‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: Why it’s problematic

TW: Sexual Assault

E.L James’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is no literary masterpiece, but what intrigued me the most about it was the numerous references to Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’ For me personally, it is this that makes the book problematic. Anastasia is writing an essay on ‘Tess’ at the novels start, and after interviewing Christian Grey, he sends her copies of first editions of ‘Tess.’ Enclosed is 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.’[1] This quote is spoken to Tess by her mother, after she is raped by Alec D’Urberville. Tess chastises her mother as she was not warned by her mother about the dangers of men. Like Tess, Anastasia is an innocent virgin, and does not know much about men. She does have her friend, Katie however to help her, and by Tess’s logic, because Anastasia reads books, she should know enough about men, and the danger they could present to her. She demonstrates this when she rejects José’s advances, recognising them as advances. Anastasia should then know that she should stay away from Christian, and Christian is telling her this by sending her this card. This ultimately foreshadows Anastasia’s sadness at the end of the novel – when she realises that she should have stayed away from Christian.

When asking for more information about Christian, he notes that she ‘like Eve’ is ‘quick to eat from the tree of knowledge.’[2] Eve carries many associations, but there is this idea here that Anastasia’s relationship with Christian will induce his fall, like Eve’s eating of the fruit induced the fall of mankind. Ultimately it does, as he begins to become more romantic with her, as evidenced by his staying in the same bed as her – something he would not normally do. Eve is also associated with sexual deviancy, especially in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ In this text, after Eve eats from the tree, she is imbued with a sexual power that ensnares Adam. Anastasia learns more about her own sexuality through her relationship with Christian. Tess is also compared to Eve by Angel, as he idealises her and sees her as the perfect form of womankind. It is difficult then to pin down what this particular association for Anastasia means, as like Angel, Christian is attracted to Anastasia, but like Eve, she also induces his fall.

In a later exchange, Christian tells Anastasia that he ‘could hold you to some impossibly high ideal like Angel Clare or debase you completely like Alec D’Urberville.’ Anastasia replies that she will ‘take the debasement.’[3] This is slightly uncomfortable, as Alec raped Tess. I am not saying that Anastasia is asking to be raped… but her asking to be debased does not let her run in parallel with Tess – she asked for no such thing. Surely this would ring alarm bells for Anastasia, as a literature graduate. Her comparing of herself to Tess also foreshadows the physical pain that Christian will cause her, especially at the end of the novel when he beats her with a belt. It is a difficult moment to pin down, and I have to wonder why James chose to compare Tess to her heroine. Considering Hardy’s novel aimed to tackle Victorian sexual double standards, it seems a little insulting to reduce it to this context. In this specific moment, Anastasia is asking for Christian. Tess did not ask for Alec. This is the difference. Tess’s situation is no laughing matter, as in the eyes of society, her ‘debasement’ means that she is no longer deemed pure, and therefore valuable, by society. To me, it feels like Anastasia and Christian are mocking Tess, probably one of the most important female characters in literature. Anastasia is a woman, James is a woman… so what the hell are they doing? Anastasia later says that she does not believe that Christian would hurt her, ‘well, not without my consent.’[4]Alec hurt Tess without her consent… what is to stop Christian? The two men display similar, controlling and obsessive tendencies.

Grey explains that he was in a submissive/dominant relationship with one of his mother’s friends, beginning when he was fifteen… so, in this instance, who is Tess? Is Grey Tess, as he has been abused? What would this make Anastasia? Angel? She rejects him after finding out about his true nature, what he truly is, what he truly wants. She idealises him throughout the novel, she is taken with his looks and aura. But would this then do Anastasia a disservice, as we would then look at her negatively for rejecting Christian, as we look negatively on Angel for rejecting Tess. We are not supposed to chastise Anastasia for her decision at the end of the novel… we are supposed to support her. All problematic.

Even worse, Anastasia writes that she succumbs to Grey, as Tess succumbed. Tess did not succumb, she was raped. Why is James making these parallels? There are no parallels, the situations are not the same. The allusion is uncomfortable, and seems that something has been lost in communication. Does James and Anastasia think believe that Tess was seduced, and not raped? I find this implausible, as the whole point of the novel is that Tess’s sin is not her fault. At the end of ‘Tess’ she does succumb to Alec’s advances, for financial support of her family. However she tells Angel, that in this action, she feels that she is dead. Her succumbing to Alec makes her feel like the living dead, so what does this foreshadow for Anastasia? Well, Christian wants her to give up all her sense of self, and fully submit to him. Anastasia succumbs to Christian and has sex with him, Tess only does this at the end for financial aid… originally, Tess did not succumb, that is the point of Hardy’s novel. Trying to draw a parallel between the two appears way too complex to deal with in one throwaway line. The result is heavily problematic.

Anastasia later sends Christian a note, saying ‘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!’[5] This comes when Angel and Tess part ways, following his rejection of her, because she was raped. For Anastasia, this may foreshadow the incident with the belt, as it is this punishment that she cannot bear. It just feels distasteful, Tess is being punished for something that was not her fault… Anastasia is entering into this relationship with Christian. Tess did no such thing.

Later, Anastasia writes to Christian, that after he punished her on one occasion, that she felt debased. He returns ‘so you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted – how very Tess Durbeyfield of you.’ It is just in poor taste. Yes, Tess felt debased and demeaned, but James’s use of the subject matter just seems to be making a mockery of Tess’s plight. Perhaps Anastasia does not understand? Maybe she is trying to flirt… she is an English major though, and a Thomas Hardy fan… it is too problematic.

Grey’s links with Tess become more alarming when he flatly tells Anastasia that he is aroused by the fact that she refused his sexual advances at his parent’s dinner table. He is aroused by the word ‘no.’ Throughout the novel he does repeatedly emphasise the importance of her consent, so I am not suggesting that this means that he will rape Anastasia. However, due to the Tess references, it is somewhat concerning… if we are to believe that Anastasia is Tess.

One confusing reference, is the reference to the strawberry scene. Thinking about Christian’s ‘largesse,’ Anastasia recounts her Grey trophies, describing them as a Mac, Blackberry, jacket and the Tess editions.[6] This reminds her of when Alec force-feeds Tess strawberries. In ‘Tess’ this action foreshadows Alec’s desire to possess Tess, and her sexual assault by him. I am not sure what it means in ‘Fifty Shades,’ perhaps that Grey is forcing all of these things upon her? She does rebuff him, and try to reject them, but then agrees to keep them to make him happy. These are physical objects she can give back though, Tess cannot give the strawberry back. Perhaps this is supposed to show how the two relationships are different, Tess has no choice – she cannot remedy her physical impurity. She cannot give that back. Anastasia does have a choice, sign the NDA and be with Christian, or not. On another note, Alec does shower gifts on Tess in the form of financial aid for her family. This money Tess could return, but feels she cannot, as her family are destitute. Tess throughout the novel feel she has no choice.

Maybe this what it all boils down too, the idea of choice. It seems that Anastasia and James feel that Tess had some sort of choice, a choice that mirrors the choice Anastasia will make concerning Christian. She chose to succumb, chose to be debased… Anastasia did, but Tess did not. James’ implication that Tess did is unsettling, and frankly distasteful. In romanticising Tess and Alec’s relationship through Anastasia and Christian, James is romanticising violence and sexual abuse. Why did she not choose another book? I must admit I would find it difficult to find one, as not many Victorian novels talk about sex so vividly… ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’? Both Anastasia and Constance do discover sexual pleasure. Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester? Perhaps not that sexual, but the darkness of Rochester is present in Christian. While Christian describes himself as ‘fifty shades of f***** up,’ I’d argue that the book itself is, due to its problematic, forced relation to ‘Tess.’

Thanks for reading!


[1] E.L James, Fifty Shades of Grey (Vintage Books: 2011), p. 54.

[2] Ibid., p. 74.

[3] Ibid., p. 95.

[4] Ibid., p. 99.

[5] Ibid., p. 249.

[6] Ibid., p. 444.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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