Using Twilight to Teach Antigone

"Antigone," Lord Frederic Leighton (1882)

"Antigone," Lord Frederic Leighton (1882)

Having compared Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight yesterday with Frances Burney’s Evelina, I feel I owe my readers an apology and an explanation. The apology is that I violated one of my principles for the website and judged the book by the movie. All I’ve read of Twilight is the excerpt on amazon.com. If I sell the book short in this post, I trust those of you who appreciate it will correct me.

The explanation regards my use of contemporary popular culture to illuminate masterpieces from the past.

I am not a scholar who thinks of literary works only as cultural artifacts and disregards value distinctions.  After all, I teach survey courses and have to make judgments on what to include and what to exclude. From what I can tell from glancing at Twilight, Evelina is a far better work. Both are about young women coming of age and both provide us with comparable wish fulfilling endings. Evelina, however, does more interesting things with its form, and I love the way it moves between satire and romance. Just because I can find common themes doesn’t mean that I indiscriminately lump the two works together.

On the other hand, I am also not a scholar who puts works of the past on pedestals. I don’t point to the success of Twilight and other works of pop culture as proof of our age’s degraded tastes.   I am no Alexander Pope who, in The Dunciad, sees the goddess Dullness and her trash writers (the dunces) descending upon the land:

Lo! thy dread empire Chaos! is restored:
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all.

If young people are flocking to Twilight at the moment, good for them. I agree with educator John Holt that the best way to get kids reading is to have them read a lot, whether it be Twilight, Harry Potter, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, whatever. Inculcate good reading habits and you’ve set the foundation for them eventually setting their sights higher.

It is then up to teachers to make use of their enthusiasm to hook them onto better books.   For example, an awareness of how high school students are responding to the teen-parent dramas in Twilight can help one better teach Sophocles’ Antigone, found in many high school curricula. Here’s how.

The Twilight movie has a scene where Bella picks a painful fight with her father, whom she loves, to protect him from the bad vampire. (If he sees them fighting, he won’t think to use the father as leverage.) I can see how this would appeal to an adolescent who knows, deep down, that she loves her parents, even though she’s fighting with them constantly. The strange plot twist gets at the double feelings that adolescents often have about parents.

Unless the novel handles the drama better than the movie, however, Twilight fails to fully acknowledge the issues involved in father-daughter conflict. It provides shallow wish fulfillment rather than substantive exploration.

Antigone is less hip but does more justice to the clash. The situation, you will recall, involves two brothers, traitors to the state, who have been killed and denied proper burial. Who is in the right? Is it their grief-stricken sister Antigone, passionate and idealistic, who invokes morality in the face of the state. Or is it her guardian King Creon, who has a government to run and feels that traitors must be made an example of. Both sides are given their say. Teach this work as an adolescent/parent conflict and students will get it.

Teach it as a “timeless masterpiece,” however, and students will regard it as antique piece of furniture that has been dragged out of storage for them to admire. We know how exciting that is.

When it comes to Twilight and Antigone, why choose either/or when you can have both/and?

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  • Barbara

    It occurred to me as I read this that one reason something like Twilight (or, in my day, Love Story) can have such appeal for the young is this lack of complexity. When you’re “reading for your life” (I love that phrase) an obvious lifeline has more appeal than a complex web. But after you realize you won’t drown, the web is a lot more enticing (and useful). And now to grading…

  • Robin Bates

    I like the word “useful.” To shift from a life-saving to a food analogy, a donut is fine, but a healthy balanced meal will sustain us in the long run. To be sure, to relegate literature to the category of healthy salads doesn’t make it sound terribly exhilarating. Nor entirely accurate in my case. I myself have used certain classics as comfort food. For instance, for years, at the end of an exhausting school year, I would, almost ritually, read Pride and Prejudice. I think it gave me a sense of order and peace following all the stress.

  • Julia Bates

    Good teachers have long used reading ladders to move students toward ‘high class’ literature. I’ve started with romance novels (Harlequin) and moved all the way up to Jane Eyre. I did that with a very troubled young woman back in the 1980s who kept running away from her very affluent home. She was intrigued at how some of the themes continued all the way through and how the ‘great’ authors created more introspection and reflection.

  • Rebecca Huebner

    I can say that I have read all of the Twilight series (several times, in fact), and while I would not characterize it as Great Literature, I would recommend it. There is a deeper development of the father-daughter conflict in the novel than is represented in the movie. Part of the conflict arises from the father’s laconicism, another part arises from the divorce, and lastly from Bella’s duplicitous lifestyle. All of these come to a head in the scene referenced in this blog post.
    Another aspect I liked about Meyers’ novels (for the sake of getting young readers into literature, not as much for my own reading pleasure, as I thought it was rather heavy-handed) was her repeated allusions to canonical literature. She quotes passages from Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet specifically, and tends to parallel these thematically. I can’t recall other allusions, if they were made.

  • Robin Bates

    This is wonderful to hear, Rebecca. I’ve had any number of students find their way into the “classics” when they found them referred to in works like Twilight. Whatever it takes. It makes sense to me that Wuthering Height would show up in the book, what with Catherine and Heathcliff’s overwhelming passion, his digging up her grave, her haunting him (and maybe even taking him with her in a final cold kiss). There’s a touch of necrophilia to Romeo and Juliet as well, now that I think about it. I guess I really do need to go out and read the book, which will help me make better contact with my students.


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