Once upon a time, there was a pale, bookish girl who did well in school but was not very sociable. She went to a new location and made some new friends, but found her world completely consumed by a strange, secretive, older man who seemed to read her thoughts. One of his secrets put her in great danger. While they were apart, seemingly severed forever, the heroine was protected by a handsome man connected to her father. The young man had two sisters and was of a lower economic status than her beloved. Though he had a strong commitment to another calling, he sought a relationship with her, but her heart belonged to her one true love, whose voice she heard and whom she sought out and saved from despair and death. She rescued him with her love, and they were married, had a child, and lived a restored home.
Okay, so I left out a few details, but it doesn’t take much tinkering to show how clearly the Twilight Saga echoes Jane Eyre. Though Pride and Prejudice is generally regarded as the literary scaffolding for Twilight( as Romeo and Juliet is for New Moon, Wuthering Heights is for Eclipse, and Merchant of Venice—with a dash of Midsummer Night’s Dream—is for Breaking Dawn), it’s clear that Jane and Rochester lend as much to the story of Twilight as Elizabeth and Darcy do—and maybe more.
On a simplistic plot level, Austen’s iconic Pride and Prejudice does serve as the framework upon which the story of Twilight is draped. Two individuals from very different backgrounds fall in love despite misunderstanding each other. His attempts to help her and care for her are misperceived by the heroine who is equally enigmatic to her future soulmate. We even have the supporting cast of high school students and Cullens functioning as Elizabeth and Darcy’s social circles and families. But beyond the “novel of manners” element, Bella and Edward don’t have that much in common with quick-witted Elizabeth and well-meaning but perhaps too-honest Darcy. In most respects, including these characters, the plot, and the voice/ tone of the novel, it is fascinating to trace the Jane Eyre thread through the tapestry of Twilight (and a broad thread it is).
Edward…is staring at you
In many ways, Edward Cullen and Edward Rochester appear to have come off the same assembly line. As Kate Cochran points out beautifully in her essay “’An Old-Fashioned Gentleman’? Edward’s Imaginary History” in Twilight and History, Meyer’s Edward is less a typical 1917 teenager than he is a Byronic hero. And Bronte’s Edward is the king of Byronic heroes: brooding, check; wealthy but not satisfied, check; dark secret, check; educated, check; attractive despite not being conventionally good looking, double check. Edward Cullen, too, can tick all these characteristics off his list, even the last one, for even though the Cullens are all gorgeous, it is an alien beauty whose strangeness makes most humans instinctively wary. Bella, as is typical of her, is not wary.
Bella’s Edward often points out her completely atypical reactions, including her lack of fear in his presence. Edward Rochester, too, can be terrifying, His black eyes, like Cullen’s golden/black ones, can be both filled with joyous emotions or deepest rage and despair. And it’s in their despair that our Edwards are most alike. After abandoning Bella for her own safety, her Edward says he pretty much “let the misery have me” and his counterpoint in Ferdndean does much the same. The Rochester Jane comes to find at story’s near-end is a changed man. Not only is he physically mutilated, missing a hand and an eye, but he is in despair; his hair uncombed, his dinner untouched, he sits in both literal and metaphorical darkness until found and redeemed by Jane. Edward Cullen, too, is miserable without his beloved; though his nature makes it impossible for him to fall apart so much physically, his dark-circled eyes indicate his lack of self-care (I do like the film’s touch of having him still wear the same clothes, now much tattered, in Italy that he wore when he left Bella. A man able to afford a new wardrobe with the change out of his couch cushions is so emotionally devastated he can’t even put on a fresh shirt for months).
The despair is, of course, relieved for both men by the arrival of the beloved one. Both Rochester and Edward don’t believe that Jane/Bella has returned: Rochester invokes his frequent assertion that Jane is some supernatural creature, and Cullen thinks he’s dead and, despite all expectations, in heaven with his Bella (More about this as we look at plot). Interestingly enough, both our Edwards often claim their beloved one to be something far more spectacular than either heroine would believe herself to be. We see that both men are willing to defy every social convention to be with their soulmates: the married Rochester proposes “living in sin” with Jane; and Edward, desperate to save his wife from the devastating pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, suggests that if Bella wants children, she can have them with Jacob Black, as such offspring would be less dangerous to her health.
Jane, like Bella, is a loner, though, also like Bella, not devoid of friends nor the desire for human company. Just as Jane seeks new vistas and opportunities, Bella hopes that a new school might allow her more breadth in her scope as well. Both Jane and Bella are natural caregivers. Jane, whose job as governess is a care-taking one, unquestioningly nurses the wounds the mad Bertha has given Mason, and even takes care of her resentful and mean aunt on her deathbed before her ultimate healing assignment, bringing Rochester back to life and humanity. Bella cooks and keeps house for her father and emotionally nurtures her mother, as well as supporting Edward and even Jacob Black in less tangible ways. It is not at all surprising that our last moment with each heroine, then, is one in which she and her beloved care for a treasured child.
At First Sight
Jane and Rochester meet under circumstances that are mirrored in Twilight. Rochester slips and falls off his horse on an icy road and is helped by Jane back into the saddle. She has no idea that this is Mr. Rochester, though she soon makes that discovery. Though Bella and Edward have some interaction (which totally confuses her) before her potentially fatal encounter with airhead Tyler’s car on the icy parking lot in front of Forks High School, in some ways he is just as much an enigma. It is interesting to note that both these encounters revolve around ice. Though Rochester’s fall, according to Jasper Fforde, as we’ll see later, may not have been entirely random, ice serves as a wonderful metaphor in both these relationships, for the cool impenetrable exterior of a mysterious man conceals a very real danger, just as the beautiful, smooth surface of ice can be both mysterious and life threatening (as those of us who’ve ever driven on it know well).
From these parallel meetings, very similar threads are followed as the romantic story develops. (And it is a romance, as we explored in the post on gender and genre revulsion). Both Edwards engage the heroines in conversations that draw the ladies further under their spells, and though they both admit to knowing that it’s wrong, both Rochester and Cullen pursue and win a young woman and then later confess they had no right to do so. Though both Bella and Jane are intelligent, they follow, almost blindly, these compelling men, but then choose to sacrifice their own happiness to protect them. Jane refuses to live with Rochester as his mistress, not just because it is morally wrong, but also to protect his soul as well as her own. Bella deliberately deceives her guardians Alice and Jasper to sacrifice herself to James not only to save her mother but also to protect Edward.
Edward’s ill-conceived idea to abandon Bella in New Moon actually springs from the same source as Jane’s wild flight from Thornfield. Just as Edward vanishes, seemingly without any evidence of his presence, Jane’s random and poorly-planned escape leaves little trace, and Rochester’s efforts to find her are fruitless. Though Jane is the one who instigates the separation, her reaction is much like Bella’s. Bella, left alone in the forest, wanders aimlessly until she finally collapses and is found by Sam Uley, leader of the wolfpack Jacob Black will eventually join. Jane, hungry and friendless, wanders in the wilderness until she collapses at the home of the St. John family. Like Bella, Jane goes through a period of physical and emotional withdrawal, encouraged by a potential suitor and his family. Though she cannot forget Rochester, Jane does, like Bella, get on with her life.
Then, the real plot echoes begin. For it is in the restoration of the lovers that the Jane Eyre scaffolding is most apparent in Bella Swan’s story. Both pairs of lovers are reunited by supernatural intervention, just as the heroine is on the brink of accepting the secondary, “back-up plan” lover. Jane hears Rochester’s voice and has been haunted by dreams of a ruined Thornfield, dreams that prove to be prophetic. Bella, whose dreams are often prophetic or paths to truth in her waking life, is haunted by Edward’s voice, and even risks her safety to hear it, but it is only the intervention of Alice and her vision of Edward’s misunderstanding and subsequent desperation that leads to the reunion.
Both Bella and Jane undergo a lengthy journey to reach the beloved, though Jane’s mission is less urgent, as she does not believe her Rochester to be in imminent danger. When Jane returns, Rochester does not think she is real, questioning if she is, indeed, “the living Jane,” just as Edward thinks he and Bella are both dead. Once they are actually reunited, both Edwards are still unsure of the heroines, thinking they may be “too late” to restore the relationship. Because they want the happiness of the woman over their own, both Edwards are willing to relinquish their own claim upon the beloved so that she can find happiness. Once convinced that the their returned ladies do love them, Rochester and Cullen both propose marriage, which Jane and Bella neither see as entirely necessary. The heroines relent, however, and, when we leave our couples, they are married, with a child, and living in a home that was once a ruin but has been restored. They each have a marriage of harmony, understanding, and companionship as well as one of passion and attraction.
You Don’t See yourself Very Well, do You?
How many times does Jane Eyre remind us, her gentle readers, of her plainness, her smallness, her general physical unimpressive-ness? Almost as many times as Bella Swann reminds us that she can’t walk across a flat surface without falling and ending up in the emergency room. The voices of the these narrating heroines are remarkably similar: self-deprecating, intelligent, optimistic though non-traditional in spiritual matters, and engaging to readers in a way that either brings us in or pushes us away.
Though both Jane and Bella are accomplished, neither sees herself as particularly impressive. Jane’s list of capabilities (particularly with languages) is a lengthy one, but she is critical of her own achievements, just as Bella, who is clearly the hardest-working student at Forks High, thinks she is without stellar qualities because no one gives out prizes for reading books. This quality of excessive humility make both narrators accessible, more realistic than if they had been, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.”
Though Bella struggles in math, and Jane dismisses her academic accomplishments, it doesn’t take long for us, as readers, to see that these ladies are sharp as tacks. Both are bright, engaging individuals, who, much their own surprise, have suitors. But they do not take invitations, either to dances or to foreign mission fields, just because they are there. Part of their resistance to be drawn into relationships comes from their natural introversion, but also, Bella and Jane are astute observers of the world around them and of other humans. Both stories give us incredibly detailed accounts of the people the heroine meets, of the places she lives, as both Jane and Bella are remarkably observant. This quality does not always keep them out of trouble, of course, for both Jane and Bella are quite innocent of the world. Jane flees from Thornfield only to discover the harshness of the wider world, and Bella wanders into a potentially fatal situation on a deserted street in Port Angeles and inadvertently hurts the two men who love her.
Since we are inside the minds of our first-person narrator heroines, we get to learn about many aspects of their characters, including their rather unconventional religious outlooks. Though we’ll cover the supernatural and spiritual angle of the novels in an upcoming post, it is interesting to note both Bella’s and Jane’s unusual religious outlook. Though both are optimistic believers, confident that they, and the men they love, will spend eternity in heaven (despite both men claiming the contrary), Jane is not willing to be a missionary if it requires a loveless marriage, and Bella, who does not believe the Cullens are all damned, would still barter her soul, were that required, to be with her Edward. As a consequence, both heroines and their authors have come under fire from both ends of the religious spectrum (more on the religious controversy of Jane Eyre—who would have guessed?—to come).
These voices are also part of the reason readers usually either love or hate both stories. Either Jane and Bella engage a reader or repel one, largely based on the reader’s own perspective. Just as one reader can find Jane a fascinating, forward-thinking, independent spirit who finally gets her man, another may find her a repressed anti-feminist preacher. Because the stories are each told in first person, the impression readers get of the character is often the same one they have of the author, and with good reason. Both novels are remarkably autobiographical, a trait that many readers, unfortunately, see as a flaw, However, as Spotlight attests, such “Mary Sue” accusations are often unfair and even laughable in light of the impact of autobiography upon some of the most important works of literature.
And they are both important works. Both big sellers despite being poo-pooed by any number of critics, both Jane Eyre and the Twilight Saga really do “work” for many readers, and they give every indication of continuing to work for future readers.
So, of course, the question remains, why does Stephenie Meyer’s Saga so closely mirror Charlotte Bronte’s magnum opus and why should we care? Part of the influence is clearly intentional, as Meyer is a better artist than most critics want to admit (again, Spotlight covers this well), but part of it is the natural effect of an author’s favorite books influencing his or her own work. This influence, however, should not be regarded as a flaw. The synthesis from what J.K. Rowling calls an author’s “compost pile” of reading is, in fact, another indication of artistry, of an author’s ability to weave in elements from those texts she has “marinated in” as she creates her own tale. By recognizing the traces of one author’s artistry in another’s we are not crying “copycat,” but rather looking at a text as we sometimes do at our children when they look or act like a beloved relative: we fondly recognize the traits of one we love in another, and, in the process, become more aware of the value of each.
Also, as we have often attested here, when readers love one book, they can also become engaged with the books that served as its influence. So, not only can we see the influence of Jane Eyre upon Twilight as being a major factor in the latter’s success, but it is also possible to see, as book publishers clearly have done (and hence that lovely opening image) that our attraction to one book can lead us to those which have contributed to its origins, and, in process, deepen our appreciation of both texts.
On a bookclub note, I apologize for the tardiness in posting this, but my “real” semester has just kicked off, so I’ve been a bit swamped! We will have a few more Jane Eyre posts, and please let us know if there are topics we haven’t covered that you’d like to claim!