Monday, August 31, 2009

Part IV of Prolegomena to Further Critique of Sadomasochistic Teenage Erotica

Breaking Dawn (Twilight, #4) Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Breaking Dawn is the fourth and final book of Stephenie Meyer's vampire "love" story. This is the hardest of all for me to write about. The story is scattered across different narrators, has no story arc to speak of and drags the reader from chaotic scenes of violence to endless chapters of banal wish fulfillment. But unlike the previous books, there is no definable landing point either for critique or narrative discussion. Reading this book was like watching a slasher film on a TV with horrible reception- the picture keeps flaying out into blurry but disturbing images, only to be interrupted by ads for Hallmark and Wal-Mart: juxtapositions of physical and emotional violence with images of domesticity and consumption.

On top of that, I was bored to the point of literally needing to write "I'm bored" every 20 pages or so. Needless to say, I am not yet ready to equitably or creatively engage the issues of the text. I mostly just want to complain. But I will try to say something beyond “Why? Why? Why? Why?”

Whereas the three previous books in the Twilight Saga used awkward literary intertexts, arguably to underline a theme of Bella and Edward's relationship, Breaking Dawn has no such allusions. The first book, Twilight, has Bella reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. At first I thought this was an embarrassing plug to encourage girls to do their English homework. After the next two books, however, I realized this was supposed to serve as meaningful literary allusion. Bella reads Pride and Prejudice then meets an aloof, severe man who then turns out to be her ideal charming counterpart. At least that’s how it’s supposed to come across. Instead, we get the evocation of a classic prototype of the rude, narcissistic, controlling man as dashing romantic hero. Mr. Darcy and Edward Cullen do have something in common: they make women swoon by being uncommunicative and evasive.

New Moon has Bella reading and watching Romeo & Juliet. Then, surprise! Bella and Edward find themselves in a situation where one lover thinks the other lover is dead and wants to kill themself as a result. We have the reinforcement of star-crossed romance being noble and romantic- i.e.: the pairing of love with tragedy and adversity, rather than health and mutuality. Not to mention the fact that both characters fantasize about suicide and death rather than separation from one another.

By Eclipse, I’d come to expect these trite intertexts, but I was in no way prepared for the bomb Meyer set off in this third book. Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet are two of the most celebrated love stories in Western literature, so surely Meyer’s third choice would be something even more exemplary of our perceptions (however troublesome) of romantic love, right? Nope. Here I was reading the book through the lens of sadomasochism, and BOOM! Meyer lobs out Wuthering Heights in the very first chapter! My eyes nearly disengaged from their sockets. Wuthering Heights is THE sadomasochistic text of all time, barring the actual writings of the Marquis de Sade perhaps. Catherine and Heathcliff threaten one another, abuse and imprison others, and ultimately die in order to torture one another from beyond the grave. While Meyer’s characters debate about the idea of Catherine and Heathcliff being romantic characters- is there anything admirable about them at all?- such in-novel debate does not change the fact that the characters are being evoked and compared. Bella even interprets Edward’s actions using Heathcliff’s dialogue. Eclipse is actually the only case of appropriate intertextuality in the whole trilogy (except maybe the brief reference to Macbeth in Twilight). Wuthering Heights’ violence, dominance and dysfunction of enmeshed, co-dependant, petulant adolescents obsessed with one another matches Meyer’s characters perfectly. What her real intent was, I shudder to imagine.

But there is no 11th grade English class intertext in Breaking Dawn, the final book. Instead, we get Bella’s continually bruised, bleeding, ripped body that eventually (and painfully) transforms into a goddess-like body of a sex object. As usual, she finds continually creative ways to be secretive regarding her real feelings, resorting to manipulation and oftentimes begging in order to be listened to or have her desires responded to. She hides her suffering (physical and emotional) from her protectors (husband, male best friend/father/step-father/intrusive sister-in-law, dissociated mother) and when her injuries are too visible to be hidden, she convinces herself that there’s nothing wrong. This includes her waking up on her wedding morning covered with bruises from her husband’s (vampire) passion. She spends the morning trying to assuage him that the bruises don’t hurt…

Here is where I need about 50 more pages to talk. Fortunately, I’ve given myself a year to work on this text and these issues. So I’ll stop now.

Conclusion to my prolegomena: I find nothing redeemable or enjoyable about these books or these characters. So much suffering, so much guilt, so much dissociation, lying, SARCASM, anger, SARCASM, violence, self-contempt, not to mention the sickening paring of perfect family domestic life with gratuitous conspicuous consumerism. The Cullens are supposed to be the most generous and loving family ever to live, and yet they have millions of dollars just sitting around being spent on fashion, luxury cars and private islands. The Cullens are angelic immortals yet they keep $40,000 in loose change rather than, say, spending their eternal lives giving it away to those who actually need to eat. Also- while I’m on a Cullen rant- I thought it was problematic that Dr. Cullen kept purchasing blood from the hospital for his new vampire family members, but the only issue raised about it was the expense, not the fact that donated blood is there to save human lives, not sustain the appetites of newborn vampires. But I digress…

So many people I trust, value and respect have found great meaning in these stories. Now begins the journey of trying to understand why.

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Maryann said...

Whew. After reading your reviews of these books I'm not quite sure what to say.

I confess I feel like a terrible feminist for liking them so much. I join you in taking issue with all of the things you mention, but I can't deny the serious, *serious* effect reading the books had on me at the time, and my continued sheer excitement about the movies. For the love of God, I made a 100 song playlist dedicated to Bella and Edward.

Part of me wishes I'd had the same reaction you did to them, but the other part of me wouldn't want to give up the experience that reading them was for me.

Obviously I can't leave a huge comment here trying to explain it. But I can't wait to talk to you more about all this, especially now that you've read everything. You are so damn insightful, it kills me!

Kj said...

Maryann- I look forward to diving into the depth of deep diving into the depth of deepness- of all things, including Twilight, with you. An honor and a delight.

Maryann said...

I'm ready to dive in too! And I just remembered the playlist was 200 songs, not 100...small difference...

Lian said...

Hey, since reading your reviews I have become a little freaked out at all the girls I know that have read it and LOVED it. I suppose it is telling that even a reader with feminist sensibilities could dedicate 200 songs to the main characters. There must be some darkness that lurks in the female heart that resonates with the main characters. I have contemplated reading the books simply to discuss with "my girls" but don't want to dirty my soul with non-literary tripe. At the same time, I am concerned that so many girls are reading this without guidance, and very little discussion as to the message of the books. AS I asked some of the girls I knew who had read it about the book and mentioned what you had said, they responded with "Well, I can see how she would say that... but it's just that Bella feels so bad about herself." Maybe it's that aspect that they feel connected to. In these days when self-esteem is so esteemed, maybe they feel that some part of them IS Bella and how pleasant to be punished by someone so gloriously attractive as a gorgeous vampire!


Kj said...


thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm honored that they've brought up conversation on the other side of the world (i think you're reading this from Australia, correct?).

It is odd that so many of our peers are able to overlook either the amateur writing or problematic relationships of the book, and simply get swept away by the fantasy of it. There are certainly narratives (film, books, songs etc) that I love beyond reason that really aren't worth loving- but they still touch me deeply. Whether its bad art or irresponsible storytelling that manages to capture us sometimes- I think all of us, men and women have places where we willingly overlook things because something irrational allows us to love it.

But with Twilight, I ponder less that its something dark in women's hearts that pulls us in, and more that there is a culturally propagated blindness about violence against women. It's so pervasive in so many mediums and cultural representations, that most of us have gone our whole lives without having those paradigms challenged. Patriarchy shapes not only our view of ourselves as women, but influences what arouses us and what ignites our sense of worth and identity. When we are taught that we are weak, being rescued becomes sexy/exciting/admirable. When we are taught that we are over-emotional and irrational, then it's easy to identify with a female character who deeply doubts her own instincts and feels more comfortable placating others than speaking up or protecting herself.

I have some wonderful conversation partners here in Seattle that love these books, and am hoping over the next year to really get to hear the Twilight experience from their perspective. I believe (or strive to believe) that whenever a creative work captures our heart- that there truly is something beautiful at its center that speaks to our human longing and the nobility of our desires- (or portrays an image of God that we recognize within but have not yet seen expressed)- and if I believe that to be true of so many things, then I believe it must be true of Twilight- it cannot be all bad to have swept entire generations of women off their feet. As much as I want to promote conversation, mindfulness and guidance while approaching these texts- especially for young girls- I also want to better understand the heart in this text that has touched so many. I believe it's there. I'm willing to dig for it and listen for it, even as I raise my own angry cautions against the dangerous examples I see the text promoting. I'm trying to be curious- so I'll have more to offer than just criticism- which can easily be taken as judgement upon those who love it. It's hard, but I have hope- even if just in the women who love it- that they can show me not only more about the texts, but more about myself as well.

Thanks for reading- let me know if you do decide to give the Twilight Saga a look- I'd love to know where your journey through it takes you.