The best thing since Harry Potter?

It is hard not to notice when a book takes off like a bushfire around the teen/tween female population. If you have never heard of the Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer, you are not a teenage girl and can’t have talked to one for some time. They are obsessed. With the fourth book out this week and the movie set for December, they can’t contain their excitement. On Facebook the movie trailer has provoked a string of oohs and aahs from girls who declare they are breathless with anticipation. “Breathless” seems to be the password for the Twilight fan club.

Twilight, the first book, appeared in October 2005. It has been translated into 20 languages and has won numerous honours, including a New York Times Editor’s Choice, Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and Best Book of the Decade So Far. The movie will star Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), who will forevermore be known as Edward.

The sequels, New Moon and Eclipse, both reached number one on the New York Times Best Sellers list, Eclipse replacing the final Harry Potter book in the top slot after only three weeks. This week's release, Breaking Dawn, is the fourth and final installment of the series.

The books tell the story of 17-year-old Isabella Swan and her “forbidden love” relationship with Edward Cullen, a vampire who masquerades as a human.

Bella is plain, clumsy and prone to accidents, but having recently moved to rainy Forks she enjoys popularity as the new girl. She has no real friends -- none that she spends unforced time with. She has a shallow relationship with her father, Charlie, whom she “hates lying to” even though she does so frequently since, “for his own good”, he remains ignorant about vampires. While Edward is always telling Bella how selfless she is, she never does anything to support the theory. All she wants is for him to make her a vampire so that she can be breathless in his presence 24/7 for all eternity.

Edward should be 100, but since vampires do not age he has remained 17. He is perfect in every regard (beauty, strength, speed, intelligence, immortality...) but, strangely, he never fell in love until he met Bella, to whose blood scent he is irresistibly attracted.

Jacob Black is a 16-year-old werewolf, mortal enemy of vampires. His declaration of love for Bella turns the romance into a love triangle.

One thing is for certain: it is not characterisation that makes these books irresistible to adolescent girls. It's romance, of a sort. What is more, Bella’s ordinary, vaguely sketched looks allow any female reader to put herself in place of the heroine. Tens of thousands are joining Facebook and MySpace groups such as, “I am absolutely in love with Edward Cullen”, or signing on as friends to his hundreds of profiles. No need to be beautiful, just hide behind a pretty name and you can still manage to attract the most perfect guy in existence -- it’s a teenage girl’s dream.

Sensuality, with a dash of ‘virtue’

For parents, however, Meyers’ romantic world is a nightmare. While there is, technically, no premarital sex in the books, sex is a big part of what they’re about. The characters’ dominant -- almost exclusive -- trait is emotional (hormonal) sensitivity. The tone is one of perpetual breathlessness brought on by intense physical attraction. The language is very, very sensual. For example:

“Bella?” I turned and he was leaning toward me, his pale, glorious face just inches from mine. My heart stopped beating.

“Sleep well,” he said. His breath blew in my face, stunning me. It was the same exquisite scent that clung to his jacket, but in a more concentrated form. I blinked, thoroughly dazed. He leaned away.

I was unable to move until my brain had somewhat unscrambled itself...” (Twilight, p193)

By book three things are more explicit:

“Bella...” He shook his head slowly, but it didn’t feel like a denial as his face, his lips, moved back and forth across my throat. It felt more like surrender. My heart, racing already, spluttered frantically...

He did not stop kissing me. I was the one who had to break away, gasping for air. Even then his lips did not leave my skin, they just moved to my throat... (Eclipse, p449)

Meyer told the London Times she finds it “fun” to write about teen romance: “It’s the first time you fall in love, it’s the first time you kiss somebody. All those feelings are so much stronger. You are not calloused up yet...” Not yet. But, by leading girls down the path of sexual fantasy, she hastens the day when the callouses appear.

The odd thing is that Meyer is an observant Mormon. She attended Brigham Young University (run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) where premarital sex is considered “a violation of the honour code”. As a mother of three boys she hates to see young people “screw up” their lives with sex and she hopes her sons “are smart enough to…make the right choices”. With their mother as guide they’ll have to be very smart indeed.

“The right choices” in her fictional world are about not falling off a tightrope. The scene quoted above, for example, continues like this:

“No,” he promised solemnly. “I swear to you, we will try. After you marry me.”

I shook my head, and laughed glumly.

“You make me feel like a villain in a melodrama – twirling my moustache while I try to steal some poor girl’s virtue.”

His eyes were wary as they flashed across my face, then he quickly ducked down to press his lips against my collarbone.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” The short laugh that escaped me was more shocked than amused. “You’re trying to protect your virtue!” I covered my mouth with my hand to muffle the giggle that followed. The words were so... old-fashioned.”

“No, silly girl,” he muttered against my shoulder. “I’m trying to protect yours. And you’re making it shockingly difficult.” (Eclipse, pp452-453)

In the midst of all this sensuality the sudden appearance of restraint seems incongruous -- if not dishonest. “Virtue” turns out to be simply a line that can’t be crossed. Keep a sheet between you and it is all OK. But who could go that far and maintain real virtue? Sounds like a recipe for a lot of baby Junos with jaded teenage mums.

Meyer seems to think a “thou shalt not” ethic is a soul’s ticket to heaven: “Most religions believe there are some rules to follow,” says Edward piously. Rules. What a contrast to the message of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, which understands sex, relationships and affectivity as wonderful dimensions of human life, to be guarded and affirmed, not simply out of a fear of hell but to enable human beings to reach their full potential in a free and total gift of self.

Other problems

There are several other problems with these romances. Edward’s struggle to control his monstrous desire for Bella’s blood make human desires seem wonderfully natural by comparison. How bad can sex be compared to killing someone and feeding on their blood? The moral benchmark has moved way off centre.

There is a complete lack of realism in the expectations placed on the male in this relationship. After a century of resisting human blood, this vampire has the strength to resist crossing the sexual line too. But leading a girl to believe she can push a guy this far and then expect him to be as strong as Edward is unrealistic and unfair. Mind you, many girls are clued up to this lack of realism: see the Facebook groups Because I read Twilight I have unrealistic Expectations in Men (53,547 members) and After Reading Twilight, Human Boys Just Seem Lacking (19,413 members). But if you read the wall posts, it doesn’t stop them wishing.

Another concern is the mocking of parental authority. When Bella’s father tries to give her the “responsible sex” talk she is able to shout at him “I’m a virgin!” She knows that Charlie would freak out if he knew Edward spent the night in her room (watching her, because vampires can’t sleep), but she dismisses his concern exclaiming “nothing’s going to happen!” Then, in the very next paragraph she is breathless (again), and he’s struggling not to give in to his desires.

And what messages are coming to girls through all of this? The only thing that makes life worth living is having your (irresistibly attractive) man. Forget all your other aspirations, friends, family, interests, education... Growing old is a fate worse than death. Love is based on appearances and physical attraction.

One of the most serious issues is the glorification of obsessive love, an intensely emotional experience which is more important than life itself, yours or anyone’s. Then there’s the problem of having this obsessive love for more than one person at the same time. Jacob also loves Bella, and she realises she loves him too (a bit of kissing does the trick). Many girls have told me how desperate they find this: “She’s fully fallen in love with two people, both love her truly, this is an impossible dilemma, how can she live?”

Based on Twilight’s definition of the word, it is possible to fall in “love” with any number of people. Yet, in the real world, people do live, and what’s more, they really learn to love, sometimes giving up a love they might feel because it’s not right (for example, the person is married to someone else), or many times learning to love a person once feelings have faded, or rather, have deepened and matured. But when Jacob gives up Bella at the end of book three, he appears completely emotionally crushed. The message is that it’s not really possible to live if you have to give up this kind of love.

There are serious consequences for marriage. It is presented as a commitment based on this intense feeling of desire, when a person is so essential to your happiness that you can’t live without them. I’m not sure that many marriages would last long with that premise.

What there is not in these books is the usual trash talk one finds in young adult literature -- no drugs, alcohol, dirty jokes, just a lot of sensuality and obsessive love to make up for it.

To read, or not to read?

In view of all that, should we just tell teens “Don’t read it!”? I don’t think so. The books are not obscene, and many good kids have found practically nothing wrong with them. A few have felt the need to read a book on true love after reading this series, but most think it’s just the author’s skill that makes them so engrossing. So there is a lot of ground to cover, and that might be impossible if all you tell them is “don’t read it!” I suggest the Twilight saga falls into the “read and talk about” category.

Ask the girls who read them: What do you think about this scene? What’s missing there? What else could she have done? If you were in this situation, what would you do? What would be the best thing to do? Do you think there is anything more to relationships than this?

Can you think of one guy like Edward? Do you think it’s very realistic to pressure a guy like that and expect him not to give in? What’s a more likely response or action from a guy? What do you think is the right thing for a guy to do in this situation? How could you help him do what’s right?

This kind of discussion can be invaluable for good kids to help them avoid naively falling into situations they don’t know how to deal with. It also develops mature readers; when a book does not offer great role models it can still help readers to think for themselves. That is worth encouraging.

Looking at the themes introduced in these books, where emotions play such an important role, it is important to open readers to the much broader panorama of what love can bring to life. (Someone, please, write a novel, any genre, that gives teens something they can chew on, something they can feel with and learn with, not preachy, just honest.)

Love is not about having to live restraint in order not to mess up an unbroken record. Affectivity, the connection between body and soul, is not fully human when the soul is just a slave to the body and emotions. It reaches its full potential when human beings are able to make a true gift of themselves to another in a way that transcends selfishness.

Clare Cannon is a manager and reviewer for Portico Books For more on this topic, view non-fiction and fiction recommended reading at Portico.


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