In the summer, I often struggle with the following problem: should I read a popular book, or should I go back and spend some time on a classic?
A young woman with low self-esteem falls in love with a mysterious older man who, aside from his temper issues, has the emotional range of a rock. For some reason, she thinks this man, Edward, is too good for her, though he is clearly hiding something. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight?
Oddly enough, it’s the plot summary of both. Though one may involve vampires, Meyer’s plot mirrors Brontë’s from start to end; indeed, after the revelation of Edwards’ secret(s) at their respective conclusions, both relationships abruptly end.
Plenty of people with respectable literary tastes have read and enjoyed Twilight (including many of my fellow English majors). The writing is no Brontë prose, but Twilight is unmistakably enjoyable. The book, however, often garners harsh critique. Most frequently, I hear complaints about the anti-feminist heroine, Bella Swan, who is, by Chapter Three, “more than a little obsessed by Edward” and entering a relationship that is analogized to a lion and a lamb. Everyone loves to single out Bella’s complete dependence on Edward as a sign of weakness. And yet: Bella’s story captivates readers – especially young female readers – by tapping into an insecurity about relationships that has been relevant and real since, well, Jane Eyre.
Readers of Jane Eyre who claim Jane-in-love bears no resemblance to Bella should reread. Jane’s description of her love for Edward – “A solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wraps my existence about you” – is only a more poetic way of describing Bella’s “hopeless addiction” to Edward. Both women, at some point, let their insecurities get the best of them. And both women feel they can only be truly equal to their partner after death (or, for Bella, after becoming a vampire herself).
From this point of view, Bella and Jane seem awfully similar – both are completely in love, but repeatedly wonder: Why would a man like him love a woman like me? But, anyone who has read both books will tell you that these women are not the same. While Bella idealizes Edward, Jane describes her Edward Rochester as an ugly man with a colorless square face, though she sees the beauty in his imperfections. Perhaps most importantly, Jane understands that she is not defined by her Edward: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will” – which is more than Bella can say for herself. Jane and Rochester connect on an intellectual level that feels so true, and the reader never has to ask if Jane only likes Edward because he’s shiny.
This is the crux of the difference: just when you think Jane’s life can’t get worse, it does. Conversely, just when you think Bella’s life can’t be any more glamorous and romantic, it is.
If you missed Jane Eyre in high school (or even if you read it and didn’t like it because you were thirty pages behind), it’s a love story for the ages, but one that requires time and care; this summer could just be that time. If you’re one of the five people who still has not read Twilight, read a few pages to see what the fuss is about. And at least consider this the next time you hate on Twilight for it’s anti-feminist, melodramatic, love-triangle plot: the book is in good company.