Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 erotic romance novel by British author E. L. James. It is the first instalment in the Fifty Shades trilogy that traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM). Originally self-published as an ebook and a print-on-demand, publishing rights were acquired by Vintage Books in March 2012.
Fifty Shades of Grey has topped best-seller lists around the world, selling over 125 million copies worldwide by June 2015. It has been translated into 52 languages, and set a record in the United Kingdom as the fastest-selling paperback of all time. Critical reception of the book, however, has tended towards the negative, with the quality of its prose generally seen as poor. Universal Pictures and Focus Features produced a film adaptation, which was released on 13 February 2015 and also received generally unfavourable reviews.
The second and third volumes of the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, were published in 2012. Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian, a version of Fifty Shades of Grey being told from Christian’s point of view, was published in June 2015.
Anastasia “Ana” Steele is a 21-year-old college senior attending Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington. Her best friend is Katherine “Kate” Kavanagh, who writes for the college newspaper. Due to an illness, Kate is unable to interview 27-year-old Christian Grey, a successful and wealthy Seattle entrepreneur, and asks Ana to take her place. Ana finds Christian attractive as well as intimidating. As a result, she stumbles through the interview and leaves Christian’s office believing it went poorly. Ana does not expect to meet Christian again, but he appears at the hardware store where she works. While he purchases various items including cable ties, masking tape, and rope, Ana informs Christian that Kate would like some photographs to illustrate her article about him. Christian gives Ana his phone number. Later, Kate urges Ana to call Christian and arrange a photo shoot with their photographer friend, José Rodriguez.
The next day José, Kate, and Ana arrive for the photo shoot at the Heathman Hotel, where Christian is staying. Christian asks Ana out for coffee and asks if she is dating anyone, specifically José. Ana replies that she is not dating anyone. During the conversation, Ana learns that Christian is also single, but he says he is not romantic. Ana is intrigued but believes she is not attractive enough for Christian. Later, Ana receives a package from Christian containing first edition copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which stuns her. Later that night, Ana goes out drinking with her friends and ends up drunk dialling Christian, who informs her that he will be coming to pick her up because of her inebriated state. Ana goes outside to get some fresh air, and José attempts to kiss her, but he is stopped by Christian’s arrival. Ana leaves with Christian, but not before she discovers that Kate has been flirting with Christian’s brother, Elliot. Later, Ana wakes to find herself in Christian’s hotel room, where he scolds her for not taking proper care of herself. Christian then reveals that he would like to have sex with her. He initially says that Ana will first have to fill in paperwork, but later goes back on this statement after making out with her in the elevator.
Ana goes on a date with Christian, on which he takes her in his helicopter, Charlie Tango, to his apartment. Once there, Christian insists that she sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her from discussing anything they do together, which Ana agrees to sign. He also mentions other paperwork, but first takes her to his playroom full of BDSM toys and gear. There, Christian informs her that the second contract will be one of dominance and submission, and there will be no romantic relationship, only a sexual one. The contract even forbids Ana from touching Christian or making eye contact with him. At this point, Christian realises that Ana is a virgin and takes her virginity without making her sign the contract. The following morning, Ana and Christian again have sex. His mother arrives moments after their sexual encounter and is surprised by the meeting, having previously thought Christian was homosexual, because he was never seen with a woman. Christian later takes Ana out to eat, and he reveals that he lost his virginity at age 15 to one of his mother’s friends, Elena Lincoln, and that his previous dominant/submissive relationships failed due to incompatibility. Christian also reveals that in his first dominant/submissive relationship he was the submissive. Christian and Ana plan to meet again, and he takes Ana home, where she discovers several job offers and admits to Kate that she and Christian had sex.
Over the next few days, Ana receives several packages from Christian. These include a laptop to enable her to research the BDSM lifestyle in consideration of the contract; to communicate with him, since she has never previously owned a computer; and to receive a more detailed version of the dominant/submissive contract. She and Christian email each other, with Ana teasing him and refusing to honour parts of the contract, such as only eating foods from a specific list. Ana later meets with Christian to discuss the contract and becomes overwhelmed by the potential BDSM arrangement and the potential of having a sexual relationship with Christian that is not romantic in nature. Because of these feelings, Ana runs away from Christian and does not see him again until her college graduation, where he is a guest speaker. During this time, Ana agrees to sign the dominant/submissive contract. Ana and Christian once again meet to further discuss the contract, and they go over Ana’s hard and soft limits. Christian spanks Ana for the first time, and the experience leaves her both enticed and slightly confused. This confusion is exacerbated by Christian’s lavish gifts and the fact that he brings her to meet his family. The two continue with the arrangement without Ana’s having yet signed the contract. After successfully landing a job with Seattle Independent Publishing (SIP), Ana further bristles under the restrictions of the non-disclosure agreement and her complex relationship with Christian. The tension between Ana and Christian eventually comes to a head after Ana asks Christian to punish her in order to show her how extreme a BDSM relationship with him could be. Christian fulfils Ana’s request, beating her with a belt, and Ana realises they are incompatible. Devastated, she breaks up with Christian and returns to the apartment she shares with Kate.
Background and publication
The Fifty Shades trilogy was developed from a Twilight fan fiction series originally titled Master of the Universe and published episodically on fan-fiction websites under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”. The piece featured characters named after Stephenie Meyer’s characters in Twilight, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. After comments concerning the sexual nature of the material, James removed the story from the fan-fiction websites and published it on her own website, FiftyShades.com. Later she rewrote Master of the Universe as an original piece, with the principal characters renamed Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele and removed it from her website before publication. Meyer commented on the series, saying “that’s really not my genre, not my thing… Good on her—she’s doing well. That’s great!”
This reworked and extended version of Master of the Universe was split into three parts. The first, titled Fifty Shades of Grey, was released as an e-book and a print on demand paperback in May 2011 by The Writers’ Coffee Shop, a virtual publisher based in Australia. The second volume, Fifty Shades Darker, was released in September 2011; and the third, Fifty Shades Freed, followed in January 2012. The Writers’ Coffee Shop had a restricted marketing budget and relied largely on book blogs for early publicity, but sales of the novel were boosted by word-of-mouth recommendation. The book’s erotic nature and perceived demographic of its fan base as being composed largely of married women over thirty led to the book being dubbed “Mommy Porn” by some news agencies. The book has also reportedly been popular among teenage girls and college women. By the release of the final volume in January 2012, news networks in the United States had begun to report on the Fifty Shades trilogy as an example of viral marketing and of the rise in popularity of female erotica, attributing its success to the discreet nature of e-reading devices. Due to the heightened interest in the series, the license to the Fifty Shades trilogy was picked up by Vintage Books for re-release in a new and revised edition in April 2012. The attention that the series has garnered has also helped to spark a renewed interest in erotic literature. Many other erotic works quickly became best-sellers following Fifty Shades’ success, while other popular works, such as Anne Rice’s The Sleeping Beauty trilogy, have been reissued (this time without pseudonyms) to meet the higher demand.
On 1 August 2012, Amazon UK announced that it had sold more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey than it had the entire Harry Potter series combined, making E. L. James its best-selling author, replacing J. K. Rowling, though worldwide the Harry Potter series sold more than 450 million copies compared with Fifty Shades of Grey’s sales of 60 million copies.