I've been thinking alot lately about the universal appeal of Twilight. And I think I've come up with an answer: archetypes.
In my estimation, there are two strong archetypal story lines running through the series based on a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire: Beauty & the Beast and The Ugly Duckling.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) was first published in France in La jeune américaine, et les contes marins in 1740. The best-known written version, an abridgement of the original by Mme Villeneuve, was published in 1756. The first English translation appeared in 1757.
We all know the basic story (that's the point of archetypal plots), but for the sake of comparison, let's review the major points: A bankrupt merchant sends his daughter, Beauty (Belle in French; Bella in Italian) to live with a creature who is part man, part animal. Unbeknownst to Beauty and her father, the beast is actually a prince who's been enchanted by a vengeful fairy. To break the spell, he must be loved for who he truly is. He lives in a self-imposed exile. Through their association during Beauty's imprisonment, she begins to see his inner virtues and grows to love him. Spell broken, they live happily ever after.
In the Twilight series, Bella lives alone with her father like Beauty in the story. Unlike the Beast, Edward is physically beautiful, but he sees himself as a monster -- a soulless killer. Unlike his "parents" and his "siblings," Edward has never taken a mate. He has exiled himself from love, refusing all offers from willing and beautiful vampires (first Rosalie, then Tanya). This is because Edward unconsciously needs more than the love of a vampire to redeem him. A fellow vampire would never perceive him as the monster he perceives himself to be. He must be loved by someone who is capable of seeing him as a monster, but sees him (and loves him) as someone virtuous instead.
He is instinctively and inexplicably drawn to Bella. He doesn't know it yet, but he is attracted to Bella because she holds the key to his transformation. But Bella's love alone isn't enough to bring the change about. As long as she is human, he is a threat to her -- a potentially lethal monster. Edward's transformation depends on Bella -- the thing he loves most -- becoming a vampire monster -- the thing he despises most about himself. But believing his desire for this to be "selfish" (and, therefore, monstrous), he resists the thing that will save them both until the very end. When he finally sees that sweet, beautiful Bella takes to immortality like a "natural" and that she is still beautiful and virtuous, even as a vampire, he awakens to the truth about himself as well.
A key passage appears on page 479 of Breaking Dawn, when Bella and Edward see the storybook cottage Alice and Esmee have fixed up for them: "Edward had always thought that he belonged to the world of horror stories. Of course, I'd known he was dead wrong. It was obvious that he belonged here. In a fairy tale. And now I was in the story with him."
But Beauty & the Beast only tells the story of Edward's transformation. The Twilight series would not be as powerful or universally appealing without the second archetypal plot, which positions Edward as the animus who holds the key to Bella's transformation.
The Ugly Duckling, published by Hans Christian Anderson in 1843, tells the story of a cygnet ostracized by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness. To his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a graceful swan--the most beautiful of all birds.
The Ugly Duckling demonstrates the archetype of the "outsider" searching for his or her place in society. Bella is not ostracized by her fellow humans, but feels nevertheless out of place in their world. Bella can not understand why the excruciating beautiful (and intense) Edward is drawn to her of all people -- and loves her irrevocably. Bella Swan (literally, Beautiful Swan) sees herself as plain, gangly and uncoordinated. Bella feels more at home in the world of vampires, but also vulnerable in that world because of her humanity. Like Edward's, Bella's transformation from duckling to swan is complete only when she becomes a vampire herself and sees herself as the beautiful and graceful creature she was "born to be."
Archetypes like these are powerful. They appeal universally to something primal within us and have been present in folklore and literature for thousands of years.
Archetypes are components of the collective unconscious and serve to organize, direct and inform human thought and behavior. Archetypes are, according to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge.
Using archetypal plots and characters, as Stephanie Meyer does in her Twilight books, enables large groups of people to unconsciously recognize and rapidly process the point of the story. In the case of Twilight (and the other books), the point of view of the storyteller is essential to establish both archetypal plots: only from Bella's perspective can we see her self-perception as the ugly duckling and the virtues of the hero, Edward. Something innate and subconscious within us recognizes the archetypes operating (even when we don't) and immediately understands and embraces the characters and their motivations.
So, the next time somebody asks "What is it about Twilight that touches so many people -- especially women of all ages?" (and this goes for Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, the stars of the movie, who clearly don't have a clue how to answer the question) you'll know what to tell them: archetypes!
No, it isn't just because Edward is so hot and dangerous and that all women are secretly attracted to bad boys and forbidden love (give us a little more credit -- even the middle-aged ones who ask poor Rob to sign their "team Edward" thongs -- geez, don't get me started on that). Edward is appealing because he sees the exquisite beauty in Bella (to which she is blind) and thus enables her transformation into the beautiful swan she was born to be. And isn't THAT what we all really want in a mate? Isn't THAT what makes Edward so desirable?
Okay, lesson over. BTW, my Edward and Bella are finally progressing. Pictures as soon as they're decent! But today is my 50th birthday (yikes, can you say "midlife crisis"?), so I don't know that they'll get much attention in the next 24 hours.