The I-Thou of Twilight - A Philosophical Look at Bella and Edward's Relationship
The relationship with Edward changes Bella, and not just the obvious way.
Posted Jul 08, 2010
This blog post is adapted from a longer essay on this topic that will be appear in an upcoming Psychology of Twilight anthology published by BenBella Books. For more racial analysis of news and popular culture, join the | Between The Lines | Facebook page and follow Mikhail on Twitter.
"All real living is meeting," wrote philosopher Martin Buber, and certainly it is the case that every person's life is filled with other people. Indeed, Gestalt theory regards self awareness and relationships as inseparable. That is, people define who they are based on their experiences of themselves in relation to others. This includes our perceptions regarding how we are regarded by others, as well as by our own thoughts and behaviors toward others. It is not merely the case that our relationships influence who we are. They define who we are. Completely. In Gestalt theory, write Yontef and Jacobs, "there is not ‘I', no sense of self other than self in relation to others. There is only the ‘I' of the ‘I-Thou' or the ‘I' of the ‘I-it' ".
In the "I-Thou", we see ourselves through the eyes of the other...and care about that reflection. We care, too, about the other's well-being, not just for our own needs but because we truly value his/her happiness, success, and life experiences. In the I-Thou, the relationship is characterized by contact, a psychological intimacy in which we allow the person to see us as we really are, warts and all. This can be a vulnerable state to be in and it takes too much energy to engage in this way with all the people we meet. It is not even possible to sustain contact at all times with a selective few. But we need to experience the I-Thou relationship to have a fully-developed sense of identity, to know who we really are.
When the Twilight series opens, it appears that Bella has yet to experience an I-Thou relationship. Thrust into a parental role with her mom, Bella makes it clear from the start that her mom is not someone she can be honest with, telling her that she is looking forward to living in Forks when she is really dreading it . She has a more authentic relationship with her father, but even Charlie spends most of the series completely in the dark about everything that is important to Bella, and even at the end of the series he has only a glimmer of who Bella truly is. It is for his protection, he is told, and indeed it does seem that he is safer not knowing too much. But isn't this the story that teens and young adults usually tell to justify their new independence from parental control?
Bella's other relationships seem equally lacking in contact. We are told nothing of any friends she might have had in Phoenix, and it is clear that they are not a meaningful part of her life. In Forks, she quickly joins a clique, but Mike, Eric, and even Jessica never earn her trust. None of them provide a window into her self.
The exception, of course, is Edward. Through her relationship with him, Bella discovers what love feels like and then what it feels like to have that love lost. She experiences the full depths of grief and eventually an inner strength. Perhaps less directly, she also experiences a more intimate kind of friendship (with Jacob) than she had previously.
The relationship with Edward changes Bella. She becomes a vampire, yes, but she also changes from a girl to a woman. First she finishes high school, then she gets married, has sex, and becomes a mother. In the process, she also gains confidence in herself and first discovers and then masters her special shielding ability. In Twilight, she clearly needs Edward's protection, not just from vampires but from life's risks. By the end of Breaking Dawn, it is Bella who protects not just Edward and the Cullens but all the vampires and shape-shifters that stand at their side.
Edward serves as a catalyst, but it is ultimately Bella who is in charge of her own transformation. Her metamorphosis is due to neither chance nor mere physical maturation. Every part of the process, from marrying Edward to having sex with him while still human (despite his warnings and misgivings) to giving birth to Nessie , to mastering her ability, came about due to an active choice on Bella's part, sometimes, as in the case Nessie, against the advice of those she trusted most. The relationship with Edward changes her, but it does so only because Bella wants to change, and she changes only in the ways in which she wants.
It is worth noting that the changes do not come easily. The labor, the birth, and finally the transformation into a vampire all involve incredible physical pain, despite everyone's efforts to minimize it. There is considerable psychological angst too, again despite the best intentions of all parties. And with the rare exception (e.g., James), the physical and emotional pain are either self-inflicted (e.g., the carrying of the fetus) or inflicted by loved ones (e.g., the vampire venom). Rollo May might as well have been thinking of Bella when he wrote that "one does not become fully human painlessly." Of course, by the time everything is said and done, Bella is a vampire. Don't let that (mostly irrelevant) transformation fool you. Twilight is all about being human.
1 This is not to imply that Bella is an immoral person or a "bad" daughter. To the contrary, her motivation for that particular untruth was to allow her mom to begin a new marriage without feeling guilty about her daughter's happiness. Nevertheless, this particular act is characteristic of the relationship. Bella loves her mother and is willing to make one sacrifice after another for her, but she is not someone with whom she is able/willing to be authentic.
2 It is not coincidental that these events happen in this particular order. Despite her willingness to problematize other false dichotomies, traditional sexual morality not only goes unchallenged but is very much (though subtly) proselytized throughout the series.
3 Bella's relationship with Edward is likely his first I-Thou relationship as well. I say this based on the fact that Bella is Edward's first love too, as well as on my assumptions regarding the psychological costs (i.e., resentment and distrust from others) of being able to read other people's thoughts.
4 In the context of supporting traditional sexual values, Bella's insistence on carrying the fetus and giving birth despite well-founded concerns about the dangers to both her own life and to the well-being of society, can be read as the strongest pro-life statement possible.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou 2e, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Translation: R. Gregory Smith. 1958.
May, Rollo and Yalom, Irving. Existential Psychotherapy. In R.J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.). Current Psychotherapies, 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson, 2005.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 2005.
Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 2008.
Yontef, Gary and Jacobs, Lynne. Gestalt Therapy. In R.J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.). Current Psychotherapies, 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson, 2005.