I have something to confess.
I am an English teacher and a scholar who loves the Twilight series. I can’t get enough. I’ve read it—all four books (five if you count the unpublished manuscript, Midnight Sun)—an embarrassing number of times. When I let my sister borrow the actual books, I had a Twilight attack and paid another $10 each to download them onto my Blackberry. I saw New Moon the first weekend of its release…twice.
It’s not the actors Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart that I obsess over, or even Taylor Lautner’s recent and perfect abs (he is only 17 after all). When an interview with one of the movie’s stars comes on television, I flip the channel—it’s hard to stomach their semi-articulate mumbling. I don’t buy the fan magazines or stare at posters (though I did try to win Edward’s Volvo). No, what I love is the story itself.
Don’t think that I am some kind of YA fanatic. I have a hard time with most young adult literature—simplistic, overly dramatic, hung up on teen pregnancy and peer pressure. Classics are my thing. I especially love a novel of manners, where the protagonist pits his or her individual aspirations against the expectations and rules of society—Great Expectations, Ethan Frome, Middlemarch. I never thought to pick up Twilight until one of my students came to me, crying and unable to complete her independent reading assignment, because she was so overwrought and in love with the protagonist Edward Cullen. She made me curious. I became addicted.
Twilight caught and keeps me because it is a novel of manners, like one of my other favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice. This is not a surprise. Author Stephanie Meyers, an English major herself, is a Jane Austen fan and alludes to Austen’s work in the book.
It makes sense. Like Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan must overcome the respective rules of their separate social classes—in the case of Twilight, human, vampire, and even werewolf—and their own personal failings to find happiness in love. Like Pride and Prejudice, social divisions are rooted in heredity, society, and wealth. Meyers actually layers in another category of division central to 21st century American society: beauty.
Looking at Edward from varying characters’ perceptions—even Bella’s in the beginning—Meyers plays with the distinction between internal merit (goodness of person) and external merit (rank, wealth, and beauty). After her friend Jessica observes that Edward is “unbelievably gorgeous,” Bella responds, “There’s a lot more to him than that.” Bella, acting as a first-person narrator, sees the internal merit in all the characters—her father, Jacob Black, Mike Newton, even Rosalie. Granted, the dialogue is not quite as clever as that of Elizabeth and Darcy, but this is contemporary America—high school—and it is believable and representative of our time and place.
Like an 18th century novel of manners, Twilight criticizes social assumptions and regimented ideas of appropriate behavior. In an interesting twist, whereas Austen’s heroines single-mindedly protect their reputations and seek marriage, Bella must struggle against a 21st century taboo against teen marriage to wed and find happiness in Edward. Even so, social reputation and marriage are central to both stories.
Shirley and Wallis Kinney, of the Jane Austen Society of North America, write a terrific analysis of these connections—see “The Jane Austen—Twilight Zone.” In Twilight we find the harebrained (but more likeable) mother, the somewhat distant but beloved father, as well as multiple suitors for Bella’s attention. There’s even a dance. Notably, Darcy and Edward are both drawn to their love interests against their better judgment.
Teens and Teaching
Twilight is timeless because it operates on a number of levels. It entertains like Pride and Prejudice, with a reliance on dialogue and over-description; it provides social commentary and criticism; it offers universal themes about love and society; and it inspires a vision of romance ideal in both Jane Austen’s time and our own.
For teen readers, Twilight is the book that makes classics relevant. While Twilight references Pride and Prejudice, its sequel New Moon draws parallels with Romeo and Juliet. Eclipse, the third book in the series, is littered with allusions to Wuthering Heights. For many of my students, the Twilight series has opened doors into much more difficult, classic texts. Because they know the story, students are more resilient in the face of complex language; they bring more background to their reading and they are able to engage with a strong point of reference.
What clever English language arts teacher couldn’t hang a great lesson about writing realistic dialogue or developing conflict on an excerpt from Twilight? Or develop a lesson where students compare and contrast character development as a writers’ response to audience? There are lesson plans to sample all over the Web, from individual teachers’ blogs to IRA-NCTE’s ReadWriteThink (how about “Looking for the Byronic Hero Using Twilight‘s Edward Cullen”). The Twilight series has enough curb appeal to add interest to lessons for high level learners while, simultaneously, motivating even the most reluctant ones.
Don’t hate Twilight. Instead, envision students learning research skills as they pore over the history of vampires or the myths of Quileute Native Americans. Imagine building a timeline based on the histories of each of the Cullen family members or looking at primary documents associated with their early lives. It is a series full of possibilities. No wonder I find it so appealing.
I think I need to go read it one more time.