Jan 19, 2009

A Thinking Woman's Guide to Twilight


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 BĂȘte) was first published in France in La jeune amĂ©ricaine, 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.

Nina

6 comments:

The Burlap Owl said...

Nina,
Bingo! I believe this story fits into both of those categories too.
They each fulfill the others needs in a way that us romantics love....
It's so hard not to get wrapped up in their world. I can't wait until the movie comes out on DVD... I'll probably wear it out!!
I hope you had a great birthday!!
Take Care,
Tina

Rachael Kinnison said...

H*A*P*P*Y* B*I*R*T*H*D*A*Y!!!! I wish you A blessed 50 MORE to come!! Dont fret~ your life is just beginning!
xoxxoxoxoxox rachael

Andrea Kerby said...

Aunt Nina,

I completely agree with the archetypes listed, but while I read it I also could think of a few more archetypes that are present throughout the books.

I think vampires themselves are something that intriques humans. Ever since the beginning of man, there have been stories about vampires, as you of course know. Whether it's the power or sexuality of them, we humans are fascinated by them. I think it is because as far as monster's go, they are the most human. Also, there is a part of us that wants to be that perfect and masterful.

Another one is the "damsel in distress". Not that women are weak, but I think that idea appeals to us that someone is willing to risk their lives to protect ours.

The most present archetype is also the most responsive-forbidden love. There is something about the idea of two people overcoming obstacles to remain together that we respond to. That is the reason why Romeo and Juliet, based off of Pyramus and Thisbe (a tale from ancient Rome's Ovid), is still the most celebrated play to this day [no matter how I feel about the annoying characters. It was Shakespeare's first tragedy so we can cut him some slack]. That is also why Titanic was such an instant classic. Also, the fact that the star-crossed lovers are forbidden always intices us. It makes it more interesting and special.

What do you think? Any other archetypes? Do you agree/disagree with these archetypes?

Love,
Andrea

Nina Mason said...

Andrea:

Of course you're right, my clever girl! There are many archetypes that fit the story -- besides plot lines, we could trace most of the characters back to archetypes. The symbolism of the cover art is also indicative of deeper meanings: the apple of forbidden fruit. But what do you think the verigated tulip, the frayed ribbon and the chess piece mean? I did my archetypal analysis before I read the posted chapters of Midnight Sun, but having read them now only convinces me that I'm right about Edward's self-perception as an evil monster. I just wonder if Stephanie Meyer adopted the archetypes consciously or unconsciously. Would be interesting to know. Was it really a dream or something more calculated?

Glad to hear she's finishing the book. I enjoyed all 263 pages of the manuscript!

Aunt Nina

Anonymous said...

Dear Aunt Nina
Thank you! This is the only site I have found with the intelligence to unravel the mystery of Twilight and how it has taken the world by storm! I realized right away there are deep archetypal and Jungian themes here...how else could this book and now the movies be so captivating. As someone who has been blessed through much lonely soulsearching to finally meet her Edward (yes men like that do exist..perhaps not the blood sucking bit) but still ones who can transcend their demons,while still young enough! I want to encourage you to write more and spread the word!

Nina Mason said...

Stay tuned for my first novel ... about a vampire hero with depth and history and a foray into the evolving vampire archetype.

Heart of the Beast is the working title.

Aunt Nina