Fifty Shades
by E L James

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a novel, in three volumes:
1. Fifty Shades of Grey:  2011
2. Fifty Shades Darker:  2011
3. Fifty Shades Freed:   2012

The Writer’s Coffee Shop: Australia

Vintage: New York
514 + 544 + 592 pages

January 2015

These are not the books you were warned against

I will approach Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels in a manner unusual for me: through specified perspective lenses and also taking notice, in a general way, of the hostile criticism these books have evoked.

Bear me with me while I outline some perspectives for examining the story's structure:

  • There are two main characters, a man and a woman in the vicissitudes of courtship and love. While there is plenty of suspense as to whether these two will get together, and if so, stay together, there is no doubt that the real action revolves around these two people, and only these two. Thus we have a category romance.
  • The heroine is twenty-one, lovely, a virgin, an innocent. The hero is twenty-seven, handsome, a self-made man, a billionaire. Thus we have a fairy tale.
  • The heroine is intelligent, level-headed, resilient, adaptable, independent, latently passionate, capable of love. The hero is intelligent, strong, domineering, passionate, lustful, perhaps capable of love. (He has issues.) Thus we have a psychological drama.
  • The novel is suffused with flirtation and courtship, love and passion, experimentation and learning, eroticism and sex. Thus we have an erotic love-story.
  • Fifty Shades is not a series, but a novel in three volumes: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. Thus we have room for a single story arc's development in depth.

Some other basic points: E L James, author of the Fifty Shades books, is a woman. The heroine is named Anastasia Steele, the hero is Christian Grey; their story is told through the viewpoint of the heroine. The books are immense best-sellers, and so even people who are wondering but don't expect to read them may find interest in this high-level analysis of their make-up.

Love & conflict in perspective

In the typical category romance, we have a man who is rough-hewn, mistrustful of women for good reasons in his past, good-hearted deep inside, but scarred or self-shielded against love. (He has issues, remember.) It is the heroine's task, should she accept it (and given our conventions, she must and will), to soften his crusted exterior with her innocence and love. Redeem him through her understanding love so he attains or regains his own ability to love, and thereby restores his full humanity. Given this kind of novel, they will live happily ever after, although it's the author's job to give the reader a very bumpy ride toward that hoped-for end.

In many examples of fairy tale, the person desired (or persons who desire each other) is extremely good-looking. There often is vast wealth or the promise of it. There may be magical forms of communication or transportation. Fifty Shades has all of these, including considerable current-technological fun with emails and texting between the two main characters, and the prestigious or exotic forms of transportation available to a very wealthy man. And as though dogged by a couple of interior familiars, the heroine fancifully anthropomorphizes her observations, reactions, and hopes via her "subconscious" (often interrupted while reading, frowning at the heroine's thoughts and plans) and her "inner goddess" (limber on an exercise mat or luxuriously relaxing, applauding risk-taking and breakthroughs).

We have sufficient ingredients for conflict in the protagonists' natures and background to build a psychological drama. The heroine's challenge, given her innocence, is to learn the ways of her lover, to understand all the shades of his behavior and hence fathom his character, and in the process learn her own nature and capacity for love. The hero's challenge, given his experience and issues, is to learn that what he initially senses as the heroine's innocence is the surface of a deep and pure good nature, and in the process learn his own capacity for love. Can they grow together despite all differences and obstacles?

There is quite a lot of sex in Fifty Shades; certainly very many men and women readers have found it erotically presented. E L James has the advantage of timing, having these books come out near the beginning of the ebbok era when readers can purchase erotica privately via websites without venturing into some dubious storefront, and then read erotica privately via a device which doesn't display a garish cover or steamy title to passersby. What drives the plot of Fifty Shades so enticingly and so successfully is that it is both an erotic love-story, and an erotic love-story, fully meshed and intertwined. These aspects are no more separable than the hero and heroine.

Finally among our perspectives is the simple one of length, sufficient length to allow development in depth. One simply cannot put all this eventful plot, character, background detail, and explanation, sifted through the heroine's and hero's learning processes, in a short category-romance novel, or even in a standard-length novel. The author needs the room to pace out her story, and she paces it well.

Pain, intensity, & redemption
There is nothing about which Wagner has thought more deeply than redemption: his opera is the opera of redemption. Somebody or other always wants to be redeemed in his work ... Who if not Wagner would teach us that innocence prefers to redeem interesting sinners? (The case in Tannhäuser.) ... Or that beautiful maidens like best to be redeemed by a knight who is a Wagnerian? (The case in Die Meistersinger.) ...
Friedrich Nietzsche
The Case of Wagner, Section 3, #3
translated by Walter Kaufmann

There is pain in the story of Fifty Shades, engrained in the plot; and while it's generally erotic pain for the sake of intensity and excitement, some of it is not. So it's important to dispel a set of myths circulating about Fifty Shades, the most harmful myths. We may not like what we read, but we should not misrepresent what actually is written. The author does not condone torture. The heroine does not accept torture. The hero does not inflict torture. These first two misconceptions will be dispelled by straightforward reading of the entire work itself, not snippets, and paying attention to the heroine's learning process. The third is more subtle, for reasons deep in the hero's background, but will be dispelled by careful reading or perhaps a re-reading.

A more interesting crucial element in the story we might call erotic domination and submission. The hero is not a bully, nor is the heroine a doormat. Just what is going on between them then, why do they find it sexy even if sometimes threatening or even painful? We learn about their natures, as they learn about each other and hence themselves. Of course individual readers will find all this variously enlightening or off-putting, and so on.

Instincts run deep in human nature. The male desire to control a receptive female, and the female desire to attract a strong and purposeful male, is far older than humanity. Our evolving intelligence, and our accumulating culture, have not obliterated these instincts. Rather, we have built on top of them. We have become more complex emotionally, more varied and subtle. The rewards and fulfillment of complementary pairing are greater and richer, and we like to think that we have replaced animality with spirituality, instincts with love. Yet for our more-or-less refined natures and civilized habits, the risks, pain, and loneliness often seem crueler as we grow more sophisticated and self-aware.

What is to be done?

That it may have the direst consequences if one doesn't go to bed at the right time. (Once more the case of Lohengrin.) That one should never know too precisely whom exactly one has married. (For the third time, the case of Lohengrin.)
The Case of Wagner, Section 3, #3

Three volumes is a long way to carry a formula romance, however thoroughly developed, even with a wealth of restraints to keep the erotic and other developments focused and within bounds. I believe Fifty Shades works well as seen via the perspectives outlined above.

To end on a lighter but provocative note, beyond those perspectives:

The Flying Dutchman preaches the sublime doctrine that woman makes even the most restless man stable; in Wagnerian terms, she "redeems" him. Here we permit ourselves a question. Supposing this were true, would it also be desirable?
The Case of Wagner, Section 3, #3

But of course such a discussion would lead us out of bounds for this review.


Adults Only.

© 2015 Robert Wilfred Franson

E L James — author's website

An amusing titbit:
R. W. Franson's review of
"Topless in Ilium"
by Wolcott Gibbs

Friedrich Nietzsche at Troynovant

Romance at Troynovant
dating, romantic love, marriage

ComWeb at Troynovant
mail & communications,
codes & ciphers, computing,
networks, robots, the Web

Transport at Troynovant
ships, trains, autos, aircraft, spacecraft


Troynovant, or Renewing Troy:    New | Contents
  recurrent inspiration    200 Recent Updates
emergent layers of
untimely Reviews
& prismatic Essays


Books by Author:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
   Books by Title:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
Pamphlets by Title   Stories by Author   Stories by Title

Strata | Regions | Personae

Share this item —

Bookmark & Share

© 2001-2023 Franson Publications