A Tale of Two Edwards


Pretty much as soon as I finished reading TwilightI started second-guessing my profoundly negative reaction to the central relationship of the narrative.   (My evaluation, in short: Edward is a creep and Bella is an idiot.)  Was the problem with the story, or was it with me?  Was I being unreasonably critical of a teenybopper romance?  Was I just that jaded about romance that it would be impossible for anything in that genre to please me?

And if not -- if the trouble really was with this particular portrayal of romance and not with the whole idea thereof -- what stories would I rather have our daughters read?

These questions led quickly to another:  If I were to re-read Jane Eyre today, after more than a decade of feminist formation, would I find Edward Rochester as objectionable as I find Edward Cullen?

There was only one way to find out...

A brief prologue to my findings:  I didn't select Jane Eyre because I thought it to be the pre-eminent archetype for Twilight, although I have since found some other commentators to compellingly contend that very notion.  I haven't read enough of the Brit Lit canon to make that evaluation, and I frankly didn't remember enough about Jane Eyre before I re-read it last week to begin to see the salient points of comparison -- just the broad arc of the plot and the sense that I had liked it.  It's just that I happened to have read Jane Eyre when I was in the primary demographic for Twilight, so it seemed a suitable selection for me to think about teen romance reading.  

The short answer to my wondering is: No.  I do not now find Edward Rochester as contemptible as Edward Cullen.  Compared to my previous reading of Jane Eyre half a lifetime ago, I find that romantic hero to be less romantic but more sympathetic.  

In retrospect, I don't think I ever really saw what Jane saw in her Edward.  He is arrogant, abrasive, selfish, and morally stunted. But I found his profession of love for Jane, and hers for him, so compelling that I couldn't but be caught up in the romance of it.  (My major disappointment this time through: the garden scene in which Rochester proposes, which so deeply moved me when I was a teenager, did absolutely nothing for me this time around.  I had to go back and read it twice to make sure I was in the right place, so surprised was I to find it so pedestrian.)

What I was not expecting to find is the reason that I find Edward Rochester to be a flawed but charming figure and Edward Cullen to be a charming but deeply, deeply disturbing figure.  It's actually not about these romantic leads themselves.  It's about the way their beloveds respond to them.  

It's not ultimately about the Edwards.  It's about Bella and Jane.

I shouldn't be surprised at this.  The stories are told in the first person voice from the perspective of the woman; most of the readers are going to be young women who will identify with that character.

Part of the concern some parents (and teenaged boys!) have expressed about Twilight is that it will set up unrealistic expectations of perfection for a boyfriend.  To which I say, dude, have you read the books?  Edward is so not perfect!  What's truly scary is the way Bella and many of her readers completely miss this.

No beau is perfect.  Of course.  Even fictional knights in shining Volvos would be boring if they were.  The challenge is in how a young woman responds to this.  Does she recognize which issues are deal breakers, or does she stay in a destructive relationship?  With the non-deal breaking issues, does she learn to forgive, to compromise, and to speak her mind?  Does she let "Mr. Right" walk all over her, or does she stand up for herself, even to the man she loves?

The difference between Jane and Bella is not that they fall for men who are in completely different moral planes, it's that Jane recognizes her suitor's weaknesses and Bella is willfully blind to them.  

I could probably forgive Edward Cullen for all his creepy, manipulative, or otherwise objectionable behavior if only Bella would -- but Bella can't forgive him, because she won't acknowledge that he's wronged her.  Even when he regrets his action and apologizes, she rejects the premise of the apology rather than accepting it.  

Bella spends an annoying amount of time in the Twilight books agonizing over the imbalance in her relationship with Edward -- how he's so much more beautiful, strong, intelligent, perfect, etc., etc., than she is.  She is so afraid of losing him -- so distrustful of his love for her -- that she throws the relationship into a much deeper, more dangerous imbalance, by refusing ever to challenge his behavior.  Even when she defies him, she puts herself in greater danger by sneaking around to do things he disapproves of rather than challenge the notion that he has the right to demand her obedience.

In the end, the thing that bugs me most about Edward Cullen is a relatively small matter in the scheme of a sprawling vampire saga.  It's that, at the beginning of the story, he sneaks into Bella's bedroom at night to watch her sleep without her knowledge or permission.  This while he knows -- and she doesn't -- that he has to struggle every moment he's in her presence to resist the temptation to kill her.  That's what I mean by "creep."  More than that, it's that Bella never calls him on it  -- she's too happy to continue the arrangement once she discovers it.  

In contrast, when Jane Eyre's suitor pulls an unforgivable stunt that puts her social standing and perceived virtue (but not, note, her very life) in jeopardy, she gets the hell out of dodge.  Immediately.  When circumstances change and she eventually forgives him and takes him back, it's an act with integrity and love for herself as well as for him.  

3 comments:

The Muser (aka Beautiful Mama) said...

You know, somehow I'm missing the "romance" gene and rarely have found myself swept away by a romance--never fantasized about my wedding or knight in shining armor, never found so many of the fictional heroes my female friends adored appealing (i.e., in the Lord of the Rings films, rather than falling for Aragorn--as utterly fantastic as he is--I felt a commonality with him and wanted to be him, not to fall in love with him) ...so in a lot of ways I think I totally ignored the details of the romance btwn Edward and Bella. I hooked into the myth of good vampires, into something sort of behind the stories. You're right that the relationship is beyond creepy (and this was even clearer once I saw the movie. In the movie, Edward is obviously scary, creepy, emotionally abusive). And Bella's total lack of self and the author's tendency to equate that masochistic/self-sacrifice with heroic love (esp. in the beginning of the final book) is deeply troubling. The romance didn't work for me on so many levels: Bella's lack of self and attempt to complete herself through a boy, Edward's masochism and self-hatred, Edward's controlling side (which gets much, much better toward the end of the series), the lack of equality btwn the two in terms of maturity...Have you finished the series? I'm re-reading but am stuck in Eclipse... But I admit I'm still rather in love with Edward's ability to overcome his basest instincts over and over again, his core of trustworthiness against all odds.

L M said...

Those two women at the top of your post look like sister split by a few generations.

BTW, if you DO decide to take a plane and come to the cold north, we have a house that you can keep, all your own (once the squirrels are kicked out). We'll have two houses through June. And we can promise you at least four good friends while you vacation here.

And freshwater swimming. Very cold fresh water swimming.

Tempting, eh?

Hobo Mama said...

I haven't read the Twilight series, but I had to read what you'd rediscovered about Jane Eyre, a book I read multiple times in my childhood and early adolescence. Did I just relish books about orphans? What was it?

But it is so enjoyable to me, even now — I reread it a few years ago. And I was struck as you apparently were by how very moral Jane's choices were, as fantastical as the situation was. She was very grounded, and I like how you point out how certain she was of her own worth.

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