Essays

Fair Hypocrites: Twilight By Way of Pamela

By posted at 7:02 am on November 17, 2009 16

coverWhatever your feelings about Twilight, you have to admit that the breadth and scope of the Twilight phenomenon is spectacular.  Boy wizards aside, literature-inspired hoo-ha of this magnitude just doesn’t come along that often. To begin with, there is the dizzying array of memorabilia:  Twilight band-aids, duvet covers, water bottles, umbrellas, jewelry, wallets, life-sized wall decals, as well as the standard t-shirts and movie posters. Kristen Stewart, the actress who plays Twilight heroine Bella Swan in the film adaptations, has expressed astonishment that rather mundane items of clothing she’s spotted wearing sell out in hours.  There’s a Twilight make-up line that includes a pinkish gold-flecked lotion that promises to give “Twihards,” and anyone else, vampirically luminous skin (according to the editors of Lucky Magazine, “it’s gleamy but not over-the-top-Edward-in-sunlight-sparkly”).  And that’s not to mention the Twilight fan blogs (oh, TwilightMomsBlog!) and the legions of YouTube videos posted by less satisfied Twilight readers burning, beating, and taking chainsaws to their copies of the best-selling novels (Breaking Dawn, the fourth and last book in the series, sold 1.3 million copies in the first day; total sales of all of the books are at upwards of 40 million, and since the final installment came out last year, all four books in the series have remained in USA Today’s top 10 bestsellers).  And then there are the sell-out midnight shows whose fangirl audiences reportedly squeal with delight when the lights dim.  The father of one of these fans told me that his 14-year-old daughter had taken to signing her text and email messages “Twilight,” instead of her name.

The books have also had a startling effect on the small town of Forks, Washington, the setting of Meyer’s series. Tourism has been booming. Last year, the mayor of Forks declared the weekend of September 12-13th to be Stephenie Meyer Day Weekend (September 12th is Bella Swan’s birthday). This year, the weekend’s events include a birthday breakfast for Bella, tours of Forks High School (where Bella was supposed to have been a student), a Twilight character look alike contest, and a sunset bonfire at the Quileute Reservation, on the same beach where, in the novels, Bella meets Jacob Black, a Quileute teenager, who becomes her best friend, a werewolf, and the rival of the beautiful teenage vampire Edward Cullen for Bella’s affections. By all accounts, this year’s celebration was a massive success, nearly doubling Forks’ population of somewhere around 3,000 and drawing visitors from as far away as England and Japan.

Marveling at all this on the eve of the second Twilight movie’s release, I found myself thinking of Samuel Richardson‘s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Pamela, published in 1740, was the first best-selling novel in English; it is the story of a teenage servant girl who resists her aristocratic master’s increasingly violent sexual overtures, eventually wins his heart and becomes his wife. It was the first novel to inspire the sort of frenzy that Twilight is inspiring right now. Like Twilight, Pamela spawned themed merchandise: Pamela tea cups and tea towels, Pamela prints and painting, Pamela fans, Pamela playing cards.  Pastors recommended the book from the pulpit and European intellectuals as well as private citizens sang its praises. Rousseau, for one, reported weeping copiously over it.  There wasn’t any declaration of a Pamela Day, but one famous and oft-repeated anecdote about the Pamela mania verges into the kind of confusing of the fictional and the real that the Forks’ Twilight celebrations offer. There are many anecdotes dating back to the eighteenth century, in which Pamela’s wedding is taken as fact or publicly celebrated. In one of the best known, from an 1833 address given by Sir John Herschel at Eton, a blacksmith in a small village in Windsor got hold of a copy of Pamela

and used to read it aloud in the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience…At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived, which brings the hero and heroine together, and sets them living long and happily according to the most approved rules—the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout and, procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing.

These readers were practicing the English custom of ringing church bells to celebrate and announce a marriage–though in this case, the marriage of a fictional hero and heroine: Pamela and her former master, the landed squire named Mr. B. 

coverPamela was revolutionary in its day and Richardson was both celebrated (as by the Windsor townsfolk) and reviled for the novel’s “leveling” tendency. Servants and common laborers were widely considered a lesser order of being in the eighteenth century—there to serve the pleasure of their masters, whatever that pleasure might be. The idea of a titled landowner marrying his maid—when he might sleep with her with impunity—was considered scandalous and subversive, to say the least. Historian Lynn Hunt‘s recent book, Inventing Human Rights, claims that novels like Pamela were foundational in the development of the idea of human rights that surfaced explicitly in the French and American Revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

On the surface, then, it would seem that the similarity between Twilight and Pamela, between Bella and Pamela, ends in their popularity and the mania they inspire(d). But these twin phenomena, one sitting at each end of the history of the novel, I think, share more.  By an admittedly cynical and reductive reading, Twilight and Pamela are the same book, the same archetypal female fantasy: a poor or undistinguished girl is chosen as “the one” by a handsome, rich, aristocratic man who sweeps her off her feet and takes her out of her (more or less) grubby, mundane, low-born life. And the cynical reading goes further. These are not merely Cinderella love stories; in fact, they are not love stories at all.  By the cynical reading, these novels are only about class, about becoming rich, becoming one of the rarefied beautiful people.

coverA year after Pamela‘s publication, Henry Fielding published Shamela, a parody of Richardson’s novel motivated by the belief that Pamela didn’t resist her master’s attempts to rape her out of fear or a moral certainty that her desires were just as important as his, but because she thought she might get more out of him if she held out.  Fielding’s sham Pamela is a hypocrite, a wily girl on the make—after money, finery, and social position that she was not entitled to by birth or by her incredible virtuousness (which Fielding tells us is only a ruse designed to ensnare Mr. B, her master.).  Pamela protests too much on Fielding’s reading: he suggested that Pamela’s belaboring of the spiritual peril that Mr. B’s advances threaten her with, combined with her obvious attraction to him, didn’t quite ring true.

In Pamela’s case, I think Fielding goes too far. A marriage to a landed, titled man would have been quite literally beyond the wildest dreams of a servant like Pamela, even assuming that she possessed the sort of calculating wiliness that Fielding attributes to her. In fact, if she were as wily as Fielding drew her, Shamela would have known that she’d never become Mr. B’s bride.  (Only by the rules of Richardson’s quasi-allegorical plot can Pamela’s virtue be rewarded as it is.) But in the case of Meyer’s Bella Swan,  I think Fielding’s hypocrisy reading might stand. Like Pamela (and Pamela is more convincing), Bella insists that what she values, particularly in her beloved vampire Edward, is spiritual: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body,” she tells us.

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But why, if the spiritual is supposed to be paramount, are the Twilight novels so distractingly full of money – literally, piles of cash – and the things money can buy?  “There was enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade,” Bella reports of the Cullen family home. This cash buys Bella an acceptance to Dartmouth, a special order Mercedes (a model preferred by drug dealers and diplomats for its bulletproof glass—Edward’s very protective), a Ferrari, lots and lots of couture clothing, and a faux rustic cottage in the woods that I came to think of as a version of Marie Antoinette’s hameau (the little faux farmhouse where the queen and her ladies played at being peasants). All of this, Bella claims to resent or to feel uncomfortable accepting.

But the idea that the Cullen wealth holds no appeal to Bella, when it is Bella herself who draws so much attention to it in her first-person narration, just doesn’t stand.   When, at the end of the fourth book, she finally admits a little pleasure in the jaw-dropping, head-turning spectacle that this wealth allows her to become, it feels like she is finally admitting what she’s felt and wanted all along—a pleasure that anyone, most especially a teenage girl, would feel:

He took the calf-length ivory trench coat I’d worn to disguise the fact that I was wearing Alice’s idea of appropriate attire, and gasped quietly at my oyster satin cocktail gown.  I still wasn’t used to being beautiful to everyone rather than just Edward.  The maitre d’ stuttered half-formed compliments as he backed unsteadily from the room.

Of course, the idea here is that it’s (spoiler alert) Bella’s newly enhanced physical beauty that stuns the man (she’s become a vampire at this point, and vampires are more beautiful in order to attract their prey, i.e. humans), but Meyer/Bella lingers on the clothes—the things money can buy.

Bella’s compulsive observation of the Cullens’ beauty and their beautiful things does not come to seem a metaphor for spiritual superiority but a conflation of material wealth, physical beauty, and moral elevation. While the books suppose to be about a perfect, otherworldly love (this love could be metaphor: it certainly doesn’t exist in the real world), the material intrudes constantly (cars, money, clothes), suggesting that  beauty and money and blessedness and happiness are all one, confused and interchangeable.

This pernicious lie that is at the heart of Twilight.  When I see pictures of young girls waiting in line to buy these novels or tickets to the movie, this is why I get angry.  I don’t get angry because Meyer’s recycled the classic female fantasy of the most desirable boy picking the girl he never will in real life (I love My So-Called Life, while knowing all too well that Angela Chase (Clare Danes) would never have gotten Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) in “real” life), I get angry because Meyer didn’t seem to trust the unbelievable love between Bella and Edward as sufficient to hold her readers’ interest. Love, apparently, needs to be tarted up in designer clothes, given sparkling six-pack abs, armed with platinum credit cards and Ferraris before we’ll recognize it.  For all of its heavy-handed allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, Twilight is, in the end, fatally invested in the shallow materialism and the youth and beauty worship that continue to define and corrode American popular culture.

It’s scarier than vampires.





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16 Responses to “Fair Hypocrites: Twilight By Way of Pamela”

  1. Maire
    at 1:14 pm on November 17, 2009

    This is probably the most words I’ve ever read about this Twilight phenomenon that is everywhere. I’ve been pretty good at ignoring it. But this piece was really fabulous. It makes me want to go back and reread Pamela.

    I find it interesting, as a huge Harry Potter fan, that that series has an undercurrent of precisely the opposite–the triumph of love and friendship over all things material and wealthy.

  2. Julie Colombo
    at 1:24 pm on November 17, 2009

    Though I understand Emily’s concern over this latest literary phenomenon, this type of literature needs to be included (and based on its popularity, won’t be denied) for it opens up issues for discussion as she’s related in her article.

    Having read Richardson’s Pamela, Fielding’s Shamela, Burney’s Evelina, Brooke’s Excursion…, I concur with Emily’s comparisons. But I do think she may be giving the Twilight series too much credit for molding the minds, values and aspirations of today’s young women. Unlike the women of the 18th century, today’s young women are not encased in the domestic sphere; their world is universal and eclectic. In addition, parents, other family members and friends can be, and often are, significant in helping to mold their perceptions.

    I have a 14 year old daughter who is crazy about Twilight; to attempt to deny her access to the literature, movies, etc. would be futile. What I am doing is using the books as a platform for discussion with her, pointing out the fictional qualities of the story, it’s shortcomings, as well as it’s strengths. The character of Bella is definitely not the ideal I want my daughter to aspire to; she is submissive to the point of ridiculousness, willing subjects herself to the whims/domination/abuse (albeit fantasized) of males in the story, and seems to have no mind of her own. Hence, in our discussions, I clearly and repeatedly (though not to the point of lecturing) point out her foibles as well as my daughter’s strengths. My job is not to deny my daughter access to the world, but help her learn how to filter out the myths and cherish the truths.

    Young and mature women alike enjoy romance stories, beautiful men, flattering clothes, that’s a given. But while we mature women have already formed our identities, our daughters’ are still being defined. It is important we focus on being their trusted guides and compassionate, caring supporters in their progress.

    When I’ve asked my daughter what she enjoys most about the Twilight story, the answer is always the same, “the love story, the hot guys” :-) That’s the answer I would expect. Based on her responses to our discussions, she understands the difference between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality.

    As an author, Stephanie Meyers may not be of the literary quality lit. majors are used to, but she is definitely having an influence on this generation of young women. For better or worse, her work is here to stay. By making her work an open platform for discussion, we can empower young women, not necessarily in the manner Meyers intended, but through our own unique vision.

  3. Miranda
    at 1:45 pm on November 17, 2009

    I admit, with some shame now, at being a firm Twilight fan. Before reading this piece, I admired Meyer’s series for the narrator’s humility, and the seemingly unlikely love between Bella and Edward, as you mentioned. But now, after having all of the materialism in the Twilight series pointed out, it’s difficult to ignore. Perhaps on a subconcious level the money and materialism is what actually appealed to me, and to so many readers like me. I had read Bella’s delight in her own appearance in Breaking Dawn as her finally appreciating herself, instead of constantly lamenting her flaws. However, Bella’s self-acceptance only comes after being transformed into a supernaturally-beautiful creature, and then dressed in expensive designer clothing. What kind of message is that sending to the easily-influenced teen masses? It sets a standard that is impossible and cruelly unattainable. I’m kind of disappointed in myself.

  4. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 8:34 pm on November 17, 2009

    I wouldn’t and don’t deny the presence or the appeal of the Twilight books–I can’t in the face of millions of books and movie tickets sold. There is an undeniable appeal: To be worshipfully adored and attended to and celebrated as Edward, in all of his wealth and beauty and his many talents, adores, attends to, and celebrates Bella would be wonderful. But this just doesn’t happen in real life: Edwards, like vampires, don’t exist, so “cruelly unattainable” is right. The “real life” version of Meyer’s fantasy man would be creepy, stalkerish, unwholesomely possessive (and some might say that he is in her fantasy version).

    Bella herself, particularly in New Moon, is a textbook example of morbidly low self-esteem and codependency. Her sense of self is wholly and entirely defined by Edward: she has no sense of self or worth or value beyond him. I believe Bella says something to the effect of “he’s like a drug to me.” And he is. I found Edward and Bella’s relationship deeply disturbing because of this. (And that’s not even touching on Bella’s masochism and her quasi-anorexia.)

    I hope, Julie, that all teenage girls who are reading Twilight have parents who understand how problematic and deceptive most of it is–not just its tacit celebration of materialism. But I sort of imagine that you’re somewhat exceptional.

    Thank you for reading. (Oh, and Marie–I agree with your take on HP.)

  5. Teaser Tuesday « Daily Words and Acts
    at 11:58 pm on November 17, 2009

    [...] in classic novels but have mostly steered away from any and all Twilight media, here’s an interesting article comparing the Twilight series to Samuel Richardson’s classic [...]

  6. Jenny Davidson
    at 6:52 pm on November 18, 2009

    Great piece, Emily!

  7. Betsy D
    at 11:26 am on November 19, 2009

    Your article gets right at the heart of what I’ve always hated about Twilight. It’s not the lack of literary value, and it’s not even the rehashing of the poor girl gets rich guy love story — it’s the conflation of true love and good self-image with materialism and outward appearance!

    If parents used Twilight to discuss emotional abuse, dangerous materialism, positive self-image, and the lure of outward appearances, I would be all for using it… as the bad example. However, I suspect that parents using these books as a springboard for this kind of discussion is quite rare.

  8. vampires aren’t the problem | the view from her
    at 11:26 am on November 19, 2009

    [...] to gifts, remains almost obsessively focused on physical and material things. One insightful review points out the hypocrisy this way: “Bella’s compulsive observation of the Cullens’ beauty and their beautiful [...]

  9. Inanna Arthen
    at 3:54 pm on November 21, 2009

    This is one of the most fascinating essays I’ve seen about the whole Twilight phenomenon. I read *Pamela* as an undergrad but I didn’t know all of that historical detail about its popularity. What a neat bit of perspective on cultural manias! I completely agree about the materialism. This seems to be part of current vampire genre convention, however–it seems that vampires, individually or in the collective, are always stinking with money. Whether they flaunt it or not is less consistent, but wealth–presumably based on the ability to invest over centuries, like the Rothschilds, I suppose–is almost a given. But I can’t throw stones at that glass house since it applies to my fiction, as well!

    GREAT article!

  10. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 4:39 pm on November 21, 2009

    Thanks for reading, Inanna.

    I’m in the midst of writing a longer critical piece on vampires and, yes, the vampire has always been–and continues to be–a creature inevitably associated with money. The first reference to vampires in English, a London newspaper story from the 1730’s about a Hungarian man who rose from the dead and killed several people by sucking out their blood, was considered by the only English critic who analyzed the account in any detail to be an allegory about the exploitation of the poor by the rich (the man who was supposed to have become a vampire had been a tax collector in life). And one of the most famous academic articles on Dracula, Franco Moretti’s “A Capital Dracula,” reads Stoker’s most famous vampire (quite convincingly) as a symbol of capitalism. And of course Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse books and, I gather, your Vampires of New England, all keep to this pattern.

    I’m intrigued by what I’ve read about your series. And, again, thanks for reading, Emily

  11. Edan Lepucki
    at 12:39 am on November 22, 2009

    Wonderful essay, Emily! I am quite proud of myself for having read Pamela…and not Twilight.

  12. Whitney Johnson
    at 10:08 am on November 22, 2009

    Emily —

    I have a love-hate relationship with the Twilight Series.

    http://daretodream.typepad.com/weblog/2008/08/identity.html

    Thanks to http://kashkawan.squarespace.com/ for flagging your essay.

    How can I follow more of your writing?

  13. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 3:37 pm on November 25, 2009

    Dear Whitney,

    You can see my other posts for the Millions through the Contributors link on our homepage. I also write reviews for the Virginia Quarterly and the Washington Times. Right now, I’m working on a longer piece about ethical vampires for VQR that will focus mainly on Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse books and I’ll be sure to link to that once it’s available. Thanks for reading! Emily

  14. Gina
    at 10:36 pm on November 29, 2009

    Great article! I, like a previous commenter, am a big Twilight fan and a little embarrassed to admit it now. In my own defense, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with these books because I recognized the co-dependency of the Bella and how dangerous that can be to teenage girls to have that kind of role model. What has inspired me to comment, however, is a desire to point out that the Twilight books are a product of our society’s values. Stephenie Meyer has not spawned the notion that money and beauty and power bring happiness as you suggest, but she is merely reflecting what our culture already valued. While I agree with everything you said, I think you give Stephenie Meyer too much credit – she did not originate the ideas that makes you so angry – those values were already present in our culture before the Twilight phenomena.

  15. Kelley Harris
    at 9:00 pm on December 1, 2009

    There are a lot of things that bother me about Twilight, but I think I’ll be the first poster here to say that I’m not bothered at all by Stephanie Meyer’s treatment of money. She very clearly intends Edward to be an updated version of the nineteenth century heartthrobs who populate Bella’s favorite books, books where an emotional happily-ever-after is fairly inseparable from an economic one. The Cullens’ country estate is a dead ringer for Pride and Prejudice’s Pemberley, right down to the river running through the tastefully forested grounds, and Edward’s resemblance to Mr. Darcy is no less exact, with overblown pride accounting for his bachelorhood in the imagination of onlookers like Jessica Stanley/ Miss Bingley, a first encounter that is personally offensive to Bella Swan/Elizabeth Bennet, and of course a brooding, anger-prone, justice-obsessed personality. It’s sometimes annoying that Elizabeth’s chutzpah doesn’t shine as forcefully through Bella, but it’s also possible that Bella’s passivity helps democratize the Pride and Prejudice vision, which could account for some of Twilight’s appeal. Jane Austen convinces us that a girl whose looks are only “tolerable” can land a man like Mr. Darcy if she has a personality to die for, but Stephanie Meyer extends the dream to girls who know that Elizabeth’s charisma is beyond them. Edward gets interested in Bella because she’s the exception to his mind-reading gift, which is a pretty apt metaphor for the way that normal couples fall in love when complementary personality quirks suffice to keep each other engaged and always guessing.

    When Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy and becomes mistress of Pemberley, the subtle, elusive compatibility of their souls effects a dramatic, corporeal change upon her life; I don’t think either Pride and Prejudice or the derivative Twilight is trying to use wealth as a “metaphor for spiritual superiority,” but as a metaphor for the way that the right kind of love can completely transform one’s existence. I think the scene quoted in Emily’s article was probably intended as a metaphor for the way that seeing yourself through the eyes of a lover can change the way you carry yourself until the whole world sees you differently– not a very original idea, but not hypocritical or shallow either.

    The main reason I prefer Twilight to Harry Potter, notwithstanding its inferior prose, is that the love holding center stage in Harry Potter seems maddeningly circumstantial. There is little besides a bunch of shared near-death experiences that can explain why Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione pair off the way they do, and I’ve never spoken anyone who was less than moderately annoyed by Rowling’s sickeningly domestic epilogue. Bella and Edward’s love may be idealized and over-the-top, but I think that Meyer’s supernatural explanation of their compatibility is one of the best accounts of why people fall in love that I’ve ever read in a children’s book. It may be heavy-handed, but it seems like a pretty brilliant way of saying something meaningful about love that will be understandable to a twelve-year-old who doesn’t have the life experience to appreciate what’s going on in Anna Karenina or even Pride and Prejudice. I wish Stephanie Meyer had left out a few cringeworthy details like the misogynism of the werewolf world, but all things considered, I don’t feel ashamed for enjoying Twilight.

  16. Sarah McCoy
    at 10:52 pm on December 2, 2009

    A thought-provoking post, Emily. I admit my “Twilight” experience mirrors many pleasure readers. I gobbled the four books in seven days, laughing out loud at the melodrama, rolling my eyes the cliché prose, and tsk-tsking the vampire materialism, werewolf misogyny and human (Bella’s) self-deprecation. But the fact remains, I read voraciously. I can’t deny my heart beat a little bit faster, and I couldn’t put the books down. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to the power of the story or a reflection of the salacious reader in all of us. I see the “Twilight” saga as being a bit like grocery store birthday cake. It’s not as refined as something from the gourmet bakery up the road but, hey, it’s cheap, easy to get, and tastes really, really good.

    I had to comment on how the books and recently released movie hooked me: http://sarahmccoy.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/new-moon-add-my-12-50-to-the-pot/

    Julie Colombo’s daughter gave a very honest answer. Love story + hot guy + pretty girl = mass-market appeal. People are more willing to accept the absurd, the impractical, and even the destructive when it’s threaded together by dangerous, unconditional love. A theme that transcends literary generations.

    I’m so interested in your ongoing vampire study. While we see an upsurge in vampire popularity today, this blood-thirsty, undead character has fascinated readers for centuries—particularly women readers. I’m curious what you dig up, Emily.

    Thanks again for another well-written, insightful essay! I always enjoy your work.

    Yours truly,
    Sarah

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