Much has been made of the fact that Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon and that her wildly popular Twilight series contains a romance that demands no sex before marriage for fantastical reasons that at times stretch the bounds of credulity. Some have argued that this is a kind of proselytizing technique, a different version of the Mormon missionaries knocking on your door and converting your daughters to the bizarre religion. While I think that Meyer’s Mormonism deeply affects her writing, as religious beliefs and other worldviews necessarily affect any writer, the more interesting Mormon doctrine infusing Twilight is, in my opinion, the uniquely Mormon version of the Garden of Eden story. That apple on the front cover is not there for nothing. And it isn’t the temptation of sex at all that is at the heart of the controversial Mormon doctrine. It’s all about female power.
To begin with, I am going to admit that I am not a typical nor a conservative Mormon. My own beliefs are in process, so it is possible that I may end up distorting some doctrines without intending to. I will also try to point out what is doctrine and what is my own implications to be drawn from the doctrine. I also need to state up front that while I believe that understanding Mormonism is a useful way to understand some parts of Twilight, I do not by any means think that the series can be reduced to Mormonism. No writer of any interest simply parrots a religious belief, and I think Meyer has been extremely inventive in her retelling of this Mormon myth. I do not know if this was done consciously or not and it hardly matters.
In either case, there is no intention here to slam Meyer, her book, or to continue the rather disturbing trend of making a book written by a woman and loved by many women young and old into a point for denigrating women and their interests or achievements. I recently wrote an essay called In Defense of Twilight in which I reacted to a recent writing convention I had gone to where multiple panels ended up being “Twilight bashing.” The panelists openly admitted to never having read a single sentence of the series, but still felt perfectly well qualified to mock it and its proponents because it wasn’t “real literature” or because whatever version they had heard was “simply ridiculous.”
This reminded me too sharply of my years in graduate school at Princeton in the 1990s, when women students asked the all-male professors on staff why we had no female role models and we were told there were simply no women — on the planet —who were qualified to be hired at Princeton. In addition, when I asked a professor why, in a course of German Romanticism, there was not a single woman listed on the list of course materials, he replied that we simply had “no time” to study the “minor authors of Romanticism.” We were at Princeton, so of course, we were going to study all the “important” authors who were the men that had been venerated since Romanticism itself. We were certainly not going to investigate the patriarchy that had chosen those men as “most important” from the first.
After spending several years teaching German at a university, I eventually gave up academia in pursuit of a career as a young adult fantasy writer. In the past several years since I was published, I have become increasingly disturbed by the outcries (by men) in various news outlets since J.K. Rowling and Meyer have become both wealthy and powerful by writing children’s stories. What is the world coming to, if women writers (not to mention women editors) are taking control of the publishing industry? Where are the books for boys?
We are supposedly facing a national crisis because there are NO books written for boys and our poor young men will be forced to read that “icky” Twilight if there is nothing to counter this trend. Young men reading Twilight is surely the proof that our civilization has reached its nadir, because no one wants young men learning to have sexual self-control in a relationship with a woman, nor do we want them to be that dangerously “feminized” Edward Cullen who can read minds and has become a “vegetarian.” (Worse still would be women becoming used to the idea that attractive young men might rip off their shirts and display their washboard abs at every moment to the catcalls of the crowd, because only men should be able to demand a sexual display like that, yes?)
The Mormon story of the Garden of Eden is a variant of the original. Adam and Eve were placed in the garden and were told not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree because it would mean their deaths. But Mormons do not believe in original sin. They call the choice Adam and Eve made a “transgression” rather than a “sin”. What this means is that they took the fruit knowing that it would make them mortal and send them out of God’s presence and into the world. They broke a law, but it was a law that they had to break. It was only by being forced out of the garden that the rest of the “Plan of Salvation” or “Plan of Happiness” could come to be. Mormon scholar Daniel Judd argues that the Fall was a step downward, but also a step “forward.”
Furthermore, Mormons do not believe that Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden because of a sexual transgression. Sex is, in Mormon theology, not an evil to be avoided by the most pure. Quite the contrary (despite what you may think, based on the accusations that Meyer is attempting to convert young readers to sexual abstinence), sex is considered a holy act. Dallin H. Oaks, one of the current “apostles” of the Mormon Church writes “The power to create mortal life is the most exalted power God has given his children”. Mormons insist on the use of sex only within the bonds of marriage, but there is no psychic spiritual guilt to be associated with the act itself. Mormon couples are generally assured that sex is good for their marriage and that it is not only because they are meant to multiple and replenish the Earth (a commandment that many Mormons take to heart), but also to build bonds of love and commitment between spouses.
Finally, instead of seeing Eve as a figure of hatred or blame, Mormons praise Eve for her decision to take the fruit first, because she saw more wisely than Adam did that living a life of joy would also entail experiencing pain. There are some Mormons who believe (and at this point I will say that this is not doctrine, but rather speculation I have heard repeated inside the church) that Adam and Eve engaged in a thousand year long debate on the topic of the fruit and whether or not to take it. Adam and Eve could not have children in the garden and therefore could not fulfill the other commandment which God had given them, in addition to not partaking of the fruit, which was to have children. Again, in Mormon theology this is not because they could not have sex, but only because their bodies were not mortal and were not fully capable of producing children. Speculation again is all I can use to answer why. Perhaps because having children inherently causes pain (in childbirth, but also in many other ways) and pain could not be part of the Garden of Eden.
I am not the first scholar to see Twilight through the lens of the Mormon creation story. Lisa Lampert-Weissing has written a fascinating study of Twilight as a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost. She sees Twilight in the long tradition of women writers following Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley, who wrote about the “monster” in Frankenstein that is in many ways Eve’s side of the story of the creation and the Fall. Though Frankenstein’s monster is purportedly male, he enacts many female dilemmas, as being created second and seen as a dark creature, full of sin. Lampert-Weissing wisely sees the importance of free will and “agency” in Mormon doctrine and cleverly argues that Bella herself is engaged in a project of making herself an equal to Edward by becoming a vampire. She wants to not only be Lois Lane, but Superman. She wants to be able to protect herself and her child and not depend on Edward for that. She wants the power that becoming a vampire will give her, the eternal youth that will make her Edward’s equal in eternal beauty, and she wants to be god-like, as he is. In this way, Lampert-Weissig sees Bella as a feminist hero, demanding equality and making her own choices rather than allowing herself to be told what to do by the authoritarian Edward or the other god-like Cullens.
But the Mormon story of creation as it informs Twilight goes deeper than simply the story of Eve’s free will to choose to fall in taking the fruit. It is not only in becoming a vampire that Bella becomes god-like. She gains immortality, yes, but that is at the hands (or teeth) of Edward, the patriarch of all patriarchs here. She forces him to it by coming close to death in childbirth. And it is in childbirth that Mormon doctrine ennobles women. Thus, the argument that Meyer’s Twilight is all about keeping women in traditional roles is true. But it also has a powerful demand that women in these roles be seen as heroic, even as super-human. Immortality in Mormonism comes to women through their work as wives and mothers quite literally.
Mormons believe in a universal resurrection and in a nearly universal heaven. The only hell in Mormon theology is a waiting space like purgatory, but which Mormons call “spirit prison” where those who do not acknowledge Christ await missionaries to come to them and teach them. As soon as they are converted and have temple work done (thus the Mormon need to continually do ordinances for those who are dead), they can cross from “spirit prison” into “spirit paradise” where all the righteous converted dwell.
Once the final judgment happens, all will be allowed to choose a kingdom (celestial, telestial, terrestrial) depending on where they are most comfortable. Each kingdom will be ruled over by a member of the Godhead, and only a very small handful of God’s children will be sent to a place called “Outer Darkness” where they are forever cut off from the presence of God (and even these will be immortal in resurrected bodies). My understanding of this doctrine is that there is likely to be movement between the kingdoms in the eternities, and that ultimately, all will eventually complete the path to godhood. But this whole plan is dependent on women. Why? Because only women can give birth to bodies, and it is these bodies which are the stuff of immortality.
Mormons believe that God Himself has a body, that it is a necessary part of godhood to be flesh and blood (though exalted, immortal, resurrected flesh and blood). According to Joseph Smith, God was at one point a mortal man, and He became a god through the same process that will be open to all men. Women, on the other hand, may have a slightly different path to immortality and godhood, and that path demands becoming wives and mothers, because only through women can all of the waiting spirits of God’s children, begin the path to finding their own bodies which can be transformed into godly stuff.
In Twilight, Bella does not realize that she can get pregnant when she and Edward consummate their marriage. She assumes, in fact, that she can’t. Nonetheless, when she is given the choice between saving her own (physical, mortal) life and saving the life of her child, she chooses her child. Now, many read this as Meyer’s Mormonism stepping in to argue against abortion. I won’t say absolutely this isn’t true, but it is at the very least incomplete. For Bella to choose completing a pregnancy over saving her own life, is, in the Mormon view of women’s possible godhood, her choosing immortality over mortality.
In the final and fourth book of the series, Breaking Dawn, Edward has to bite Bella to make her a vampire, but it is her child through whom Bella saves the world. Even if Edward had let Bella die, the story of Twilight demands that we believe that Renee-esmee is the most important person ever born. Bella is, in this situation, a new Mary. She has given birth to a new Christ who will save the vampires (and possibly humans). Whether Bella lives or dies after that is almost insignificant. She has been elevated to godhood already, by making the god of all gods, the vampire of all vampires.
Valerie Hudson Cassler, a convert to Mormonism from Catholicism, argues passionately that of Christian religions, Mormonism is the most feminist because of the Mormon view of Eve as a wise woman who made the right choice to leave the paradise of Eden and accept the pain of mortality and motherhood. Cassler argues that other versions of Christianity teach “that a woman’s body is unclean, that God meant women to submit to their husbands and in general be subservient to men, and that divinity is male and male alone.” Mormons, by contrast, teach in their temples that women will becomes “priestesses” and “goddesses” alongside their husbands.
It is through women that souls journey to mortality and gain their agency, and in general it is through the nurturing of women, their nurturing love of their children, that the light of Christ is awakened within each soul. And we should include in that list of souls Jesus the Christ. Even Christ our Lord was escorted to mortality and veiled in flesh through the gift of a woman, fed at his mother’s breast, and awakened to all that is good and sweet in the world. Women escort every soul through the veil to mortal life and full agency. It is interesting to think that even Adam, who was created before Eve, entered into full mortality and full agency by accepting the gift of the First Tree from the hand of a woman. In a sense, Adam himself was born of Eve.
Mormon men have the priesthood which allows them to seal families together, and in essence, to return these families to God, thus healing the wound that the Fall created. In a sense, the Mormon Edward officiates over Bella’s passage through death back to eternal life.
But Bella’s female and divine power is separate from Edward’s. She cannot make herself a vampire, true. But she has a far more important role. Within the Mormon context of male/female relationships, Bella is equal to and perhaps more powerful than Edward. Her female “sphere” of giving birth isn’t a “curse” that follows because of Eve’s choice to take the fruit in the Garden of Eden and thus ensure the suffering and death of all mankind. Rather, she clings to her own power despite the cost and the voices around her demanding that she cede all power to Edward. She makes the choice, and, as in the Mormon version of the Fall, the reluctant Adam/Edward follows after. Ultimately, Edward is forced to admit that this Fall was also a fortunate one, that all his years of debating with Bella, he was wrong and she was right. She was always meant to be a vampire at his side, a “monster” who has power over life and death in her femininity. Bella takes up the Mormon role of motherhood to become the divine path to birth and life on Earth, a role as important as Mormon priesthood, which rules over death and the final approach to immortality.
Twilight is by no means a typical feminist narrative. Instead of demanding that women are capable of taking over male roles (a vital part of Amerian political feminism), Twilight glorifies the traditional female roles of wife and motherhood and points out the power inherent in those. I don’t mean to argue that this point of view should be accepted without question. Certainly, within the Mormon Church and in plenty of other churches and cultures, women have been told that if they only accept their role, they will find power within the existing structure of patriarchy. I am suspicious of Mormonism’s exclusively male priesthood and the insistence that men and women are eternally different with different roles. But on the other hand, I am equally suspicious of being told that there is no power in motherhood, since as a mother, I have felt tremendous satisfaction and yes, even power. Twilight is a powerful story about a woman finding power in motherhood and if that seems regressive, I think that is not seeing the story deeply enough in its reconception of divine female power within the Mormon mythos.