To read my archived review of Twilight, the first book in the Twilight Saga click here.
Who is Bella Swan?
For those not in the know or in need of a refresher, Bella Swan is the main POV character of the Twilight Saga. She is introduced as a seventeen year old from Arizona who is moving to Washington state to live with her father. Child of divorce, Bella has always been close with her mother but more like her father, whose hometown she despises. Though she is put forth as a more mature and responsible than average teenager due to her mother’s scatterbrained nature, she is more of a typical teenager when living with her father. She may be responsible enough to do the grocery shopping, cooking, and chores, but she also purposefully hides her social life from her father’s prying and doesn’t consider her future much unless it concerns what she immediately wants.
Bella is something of a novelty in Forks and thus thrust into a spotlight. She sees herself and leads the reader to see her as not unattractive, but not anything spectacular especially in comparison to the Cullens–a family of vampires living in Forks. Her personality largely consists of hating the cold, rainy, snowy weather of Washington, enjoying classic literature, and doing everything that’s expected of her without really thinking of it. School largely comes easy to her, and she’s highly observant and able to draw intelligent conclusions from her observations. She loves her mother very much, enough to subject herself to a year and a half of Forks so her mother can travel with her stepfather.
Okay but is she plain or beautiful? Boring or interesting?
In some ways, Bella Swan established some of the things I hate about reading first person POV. One of the major things is that Bella doesn’t see herself as interesting or beautiful, and informs the reader of her opinion often. She especially believes she pales in comparison to the Cullens–an unfair comparison considering they’re not even human. And yet everyone else around her sees her as something interesting and unique. A beautiful actress was chosen to play her in the movie. There’s a couple of things to break down here, though, in the idea that Bella Swan is either beautiful or plain, boring or interesting.
The first is that in a romance novel, it’s not uncommon to make your main character as bland or relatable as possible. A first person POV in a romance novel allows you to make a character as far sweeping as possible. The more of an audience that feels they can literally put themselves into the shoes of the main character, the greater the chances of a following of fans. Bella is to a degree meant to be easy for any average teenage girl to imagine themselves as. And due to the popularity the Twilight saga had, it was a successful choice! So to a certain extent Bella isn’t interesting but meant to represent an average person who happens to be interesting enough to garner unusual attention.
I think due to the amount of male attention Bella receives, we can safely say she was beautiful. At seventeen some girls are fully aware of their beauty, and others are still coming to terms with it–especially if they were late bloomers, teased for their looks when they were younger, or are just learning how to appreciate their looks and find outfits, care routines, etc. that suit them and make them feel good. I can’t really fault a seventeen year old for thinking herself plain when apparently in seventeen years nobody outside of her family have thought to tell her otherwise. As for being interesting, she does in fact have certain personality elements that make her surprising. She has a diverse taste in music, and is open to listening to new things. She prefers classic literature, but also finds later on that she enjoys action movies. She ends up genuinely liking motorcycles and is incredibly dry witted and sarcastic.
Unexpected take: childhood trauma
Admittedly this might not be an unexpected take on Bella depending on where on the Internet you choose to lurk. But yes, Bella Swan suffered childhood trauma! If you look at the text of Twilight you see her mention quite a few times that she’s used to caring for her parents. Living with her mother, Bella claims to be the reason bills were paid and food was in the fridge. This implies that at some point in her teenage years Bella was forced to reckon with the family’s finances and learn how to allocate paychecks towards paying for bills, getting those bills in on time, and using what was left to buy enough food. It’s one thing for Bella to know how to help out around the house, keeping chores straight or knowing how to grocery shop and help with the food, but it’s an entirely other thing that Bella is used to be so responsible that she worries if her mother will be okay with her new husband.
Charlie may not do the cooking, and Bella may do a fair amount of chores once she arrives, but think about how much free time she suddenly has for dating and reviewing her homework, and how he encourages her to have a social life that seems to be new territory for her. Charlie doesn’t need Bella’s help to pay the bills, to provide for the house. And Bella seems to realize she suddenly has so much more time to stretch out as a teenager because while she still takes over grocery shopping and cooking chores, she doesn’t have to worry about where the money comes from or if there’ll be enough. And it seems Bella genuinely prefers having dinner as her territory in the face of what her father prefers to eat and cook. So yeah, when considering Bella’s behavior and how she pendulum swings from being “too mature” for her friends and being so stupidly teenager in her first relationship, keep in mind that at seventeen is the first time as a teenager Bella really gets to be a child.
Unexpected take #2: wealth gaps and classism
This is a new thought I’ve just had during my most recent reread of Twilight. Bella makes a point of noticing the cars that her peers at Forks High School drive in comparison to her truck. She recalls that in Phoenix, the cars she was used to seeing were much nicer, even nicer than Edward’s Volvo–and Cullens notoriously choose nice cars. This plus her statement that she and her mother lived in “one of the few” low income neighborhoods that fed into her school district tells me that Bella was used to being a relatively lower income/class than her peers. This changes in Forks, where wealth outside of the Cullens is represented with people who are still relatively middle class.
Drawing on personal experiences as someone who often went to schools populated by students in an entirely different wealth bracket than my family, I think this wealth gap might explain some of Bella’s lack of socialization. She mentions no close friends from Phoenix that she’ll miss by name, and she reminds us again and again that she’s not used to receiving male attention. If her school was largely attended by much wealthier, and snobby, students then Bella might be used to being excluded due to her lack of that wealth. Without the ambition to social climb or interact with these wealthy classmates, Bella wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunities for socialization. Her peers probably bullied her as a child, and ostracized her as a teenager, for her lack of wealth.
In Forks, as Bella observes, the social stratigraphy is far less varied. Thus a pretty, unusual, and new girl arrives in Forks for the first time in a few years and it’s no wonder the teenage boys go wild. Bella isn’t unattractive, she’s just unused to receiving attention because she never put more effort into getting that attention from her wealthy peers in Arizona. The combination of being a new and unknown person, with her looks and her intrigue, easily explain the phenomenon of this girl who claims to be plain and often ignored suddenly being the center of attention in Forks.
I know that Bella Swan and Twilight have in many ways been talked to death, and this take isn’t really necessary right now. But for myself, something always bothered me about the way Bella was so easily dismissed as a character. There were a lot of things about Bella that I related to as a teenager reading Twilight. I was also the product of divorce with wildly different relationships with each of my parents, and I also found solace in classic literature and reading in my spare time. It was easy to understand why Bella was surprised by those that found her attractive, and how suddenly being immersed in a new social sphere leads to sudden new attention. The more I consider Bella, the more I consider what other factors can create the phenomenon of a new girl receiving so much attention, even in such a small town as Forks.