Friday, August 15, 2008

Is it Free Will or Fate? Stephenie Meyer’s “Essential [Mormon] Gestures”: One (Re)View of Twilight

Is it Free Will or Fate? Stephenie Meyer’s “Essential [Mormon] Gestures”: One (Re)View of Twilight

We have free will, which is a huge gift from God. If you tie that up with something like, I don't know, cocaine, then you don't really have a lot of freedom anymore.

-Stephenie Meyer, from an interview with Lev Grossman

I finally did it. I read Twilight[1], mostly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, but also because, as a Latter-day Saint, I wanted to see how elements of Mormon culture and theology had seeped into Stephenie Meyer’s story. Such an act is inevitable, really, on both sides of the text: as a reader, I bring my own unique baggage to my reading, things such as personal character, life experience, my conception of Mormon theology, academic training as a literary critic, and the ebb and flow of my desire to escape reality. Such things constantly shape the way I respond to, interpret, and ingest any text. And the same goes for the writer: his or her character, experience, theological inclination, education, gender, etc. tend to shape the form and content of what they write, though not always because the writer consciously builds it into the work and not always to a great degree. In this way, reading and writing, as all forms of art, are an extension and expression of the reader’s/writer’s self, the fruit growing out of individual character.

Speaking specifically of the writer’s part in this relationship, the late William Mulder, professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah, writes that an individual’s “‘enterprise as a writer’ […] is his or her ‘essential gesture as a social being.’” In this light, he continues, “the writer’s word is the writer’s deed wielding potential power and influence and becomes a test of character and courage.”[2] In other words, writing is a social act and the writer’s voice, a source of personal power and freedom and a manifestation of the individual’s courage or the lack thereof, reflects the society from which it springs—and in reflecting it strengthens or subverts (sometimes even both) that society.

What, then, are Stephenie Meyer’s essential gestures as a Mormon writer? What does she add to or take away from the culture and theology of her professed religion? What does Twilight say, per se, about the Latter-day Saints?

From the epithet printed at the beginning of her novel—“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”[3]—it would appear that Meyer means to approach the notion of free will. It might have been easier to do this, however, by creating a world in which something other than fate presides. As it now reads, Twilight is less about agency than it is about “tempting”[4], “interfering with”[5], or “fighting fate”[6]; about “choos[ing] […] to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of [its characters] wanted”[7]—a theological framework, by the way, not exactly on a par with being “free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil”[8]. Sure, as Meyer admits, “the underlying metaphor for her vampires” and by extension her humans is that “[i]t doesn't matter where you're stuck in life or what you think you have to do; you can always choose something else. There's always a different path.”[9] But the particulars of her story show otherwise.

I’m sure you’re aware of that story by now: A girl, Bella, leaves her mother’s home in Phoenix to live with her dad in Forks, Washington (read: her own personal hell). On her first day of school she sees a boy, Edward (the vampire), from across the cafeteria and they instantly crush on each other. Both try to deny their overwhelming attraction—she because she lacks self-confidence and he seems so untouchable; he because of the bloodlust she arouses in him against his wild animal-feeding will. Once they get together, however, the stars align, their fate is sealed, and, after proclaiming their unconditional, irrevocable love for one another, they must fight a thirsty pair of vampires for Bella’s life.

The question of agency emerges perhaps most forcefully from Meyer’s adverb-laden and loosely prosed narrative progression (which is more like watching a movie than reading well-crafted fiction) when both Bella and Edward go through the motions of deciding to be together, alternatives and opposition notwithstanding (though I use both of these terms lightly). After allowing for the fact that Edward could be a vampire, Bella supposedly considers the “two options” before her: one, “to avoid him as much as possible” and “[t]o tell him to leave me alone—and to mean it this time”[10]. However, she patently rejects this option because she is essentially unable to control her emotions, admitting to herself, “I could do nothing different.” The undertone carried in this comment that she is fated to love Edward becomes more apparent when, just two paragraphs later, she further admits,

I didn’t know if there ever was a choice, really. I was already in too deep. Now that I knew [about Edward] […] I could do nothing about my frightening secret. Because when I thought of him, of his voice, his hypnotic eyes, the magnetic force of his personality, I wanted nothing more than to be with him right now.[11]

The only choice Bella really has, then, is to submit to a relationship and a destiny that are well beyond her control. And that she determines to do just that becomes obvious later, just before her first real date with Edward and after she realizes that the fate of their bond “depend[ed] entirely upon his decision, or his instincts”, when she confesses, “My decision was made, made before I’d ever consciously chosen, and I was committed to seeing it through. […] [T]urning away from him. […] was an impossibility”[12].

Edward essentially confesses the same impossibility of resisting fate, while at the same time acknowledging the possibility of working within the fated parameters of a life (again, not the same thing as agency), when he tells Bella about his inability to resist her scent and about how enamored he’d become of her human idiosyncrasies, both things that made his decision to be with Bella for him. Speaking later to Bella’s question (given in her words) about “how you can work so hard to resist what you…are”, Edward elaborates on this understanding of fate: “[Y]ou see,” he says, “just because we’ve been…dealt a certain hand…it doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to rise above—to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted.”[13]

Therein emerges Twilight’s essential gesture toward free will, namely that we’re living a life none of us really chose to live, making decisions about how to travel a predetermined path, experiencing emotions over which we really have no control. The fundamental un-Mormoness of this treatment of agency—which posits that most everything about mortality, including our decision-making, is predetermined and, thus, beyond our control—is clear to anyone with a basic understanding of the LDS conception of the plan of salvation. And whether or not it was an intentional decision on Meyer’s part, in the end it presents a potentially damaging view about agency, life, love, and eternity to its target audience, youth, a group (especially within the Church) highly susceptible to her supposed authority as a Latter-day Saint writer.

Despite my objections about the novel’s representation of agency and love, I found Twilight a decent, fast-paced romance and I recommend it for older youth and young adults and their parents, especially for the talking points it presents about love versus lust and the personal responsibility inherent in the values of choice and accountability.


Footnotes:

[1] Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, 2005.
[2] Mulder, William. “’Essential Gestures’: Craft and Calling in Contemporary Mormon Letters.” Weber Studies 10.3 (1993). 14 Aug. 2008.
[3] Genesis 2:17.
[4] Meyer 142.
[5] 174.
[6] 191.
[7] 307.
[8] 2 Nephi 2:27.
[9] Grossman, Lev. “Stephenie Meyer: A New J.K. Rowling?” www.time.com. 24 Apr. 2008. 14 Aug. 2008.
[10] Meyer 138.
[11] 139; italics mine.
[12] 248.
[13] 306-7.