Jeez, I’m a quivering, mess, and he hasn’t even touched me. I squirm in my seat and meet his dark glare.
“Why don’t you?” I challenge quietly.
“Because I’m not going to touch you, Anastasia—not until I have your written consent to do so.” His lips hint at a smile.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p74
Four pages later, we see how good Christian is to his promise:
“Oh, f*** the paperwork,” he growls. He lunges at me pushing me against the wall of the elevator.
The plot of two halves
In Choice, Commitment and Consent (Part 1), I talked about how the idea of promise is important to understanding redemption. In that post I also raised the following objection to the plot of Fifty Shades:
Redemption is about the redeemer making a single promise to the person needing redemption. In Fifty Shades it’s Christian who keeps making promises – and breaking them. He is always shifting the boundaries of the relationship by changing the terms of his promises.
It’s important to recognise that how Christian reveals his secrets to Ana (and breaks his promises to her) shifts after the end of the first book. Up to the end of Fifty Shades of Grey the focus is on him obtaining and keeping Ana on his terms, for his ends. Afterwards, however, he recognises that’s not going to work because Ana leaves him. So he begins to take steps so that the relationship is more on Ana’s terms.
In other words – and I’m not saying I agree with the following statements – there’s a case for saying that, from a redemption perspective:
- Fifty Shades of Grey is about Christian thrashing about wretchedly in his fallen state, trying suck Ana into his darkness and failing.
- Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed are about Christian learning to relate in healthy ways or ‘learning to love’ as the narrator in Beauty and the Beast would say. In learning, Christian eventually reaches his complete redemption – being married, monogamous, a father of one child a father-to-be of another, and still having a great sex life with Ana.
The thing is, I don’t think either of these parts of the plot speak about redemption. So in this post I’ll talk about the first part, and in the next post I’ll talk about the second.
Introducing “The Fire Raisers” (Biedermann und die Brandstifter)
Whilst writing this series, I’ve been comparing Fifty Shades to other stories that speak of redemption – including those that don’t necessarily result in redemption. The classic example is The Lord of the Rings where Gollum is not redeemed.
In thinking about these stories, I asked myself what story felt most like Fifty Shades; the one that came to mind was a German play by Max Frisch: Biedermann und die Brandstifter.
And it’s not about redemption.
I’ll pause a moment to explain the picture I use in these posts as I’ve been asked a few time. I studied German when I was younger and I was living in Germany in 2002 when the special edition of Beauty and the Beast came out. And because I couldn’t hope to get German audio and subtitles on any copy I bought in the UK, I snapped up a copy in Germany. And I love it. Except that the bonus disk is only in German and Italian and doesn’t have subtitles.
Anyway, back to Biedermann und die Brandstifter.
The title has also been translated as “The Arsonists” or “Biedermann and the Firebugs.” It’s a dark comedy, where a rather arrogant and bourgeois man (Biedermann) is visited by the slightly mysterious Herr Schmitz. Biedermann says Schmitz can come in – but only for a drink, because these are dangerous times and there are arsonists making attacks everywhere. OK, a meal as well – but Schmitz can’t stay the night. OK, he can stay the night, but must go in the morning…
Schmitz uses intimidation and plays to Biedermann’s prejudices and pride to get what he wants. And when Biedermann asks Schmitz what he does, Schmitz openly says that he’s an arsonist. Biedermann nervously thinks Schmitz is joking. As you might have guessed, the play ends with Schmitz and his associate burning down Biedermann’s house.
What you see in the play is the slow descent as, more and more, Biedermann gives over control of his household to the unscrupulous Schmitz. That’s what reminded me so much of Christian Grey in Fifty Shades.
Now there are some disclaimers I should put in here.
First of all, I put ‘Biedermann vs Christian’ in the title of this post; it should really have been ‘Schmitz vs Christian’, but I went with ‘Biedermann’ as it’s more identifiable.
Secondly, Biedermann und die Brandstifter is a political allegory
of the Second World War. It’s about how people were obstinately blind and gullible to what the Nazis were. Although some of its themes are relevant to abuse dynamics, that wasn’t why it was written. This means there are some big differences between the two and some of the likenesses with Fifty Shades shouldn’t be pressed too hard. EDIT: I am reliably informed that this play was originally written as an allegory of Communism (especially the February ’48 coup in Czechoslovakia) and later extended to the Nazis.
Thirdly, I don’t want anyone reading this to go away wondering whether I’m making some kind of comparison between Christian Grey and Hitler [EDIT: or Stalin]. Know that I am. Deliberately.
Redemption vs Escape from death
As I’ve said, the plot of Biedermann und die Brandstifter does not illustrate redemption. But that isn’t because it ends in calamity.
Suppose Biedermann had wised up to what was happening and taken steps to save himself, it still wouldn’t have been a redemption story because:
- there was no clearly wrong choice near the start;
- he wasn’t thrown into a state of living death; and
- it doesn’t end with him being lifted into glorious light.
Instead, if Biedermann had wised up, he would have been brushing with something deeply dark and horrible and escaping a terrible fate.
Interestingly, that is pretty much the plot of the historic fiction The Last King of Scotland in which a young doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, escapes the clutches of another 20th Century dictator. (Yes, I just compared Christian Grey with Idi Amin.)
Is it fair to describe the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey from Ana’s perspective as being much the same? That is:
- Ana is enticed and pulled into the dark world of Christian Grey;
- His world becomes more than she can bear;
- She finally sees the ‘full depravity’ of Christian’s sadism;
- She leaves and saves herself.
Thing is, there are some serious problems with viewing Fifty Shades of Grey this way:
- Ana does not see the extent of Christian’s ‘depravity’ at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, despite saying that she does;
- Ana leaves Christian for his sake not hers;
- Ana is upset, rather than relieved, to have broken up with Christian;
- She takes him back near the beginning of Fifty Shades Darker;
- The plot is meant to be about Christian; he, not Ana, is the title character referred to as ‘Fifty Shades.’
It is far easier to argue that:
- Ana gets sucked into Christian’s darkness and stays trapped there, despite the brief period when they’re not dating; and
- The happy ending can be attributed to bad writing.
In the previous post I’ve talked about grooming and how Christian manipulates Ana. You see something similar in Biedermann und die Brandstifter, but there’s an extra element: wilful blindness on the part of Biedermann.
When writing this I’ve debated whether or not ‘blind’ is the best word to use; certainly I’m not trying to be ableist – and people can give me feedback if they think I am. The reason why I am using the word ‘blind’ here, is because:
- It’s the word I remember being used when I was studying Biedermann und die Brandstifter;
- The imagery and focus of morality in Beauty and the Beast is all about not judging people by what you see;
- When people talk about abuse, it’s not uncommon for survivors and others to lament that some people “don’t see” the violence or coercion – because it’s in a form they don’t recognise;
- In Lord of the Rings (the books at least) Sam mistakes Frodo’s kindness towards Gollum as “blindness” until Frodo proves otherwise (guess what’s coming in the next post).
In Biedermann und die Brandstifter, Schmitz tells Biedermann to his face that he’s an arsonist and intends to burn the house down. He brings drums of petrol into the attic and says as much to Biedermann.
But Biedermann just can’t believe it. Despite the fact that it’s his greatest fear.
We can have a long and interesting discussion as to whether or not Schmitz’s honesty is deceitful. Towards the end of the play, he says that the best way to have no one believe you is to tell the unvarnished truth. Now, would that have worked if Biedermann hadn’t been blind to begin with? Who knows.
But there are striking similarities with Fifty Shades.
Schmitz vs Christian
Christian tells Ana that if she truly knew about him, she’d run “screaming to the hills”. He says he’s “not a hearts and flowers” kind of guy. He says she should stay away from hm. But all this is done in a manipulative context (see my previous post on grooming). He gets to claim being honest and present himself as mysterious; the effect is to entice Ana to find out more.
But more that this, Christian also creates the illusion of boundaries only to disregard them. He goes to the effort of writing a contract with Ana, as if its existence will keep him from harming her (not true). Even though it’s biased against Ana, it provides at least some frame of reference – yet Christian later scraps it, whilst still maintaining control over Ana.
Biedermann vs Ana
Some of the things Ana believes are truly shocking.
But let’s be really clear here: many survivors of abuse don’t realise what’s happening to them is abuse. There’s an excellent article on Yes Means Yes called The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation, that talks about how the heat of abuse gets slowly turned up, such that by the time you’re boiling you don’t really realise it.
The fact that this happens is not the fault of the survivor. The survivor is not responsible for the abuse.
In Biedermann und die Brandstifter what you see is similar to this principle, but it’s slightly different because Biedermann ignores many obvious and clear signs that tell him exactly what is happening.
Maybe this is one of the areas where the comparisons shouldn’t be pressed to hard – I’m honestly not sure. It’s not helped by the fact that Ana’s character is inconsistently and badly written. But, whether Ana is insecure, damaged and manipulated (like the boiling frog principle), or whether she’s obstinate, arrogant and wilfully ignorant (like Biedermann), she definitely doesn’t see things straight.
When Christian controls her behaviour, threatens her, and tells her to have sex with him, she believes she has power over Christian because he gets pleasure from her.
I don’t know of any survivors who’ve ever believed that.
What about Belle and Beast?
Beast has to show himself fully to Belle before she agrees to stay.
Beast’s castle and all his servants make it obvious that the castle is enchanted. Beast doesn’t tell Belle how she might break the spell, but that’s a good thing because it would have put undue pressure on her if he had.
And as for Belle, aside from the enchantress at the beginning, she is the one who truly sees people for who they are.
There is no way that Beauty and the Beast could ever be mistaken for Biedermann und die Brandstifter.
Even if a naïve character such as Maurice suddenly met a Herr Schmitz on his doorsteps, the game would be up at the slightest whiff of petrol.
I know that abusers exploit people’s vulnerability and I recognise that naiveté is a form of this. But naiveté is not about an inability to see, it’s about being unaware and unsuspecting. Just as a child would see through Herr Schmitz’s bare-faced honesty, so would Maurice because he is childlike. In contrast, Ana’s subconscious and inner-goddess would not. They have the wilful, reality-denying gullibility of the kind that Biedermann has. No wonder they are sucked into Christian’s darkness.
Apologies as, again, this post has ended up being longer than I would like.
Having said as much, perhaps it’s not so off-topic to bring up the subject of history’s terrible political leaders and liken them to abusers.
I’m writing this as Donald Trump runs for president of the USA. In fact, if you haven’t seen it already, I would strongly recommend viewing this short video on vox.com from Liz Planck. Her observations are spot on in regard to abusive behaviours and how Trump exhibits them.
Yes, there are other ways to interpret Fifty Shades of Grey. It could be considered a very, very, long and drawn-out portrait of a troubled man, thrashing around in his fallen state, hurting other people in the process, before the long climb back up in the next two books. This interpretation could be consistent with a redemption arc if:
- We ignore how Christian doesn’t bear the guilt of a wrong choice, and doesn’t live in a state of living death;
- We ignore how Ana doesn’t have privilege and isn’t virtuous;
- We don’t mind reading an entire book where the main character has no character progression; and
- We don’t mind the gratuitous glorification of coercion and violence.
Oh and one more thing: we’d need to accept the idea that Biedermann could have saved Shmitz, or that the young doctor Nicholas Garrigan could have saved Idi Amin.
We’d need to accept that an erotically enticed, emotionally insecure and very confused woman can redeem her abuser by having sex with him.
Count me out.
WARDROBE: Why the master’s not so bad once you get to know him. Why don’t you give him a chance?
BELLE: I don’t want to get to know him. I don’t want to have anything to do with him!
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the ninth post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.