February 20, 2015

50 Shades of literary theory: How the novel and the film reflect (and destroy) three centuries of theory


Christian Grey has that shirt.

Christian Grey has that shirt.

I watched the 50 Shades of Grey film on Wednesday evening, which sounds like a confession but is merely a statement of fact. It felt like the most natural conclusion of events. It was as though for the past four years I had been waiting for the final chapter in my experience of 50 Shades even though I would not have said that I had experienced it at all. I had read about it, written about it, discussed it, and seeing the film felt like a foregone conclusion although I could not say when anything had started in order to be concluded. As the certificate rating flashed up on the screen and the pop music began, I remembered that I had not even read the book.

There was a time after the publication of E.L. James’ 50 Shades trilogy when it seemed culture was divided into two: those who had read the books and those who had not. In fact, this was not the case. There was little difference between the camps. Because the English-speaking culture absorbed 50 Shades in a way that was all encompassing and inescapable. I cannot think of many other books about which you could confidently say you knew the text (or at least speak about it with conviction and sincerity) without ever having opened up the book at all.

In his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, T.S. Eliot described his theory of the effects of the arrival of a new, significant cultural document, like this:

…what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them…for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

Eliot was talking about great works of art, and the essay is so significant because in it Eliot puts forward his own radical ideas about canon-formation; we can be sure that fan fiction is very far from his mind. But 50 Shades certainly altered the existing order and changed values: for some that meant highlighting what was now acceptable to the reading public, for others it threw into sharp focus the books in the erotic genre that were actually of literary merit. The “whole” was changed, meaning, like me, you could experience 50 Shades without interacting with it directly: its existence simply changed other things in and outside of its vicinity, it altered proportions, left past and future works to readjust, react, attack. And 50 Shades was definitely a novelty.

When we’re discussing 50 Shades, we need not stop at the literary theory provided by Eliot in our efforts to seek to understand the phenomenon.

What struck me while watching the film was that not only can we use literary theory to aid our understanding of the 50 Shades sensation but in fact the film (and therefore text) contain the definitive potted history of literary theory. Watching the film was a confusing, alienating and disappointing experience. But as I watched, I realised the film was empty of everything but theory. Freud, Barthes, Woolf, Bloom: the whole history of how we read a text is in 50 Shades of Grey.

The Birth of the Novel and Reception Theory

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, was a book that knew a thing or two about sexual control. One of the first epistolary novels, and the longest novel in the English language, it was the reactions to such first novels that paved the way for the cultural position of the novel in society, and it was into this context that 50 Shades finally entered.

Readers were so stirred by Clarissa, and read it so compulsively that they began to wonder: given the level of sympathy they felt for Clarissa, was it possible that the solitary act of reading could make you a better, more considerate person in society? Or, was there something perverse in spending time alone feeling deeply, instead of going out into society and using that empathy for the greater good?

In fact, almost as soon as the novel was established as a form so did commentators begin to fear the affects of novel-reading on the reader. People worried about what reading fanciful romances would do to young, impressionable women, the real-life versions of Marianne Dashwood from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, for example (Marianne definitely devours romances). The rise of popular fiction and the debate around such novels as Clarissa and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones led Samuel Johnson to wonder about the damaging effects on “the young, the ignorant, and the idle” reading them.

50 Shades would have been a nightmare for Johnson, but the debate he engaged in has never been more lively. 50 Shades coincided with the arrival of the ereader, which allowed reading to become ever more private, if not surreptitious. So 50 Shades poses essential follow-up questions to its Eighteenth Century forebears: is it immoral to enjoy a scandalous text while out in society? Is there something wrong with making a private pleasure more private by hiding its contents from public glare? Just how far should private reading pleasure advance into the world of sexual pleasure?

The 50 Shades film takes the individual experience even further into the public sphere. That individual pursuit can now be simultaneously shared with the rest of society, solving the problem worried over by the original readers of Clarissa. I watched the film in a huge auditorium filled mostly with groups of women and it was a wholly socialising experience. Among that segment of society –oh how Johnson would have wrung his hands– the film became a comedy where we were all free to laugh at the preposterous scenarios, make witty ripostes to the clunky dialogue and turn to each other in discomfort when the sex did not feel consensual. The film didn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test but I left feeling renewed by the company of women.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

One of the ways Christian Grey attempts to woo Anastasia Steele is by sending her the first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Anastasia’s favourite novel. Privately, Anastasia is thrilled. She’s majoring in English Literature, so she’s definitely read Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and understands the “aura” that surrounds an original artwork.

Later on, playing at anger, Anastasia tells Christian she’s giving his gift back because she already has a copy of the book. We know this statement is meaningless because Benjamin has shown us that the original artwork remains independent of the copy. We also see how capitalism has not only changed the value of art to make it essentially worthless but that it is that same political structure that allows the biggest capitalist of them all, Christian Grey, to buy a first edition of a canonical book.

Anastasia exists in a paradoxical world. She knows the value of the aura of the text and yet she is a character in a novel that was first circulated on the internet for free and then printed in the millions as a cheap throwaway paperback sold in supermarkets and strip malls. Anastasia essentially embodies our own pitiful existences in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, holding out in hope for something genuine.

The Anxiety of Influence

Back in the 1970’s, Harold Bloom showed that nearly all writers are hindered by what he called “the anxiety of influence”, essentially the inability to free themselves of the influence of those that came, wrote and published before them. E.L. James doesn’t even bother trying to shrug off this anxiety. She spat in the face of Bloom and wrote fan fiction based on the Twilight series and called it 50 Shades of Grey, and not a single one of those shades was remorse.

50 Shades is the complimentary text to Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. The two should be shrink-wrapped together and sold as a pair. Because 50 Shades shows what happens when you fall into the trap of influence. The film is littered with leftover plot details from the Twilight books, but with none of the context to give sense to what we see. Weird sleeping arrangements, mournful piano playing, inexplicable wealth, few long term relationships, pallid skin, superhuman strength, the power to draw blood: James has broken into the imagination of Stephenie Meyer and stolen many things from the character of Edward Cullen but not the one possession that gave meaning to everything else.

The real vampire, of course, is E.L. James.

Freud: literature and psychoanalysis

Long after the social sciences threw out Freud’s theories and dismissed many of his ideas, Freudian readings remain popular in the study of literature. 50 Shades shows us just how great the influence of Freud has been on the author. The novel does not invite Freudian readings, instead characters analyse themselves from within the text. When Anastasia wants to try and understand Christian’s proclivity for casual torture, she asks about his biological parents. She wonders about Christian’s death drive and his need to destroy what he loves. Anastasia and Christian walk begrudgingly to and from “the Playroom” constantly, utterly resigned to the intersection of sex and death, and both bored by it.

In a key scene, Christian sits next to a sleeping Anastasia and confesses with disgust that his real mother was addicted to crack and worked as a prostitute. He doesn’t remember her at all but he thinks he sees her in his dreams. It’s one of the saddest moments of the film. Not because of his sob-story about his mother, but because he’s stuck in a Freudian reading of himself that he can’t escape and one that conveniently excuses his own abusive behaviour towards Anastasia by blaming his abusive mother.  And as he tells Anastasia about his own wish-fulfilment dreams, we can be sure she’s having her own. They may be of a sexual nature.

Feminism: the mad woman in the attic vs. ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Feminist readings of literature have been predicated on the tension between the nightmarish terror of imprisonment of the mad woman in the attic and the utopian vision of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. When we talk about imprisonment we mean the inability of women to speak for themselves and have their own agency as characters as well as writers. When we talk about ‘A Room of One’s Own’ we mean a physical and mental space in which to think and create, as well as the financial means by which to do this. The key to understanding the two is that if you placed the mad woman from the attic in the room of one’s own, she probably would not seem very mad at all. She’d probably write a masterpiece.

Anastasia is faced with a dilemma. She is given a room of her own in Christian’s house. It’s the sort of room a princess might like, and therefore we are to understand it is very luxurious and comfortable. It will be just her room. She can be utterly alone there and Christian won’t ever bother her. The only problem is, to use that room she also has to enter into a contract of becoming his submissive. To make matters worse, the room is at the end of a white spiral staircase, at the top of the house.

Viewers hope Anastasia’s reading list included Angela Carter. All women should know that you can’t have ‘A Room of One’s Own’ if there’s A Bloody Chamber in the basement.

The Death of the Author

Who really wrote 50 Shades? Did E.L. James write it? Did Stephenie Meyer write it (see ‘The Anxiety of Influence’)? Was it written by the collective fantasy of the first readers who spurred James on over fan forums and message boards? The film has only ever been “for the fans”; was it essentially made by them, with their own demands in mind?

In his terrifically punned essay ‘La mort de l’auteur’, Roland Barthes sought to undo the text from the individual author. Instead the text was “a tissue [or fabric] of quotations” which was not drawn from one individual experience but from  “innumerable centres of culture”. 50 Shades grew out of Twilight which itself grew out of an age-old myth about vampires and werewolves: both stories absorbed a cultural anxiety about female desire and sexuality, a terror which is even older than the fear of mythological creatures. To bring all of this together required a “scriptor”, and each time a reader encounters the work, on the internet, on the page, on the screen, the work is made again, in their own image. Barthes holds the secret to the success of the series.

In vain, E.L. James struggles to assert her rights over the film’s screenplay; in vain she tussles with the director of the film, Sam Taylor-Johnson. James didn’t write 50 Shades, she merely hammered in the final nail in the coffin of the author.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.