Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book 1, Chapter 1:

           In the first chapter of Twilight, the novel’s protagonist, Isabella (Bella) Swan describes her move to Phoenix, AZ, to a tiny, gloomy town in coastal Washington state called Forks. Reinforcing her martyrdom role indicated in the preface, Bella explains that she is moving to Forks to spend time with her father so that her mother can travel with her new husband for his job with a minor league baseball team. She self-describes this decision as “exiling herself” to Forks, sacrificing her own happiness for her mother’s.
In a momentary fit of internal panic at the airport, during parting conversation with her mother, Bella chides herself for leaving, asking, “How could I leave my loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself?” An absurd idea, this thought suggests, leaving a grown woman to handle daily responsibilities efficiently. Quickly though, Bella qualifies this with an afterthought: “Of course, she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car, and someone to call when she got lost, but still…”

So, with her thoughts reconciled, her mother with a man to take care of her, and self-sacrifice established as her modus operandi, Bella gets on the plane and flies to Forks.

Upon arriving in Forks, Bella is greeted by her father, the police chief of Forks, Charlie Swan. Added quickly to Bella’s list of consistent character attributes clumsiness, as she stumbles off the plane unsteadily and is caught by Charlie, who prevents her from falling. This is the first of many times Bella is “saved” by a male character. Bella calls Charlie by his first name, and assumes a caretaking role within his home. Charlie is promptly attributed stereotypical gender traits: He is gruff, quiet, has difficulty discussing emotion, and requires female intervention with trying tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and home décor.
Bella had intended to buy a car upon arriving in Forks, but luckily, her father and his mechanically-inclined friend have patched up a classic Chevy truck just for Bella. Of course, Charlie becomes embarrassed at Bella’s display of gratitude, and their interactions for the chapter end at this point. Now Bella has nothing to worry about in the home, aside from cooking, cleaning, waking Charlie up from the couch when he falls asleep watching sports. Bella spends her first night in Forks staring out the window thinking about how miserable she will be for the foreseeable future, but deciding to stop herself from crying. She would “save that for bedtime.” This is the second time she suppresses tears, the first being in the car on the way home from the airport with Charlie, where she noted that while her happiness was an impossibility in her new home, he “didn’t need to suffer with her.”
During this segment of the chapter, we learn that Bella views herself as a misfit, which makes her immediately sympathetic to readers. She describes herself as “a freak,” as she will not fit the stereotype of a girl from Phoenix. She is pale, not at all tan, despite constant desert sun. She is poor at sports, uncoordinated, and bad at relating to her peers, and perhaps even people in general (this is an instance of foreshadowing). Bella complains goes on to list a myriad of other faults with her appearance that society would generally appreciate (for instance, she is naturally slender, but with a “softness” that would prevent anyone from assuming her an athlete; her skin is clear and smooth, and,she admits, “could be pretty,” but negates this by explaining that the lack of natural light in Forks makes her “translucent” skin appear sallow, and unhealthy). Thus, Bella is established as the quiet, misfit, pretty, waifish martyr with humility to such a degree that she does not recognize her own (more than likely stunning) beauty, and is about to begin a new life. Readers want to identify with these traits, and here they begin to lose themselves in Bella’s narration. Her story becomes their story. From here on, what happens to Bella has serious implications for Twilight readers.
Of course, Bella is instantly popular at school. Boys pine after her (she, of course, being blind to her breathtaking allure cannot understand why, and hardly notices the attention). She is befriended by a small clique of established friends, led  by a jock-ish boy named Mike, who becomes smitten with Bella, and a bubbly, vapid, insecure girl named Jessica, who is interested in Mike. Despite the unlikely acquisition of an immediate friend group on her first day at a new high school in the middle of the semester, Bella appears bored and dissatisfied at lunchtime, and focuses her attention on a group of students at a table across the cafeteria. These students, the “only ones in the room not gawking” at Bella, immediately grab her attention. Now that she has a reason to initiate conversation, Bella asks her new friends about the mysterious students at the remote table. Jessica babbles that they are essentially a family of adopted weirdoes named the Cullens, living with the kindly town doctor and his wife. Within the group “siblings” are two couples (to Jessica’s aversion: Jasper and Alice, and Emmett and Rosalie. All of them are “perfect” looking, according to Bella. Jasper is honey-blond and lean, and Alice is tiny, “pixie-like,” and graceful, with “lithe dancer’s steps.” Emmett is large and muscular, and Rosalie is blonde, statuesque, and has “a beautiful figure, the kind you see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues.” Here we have socially-reinforced perfection embodied in four characters, but much more description is given to the female characters. Within the text, it is noted that the girls are physical opposites, but between the two of them, contain every element of feminine beauty that is socially reinforced. Without these elements carefully outlined, it would be more difficult for the reader to understand what Bella means when she describes them as “perfect.” The reader joins Bella in envying and wanting to learn more about these strangers. The only Cullen at the table without a mate, Bella learns, is Edward Cullen, the most beautiful boy of them all. Tritely, he looks up and catches her eye briefly, then looks away again. We are nearing the end of the chapter, and the reader is silently screaming at Edward to look up again. With his preternatural good looks, and his gender, it has somehow become understood that Edward will do the initiating when it comes to social transactions with Bella. The reader, suspending reality (or not), forfeits her own individuality in accepting this, and adheres to gender roles established in the text.
By some enormously unexpected twist of fate, Bella and Edward cross paths again, in the very next class! Bella is seated next to Edward at the discretion of the teacher, and their first interactions begin. The reader is shocked to read how rudely Edward reacts to Bella. He refuses to speak to her, moves his chair as far away from her as possible, and keeps his fists clenched. While Edward’s fists are clenched, Bella notes how “hard and muscular” his forearms are, which is unusual, in that clenched fists are generally a sign of aggression, not an opportunity for a girl to evaluate masculine physical prowess. Additionally, this is yet another reference to a male as muscular, reinforcing the male role as physically strong. Despite her obvious attraction to Edward’s appearance, Bella is aware that Edward seems averse to her. She sniffs her hair, immediately assuming some odor or fault of her own is revolting him. She then decides it must not be her, because “he didn’t know [her] from Eve.” Calling Bella Eve was either a remarkable coincidence (to not know someone from Adam/Eve is a common metaphor) or a clever symbolic reference by the author. Regardless, Bella as the temptress (albeit the aloof temptress) is revisited, though masked by Edward’s adverse reaction to her. After several pages of Bella wondering what was wrong with her/what was bothering Edward, and Edward treating Bella like a used diaper or vat of rancid meat, the class ends. Bella goes to gym, moping all the way at Edward’s attitude. She refuses to participate in gym class, again referring to her past experiences with sports (including “injuries  sustained and inflicted”), and then goes to the office to see the secretary. Edward is there speaking to her already, trying to switch out of the biology class he shares with Bella. His voice is describes as “velvet,” and he is “absurdly handsome,” but Bella notes his “hate-filled eyes.” She becomes afraid of him, developing goosebumps in response to his glowering. Bella meekly does her business with the secretary and leaves school for the day, Edward Cullen consuming her thoughts.

Reaction: Throughout the chapter, Bella demonstrates several passive qualities, making her a bit endearing, but more than anything else, making her appear helpless. This is intentional, as is evident later in the novel. However, endearing qualities aside, Bella’s helplessness can be quickly interpreted as unhealthy. She remains externally quiet and stoic when upset, even when asked about her feelings and needs, opting to please others. Clearly, pleasing others can be socially-appropriate in moderation, but Bella surpasses normal compromise and delves into complete self-sacrifice. She internalizes negative social responses from others, relies heavily on the opinions of others to define her self-worth, and though it’s merely the first chapter, shows evidence of physically relying on males for her literal stability (her father steadying her as she stumbles off the plane being the prime example this chapter, a fact that could be overlooked if it did not precede a pattern of behavior permeating not only the novel, but the saga). Equally alarming is Bella’s response to Edward. He glares at her, appearing disgusted with her, throughout biology class, but, rather than being alarmed at his clenched fists, “raised tendons,” and near-tangible tension, she assesses his muscularity. Edward causes Bella a physical fear response in the secretary’s office when he glares at her with “hate-filled eyes.” Yet, her thoughts remain with him. As she leaves school, teary-eyed, upset, and hurt. And why? Edward, a stranger who had not said a word to her, but was beautiful and strong and otherwise-desirable, had been mean to her. She had not said a word in defense, nor had she questioned his rude behavior. Bella paints herself as a potential punching bag in this chapter. The reader has already been drawn into the story, into Bella’s mind, seeing things from Bella’s viewpoint. “Yes,” the reader thinks. “What am [I] doing wrong for Edward to react like this?” The reader eagerly flips to the next chapter to figure out how she/Bella can appease the situation. It is interesting to read a story from the viewpoint of another, especially when one can become so engrossed in a character that they see/think things as though she feels she is that character. However, it is important to be able to remove that suspension of disbelief when closing the book for the day. Retaining values of characters, especially feeble, controlled, helpless Bella Swan, can be dangerous, particularly to impressionable readers, such the target audience of the Twilight saga: Adolescent girls. Hopefully, such readers are able to distinguish between a flawed character’s narrative and expectations in real life.

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