Is "Twilight" a romantic teen fantasy – or a deeply religious parable?
Look deeper at Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" teen vampire series and you'll see the underpinnings of a decidedly conservative moral universe.
"Twilight," Stephenie Meyer's coming of age story about a 17-year-old high school girl pursuing her desire for romance and eternal commitment with a vampire, is steeped in religious sensibility, although cleverly packaged for a mostly secular audience.
How might a devout young Mormon woman who believes in chastity, eternal love, marriage, family, and the sanctity of her faith convey the excitement of her passion, beliefs, and moral worldview to a non-Mormon audience so that her saga seems exciting and “fresh”? Meyer’s success depends on transposing the story into a different genre – fantasy – so that it becomes palpable to a secular and spiritually diverse group of readers.
As Sarah Schwartzman has noted in her essay in the edited collection "The Twilight Mystique," Meyer’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is mentioned by her in nearly every interview. In "Twilight" the importance of love, commitment, and family is exemplified by the Cullen family, “vegetarian” vampires who practice abstinence through their refusal to drink human blood. For Meyer, these vampires are nothing less than the exalted “other,” the personification of Mormons who strive to become “the elect.”
Bella’s passion is for Edward, a Byronic, if chaste hero, who happens to be a vampire. His ability to abstain from his animalistic desire (blood lust and physical intimacy) builds tension as readers yearn for the consummation of this dangerous and illicit passion between two fated lovers, the realization of which may prove fatal. Meyer evokes the transgressive quality of this tale to titillate her young, female audience who are enraptured with the prospect of Gothic romance and forbidden love between an innocent young woman and the alluring, if potentially dangerous, vampire.
Beneath the Gothic trappings is an American high school romance in which Juliet meets Romeo, they fall in love, marry, and she gives birth to his child while becoming gloriously undead. Thus, not only has tragedy been averted, death has been subverted. "Twilight" is a story in which free will, determination, and fabulation triumph over disturbing reality, namely, the crisis of the family, the diminished possibility of the bonds of love and commitment, and the loss of religious spirituality in contemporary American society.
To underscore that biblical connection, the cover of "Twilight" features two hands cupping an apple and the novel begins with a quote from Genesis 2:17 that precedes the opening preface. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shall surely die.”
But as Susan Jeffers suggests in "The Twilight Mystique," for Mormons Adam and Eve’s fall is not a cause for woe. Rather, it begins the human story of individuals opting through conscious moral reasoning to choose good over evil. This, in turn, confers the possibility of moral and social development that offers the opportunity not only for atonement but also redemption. Eve’s decision to eat the apple and persuade Adam to do the same lies at the heart of the Mormon belief that the fall, moral agency, and afterlife provide the pathway to salvation. Bella’s choices mimic those of Eve.
From the Mormon theological perspective, therefore, the very act of deciding to become a vampire may be interpreted less as a fall from grace than as a necessary first step in the exercise of free will that offers the potential for wisdom and the possibility of redemption. This process parallels the Christian fall, the choice to embrace the beliefs of Jesus Christ, and the prospect not only for salvation but for immortality.
For Meyer, it would seem, salvation for “vegetarian” vampires is possible. Carlisle, the spiritual father of the Cullen family who is nearly saintly in his embodiment of empathy and restraint, tells Bella that in 400 years nothing has “made me doubt whether God exists.... Not even my reflection in the mirror.” For the author, this family is the paradigmatic illustration in the "Twilight" saga of the Mormon faithful. They are outsiders whose beliefs lie beyond the pale of normative Christianity. Nevertheless, this confers upon the tribe an exalted status as they strive mightily to live exemplary lives, embracing free will, resisting temptation, and upholding righteous morals – qualities that, undoubtedly, enhance their prospects for redemption.
"Twilight" immerses the reader in the throes of adolescent desire. Beneath the surge of raging hormones and high school angst is a story that celebrates outsiders as the purveyors of a decidedly conservative moral universe where love, family, and spirituality prevail against all odds. If the literary quality of "Twilight" is grossly suspect, its religious sensibilities are not. For this reason, perhaps, it deserves a second look, even if its leaden style and prosaic plot leave us wanting.
Diana Sheets is the author of two novels: "American Suite" and "The Cusp of Dreams." Her essays on literary criticism and political commentary are archived on her website www.literarygulag.com. This essay is a distillation of a lengthier piece called "Twilight, Harry Potter, and the Youthful Reader: Morality, Gender, and $$$ in Today's Fantasy Blockbusters."