Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 5: Hope and love)

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson dancing with lyrics from 'Evermore'

My greatest criticisms of both Fifty Shades and the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast come down to how they frame hope.

In Fifty Shades, Christian’s hope is vested in Ana, and the fear of losing her drives him to control her. In the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, Beast fares a bit better; he vests his hope in Belle’s intangible presence, which means he’s less controlling. But in the 1991 version we see something fundamentally different: Belle is Beast’s symbol of hope. When Beast surrenders to uncertainty he dies inwardly, only to be reborn into a new hope when Belle returns.

In these respects, I’d say Fifty Shades presents a hope that is Mormon, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast presents a hope that is Platonist, but the 1991 Beauty and the Beast presents a hope that is consistent with traditional Christianity.

Now you might say that’s over-analysing, but hey – I’m coming to the end of twenty-six blog posts that look into Beauty and the Beast in some form, so I think I’ve kind of already opened myself up to that accusation. I may as well keep going until I’ve said everything that I think is worth saying.

This is a long post, even by my standards (4,000 words), but if reading the above whets your appetite – keep going.

This is your spoiler warning.

Part A: Looking through the lens of romantic love

Of course it’s not wrong for a person to desire romance and I’m certainly not saying that such a person should give up on romance. But the only hope worth having is one strong enough to hold up the future whether you’re single, divorced or bereaved.
– Me, when I was asked about the idea of having a One True Love

Hope determines how we think about love and relationships.

If we frame our understanding of love using a false hope, then that will lead us to a false form of love. And not only are false hopes deeply, deeply destructive for ourselves, they also harm the things or people in which we put our false hope.

For these reasons, I have a real problem with stories that hold up being in a romantic relationship as the ultimate or primary hope in a person’s life.

Sure, sharing your life with someone in a mutual and intimate way is pretty awesome. But it’s not the be all and end all. What’s more, if you make it the be-all-and-end-all of your life, you often get faced with a cluster of problems.

You put expectations and pressure on your partner. If they can’t live up to them your partner is often left with a sense of failure and you live in dissatisfaction. If your partner does meet your desires, then you get afraid of losing them and fixations creep up. And if you actually lose your partner – yeah, it’s not good.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at these three stories.

Ana as Christian’s object of hope (what he hopes in)

Let’s recap a few of the things Christian Grey says.

This is the moment near the beginning of the second book, when Christian “wins Ana back” (because she leaves him at the end of the first book).

Christian Grey said: "I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul." But Beast learned to love. (FSD chapter 2)
Christian Grey said: “I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul.” But Beast learned to love. (FSD chapter 2)

 

Ana’s response to this statement from Christian is to think:

Holy crap! If that isn’t a confession of love, I don’t know what is.

In other words, Christian can’t live without Ana. And Ana thinks that this hope is a true expression of love.

(In case you’re wondering, the picture above is the moment in Beauty and the Beast when Beast tells Cogsworth that he let Belle go because he loves her.)

But these false ideas of hope and love aren’t just found whilst Christian is desperately seeking Ana back – they continue right through the trilogy.

For example, Christian confesses to Ana “You’re my lifeline.”

Christian Grey said: "You're my lifeline." But Beast gave Belle her freedom back. (FSD chapter 14)
Christian Grey said: “You’re my lifeline.” But Beast gave Belle her freedom back. (FSD chapter 14)

 

Here’s the thing: in the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, the enchantment meant that Belle really was Beast’s lifeline. But he put Belle’s needs before his own and let her go anyway. Christian doesn’t do this.

And then, avoiding all doubt, Christian later says to Ana “I need you to need me.”

Christian Grey said: "I want you to need me." But Beast didn't make Belle dependent on him. (FSF chapter 12)
Christian Grey said: “I want you to need me.” But Beast didn’t make Belle dependent on him. (FSF chapter 12)

 

Apparently Christian thinks it’s loving to want Ana to be dependent on him. Others, myself included, would say this is an awful form of control and desire for co-dependency. Beast never stooped so low – though it would have been wonderfully convenient for him if Belle had become dependent on him. Because then she wouldn’t have been able to walk away.

Christian holds Ana as his object of hope: she is what he hopes in, even though she is a mere mortal individual, and unable to hold up his hope.

This false hope creates a false love. Instead of allowing Ana her own autonomy and independence, Christian is chronically afraid of losing Ana. In her own words he treats her like glass. And his fear is destructive.

I would levy this false framing of hope as my greatest criticism of Fifty Shades because it is Christian’s false hope that lies at the root of all the controlling and abusive behaviours that he exhibits. Not only that, but this false hope is deceptively dressed up as admiration, respect and love – and that makes his example even more problematic.

For this reason, Fifty Shades doesn’t have a happy ending: Christian never learns to put his hope in anything other than Ana, which means his marriage to her is a ticking time bomb.

Belle as Beast’s object of hope

The 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast is somewhat different. As I argued in my review of the film, it is not a fairy-tale, it is a high fantasy romance.

Belle reads Romeo and Juliet with Beast and overtly refers to it as a romance. Moreover, when Beast takes Belle onto the balcony, he actually asks if she could ever be romantically interested in him. Belle answers that maybe yes she could be, but then adds that a person can never truly love if they are not free.

Whereas Belle’s statement about freedom is true, I have a huge problem with the fact that Beast asked this question given that the conversation was within a coercive context; Belle is, after all, Beast’s captive. And whereas the 1991 Beast might have considered asking the same question, he doesn’t. He learns selflessness and lets Belle go rather than ask for her affections.

What this means is that, in the 2017 version, when Beast lets Belle leave the castle, it’s because he wants Belle to feel able to love him. Belle is both what Beast hopes in and part of what he hopes for, because he really is hoping for romance.

But if Belle is what Beast hopes in, how is he able to let her go? The answer can be found in a song, written for the 2017 version, called ‘Evermore’.

When Belle looks into the magic mirror, she sees her father being labelled insane by Gaston and arrested. This is a change from lost and dying in the cold woods, but works well. Then, as Belle leaves (on horseback, through the wintry landscape in her yellow ball gown), Beast sings, triumphantly claiming that Belle will always be with him:

Now I know she’ll never leave me
Even as she fades from view
She will still inspire me, be a part of
Everything I do

– Beast, ‘Evermore’

In other words, when he lets her go, he isn’t really letting her go. No, instead, Beast essentially claims that he still has Belle even though he doesn’t have her. That’s why he’s still able to put his hope in her.

Belle as an intangible object of hope

Now, in many ways, this framing of hope, where Beast hopes in Belle’s intangible presence, leads Beast to behave in ways that are far less problematic than how Christian Grey is led to behave. Beast does give up a substantial amount of control and behaves far less harmfully towards Belle. In this respect the 2017 version is alongside the 1991 version and right on point that exerting control over a person is not good.

However, by presenting Belle’s intangible presence as something worth hoping in, the 2017 version not only fails to rebut that idea that we shouldn’t put our hope in people, but it also presents a fallacy with regard to separation.

It is simply not true that a person’s intangible presence is an equal substitute for their physical presence.

Seriously.

Sure, you may feel a person is present emotionally or spiritually when they’re not there physically, but it is simply not possible for a person to be present physically, emotionally and spiritually when also they are not there physically.

I’m labouring this point because there are plenty of stories knocking around that frame hope in a way that undermines this. They don’t quite go as far as the contradiction above; instead, they make their case by implying that an intangible presence is (a) superior or equivalent to a physical one, and/or (b) not possible at the same time as a physical one.

The classic example is Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode IV who boasts to Darth Vader that if he is struck down, he will become more powerful than Vader could imagine. This idea is also in other stories such as Stargate: SG-1 (where Daniel Jackson ‘ascends’), and there are some aspects of Harry Potter (particularly in how Harry relates to his parents and Sirius) that come close to saying that “inner presence” is as good as any other kind of companionship.

But it’s simply not true.

And for someone who hopes to enjoy a romantic relationship with someone else, (which, let’s be frank, would also aim to be a sexual relationship) it’s absurd.

Belle as Beast’s symbol of hope

It’s important here to recognise that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast is not a romance. Instead, it’s a fairy-tale that uses the image of romance to speak about redemption.

The concept of “romance” is only mentioned once in the whole film and when it is mentioned it is not by Beast or Belle, but by Lumiere (who is an unashamed flirt). Instead, the narrative focuses on what it means to “love”. This is broader than romance and (as I’ve written elsewhere) I struggle to believe that either Beast or Belle was thinking of erotic desire in their confessions of love. That comes only after they are both truly free.

I grant you, a cursory glance at the plot would suggest that Belle is Beast’s object of hope. However, the plot and its characters need to be considered in the context of the film’s genre. When viewed within the fairy-tale genre, it becomes clear that Belle is not the object of Beast’s hope, rather she is the symbol of it.

Big difference.

Even though Belle is the gateway through which Beast’s enchantment can be lifted, she is not what he hopes in. He hopes in the enchantment and the possibility of mercy contained therein – both of which are visually symbolised by the enchanted rose. This is not only one of the reasons why Beast is able to let Belle go, but it is also why Beast looks at the rose when he lets Belle go.

But there’s more: Belle is also not what Beast hopes for. What Beast hopes for is his redemption.

It’s important to recognise then, that when Prince kisses and (we presume) weds Belle, it is not because he was after Belle or sex or marriage; rather, it is because the image of a joyous romantic union serves as an image for glorification.

What’s in a rose?

I wrote above that the 1991 Beast hopes in the possibility of mercy, which is symbolised by the rose. There’s actually a lot more that could be said on this topic and a number of contrasting comparisons could be made with the 2017 version. It has not escaped my notice that the 2017 version presents the enchantress very differently, and frames both law and nature differently too. These influence how hope is presented: Belle confesses her love for Beast after the last petal has fallen but the enchantress comes and raises Beast anyway.

My analysis of hope in the 2017 version won’t be complete without looking these considerations, but I don’t think they’ll change my current conclusion that Belle is Beast’s object of hope (what he hopes in).

Part B: Looking through the lens of eternity

The quote I gave at the start of part A this post, is actually cribbed from something the theologian Jürgen Moltmann said:

Only hope that is robust enough to engage with the reality of death is worthy of the name. [1]

Christianity’s theology of hope includes the idea of resurrection: the complete overturning of death in all respects, including the death of our bodies. Not only that, but the sayings of Jesus also teach the paradoxical idea that we find life and resurrection hope only by dying first.

Christians therefore sometimes use phrases like “dying to self” or being “born again”. For some people these phrases are tainted as clichés, or the hallmarks of over-zealous (even unkind) evangelists, which is rather unfortunate. However, these words didn’t come from nowhere. They reflect Christianity’s view that human resources alone are not enough to bring true hope to birth. Rather, hope is something we must be born anew into. [2]

If I could describe the idea in non-theological terms, I’d put it like this: we only find freedom and fulfilment in relationships when we relinquish our desire for control.

The giving up of control signals the death of our selfishness as well as that of any false hopes we harboured. And once they’re dead, new life can begin.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at these three stories again.

The Mormon deathlessness of Fifty Shades

In the last book of the trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, Christian never truly loses Ana.

Yes, from his viewpoint, she does at one time appear to leave him, but Christian cottons on pretty quick that Ana was faking it in an attempt to rescue his kidnapped sister. Moreover, although Christian does seem at one point to allow Ana to take his money and go, this is a plot contrivance; Christian’s actions are utterly inconsistent with his character up to that point in the trilogy (and even afterwards).

For this reason, I’d say that Fifty Shades presents a story where Christian evades what should have been an inward death to selfishness and false hope.

Now, in fairness to EL James, she was writing under the constraint of The Twilight Saga (if you didn’t know, Fifty Shades started as Twilight fan-fiction). And when we consider Twilight, it becomes almost obvious why Christian’s hope is so deeply flawed.

The hope presented in Twilight is the marriage between the immortal vampires Bella and Edward.

This reflects the Mormon teaching that the highest state of salvation can only be achieved by those who are married, and that marriage is eternal. (For the record, I strongly disagree with both parts of this theology.) This means that when Christian vests his hope in his wife for a marriage with her, the plot of Fifty Shades is essentially following the same principle. It just has the constraint that it’s not a supernatural fantasy – so Ana and Christian are unable to ‘live’ forever in an immortal sense.

Also, bear in mind that Mormon theology doesn’t really have a concept of what mainstream Christianity would term “the fall”. (That’s the Garden of Eden story when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and bad stuff happens.) So Mormonism also doesn’t have a strong concept of redemption. It shouldn’t surprise us then that Edward finds his own ways to resist his bloodlust and doesn’t need anyone to save him from vampirism. Instead, the coldness of being undead is reframed as alternative way of living, albeit a subversive one. An analogous plot arc is to be seen in Christian Grey’s sexual desires: his taste for BDSM is a subversive, alternative lifestyle; at first he frames it as the hallmark of his depravity (note however: he sees himself as damned, not as guilty); then, (and I will refrain from sarcasm as I say this) after he learns how not to harm Ana through sex, he embraces it. In both stories then, fundamental, all-pervasive transformation is simply not necessary.

 

The Platonist escape of Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Although I think the 2017 Beauty and the Beast shares some of the big flaws of Fifty Shades, the hope it presents is more complex.

On the one hand it does have the fairy-tale ending where Beast physically resurrects and transforms. It also shows the people in the village collectively reconciling and reuniting with each other. In Christianity, what gets referred to as ‘the resurrection of the dead’ is a collective future event and collective hope. I therefore found this moment in the film engaging and possibly an area where the 2017 version could be said to surpass the 1991 one.

However, although the images of the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast feature resurrection, transformation, reconciliation and glorification, the underlying plot is largely missing these elements.

For one thing, as I said in my previous post, I don’t think Beast truly admits his guilt and learns to do right.

But more than this, he doesn’t give Belle up. He recognises that he cannot control Belle as a person (something Christian Grey fails to do), but he doesn’t demonstrate true selflessness because he claims he has her even whilst he doesn’t.

This means that, inwardly, Beast doesn’t die to his selfishness and false hope, nor is he reborn into a new hope. Instead, he undergoes a process that is more Platonist in nature. Plato was a Greek philosopher who said the body and all physicality was bad and therefore, death was a release of their spirit from their body. (Yes, I am simplifying.) In a similar way, when Beast rationalises Belle’s departure, rejecting the idea that Belle has to be physically present in order for him to have hope, Beast transitions into a hope that is intangible. He’s entered a hope where his state of being is more like that of a disembodied-spirit, rather than someone reborn or resurrected.

I cannot stress enough, this framing of hope is fundamentally weaker than an understanding of hope that encompasses death and resurrection/rebirth. Resurrection hope is able to grapple with the awfulness of death (rather than trying to deny it) whilst also overturning that awfulness in every respect.

Overall then, I found there to be a mismatch between the physical images presented in Beauty and the Beast and the underlying plot and characterisation. The outward story showed Beast’s redemption in his death, resurrection and transformation; the inward story showed Beast’s redemption as being association with a good person’s presence, and transitioning into an intangible hope.

The resurrection hope of Beauty and the Beast (1991)

When Belle looks into the magic mirror and sees Maurice in distress, Beast faces a conundrum. On the one hand, if he gives up Belle he gives up what appears to be his only hope of redemption. On the other hand, he recognises that it is a false hope for him to keep Belle captive.

Faced with this choice, Beast undertakes an act of immense courage: he lets her go. In this, he surrenders himself to uncertainty for her sake, even though it’s not what he wants. And yes, that is one of the sincerest expressions of love.

But this action doesn’t speak just about love, it also speaks about hope.

By making Belle both a person in her own right and Beast’s symbol of hope, the story demonstrates not only that exerting control over others to get want you want is wrong, but also that hope itself is mysterious and cannot be controlled.

Belle’s departure symbolises Beast’s loss of hope; he doesn’t pretend the world will be OK but begins to slip into despair (not entirely unreasonably, given his circumstances). He therefore sees no point in putting up a fight when the mob comes.

On the surface of the story, it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that Beast hopes in Belle and regains his hope because she has returned. But when we view this as a highly-visual fairy-tale, it would be better to say that Beast beginning to hope again is shown through Belle’s return. Belle is not what Beast hopes for, nor what he hopes in, rather she is a representation of his hope.

And it might seem a strange idea that we have to let hope go before we can have it in its fullness, but that is sometimes the mysterious way in which hope works. In broader terms, there is an ambiguous relationship between hope and hopelessness. The uncertainty of an open future is the breeding ground for both hope and hopelessness; moreover, hopelessness is the context for the discovery of hope. Because hopelessness is not diametrically opposed to hope, it can be that hope is never that far away, even when hopelessness seems to have the upper hand. [3]

As for Beast, his rejection of false hope and his surrender to the uncertain (that is, his rejection of keeping Belle captive, even though he doesn’t know how else he might be redeemed), is not only the true death of his selfishness, it also opens the way for him to be reborn into a new hope.

The ending of the film then illustrates his journey of redemption visually: he resurrects, transforms and is glorified in his union with Belle. This process shows outwardly what has happened in his inward being as he learned to love and learned to hope.

Concluding thoughts

To sum up then:

Fifty Shades has a narrative that is shaped by the Mormon understanding of eternal marriage. It presents Ana as Christian’s object of hope, which leads Christian to fear losing her. Christian never truly dies to his selfishness by surrendering his desire for control; instead he acts destructively towards Ana.

The 2017 Beauty and the Beast retains the physical illustration of death and resurrection, but the underlying story doesn’t match. Instead, the transformation within Beast’s character is largely absent and he never truly accepts the possibility of losing Belle. Belle is who he hopes in and instead of surrendering himself to the uncertain, he transitions into an intangible hope.

In the 1991 version Belle was not Beast’s hope, but a symbol of his hope for redemption. Beast undergoes an inward death and resurrection as he surrenders to uncertainty and is born into a new hope; that is then illustrated through his physical death, resurrection, transformation and glorification.

“So what?”

Well, I think this says a lot about how we as a society frame hope.

And it’s not all good.

I don’t think we can be transformed without the internal cost of surrender and relinquishing of control. And I don’t think we should be substituting an intangible hope when a full-bodied hope is so much stronger.

I recognise that for some people the difference between a Platonist hope and a resurrection hope might seem like a very academic distinction, particularly when both versions of Beauty and the Beast recognise that control over a person is a bad thing. However, if you bring yourself to believe that a person’s intangible presence is as good as physical presence, it’s only a matter of time before reality kicks in and you realise it isn’t true. And when that happens, if you haven’t truly understood that it’s a false hope to put your hope in another person, then you’re back into Christian Grey territory: clawing to get the person back because you think you can’t live without them. Let’s not forget that stalking and harassment are also forms of violence and that domestic abuse often continues after a relationship has ended.

Therefore, as a society, we need to be more literate on the subject of hope.

Whilst I was writing this, I was helped by the fact that I’m very familiar with Christianity’s theology of resurrection, but even so there were some parts of this post that were really hard. I had to go back and dig out my books on hope before I could name what I was observing.

But if redemption is what everyone needs and yearns for, then this is something we’ve got to be more familiar with. Not so that we can box it and market it, not so that we can convert it into a formula. But rather so that we can recognise it when we see it; so that we can describe it to people.

So that they can not only have hope, but live in it too.


This is part of a five part series looking at how Fifty Shades and both versions of Beauty and the Beast frame the following:

  • 1) Coercion and manipulation
  • 2) Control and faithfulness
  • 3) Questions of guilt and shame
  • 4) Change and transformation
  • 5) Hope and love.

You can find an index for all posts here.


The quotes and ideas cited in this post are taken from a book “Living Hope,” written by Methodist minister Russell Herbert, which explores a practical theology of palliative care for the dying. The book leverages much of the theology of the theologian Jürgen Moltmann. The version of the book I read is an out-of-print version from Epworth press, published in 2006, though a re-edited version has been published by Kevin Mayhew.

[1] Living Hope, p59

[2] Living Hope, p94

[3] Living Hope, p145-146

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