In the Twilight of Patriarchal Culture: The Struggle for Female Identity in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga

©2013 Academic Paper 81 Pages


The book investigates Meyer’s popular Twilight saga from a feminist point of view, focusing on the development of Bella’s character and her quest for identity in a rigidly patriarchal world. Bella’s life is entirely determined by the two central male characters who form a polarized axis which slowly tears her apart. Bella’s low self-esteem and her strong attachment to the over-idealized Edward Cullen are read as symptoms of her placelessness in a world that does not grant her space to develop as an autonomous subject. Bella’s wish to become a vampire can be equalled with a woman’s desire to gain access to a higher social realm via her husband and thereby escape her marginalisation in patriarchal culture. In order to live eternally in the idealized, capitalist, patriarchal and overly religious world that Edward represents, Bella has to make a series of sacrifices. Leaving her mother behind, she moves into a male dominated world which is divided into morally idealized vampires and racially devalued werewolves. She is forced to give up her friendship with Jacob Black, who represents her autonomous self, in order to find her patriarchal pre-defined destiny as mother and wife. Similar patterns of stereotypical representations of femininity can be found in various characters of the saga. A more controversial note is brought in by Bella’s half-vampire child who can be seen as a destabilizing factor of the saga’s rigid dichotomy. Taking all this into consideration, we have to ask whether it is desirable that millions of young women worldwide admire Bella and set her up as their role model.


Table Of Contents

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Tracing Bella’s Subjectivity: Ideal Love as the only Way Out

3. Edward and Jacob: magnets with reversed polarities or two poles of
Bella’s existence?

4. The Cullen Vampires: the ideal family and its enemies
4.1. Carlisle and Edward Cullen
4.2. Esme Cullen
4.3. Rosalie Cullen
4.4. Alice Cullen
4.5. The Cullens’ Enemies: The Volturi and Victoria

5. Quileute Legends: re-affirming patriarchal myths

6. The Power of Abstinence?

7. The Dawn of Bella’s Immortality
7.1. Bella’s transformations: marriage, pregnancy, motherhood
7.2. Bella’s new life: motherhood and other talents
7.3. Renesmee: link between binaries, threat to the patriarchal order

8. Twilight as Modern Fairy Tale: patriarchal myths reflected in the saga
8.1. Little Red Riding Hood
8.2. The Little Mermaid
8.3. The Genesis

9. Intertextuality: The Twilight Saga and Wuthering Heights

10. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Most approaches on the Twilight Saga, like Natalie Wilson’s Seduced by Twilight, mainly focus on Cultural Studies topics such as race, gender, sexuality and the influence of Meyer’s religion on the representation of those issues. My aim is to take those discussions as a starting point and to go deeper into the psychological set-up of the characters by taking up psychoanalytical and feminist theories.

I will focus mainly on Bella Swan’s character and her struggle for self-affirmation in a rigidly patriarchal setting, which forces her to identify with traditional concepts of femininity. Bella’s life revolves around Jacob and Edward, who form an axis of binary oppositions that slowly tears her apart. The two men represent two separate worlds and two mutually exclusive modes of life. It is made clear from the beginning that choosing Edward Cullen and joining his highly idealized vampire family is the only way for Bella to escape her marginalized state and to gain access to a ‘higher’ realm. Jacob, on the other hand, represents everything she has to leave behind in order to be transformed into a superior being. I will argue that Bella’s inner conflict is paradigmatic for the situation of woman in patriarchal culture. Taking Beauvoir as a starting point I will show that Bella can be seen as the prototypical “Woman in Love”, who loses herself in an attempt to gain access to the higher realm which her lover represents. Furthermore, I will show that similar patterns can be found in the stories of other female characters in the saga, and that these stories are interweaved with various patriarchal myths.

Wilson reads the saga as a product of the current socio-political situation in the US seeing the Cullen vampires as idealized representations of patriarchal capitalism. In her book the focus lies on the depiction of norms concerning body image and physical attractiveness, the impact of anti-feminist and conservative messages on the largely female fandom, and the religiously motivated abstinence message. Wilson concludes that Twilight is a series that “presents neither a subversive nor a conservative view of larger social contexts but is an ambiguous mixture of both” (Wilson 8). By engaging more closely with the characters through the lens of post-structuralist feminism it becomes clear that traditional patriarchal structures constitute the basic tone of the series, while subversive aspects appear only marginally.

One of the more controversial aspects that will be treated in greater detail concerns Bella’s daughter Renesmee and the way her hybrid identity destabilizes the binary structure of the saga. The Twilight Saga could basically be described as Bella’s way from teenaged outsider to perfect vampire mother and wife. Of course, if we focus exclusively on Bella’s story, the narrative does indeed present itself as an uncritical celebration of traditional patriarchal family structures. Only when taking a closer look at Renesmee and her relationship to Jacob, can it be argued that she represents a possible solution to the conflict that Bella could not solve. Instead of seeing the saga as an ambiguous mixture of controversial and conservative messages, I want to suggest that Twilight is a conservative love story that brings in a subtle criticism of its own values in the form of characters like Renesmee.

2. Tracing Bella’s Subjectivity: Ideal Love as the only Way Out

Is that what you dream about? Being a monster? (Twilight , 433)

In this chapter I will trace the development of Bella Swan’s character looking at the ways in which her situation can be seen as paradigmatic for women in patriarchal culture. Concerning Bella’s psychological development in the part of the narrative that covers her human existence, I want to differentiate between three different phases. In the beginning of the narrative the reader is introduced to Bella’s life and her character prior to her relationship with Edward. I want to draw attention to the fact that her initial situation – lacking a positive self-image and feeling socially placeless – already points to the problematic status of her subjectivity.

.A special focus will be put on the second phase, which starts when she enters into the love relation with Edward Cullen. Here, the most important aspect is Bella’s attempt to use the idealized lover as a route to escape her initial social marginalisation. I will show how her wish to become a vampire develops into Bella’s central motivation because participating in Edward’s infinite reality seems to be the only way to affirm her identity as a subject. Paradoxically, it is precisely this love relation, characterised by her total identification with Edward that almost reaches the point of fusion, which endangers her status as autonomous subject.

Shockingly, her return to life is not initiated by her own life-affirming powers, but it is Jacob Black who fills the void that Edward left behind by becoming her “personal sun” (N.M. 174). Once again Bella finds herself in a marginal position, setting up Jacob as her new centre. The problematic conflicts that her relationship to Jacob and her unaltered attachment to Edward bring along will be discussed in further detail in the following chapter.

Let me now return to what I have called the first phase of Bella’s inner development. Looking at the first chapter of Twilight it is striking how little information the author gives about Bella, who is not only the central female character, but also the only narrator in the first three parts of the saga. We only learn that she loves Phoenix, the sun and “the vigorous, sprawling city” and that she decided to “exile” herself to rainy Forks, which she always “detested” (T.L. 4). The first decision that we see Bella make in the novel is one of selfless sacrifice. She leaves her mother, who seems to care more for her new husband than for her daughter, behind and goes to live with her father who is almost a stranger to her.

This decision is not easy for Bella, who seems to feel an exceptionally strong attachment to her mother. We even learn that she experiences “a spasm of panic” when leaving her “ loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself” (T.L. 4). The situation can be seen as paradigmatic for the violent split in the mother-daughter relation that, according to french feminist theory, is imposed on women by patriarchal culture. According to Irigaray “the love between mother and daughter is forbidden in the sense that it reminds the daughter, the woman, of the singularity of the female gender she has to renounce, except as an abstract duty imposed upon her by a culture that is not hers” (Irigaray, Love 109)

I want to suggest that Bella’s decision to leave her mother reflects – in psychoanalytic terms - her attempt to individuate as a subject and to find her place in the symbolic order, which due to her gender turns out to be problematic.

Elisabeth Grosz claims that in the daughter’s attempt to find her place in the symbolic order “her (pre)history is erased, and her primal relations to the love object, and thus to her own sex, are renounced. This is an exile from the maternal continent”(Grosz 63) Bella’s “exile” is thus not only characterised by physical distance from the “vigorous sprawling city” and the warming sun of Arizona, but it can also be seen as an inner exile from the maternal. It is exactly this first step into the unknown that forms a preliminary condition for the following adventures Bella is about to experience, in the attempt to find her place in a culture that does not seem to hold many options for her.

Apart from the few passages I have quoted above, we do not receive any information on Bella’s character in the first chapter. Nothing about her plans for the future, her interests, her hopes, dreams and fears in life is mentioned. But of course the reader does not have time to notice this inner emptiness of the central female character because Edward, who is first mentioned on page 17, soon steps in to provide Bella’s life with aim and meaning, and the story with a centre that overshadows everything else.

In the days that follow Bella’s first sight of Edward, when he ignores her completely, we get the impression that she is trapped in a world that most of the time makes her feel inadequate and out of place. She listens to her classmates’ “easy chatter” feeling “terribly uncomfortable, waiting nervously for the moment he would arrive” (T.L.26). Bella is “miserable” in the sports lessons where she usually tries to “cringe out of the way of the ball” (T.L. 25).

At home her main duty seems to consist of being her father’s cook and housekeeper. This creates the impression that Bella perceives herself as “an inessential creature [...] incapable of sensing the absolute at the heart her subjectivity” She begins to see in Edward “a superb being whom she cannot possibly equal”, and from the moment of her first encounter with the Cullens she starts to “dream of transcending her being towards one of those superior beings” (Beauvoir 653).

The moment Edward enters her life, and she attaches all her dreams and aspirations to him, represents the beginning of what I have called phase two of Bella’s development. The following dream sequence at the beginning of chapter four shows the dramatic change in Bella’s psyche.

In my dream it was very dark, and what dim light there was seemed to be radiating

from Edward’s skin. I couldn’t see his face, just his back as he walked away from

me, leaving me in the blackness. No matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t catch up to him;

no matter how loud I called, he never turned. [] After that he was in my dreams

nearly every night, but always in the periphery, never within reach. (T.L. 58)

In this passage we can see how Bella perceives Edward as the only source of light in her personal darkness, but he is “never within reach”. Bella feels herself limited through her body that never lets her run fast enough, in addition to that she finds herself silenced without a voice that would make him turn around and become aware of her as a subject.

Not only in her dreams, but also in real life, Bella seems to experience her body as a limiting factor that leaves her in constant need of protection from her own clumsiness, as well as from all kinds of exterior dangers. First, Edward stops a car with his bare hands to save Bella from being squashed. At a later incident he has to protect her from stalking strangers in Port Angeles, but she does not “even look shaken” because she feels so save with her god-like protector by her side. (T.L. 148) Later, when Edward is away on a hunting trip, he is “anxious” whether she would “make it through the whole weekend unscathed”, without falling in the ocean or getting run over. (T.L.164). All these incidents show that instead of finding herself as an autonomous being, Bella regresses to a childlike status in her relationship with Edward. This becomes even more apparent at later points in the narrative, especially in Eclipse, when Bella seems to have become a precious object divided among various people, who all try to protect her against other predators. But let me return to the beginning of Bella’s relationship with Edward before going into more detail concerning these topics.

From the first disturbing dream it does not take Bella a long time to realize that she is “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him” (T.L. 171). It is striking how little the fact that Edward is “the world’s best predator” (T.L. 231) frightens Bella. Instead of keeping a save distance, she is fascinated by the vampire world, and she instantly senses that a possible transformation would give her access to a world of infinite freedom and transcendence, something that will never be accessible for her in the human world. As her relationship with Edward progresses, we can trace all the typical symptoms that Beauvoir ascribes to “The Woman in Love”. The wish to become a vampire becomes her central motivation, even though she knows the transformation will be painful and that she most probably will have to give up parts of her personality, as she is likely to become “ forever a prisoner to [her] own thirst” (E. 66). As Beauvoir writes about the Woman in Love:

There is no other way out for her than to lose herself, body and soul, in him

who is represented to her as the absolute, as the essential. [...] She chooses

to desire her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her the expression

of her liberty; she will try to rise above her situation as inessential object by

fully accepting it; [...] she will enthrone him as supreme value and reality.

[...] Love becomes for her a religion. (Beauvoir 653)

It can be claimed that Edward becomes Bella’s religion. A religion that requires of her to sacrifice herself like a lamb to the lion (T.L. 240) in quest for her personal salvation. She gives herself up in the hope that by transforming her into a vampire “[Edward] will give her at once possession of herself and of the universe he represents” (Beauvoir 656). She is quite literally willing to “consecrate each heartbeat [and] each drop of her blood” (Beavoir 661) to him. When Bella climbs on Edward’s back and lets herself be carried “through the dark, thick underbrush of the forest, like a bullet, like a ghost”, we get the impression that this is an exhilarating, almost transcendent experience for her. But afterwards she feels “the dizzy faintness of motion sickness”, her “muscles wouldn’t respond “ and her head is spinning uncomfortably. (T.L. 245) This is once again reminiscent of Beauvoir’s words on the ‘The Woman in Love”, who - in an act of “profound self-abandonment” – “feels as if borne by waves, swept away in a storm, shrouded to darkness”. But once the man moves away from her, “she finds herself back on earth [...] she again has a name, a face: she is one vanquished, prey, object” ( Beauvoir 658).

The motion sickness Bella feels, when Edward puts her back down to earth after running through the forest, is only a faint echo of the bitter awakening that is yet to come: the moment when Edward decides to disappear from her life telling her “It will be as if I’d never existed” (N.M. 63). This violent split in the love relation has a traumatic impact on her psyche, therefore I see it as the beginning of phase three in Bella’s development. Having gone through a period of extreme identification with her lover, Bella feels her whole existence shaken by his words. As she has attached all her “love, life, [and] meaning” (N.M. 65) to Edward, it seems as if Bella fears the annihilation of her own ego. She drowns in “waves of pain” that keep “pulling her under” (N.M. 74), and throughout the empty pages that follow, we start believing that it will be as if Bella had never existed either.

When she finally resurfaces, after months of total numbness, she shows clear symptoms of melancholia. The nightmare that haunts her continually best expresses the inner void she experiences when Edward is absent. In order to draw attention to Bella’s precarious psychological state, I want to quote the whole dream sequence here.

My nightmare probably wouldn’t even frighten someone else. [...] There

were no zombies, no ghosts, no psychopaths. There was nothing really.

Only nothing. Just the endless maze of moss-covered trees, so quiet

that the silence was an uncomfortable pressure against my eardrums.

[...] it was dark, with only enough light to see that there was nothing

to see. I hurried through the gloom without a path, always searching,

searching, searching, [There was a point] when I couldn’t remember

what it was that I was searching for. When I realized that there

was nothing to search for, and nothing to find. That there never had

been anything more than this empty, dreary wood, and there never

would be anything more for menothing but nothing (N.M. 108)

What is striking about this passage is the frequent use of the word “nothing”, it occurs seven times in one paragraph. The inner void that Bella feels is also haunting her in her waking hours, where she experiences “a hole in [her] chest” that is “aching around the edges” (N.M. 109) whenever she is reminded of Edward, or anything connected to him. What causes the hole in Bella’s chest is clearly the loss of a love object. But it is a loss she cannot actually mourn because she identifies her whole being with this lost object.

As Freud writes, in melancholia, “the object has not perhaps actually died, but has become lost as an object of love” furthermore “the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost”. Even though he might remember whom he has lost, he is not aware “what he has lost in him”. Melancholia is thus caused by an “object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness” (Mourning and Melancholia 245).

All this applies to Bella’s case. By saying “It will be as if I’d never existed”, Edward attempts to erase himself completely from her consciousness, even forbidding her to keep memories and to love him still in his absence, which would help her in the mourning process. The point in Bella’s dream where she cannot remember what it is she is searching for, reflects the repressed memories of her relationship with Edward. She remembers that there is something she has lost, and she keeps searching frantically for it, but she cannot recall what it is. She realizes that “there never had been anything” and “there never would be anything” because the object of her identificatory love has been annihilated.

The hole in her chest shows that Bella has internalised the lost object. By fusing her subjectivity with Edward, who is not only absent but in a way inexistent, she feels a split from her own ego. In order to make her condition more bearable and to counterbalance this split, she tries to conjure up Edward’s voice by bringing herself into life-threatening situations. Bella is aware that “this [is]wish fulfillment – a momentary relief from pain by embracing the incorrect idea that he cared whether [she] lived or died” (N.M. 100), but hearing his voice is “an irresistible lure” that makes her want to repeat the experience. Knowing that these delusions are generated by her unconscious, which has split from her conscious mind, she still tries to trigger them for the sense of wholeness she experiences in these moments.

In chapter seven of New Moon, when she intends to conjure up Edward’s voice by jumping off a cliff, we learn that Bella is fully aware of the motivation for her reckless action.

For that brief moment, when his voice came from some

other part of me than my conscious memory, when his

voice was perfect and honey smooth rather than the pale

echoes my memories usually produced, I was able to

remember without pain (N.M. 141)

As I have claimed previously, the consciously triggered hallucinations are a way of coping with the painful split from parts of her own ego that Edward’s leaving has provoked. But Bella soon finds another way of minimizing the pain of her loss by turning to Jacob Black. In the beginning her only intention is to break her promise to Edward about not doing “anything reckless” (N.M. 63) by letting Jacob teach her to ride a motorcycle. Soon she finds out that being around Jacob improves her condition, as for the first time in four months she sleeps through the night “without dreaming or screaming” (N.M. 125) and the thought of seeing him again makes her feel “almost...hopeful” (N.M. 126). It does not take a long time until Bella begins to arrange her life more and more around her friendship with Jacob.

I even want to suggest that she becomes addicted to the “abnormal sense of well-being” (N.M. 125) that makes her feel “weightless” (N.M. 124) when she is with him. It is worth mentioning here that Bella seems to receive her sense of self exclusively from her relations to other people, or more precisely from her attachment to male characters. She never seems to define herself without reference to either Edward, Jacob or her father. First, it is the “irresistible lure” of Edward’s voice that prevents her from slipping back into numbness, and later Jacob becomes her drug against the pain, or her “personal sun” (N.M. 174) as she calls him. Bella’s new ‘happiness’ with Jacob is not profound in the beginning , but it only forms – along with school and work – “a neat and effortless pattern to follow”(N.M. 177). Once again Bella sees the expectations of others as her priority, even as concerns her own mental well-being. As she emphasises: “ And Charlie got his wish: I wasn’t miserable anymore” (N.M. 177). The following passage shows that her friendship with Jacob can do nothing to change her initial melancholia, as Edward is still the absent centre of her life:

I was like a lost moon – my planet destroyed in some cataclysmic,

disaster movie scenario of desolation – that continued ,nevertheless,

to circle in a tight little orbit around the empty space left behind,

ignoring the laws of gravity (N.M. 177)

Nevertheless, a deep friendship evolves between Bella and her werewolf companion. This might seem to imply a contradiction at first glance. How can Bella be a lost moon circling around an empty space, while Jacob becomes her personal sun? To solve this dilemma, I want to suggest that the nature of her relationship to Jacob is fundamentally different from the idolatrous love she feels for Edward. While Edward represents “ a superb being whom she cannot possibly equal” (Beauvoir), Jacob is in various ways not only her equal, but he is also trapped in a similar situation that limits him to ‘the laws of nature’ and his changing body. In the following chapter I will explain this notion in more detail.

To sum up the main points of this section, it has to be emphasized that Bella Swan lives in a constant state of self-alienation. After the separation from her mother, which symbolizes the split from a positive self-image through the loss of a female identificatory figure, she tries to transcend her limited self in ideal love. The extreme identification with Edward leads her further away from her autonomy as a subject, while regressing to a state of childlike dependence. Edward’s leaving throws her into melancholia, which can be seen as a result of internalising the loss. Later, we see Bella oscillating between Edward, Jacob and her father, who all try to protect her like a precious object against exterior dangers. Being transformed into a vampire stays, for her, the only option to find a way out of her limited existence, and a way of becoming equal to her god-like lover. Later, we will see that even after her transformation, the question of her subjectivity remains problematic.

3. Edward and Jacob: magnets with reversed polarities or two poles of Bella’s existence?

It took a little effort, they were strong enough to put up a fight,

but I forced them to co-exist side-by-side.” (Eclipse 86)

In this chapter I want to take a closer look at the two male characters who play a crucial role in Bella Swan’s life. As we have seen in the previous section, Bella’s quest for self-affirmation is mainly characterized by her desire for recognition from male characters. They determine how Bella defines herself as a subject in society by confining her to pre-defined gender roles, while Bella sees her attachment to men as the only way to transcend precisely these limitations. After her love relationship, in which she identifies extremely with the invincible and immortal Edward, she is left behind “like a lost moon” circling around an empty space (N.M. 177). In order to compensate for this unbearable void she turns to someone who seems more her equal: the werewolf Jacob Black. This move throws Bella into a severe dilemma, which can only be fully comprehended if we see it as the representation of a fracture line running through her own ego. Looking at the ways in which Bella’s character is shaped by her relationships with Jacob and Edward, I want to find out what the two male characters represent for her, and why they have the power to tear her up inside.

The main point I want to suggest in this chapter is that Edward and Jacob represent two irreconcilable parts of Bella’s personality, which she desperately tries to integrate into a world that forces her to choose between mutually exclusive binary oppositions. In the dream that Bella has in the night following her first long conversation with Jacob, which introduces her to the mythological world of the Twilight Saga, the inner split that corresponds with the outer enmity between vampires and werewolves becomes apparent for the first time.

I opened my eyes to a familiar place. […] I recognized the green light of

the forest. I could hear the waves crashing against the rocks somewhere

nearby. And I knew that if I found the ocean, I’d be able to see the sun.

I was trying to follow the sound, but then Jacob Black was there, tugging

on my hand, pulling me back toward the blackest part of the forest. [...]

‘Run Bella, you have to run!’ he whispered terrified. [ I was ] still pulling

against Jacob’s grasp, desperate now to find the sun. [...] I was watching

a light coming toward me from the beach. And then Edward stepped out

from the trees, his skin faintly glowing, his eyes black and dangerous.

(T.L. 113-114)

In this passage we can find images opposing the dark enclosed space of the forest, with sunlight and the vastness of the ocean. Jacob is here associated with a force that keeps pulling Bella back into the sheltering darkness of the forest, while Edward is a light coming towards her from the beach, tempting her to step out into the open space where she would finally find the sun. Even though Edward poses a threat to Bella’s life, he holds a great fascination for her, as he embodies freedom and transcendence of all physical limitations. Jacob, on the other hand, acts as her protector, and Bella feels safe in the familiarity of his world which is closer to her own, but he is also associated with the comforting, confined spaces Bella longs to escape.

Bella soon starts to believe that by transforming her into a vampire, Edward could give her access to a new world that would imply unlimited freedom to realize herself as an autonomous subject in a reciprocal love relation. Opposed to this, her old friend Jacob does not offer this kind of transcendence, but he is himself limited to a body that is not fully under his control. His transformation into a werewolf that coincides with puberty seems a great burden for him at the beginning, and we get the impression that his whole existence is biologically determined. As he explains to Bella: “What I am was born in me. It’s part of who I am” (E. 99). This is reminiscent of the “anatomy is destiny” doctrine of biological determinism, and stands in opposition to Beauvoirs famous claim that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (The Second Sex 295). Taking this as a starting point, and looking at what Beauvoir writes about the female experience of puberty, I want to explain why Bella feels so strongly linked to Jacob.

When Jacob changes into a werewolf the transformation comes upon him like an illness that determines his destiny by unalterably defining his purpose in life. Due to his bodily constitution he has to commit himself forever to the protection of humans against vampires. In addition to this he also has to submit himself to the biologically pre-defined order of the pack, where the voice of the ‘Alpha’ has priority over all other voices. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that, when Bella asks him what is wrong, he replies: “Everything, every part of me hurts” (N.M. 196). Beauvoir claims that the young girl goes through similar experiences during puberty. She writes:

It is a strange experience for an individual who feels himself to be an

autonomous and transcendent subject, an absolute, to discover inferiority

in himself as a fixed and preordained essence: it is a strange experience

for whoever regards himself as the One to be revealed to himself as

otherness, alterity. This is what happens to the little girl [...] The sphere

to which she belongs is everywhere enclosed, limited, dominated

by the male universe (Beauvoir 324)

I want to suggest that it is this similarity of experience that forms the basis for the strong emotional bond between Bella and Jacob. They both feel themselves limited by and trapped in social structures, which force them to subordinate themselves to a pre-defined order that is presented as natural. Beauvoir describes this experience of submission as one that is specific to women in patriarchal culture:

The young boy, [...] looks towards an open future; he will be a seaman

or an engineer, he will stay on the farm or go away to the city, he will

see the world [...] the young girl will be wife, mother, grandmother, she

will keep house just as her mother did [...] she is twelve years old and

already her story is written in the heavens. (Beauvoir 325)

I am aware that The Second Sex was first published in 1949, and that after the socio-political changes that Second Wave Feminism brought about in the 1970s, the situation of women has improved considerably, at least in Western democratic societies. But applied to the fictional world of the Twilight Saga this quote describes the reality of Bella Swan’s life very well. As we will see later, her future is defined in exactly these traditional terms of marriage and motherhood, leaving only little room for her to develop as an autonomous individual.

Taking into account that Jacob’s experiences in puberty are very similar to what Beauvoir describes as specifically female, we can explain Bella’s feelings of fusion, and the way she internalises Jacob’s pain as her own, in the scene where Jacob kisses her in Eclipse:

“ In this moment, it felt as though we were the same person. His pain

had always been and would always be my pain – now his joy was

my joy. I felt joy, too, and yet his happiness was somehow also pain.

Almost tangible – it burned against my skin like acid, a slow torture.

(E. 469)

In this scene Bella sees a possible future with Jacob unfold before her eyes, she admits that she is in love with him, but at the same time we learn that this love is “ not enough to change anything” (E. 469). She is determined to share her future with Edward, who would not only give her a prestigious place in the social order, but would also transform her into a superior being freed from all physical limitations. Jacob represents everything Bella has to sacrifice in order to gain this new freedom. He is associated with the body, nature and all uncontrollable passions and emotions that are rooted in the physical domain. His transformation into a werewolf is caused by a “natural” genetic disposition, while the existence of vampires “goes against nature” (E. 99). Jacob’s anger and his inability to control it stand in opposition to Edward’s superhuman self-control. We learn from many small instances, but most clearly from the big scar on Emily’s face, that “Werewolves are unstable” (E. 110), and that they present a greater threat to humans than the Cullen vampires.

Jacob can even be seen as a link to the animal world. In his wolf-form he is completely detached from his human mind, while instincts and drives have a great influence on his perceptions and judgements. This becomes especially clear in the last chapter of Eclipse when he phases into wolf-form in order to escape the pain that Bella’s final decision to marry Edward inflicted on him.

And I was alone. So much better. Now I could hear the faint rustle

of the matted leaves beneath my toenails, the whisper of an owl’s

wings above me, the ocean [...] Hear this, and nothing more. Feel

nothing but speed, nothing but the pull of muscle, sinew, and bone,

working together in harmony as the miles disappeared behind me[...]

I pushed my legs faster, letting Jacob Black disappear behind me.

(E. 558)

Even the way in which werewolves find their partners echoes biological determinism and seems to leave little room for the decisions of an autonomous human subject. The process of “imprinting” is very similar to the biological fixation that young animals have on their mothers, as it is presented as absolute, final and unalterable. It is also worth mentioning that imprinting works only on the male side, which means that women are the objects that male werewolves imprint on. But I will go into more detail concerning this topic in the chapter on Quileute legends.

Let me now focus once more on Bella’s subjectivity and the ways in which Jacob and Edward influence her self-image. I have already pointed out that the two male characters form a structure of binary opposites that represent a split in Bella’s ego. It can be claimed that in order to achieve equality with Edward, Bella has to repress everything that Jacob represents. But I want to draw attention to the fact that there are two different aspects to Jacob Black’s personality that also have to be viewed as separate aspects of Bella’s character.

Until now I have only mentioned Jacob’s existence as a werewolf and the way he rebels against his biologically determined destiny. But Jacob’s friendship with Bella develops in the weeks prior to his transformation into a werewolf. During this time he finds himself in the situation of a child that has not yet been initiated into the social structures that determine his later role in life. He is presented as innocent and carefree. The Quileute myths, which later shape his entire existence, are nothing but “scary stories” (T.L. 108) that he only tells to entertain and impress Bella. It is this spirit of childlike freedom that first attracts Bella to him and makes her choose Jacob as her “personal sun” (N.M. 174). When she is with him Bella feels equally freed from social pressures. Even at later points in the narrative when Jacob is already trapped in his changing body, and Bella’s future with Edward is fixed, Bella can still trace a former version of herself in him, as the following passage shows.

As we walked, I felt myself settling into another version of myself,

the self I had been with Jacob. A little younger, a little less responsible

Someone who might, on occasion, do something really stupid for no

good reason. (E. 90)

From this instance we can conclude that Jacob also represents the parts of Bella’s personality that are associated with her childhood. In the chapter on Bella’s subjectivity I have already mentioned the separation from her mother, and what this implies for her psychological development as an individual. Bella is forced to leave the maternal space behind in order to find her place in the symbolic order, which ultimately causes a split from her own ego. Now I want to point out that the young Jacob, prior to his transformation into a werewolf, is a representation of Bella’s childlike self. The self she was before patriarchal structures formed her into a woman, and burdened her with all expectations that are implied in this role. This explains why she frequently speaks of “my Jacob” when talking about the first weeks of their friendship. Seen from this point of view, Jacob is not only diametrically opposed to everything that Edward represents, but he also stands for aspects of Bella’s personality that do not stand in direct relation to Edward at all. Considering this double identification with Jacob, it is not surprising that the separation from him is a painful experience for Bella that makes her question her entire existence. In the beginning, she turns to him because she tries to hold on to her free childlike self, and later Jacob becomes a fellow sufferer in an equally aporetic situation.

But still, this deep bond with Jacob is not strong enough to make Bella sacrifice her future as a presumably superior being at Edward’s side. The following passage shows this quite clearly:

I loved him, much more than I should, and yet, still nowhere

near enough. [...] And then, quite distinctly, I felt the splintering

along the fissure line in my heart as the smaller part wrenched

itself away from the whole. (E. 469)

Let me now turn to Edward, and explore the role he plays in Bella’s quest for subjectivity and self-affirmation. I have already pointed out that Edward is constructed as the binary opposite of Jacob. As lies in the nature of all binary constructions, one term is always elevated over the other, while its opposite is devalued in the process. From the very beginning of the novel it is clear that Edward is the one who is presented as more powerful, in his social status as well as in his super-human abilities that even include the defiance of death. His physical appearance is over-idealised, his face being described as one that “any male model in the world would trade his soul for” (E. 15). The way in which his white and sparkling skin is glorified, in contrast to Jacob’s darker complexion has often been criticized as being racist.

What I want to point out is that this outer contrast of physical appearances corresponds to an underlying symbolism of contrasting mental and psychological qualities. First of all, Edward’s most striking quality is his immense self-control when it comes to emotions and physical impulses. Even though his craving for Bella’s blood is compared to heroin addiction, he is still strong enough to resist. It is clear that this mental strength has been instilled in him by his family, or more specifically by his father Carlisle, who is constructed as the embodiment of Christian ideals. Edward is constantly concerned with what his family might think of him, and how they might condemn him according to their high moral standards. In order to escape the temptation that Bella represents, he goes to Alaska, confessing: “I was too ashamed to tell them how weak I was, they only knew something was very wrong” (T.L. 237). He even goes so far as to say: “ I am essentially a selfish creature. I crave your company too much to do what I should” (T.L. 233).

Generally speaking, controlling his physical drives in order to protect Bella from the ‘monstrous’ tendencies inside himself, seems to be something that Edward is constantly preoccupied with. This attitude of constant restraint and renunciation is a factor that also has a great influence on the way Bella sees herself. She is forced to accept Edward’s policy of minimal physical contact, even though it is not as easy for her as it is for him. When Edward announces: “I am stronger than I thought”, Bella can only add: “I wish I could say the same, I’m sorry” (T.L. 248). Once again, Bella is presented as limited or even burdened by her body. This time it is not her clumsiness, but her sexual feelings that make her struggle with her physical limitations. Opposed to Edward’s superhuman self-control, Bella’s very ‘human’ impulses are presented as something that makes her appear weak and inferior to him. Nevertheless, Bella submits to Edward’s rules because the promise of transcendence through becoming a vampire is too tempting to make her argue.

Let me comment once more on the way in which Edward and Jacob shape Bella’s existence by forming two mutually exclusive poles. While Jacob represents the body, animal-drives and uncontrollable emotions, Edward stands for the mind, spiritual and moral values, and everything that is associated with transcendence of the physical. Bella calls Edward: “ the most loving and unselfish and brilliant and decent person [ she has] ever met” (E. 98). When talking about the Cullens she never grows tiered of emphasizing “how truly good they are to the core” (E. 99). In her attempt to achieve equal status with these morally, socially and physically superior beings, Bella is forced to make many sacrifices. These sacrifices are symbolically represented in the narrative by her separation from Jacob.

By leaving Jacob behind, she irrevocably turns her back on the carefree self of her childhood, and she agrees to repress her physical impulses in exchange for a presumably superior existence. It is worth mentioning that she finally chooses the death of her human body in order to gain equality with her lover. So, we can say, that Bella literally sacrifices everything that links her to the physical realm to get access to Edward’s world, which can be seen as a representation of the masculine sphere . This is not an easy choice for her, as Bella is aware that she has to split a part of herself off, to gain the freedom and transcendence she has hoped for. Secretly, she dreams of a world that would not require her to choose between mutually exclusive binaries. According to Jessica Benjamin, the aim of psychoanalytic feminism is “to transcend the opposition of the two spheres by formulating a less polarized relationship between them” ( Benjamin 92). This is exactly what Bella aims to do when trying to make the two magnets on the fridge “co-exist side by side” (E.86).

4. The Cullen Vampires: the ideal family and its enemies

you have no idea how truly good they are – to the core (Eclipse, 99)

In this chapter I want to explore how the Cullens are constructed as the ideal family, representing notions of gender identity and moral values that can be traced back to 19th century concepts of purity, renunciation and self-sacrifice. A special focus will be put on the female Cullens, and the way in which their stories and the depiction of their characters perpetuate patriarchal concepts of femininity. I also want to comment on the other vampires in the saga, who – in their antagonism to the ideal Cullens – are constructed as their wild and uncivilised counterparts. Finally, I want to take a look at Bella’s role in relation to the Cullens, especially concerning her inferior status due to the fact that she comes from a dysfunctional family, and the ways in which she tries to integrate herself into the ideal family by marrying Edward.

4.1. Carlisle and Edward Cullen

Let me start with Carlisle Cullen, who is constructed as the central figure of the Cullen clan in various ways. He is not only the father and traditional head of the family, but he can also be seen as the founder of a new religious group of ‘vegetarian’ vampires. Furthermore, Carlisle is much more powerful than a normal father: he literally is the creator of his family. His ability to transform humans into vampires without killing them, gives him a godlike status and the power of male mono-creation, as Carlisle is not only his children’s creator, but he also gives new life to his wife Esme. He was born in 17th century London as the son of a clergyman, who had “a rather harsh view of the world” (N.M. 32) which Carlisle does not share. It becomes clear from the beginning that Carlisle has been infused with Christian morals, but he is at the same time depicted as a rebel who strives to realize his own ideas of religion. He tells Bella in New Moon: “ I didn’t agree with my father’s particular brand of faith. But never, in the nearly four hundred years now since I was born, have I ever seen anything to make me doubt whether God exists in some form or another” (N.M. 32)

His strong faith explains why Carlisle reacts with extreme self-destructiveness when he is transformed into a ‘monster’ after a vampire attack. After “two centuries of torturous effort” Carlisle becomes a true master of self-control and he finds “his calling, his penance [..] in saving human lives” (T.L. 297). His transformation into a vampire is comparable to the concept of Original Sin, an evil that is inherent in his existence without any conscious misdeeds, which he tries to counterbalance with good deeds and a moral lifestyle. As he tells Bella: “By all accounts, we’re damned regardless. But I hope, maybe foolishly, that we’ll get some measure of credit for trying” (N.M. 33). In this way Carlisle is set up as an incarnation of various Christian virtues. His hold on self-control, his patience and his altruism seem nearly unattainable for ‘normal’ humans like Bella, who admits that she “couldn’t imagine anyone, deity included, who wouldn’t be impressed by Carlisle” ( N.M 33). Opposed to Carlisle’s saintly character Bella, whose life is “fairly devoid of belief” (N.M 32), appears clearly inferior. She is depicted as somebody who has not been brought up according to the one and only ‘right’ faith, with a father who “worshipped by the river with a fishing pole” and a mother who “tried out a church now and then” (N.M. 32). But this is not the only way in which Bella is devalued with respect to religion. She is also presented as temptress in her relationship to Edward. At one point Edward even describes her as “some kind of demon summoned straight from [his] own personal hell to ruin [him] (T.L. 236). This statement is interesting, considering Edward’s conviction that vampires have lost their souls, and as a consequence there is no hope of an afterlife for them. ( N.M. 33). Various instances in the novel suggest that this conviction is not as strong as it appears to be. Especially towards the end of New Moon when Bella saves Edward from suicide in Volterra and he admits that “Carlisle was right” (N.M. 398) we get the impression that there must be some spark of hope left in him. In this instance we can see that Carlisle’s influence on Edward is very powerful, and that Edward has already, unconsciously, taken over his father’s beliefs.



Type of Edition
ISBN (Softcover)
File size
399 KB
Publication date
2013 (June)
Twilight Female Identity patriarchal world stereotypical representation self-affirmation


Astrid Ernst, Mag. Phil., was born in Linz in 1983. During her studies of Anglistik and Amerikanistik at the University of Wien, she specialised in culture and gender studies. Through her long-term interest in post-structural feminist theory and its application to literary works, she found the research topic for her Diplomarbeit: ‘Tracing Female Subjectivity and Self-affirmation in Meyer’s Twilight Saga’. With this thesis, she successfully completed her studies in 2012. As a freelance journalist, she works among others for the environmental protection organization Global 2000.

Title: In the Twilight of Patriarchal Culture: The Struggle for Female Identity in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga
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81 pages