love story no more no less. I really enjoyed the fact that he was so much stronger than Bella. He was always coming to her rescue. And the fact that they didn’t have sex shows good morals. And its established in the other books to wait until marriage. I loved all of them and I hope she continues the series by finishing Midnight Sun. I think that Bella was a strong character throughout all of the books. Its ok to let go and not HAVE to be the strong woman all the time. Of course I don’t know that if I had kids I’d want my daughter thinking its ok because realistically ladies we all know that the “real world” is much different.

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