America’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Vampire
From the point of view of literary criticism, the most shocking scene in any of the Twilight movies occurs early in the last of the five film series, Breaking Dawn, Part Two. The clairvoyant vampire, Alice leaves a clue for the heroine Bella, written atop the title page of a copy of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice located in the Cullen family library. After reading the clue, Bella must destroy the evidence such that the evil Italian Volturi do not get wise to the activities of the Cullen clan. Bella throws the book into the fire and we watch it burn. Fahrenheit 451 this is not, so what gives?
As Bella scans through the book, she pauses briefly at the front matter, wherein we learn that it is an edition edited by Harold Bloom, the most prolific literary critic of our time. Bloom famously derides young adult fantasy fiction—from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter—as “slop.” Perhaps the burning of Shakespeare is merely a dig at academic critics’ disdain for the populist, despite the Bard’s status as the J.K. Rowling of the early 17th century? And yet, I think the burning book passage is more important; indeed, I believe it is a synecdoche for the entire Twilight series.
On her website, the author of the series, Stephenie Meyer explains that she did not want a Hamlet ending, a “downer” in which “everybody dies!,” so instead she chose a twist ending in which, “bloodshed appears inevitable, doom approaches, and then the power is reversed and the game is won by some clever verbal strategies; no blood is shed, and the romantic pairings all have a happily ever after,” a lesson she purports to have learned from the Shakespearean Romance, a structure in which tragedy turns to comedy.
This is indeed a direct repudiation of the work of Harold Bloom, not only in reference to the quality of writing of any given piece, but concerning the very function of literature. In his masterpiece of criticism, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom argues that our full humanity is expressed in Shakespearean literature, not successfully bound in one play, but split across many. To be fully human, not only should we not be vampires, but we must combine the intellect of Hamlet with the irreverence of Falstaff. In sidestepping both the tragedy of the thinker and the Bakhtinian comedy of the rebellious drunkard, Meyer has in fact, in Bloom’s terms, devolved humanity, undoing the work of Shakespeare.
And yet, this work is performed in a particular historical and generic frame. As horror, the Twilight series participates in a traditional duality between a wholesome America and a corrupt Europe. Like Frankenstein and Dracula before them, the Volturi represent a decayed, dead civilization that threatens the Cullen clan (happy refugees to the Pacific Northwest), Bella (from Arizona and Washington state), and the Native American werewolf Jacob. This is as old as Shakespeare, in whose last play, The Tempest (1611), a Romance, corrupt Italian politicians are forced by Prospero, a wronged relative, to come to Bermuda to be regenerated. Alice serves the Prospero function in Twilight, showing the Volturi the consequences of their European corruption, sending them scurrying back across the Atlantic, salvaging America for our heroes.
In The Machine in the Garden, American Studies scholar Leo Marx forwards this temporally incongruous reading of The Tempest as the first example of American literature. Marx demonstrates that the entirety of American literature can be understood as what he calls the complex pastoral, resolving the tension between an America built on power and industrialization (following the path of a sooty, destroyed Europe) and a pristine wilderness, a new Garden of Eden. Seen from Marx’s eyes instead of Bloom’s, Twilight joins company with novels such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the corruption of civilization is overcome by lighting out for the territory. As the Cullens happily retreat into the Pacific Northwest at the end of Breaking Dawn, Part Two, we witness a more complex pastoral than Bloom will allow. The vampires, not merely book burners—Edward introduces Bella to Claude Debussy’s Romantic composition “Clair de Lune,” not to civilize her, but to cheekily ward off her werewolf lover, Jacob—represent an American way of living in which frontier independence transcends the stifling tradition of the European Volturi. Bloom believes that full humanity predates American civilization, but Americans from Twain to Meyer, think, and write differently.
– Walter Metz