Ancient Archetypes Behind Bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey

Paradoxes take us to places we don’t anticipate going. I believe that to be part of their enduring charm. Thus we see the film version of the first book in the trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey breaking attendance records. It’s not just the city centers either. It’s drawing them in—of all places—in the Deep South, where billboards praising the Saving Power of Jesus are as common as roadkill raccoons.

Above and beyond that, reports are widely circulating that grown women (and virtually all of those attending are women, for reasons explained below) are observed walking out of the theatres in tears. And this isn’t because the acting is so bad, the story is so trite, or because Dakota Johnson is supposedly so homely.

The movie has made a mark because the books—softcore, clumsily-written, not the least bit original, and unintentionally comical in places—hit the zeitgeist lottery. The story meeting the moment and pushing men almost to the edge of terminal confusion: “Wait…you mean all they wanted—all along—was to be tied up…knocked around…treated like dirt?”

Well—no.

To Know What Fifty Shades of Grey Is, Consider What It Isn’t

To clarify what this trilogy is about, in as few words as possible: Fifty Shades is not a story about “love” or about “lovers.”

Push through the smokescreen of sex—which American Culture never seems able to handle in any mature way (instead, acting like middle school kids giggling at the magazine rack in the convenience store)—and you find vivid threads not only of Sigmund Freud but also themes echoing Greek Myth and Christian symbolism.

Sex is just the frosting.

It’s the symbolism underneath the sugar that makes it meaningful to the people who aren’t reading the books or watching the movies just to find something to laugh about. 

Fifty Shades is not a tale about a man and a woman forging a transcendent romantic moment. It’s a story about mother and son, punishment, redemption, and substitutionary suffering. Christian allegory—and thus, the male character’s name is instantly and easily explained.

Anastasia Steele, for her part, is also aptly named. She is just that: a woman of steel, and—at the beginning of the tale, she is conspicuously a virgin—a virgin mother. A Madonna determined to repair this petulant, impatient, angry, arrogant, ultra-rich little boy by allowing him to do, to her, what he wanted to do to his birth mother but never had the chance.

Virgin Mother meets Oedipus Rex

He gets to punish her and then to penetrate her. Everything he ever might have wanted to Mommy, and—without thinking too hard about it—we understand that, underneath the gloss of what seems to be a simple exchange of fluids, we’re moving into very deep currents of human belief and behavior.

No wonder the story reverberates so strongly. No wonder the books have sold so well.

A common reaction among those posting to Amazon, and other review sites, is that the sex depicted doesn’t feel all that erotic. Partially, this is because the writing is so lame. More than that, however, it’s because surrogate incest will probably never catch on as a spectator sport.

The Girl of Steel—the Mommy—has to give herself up to make Christian a more complete man. She lets him fill her up because she’s famously empty. Although she narrates the stories, Anastasia Steele is not a source of complex insights. She’s consistently passive—innocent, in kind of an odd way—not so much acting as re-acting—and there’s abundant evidence that she’s not very bright.

Popular Fifty Shades of Grey builds on classic archetypes to find its success.

It’s useful for her to be insensitive, not a “deep thinker.” She just needs to be steady and resolute: coincidentally repeating the mantra that millions of abused women have repeated to themselves as they’ve waited, aching and bleeding, in emergency rooms and clinics: “He’s broken…but I can fix him. As a matter of fact, I’m the only one who can….”

Christian Grey is the classic “fixer-upper” boyfriend, and there’s an enduring appeal to that kind of limping little boy: a boy who needs to work out his fears, his rage, and his disappointment. Someone who needs to be “saved” from himself.

Fifty Shades of Grey: A Trilogy-Spanning Arc

Ana’s going to “save” him—and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s stinking rich (without much of an explanation about where all the money might be coming from… it’s just a given, in the same way, that Superman gets to do all he does because the sun in our solar system is yellow).

And Ana does accomplish her mission. She transitions from the “bad mommy”—who is eagerly battered and bound—to the “good mommy,” the savior, who ends the series by bearing Grey’s own child: literally becoming the “good mommy” of someone else.

At the risk of sounding smug, it’s easy to suggest: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” 

If there’s anyone who might consider Fifty Shades to be a breakthrough in “romantic” fiction, they can quickly be corrected. It’s not a step forward. It’s a step back: keeping in mind that Jane Eyre didn’t return to Rochester’s side until he was blinded (essentially taking on the role of his mother); remembering that Catherine often sounds as much like Heathcliff’s mother as his lover; and remembering that what Elizabeth finds intriguing about Mr. Darcy is his petulance and roughness (the kind of man who would need a Mommy to straighten him out).

The gray neckties and the handcuffs are somewhat new. But everything else in Fifty Shades is very old: going back to Sophocles, who explained that the urges to kill, to punish, and to ravish could all be directed toward the very same person who gave a man birth. 


This article was originally published June 10, 2021. It was updated in October 2021 to comply with SEO norms. Any textual updates are enclosed in square brackets and preceded by the date of update as follows: [UPDATE: Oct. 14, 2021:]


Nate Briggs has been devoting time to literature and commentary since his cheerful retirement in 2018. He currently makes his home (with dog) in Olympia, Washington.

One comment

  1. […] When Nate Briggs challenged that Fifty Shades of Grey’s popularity wasn’t because it was daring and new–but because it was so old, we found it familiar, we knew we had something great. When Ravenna Sparks controversially argued that Christianity fails women (and has for a long time), we wanted to give her essential piece a home. […]

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