Fifty Shades of Grey has generated think pieces and article comments that are all united by their utter cluelesness. Twilight Fanfic du Jour is not some bold new take on sex, it's not some triumph of erotica, and it sure ain't the downfall of cinema. It's just another spank fantasy with nothing of substance to say.
Original title Histoire d'O, it focuses on the willing sexual slavery of a woman known simply as O to one powerful man after another. Beginning in Roissy - a little bit finishing school, a little bit Hellfire Club - the titular O is conditioned to be ever ready for oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse by a succession of nameless gentlemen who frequent the club, including the lover, René, who presents her in the first place.
Tellingly, O is not pursuing this on her own but is in fact following the wishes of René. Her subjugation to other men is presented as his will, to which she willingly complies. After she graduates from Roissy, she returns to René as a child returns to her father and continues to obey him in their ensuing adventures through the underground BDSM scene of mid-20th Century Paris. In the course of this, René eventually presents O as a "gift" to his elder brother, Sir Stefan. O, being a good girl, does this for René but ultimately grows to love Sir Stefan instead and attends the advanced slavery course at Samois, culminating in a literal padlock on her vagina.
Like all the best French writing, sex is front and center through all this but serves more to illuminate human nature. O's devotion to René at first makes things appear as just a kinky romance but her switch to Sir Stefan demonstrates that this is just as much about power. Anyone familiar with BDSM is going "Well duh!" right now but Story of O does not leave this at merely the fantasy level, where modern BDSM fearfully clings. Rather, the novel is a critique of power dynamics from the sexual to the economic. O's subservience to the men in her life is nothing but the logical extreme of actually existing patriarchy, where a woman's highest desire is pleasing men.
The insidiousness of this system is highlighted by O presenting her ravaged body and pad-locked pussy as her own choice to a horrified fashion model - not just demonstrating how people can internalize the culture that oppresses them but also the murkiness of trying to reconcile the personal with the political. Though O is degraded further and further into an object over the course of the narrative - not once is she even given the dignity of a full and proper name - but she willingly allows this out of her declared love. Who can say she doesn't honestly feel for René and Sir Stefan? Is this still slavery if it's not only accepted but actively sought by the slave?
While the personal and sexual dimension of power in Story of O is explored in every direction, the economic dimension is critiqued more subtly and through strategic omission. At the very start, René does not himself drive O to Roissy but hires a cab. All the other gentlemen at Roissy carry themselves with the stiff confidence of the upper classes, indulging in and abusing the women who are made to dress as eroticized servants and obey. Not once does O encounter a man from the laboring classes - indeed, Sir Stefan is blatantly of a high patrician class and even exerts power over other men, particularly his younger brother René. Yet many of the other women O encounters, from her horrified model friend to the other girls at Samois, could easily be from less privileged backgrounds. The Samois girls in particular reflect the suggestibility and dependence of teenage runaways picked up and turned out by pimps, seeking some purpose in life and finding it in complete submission to those society deems their betters.
The novel ends with O reduced to such an object, so lacking in agency, that she requires Sir Stefan's permission to die. She never once protests this condition as to do so would be asserting herself as an independent being in her own right, with desires independent of serving those in a position of privilege over her. That she nominally chose this course only raises the question of if the world ever really gave her a choice from the start.