A few weeks ago, a discussion arose in my freshmen class about the Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer. I took it upon myself to sit and devote time to reading them in order to understand with what my students were involving themselves. What I have found is that there are a number of questionable things from a Catholic viewpoint and that the novels are a representation as well as a continuance of the degradation we see today in Western culture.
For those who are unfamiliar with the novels, Twilight is a love story between Isabella (“Bella”) Swan and Edward Cullen set in the State of Washington that takes place over the course of four books—Twilight , New Moon , Eclipse and Breaking Dawn . The catch is that Edward is a vampire trying to live incognito among humans. He is part of a vampire coven founded by Carlisle Cullen who preaches a different lifestyle for vampires. This particular coven drinks only the blood of animals as opposed to that of humans, jokingly referred to by Edward as a “vegetarian” lifestyle akin to eating tofu.
Twilight sets the attraction between Edward and Bella. In New Moon , Edward leaves Bella so she can return to a normal life. Bella is devastated and develops a relationship with her friend, Jacob Black who is a Quileute Indian and shape-shifter. The two develop feelings for each other, only to have Edward return later and resume the relationship. Eclipse solidifies this relationship in the midst of a threat posed to Bella by a vampire named Victoria all the while with Jacob trying to get back with Bella. Breaking Dawn is the culmination wherein Bella and Edward marry and they conceive a child. Bella is mortally injured at the end of her pregnancy, becomes a vampire and has to save her child from the head vampire coven called the Volturi.
Recently I was at my local Walmart and I noticed that the electronics section was still showing the Twilight movie for promotional purposes. The DVD has been released since March 21st and I have never seen a DVD displayed for two months straight. I inquired about this to an employee. She told me without joking, “The female employees threatened to quit if the DVD was replaced .” Intrigued, I asked her for her opinion as to the success of the Twilight books and/or movie. She responded, “Because every woman needs an Edward in her life .”
The first logical question would be what is it about Edward that every woman needs in her life? He is charming, funny, mysterious, dashing, gentlemanly. These are all good qualities in a man, the fact of his paranormal abilities aside. However, I do not think such things adequately describe the reason for Bella’s attraction to Edward due to how Stephenie Meyer portrays Edward and Bella’s relationship.
There is an adage that goes, “absence makes the heart grow fonder .” In New Moon , Edward leaves Bella so she can live a normal human life. However, Bella’s life has been so dramatically altered by Edward that she can not live a normal life. Bella intuitively knows that she will never be the same again. She becomes depressed and despondent, moping around and scaring her father who threatens to send her back to live with her mother in Florida. Bella herself says that she is like a moon still orbiting a planet no longer there and in defiance of the laws of gravity.
Edward’s absence creates a void in Bella’s life that must be filled. Stephenie Meyer’s way of filling this void is by having Bella seek danger. Throughout New Moon , Bella imagines that she hears Edward’s voice in her mind every time she is around danger. In clear defiance of her father’s opposition to motorcycles, Bella obtains two broken-down motorcycles and brings them to Jacob Black to fix-up (the catalyst for their growing relationship in New Moon ). He does so and the experience of danger that comes with motorcycle-riding and keeping it secret from her father gives Bella her desired rush. In addition to this, while on an outing Bella comes across some suspicious-looking guys that she thinks might be the same ones who tried to rape her in Twilight . Edward intervened then to save her life and Bella experiences a similar rush of danger.
By doing the above, Bella is looking for the thrill of romance and to be swept off her feet. Edward, with all his paranormal abilities such as running fast and mind-reading, is able to provide Bella with such things in a particularly unique fashion. The added “dark” and “mysterious” nature of Edward only serves to accentuate Bella’s morbid infatuation with Edward. “Morbid” because she becomes so deeply lured-in by Edward’s mystique that Bella early-on declares her intent to become like Edward, i.e. a vampire. This takes me to another observation on the series — aging.
A co-worker discussed with me recently her take on the series, which was largely bound up in an underlying “aging” theme. She said to me, “Women have a fear of aging because when you age and you are a woman, you’re just old. A man who is old is not said to be old but ‘distinguished .’” Bella has an opportunity to stay with her lover in a never-changing state — age-wise — and so staying forever young to be with him becomes a steadfast priority for Bella because aging takes her away from Edward. Edward, however, is reluctant to change her because she has the option of staying human whereas he did not. It is only when Bella clinically dies that Edward changes her.
Behind Meyer’s aging motif is a fundamental problem. There is a narrow vision of life and existence that is portrayed. Bella’s fears are rooted in a lack of supernatural vision in its proper theological sense, not how Meyer consistently employs the term to speak of the world of vampires and other mythical monsters and extraordinary powers. Bella is devoid of true supernatural sight rooted in the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. She is too infatuated with Edward to see past him. At one point Meyer even refers to the “next life” as being that of the life of a vampire as opposed to its traditional eschatological meaning of death, judgment, heaven and hell.
I am reminded of the discussion that Pope Benedict XVI gives in his Encyclical Spe Salvi on eternal life. He asks in paragraph 10:
Do we really want this — to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end — this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.[i]
In the Twilight series, Bella wishes to postpone death permanently in order to be with Edward. She is convinced that by being with him, “existence” (she actually hesitates to use the word “life” in reference to being a vampire) is ultimately bearable. This is not indicative of the hope that is in the Christian message of salvation and redemption. Pope Benedict says further in Spe Salvi 11, “…it is true that to eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit .”
God and the supernatural life do not exist in the world of Twilight , despite a very light spattering of religious references. If it could be said that God exists in Twilight , the very notion of Him is secularized. A particularly devastating scene of this came in New Moon . Bella has saved Edward from demise and is brought before the Volturi for an introduction. On the way out of the meeting, she sees some people being herded back into the dwelling — “food” for the Volturi.
In the above scene, Meyer writes a peculiar detail into the story through Bella’s eyes. Bella sees a scared woman trying to communicate in a foreign language with those around her but no one seems to understand her. This woman has a Rosary in her hands. As the woman and others are herded past Bella to go before the Volturi, Bella knows what is coming. Her fears are confirmed when she hears the screaming.
What imagery is imparted to the reader in the above scene? The Rosary is a weapon against evil and it has just been portrayed as ineffectual. This is not to say that Meyer should have shown the Rosary hurling lightning bolts or anything of such nature. In fact, Meyer could have written the scene just as well without writing-in the Rosary. What I am saying is that the Rosary is looked at from a secular viewpoint and this is a lesson being subliminally taught to the reader. This is very dangerous from the Catholic perspective.
The Rosary story is only one such example. Crucifixes are another. Simply put, Crucifixes are nothing to vampires. Carlisle himself — the son of a 17th Century Protestant vampire hunter minister — displays his father’s Crucifix in his home. This runs completely counter-cultural to the traditional vampire lore of Western (and some Eastern) culture. This is entirely understandable as Meyer has admitted that she did not do much research on vampire lore before writing the novels.[ii]
In large response to criticisms of novels, I have often heard it said, “It’s just a story ” or “It’s just a book .” This expression is used to say that the reader does not take the book literally, as factual or truthful. Simply put, it is sheer entertainment value. The expression, however, often forgets that stories express the identity of a culture and are indicative of its history and tradition. Stephenie Meyers herself seems to understand this fact of literature through her character Jacob Black and the Quileute Indian tribe.
In New Moon , Jacob and his friends realize that they have the ability to turn into wolves. After this realization, the elders of the Quileute tribe sit everyone (including Bella) around a campfire and tell the legend of how the Quileutes came to be. Jacob admits to Bella that he and his friends thought it was just a story. However, the ability to shape-shift compels Jacob to tell Bella further that the legends have taken on new significance for him and his friends and they now realize the stories are true.
In the above scene, Meyer is telling her audience that stories and legends do indicate history and culture. There is something to be said for this way of passing on cultural identity. By dismissing this method vis-à-vis “it’s just a story ”, the importance of the method is diminished and degraded. Indeed, Meyer portrays Jacob Black as being a product of his age by his initial reticence towards tribal culture (which is ironically the catalyst for Bella knowing about the Cullens’ identity as vampires). This changes once he realizes the responsibility given to him is real and he accepts it.
As Catholics, we must ask ourselves if “it’s just a story ” is being used to further the aims of secularism by degrading the transmission of the faith once delivered to all the saints (Jude 3). Books such as the Twilight series are tell-tale signs of culture and we must ask ourselves if the lessons in Twilight are such that we want to share with our children. Ineffective sacramentals, a divorce from culture and tradition and ultimately a breakdown of a supernatural vision are all factors that must play a part in our discernment.
[i] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi . (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 30.
[ii] <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1834663,00.html> (Accessed on June 2, 2009). The question was put to Stephenie Meyers, “What kind of research on vampires, if any, did you do before writing Twilight? ” Meyers responded: “The only time I really did any research on vampires was when the character Bella did research on vampires. Because I was creating my own world, I didn’t want to find out just how many rules I was breaking. ”