I have recently been educated on what it means to be a Mormon and there was not an Osmond in sight. John Granger, writer of Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Meaning and Artistry of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga offers a guide to understanding the hugely popular series as an allegory of the search for faith. He deconstructs the influences in the books that he ascertains are derived from Mrs Meyer’s personal beliefs as a member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).
I think it is a powerful argument. He presents the history of the LDS church and elements of that history that Meyer has denied in various interviews have directed her writing, but in fact can be discerned as a very real, linking presence throughout the series. The various writings, debates, tracts and so forth of the LDS church from the last 150 years do appear to be difficult reading – so my gratitude to John in taking on this task for the rest of us critics of the popular tradition!
In the series, Edward Cullen, the hero ‘vegetarian’ vampire resembles a Christ-like figure so closely that it is hard to perceive of the allegory as being other than that of the Christian apotheosis of Bella Swann, the heroine. Her relationship with Edward, however, is that of a divine married love. The idea of a celestial marriage, and celestial married life begetting a series of divinely created children throughout eternity, belongs to the teachings of the LDS church. In Granger’s view that makes Edward closer to the incarnation of the prophet in LDS beliefs, the person of Joseph Smith Jr. This does hang together very well in his analysis. It also accounts for Bella’s marriage – in the divine/celestial surroundings of the Cullen house (a close approximation of an LDS temple) – and for the conception of the vampire/human hybrid child, Renesmée, who will be the hope for the future of bringing harmony and balance to the vampire/werewolf tribes. Bella therefore is the channel towards spiritual harmony, or rather her choices (soul, will and intellect) and her body (physical self and being) are the means by which harmony is possible, as well as bringing about romantic, erotic bliss forever with her beloved Edward. Many have accused her of being a passive, dispassionate heroine, but in accord with Granger’s interpretation of her she is the human soul – the seeker after the divine. That means that it is her decision making, her moment to moment choices, in the ‘forks’ and dilemmas she encounters on the way, that drive the narrative and provide the story with its heroic journey and therefore the strength of its allegory – or just simply a jolly good read if you are not interested in mining the deeper meaning. After all they are simply popular, romance novels for teenagers on one level.
The alternative does exist, argues Granger, of the deeper allegorical interpretation as a possible reading. Part of the problem, however, is the accusation of ‘reading too much’ into such a (lightweight) text and the issue of authorial intention. Meyer would understand the latter, having studied English Literature, at the BYU. This means that she can, as she has been seen to do, distance herself from her beliefs as an influence on her writing and instead plump for the ‘greats’ as her main inspirations: Austen, the Brontë sisters, Shakespeare. And this is easily proven because her ‘romance’ suits the model used by Charlotte and Emily Brontë in both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. There is a ‘love triangle’ of sorts happening in the novels if you take into account the role of Jacob Black, the member of the Quileute tribe of werewolves – a brotherhood (that includes a single female member – alone and disparaged) whose lupine traits are resurrected whenever there is a threat from vampires on their tribal lands. Jacob can be understood as the man of the earth, the mortal soul with powerful erotic, physical characteristics. He and his tribal brethren even indulge in some ‘cliff’ diving to demonstrate their prowess and desire for risk. Bella imitates them, but her motivation in doing so is only to expand her consciousness in order to gain visions of Edward, who warns and protects her. She hears him and feels his presence, not unlike Jane when she has left Rochester and finds herself comforted by St John Rivers.
But alike with Cathy, the aggressive, non-divine men of the earth cannot comfort Bella and she has to return to the arms of her saviour – saving him in the process. This she has in common with Jane Eyre. Unlike these transgressive, Victorian heroines, however, Bella is positively staid and conservative in all her outlooks (no drinking, no swearing, no smoking, no drugs, no sex). She and all the teenagers at her High School in the town of Forks, Washington are anachronistic, unrealistic, preposterous concoctions – non-existent, too good to be true. Or, are they instead conservative seekers after a higher truth – in fact, all potential LDS converts? Bella is a particularly juicy number for vampires, she has a quality (a scent to her blood) that attracts them. But she falls for the only vampire in the history of fiction and Gothic narratives who will not allow himself to suck her blood and wants for her a non-‘malignant’, as he puts it, exchange of desire and eroticism that is completely opposite to that found in Wuthering Heights for example. That is because this is not, in the typical sense of the genre, a Gothic novel. True, it negotiates problematic domestic, social, moral and spiritual issues via the device of supernatural characters and situations outside of the human/mortal experience. It is non-naturalistic, non-realistic certainly (not only the squeaky-clean teens). But it also reads in a very naturalistic fashion and has many realistic elements, that see the characters brooding (and they do so for pages, often whole chapters on end) over issues such as family responsibility, future educational choices, and what to cook for dinner.
Meyer has admitted to the range of her influences (via her official website) and conceded a certain amount. These include the cartoons and comic books involving the X-Men characters and storylines, but absolutely nothing of the typical vampire culture. She admits a lack of knowledge of all the natural milestones in the genre, from Dracula to Buffy and because of her community’s tendency towards conservatism in cultural consumption I am inclined to accept that admission from her. She claims to have invented the vampire culture to which her Cullen family belong. Granger points out the close assimilation of the action, characters and stories of the X-Men franchise and the action scenes (or sometimes non-action scenes) in Meyer’s novels. Orson Scott Card, a Mormon and sometime writer for Marvel’s Iron Man series as well as author of the Ender’s Game science fiction novels, is, she admits, one of her favourite authors and biggest influences. In addition, she is passionate about the derivative romances of Shannon Hale, a fellow LDS graduate and writer.
Taking these factors into account I think I am inclined towards Granger’s interpretation of the series, and not just because the allegory seems to hang together so well; as he describes it: it has the ‘scaffolding’ of Wuthering Heights and contains a ‘religious allegory’ within the structure (comments to be heard along with those of Elizabeth Baird Hardy on the Twilight podcast interviews). Meyer’s novels also fit the tradition in American popular culture that uses Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a template for the heroic journey, locking on to Jungian archetypes and plundering the potential from different mythic and religious narratives to create a constant, hybrid story (see the entire Star Wars series). She has mined a particular seam of romance, mythology, just enough Gothic mystery and potential eroticism (but nothing dangerous) in a Neo-Victorian context to appeal to a wide audience. In the process she has also developed her own brand of Mormon fiction. In common with many women writers of the Victorian period, she is in the perfect position to exploit her knowledge from her literary education of a broad base of popular and classic writing and culture and generate her winning formula during her free time away from her household and church commitments.