If Twilight was about finding true love, New Moon explores the question of "What if true love then left you?" This is the reality Bella has to face when Edward breaks up with her in the very beginning of the story.
Many heroines in literature have had to deal with that same, grueling question of how to cope with losing their true love. On her website, Stephenie Meyer says,
The answer is different for everyone. Juliet had her version, Marianne Dashwood had hers, Isolde and Catherine Earnshaw and Scarlett O'Hara and Anne Shirley all had their ways of coping. (source)
FYI, here’s what happened to each them:
At first, Bella’s whole world shatters. It’s not like Edward left her, it’s like he died and she died with him, including "a whole future, a whole family, the whole life she had chosen" (17.191).
She had been willing to trade her mortality to become a vampire, in order to live, or "exist," with Edward in the happily ever after. Now she’s facing a life of nothing. Nothing but a "huge hole punched through her chest" (4.258).
Ironically, judging by her behavior and physical appearance, lovesick Bella is closer to her goal of becoming a vampire than before Edward left. She hardly eats, hardly breathes, and she notes a change in her appearance:
…my face sallow, white except for the dark circles the nightmares has left under my eyes. My eyes… dark… against my pallid skin… seen from a distance I might pass as a vampire. But I was not beautiful, and I probably looked much closer to a zombie. (5.25)
The one thing she obviously hasn’t lost is her self-deprecating attitude. She still has this fixed idea that she’s never good enough. Not for Edward, and not for Jacob, who actually saves her from zombiedom by patching her throbbing love hole.
Jacob becomes Bella’s crutch, her "drug" (9.222) of choice, and she freely admits to it throughout the story. This begs to ask the question: is Bella a weak damsel in distress?
Apparently, after the release of New Moon, various people confronted Stephenie Meyer with the accusation that Bella emerged as a weak character this time. Here’s what the author had to say about it:
I can only say that we all handle grief in our own way. Bella's way is no less valid than any other to my mind. Detractors of her reaction don't always take into account that I'm talking about true love here, rather than high school infatuation." (source)
Good point. It might just give us some insight into Bella’s complicated relationship with Jacob. Although there’s no question that Edward remains Bella’s true love and that she places him above everything and everyone, including her own life, she also loves Jacob – just in a different way. She calls him her "personal sun" (8.194) and "a gift from the gods" (5.151), but her love for Jacob is a love of companionship and of comfort, not passion. It’s "the mundane kind, that doesn’t break any spells" (18.91). It might be how most people – who don’t get lucky in finding the perfect, supernatural match – experience love.
Just before Bella has to decide if she’s going to take the next step with Jacob, events take a rapid turn and she’s off to Italy to save Edward, which she does successfully. They both re-declare their love for each other. Yet, Bella fights to keep her friendship with Jacob. Given that Edward is back, why would she need another man to save her? Either she is a damsel in double distress, or she’s just a very open-minded, determined young woman. If she were an entirely weak character, she wouldn’t want to complicate the situation between vampires and werewolves any further, right? But she doesn’t. She continues to fight for what she believes throughout the story.
The most life-changing moment in the story for Bella happens when she realizes that Edward truly loves her for who she is, and that he will be hers forever:
The bond forged between us was not one that could be broken by absence, distance, or time… As I always would belong to him, so would he always be mine. (24.57)
Their separation seems to have strengthened her love from Edward and made her grow as a person. But growth never happens easily… So what do you think: is Bella a damsel in distress or a strong character?
Teenagers should get in trouble. This is what Charlie tells Bella, exasperated at the perfect student, daughter – and zombie – that she’s turned into after Edward’s departure. Little does he know that Bella ends up taking his suggestion at face value. It’s also ironic that it’s over-protective Edward, or rather his voice, that causes Bella to be reckless.
What makes Bella’s reckless behavior so interesting is that she's not very smooth about her dangerous adventures and always injures herself. The role of the reckless teenager just appears to go against her nature. No matter how hard she tries to be "a bad girl," she remains the nice every-girl who takes care of her dad and worries about homework.
So it’s not surprising that Bella finally regrets her "bad girl" ways when she nearly drowns (after cliff diving), while Harry Clearwater dies of a heart attack. She's determined to "change [her] ways" (16.76).
Her adventures weren’t all in vain, though. When Edward returns, she rides on his back and, for the first time, actually keeps her eyes open and enjoys the speed. So, through the process of going in the wrong direction, she actually ends up growing into the right direction.
For more on Bella’s story, check out our "Character Analysis" of her in Twilight.