Character: Elena Gilbert
Pairings Included in Manifesto: Elena/Stefan, Damon/Elena
A/N: Many thanks to softly_me for the help compiling this! (Particularly the Stefan/Elena parts, which I am not as ~familiar with.) Also thanks to earnmysong , who prodded me to do this at all. This is for you, m'dear!
Elena Gilbert is criminally under-rated in this fandom, which is particularly grievous considering that she's the lead character. This story is hers. (Yes, it's also the story of the Salvatore brothers, but assuming that Elena is just a prop in their narrative… Well, that would be an unfortunate mistake, and I pity those who labour through the show under such a belief.) Fact: One's appreciation of a television program is greatly enhanced when you love the show's protagonist. And now I'll attempt to argue
Note: For the sake of interest, I'll try not to repeat the usual chants of praise. Elena is strong; she's caring; she's empathetic; she's determined; she has a mind of her own. I'd hope that anyone could see all of that. But I'll be honest--they're not the reasons I'm here writing this manifesto. It's the uncertainty beneath the strength--the fracture lines--that keep my interest, and what IMHO ultimately make Elena a more complex character than she's usually given credit for.
Okay, full disclosure: I was not always an Elena fan. Those dreadful opening episodes of the show tainted my appreciation of… erm, everything. Particularly, I found Elena as a character bland, unrelatable, and uninspiring. Oh, the error of my ways. Now, I'll maintain that those first few episodes are indeed dreadfully dull, even on repeated viewings. But Elena? She's only dull if you're not paying much attention.
I was re-watching the show from the beginning a while back, and it occurred to me that nearly everything you need to know about Elena Gilbert is telegraphed in the first five minutes of the pilot--in which she declares that when people ask her how she is, she will bravely say, "Fine, thank you."
And her "brave face" is a good one. It has to be; it's the image she clings to in order to have a stable identity. See, I think the deaths of Miranda and Grayson Gilbert may have been the first defining moment for Elena. I imagine that before, she was a perfectly ordinary girl--pretty, bright, loveable, interested in everything… and virtually oblivious to her effect on other people. Her parents' deaths equals the death of that innocence, and from that point, she's never really fearless again.
But oh, how she tries. She tries to return to the land of the living, to not let herself be defined by the negative space. She will no longer be the sad little girl who
I think it's easy to take it at face value that Elena is this ~perfect, strong, selfless, soldier-on trooper. But that's just the thing--she is that person because she needs to be, so she can pull herself out of bed in the morning. And I guess that's the real reason I love Elena--I don't totally buy what she's trying to sell. I think she's a lot more screwed up, a lot lonelier, a lot angrier, than the face she puts on in the morning.
At the same time, Elena invests a lot into other people buying into that perfect facade, even as she resents them doing so. ("When someone asks 'how are you', they really don't want an answer.") I think that can explain why even though Elena feels for Caroline's sense of inferiority in their friendship, she still doesn't correct Caroline. She doesn't go, "Hey, you think it's great to be me? WRONG." Because other people even thinking that means it's working. She's surviving; it's not so bad being her.
It's a double-edged sword though, because embracing that identity--of "someone alive"--means indefinitely defining yourself in relation to those who are not (at least, not anymore). And when it comes down to it, I don't think Elena knows how to make sense of that relation. She doesn't know why she's alive and the people she loved most are not; she doesn't understand how they're lost while she's still carrying on--and the only answer available to her is: because she has to. She doesn't have a choice; she never did. It's sink or swim. She has to live, whether she deserves to or not. (It's really no wonder that she's attracted to dead men.)
In season two, however, Elena gets the real answer to that question. And it shatters her will to survive almost entirely. Because what worth is there in surviving if everything else will be lost? None at all. Life is too cruel; if we cease to have love around us, there's no reason why we'd want to live. (We all know that Elena is not Katherine; not yet, anyway.) Elena is scared of being part of a ritual sacrifice, but she's more terrified of being left alone.
Fandom can be a tad harsh about Elena's martyr complex, but I'm not gonna lie--Elena's kamikaze suicide missions are why she's my girl. It's not that I consider her actions the height of heroism; it's simply that I find her desire to give up so utterly and profoundly human, it makes me wonder how I ever found her unrelateable.
It also makes her "fine, thank you" persona all the more tragic, because the reality of Elena Gilbert is that she's doomed to destroy everything she touches, by sheer virtue of being born. After all, she was born as a Petrova Doppelganger; as a key in the plan of the oldest vampire in time to destroy humanity. That does things to a girl. Elena says it herself in 2.09 Katerina: "Everything is because of me." She can't cling to the semblance of okay-ness anymore. People die around her; how could it not matter.
I think a really telling moment is in 2.21 The Sun Also Rises, when she tells Jeremy that she's so sorry he's lost so many people -- but, well, so has she. The difference is that she no longer sees herself as an innocent. She never was. She was born implicated, and she wears the face of a killer.
And ultimately, I believe that it's this deep sense of inferiority that leads to Elena's best, most famed quality: her stunning, character-defining capacity for empathy. It's what allows her to connect with other people's lowest, loneliest moments--even when they don't deserve it. I feel like I see a lot of criticism of Elena for being "too forgiving" or what have you, but in all honesty, I think that's missing the point. I think that what people are not getting there is that Elena's forgiving nature emphatically does not come from a place of moral superiority. That's why she's able to hug Damon not a day after he's held her hostage; to forgive Stefan for repeatedly lying to her and nearly killing her classmate; to give Tyler a moment of grace after he was partly responsible for her nearly getting killed. Because what Elena longs for more than anything in the entire world is to be absolved, herself; to right the wrongs of the universe; to bring her dead family back. She would do anything. (It kind of makes you wonder where she draws the line--or if she even has one at all.)
But the reality is that there is very little Elena can do. She can't stop bad things from happening. People die around her. She is so, so sorry.
And yet. Somehow, Elena does keep trying. She recognizes that life is good, even if she struggles with wanting to live it. She continues to believe in love, and friendship, and family, and the goodness of people, even while her life is riddled with monsters. This is Elena Gilbert (as my fellow stan-in-arms softly_me put it): unendingly empathetic, stirringly brave, surprisingly sassy, and slightly suicidal. Elena Gilbert is a survivor.
(She is seventeen years old.)
And it's only been two seasons--she's just beginning.
Oh. Also, she's freakin' gorgeous. Observe:
On to the recs! Full disclosure: This is a Bipartisan Salvatore Appreciation Post. (I love Elena/Elijah as much as the next person, but I feel like the
Fic Rec #1: Accidental Babies
Why This Must Be Read: Warning: This shit is heartbreaking. It is future!fic of the most gut-wrenching kind--the kind of future for Elena that does not involve either of her vamp boys. Also particularly poignant in its depiction of maternal!Elena. And considering that I am the last person in the actual universe to favour baby!fic, that's saying quite a lot.
Fic Rec #2: caught in the slightest wind
Why This Must Be Read: Because I love when Elena gets to be angry. And an Elena who channels her rage at Damon through sex with Stefan? Well, that's just angst of the finest calibre.
Fic Rec #3: Code Word
Why This Must Be Read: This is Stefan/Elena at their functional best. Genuinely endearing, but absolutely not without a sense of humour.
Fic Rec #4: Instinct
Rating/Warning(s): NC17 for blood-play, rough sex, and vampire!Elena.
Why This Must Be Read: I do not usually feature Stefan/Elena as the sex-against-trees type of ship, but this fic somehow weaves together their trademark functionality and a not-oft-seen grit in what I imagine is a pretty accurate depiction of their potential relationship post-turning.
Fic Rec #5: the lonely cool before dawn
Why This Must Be Read: Road-trip fic! This has everything you could want out of the concept of these two running away for Elena's survival; it runs the gamut from necessary angst to welcome lightheartedness, all with fantastic insight into Elena's state of mind.
Fic Rec #6: Hungry Again
Rating/Warning(s): NC17 for violence, blood-play, and sex.
Why This Must Be Read: The Damon/Elena version of Elena-getting-turned. As dark, raw, and dangerous as you could hope for.
Fic Rec #7: love, i get so lost sometimes
Why This Must Be Read: ... And the Damon/Elena version of road-trip fic, necessarily! Make no mistake--this is Damon and Elena at their emotionally charged dysfunctional best. Elena is a mess, and it is kind of glorious.
Fic Rec #8: Pathetic Fallacy
Why This Must Be Read: It's Elena, it's Damon, and it's Macbeth. And it is every bit as delightful as you'd expect. Elena's exasperation and simultaneous attraction re: Damon is played to perfection.
Fic Rec #9: “the far field”
Rating/Warning(s): M, dark themes.
Why This Must Be Read: Um, because suicidal!Elena is my favourite? And because this fic delves into that girl in a way that the show will not (or, at least, has not), and lays out all the jagged ways in which Damon fits into the puzzle. The language is sublime.
Fic Rec #10: walking far from home, it came like a call
Why This Must Be Read: Post-apocalyptic Damon/Elena? This list would be incomplete without it, y'all. Just the right shade of moody, this fic somehow balances bleakness and hope--and gets the voices right, too.
Fic Rec #11: Big Top
Pairing: Damon/Elena, Elena/Stefan (Pick-Your-Favourite-Brother)
Why This Must Be Read: I have yet to find a better Elena-POV fic in this fandom, no lie. The depiction of the triangle is unparalleled.