Now a glorious dawn is breaking

November 19, 2008 | 20 comments
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What will it be like for a marriage to continue past death into the eternities? What does it mean to have a perfected body, or to love an eternal being? Stephenie Meyer has an answer. Breaking Dawn, the last novel in her Twilight series, presents a sustained and vividly imagined view of one of the core elements of Mormon personal salvation.

[This post is going to discuss all the details of Breaking Dawn, including how it ends, so please stop reading now if you don’t want to know.]

The first three novels in the Twilight series were skillfully written romances set in a world of vampires and werewolves, but Breaking Dawn, rather than merely tying up the series’ story arc, gives us Bella: Her Origin and Destiny. A conventional romance would see Bella’s marriage to Edward (or, more crassly, her conjugal union with him) as the culmination of the story, but Breaking Dawn does not share the teleology of bridal magazines. Marriage is not the culmination, but the beginning (and Meyer spends barely 100 pages getting us to that point, leaving over 600 for the rest of the novel). If Meyer had wanted to write a tear-jerker, Bella would find fulfillment in sacrificing her life for her child—but for Meyer, maternal self-sacrifice is also only prologue. I had thought that the Twilight series was driven by the tension between Bella’s self-destructive wish for vampirehood and the impossibility of its fulfillment—but the story Meyer wants to tell at the close of the series is about wishes fulfilled, not self-denial or personal destruction.

Bella, as it turns out, has always been meant to become a magnificent being with a glorious, powerful, unaging body in which no blood flows. Her real destiny is to put aside the physical clumsiness and limitations that have previously defined her and to become endowed with talents and abilities beyond her imagination, and to be a partner equal in every respect to Edward. Bella’s marriage and her relationship to their child, and her extended ties to everyone she loves, are not limited by mortality. If the first three novels in the series are very human stories involving love and indecision, frustration and self-denial, Breaking Dawn tries to imagine a life that is no longer mortal.

Breaking Dawn, I gather, has come in for some criticism. Although the author lowers the curtains discretely over the scenes of Bella and Edward’s intimate relations, she makes no attempt to hide what they’re doing, or that they rather enjoy it. It is, after all, what married people do. (Go ask your mother; she’ll explain.) Whenever my fifth grader gets around to sneaking Breaking Dawn out of the bookshelf, I won’t stop him. Although Breaking Dawn is fantasy, the depiction of pregnancy as a perilous internal assault by a life-sucking parasite, which might upset some people, is all too accurate outside of those times and places with access to modern medicine.

It is true that Bella’s transformation removes much of the tension in the story, which might leave some fans disgruntled if they were expecting a thriller. Even the final conflict with the Volturi ends bloodlessly—but the point, I think, is precisely not that a new clan should claw its way to the top, as the irredentist Romanian vampires are hoping, but rather that greed and fear are powerless against ties of love and affection. In Mormon thought, we make much of pre-mortal and post-Millennial wars between Christ and Satan and their followers, but there is never any sense that victory is in doubt or that the threat of violence is even at all serious. Meyer takes the same cue for the final conflict in Breaking Dawn, which is, to resurrect another Mormon trope, a battle of testimony.

One might object that vampires, murderous, ruthless, blood-crazed monsters, could never represent perfect immortal beings, or that it would be beyond tasteless to make the attempt. But why not? After all, in the words of someone who was not Mormon, but is frequently quoted as if he were, “[T]he dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare” (PDF link). The difference between the two is, in the Twilight series, largely a matter of proper diet.

It should be clear in any case that Breaking Dawn is a profoundly Mormon book by a proudly Mormon author, and a good reason to put behind us the anguished hand-wringing about the state of Mormon letters and instead start circling all the major deals in Publishers Weekly.

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20 Responses to Now a glorious dawn is breaking

  1. Geoff B on November 19, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Jonathan, I agree with you that the entire Twilight series is “profoundly Mormon” (take a look at my Halloween post here):

    http://www.millennialstar.org/2008/10/28/twilight-vampires-and-mormons/

    However, I found “Twilight” to be a dime-store romance novel with language that made me want to gag. I’m pretty sure I’ll never read the rest of the books. To each his own: many books I have praised have been roundly pilloried as well.

  2. Cameo on November 20, 2008 at 1:26 am

    Skillfully written romance?

    Snort.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on November 20, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Jonathan, thanks for this. As I said before, this is the first of the several defenses of Meyer and the Twilight books that you’ve written which I find honestly persuasive–you really help me see the plausibility of your long-standing point that Meyer is doing something profoundly Mormon, and profoundly mature, with her characters, and not just shoe-horning Mormon morality into a genre where it plainly doesn’t belong. It doesn’t change my (fairly low) opinion of her books as books, but it does change my estimation of her stories overall. Good work.

  4. Julie M. Smith on November 20, 2008 at 10:11 am

    I think Jonathan said elsewhere that Meyer writes terrible sentences but great stories. That’s a sentiment I can agree with: I’ve stopped several times to re-read a sentence just to glory in its awfulness. (I can’t remember doing that for any other book.) At the same time . . . I’ve finished each book in a matter of hours.

  5. Jonathan Green on November 20, 2008 at 10:23 am

    No, I didn’t write that Meyer writes terrible sentences, because I don’t think she does, and I disagree in any case with the idea that great literature consists of many great sentences strung one after another. I think Meyer’s prose is entirely serviceable, but that her strengths as a writer lie in things like creating effective openings. Openings are hard.

  6. Eugene V. Debs on November 20, 2008 at 10:28 am

    An excellent reading of the text, but the question becomes one of reception: an alert Mormon reader can tease out Meyer’s Mormon thematics, but what about a non-Mormon reader? Is this a sort of theological dog whistle? Or will the immense popularity of this series somehow bring a Mormon element into broader popular culture.

  7. Matt W. on November 20, 2008 at 11:17 am

    I’ve been intending to do a post on how Stephenie Meyer “fulfills prophecy” as the “Shakespeare of the Mormons” . You know, she rights massively popular derivative literature that appeals to the lowest common denominator, just like Shakespeare.

  8. Mark N. on November 20, 2008 at 11:32 am

    For what it’s worth, my 13-year-old daughter went to see “Twilight” last night — there was a special sneak preview for employees who work at the local theater where it will be opening at midnight tonight (or, rather, tomorrow, I suppose), and their invited friends, and as one of my daughter’s friends works at said theater, my daughter was an invitee — and while she didn’t give it four stars, she did admit that they didn’t butcher the story (as was done to “Eragon” in her opinion, and it is now forbidden in my household to ever mention that movie again).

    High praise, indeed, from a 13-year-old: it didn’t suck.

  9. Kylie Turley on November 20, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Nice going, Jonathan. You might convince me that there is something uniquely LDS about her books–more than the simplistic “PG rating.” Present this at the next Association for Mormon Letters conference. I haven’t seen a call for papers, yet–but it’s usually held in the spring (feb/mar/april).

  10. Rob Perkins on November 20, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    I loved reading the Twilight Books. I’ve wanted to write about the implicit deep-doctrine Mormonism in the Twilight series myself. Now that you’ve done it, it saves me the time.

    Perhaps literati pillory Meyer’s prose because it is very, very easy to read, and is extremely accessible to young teenagers. I say, “Whatever, that’s Meyer’s style,” and more or less subscribe to the view that regular people-who-read define what is good literature for their time, not the few who make a life study of it. Those terrible sentences (I caught a few myself) should be laid at the feet of her editors and publishers, whose people should have caught awkward stuff and red-lined it for her revision.

    As to whether the books will inject any uniquely Mormon ideas into the general culture, I kind of doubt it, because Meyer’s main themes were not so uniquely Mormon; she borrowed them from Shakespeare, Bronte, and one other, and has been public about how each book is an homage to this or that story.

    There are a sufficient number of differences between a vampire’s immortality and Mormon “eternal life” that I don’t see a sufficient correlation there, either. (Edward and Bella are fixed at one offspring daughter, for example.) Rather, we learn more about *a Mormon*, rather than *Mormon culture* or *Mormonism*, through what comes out in the books.

    I let my own 13 year old read Breaking Dawn after her mother screened it. It seems to me that Meyer’s depictions of adult situations like the honeymoon night or the night in the cabin were not dishonest about newlywed sex, not at all puerile, and far from prurient.

    I intend to screen the film before she sees it, but I don’t anticipate mature themes beyond her teenaged capabilities.

  11. Kylie Turley on November 20, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Jonathan, how far are you going with Mormon theology/Christian symbolism? Now that you pointed it out, I’m finding it rather difficult to overlook the sexual union of an immortal with a chosen virgin–which results in the conception of a part-mortal, part-immortal child, a child which becomes the crux of peace with werewolves and pivotal in the prime conflict with the Volturi (who, in my opinion, are a fair representation of cultured evil rather than skulking, obvious villains). No wonder the be-curtained sex scene makes people uncomfortable. We are a little squeamish about the details of Christ’s conception. Do you see Meyer’s portrayal as uniquely LDS?

  12. Julie M. Smith on November 20, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Sorry, Jonathan.

    You had said, “There are more skills required in novel writing than word- and sentence-level ones. Stephenie Meyer is good at some things, and very good at other things.”

    . . . and I guess I remembered it incorrectly.

  13. Jonathan Green on November 20, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    E.V. Debs, I would say that Bella and Edward’s rewriting of their marriage vow to omit “til death to us part” is perhaps a dog-whistle shout-out to Mormon readers, but that the overall reworking of Mormon ideas in Breaking Dawn is too sustained to regard it only as something like an inside joke. It’s hard to say if any of it will have much impact on readers in general (although I do have one idea).

    Rob Perkins, I appreciate your comments. It is true that we could point out differences between life as vegetarian vampires and the Celestial Kingdom, such as the expected absence of snacking on wayward moose and other game animals, but I think we can steer around them easily enough by saying that Breaking Dawn is a novelistic reworking of one specific aspect (but an important one!) of the Mormon afterlife, rather than an allegory intended to reflect all of them. The one child of Bella and Edward is more important as a sign of human sociality continuing into the next life than as a numerical limit.

    Kylie, the union of immortal father and human mother does stand out, doesn’t it? Our reluctance to pin down exactly what the virgin birth consisted of makes it a bit hard to say just what a Mormon-vampire interpretation of the virgin birth should consist of, unfortunately. Then again, the mortal/immortal offspring of Edward and Bella does seem destined to marry her foreordained partner, so maybe there is the possibility of a specifically Mormon reading after all.

    Julie, sorry for the confusion. But perhaps you or anyone else who stumbles over Stephenie Meyer’s prose could help me out. After reading 3500 pages or so of her writing, I just don’t remember coming across any truly horrible sentences. Edward’s smooth granite skin got a bit repetitive from time to time, but I don’t recall ever telling myself that a particular bit of writing stunk. And I often do take note of things like that, sometimes with red pen in hand. I can’t say that the prose is flawless or breathtaking, but I thought it got the job done and it didn’t get in the way of the story. So help me out. Could someone give me some specific examples of sentences that just don’t work? I don’t intend to argue about it, but at this point I’m really not sure what kinds of things other people find so problematic about the prose.

  14. Rob Perkins on November 20, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    I’d hate to make too much hash out of it all, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but I tend to separate the actual teachings of Mormonism’s Church from the set of things that so many members of the Mormon Intermountain culture choose to extrapolate or believe.

    For example, Church leaders have stood up to say, “There is no ‘the One’ whom you are intended to marry,” but many Mormons cherish the romantic ideas depicted by Lex de Azevedo in his plays from about three decades ago. The same would be true about any Mormon ideas regarding the mechanisms which conceived Jesus Christ (or the ideas about that which are spread by many of the Church’s critics, for that matter.) We can find the ideas in the culture, but tracing them back to a specific supportable doctrine is dicier.

    So if we look for Mormonism in Meyer’s book, we can certainly point to some of the automatic cultural assumptions she’d be making as an Intermountain Western Mormon, and could probably match many of them to the specific peculiarities of Arizona Mormons. (It’s only in Arizona that I’ve heard a man, for example, intone his prayers in precisely the same voice as the narrator in one of the Church videos from the late 80′s, and lemme tellya, I thought it was plenty strange to hear that…)

    So, yeah… no allegory, and I think not even the unintentional allegories such as are found in the Narnia books. But I *did* think of the Cullens as Mormon vampires! People of a certain type leading a very minority lifestyle, abstaining from certain foods and many of the crimes of their kind, living lives devoted to service, but with great cars, great family-centered material wealth, and a distinct long-term profit motive to support that life? All while living eternally with a spouse of their mutual choice, forsaking all others, but otherwise more or less blending in with the larger population, maintaining a reasonably affable relationship with some neighbors and tolerating deep seated prejudices from others, *and* hiding the strangest parts of their lives from public view?

    Yup. Mormon Vampires. Hard to miss from the inside, ain’t it?

  15. Rob Perkins on November 20, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    And riffing a little off of the bad sentence stuff, I did notice mirrored dialogue in the third book, when the sexual tension was at its most tense. If I still had the books with me I’d probably be able to cite things for you, but I’m thinking of conversations between Bella and Edward, Bella and Jacob, where the exchange of dialogue is identical in the second and third iterations, but the characters are different or the speakers are reversed.

  16. Julie M. Smith on November 20, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Jonathan, it tends to go in one ear and out the other with me, but one I remember was, I believe, from the final book and it was something about Bella being as hot as a July 21st afternoon at 4pm. OK, then.

  17. Jarrod on November 20, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    I read the series and enjoyed it very much. I also noticed the Mormon overtones, however I’m always curious to know how much of those are a conscious choice on the author’s part versus simply a reflection of the author’s own world view. In the case of the Cullens’ moral values I think Stephenie Meyer was intent on creating exemplary morality, not on creating “Mormon vampires.” Part of that Mormon “flavor” we taste is a reflection of the fact that she’s Mormon, and her vision of exemplary morality reflects her own morality. The other part is the fact that we’re Mormon, so naturally associate morality with being Mormon. What’s interesting is the incredible popularity of the series, which tells us that many more people than just Mormons are identifying with these moral characters. Based on Rob’s characterizations of the Cullens I could imagine others thinking that they are obviously Jewish vampires, or Muslim vampires, etc.

  18. Rob Perkins on November 20, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    I agree that my characterization fits more than just one religious or lifestyle minority group. If Meyer were not openly Mormon herself, perhaps we would not be having this discussion at all.

    It’s the fact that she’s LDS that leads us to wonder about the congruence of her characters with Mormon morality. And it’s also true, isn’t it, that when some people discover a Mormon’s identity, they associate an expectation of morality with that Mormon which more or less overlaps with Mormonism’s actual standards, and are shocked when we deviate from the perceived standard. (I think, for instance, of the horror-genre stories and early fantasy novels by Orson Scott Card. I pointed out that he’d penned the novelization of The Abyss to another Church member, for example, and the fact of his Church membership was simply not believed. Meyer doesn’t run that risk at all.

  19. bfwebster on November 20, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    I’ve read the whole series. IMHO, Meyer is not a great writer, but she is certainly a compelling one; there were large sections of her work (particularly in the 2nd novel) that I found tedious and repetitive, and I think all of the novels could have been more tightly edited. But I read them all, and typically in just a few sittings (it helps to be a fast reader).

    As Jonathan noted above, the last novel lacked the typical conflict/climax leading to either Bella’s marriage or Bella’s death. Instead, it was several hundred pages of pay-off, that is, Bella herself finally having all of the capabilities that she longed for and making use them. It made the novel feel a bit self-indulgent at time, and Bella’s avoidance of the typical newbie vampire madness seemed a bit of a cheat (or at least convenient hand-waving). On the other hand, it makes for an underlying message of, “Wait and do things in the proper order, and you can have a significant payoff”, which is not a bad message to be giving young women in today’s oversexed and casually-sexed society.

    To the extent that you try to match up the vampiric state with LDS exaltation, you find Meyer raising a very interesting question. Bella — post-marriage, post-vampiric conversion — is thoroughly enjoying marital relations with Edward and observes at one point that since they never get tired, sore, or, uh, unable to perform, why wold they ever want or need to stop? Food for thought. ..bruce..

  20. American Yak on November 20, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    “If you want to hear about edward’s creepy topaz eyes and cold skin at least twice every four paragraphs, then these books are for you.” — my niece