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A Literature Student Reads Fifty Shades and Has Some Thoughts

By Julia Bifulco

A page of a book, highlighted and with notes on Tess of the D’Urbervilles references in Fifty Shades of Grey
Author's own marginalia in her copy of E.L. James's "Fifty Shades of Grey"

I would like to preface this by saying that I have read far better smut, for free, on fanfiction websites. I had a sneaking suspicion of this in 2014 when this series was a craze amongst mothers over forty worldwide, but now that I have actually read the book as an adult, I can confirm: Wattpad did it better. I would also like to acknowledge that I am obviously not the first person to think “Hm, I should write about this!” after reading E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, nor will I be the last, but I am beyond excited to write this essay nonetheless. Has all of this already been said before? Of course! But I am going to say it again anyway.

I did not know much about this series before picking up the book at Village des Valeurs (I bought one of four available copies, and that is only counting the first book—I think there are six now?) beyond the knowledge that it was originally written as Twilight fanfiction. I respect this immensely—good for E.L. James for monetizing her obsession! I therefore read this novel as a piece of fanfiction, which made the experience about six million times more fun. The narrator and protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is your typical quirky not-like-other-girls brunette with a horrible case of internalized misogyny. From hating Christian Grey’s secretaries for being blonde to dismissing her best friend’s concerns for her safety as “The Katherine Kavanaugh Inquisition,” Ana is seemingly threatened by any woman with the slightest bit of self-confidence. She is, however, a literature student in her early twenties, which compelled me to identify with her.

Ana makes reference after reference to classic literary works, which would have been a great opportunity for character-building if James had read any of the works she was referring to in her novel. The most jarring example of this is the constant comparison Ana draws between herself and the titular character of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Here is a quick plot summary—spoiler alert!—for those who have not read the novel (including E.L. James, apparently): Tess Durbeyfield discovers that she is actually part of a very rich family, the D’Urbervilles, and goes to visit their estate in order to claim her wealth. She then meets Alec D’Urberville, her cousin, who assaults her, resulting in a pregnancy. Back at home, Tess gives birth to the child, whom she names Sorrow; the baby dies soon after it is born, and Tess baptizes him herself in order to give it a proper Christian burial. A few years later, Tess meets Angel Clare, whom she eventually marries, but do not let his name fool you. After their wedding, Tess confesses that Alec assaulted her, and given the Victorian ideals regarding a woman’s ‘purity,’ Angel leaves his new wife. The novel ends with Tess killing Alec, Angel begging for her forgiveness, and Tess’s acceptance of her fate. She asks Angel to marry her younger sister, ’Liza-Lu, after Tess has been executed for her crime, and he does just that.

We are introduced to Hardy’s novel in Fifty Shades of Grey after Ana’s first encounter with Grey, which takes place during an interview she conducts for her friend Kate, who works for the student newspaper and is too sick to do it herself. Ana oh-so-thoughtfully muses, “damn, that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century,” (James 21) in reference to the hardships Tess faces throughout the novel.

James takes the comparisons to Tess of the D’Urbervilles in two different directions: she either undermines the events that take place in the novel, making them seem much less serious than they are, or heavily romanticizes Tess’s relationships with both Alec and Angel. Both of these suggest that either James has not read Hardy’s novel, or simply does not understand—or care to understand—the gravity of the obstacles that Tess faces. Hardy’s novel was not well-received when it was initially published, and has been banned time and again over the centuries. Critics were so upset by his work, claiming that the themes with which he dealt were ‘too sad,’ that Hardy gave up being a novelist after publishing Tess of the D’Urbervilles. James’s light treatment of the plot of this novel is careless and, quite frankly, harmful. As a reader, I would have easily understood that Ana was a passionate literature student without the constant (misplaced and misunderstood!) references to Hardy’s novel; in fact, her lack of understanding for it has the opposite effect that I assume James wanted, giving Ana less credibility as an intelligent student. We are told over and over that Ana has a near-perfect GPA, which later helps her land a job at a publishing house almost immediately after graduating with her BA. Her inability (or James’s) to understand Hardy’s novel is therefore out of character.

Ana seems to view her life as though she is the main character of a novel (which I guess she is, but she does not know that!) and therefore sees other people through their ability to fulfill literary tropes in her life. She admits that she constantly rejects the advances of a coworker because “he’s no literary hero, not by any stretch of the imagination,” and then wonders, “is Grey?” (James 34). Actually, Grey is; similarly to Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester or Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, James has given Grey everything he needs to fulfill Ana’s wildest literary fantasies.

This further enables Ana: she is unable to separate herself from the fictional worlds she reads about, so much so that she imagines what characters in classic literature would have to say about her life. Ana refers to literature to solve her issues; although she could easily turn to her best friend Kate for advice, she claims that because “none of [her] literary heroines had to deal with makeup,” (James 214) she knows nothing of it. She views even her more serious predicaments through the lens of literary references. Grey presents her with a contract, and if she signs it, she agrees to be his sexual submissive for a certain period. She is not, however, allowed to discuss it with anyone, including Kate, and therefore once again turns to literary heroines for advice: “Elizabeth Bennet would be outraged, Jane Eyre too frightened, and Tess would succumb, just as I have” (James 225). We are once again faced with an understated version of the events that take place in Hardy’s novel: Tess does not “succumb” to the advances of Alec D’Urberville; they are forced upon her, but given that the truth does not make sense with the narrative that E.L. James is trying to sell, she ignores it. (Also, since when has Jane Eyre ever been described as a woman who is easily “frightened”? But that is a battle for another day.)

The majority of the novel involves Ana struggling with whether to sign Grey’s contract, and while she tries to make this decision, they have lots and lots of sex. And she makes lots and lots of comparisons to Tess, Alec, and Angel. The first thing Grey does to persuade Ana to officially become his submissive is send her a first-edition copy of—you guessed it!—Tess of the D’Urbervilles. On the package he includes a quote from the novel: “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) which Ana obviously recognizes, and describes to Kate as what “Tess says [...] to her mother after Alec D’Urberville has his wicked way with her” (55). Once again, we have an instance of James undermining the traumatic events Tess endures, referring to Alec’s act of raping her as “having his wicked way with her,” making the action seem much more light-hearted. Furthermore, the insinuation that women “read novels” about assault and therefore know how to protect themselves against it suggests that Ana is being placed in a position to be assaulted, but because she is such an avid reader, she is smart enough, so to speak, to defend herself. James, through Grey, is a) blaming victims of assault for what happened to them, and b) implying that Grey either wants to assault Ana or wants her to know that if he did want to, he could. Finally, when Ana debates sending a quote from the novel in response, Kate suggests “the bit where Angel Clare says fuck off,” (James 55) once again diminishing what Tess has gone through, since in that scene Angel chastizes Tess for having been assaulted by Alec, as though it is her fault, and then leaves her because the assault has made her ‘impure’ (ie, no longer a virgin in his eyes). He does not merely say “fuck off,” but slut-shames and subsequently abandons her.

Having received this gift from Grey, Ana takes it upon herself to draw comparisons to her relationship with him to those Tess has with both Alec and Angel. When she first enters Grey’s home, she claims that she “feel[s] like Tess Durbeyfield looking at the new house that belongs to the notorious Alec D’Urberville” and that “the thought makes [her] smile,” (James 95) as though the next thing that happens to Tess after she enters Alec’s house is not getting assaulted. Ana presents Alec and Angel as contrasting figures in Tess’s life: Alec is the dark knight, who harms and stalks her, and Angel is the white knight, who sweeps her off her feet and saves her (Ana ignores everything that happens after their wedding day, it seems). She often describes Grey as a mixture of both a dark and white knight; he harms her by hitting her in the bedroom (although it is consensual) and he stalks her by tracking her phone and looking up her mother’s home address, but he also buys her expensive gifts, like a phone, a computer, and a car, and saves her from being run over by a cyclist. Ana is caught between two versions of Grey and cannot decide whether he is Alec or Angel, or at least the romanticized versions of them she has created in her mind.

Grey himself plays into Ana’s comparison to her life with Tess’s, and gives her a choice regarding their relationship: “I could hold you to some impossibly high ideal like Angel Clare or debase you completely like Alec D’Urberville” (James 95). At the risk of repeating myself one too many times, I will refrain from pointing out the constant understating of both Alec and Angel’s actions towards Tess, but I know it is obvious at this point. What I would like to focus on is Ana’s response: “if there are only two choices, I’ll take the debasement” (James 95). There is no way that E.L. James can convince me that Ana has read Tess of the D’Urbervilles after this statement, let alone that she is a fan of the novel. It would have been so easy for James to completely eliminate the aspect of the novel that involves the constant misplaced references to Hardy’s novel and still maintain Ana’s literature student-ness, but because they are present, anyone who has even read the SparkNotes summary of the novel (which I doubt James even did) knows that Ana has no idea what she is talking about. Or, even worse, Ana knows of the gravity of Alec’s actions towards Tess and does not care because she is just that desperate to sleep with the oh-so-mysterious Christian Grey. Grey, for his part, tells Ana that if she doesn’t sign his contract, “then it’s Angel Clare high ideals, well for most of the book anyway,” (James 95) finally acknowledging that Angel’s treatment of Tess is much less than ideal. I would also like to point out that this is a thinly-veiled threat on his part, either to slut-shame Ana, abandon her, or marry her sister once she dies. I don’t think Ana has a sister, but the insinuation is still there nevertheless.

At some point in the novel, Ana decides that she is too proud to accept all of Grey’s lavish gifts, and attempts to return them, including the first-edition copy of Hardy’s novel. She copies Grey and writes a passage of her own on the package: “I agree to the conditions, Angel; because you know best what my punishment ought to be; only—only—don’t make it more than I can bear!” (James 249) which is what Tess tells her new husband after he criticizes her for having been raped. Grey’s response? “Very apt quote. I thought I was D’Urberville, not Angel. You decided on the debasement,” (James 250) further playing into Ana’s game of pretending she is the protagonist of a Victorian novel.

Ana and Grey continue to compare themselves to the characters in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, especially when discussing their sex lives. After having been spanked by Grey for the first time, Ana expresses her concerns regarding her comfort (or lack thereof) in her position as his submissive. Instead of actively listening to her and communicating effectively, Grey cheekily responds, “so you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted—very Tess Durbeyfield of you,” (James 293) knowing that this literary reference will persuade Ana to continue fulfilling his fantasies. He abuses her habit of perceiving herself as a literary heroine in order to manipulate her into submitting to his demands (ironically, very Alec D’Urberville of him). Ana herself, of course, also views their sex life through the lens of Hardy’s novel; after having an erotic dream about Grey involving strawberries, she remembers “a scene from Tess: [...] the strawberry scene,” (James 444) in which Alex force-feeds Tess strawberries in an attempt to seduce her. In Ana’s defence, she “frown[s]” (James 444) upon remembering this scene, especially in relation to her own life, but this is the only instance in a novel of more than five hundred pages that a reference to the men who wrong Tess is presented as negative.

There are a million-and-one ways to criticize Fifty Shades of Grey, and maybe five ways to praise it (just kidding, there are definitely more—yay for a progressive representation of shameless female sexual desire!) but I feel the most strongly about the misused references to Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I think it would have been so much easier for E.L. James to have simply removed the constant comparisons to Thomas Hardy’s novel, especially given that it is pretty obvious that even if she did read it, she clearly did not understand it. Nonetheless, the references are ever-present, and they are so badly used that it’s laughable. All in all, as a literature student myself, Ana brings me great shame. Her careless constant reference of a novel that focuses on violence against women makes all of us pretentious English Lit kids look bad—and we did not look that good to begin with!

James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. First Vintage Books. April 2012.

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