Expensive Books and the Stench of Poverty: Chapter 4 of EL James’s “Grey”


Previous Post.

I want to make these preambles a bit shorter, so let me cut to the chase and say that if you weren’t already convinced that EL James is the kind of materialistic Baby Boomer that rational people hate with the fire of a thousand suns — ie. someone who thinks that “the poor” are some kind of alternate race of human who don’t deserve a basic level of human respect or dignity — then please feast on this chapter opener where Christian wakes from yet another nightmare about his tragic toddlerhood:

No! My scream bounces off the bedroom walls and wakes me from my nightmare. I’m smothered in sweat, with the stench of stale beer, cigarettes, and poverty in my nostrils and a lingering dread of drunken violence.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck you, EL James. Fuck you.

What does poverty smell like, exactly, you classist hack? What is the precise scent that you associate with cretins too poor to own baby grand pianos, iPads, and helicopters? Because saying “the stench of stale beer, cigarettes, and poverty” suggests that stale beer and cigarettes are not part of the “stench” that you would classify as being exclusive to poverty — so what is it? Can you sniff out a precise bank balance? Do you get a whiff of welfare?

Seriously — fuck her, and fuck this entire piece of shit wealth porn fantasy.

And you know what — this is why Christian’s Rich White Savior Feeds the Africans philanthropy strikes me as being so phony and ridiculous: if he wanted to invest in a charitable cause that gets at the heart of his overwhelming childhood trauma, then why isn’t he investing in programs that would actually help people like his Mother — someone who by all accounts was a chemically-dependent, prostituted woman living in abject poverty, dealing with an abusive relationship, and trying to raise a child? The book gives absolutely zero fucks about a woman who is frequently referred to by Christian as a “crack whore,” despite the fact that she clearly had plenty of her own insurmountable barriers. But forget all that, because really she’s just a bad parent who should’ve pulled herself up by her bootstraps.


But then how — and why — are we asked to feel so, so sorry for Christian who had a tough life until he was 4, but no sympathy at all for his dead Mother who seems to have had a much harder life for much longer than he did?

The answer, of course, is that she had that classic “poverty smell,” so fuck her, right?

This book is going to kill me, you guys.

And since EL James is worried that you might — even for just a second — question Christian’s right to treat Ana like garbage, it’s important to offer plenty of moments like this:

I fill a glass with water and catch sight of myself, dressed only in pajama pants, reflected in the glass wall at the other side of the room. I turn away in disgust.

See? He hates himself! You can’t pick on him for all of his abusive behavior because he’s suffering SO much already. And nothing he does is ever, ever his fault:

If my shrink was back from his vacation in England I could call him. His psychobabble shit would stop me feeling this lousy.

It’s not his fault that his psychiatrist is on vacation! This man, who had enough discipline to build a massive “telecommunications” empire in 6 years, can’t possibly be responsible for his own thoughts and actions in response to a single woman!

But come, now. He’s rich! And not just rich — he reads. So if you weren’t already tired of EL James’s characterization of “people who love books,” let’s all enjoy Christian’s literary musings:

[Ana’s] an incurable romantic who loves the English classics. But then so do I, but for different reasons. I don’t have any Jane Austen first editions, or the Brontes, for that matter…but I do have two Thomas Hardys.

Of course! This is it! This is what I can do.

Moments later I’m in my library with Jude the Obscure and a boxed set of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in its three volumes laid out on the billiard table in front of me. Both are bleak books, with tragic themes. Hardy had a dark, twisted soul.

Like me.

Tess, having a great time.

Tess: pictured having a great time.

Yes, Christian — the real take-away from Tess isn’t the cautionary tale of oppressive sexism that’s still far too relevant in present-day society, but rather that its male author was a tortured, dark soul, just like you.

But I’ve spoken too soon. Christian does, in fact, understand the lesson that Tess teaches young ladies:

Even though Jude is in better condition, it’s no contest. In Jude there is no redemption, so I’ll send her Tess, with a suitable quote. I know it’s not the most romantic book, considering the evils that befall the heroine, but she has a brief taste of romantic love in the bucolic idyll that is the English countryside. And Tess does exact revenge on the men who wronged her.

But that’s not the point. Ana mentioned Hardy as a favorite and I’m sure she’s never seen, let alone owned, a first edition.

“You sound like the ultimate consumer.” Her judgmental retort from the interview comes back to haunt me. Yes, I like to possess things, things that will rise in value, like first editions.

So to recap: Christian sends her a book about a woman who is executed for her sexuality because of a series of events that she had little control over. But really it’s okay because Tess got a quick roll in the hay with one dude who wasn’t completely awful, and because she “exacts revenge” on the other one who was completely awful (in a way that ultimately fucks her over, but whatever). However, after explaining this largely inaccurate plot summary to the reader, he admits that he’s really just flaunting his wealth because she dared to question his buying habits.

Cool. Glad we cleared that up.

Now, after arranging to send Ana a gift that’s just intended to make her feel awkward and indebted to him, Christian goes to his high-powered business office so he can work on Africa solar power food telecommunications, but — woe is him — he has to deal with how incredibly sexy everyone finds him:

The young receptionist greets me with a flirtatious wave.

Every day…Like a cheesy tune on repeat.

Ignoring her, I make my way to the elevator that will take me straight to my floor.

He’s barely in the door and women are falling all over themselves for this Greek God. Like, can he live, receptionist? Have a little dignity and really consider how you come across when you casually greet your boss when he comes into work. Whore.

This is an HR disaster.

This is an HR disaster.

But before you think that Christian Grey is an asshole who treats his staff like garbage for daring to wave at him, consider this exchange with a lowly security guard:

“Good morning, Mr. Grey,” Barry on security greets me as he presses the button to summon the elevator.

“How’s your son, Barry?”

“Better, sir.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

See? Christian Grey only treats women like garbage. I bet you feel foolish for assuming he was an asshole to his entire workforce. No, no — he’ll happily make time to exchange banal pleasantries with male employees, and he’ll even remember random details about their personal lives!

What a prince.

Not convinced that this is entirely gender-based? Here he is with his personal assistant, Andrea, literally two sentences later:

“Good morning, Mr. Grey. Ros wants to see you to discuss the Darfur project. Barney would like a few minutes –”

I hold up my hand to silence her.

And we’re back.

Now, this next bit makes yesterday’s discussion of Christian’s treatment of barristas seem downright pleasant. Because — at the very least — he did not gaslight the woman who just wanted to ask how he was enjoying his fucking day before handing him some coffee.

To really give you the full extent of what a gaping asshole this guy is, I’m going to give you this entire page (broken up by my outbursts of rage, but otherwise intact for full horror). Trust me — it’s necessary:

“I need a double espresso. Get Olivia to make it for me.”

But looking around I notice that Olivia is absent. It’s a relief. The girl is always mooning over me and it’s fucking irritating.

I’m going to steal Mark Oshiro‘s line because it’s never been truer: there needs to be literally one woman in this entire series who is not in love with this fuckhead. I don’t buy that anyone is this beautiful — and particularly not someone who (you’ll see in a moment) treats his female employees like actual bags of garbage.

I do not buy it.

And if Olivia (who is not his receptionist, but yet another woman who is hopelessly and irritatingly in love with him) does make him that uncomfortable, he’d have fired her, or moved her to a different department — right? He says over and over how easily he’s able to let people go if they’re not meeting his lofty expectations, so the only assumption we can really draw is that he intentionally surrounds himself with sycophantic women to boost his ego or, much more likely, he assumes that the absolute basic level of human kindness and friendliness that people extend to him when he is their customer or their boss is evidence that they’re all just dying to get their hands on his anthropomorphized love rocket.

“Would you like milk, sir?” Andrea asks.

Good girl. I give her a smile.

“Not today.” I do like to keep them guessing how I take my coffee.

In case I haven’t been clear before, FUCK. THIS. DUDE.

I had to put the book down when I got to that line.

What a shit bag. What an absolute bag of shit. You’re gaslighting your assistant and your receptionist, which makes it harder for them to do their jobs, harder to earn your approval, and harder to ensure that you wind up with what you’ve asked for.

Why? Why would you do that? And would you EVER do that to a male employee?

We know the answer.

And then he gives us this curveball:

“Very good, Mr. Grey.” She looks pleased with herself, which she should be. She’s the best PA I’ve ever had.


This is how you treat your BEST Assistant? By negging and gaslighting her, so that it’s difficult for her to do her job?

These are not the actions of a secretly good man who needs to believe in his inner goodness. These are the actions of a complete and utter narcissist — and I mean that in the clinical sense. Even if he could be redeemed, who gives a shit? Why does he even deserve “redemption”? Unless, as part of his redemption, Ana forces him to go around to anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of meeting him, and apologize for what an utter, utter prick he was.

How does this portion of the chapter wrap up, by the way? Oh, with Christian asking his shadowy “investigator” to find out when Ana’s final college exam finishes. Not by asking Ana himself, of course — he needs to make sure that it’s all done with as few ethical considerations as possible.

I’ve honestly hit a wall. I don’t see how he could get worse than this — a gaslighting asshole boss AND a stalker — and yet I know that this is all tip of the iceberg behavior.

Save me.

Instead, worried that she may have been a little too vague about how Christian treats his employees, EL James gives us ANOTHER scene with Christian being a dick for absolutely no reason:

At 12:30 Olivia shuffles into my office with lunch. She’s a tall, willowy girl with a pretty face. Sadly, it’s always misdirected at me with longing.


She’s carrying a tray with what I hope is something edible.

What does she normally bring you for lunch?

After a busy morning, I’m starving.

Wouldn’t you find that an insensitively hyperbolic statement, given your deep pit of childhood sadness?

She trembles as she puts it on my desk.

Because she’s terrified of you. Because you’re an asshole.

Tuna salad. Okay. She hasn’t fucked this up for once.

Then WHY did you hire her?

Nope — that’s it. This is not someone who built a billion-dollar empire in 6 years. It’s literally impossible. If your assistant’s assistant (or whatever the fuck Olivia is) is this inept, you would have fired her by now. Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who would, say, change his lunch order every single day just to trip up your staff. But surely no one’s that vindictive, manipulative, and cruel — right?

She also places three different white cards, all different sizes, with corresponding envelopes on my desk.

“Great,” I mutter. Now go. She scuttles out.

As you might’ve gathered from the mention of the white cards, Christian — a very busy and important businessman — has just spent his work day composing the little quote note he attaches to the first edition Thomas Hardys that he sends Anastasia to show her how rich he is and to warn her to stay away from him (after he had an employee dig up her exam schedule).

I want to set him on fire.

Next Post.

12 thoughts on “Expensive Books and the Stench of Poverty: Chapter 4 of EL James’s “Grey”

  1. Pingback: What Would You Like to #AskELJames? | Tea Leaves and Dog Ears

  2. Bleugh. The original 50 Shades was just kinda gross, what with all the abuse and misrepresentation of BDSM — but somehow EL James made it WORSE?

    I feel like that’s some kind of weird, not very useful superpower. The ability to make any idea, now matter how horrid, even worse.

    • It’s much, much worse. Because at least when Ana was telling the story, you could assume that maybe she was just naive or misinterpreting his expressions. But no, Christian makes sure that you understand that he’s an abuser from moment one.

      • I’m not sure I agree (you’re shocked, I know. :P).

        The big problem with Fifty Shades is that it romanticised the hell out of an abusive relationship (no pun intended. :/). Grey tells the same story but is at least being *honest* about just how predatory and childish Christian is. It’s Fifty Shades without Ana’s rose-coloured glasses. And IMO that’s an improvement.

        I actually think, if Grey had been James’s first book, there would have been less of a backlash because the “simple” tale of an abusive relationship is far less problematic than one disguised as a romance.

        Of course, it probably wouldn’t have sold anywhere near as well, ‘cos who wants to read about that, amirite? -_-

  3. Pingback: Broskis and Rapists to the Rescue: Chapter 5 of EL James’s “Grey” | Tea Leaves and Dog Ears

  4. Welp, Christian is completely indefensible by this point.

    It’s not really fair to assume that the way a *character* thinks is indicative of the way an *author* thinks. Thomas Harris probably doesn’t eat people, and we really don’t know that James shares Christian’s monstrous disdain for poverty. (And Christian in “Grey” is every bit the over-the-top villain that Hannibal is).

    You also still keep making this assumption that Christian’s damage and self-loathing are meant to *excuse* his behaviour. They explain where a lot of it comes from, sure, but I don’t think they’re trying to excuse it. I see Christian as essentially Scrooge from a Christmas Carol.

    Which brings us to: “Why does he even deserve “redemption”?”

    I think this point may actually be at the crux of our disagreements: I firmly believe that *anyone* deserves redemption. Everyone has the right to change and turn themselves around. *Everyone*.

    If this is the first book of a new trilogy then “Grey” is the “before” snapshot of Christian as Scrooge. (I’d be interested to know what you thought of Scrooge’s redemption, BTW. Or Vader’s for that matter).

    I’m not even disagreeing with the vast bulk of what you’ve been saying as much as I’m withholding judgement until I can see it in the context of the entire story.

    Which I realise wouldn’t be a particularly fun approach to take for a chapter-by-chapter review. 😀 I think you must have a little bit of the masochist in you to put yourself through this….

    • Everyone deserves redemption. They do not “deserve” to abuse another person.

      That’s been my complaint the whole time. He can go and do whatever he needs to do to get better, but the book makes his “healing” all about Ana’s presence in his life, which is a fucking terrible message to young women who are currently in abusive relationships.

      You cannot save another person by putting up with their abuse.

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