What does Tess of the D’Urbervilles Have in Common with Fifty Shades? Abuse.


This post isn’t like my previous reviews. I wrote this essay for my application to graduate school. The topic is something I’ve wanted to explore for a while, which is the romanticizing of abuse in Fifty Shades of Grey. The phenomenal response to Fifty Shades is highly troubling to me because this is the type of relationship people believe they want. My essay doesn’t even touch on the poor writing and infantilization of a grown woman.

This essay compares Fifty Shades with the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I chose Tess because within Fifty Shades, Anastasia compares herself to Tess and Christian to Alec as if Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a romantic story like Pride and Prejudice. It is not. Warning, there are spoilers for both Tess and Fifty Shades.

I have a lot of problems with Fifty Shades of Grey. If women want to read porn and erotica, I could not care less, but Fifty Shades is the worst thing you could choose, in my opinion.

Fifty Shades of the D’Urbervilles: Romanticizing Abuse

Popular culture has shot the novel Fifty Shades of Grey into the stratosphere. It is not a noteworthy or particularly well written book, but it bears inspection for its cultural connotations. Throughout the novel, the protagonist Anastasia Steele compares herself to Tess Durbeyfield of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. These two heroines are nothing alike, except in Anastasia’s mind. Her comparison to Tess may be appropriate by way of her relationship with Christian; in that Anastasia’s ‘love interest’ exhibits many of the same abusive and manipulative behaviors as Alec d’Urberville. What follows is a close reading of Fifty Shades of Grey and Tess of the D’Urbervilles to compare and contrast the interactions between Alec and Tess versus Christian and Anastasia, as well as the cultural connotations of these two novels.

Christian’s pursuit of Anastasia is reminiscent of Alec’s pursuance of Tess in its methods and obsessive vehemence. Both men stalk their ‘prey’ and emotionally manipulate them. Christian uses modern technology to find Anastasia by tracing her cell phone to a nightclub and later knows her flight plans when she hasn’t told him. She even comments “of course he knows where I live. What able, cell phone-tracking, helicopter-owning stalker wouldn’t?” (James 82) and “Your stalking knows no bounds” (389). Christian gives her gifts that allow him to stay in contact with her at all times. He gives her a car, a blackberry, and a MacBook. In a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health, the authors proclaim

“While providing gifts may not be the first thing that comes to mind in defining ‘‘stalking,’’ it is an important component used in an overarching dynamic to control victims—hence its inclusion in the CDC’s [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] definition; in our own analysis of real-world violent couples, one abuser delivered a hundred dollar bill to the victim’s apartment, to remind the victim of his control over her.” (Bonomi)

Meanwhile, Alec d’Urberville does the exact same thing. He finds Tess whether she is in Marlott, Flintcomb-Ash, or Kingsbere, without the help of technology. Alec also gives Tess gifts and provides gifts for her family. When Alec tells her that he has provided her father with a new horse and the children with toys, Tess is aware that she owes him for his kindness. “I almost wish you had not,” she says and then “the sudden vision of his passion for herself as a factor in this result [the gifts] so distressed her that, beginning with one slow tear, and then another, she wept outright” (Hardy 85). Neither Tess nor Anastasia truly want the gifts they are being given. Anastasia’s reasoning is not clear, but Tess at least recognizes the control it gives her oppressor over her.

The initial gift that Christian gives to Anastasia is a first edition copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Christian sends a card with the quote “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks,” (James 54). In the context of Tess the titular character is upbraiding her mother for not warning her of the dangers that men posed to her virtue. This is after Tess has been raped by Alec d’Urberville in the woods. Anastasia knows the context of this quote, stating “This quote – Tess says it to her mother after Alec d’Urberville has had his wicked way with her,” (55). She then claims ignorance as to the implications behind the quote. We can, however, assume that Christian was aware of the meaning behind the quote, since he was the person who chose it. The meaning being that he (Christian) not only desires Anastasia physically, but that he desires her at the exclusion of her will. The second layer of meaning being that, as an English major, Anastasia should know how to fend against him, because she “reads novels that tell [her] of these tricks.” The use of this particular quote by Christian implies that he is aware of the wrongness of his desire, but he plans to pursue it anyway. Alec does much the same when he says to Tess “I suppose I am a bad fellow – a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability,” (Hardy 92).

If we can compare Christian’s behavior to Alec, we can apply the same logic to Anastasia and Tess. During a dinner date where Christian and Anastasia are discussing the BDSM contract he wants her to sign, Anastasia compares herself to Tess by saying “and Tess would succumb, just as I have.” (James 225). This quote is problematic in two ways. The first being Anastasia’s use of the word “succumb” in a romantic context. The Merriam-Webster’s definition of succumb is “to stop trying to resist something,” or “to die.” It would be one thing if she was succumbing to her own desire, but within the context she is actually succumbing to Christian’s advances. The implication being that she is hesitant and/or reluctant to agree. The second definition “to die” can be interpreted in that Anastasia’s sense of self ‘dies’ when she “succumbed” to Christian. Certainly both definitions of succumb can be applied to Tess Durbeyfield. Hardy’s description of her after having been Alec’s mistress for an undisclosed period of time is “his [Angel’s] original Tess had spiritually ceased to recognize the body before him as hers – allowing it to drift, like a corpse upon the current, in a direction dissociated from its living will,” (Hardy 441). Tess is in effect ‘dead,’ she has ‘succumbed’ to Alec in both senses of the word. For Anastasia to echo this sentiment in relation to becoming Christian Grey’s ‘submissive’ shows that their relationship is unbalanced and harmful.

The most crucial similarity, and the most troubling, is that both Anastasia and Tess are taken advantage of in a moment of vulnerability. Both women had a compromised mindset when their pursuers elicited “consent.” One of the literary mysteries of the twentieth century seemed to be whether or not Tess was raped or seduced, though the two are not mutually exclusive. In saying that she was asleep prior to the incident, the text Tess seems to give conclusive evidence that Tess was raped by Alec. An analysis of the scenes description yields that it “involves[s] active verbs associated with the will being overborne rather than consensual intercourse.” (Williams). Anastasia may not have been raped in the visceral sense that Tess was, but her consent was impaired and she was as ignorant as Tess in regards to sexuality. Christian plies Anastasia with wine and then has her sign a nondisclosure agreement. He shows her into his “Red Room of Pain,” which is his BDSM playroom. When Anastasia tells Christian she is a virgin he responds with anger. The compounding of these experiences amounts to intimidation, indeed Anastasia is “feeling guilty” (109) and Christian refers to her virginity as a “situation” that he needs to “rectify” (110). None of which is conducive to an enthusiastically consensual encounter.

Fans of the book may defend Anastasia’s decision as fully consensual by citing the following exchange between Christian and Anastasia. Anastasia asked Christian why he sent her a first edition copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Christian’s response is “It seemed appropriate. I could hold you to some impossibly high ideal like Angel Clare or debase you completely like Alec d’Urberville” (95). To which Anastasia replies “If there are only two choices, I’ll take the debasement” (95). However, this bit of dialogue is before Anastasia has signed the nondisclosure agreement and before she finds out that Christian wants to dominate her in the BDSM sense of the word. Thus, her use of the word debasement, in view of her virginity, is not that she wants to be sexually dominated, but that she simply wants to engage in sexual acts. She is merely flirting in a very problematic manner.

The major issues that come from the characters of Fifty Shades of Grey appropriating the story of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is that in the context of Fifty Shades the relationship between Tess and Alec is highly romanticized. Anastasia compares Christian to Alec when she thinks “as I sit, I’m struck by the fact that I feel like Tess Durbeyfield looking at the new house that belongs to the notorious Alec d’Urberville. The thought makes me smile.” (95) It makes her smile. She is at the mercy of a man she is attracted to and instead of comparing Christian to Angel Clare, the love of Tess’s life and a man whose downfall was that he was too moral, she compares him to Alec d’Urberville, the villain of Tess’s story. Tess murders Alec at the end of the novel because she despises him and his control over her. Anastasia, unfortunately, does not murder Christian. The crucial different between the two texts is in the female’s response to intimidating behavior. Tess rebuffs Alec and only succumbs when the livelihood of her family is at stake. Anastasia succumbs because she falls for Christian’s intimidation tactics.

It is important to analyze these two texts and the role Tess of the D’Urbervilles plays within the story of Fifty Shades of Grey because it gives context to the argument that the relationship depicted is actually harmful and not romantic. Fifty Shades of Grey, whether we like it or not, through its phenomenal sales, shows us how intimidation and stalking have been normalized to such an extent that the extremes are now considered a sexual fantasy. We have come to the point where the same actions Alec D’Urberville perpetrated on Tess – stalking, intimidation, and coercion – are seen as romantic overtures. Oh how are the mighty fallen.


Bibliography/Further Reading

Bonomi, Amy E. “”Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey.” Journal of Women’s Health 22.9 (2013): n. pag. gloria.tv. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 1891. Reprint. London: Vintage, 2008. Print.

James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. London: Arrow Books, 2012. Print.

Neill, Edward. “‘Violety-bluey-blackish’: thinking about Tess and ‘identity’ politics.” Thomas Hardy Journal 25.Autumn (2009): 87-105,162-163. Literature Online. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.

Nikandam, Roya. “Women’s Death as the Triumph in the Patriarchal World of Victorian Imagination.” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 3.1 (2012): 351-360. ProQuest.    Web. 23 Jan. 2014.

Williams, Melanie. “”Is Alec a Rapist?” – Cultural Connotations of `Rape’ and `Seduction’ – A Reply to Professor John Sutherland.” Feminist Legal Studies 7.3 (1999): 299-316. ProQuest. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.


About themeg09

A reader and writer who has very strong opinions and is attempting to be a human and not stay up until four in the morning. A citizen of many fandoms. Come talk to me!
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34 Responses to What does Tess of the D’Urbervilles Have in Common with Fifty Shades? Abuse.

  1. Alexis Bee says:

    Hi! I was wondering if I could reference your article on my blog highlighting the abuse in Fifty Shades? Your post is amazing! I really enjoyed reading a comparison of the two. My blog can be found at 50shadesofabuse.wordpress.com. Thanks for your time 🙂

    • themeg09 says:

      Wow, thanks! You can absolutely reference this post. I think it’s really important to point out how harmful the relationship in this book is, and that this should not be the cultural fantasy. I’ll definitely check out your blog 🙂 Thanks!

    • Lisa says:

      I think too many people abuse the word abuse. She consented to what goes on in the book.
      Football players “abuse” their bodies much worse than the characters in this book. Get a grip.

      • themeg09 says:

        You’re entitled to your opinion, but her consent was compromised by alcohol several times, and as strange as it may be, people can consent to abusive behaviors. That doesn’t make them less abusive or harmful. By the end of the first novel Anastasia is clearly upset with the state of their relationship and the way Christian treats her.

        • Alexis Bee says:

          Don’t you dare presume to tell me that I don’t use the word correctly. I have lived abuse and I’m now a mental health professional who treats victims of domestic violence. Emotional abuse is real. Ana was coerced and on several occassions her consent was compromised. He abused her in almost every interaction and peer reviewed studies back me up on that. Manipulation, coercion, living in fear of your partner’s anger, stalking, etc. – all abuse.

      • Consenting or not it is still abuse. Physiological as well as physical abuse in this case. I term these books “The Abused Woman’s Guide Book”. The majority of abused women, myself included during my first marriage, make excuses for the man, blame themselves and justify the man’s behavior in bizarre ways.

        Anna knew this was abuse but chose to justify his abuse, allowing him to play on her emotions and guilt in questioning his actions.

        I spent 8 years in an abusive marriage, both extreme physical and mental, justifying it by telling myself since I had grown up with him since early childhood I can’t walk away and allowing his instance that we can’t just throw away our long history together to sway my judgement. Despite knowing deep down I was in trouble and should walk away, no run away is a better term.

        The BDSM in itself isn’t abuse as long as it is Sane Safe and Consensual. In this case it wasn’t. She was manipulated into it, He told her it was all or nothing. Anna had no previous knowledge of the lifestyle, all she knew was what he told her and she learned from online sources, which is the wrong place to get it. She was never allowed to enter the scene and question others , meet other Subs, Dommes and Doms, interview his past Subs, which is a requirement for any one seeking out a new Domme/Dom, if you are smart. She wasn’t allowed to learn the huge difference between a Sub,sexual slave, slave, forced fem, a psychology Sub, Total power exchange, etc., he never took her to attend a club , attend a private party or Munch, not given any books on the subject, esp the major ones dealing with the psychological aspects of which is probably 90% of the experience. No understanding that it isn’t all about sex, and that any Domme/Dom who gets pleasure from actually inflicting pain is one you should run from. especially his desire to beat her bloody. The pleasure for us Dommes/Doms isn’t inflicting pain, it is to bring the Sub to sub-space , having the sense of control. This I know, being in the lifestyle for over 30 years and being a professional Domme myself for over 17 years, running our local Munch and hosting hundreds of private play parties, and being co-owner of a private club.

        He has severe emotional problems, pstsd, and no one would allow this man into a community, knowing what his problems are and his behavior towards his Subs. any Sub who interviewed with this man would have run away and reported him to the community. Neither would we allow his Mrs. Robinson into our community. She is a pedophile, and taking a 15 year old child into her twisted version of the lifestyle, well, we would have reported her to the authorities. She was an abuser herself and did the same thing to him he did to Anna.

  2. Samantha says:

    I have read the Fifty Shades Trilogy and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I find Tess to be a very well written novel and while I do feel strongly about the actions in the novel it seems to teach a small lesson on a certain context. On the other hand, Fifty Shades was insulting in the way women are portayed. Frankly, Anastasia was weak, but yet she was considered the ideal woman in the novel. Katherine Kavanaugh was mentally strong and sexually independent, but was thought of as overbearing and undesirable by Christian.
    Overall, I truly enjoyed finding someone with similar views. You have put my thoughts together in words that clearly explain to the reader all the unsettling misconceptions of Fifty Shades of Grey’s idea of a healthy and functional relationship.

  3. SimoneSlipknot says:

    I still find myself enjoying the book,regardless of your true depiction of the triology.I am a proud feminist,and I think what made me enjoy it is a different,darker,’forbidden’ and ‘wrong’ side of sexuality.This perspective is free from the ‘hardships’ of being a feminist and to -for a brief while- step out of yourself and become something utterly ridiculus that strangely and unexplainably turns me on.(Reminder,still a proud feminist)Perhaps its a comfort to non feminists who accept dominance out of the bedroom,rather than only in it(if that is the case).The wrong and ‘forbidden’ is often temptating for a curious taste rather than acceptance of what people percieve to be cruel/wrong etc.

    • themeg09 says:

      I totally get wanting to read something ‘forbidden’ but there are better written books that explore differing expressions of sexuality than Fifty Shades of Barf… or Grey. But hey whatever floats your boat, as long as you know it’s a problematic depiction of a relationship, have at it! *Feminist High Five!*

  4. Pingback: 50 Fast Facts About Fifty Shades of Grey

  5. Eileen says:

    This was really well put. Thank you for sharing it. it does seem as though stocking has been romanticized. Sadly many women I know have read 50 shades of no but won’t listen to me when I try and explan to them these things. I’m glad there are people out there like you and I hope many people read this.

  6. Pingback: A Brief Intermission of Rage (aka, Why I Hate Fifty Shades of Grey) | Solipsist in a Dress

  7. Thia says:

    Just to let you know – I just tweeted a link to the above essay.

    Although I didn’t read Tess of the (I don’t know how to spell it and it’s almost 1 am and I’m not tired to care), I did watch the movie. It’s completly confusing to me how anybody could think that being taken from your family to life with somebody you don’t know and don’t like (even if that family is not very functional), could at all be concidered good, and something to want romantically. It doesn’t make any sense.

    • themeg09 says:

      I discovered Tess through the BBC miniseries and then read the book! I totally agree with you though, it made me wonder if E.L. James had ever read Tess or even watched the adaptation.

  8. Anna says:

    I never looked at those two books that way before. Thanks for sharing this truly insightful and informative review on these books. You’ve got truly great points! Keep writing! You’re truly awesome.

  9. Jeyssika says:

    Hey, this is absolutely brilliant. I too picked up on this when I was reading Fifty Shades & it was worrying as heck. Didn’t realise a lot of the similarities though until you mentioned them, it had been a few years since I read the book for school.
    I did a similar post on Fifty Shades as a review for the film & I opened with mentioning this but I wanted to discuss the abuse in a wider context so I just wanted to let you know that I linked to this blog if people want to explore it. Sorry I didn’t ask first but I hope it’s okay that I used it 🙂

    Again, brilliant blog. Said it better than I could!

    • themeg09 says:

      Thank you so much! Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of my favorite books, and Tess a treasured character, so I felt defensive when Fifty Shades tried to use her story as a romance.
      It’s totally fine to link this post! Thanks for letting me know!


  10. Jess says:

    I think people are looking way more into these books then what’s there! Most women want a man to take control in the bedroom not necessarily whipping and spanking but just pursuing them. We all play a game when dating! You sit by the phone waiting for the guy to call! This shows him showing her how much he wants her that’s what women are looking at. Instead of the guys who don’t call the next day and u have to call them. Believe it or not this sexual lifestyle is done more than u think! I have been in an abusive relationship and it was far from this book! You see the sexual part as abusive which just sexual preference just like if there where swingers! There’s always going to be someone who can turn anything into a argument and put negative spin on things! But this is far from abusive and what most of us abused go through!

    • themeg09 says:

      You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m certainly not going to tell you the experiences you went through were wrong or not abusive. There are different ways to abuse. The definition of an abusive relationship that I used was the criteria that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use to define abuse for psychological purposes. And while there are people interested in BDSM (whatever floats their boats) there are ways in which BDSM and abuse can overlap, but it depends on how the parties involved feel about their relationship and is not necessarily for me to judge. However, I found it troubling that Anastasia was compared in the text to a rape victim and her “lover” to the rapist. Part of literary analysis is to look at what is in the text and that’s all I did, I simply compared two novels and found Fifty Shades of Grey worrisome.

  11. chasityirvin says:

    Only thing Im gonna say here.,. ITS A FUCKING BOOK. if you dont like it.. dont worry about it. Plenty of us like it enough it went straight to production for a film. Undoubtedly it did something right. A book doesnt have to be accurate, or portray things the way they
    “MUST” be. Its a book. GEEZ! People get so judgmental.

    • themeg09 says:

      I didn’t say anything about the way things “MUST” be. I only compared Fifty Shades of Grey to another book that Anastasia Steele uses for comparison to her own situation because she compares herself to a character who was a rape victim and she compares her lover to the rapist. I worry specifically because so many people like it. The fact that many people find this romantic worries me because if men think this is what women want, they might think stalking is romantic and despite my protests continue to pursue me. And the “just a book argument” is infuriating because popular novels contribute to our culture and perpetuate harmful ideas, such as the idea that women want to be controlled and dominated. A book doesn’t have to be accurate or portray things the way they must be, but it is the duty of literary analysts and critics to point out when works are problematic and enforce harmful stereotypes and ideas.

  12. Toni says:

    You said wrote the book, Thomas Hardy didn’t write Tess of the D’unbervilles. James Henry did. I hope you didn’t make that mistake in your grad school application. ..
    I do like this post though. I really think both James Henry ( not Thomas hardy) is overated, just like 50 Shades.

  13. Hi, I’m master student of Jane Austen’s novels from Brazil. I really liked your post! I read Hardy’s novels recently and I do agree with you. I think that James’ novel and Hardy’s are quite different! Ana is always fantasizing her relationship with Cristian, Tess’ situation is unlike. She is totally disgrace by Alec.

  14. laufearless says:

    I agree with you to a certain extent. However a fact that needs remembering is that 50 Shades of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction and as I seriously doubt E.L James did much in the way of research for writing 50 Shades, I believe that the way Alec buys her things which Tess dislikes is because Edward Cullen wants to buy Bella Swan a car, college tuition, etc which Bella does not want him to do. Edward follows every move Bella makes by listening to the thoughts of others all with the intention of keeping her safe from harm, despite the fact that he is her biggest threat and brings all manner of other dangers upon her.

    I find it more possible that Stephine Meyer wrote Twilight to have things in common with Tess, and made Edward a kind of hybrid of Alec and Angel. E.L James should have kept 50 Shades as fan fiction.

    • laufearless says:

      I am sorry, I wrote that in a rush – the way Christian buys things for Anna is less to do with Tess and Alec and more to do with Edward and Bella.

      • themeg09 says:

        Oh I totally agree that Stephanie Meyer probably did more research about the classics she referenced in her novels. But at the same time, if E.L. James is going to call herself a writer she should do her research. At least read the sparknotes, am I right?

        I would be much less bitter if this 50 shades had stayed fanfiction, but then again, what would I have written my essay about? 😉

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