Chasing Contentment by Erik Reymond, Free for CAPC Members
In Chasing Contentment, Erik Reymond identifies the lie that satisfaction and contentment come through consumption.
It’s finally out . . . the book that will provide all the answers teen readers have been anxiously anticipating since, well, 2005. (But, hey, three years is a long time when you’re 15.) Will Bella become a vampire? Will she stay with vampire Edward, or will werewolf Jacob somehow get a chance to cut in? Or will Jacob “imprint” on someone else, thus neatly resolving the love triangle? And what is the mysterious second literary inspiration for Breaking Dawn (Meyer already revealed that the first inspiration was A Midsummer Night’s Dream)?
Unfortunately, I can’t really say much about the ultimate value of the Twilight Saga without resorting to SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned.
First, the immortality question. I attended a midnight release party for Breaking Dawn (entirely for cultural relevance purposes, I assure you) at our local bookstore, and one of the activities there included casting a vote about Bella’s future by placing a bead in a cup labeled “mortal” or “immortal.” The “immortal” cup was definitely more than half full when my turn came to vote, and not a single bead was in the “mortal” cup—until I placed mine there. It’s clear that young fans desperately want Bella to be immortal, to be a vampire. Why? Is it just a fascination with being forever young? With eternal love? I honestly don’t know, but I find it a little disturbing.
The young fans were right with their prediction; I was wrong. Bella does indeed become an immortal vampire, though under last-resort, near-death circumstances that help to pacify naysayers like me. You might think Bella’s transformation would be the climax of the story, but it comes less than halfway through. Meyer’s clearly playing with our expectations: she begins the book with a wedding (Bella’s and Edward’s), that occasion that brings so many books to a close. But it’s pretty clear, even at that point, that the rest of the book is not going to be “Mr. and Mrs. Vampire Keep House.”
So what leads to Bella’s lying near death? Well, there’s a honeymoon, and then there’s a pregnancy. It’s been known to happen before, though usually not with half-vampire spawn that grow at a supernatural pace and demands blood while still in the womb. The baby, evidently having inherited its father’s super-strength, is born in a rather traumatic process for all, breaking Bella’s spine, among other things. It’s only at that point that Edward makes her a vampire.
Oh yeah, and before Bella loses consciousness, she names the baby human-vampire girl “Renesmee.” Thank you, Stephenie Meyer, for reminding us that 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to name children.
Over the past few days, the interwebs have been exploding with vehement reactions, both pro and con, to Bella’s becoming a mother (which evidently is a bigger issue than Edward becoming a father). There’s the obvious “She’s only 18!” complaint, but the Twilight series is fantasy, and nothing in Bella’s and Edward’s relationship is precisely what one would call normal. They now have a child who, due to her accelerated development, will reach maturity in 7 years, before ceasing to age at all. And then there are those who object to Jacob’s imprinting on the infant Renesmee, which is, yes, pretty creepy, but Meyer definitely worked to prepare us for that one. Evidently imprinting (an exclusively werewolfian phenomenon) doesn’t develop into romance until both parties are mature. I’m less upset by the creep factor and more upset that it seems like an easy-out narratively—it would have been too easy a solution, no matter on whom Jacob imprinted, so at least the Jacob’s-sort-of-in-love-with-a-baby factor makes it a little more challenging for Meyer to sell.
The climax of the story involves a confrontation with the Volturi, the Italian law enforcement of the vampire world, who think that the Cullens have broken the rules by creating (through biting a human baby) an immortal child, rather than giving birth to a hybrid (thought to be impossible). And here’s where the second literary inspiration comes in. The big “I can’t reveal it because it’s too much of a spoiler” book is . . . wait for it . . . The Merchant of Venice. Let me repeat that again: The Merchant of Venice. A play most people have never read. A play about which even I, a Ph.D. in English, can remember extremely little. “A pound of flesh”? That’s about it. I wonder if Meyer’s real motivation in keeping it secret was to keep people from assuming, out of context, that she was incorporating the anti-Semitic elements of the play (she doesn’t).
The Merchant of Venice does have a happy ending, though (for everyone except Shylock), so I suppose knowing that might tell you the tone of Breaking Dawn’s ending. I should mention now that I am aesthetically and theologically opposed to unqualifiedly happy endings in fantasy works. On aesthetic grounds, I don’t want things to be too neatly wrapped up. The theological grounds are a bit more difficult to explain, but, basically, if a book ends within this life (that is, not in heaven), it shouldn’t be entirely happy. There should still be a sense of something missing, that sense that we are never completely fulfilled until we see Jesus’ face. On these grounds, the twenty endings of The Lord of the Rings are perfect. On a less sublime level, I was pretty happy with the bittersweet ending of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Narrative dilemmas can’t be satisfactorily wrapped up without some sacrifice on the part of the characters. At least, in Breaking Dawn, Bella and Edward think that they’re going to lose everything before they arrive at their happy ending. But they don’t have to give up anything at all in the end. Maybe, for Meyer, the significance is all in the being willing.
The other possibility is that my criteria may not even apply, because Meyer’s not ending her book in this life. Obviously, Bella and Edward have already passed from mortality to immortality, and the happy family life they achieve at the end does sound vaguely like the Mormon idea of the afterlife (from the very little I know). In some ways, Meyer may be achieving a happy ending by doing what C. S. Lewis did in The Last Battle: shifting the scene to heaven.Meyer’s “heaven” is just less in line with my beliefs and more in line with popular cultural beliefs about what makes for happiness.
Essential beliefs aside, there is much that Christians can embrace in the Twilight Saga. During the final confrontation with the Volturi, a young vampire named Benjamin accuses the Volturi of acting not of justice but out of fear—fear that the Cullens’ lifestyle grants them power. “These strange golden-eyed ones [the default eye color for vampires who drink human blood is red] deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth more, perhaps, than gratification of desire? . . . [I]t seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding—that which makes them possible at all—is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice.” Benjamin’s speech could be an allegory for the Mormon community. Ideally (though infrequently in practice), it could be an allegory for the Body of Christ as well.
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