Fifty Shades of Grey and the Byronic Hero

E.L. James has created a huge following of her book series, Fifty Shades of Grey. At the bookstore I work at, we can barely keep them on the shelf for more than a week, they sell out so fast. What is so enticing about these books, this Christian Grey character? What about him makes women everywhere swoon and creates such a hype over the coming film?  Christian is an example of a Byronic Hero, a character who has surfaced in countless works of literature since the mid 1800s. The Byronic Hero, while not necessarily the hero of the story, is a tragic character who we love to cast in our most beloved stories. Christian is our quintessential Byronic Hero and I wish to explore what makes him so popular to write about.

From the Wikipedia page for Fifty Shades of Grey

From the Wikipedia page for Fifty Shades of Grey

Ok, lets talk about the byronic hero for a second. Lord Byron was a Romantic poet who wrote an epic poem entitled “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Lord Byron created this semi-autobiographical epic poem and in doing so, gave literary birth to one of the most prevalent characters in much of the literature, as well as popular culture of many decades, the Byronic Hero. So why is this character so important, and why do we keep creating characters like him? Lets explore a little more by discussing the main traits that make up the Byronic Hero.

This guy is Lord Byron. He partially modeled the Childe Harold character after himself.

From the Wikipedia page for Lord Byron

From the Wikipedia page for Lord Byron

Trait #1: The Byronic hero is a brooding and troubled young man who is intensely passionate but often cannot express himself emotionally. He can be immensely prideful, and is often a man of few words.  There can be a number of reasons for this brooding exterior nature but by and large the character is often difficult to communicate with, making relationships hard to come by. In many of these stories there is some kind of love interest, typically an innocent young girl, who attempts to reach out to him despite his unapproachable exterior.

Apart he stalked in joyless reverie…

With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe,

And e’en for change of scene would seek the 6 shades below. (Canto I, VI)

And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart,

And from his fellow bacchanals would flee ;

‘Tis said, at times the sullen tear would start,

But Pride congealed the drop within his ee : (Canto I, VI)

The byronic hero is deeply depressed and would cry about it, were it not for his own pride. Like, Lord Byron made him into almost a martyr, a character who was constantly in turmoil but never sought counsel or help for his issues.

Trait #2: He’s intelligent and often well educated and for that can’t partake in the bliss that is ignorance. He is full of woe, but almost revels in it as a part of his core personality. He is usually accomplished in some type of artistic skill, like music. An alarming number of popular Byronic heroes play piano, for example. His intelligence sets him apart from other worldly and average men.

For his was not that open, artless soul

That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow,

Nor sought he friend to counsel or condole,

Whate’er this grief mote be, which he could not control. (canto I, VIII

Trait #3: The Byronic hero has a tragic past that plagues him in his present. This is often loss of a close family member or a beloved, but sometimes its a crime or something he would prefer not to reveal to the other characters. Most times, this tragic past is the reason for his brooding nature, as well as his intense passion. In Childe Harold’s case, he has been forced to leave home on a pilgrimage and had to leave behind his family as well as his beloved.

Yet oft-times in his maddest mirthful mood

Strange pangs would flash along Childe Harold’s brow

As if the memory of some deadly feud

Or disappointed passion lurked below (Canto I, VIII)

Trait #4: He is wealthy (or has some type of power over others) and eligible, but the women attracted to him were simply interested in attaining his wealth and power. They didn’t truly love him, and so he felt nothing for them. His wealth is sometimes seen as just as much of a burden as his intelligence, placing him above ordinary men, isolating him further.

And none did love him — though to hall and bower

He gathered revellers from far and near,

He knew them flatt’rers of the festal hour ;

The heartless parasites of present cheer.

Yea ! none did love him — not his lemans dear —

But pomp and power alone are woman’s care, (Canto I, IX)

Trait #5: He possessed intense passion that is rarely shown. Even though he has many suitors, he only truly loved one woman. As Childe Harold is on a pilgrimage, he cannot be with his beloved and weeps for her (in the most manly fashion, of course). While he isolates himself from other men as well as all superficial potential suitors, there is a beloved that can reach through his tough exterior to touch his heart. He only shows his emotions to her and for her.

Had sighed to many though he loved but one,

And that loved one, alas ! could ne’er be his.

Ok so lets put some of these traits together and see if we can’t explore some other examples of our Byronic hero friend in pop culture. Here are the main traits that our characters need: 1. brooding attitude 2. above average intelligence 3. tragic past 4. wealth or power 5. passion or rejection of that which is not authentic. If you think about it, many characters we know and love have a majority of these traits and are present day Byronic heroes. Lets look at a few.

From the Wikipedia Batman page

From the Wikipedia Batman page

Batman is an excellent example of the byronic hero. He is brooding, tragic, wealthy and pours all of his passion into the justice of the innocent. Women swoon over him, but he is so committed to liviing in his woe that he does not indulge in personal relationships. He is a secret hero and knows of all the good he does for the city, but seeks no recognition. An arguement could be made that his intense passion is aimed at Gotham’s justice, instead of a particular woman.

From the Wikipedia page for Anikin Skywalker

From the Wikipedia page for Anikin Skywalker

Darth Vader, AKA Anikin Skywalker. He has a tragic past (like Batman, involving death of a parent. This is important later), brooding unhappiness for his lost love, above average intelligence, and thirst for power. Unlike Batman, however, this Byronic hero does in fact seek recognition for his knowledge and skills, but is ultimately punished for it (spoiler alert, Vader is half robot). Also, in this example, we can see that the Byronic hero isn’t necessarily the hero of the story. But lets face it, Vader has tons of fans. The public loves the Byronic characters.

So, now we have a pretty good idea of what makes a Byronic Hero. Obviously there are many more examples, but I really want to talk about Christian Grey from the Fifty Shades of Grey series and also why people keep coming back to this character.

From the Wikipedia page for Fifty Shades of Grey film

From the Wikipedia page for Fifty Shades of Grey film\

Christian Grey portrays all five aspects of the Byronic Hero. He is brooding and cool towards other people in his life. Anastasia, the main female protagonist, constantly tries to get him to open up to her, but he prefers to revel in his woes by himself for most of the story. The entire reason she calls him her “fifty shades” is that one minute he is happy and carefree and the next he is unresponsive and then becomes angry or sullen. In his adolescence, he was described as a tyrant, picking fights and causing trouble, and as a Dominant, he is able to keep a safe emotional distance from his submissives. Christian prefers to stay in his fortress and not have to open up his emotions to anyone around him, family included. James describes his thoughts as a mystery to those around him, even the people that work and live with him.

Grey is said to have above average intelligence. He is an entrepeneur, accomplished pianist, knows French and is astoundingly well read, being able to hold a conversation with English-major Ana. True, he dropped out of his ivy league university, but is no less successful for it. He possesses sailing knowledge and can fly a glider as well as a helicopter. Even though he is wildly successful in his business, he also has time to learn new skills for his own personal enjoyment. His appreciation for the arts is exemplified in his musical taste as well as his choice in art pieces. I mean, change the word “harp” to “piano” and this excerpt could be written about Christian Grey:

He seized his harp, which he at times could string,

And strike, albeit with untaught melody,

When deemed he no strange ear was listening :

And now his fingers o’er it he did fling,

And tuned his farewell in the dim twilight. (Canto I, XIII)

Christian Grey also has a tragic past that haunts him and even influences his choices later in life, also contributing to his brooding aura. SPOILERS!!  The abuse that Christian faces as a child, as well as witnessing the death of his birth mother provided the reasons for him to keep people at a distance as well  as the drive to pursue the knowledge that he does attain. He has memories of his mother, but is conflicted about those memories, not sure how to confront them. Christian often shuns the memories of his mother and never wants to talk about her, sometimes referring to her as “the crack whore.” Christian is a broken man because of this, but it also fuels his passion for feeding the less fortunate and performing other works of charity. But seriously, this poem was practically written about Christian and his motherly issues:

Childe Harold had a mother — not forgot,

Though parting from that mother he did shun

One of the defining things about Christian’s character is how wealthy he is. This plays into the fantasies of women everywhere being swept off their feet by an attractive millionaire, but it also provides even more basis for the traits of the byronic hero. Christian is stinking rich, coming in at #8 on Forbes’ “Fictional 15” richest characters (to see this list, visit http://www.forbes.com/special-report/2013/fictional-15/christian-grey.html). However, all these riches attract superficial people that are greedy and want access to his wealth and power. Byron’s poem even references blonde and fair skinned women that surround Childe Harold, which sound a lot like the typical blonde women that Christian hires to work at his business.

The laughing dames in whom he did delight,

Whose large blue eyes, fair locks, and snowy hands,

Might shake the saintship of an anchorite,

And long had fed his youthful appetite ;

His goblets brimmed with every costly wine,

And all that mote to luxury invite (Canto I, XI)

Christian Grey’s passion is inarguable throughout the story. While his relationships before Ana were superficial and the women kept at arm’s length, his relationship with Ana is genuine. He fears this relationship though, because he is afraid he is not good enough for her. His self loathing nearly prevents him from pursuing her and the relationship altogether. Christian’s passion throughout the story is deeper than anything Ana has ever known and it spans not only to Ana herself, but also to Christian’s family.

Had sighed to many though he loved but one,

And that loved one, alas ! could ne’er be his.

Although Christian and Ana end up together at the end, his fear of losing her is a driving force behind his actions. Christian lives in constant fear that he is putting so much effort and passion into his relationship with Ana for nothing; his fear that she could walk away at any moment is well placed once she leaves him at the end of the first book.

So, it’s pretty clear that Christian Grey is a clear embodiment of the Byronic Hero. Why is he so popular? Why does the Byronic Hero come out in so many characters? The Great Gatsby. Sherlock Holmes. Heathcliff. Mr. Rochester. Professor Snape.  -Just to name a few. Our wonderful surly Byronic hero pops up everywhere. Why are we so drawn to him?

I think we love the Byronic hero for a few different reasons. He can add a touch of mystery to our stories. the author can withold information about his past from not only the other characters in the story, but also the audience. E.L. James caught our intrigue by giving us a troubled man who, while they were strained and secretive, had relations with women at arms length. I also think we love the Byronic hero so much because of his isolation from other potentially more superficial type characters. Christian often plays by his own rules and sometimes his protagonist nature is ambiguous at best. We love him, but are not always sure if he’s the healthiest choice for Ana. Many readers (mainly women) also like to project themselves into the main character, trying to imagine being the one to break through the thick exterior and fix the broken man with love. While this is a romantic thought to entertain, realism kicks in shortly after closing the book and we realize that real relationships that are that tumultuous seldom end in a blissful marriage.

So we love how mysterious the Byronic hero is. We especially like how the broken man can become fixed with love. I think as readers, we have to see how far someone can come from their broken place to a more positive place, and it’s romantic to think that guy can become a new and unbroken individual because of his love for one person. We continue to return to the Byronic hero over and over again because of his dynamic nature and flexibility to fit into many different types of stories. Women are attracted to his mystery and passion whether or not he is physically attractive. I have a feeling the Byronic hero will play a role in many stories to come. He will continue to sulk and brood into the hearts of impressionable women everywhere.

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