Essays

Ethical Vampires, Part II

By posted at 6:33 am on April 14, 2010 3

Part I of this essay explains how the vampires of our historical moment–exemplified in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels–have had a crisis of conscience and changed their ways. They’ve become more human (wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts, driving Mustangs) and more humane (not murdering people to feed on them). This reformation means different things for Harris and Meyer. Harris uses it to explore the dark, vampiric side of human nature, while Meyer, mistakenly, thinks that she can vanquish the vampiric altogether (she can’t and doesn’t, though possibly she doesn’t realize this).

coverThrough her contact with vampires, the danger and intrigues and moral conundrums they bring into her life, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse discovers her own primitive, uncivilized self—and a capacity for violence. Sookie may be friendly, hard-working, kind, and generous most of the time, but when she drinks from vampire Bill a second time, she begins to feel her own vampiric longings and potential:

A little ripple of madness went through me . . . I drank and saw visions, visions all with a background of darkness, of . . . going hunting, the thrill of the run through the woods, the prey panting ahead and the excitement of its fear; pursuit, legs pumping, hearing the thrumming of blood through the veins of the pursued.

In later books this “primitive self, the truer me,” as Sookie calls it, rises to the surface when she’s threatened. Several times she kills in self-defense without remorse. She is attracted to several men at once, and acts on these desires without feeling ashamed of them.

coverTwilight’s moral universe is rather different. The wariness of fixed, inflexible human characters and easy moral absolutes, continually apparent in Sookie’s world (in which the only consistently demonized social group is the fundamentalist, occasionally terrorist anti-vampire church, The Fellowship of the Sun) is absent in Stephenie Meyer’s. This is in part because Meyer’s heroine, Bella Swan, a sheltered, self-absorbed teenage girl, narrates the majority of the Twilight novels. 

coverKenneth Turan, reviewing the first Twilight movie in the Los Angeles Times, argued that the film succeeds, “because it treats high school emotions with unwavering, uncompromising seriousness. Much as you may not want to, you have to acknowledge what’s been accomplished here.” Turan is right: the movie succeeds because, like the novels, it takes adolescent emotions—in all of their naive absolutism and world-consuming intensity—very seriously.

Bella certainly believes, as only young lovers can, that no one has ever loved as she does, that her love will be eternal and absolute, that no man before Edward has ever been so deserving of love. And Meyer’s plot allows this to be true. From the first time she sees Edward, Bella is filled with a fascinated reverence for his beauty.  He and his family are all “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful.” Edward in particular, has “the face of an angel,” and his face, Bella insists, is the outward sign of transcendent, spiritual beauties: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body.”

Bella feels this—without qualification, without doubt—through all of the two thousand and some pages of her saga, and Meyer seems fully invested in her teenage heroine’s worldview. Edward becomes like a drug to Bella: “Edward’s lips were like a shot of some addictive chemical straight into my nervous system. I was instantly craving more.” When she’s away from him, “each tick of the second hand aches like the pulse of blood behind a bruise.”

In order to enjoy the Twilight novels, you have to be willing to enter into this intense emotional and hormonal fundamentalism, the twin of the moral fundamentalism apparent in Meyer’s refusal of nuance and ambivalence in favor of an either/or approach to good and evil. You have to believe that Edward and Bella’s love is eternal, unqualified, rare, imperturbable—that it will never waiver or end. Meyer’s plot never calls these teenage certainties into question. The final pages of the novel find Bella more certain than ever of her love for Edward: “No one’s ever loved anyone as much as I love you.”  Nor does Meyer’s saga question the goodness of the Cullens—though other than Carlisle, the doctor vampire, they don’t do any useful work in their community, aren’t particularly friendly or generous, and generally seem to live only to satisfy their own material desires (for cars, clothes, travel).

And even by the generous standards of fantasy, there’s something obscene about Twilight’s happy ending. It denies its heroine nothing and asks nothing of her. No major characters die in Twilight; no one has to sacrifice or lose anything they love, especially not Bella. Meyer suggests repeatedly that Bella’s determination to be made a vampire so that she can be with Edward forever will require heavy sacrifices on her part: that she will not be able to see her parents or her best friend again, that she will not be able to have children, that, when she gets pregnant with Edward’s vampire baby, carrying it to term will kill her. But none of these sacrifices are required.

coverThe final book, Breaking Dawn, promises that most sacrosanct of fantasy conventions, an epic battle between the Cullens and the Volturi (evil vampire royalty who still feed remorselessly on humans and who believe that Edward and Bella’s half-vampire/half-human child, Renesmee (a name Bella invents by combining her mother’s name and that of Edward’s mother), presents a threat to the vampire community as a whole). However, when the good and bad vampires finally gather on the field of battle, Bella’s new vampire talent–the ability to shield all she loves with an invisible, impenetrable force field–immobilizes the enemy. The battle’s over before it starts. And so begins happily ever after “forever and forever and forever” for beautiful, rich, immortal Bella Cullen, who will spend eternity with her beautiful, rich, immortal family, eternally in love and in lust with the god-like Edward. It makes Harry Potter, with its dead parents, friends, classmates, teachers, and relatives, look like brutal realism.

Reading Meyer against Harris is a lesson in the varieties of fantasy. Meyer’s fantasy is total—as much a fantasy about human nature and love as it is a generic fantasy.  In Twilight, perfect happiness and love, perfect goodness, and perfect material satisfaction are all bestowed on the heroine. Harris’ fantasy, by contrast, is temperate, self-aware. Sookie is a waitress; she’s never been to college; she has no health insurance. In between her forays into the luxurious and exciting world of vampires, she worries pretty constantly about money—medical bills, her need for a new car, a new roof.

coverHarris’ characters are also readers of genre fiction. We see a Tami Hoag suspense novel tucked into Sookie’s coworker’s apron; Sookie’s grandmother reads Danielle Steele; Sookie repeatedly professes a love of romances and mysteries. In True Blood, we catch a glimpse of Sookie’s grandmother reading a Charlaine Harris novel. These images of escapist reading in Harris’ own novel series don’t allow her reader the sort of total immersion fantasy that Twilight demands. Harris’ novels show you yourself engaged in fantasy (Look! That’s me! That’s what I’m doing—reading vampire-romance-mystery novels, just like Sookie’s granny, trying to forget about being unemployed/bored senseless by work/behind on the mortgage!).  And through Sookie’s incessant money worries Harris incorporates into her fictions the mundane oppressions that create the need for escapist literature. In this, Harris’ books offer a metacommentary of sorts on their own social and emotional function and that of genre fiction more generally (and please forgive me for using the word “metacommentary” about the Sookie novels–I know it’s at least silly, possibly profane). Sookie dates and goes to work for the vampires just as I might pick up one of Harris’ vampire mysteries: to leave the real world and all of its tedious, squalid hassles behind.

Harris knows what her books are and what they do and she won’t let her readers forget it. She forces you to see yourself trying to escape your own life and in so doing she refuses you the total fantasy that Meyer offers—she reminds you that escapism and fantasy are just that—fantasy and escapism: They are not real, they are not ultimately the solution to the oppressions of daily life.  Like Sookie, I always have to go back to the hassles of real life (unemployment, health insurance, family drama)—have to close the book, leave behind the vampires in all of their impossible glamour and titillating danger.

Harris is also keenly aware that class as much as race is at the heart of our cultural myths about vampires. Sookie works for vampires because she’s poor and they are wealthy (through long lives and disdain for human laws, circumstances the Harris vampires are unapologetic about). They pay well and she can’t afford not to, despite the dangers this work inevitably entails. And Sookie’s unabashed about how dazzling and tempting the luxuries of vampire wealth are to her as a small town barmaid, though the money’s not so intoxicating that it keeps her from being regularly revolted by the machinations and violence that vampire business usually entails (Harris’ vampires are engaged in business or work of some kind, unlike Meyer’s).  Making money is bloody, dangerous work—a truth that Alan Ball‘s True Blood makes queasily literal.

coverOn her first assignment for the Viking vampire and nightclub entrepreneur, Erik Northman, Sookie gets a Carrie-style blood soaking when she (using her telepathic powers at Erik’s behest) discovers that Erik’s vampire partner has been embezzling. The vampire embezzler is staked and erupts into a fountain of blood–gasp and guffaw-inducing in its abundance. Anna Paquin, who plays Ball’s Sookie and wears a lovely white dress in this scene, ends up as red and slick and gooey as Erzsébet Báthory after one of her blood baths (see Part I of this essay for more on her).  

And this pretty much sets the tone for all of Sookie’s vampire work: she ends up bloody, battered, sore, almost dead.  It’s working for the man—er, vampire. It’s another day in the salt mines. Harris doesn’t have any illusions about what it means to be socially vulnerable, to live somewhere around the poverty line. While part of Sookie’s motivation in accepting the vampires’ lavish payments for her telepathic services is definitely the allure of their world of beauty and intrigue and money, sometimes, even when she’d rather not, Sookie feels like she doesn’t have much of a choice—as a single woman with no college education or health insurance whose day job is waiting tables and whose savings are dwindling.

Meyer, on the other hand, attempts to obscure the workings of class and money in her books, but she acknowledges these even as she try to hide them. The first vampires, Vlad the Impaler and Erzsébet Báthory, fed on the lives and labor of their subjects. The Cullens, Meyer’s enlightened vampires, don’t literally feed on human beings—and yet their whole monied way of life is the product of a different sort of feeding on others, a metaphorical but nonetheless illicit sort of feeding. The Cullens’ beautiful houses, cars, parties, clothes—their leisured and essentially dilettantish lives (playing cards, hunting, driving Ferraris, composing melodies on the piano, shopping) are all funded by supernatural insider trading:

Edward had a lot of money—I didn’t even want to think about how much.  Money meant next to nothing to Edward or the rest of the Cullens.  It was just something that accumulated when you had unlimited time on your hands and a sister who had an uncanny ability to predict trends in the stock market

Vampirism, in its most basic structural form, is not a collection of campy trappings (pale skin, pointed canines), but the ability and willingness to appropriate the life, work, property, and livelihood of others. Edward’s sister Alice is psychic and while Meyer never shows Alice having visions of the future of the stock market, here Meyer rather unapologetically reveals insider trading as the source of the Cullen’s unbelievable wealth—this, and an unlimited time in which to wait for investment returns.  The Cullens, for all of their virtuous vegetarianism and pangs of conscience, are no better than the arch-villain Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone‘s Wall Street, no better than the host of “vampire capitalists” who, by some accounts, who brought the global financial system to its knees in December of 2008.

Bella is wary of the Cullens’ money while she is human, and she claims that this is because she has nothing to give in return:

Edward didn’t seem to understand why I objected to him spending money on me—why it made me uncomfortable if he took me to an expensive restaurant in Seattle, why he wasn’t allowed to buy me a car that could reach speeds over fifty-five miles an hour, or why I wouldn’t let him pay my college tuition…Edward thought I was being unnecessarily difficult.

But Bella, as usual, has it wrong. She’s wary because she knows it’s bloody money (never mind Edward’s condescending paternalism—which, creepily enough, is appropriate given that he’s around 100 to Bella’s 18). Bella’s wariness here is motivated by the same horror that made her recoil from her brief glimpse of a Volturi (i.e. evil, human-eating vampire) feast: a flock of unsuspecting tourists are ushered into the turreted throne room of the Volturi’s Italian castle and happily begin to snap pictures. In horror, Bella watches the doors close and lock on the unsuspecting lambs; she hears their screams as the feeding begins.

Intuitively, she recoils from the Cullens’ money for the same reason (at least while she’s human—once she’s a vampire she revels in it). The “vegetarians” no longer suck blood from human bodies, but they suck money from the labor of others through illegal means.  It’s not quite as physically repulsive or terrifying but it’s still not quite in line with Bella’s insistence that Edward and family are spiritually radiant individuals.

And so we’re back to the beginning, to Erzébet Báthory, Vlad the Impaler: remorseless aristocrats taking blood and life and labor from their poor.  Meyer’s vampire is no more enlightened for his vegetarianism, no better and no different than he ever was.  But Meyer doesn’t understand the difference.  The Cullens’ “vegetarianism” and its patina of moral evolution is enough for her—just so long as they don’t bite anyone outright, literally.  Harris knows better and uses her fantasy to teach as much: We’re the vampires, the vampire collaborators, now and we always have been—but vampires can be people too.

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3 Responses to “Ethical Vampires, Part II”

  1. The Daily Fix April 16, 2010 « The Littlest Soapbox
    at 10:40 am on April 16, 2010

    […] Fix April 16, 2010 Filed under: Books, Film — Mike @ 10:40 AM Emily Wilkinson has Part II of her essay entitled “Ethical Vampires”, comparing and contrasting the writing styles and universes […]

  2. Robin
    at 2:06 pm on April 23, 2010

    I think it takes real skill to write about things like the Twilight series and criticize their flaws without condescension and with a sense of proportion. It does seem to me a characteristic flaw of our times that the happy ending has to be achieved without qualification and without real effort or sacrifice on anyone’s part. This is an odd and unsettling fantasy for people to build their lives around.

  3. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 2:48 pm on April 23, 2010

    Thank you, Robin. It’s easy to be snarky (and hard not be for me with Twilight) but I find it’s more useful and revelatory not to be. And, not that Stephenie Meyer’s reading me, but I try to imagine how it would feel to read what I’ve written if I was the author.

    And I agree with you about the sinister prevalence of too-easy happy endings. I’ve actually just finished a piece, an essay about Derrick Borte’s The Joneses, and I was looking at the same plot problem in that and others. Increasingly, our culture’s plots seems to dole out happy endings to anyone and everyone–with no convincing pain, loss, catharsis, hard work, repentance involved in the getting. More on this to come…

    Take care and thank you for reading, Emily

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