Now, it might seem strange that after proclaiming myself to be a DE shipper, my first post would actually be all about Stefan, especially when many consider him to be the major obstacle in our preferred ship’s journey. However, I think to truly understand The Vampire Diaries as a whole show, we need to discuss the very first main character we meet, voice-wise at least. So, here is my essay on Stefan Salvatore, where I hope to try to explain all of his faults and issues, and why they make me love him. I will touch on the SE relationship, if only to provide examples of this character’s story arc, but this will mainly focus on Stefan as a separate being. Also, while writing this, I realised I had way more feels about this character than I originally thought, so I’ve decided to put this essay into multiple parts. This part is insanely long, but don’t let that put you off!
Stefan Salvatore: Master manipulator?
“You are a manipulator.
I like to think of myself more as an outcome engineer.”
― J.R. Ward, Lover Eternal
A Metatextual Analysis
For over a century, I’ve lived in secret. Hiding in the shadows, alone in the world. Until now. I`m a vampire and this is my story.
The first sentence spoken in the pilot serves as a segue into what exactly this show is going to be about. Stefan Salvatore is the person speaking these lines, but what is interesting is that while he speaks, the image on our screens is actually the fog that is associated with his brother, Damon, which we find out later in the episode. What this opening scene of the entire show shows is just how inextricably linked the two brothers are, especially in regards to Stefan and how he views himself.
His opening statement is also untruthful. He is not alone, as his friendship with Lexi later shows. He hasn’t been hiding in the shadows either, although I suppose Bonjovi concerts aren’t terribly well lit. He has climbed Mount Everest, partied with Hugh Heffner, danced naked around the Trevi Fountain. He also hasn’t been living too much in secret; there has been the occasional human to know of his vampiric nature before his most recent arrival to Mystic Falls. So what does this opening statement tell us about Stefan? It tells us that he lies; it tells us that he romanticises aspects of his being.
For over a century, I have lived in secret. Well, for a hundred and forty-five years wouldn’t have the same poetic ring to it, would it? This shows how Stefan likes to speak and/or write in hyperbole; even his inner thoughts have to have a melancholic tinge to them in order for him to feel comfortable. Here he is giving his life a tragic twist, invoking pity, even though nobody (except the audience) can hear him. This shows how Stefan views himself, and the reactions he will expect from the rest of the characters once he is introduced to them. He views himself to have lived in secret, and he expects some kind of pity for him for this fact. What this shows is his remarkable self involvement; as the introduction of all the other characters shows, everybody lives in secret to some degree: Elena is pretending that she’s fine after her parents’ deaths; Caroline is pretending to not be jealous of Elena; Bonnie is pretending that the things her grandmother tells her aren’t freaking her out, etc.
Hiding in the shadows, alone in the world, is a poetic way of informing the audience before he utters the word that he is a vampire, and would therefore be unable to go into the sunlight. If it weren’t for his magic daylight saving ring, he would be consigned to hiding in the shadows, as his nature would demand. But as it stands, he hasn’t had to spend a single moment bemoaning the ability to walk in the sun; he hasn’t had to hide in the shadows at all. The poetry of this small line – Hiding in the shadows – is also a metaphor for his feelings that life has been passing him by, because he hasn’t been able to be a part of it. He has been left behind, in his eternal seventeen year old state, while the world has changed around him, forgetting him, leaving him to history. But the fact that this line is said while we see the image of his brother being played across our screens undermines this allegory. Life hasn’t passed him by; he is still remembered, most importantly by the one person who by the very nature of their shared familial bond would never be able to forget him. And this is clear. Not a day goes past for Stefan in Mystic Falls, before Damon shows up. To torment him? Yes. With an ulterior motive? Absolutely. But to prove that Stefan Salvatore has been forgotten by the world? Not a chance.
So if the first two parts of Stefan’s very first statement can be pulled apart and proven to be false, then what does that say about the last part? I’m a vampire, and this is my story. It actually becomes clear quite quickly that Stefan is not a vampire, at least in the sense of having a less than moral compass and the propensity to drink human blood. He suppresses this side of himself so thoroughly that it actually becomes dormant and he is not able to act like a vampire; his strength and compulsion abilities are severely weakened. So is this then his story? The show is called The Vampire Diaries, and Stefan does write in a journal, but does that make this story his? He certainly isn’t the only vampire in Mystic Falls that becomes involved in the consequent story. He isn’t even the vampire on screen while he says this; it’s the fog that in the beginning symbolised the presence of his brother.
So from his very first line, we can gather that Stefan isn’t the most truthful of characters, and this is a warning to the audience not to trust completely in how he describes events. There are many instances throughout the pilot episode, where Stefan either manipulates the truth (“my parents are dead”), or changes the subject entirely (“It’s nothing, you want a drink?”). However, when we get to the conversation he has with Damon towards the end of the episode, as Damon is the one person who also knows the truth of past events, we can assume that here he is being truthful, so we can assume that it has been 15 years since they last saw each other. It’s also established in this conversation that Stefan cannot lie to his brother, and indeed, throughout the rest of the show so far, he has made only a few attempts to do so, and Damon has seen through them instantly. Stefan doesn’t try to deny the fact that he has come to Mystic Falls for Elena, and he doesn’t try to downplay his desire to remain in this small town in the hopes of Damon leaving.
So from the very first line spoken in the very first episode – before the opening credits have even been shown – the show establishes a major part of Stefan’s character; he is a manipulator and a liar. But what isn’t established is why he behaves this way, or how far down into his layers of personality this trait runs. Is it a result of his vampiricism? Does he truly think that he is a tragic hero and that this is his story? Was he always this way, even as a human? Do these traits lie at the very core of his character? Or, are they in fact, a part of a facade that he wears to hide who he truly is?
I happen to think that it is a combination of all of these. At the most simplistic level, he had a diluted propensity for such actions as a human. We have been shown how he made a promise to his brother not to talk to Guiseppe about Katherine, only to change his mind and break the promise. He does this because he felt it was the right thing to do; he placed doing the right thing over loyalty to his brother. But he doesn’t tell Damon that he changed his mind, leaving Damon out of the decision entirely. From the human flashbacks we have been shown thus far however, we can see that Stefan was a generally good - if slightly self-involved and pampered – young man. Therefore it is unlikely that he manipulated this moment in order to cause pain to Damon. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that this is what Stefan does; when he is in possession of knowledge that others aren’t, he does not come forward. In his human form the reasoning behind this action is clear; Damon would be crushed if he knew that his brother had broken his promise to him, so why cause that pain when there was nothing that could be done about it?
However, as a vampire, this manipulative trait of withholding the truth is magnified. With the broken promise to Damon, it was easy to see that he truly thought he was doing the right thing for everyone involved. As a vampire though, his reasonings are not so clear. He came back to Mystic Falls in order to “have a life” with Elena, and yet he doesn’t tell her that he is a vampire. Now, while I’m not saying he should have blurted it out in the hallway outside the men’s room, it is important to acknowledge that not only did he not take advantage of many moments where the truth could have come out, but he also actively began a real relationship with her before she knew the truth. He put himself into a position where she would invite him into her home, effectively taking away her one safe place. He took her on dates and showed up in her home to cook her dinner when it looked like she wasn’t going to give in to his seduction. He placed himself firmly within her world, and without her full understanding of the situation, he endangered her. When she accidentally cut herself with the knife while they were cooking together, he had trouble containing the bloodlust. He was so close to hurting her in this instant, and she had no agency over her decision to be in that situation. Her not knowing what he was also meant that when she did finally find out, she had no safe haven to run to while she thought things through. Because of her ignorance of the situation, he also placed her in a position of unwittingly allowing Damon entry to her home – the one person that Stefan is certain will want to cause her harm. Because she doesn’t know his true nature, she places herself in dangerous situations with Damon again and again, first by turning up at his home and walking in; by slapping him in the parking lot; by accusing him of hurting Caroline.
He then further compounds this untruthful beginning of their relationship by not telling her that she was the spitting image of Katherine, and she had to find this out on her own as well. The fact that they slept together so quickly was never an issue for me, but the fact that Elena is still ignorant of so many things that Stefan has neglected to tell her when they sleep together is. By not telling her (especially after promising to tell her “everything”) before the act, what he did was taint their first time together with doubt and mistrust. Because of this, Elena will never be able to look back at that moment and know that she made the right choice, because her right to choose was taken from her. Of course, part of the reason that he held so much back from Elena in the beginning of their relationship was due to the fact that he was trying to hide from his vampire nature. He could not be completely honest with her, because he wasn’t being completely honest with himself. He wanted “a life” with her; he wanted to play at being human with her, and his fantasy wasn’t going to work if she knew everything there was to know about him.
A lot of Stefan’s proclamations of “I had to know her” and “I came here to start a life with you” say more about him as a character than it does about the SE relationship, especially when you take into consideration the statement he made to Lexi, “When I’m around her, I completely forget what I am.” What he is, is a vampire, so it is self-explanatory about what it is he wants to forget. If we go back in time to where he was before he was turned, we find him falling in love with Katherine. So at the very start of the SE relationship, Elena makes him feel like he is back in that relationship with Katherine. By pretending that he is human and not telling Elena the truth, he is recreating his relationship with Katherine in reverse. This says a lot about who he is as a person deep down. He wants what he wants, and he’s not above using sneaky tactics to get it. He was the same as a human, as he even explains this to Elena; “I only know that I wanted her.” He uses these tactics often throughout the series so far, mainly with Elena and Damon, but also with other characters when they can be useful.
A lot of these times, his motives behind his actions are seen to be fairly ambiguous; there is always an undercurrent of manipulation, but how aware of these tones Stefan is himself is open to debate. However, there are times when Stefan is conscious of his manipulative tactics, and these tend to occur almost exclusively in the presence of Damon and Elena. The first time we see this happen is in Unpleasantville (1x12). This is just after the bonding trip to Atlanta between Damon and Elena, and it is obvious that Stefan is feeling uncomfortable with the newfound tentative friendship between his brother and his girlfriend. We first see his apparent uneasiness in their conversation in the Gilbert house, as Elena expresses her trust in Damon – “I'll be with the two of you. I'll be safe.” As the camera pans in on Stefan’s face, we see him watching the interaction going on before him, and it is clear that he is uncomfortable with this new development. Later on in the episode, after Damon and Stefan both fight together to kill the vampire intent on hurting Elena, Stefan decides to use this moment to offer Damon his help in finding Katherine:
STEFAN: My offer still stands.
DAMON: Yeah, with some hidden caveats, no doubt.
STEFAN: No. Nothing hidden about it. No lies. No deception. I'm there when you open up that tomb, you and Katherine go, And the other 26 vampires die.
DAMON: If I agree?
STEFAN: I'll help you.
DAMON: Why should I trust you?
STEFAN: Because I'm your brother.
DAMON: No, that's not gonna cut it.
STEFAN: Because I want you gone.
It is clear here that Stefan is manipulating his brother, simply by the very fact that he has to try twice to give Damon a good enough excuse for trusting him. The manipulation is then further compounded by his later conversation with Elena:
STEFAN: I need to tell you something, And I don't know how you're gonna feel about it.
STEFAN: I told Damon that I'd help him get into that tomb to get Katherine back. But it was a lie. I let him believe that he could trust me.
ELENA: Well, then why would you be worried about telling me?
STEFAN: Because he can be very persuasive, and you two have bonded lately.
ELENA: That doesn't mean I trust him. It's gonna take a lot more than just a road trip and a rescue for me to forget who Damon is and everything he's done.
STEFAN: I don't wanna be his enemy, Elena, but I can't let him do it.
ELENA: Then don't, and I'll help you, whatever it takes. Ok?
He has already manipulated Damon into trusting him, and now he is doing the same thing with Elena. The result of this is twofold for Stefan; first, he gets to know what Damon has planned, so that he can finally get the upper hand. But second, and perhaps most importantly for him, if his earlier uneasiness is taken into account, he gets to drive a wedge between Damon and Elena. He manipulates Elena into breaking Damon’s trust, and he does this by appearing to be remorseful about the act, and truthful with Elena. This episode is immediately after Bloodlines, in which Stefan and Elena almost broke up, because he wasn’t truthful about her connection to Katherine. By starting the conversation with worry over how she will react to him telling her the truth, he pretty much guarantees that she will be receptive to anything he has to say, as she will subconsciously react positively to a truthful confession at this point in their relationship. And she does, she responds by being supportive and trusting, going against her inherent nature of thinking of trust as one of the most important things between people; “Elena, she’s big on trust...” – Matt, Family Ties (1x04).
In the above quoted text, we can see that Stefan uses his manipulative streak consciously. He knows what his actions will achieve; estrangement between Damon and Elena, and he would possibly be able to thwart Damon’s efforts at unleashing the tomb vampires on the town of Mystic Falls. His actions come from a place of morality; he wants to keep the town safe, and he wants to protect Elena from his big bad brother. But does he understand the emotional ramifications of his actions? By manipulating Elena into going against her nature and abusing someone’s trust, he is placing her in a very uncomfortable position, which we see in the next episode:
ELENA: Don't do that.
DAMON: Do what?
ELENA: You know what. That move was deliberate.
DAMON: Well yeah I was deliberately trying to get to the sink. Speaking of Stefan where is he? He is missing family night which I am enjoying immensely. Is it real?
ELENA: Is what real?
DAMON: This renewed sense of brotherhoood? Can I trust him?
ELENA: Yes you can trust him.
DAMON: Can I trust him?
ELENA: I am wearing vervain Damon, it's not gonna work.
DAMON: I'm not compelling you. I just want you to answer me, honestly.
ELENA: Of course you can.
Throughout this conversation, Elena is incredibly uncomfortable. She is constantly looking down, trying to avoid eye contact with Damon, even going so far as to accuse him of trying to compel her into telling him the truth. She is uncomfortable with looking Damon in the eye, which is something these two don’t usually struggle with. This is because she does not like the fact that she is lying to him, but she cannot figure a way out of the situation that she has been placed in by Stefan.
Elena is not the only one who suffers from Stefan’s manipulation. As has already been noted, Damon has already suffered from a broken promise by Stefan, and this is the first time he is willing to put his trust in his brother again, after nearly a hundred and fifty years. Although he doesn’t trust Stefan blindly, and still goes off to do some research on his own, he is nevertheless shocked and hurt when he finds out that Stefan and Elena were both going behind his back:
DAMON: Well, what do you know? This is an interesting turn of events.
STEFAN: I can't let you bring her back. I'm sorry.
DAMON: So am I. For thinking for even a second that I could trust you.
STEFAN: Oh. You're not capable of trust. The fact that you're here means that you read the journal and you were planning on doing this yourself.
DAMON: Of course I was going to do it by myself, because the only one I can count on is me! You made sure of that many years ago, Stefan. But you...
[He looks at Elena]
DAMON: You had me fooled. So what are you going to do now? Because if you try and destroy that, I'll rip her heart out.
This could have been a moment in the brothers’ relationship where Stefan could have won back Damon’s trust, the thing that he himself broke in the first place all those years ago. But what hurts Damon is not that Stefan betrayed him, because he was expecting that, which was why he went behind his back in the first place. What hurts him is that through all this, he thought (or maybe hoped) that Elena was just as unaware of Stefan’s manipulation as he was. Because of Stefan, Elena was unwittingly placed in a situation where she had to break the trust between her and Damon that they had only just started to build, and this was Stefan’s intention. By doing this, Stefan has managed to isolate Damon all over again; take him back to where he was right at the beginning of the series. Because Damon is hurt, and more specifically because he is hurt by Elena, he uses her to get what he wants, by force-feeding her blood and threatening to turn her, which gives Stefan exactly what he wants; a full-blown estrangement between Damon and Elena.
Cont'd: Part 2 ; Part 3