It is certainly no coincidence that the French call an orgasm “La petite mort” (the little death) and that Shakespeare used the monstrous metaphor of the “beast with two backs” for sex. Sex and pain have been connected forever, even before Sigmund Freud developed the theory of the Eros-Thanatos motif which dates back to ancient mythology. Eros, the God of love, and Thanatos, the God of death, embody the two basic urges of humankind: Love and Death, or Sex and Pain.
This Freudin theory could very well explain the current success and hype created around a novel entitled 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James, which is the fastest selling paperback in the UK even beating J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
50 Shades of Grey is the first volume of an erotic trilogy dealing with the unusual relationship between English Lit graduate Anastasia Steele and young, seductive millionaire Christian Grey. The unusual element about their relationship is that the two engage in a sado-masochistic relationship in which Ana becomes his sex slave and surrenders to his commands and fantasies… and she enjoys it!
“Firstly, I don’t make love. I fuck… hard.”
The novel has received both praise and critique. A lot of readers adore it for its frankness and erotic content, while critics feel disgusted with the heroine’s willing physical and psychic subordination. It is both found to be a good read and laughed at for its play with clichés. This latter view might stem from the novel’s origin as a fan fiction based on Stephenie Meyer’s famous vampire romance Twilight. While Edward Cullen warns Bella Swan not to get too close to him due to his vampiric appetite for her blood, Christian Grey warns Ana Steele to steer clear of him for his sadistic desires. In both cases the “victims” are inexperienced, ordinary girls who are fascinated by the simultaneous appeal and sense of fear that their “hunters” evoke. In both stories, the seducer triggers a hidden desire that has been with the heroine from the very beginning and which she starts to live out now.
“The more you submit, the greater my joy – it’s a very simple equation.”
“Okay, and what do I get out of this?”
I disagree with all the critics who feel uncomfortable with the delight that the heroine gains from her willing and often painful subordination. It is true that she succumbs to her male protagonist but it is also a step forward. She rejects social constraints and lives her sexual fantasies, finally combining Eros and Thanatos. The two protagonists follow their Id and they enjoy it. I think my good friend Freud would be as well entertained by this book as I am.
“Why did you give me Tess of the D’Urberville specifically?” (…)
“It seemed appropriate. I could hold you to some impossibly high ideal like Angel Clare or debase you completely like Alec D’Urberville.” (…)
“If there are only two choices, I’ll take the debasement.”
While I would agree that the novel’s style is not very elaborate, I still think that the text is less low brow than meets the eye. To me, it is no coincidence that the novel’s heroine studies English literature. The novel alludes to all of our favourite novel heroes. Christian Grey is the model byronic hero, he is passionate like Heathcliff but simultaneously the white knight in shining armor which saves the heroine from unwanted suitors. He is both Angel Clare, Tess of D’Urberville’s big love, and Alec D’Urberville, the man who raped her and made her the prototypical fallen woman of Victorianism. He is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the looks of Dorian Gray (who I personally think gave the hero his name). The novel is highly self-conscious and self-ironic. It combines all the features that we love about those 19th century heroes: their passion, their brooding characters, their seductiveness… Yet, the novel goes a step further and grants us the one thing that we do not get from our romantic heroes: Sex!