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.
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.