Twilight and History


By Nancy Reagin

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-58178-0


Chapter One

"An Old-Fashioned Gentleman"?

Edward's Imaginary History Kate Cochran

Edward Cullen is the ideal man: "Interesting ... and brilliant ... and mysterious ... and perfect ... and beautiful ... and possibly able to lift full-sized vans with one hand," as Bella Swan notes. (Twilight, 79.) His barely restrained passion, the result of the war between his utter devotion to one woman and his animalistic desire to consume her, is reined in by his moral conscience and colored by the mystery of his aloofness; the fact that his century-old soul is housed in a physically superior seventeen-year-old body is only one aspect of his attractiveness. Both the key to the Twilight Saga's appeal and arguably its most compelling figure, Edward's character also reflects the imaginative way that history is invoked in the four books.

The known details of Edward's personal history are few. He was turned in 1918 at the age of seventeen after being stricken during the Spanish flu epidemic and before shipping off to fight in World War I. But instead of manifesting the mores of the Lost Generation that came of age during the 1920s or even of an indeterminate past, Edward instead embodies the old-fashioned qualities of the nineteenth-century Byronic heroes from Bella's favorite romantic novels. Edward is compared to Pride and Prejudice's Darcy, Jane Eyre's Rochester, and Wuthering Heights's Heathcliff, becoming a general Victorian "gentleman" figure. In an interview, Stephenie Meyer said, "Edward is the most popular [character], and I think it's because he's an old-fashioned gentleman in some ways, and in other ways he's a very modern, sort of tortured soul, although I guess, you know, you go back to Byron and it's all there." An examination of Edward's literary ancestors shows that the Twilight Saga is informed by Meyer's sense of literary history more than by documented historical fact. The perfect man therefore represents Bella's (and Meyer's) fictional heroes, come to life.

Imaginary History: How Literature and History Play Together

"Imaginary history" refers to the different ways that history and literature borrow from each other. For historians, the term can refer to the creation of subjective history or to the use of fictional story to convey historical facts. Gavriel Rosenfeld's article "Why Do We Ask 'What If?': Reflections on the Function of Alternate History" examines how some historians use subjective history, specifically wondering how history would have been different if the "other side" had won World War II, the Civil War, and the American Revolution. Rosenfeld asserts that the value of "allohistorical speculation" lies in "its ability to shed light upon the evolution of historical memory"; that is, when we wonder about what could have happened, we are commenting on what we choose to remember. Other historians employ the phrase "imaginary history" to describe how they use literary devices and styles to communicate history. As Linda Orr explains, in "The Revenge of Literature: A History of History," before the mid-nineteenth century, historians frequently used fictional story to document history, although more recently they have sought to distance the field of history from that of literature. Orr examines the basic concerns of historiography in issues such as realism, bias, source analysis, and linguistic "truth." She observes, however, that "the more history presses toward science, the more literature, or a has-been history, is produced," showing that even when the two disciplines attempt to diverge, they remain inextricably linked.

"Imaginary history," however, can also indicate the construction of an imaginary past, as it does in the Twilight Saga. Meyer uses history as one means of setting her vampire characters apart, which jibes with George Garrett's definition of "imaginary history." In "Dreaming with Adam: Notes on Imaginary History," Garrett explains that novelists craft the impressionistic world of imaginary history by simply removing the details of the present day: "We therefore work backwards, stripping away the things we know well, to reach the past where they were neither known nor imagined," leaving the impression of an unspecified historical setting. Thus, instead of giving details from each vampire's actual historical background (for example, information about Carlisle Cullen's life in seventeenth-century England), Meyer more often merely indicates that they are not of the twenty-first century. For instance, when Bella remarks on Edward's speech-"I could never quite mimic the flow of his perfect, formal articulation. It was something that could only be picked up in an earlier century"-she does not specify which "earlier century" Edward sounds like. (New Moon, 9.)

Meyer's version of imaginary history is linked to feelings of nostalgia, particularly when her unidentified past is merely the present with its more unsavory aspects stripped away. We think of nostalgia as a fondness or yearning for aspects of the past now lost-aspects from both from the communal past and a personal past. For instance, one might feel nostalgic for one's childhood (personal) or for a historical era (communal). There is a sense of murkiness and unreality in these visions of the past; however, the most powerful feelings of nostalgia arise from the remembering or desire for what never really was, a "past" that seems both safe and easily understood due to its simplicity and reliance on shared values. Bella envisions such a past for Edward as she muses about their engagement: "I saw the same odd vision of Edward and me on a porch swing, wearing clothes from another kind of world. A world where it would surprise no one if I wore his ring on my finger. A simpler place, where love was defined in simpler ways. One plus one equals two." (Eclipse, 325.) She refers to her own nostalgia for Edward's past as "Anne of Green Gables flashbacks," showing that for Bella, Edward's past is the same kind of imaginary history that Meyer employs: one based in literature. (Eclipse, 277.)

The Lost Generation: Edward's Historical Moment

But how does Edward account for his own history? In the saga, little is disclosed about Edward's past. The most revealing comment he offers comes during his attempt to persuade Bella to agree to marry him: "In my world, I was already a man. I wasn't looking for love-no, I was far too eager to be a soldier for that; I thought of nothing but the idealized glory of the war that they were selling prospective draftees then." (Eclipse, 276-277.) Edward identifies his desire to fight in World War I as the most defining characteristic of his past. However, his memory of the war raises some questions about historical inconsistencies.

Edward notes that "they were selling" an "idealized glory of the war"; certainly, wartime propaganda abounded during World War I: Sean Dennis Cashman explains that "American propaganda of 1917 [referred to World War I as] the Great Crusade." Much of the American propaganda of the time depicted Germans as bloodthirsty brutes feasting on innocents and destroying democracy. Edward mentions that the propaganda was directed at "prospective draftees." In fact, President Woodrow Wilson's May 1917 draft bill mandated registration for all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty years old; the draftees who were to serve were selected by lottery drawings. Cashman notes that "the three drafts altogether drew 23,908,576 men in the United States. However, only 6,373,414 went into service," partly because of many draftees' quickie marriages and conscientious objections. Edward was turned in 1918, after the drafts had already taken place; therefore, he must have enlisted. In addition, he was only seventeen years old in 1918, so he must have misrepresented his age when he signed up, claiming to be older so that he'd be accepted.

More important than the misleading implication that Edward was a prospective draftee in 1918, however, is how out of step he was with the opinions popularly held by other members of his generation. World War I is generally acknowledged to have been profoundly disillusioning, breeding "irony, protest, and disgust" because of the horrors of war, the perversion of technology, the falsity of propaganda, and the alienation of civilian populations. The authors who came of age during this era came to be known as the Lost Generation, a term coined by Gertrude Stein and memorialized in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (1964). Malcolm Cowley, himself identified as a member of the Lost Generation, examines John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe in "The Generation That Wasn't Lost," writing that these authors "had more experiences in common than any other generation of writers in American history. All of them were shaken loose from their moorings by the First World War, even if they were too young to serve in the Army ... these writers had no home except in the past, no fixed standards, and, in many cases, no sense of direction." Since Stephenie Meyer employs imaginary history in the form of literary references to illustrate Edward's background, it would make sense for her to invoke this era and these authors and their characters, as the context that forms the backdrop for his human life.

Each of the five authors, with the exception of Wolfe, crafted novels that reflected the terrible effects of World War I. For instance, Dos Passos's 1919 (1932), part of his U.S.A. trilogy, contains the concluding tale "The Body of an American," which tells the story of a fallen soldier of World War I. Faulkner's Soldier's Pay (1925) recounts the return of a wounded soldier to his home in Georgia; Hemingway's expatriate Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises (1926) tries to come to terms with his emasculating war wound. And Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), represents the postwar disillusionment of his generation as his already tenuous optimism is shaken by his experiences in West Egg, New York. As Cowley notes of the Lost Generation authors, "At first they rebelled against the hypocrisy of their elders and against the gentility of American letters. Next they rebelled against the noble phrases that justified the slaughter of millions in the First World War." While Edward's enlistment in World War I mirrors those of Dos Passos, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, and his bitter remembrance of his enthusiasm to fight is similar to their characters' disillusionment, his temperament is not truly reflective of the rebellion of the Lost Generation. Instead, Edward's "old-fashionedness" more closely recalls the qualities of a Victorian gentleman.

The Victorian Gentleman: A Secular Saint

Edward's most notable characteristics-emotional and physical restraint, a strong moral conscience, fierce family loyalty, and wide-ranging accomplishments-align with popular notions of the Victorian gentleman. James Eli Adams observes that the Victorian gentleman was often portrayed as a man whose "moral ideal" constituted a kind of "secular sainthood." Although it may seem incongruous to liken a vampire to a saint, Edward's self-denial and determination to protect Bella, particularly from himself, justify the comparison. Edward's restraint is most obvious when it comes to his physical relationship with Bella: "He started to pull away-that was his automatic response whenever he decided things had gone too far, his reflex reaction whenever he most wanted to keep going. Edward had spent most of his life rejecting any kind of physical gratification." (Breaking Dawn, 25.) While Edward tells her he desires her, he takes great care not to allow their kisses to become erotic. When Bella's father, Charlie, confronts Bella about sex, she tells him, "Edward is very old-fashioned. You have nothing to worry about." (Eclipse, 59.) In fact, it is Bella who has "nothing to worry about"; Edward is utterly in control of their sexual relationship.

Bella tries to convince Edward to have sex-"'Do you get the feeling that everything is backward?' he laughed in my ear. 'Traditionally, shouldn't you be arguing my side, and I yours?'" (Eclipse, 451)-but he insists that their shared chastity is vital. He says, "My virtue is all I have left," since he has broken so many other moral laws and wants to ensure that even though Bella is determined to become a vampire, he will not be responsible for keeping her out of heaven. (Eclipse, 452.) Therefore, he insists on marriage before they consummate their relationship. When Edward asks Charlie for permission to marry Bella, he says, "We're going away to Dartmouth together in the fall, Charlie ... I'd like to do that, well, the right way. It's how I was raised." (Breaking Dawn, 16). Ultimately, Bella overcomes her profound ambivalence about marrying Edward, at least in part because she so desperately wants to have sex with him, which emphasizes the difference in their moral beliefs.

Edward's diverse accomplishments are consistent with the pursuits of an idealized Victorian gentleman. He composes music and plays the piano, speaks several languages, is very well read, has attended medical school twice, and even makes a mean omelet. Edward attributes his skills to his lonely nights: "There's a reason why I'm the best musician in the family, why-besides Carlisle-I've read the most books, studied the most sciences, become fluent in the most languages ... Emmett would have you believe that I'm such a know-it-all because of the mind reading, but the truth is that I've just had a lot of free time." (Breaking Dawn, 485.) Interestingly, then, Edward's chastity is largely responsible for both his sexual restraint and his numerous accomplishments.

In keeping with the Victorian gentleman's "steadfastness and virility," Edward tries to protect Bella from all forms of danger, including the danger that he might be overcome with bloodlust and bite her. His protectiveness leads him to warn her frequently: "It's not only your company I crave! Never forget that. Never forget I am more dangerous to you than I am to anyone else." (Twilight, 266.) He is equally vigilant about other forms of danger-Bella's preternatural clumsiness, the vengeance of the nomadic vampires James and Victoria, the threat of the Volturi, Tyler Crowley's out-of-control van, the would-be rapists in Port Angeles-leading him to call Bella a "danger magnet," although he blames himself for most of those perilous situations. Edward says, "I infuriate myself ... The way I can't seem to keep from putting you in danger. My very existence puts you at risk. Sometimes I truly hate myself. I should be stronger." (Twilight, 365366.) That self-hatred also places him squarely within the tradition of the Byronic hero.

The Byronic Hero: Darcy, Rochester, and Heathcliff

The Byronic hero, based on both the persona and the fictional characters of author George Gordon (Lord Byron), is a brooding, mysterious man who is intelligent, sophisticated, educated, magnetic, charismatic, socially and sexually dominant though detached from human society, moody, and prone to bouts of temper. He often has a troubled past and is riddled with self-destructive secrets. His lover Lady Caroline Lamb was famously quoted describing Byron as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know"; recent examples of this type include the cartoon hero Batman, Dr. Gregory House from television's House, M.D., the late actor James Dean, and rap artist 50 Cent. The Byronic hero is sometimes called an antihero because of his negative qualities; indeed, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar compare him to a bewitching monster like Milton's Satan: "He is in most ways the incarnation of worldly male sexuality, fierce, powerful, experienced, simultaneously brutal and seductive, devilish enough to overwhelm the body and yet enough a fallen angel to charm the soul." The Byronic hero's mystery, moodiness, and sensuality call to mind Bella's reaction to Edward in their meadow: "I sat without moving, more frightened of him than I had ever been. I'd never seen him so completely freed of that carefully cultivated fašade. He'd never been less human ... or more beautiful. Face ashen, eyes wide, I sat like a bird locked in the eyes of a snake." (Twilight, 264.)

(Continues...)



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