Note: this is a paper I did back when I was in Brigham Young University earning my bachelor’s degree. Whether or not you like the Twilight series, there’s something be understood in the psychology of its readers, to understand what makes something so popular.
The Twilight series has undergone nearly every form of criticism known to the written world. And yet, the enormous popularity of the series speaks to it’s value in the psycho analysis of our culture, particularly that of young teenage girls (the series’ primary readership). Despite shallow characters and a lot of cheesy dialogue, there are many core elements that make Twilight more significant. These include myth, the psychological archetypes found there, and the fantastical narratives used to bring them about. For instance, Bella undergoes a version of the hero’s journey, which is an archetype found in practically every culture. In this journey she discovers many other universal archetypes, like the animus (the male side of herself) which once transcended is a big step in the direction her journey is leading her: to wholeness.
Wholeness is Bella’s biggest problem. It is the one thing she never has throughout the series, since she is constantly forced to rely on others and never gains any kind of personal motivation or individuality. However, as the books progress and she is caught between the most infamous love triangle in modern literature, her journey carries her in the direction of wholeness. That love triangle is a struggle for the mythical archetypes of her own animus, but brings her one step closer to completion. However, her journey is never achieved through conventional means, resulting in her transformation in Breaking Dawn to something not even human. Bella’s heroic journey forces her to choose between one animus influence or another (Edward and Jacob) as a part of her quest for wholeness which is then completed through fantastic events and escapist elements. It is these elements of dreams and fantasy that translate across the page to the reader, satisfying the vibrant need for wholeness that may be the source of the series’s popularity.
Wholeness is Bella’s biggest motivation as well as her primary deficit, and she is only able to achieve it in an unrealistic union. Carl Jung describes wholeness as a fundamental archetype and a need that all share, but are all limited by.
“The unity, the One, All-Oneness, individuality and non-duality not a numeral but a philosophical concept, an archetype and attribute of God, the monad. It is quite proper that the human intellect should make these statements; but at the same time the intellect is determined and limited by its conception of oneness and its implications” (Jung 310).
We can certainly see the need for wholeness in Bella’s life, as well as the limitations it offers her. The moment she is brought in contact with the Cullen family she immediately latches on to them, describing them as being “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful” (“Twilight” 19). In New Moon we can see that without her relationship with Edward she is unable to function, going into a near comatose state until she is able to fill that gap again. This is done by filling her time performing dangerous recreational activities, but she only does this so she can hear Edward’s warning voice in her head. Even when he is gone, he is still a part of her psyche, and without him she cannot function. Bella sees Edward as that “attribute of God” that Jung alludes to, evident in the way she describes him as, “this godlike creature” (“Twilight” 292). Therefore we see his image projected as a manifestation of her need for wholeness, and it is only through him that she feels she can obtain this divine quality.
In Breaking Dawn she is finally married to Edward and eventually becomes a vampire like him. This is a final stage in the completion of her quest for wholeness. Bella even says, “When I said my fate, there was no question that I meant the two of us. We were just halves of the whole” (“Breaking Dawn” 37). She is blatantly asserting that she is only whole when she is with Edward. Suzanne Lundquist states in her article on the Twilight series that, “the metaphor of two halves implies that neither Bella nor Edward is complete without the other” (Lundquist 117). Despite this lack of individuation, wholeness is finally achieved through their union. True, they are only united by turning Bella into a vampire, something completely unrealistic and offering no realistic hope for young readers, but wholeness is achieved. Since wholeness is a fundamental element of our culture as Jung states, this achievement would go far to appeal to the audience of the series.
Myth is a universal concept and is one of the main reasons why the Twilight series is so popular to so many people. Joseph Campbell starts his famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by stating that “throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished.” (Campbell 1). Additionally he asserts the cultural impact of myth by stating, “the archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology, and vision” (Campbell 14). Elements of mythology can be seen in all types of storytelling, and is no stranger to the Twilight series. Lundquist points out in her article that “Meyer does use Genesis 2:17 as an epigram to her first novel; by so doing, she suggests that her story continues the mythic narrative, especially with regard to Eve’s desire to become like the Gods, knowing good and evil” (Lundquist 113). Lundquist gives another example of the mythological nature of the series by stating, “the family pattern established in Meyer’s last novel, Breaking Dawn (2008), is mythically resonant: a mortal woman and immortal man produce an exceptional child who has superpowers” (Lundquist 114). This is clear evidence that the story of Twilight draws heavily on myth. Mythology is not simply a collection of stories, none of which have any bearing on reality. Campbell puts it this way, “the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous predictions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source” (Campbell 1-2). In this quote we can see that myth is important on a psychological level, which would definitely be a reason for the series’ popularity. By presenting the story as a continuation of the “original sin” myth, and by including mythical elements like vampires and werewolves, Stephanie Meyer has opened up several doors that likely resonate with many of the readers based on their psyche, rather than ‘good writing’ or clever dialogue.
As we delve into the psyche of the reader, it is important to note another source of mythology that is equally influential, that of the dream. Campbell describes the dream as, “the personalized myth, [and] myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche” (Campbell 14). So the dream is inseparably linked to the myth. Jung describes several manifestations of these dream myths in his book Memories, Dreams, and Reflections some of which will be addressed shortly. For now it is important to note that Stephanie Meyer intended the Twilight series to have these dream-like qualities included in her mythology. The very first page of the series calls her experience a “dream so far beyond any of your expectations.” Additionally, Bella states in the last book that she was living a “dream that was both new and old” (“Breaking Dawn” 105). This clearly gives the impression that her life is a modern myth comprising of elements which would explain why it is new and old at the same time. Lundquist asserts that the romance of the books is part of a overarching process that causes illumination. “The connections between myth and romance need grounding; the shadow implications of romance need to be brought to consciousness, to light – indeed, the progression through twilight, new moon, eclipse, and breaking dawn is a metaphor for this process” (Lundquist 115). The metaphor referred to could also be seen as a metaphor for the dream process. Moving from twilight to breaking dawn suggests night time, a time usually reserved for sleep and dreaming. And it is not until the end, when dawn breaks, that Bella is able to achieve wholeness. Therefore, it is logical to say that the series is borrowing from a number of dream archetypes to help Bella complete her quest for wholeness.
One of the primary dream archetypes at work in the series is the animus. Lundquist points out the importance of the animus (or anima for men) as a step towards wholeness: “the archetype of the self is made up of both feminine and masculine elements – Anima (the female aspect for the man) and Animus (the male aspect for the woman). Gender differences constitute the primary opposition that leads to consciousness” (Lundquist 116). Therefore, wholeness cannot be achieved without the opposite gender present in the psyche. Jung (who helped define the animus/anima) defines it as the “personification of the feminine nature of a man’s unconscious [or masculine nature of woman’s unconscious]…this psychological bisexuality is a reflection of the biological fact that it is the larger number of male (or female) genes which is the decisive factor in the determination of sex. The smaller number of contrasexual genes seems to produce a corresponding contrasexual character, which usually re- mains unconscious” (Jung 391). So this archetype is not only part of the subconscious, it is biological, and therefore one “of the most influential archetypes” (Jung 391). This would certainly provide cause for the enormous popularity of the Twilight series.
Bella is forced to choose between the two primary male influences in her life, which is what leads her on her journey to wholeness. The journey is not easy though. Jung describes the animus as having a dangerous side to it, stating that it was like “an invisible presence in the room…the mouthpiece of the unconscious, can utterly destroy a man [or woman]” (Jung 186-187). We can see the danger that Bella faces with her conflict between Edward and Jacob. As is apparent from her near comatose state induced by Edward leaving her, she cannot be without a male influence. This is part of her danger. Much of the danger is also manifested externally by the monstrous nature of her two male influences. Since they are a vampire and a werewolf, she is constantly endangered, and is only protected by the love they carry for her.
However, it is the positive aspects of the animus that result in Bella becoming whole. Jung comments that “the [animus/anima] has a positive aspect as well. It is [he/she] who communicates the images of the unconscious to the conscious mind, and that is what I chiefly valued [him/her] for” (Jung 187). Additionally he states later in his book that the animus “should function as a bridge, or a door, leading to the images of the collective unconscious” (Jung 392). We can see this process at work in Bella’s psyche. Throughout the entire series she has the desire to become a vampire, an external representation of an unconscious desire for wholeness (which is only achieved after she is transformed). This is done by accepting Edward as her primary male influence, thus allowing the animus to bring that unconscious image to fruition. So we see that it is through the acceptance of an animus influence that Bella is able to take another step towards wholeness, and is one of the primary reasons why she is able to achieve it. Additionally, the battle for animus domination is one of the biggest reasons why the series has become so popular. This is why the love triangle between Bella, Jacob, and Edward has been so highly debated and publicized among fans of the books.
Bella’s Heroic Journey
Even though this might not be evident at first glance, Bella experiences the hero’s journey as part of her quest for wholeness. You might even be able to say that wholeness is her hero’s journey. The road is not without speed bumps. In an article by Sarah Beach she points out that with many fantasy characters, “just as in real life, relationships change and may follow a bumpy path, events don’t always turn out the way we like, and the characters make choices that may not turn out to be the best” (Beach 104). This is certainly the case in the Twilight series, as it is easy to find faults with both Bella and her supporting cast. However, she is still able to fulfill the hero role. Joseph Campbell describes the hero path as “the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero…a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation – initiation – return” (Campbell 23). We see this formula at work in Bella’s journey. She goes through separation from her parents (based on the distant relationship with Charlie) but also from Edward in New Moon. The initiation occurs through her experience with the vampire and werewolves, as she learns more about them and is constantly threatened by the situations that her exposure to their way of life presents. The initiation culminates in her “death” when she gives birth to her girl. The return occurs just afterward when she becomes a vampire, thus achieving wholeness. Additionally, Campbell describes the hero as someone “of self-achieved submission. But submission to what?” (Campbell 11). The hero is one that sacrifices him/herself for others. Bella does this by deciding to have Edwards baby, despite the fact that it would kill her. It is only through this sacrifice that she transcends mortality (much like a Christ figure). It is therefore quite clear that Bella fulfills the heroic journey towards completion or wholeness. Since the hero’s journey has long been proven as a popular form of storytelling, it is logical to assume that this is another primary reason for the popularity of the Twilight series.
Now one of the biggest questions that people may be asking is: how come readers are able to identify so much with Bella if she is able to achieve wholeness through unrealistic methods? This leads to the concept of escapism and the influence it has in literature.
Escapism is perhaps the biggest reason why the Twilight books have become so popular, and it is through Bella’s journey that escapism is presented. However, escapism is not always viewed positively, which is a paradigm that needs shifting in order to understand the influence escapism has. In an book by Yi-Fu Tuan he remarks that “’Escapism’ has a somewhat negative meaning in our society and perhaps in all societies. It suggests an inability to face facts – the real world. We speak of escapist literature, for instance, and we tend to judge as escapist places such as mega-shopping malls, fancy resorts, theme parks, or even picture-perfect suburbs. They all lack – in a single word – weight.” (Tuan 5). One of the father’s of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien also comments on the abusive criticism of escapism in literature. “In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. (Tolkien 79). Escapism is certainly criticized in literature as Tolkien points out and this is one of the main reasons why the Twilight books have been criticized so heavily. However, this has not stopped it from becoming one of the most popular fantasy series of our generation, second only to Harry Potter. So there must be something of importance in the escapist elements of the book.
Escapism is not a negative influence. One of the best definitions of escapism in literature is found in an article by Deborah O’Keefe: “Reading fantasy is not so much an escape from something as a liberation into something, into openness and possibility and coherence. All fiction blatantly or subtle conveys its author’s values, but with fantasy everything is hypothetical, subject to examination” (O’Keefe 11). Escapism therefore becomes liberating. It allows for the mind to explore places it has never been. Even though there no chance that any teenage girl will be transformed into a vampire, something can still be learned from the representation of the hypothetical. And, as we will see, it is through the escapist elements that audiences are able to identify with Bella in her quest for wholeness.
Fantasy is the path to wholeness
Fantasy, the purest form of escapism, has become immensly popular and is one of the main reasons why the Twilight books are so influential. O’Keefe asked the question in her article, “Why, just now, do so many readers find it thrilling to follow Dorothy into the Emerald City of Oz (1900), Bilbo Baggins into his hobbit hole (1937), and Harry Potter into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (1997)? Today, fantasy is an enormously popular category, not a neglected stepgenre shivering in the shadows” (O’Keefe 12). Some would argue that fantasy does not have a healthy effect on the readers. For example Tuan says this in his book, “Culture is driven by imagination and is a product of imagination. We humans are pleased and proud to have it. But imagination can lead us astray – into fantasy, the unreal, and the grotesque” (Tuan xiv-xv). Despite the importance of imagination Tuan claims that it can have a damaging effect. However, others would argue that it allows the reader to transcend reality, leading them to a place previously unatainable. Sara Beach, referring specifically to the Harry Potter series written by J. K. Rowling (another popular fantasy), states that “the magical world created by Rowling draws young readers into the books by connecting aspects of the world in which they live with a world that transcends reality” (Beach 103). It creates a bridge between reality and something more. Campbell confirms this idea by stating that, “the happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man” (Campbell 21). Fantasy is a way for people to transcend their own problems. In the case of the Twilight books, wholeness could therefore be achieved by identifying with Bella and her journey to wholeness. Even though the reader will never become a vampire, they can be brought a step closer to wholeness by reading of Bella’s experience. Quoting Jung in her article Suzanne Lundquist states it best: “According to Jung, when individuals and cultures experience repression of their potential for wholeness, they seek compensation through fantasy” (qtd. in Lundquist 116). We can therefore see that it is through the fantastic and escapist elements of the books that readers are able to transcend their own reality, step closer to wholeness, and identify with Bella. This is the biggest reason why the Twilight series is so popular, despite its unrealistic narrative.
Perhaps Twilight is not the best influence for its readers, but this doesn’t hide the fact that the series is immensely popular. We can see this in the way that readers are able to live through the protagonist. Bella achieves wholeness by becoming a vampire. She is only able to do this by associating with actual dream archetypes like the animus, present in the collective unconscious, providing a real life sympathy with the readers. Another common archetype is the hero’s journey which Bella is able to undertake. This is another cultural evidence that the books use many of the same elements found in myths throughout history, which are still popular today. All of the myths and archetypes found in the Twilight series are evidence that its popularity is based on the need that readers have for these archetypes. Whether you liked Twilight or not, it will always play on timeless symbols.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown and, 2005. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. New Moon. New York: Little, Brown and, 2006. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. Eclipse. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. Print.
Beach, Sara A., and Elizabeth H. Willner. “The Power of Harry: The Impact of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Books on Young Readers.” World Literature Today 76.1 (2002): 102-06. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. Print.
Jung, Carl G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Random House, 1989. Print
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O’Keefe, Deborah. Readers in Wonderland: the Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction : from Dorothy to Harry Potter. New York: Continuum, 2003. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 2001. 33-99. Print.
Tuan, Yi-fu. Escapism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. Print.