The sixth and final installment of the E.L. James series Fifty Shades, “Freed,” released June 1, is selling briskly, as one might expect. Its chart-busting progenitor, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” published in 2011, sold 15.2 million copies by 2020, making it the bestselling book of the last decade. Despite its widely agreed on lack of literary merit, “Fifty Shades of Grey” bristled with tension and packed major shock value, as soft-core sadomasochistic porn entered the mainstream of women’s fiction.

Cover courtesy of Bloom Books

As copies of “Fifty Shades” were seen on the sidelines at the soccer game, the city pool and the PTA meeting, a flood of media coverage was churned out in an attempt to figure out why women would embrace such a thing. But embrace they did. An international army of devoted fans has followed the series to its end and propelled film versions to equal popular success and critical disdain.

The first three books were narrated by Anastasia Steele, a 21-year-old Washington State University student who met 27-year-old Seattle billionaire Christian Grey while on assignment for her college newspaper. They became involved in a sexual relationship with elements of bondage, dominance and sadomasochism (BDSM) that in the third book evolved into marriage and a baby. Rather than try to keep the wild bedroom dynamic alive amid breast pumps and diapers, James ended things there – then started over, with a second set of three novels telling the same story from Christian’s point of view.

So, this really is the end – unless James plans to retell it once again, from the point of view of the housekeeper, the bodyguard – or the riding crop.

“Freed” is a long goodbye indeed, a 768-page retelling of what unfolded in “Fifty Shades Freed” in a mere 592. It deploys the familiar narrative shticks of the series so mechanically that it almost seems possible that James gave up and let a computer write the book for her. Italicized inner monologue; horrific dream sequences; exchanges of bantering emails; detailed sex scene. Repeat. “Freed” lacks both narrative tension and any element of surprise, not only because the plot is already known and the couple has already had every kind of kinky sex, but also because the pacing is so leisurely and the plot development so lugubrious. All the significant action – kidnapping, gunplay, labor and delivery – is compressed into the last 200 pages.

Nonetheless, there is something interesting about it. As strangely packaged as it may be, at the core of “Freed” is an unexpected feminist message.

If it is fantasy fulfillment to be loved by a rich, handsome, powerful man as passionately as Christian loves Ana, to have a lover worship your body the way he worships hers (and also to have a body as beautiful as hers), it is nobody’s fantasy to be married to a jealous, controlling textbook-case obsessive. Christian is one sick ticket. Through his narration, we get a very deep dive into the kind of mind that equates loving a woman with the terror of losing her, resulting in the need to control her every move for her so-called safety.

Christian’s psyche is so fragile that every shadow that crosses Ana’s face creates the panic that she doesn’t love him anymore. Even seeing another man say hello to Ana in an elevator causes him to plummet into a territorial freakout: “Back off, bud.” Christian is the kind of guy whose wife ends up in a battered woman’s center. Instead, James has him channel his anger and violent urges into what he calls punishment sex. And fortunately, Ana enjoys these interludes – or at least up to a point. One of Christian’s darkest hours comes when she uses the safe word they have agreed on to end one particular “game” he’s started.

Almost all the conflict in the book is generated by Ana’s resistance to Christian’s attempts to control her. When she informs him that she will not include the word “obey” in her marriage vows, that she will not quit her job after they are married, that she prefers not to change her name – he goes into a complete emotional tailspin. “I want her happy and I want to protect her. But how can I do that if she’s not willing to obey me?”

Instead, Ana openly defies him. Christian is at a charity event in New York when his security people inform him that back in Seattle, Ana has disobeyed his instructions to stay home and has gone out drinking with a girlfriend. He goes to the airport and flies home immediately. But his attempt to lay down the law meets equal rage on her part. When it turns out there actually was a reason for his request that she confine herself to the apartment, she’s even angrier, because by withholding this information, he’s treated her like a child. Cue the furious emails-inner monologue-terrible nightmare-off to the bedroom.

In addition to a healthy refusal to be controlled, James gives Ana considerable machismo. She can drive his Audi R8 Spyder luxury sports car as fast and furiously as Christian can and asks if she can have her own for her birthday. She holds her own in a bar fight, decking a guy who is annoying her before Christian has time to react. And it is Ana who finally guns down Jack Hyde, an office predator who has been after the couple since Christian fired him from his job the previous novel and now has graduated to sabotaging planes, setting bombs and kidnapping family members. (He is Hyde to Christian’s Jekyll because he has the same troubled background but instead of turning out to be a successful, gorgeous Dom that women love, he became an evil creep who exploits women with sex tapes and is determined to destroy Christian and his family.)

In the end, “Freed” hammers home the point that women may enjoy submission in the bedroom but they do not enjoy being controlled and oppressed outside it. The thought of being married to someone like Christian – even with the private planes, the home in Aspen, the servants, the cars, the yacht, the constant pouring of pink champagne – is terrifying. But Ana breaks him. Not only does she refuse to end her pregnancy so he will not have to compete with a child for her love – her finest hour, as far as rebellion goes – by the end of the book, she has the gurgling baby sleeping in their bed.

And on that wholesome note, all fifty shades fade to black.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”


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