Freudian Friday: Bella Swann

Oh, come on. You knew we’d get to Bella Swann for Freudian Friday. She may not have serious daddy issues, but she has a lot of other issues worth discussing.

Before we get started, though, I want to issue an open call for nominations: Who would you like to see on the couch for future Freudian Fridays? Male, female, alien, you name it. I’ll continue with the urban fantasy theme for awhile yet, but I’d like to get to the wider fantasy and sci-fi genres as well. We haven’t even talked about Harry Dresden yet, so we’ll get to him, as well as some other male urban fantasy stars.

Why is her mouth always open?

So. Let’s talk Twilight. I read these books in 2009 when my fiance (then boyfriend) and I were moving from California to Illinois. We moved to California from Indiana after I finished graduate school in 2008, with all the high hopes that an internship at a newspaper in Berkeley and plenty of job prospects bring. But in the fall of 2008, the economy went down the toilet, taking all our job opportunities with it. Suddenly $1200/month rent for a one-bedroom apartment in a not-pleasant suburb of Oakland seemed dire as well as outrageous.

We packed up to move to rural Illinois, where we could live cheaply and help some family with financial issues.

It was not the happiest time for either of us.

I needed a distraction on the cross-country drive, so I picked up Twilight. It was blandly written, it promoted abusive relationships, and it was completely captivating. I bought the next three books at various stops along Interstate 80, and they kept my mind enthralled until we’d settled into the house in Illinois.

Because of this, I am and will always be a little fond of Twilight. 

Still, the series has its issues. More knowledgeable analysts than I have discussed Bella’s relationship with Edward and how it meets the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s criteria for an abusive relationship, so I won’t go into too much depth about their relationship. Other writers have also discussed how Bella as a character is essentially a mask, an unformed mold into which young girls can pour their own personalities and live vicariously through Bella’s romantic adventures.

That’s true, I think, but also not true. Bella does have a personality, defined by her relationships with others and her intense desire to sacrifice herself for those she loves.

Always putting her life on the line.

In the first book, Bella is willing to die to save her mother. In the second, she’s willing to die to save Edward. In the third, she’s willing to die to save, well, everyone. In the fourth, she’s more than willing to die to save her vampire-baby and, later, everyone else.

Selflessness can be a good trait, and unconditional love for your family is wonderful… but it’s easy to take these traits beyond nobility and into desperation. Bella’s only defining characteristic is a martyr complex, which Wikipedia tells me is often considered a form of masochism—unsurprising in this case, given Bella’s physical relationship with Edward. Bella lives to die, which she even says in the final books: it’s like she was born to be a vampire. Even after she becomes supernatural, her superpower is the ability to protect those she loves. She is a human shield… her purpose is to protect.

On a simpler level—which kind of makes it more disturbing—Bella defines herself in relation to those around her. She’s her mother’s protector, her father’s caretaker, Jacob’s best friend, Edward’s girlfriend/wife, Renesmee’s mother. Edward turns her into a living zombie, Jacob brings her back to life. There is very little time in the book when Bella is just herself, and when she is, she’s, well, boring. And she knows it.

And that is perhaps the saddest, most upsetting thing about her. Young girls are learning that they are nothing without the people (particularly the men) she cares about. Her only role is forming half a relationship.

Is this a happy ending?

I’m not sure we know enough about her to consider why she lives this way. her parents split up when she was young, sure, and that’s perhaps why she adopts a caretaker role for both of them. But all of Bella’s decisions, actions, and even her super powers are reactionary: she rarely does something because she wants to… except, perhaps, becoming a vampire.


What do you think, readers? Why is Bella Swan so determined to die? What upsets you about her? What do you like about her? Anything?

And don’t forget to tell me what other characters you’d like to see appear on future Freudian Fridays!

15 thoughts on “Freudian Friday: Bella Swann

  1. Really interesting post, Kristin (although I think you might have assigned more psychological depth and coherency to Bella’s character than I personally think is there!). I’ve always thought that Stephenie Meyer has a really bad-ass horror writer living inside of her and could write phenomenally creepy books if she embraced that. The idea of a heroine who lives to die and is not only willing but EAGER to sacrifice herself is such a great example of that.

    • It’s totally possible that I’ve credited her with more depth than she deserves. I overanalyze–former English major. It’s part of my charm. 😀

      And you’re completely right. That last book (vampire baby!) is so unbelievably creepy and just plain horrifying. Meyer should seriously considering expanding into horror.

  2. should I be proud or embarrassed that it took me a sec to remember who Bella Swan is?

    That said…nice insights! I only read the first book, so I’m limited in my perspective.

    I love the idea of Freudian Friday. How about some classic SFF characters? Deckard from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Meg or Calvin from A Wrinkle in Time? The narrator (whose name I’ve forgotten) from I Am Legend….

    • Be proud!

      You know, I’m ashamed to admit I’m not that up on classic SF characters. I’ve always been more of a fantasy reader. I’d love to do some delving into 60s-70s fantasy, though, and some of the feminist scifi/fantasy literature (Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton) has tons of potential for analysis.

      I’m glad to see requests for things I’ve never read–you’re giving me great reading material!

  3. Notice how the one thing she wants to do for herself, Edward refuses her. And when he does grant his “permission,” it’s only after she has given him everything he wanted (a wedding when she didn’t want to get married, etc.) and has literally had almost every bone in her body broken and flatlined. This from someone determined to “save her.”

    Talk about a dysfunctional relationship. Anyway. Great post — I like the assessment of her character, because she does have a positive side that is sometimes overlooked (though like you said it goes to extremes). I think it could also be said that she is desperate to die for others because she never thinks she’s worthy of being anything else to them. She obsesses over the danger she creates for her loved ones just by existing (this time a psychological anguish Edward could have spared her from by changing her at the end of the first book). She has such a massive inferiority complex. She questions Edward’s love being valid because of his “perfection,” she even does the same with her parents and Jacob and always blames herself for everything that goes wrong. Everyone is better than Bella, which I think is another layer that plays into her appeal — I think every woman has felt that way, felt that no matter what we do, we’re never enough. The story reinforces so many underlying themes that are quite insidious to women.

    • YES. Nail on the head. Bella’s constant feeling of inferiority is SO irritating but also SO common and true, especially for teenage girls. That insecurity makes her vulnerable and appealing to readers, but it makes her vulnerable to the other characters’ abuse, and that’s not okay. And the only way for her to escape it is to DIE and to model herself on her boyfriend? Seriously talk about the wrong message.

      Yet another troubling thing is her fear that once she changes (to become more like him), he won’t love her anymore. Not only does he deny her the one thing she wants, he leaves her in fear that giving her what she wants, letting her make her own choices, giving her new strength and power, will make him stop loving her.

      Uncool, Edward, uncool. And I think Bella’s relationship with Jacob could fill a blog post or two in itself.

    • I think they’re worth a read just for the lessons we can learn about writing and contemporary feminism. They are truly troubling… and at the same time, they’re a completely engaging read. It’s like we readers are in an abusive relationship with the books… we know it’s bad for us, but we just can’t stop.

      Okay, horrible joke. Shame on Kristin. 🙂

  4. I’m with Emmie – whilst I loved the Twilight books I ended up wishing Bella would run away from the controlling (if hot) vampire. It’s an interesting one – he’s a Creature of Another Age and his values are appropriate for that. She isn’t though. And women in our age should be more liberated than Bella is. So there’s something Very Not Right going on there. Moral of the story? Never make any irrevocable decision about love before the age of 24 (never mind 18).

    I do love her total teenagerishness in being horrified by the idea of marriage (like her mum and dad!) but quite happy to sacrifice all for eternal life. Love it.

    Love the concept of Freudian Friday!

    • Thanks!

      It’s interesting to me that you point out her teenagerishness–interesting because I think it’s easy for those of us who complain about the message Twilight sends to forget what it feels like to be a teenager, to feel like you’d do anything for the person you love (anything but marry them!), including changing yourself fundamentally to be with him. We enlightened women who are no longer teenagers are horrified by this, but teen girls probably identify with it.

      I wonder how my teen self would have felt about Twilight.

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