The novel opens with Ana (Anastasia) Steele, the protagonist and narrator, preparing for an interview. Ana is a 21-year-old college senior who lives in Vancouver, Washington and attends Washington State University. Ana's best friend and roommate, Kate Kavanagh, is an ambitious journalism student, and Kate has secured an opportunity to interview Christian Grey, the powerful CEO of Grey Enterprise Holdings. Kate has come down with the flu, so Ana has agreed to drive to Seattle and interview Christian Grey. Ana feels uneasy and out of place when she arrives at Grey corporate headquarters, a huge and impressive building where everything is managed with meticulous detail. She is also confounded when she meets Christian and realizes that he is not the middle-aged businessman she had expected. Instead, he is young and extremely handsome.
Ana conducts the interview, trying to stick to the list of questions Kate has prepared for her. However, she can't resist interjecting and asking her own questions; Christian's calm arrogance and good looks both irritate and excite her. Christian also seems to be intrigued, and cancels his next meeting in order to spend more time with Ana, asking her questions about her life and future plans. Ana is somewhat rattled as she concludes the interview and drives back to Vancouver. She gives a brief account of the interview to Kate, and then hurries off to work a shift at her part-time job at Clayton's, a local hardware store. For the rest of the week, Ana keeps herself busy with work, her classes, and friends, but finds her thoughts returning to Christian. She has a happy life, and a good relationship with her mother, who lives in Georgia, and her former stepfather Ray, whom Ana considers her father.
On Friday night, Ana and Kate meet up with their friend José. Ana is very close with José, a talented photographer, but sometimes feels uncomfortable with the suspicion that he has romantic feelings for her. Ana has never met a man she is truly attracted to. The next day, Ana is working a shift at Clayton's and is astonished when Christian Grey walks into the store. He explains that he is in the area because of some research he has donated funds toward, and flirts with her as he makes several purchases. Ana offhandedly mentions that Kate had wished for some photos to accompany the article, and is shocked when Christian agrees to have photos taken. However, her happiness shifts when she encounters Paul Clayton and sees how Christian's behavior changes. Paul is the younger brother of Ana's boss, and the warm rapport between the two of them seems to annoy Christian.
Nonetheless, Ana and Kate eagerly arrange the photo shoot for the following day, enlisting José to take the photos. The next morning, Ana, Kate, José, and José's assistant Travis go to the Heathman Hotel, where Christian is staying. After the photo shoot is over, Christian asks Ana to join him for coffee. He asks her questions about herself and her past, including whether or not she has a boyfriend. Emboldened by their interaction, Ana begins to flirt with him, but is hurt when Christian seems to distance himself and tells her that he is not the man for her. She assumes that he thinks he is too good for her.
Ana throws herself into studying for her final exams, and comes home one day to a surprise gift from Christian: a first edition of the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Kate has by now warned her several times that it seems like Christian is toying with her, and that she doesn't trust him, but Ana can't stop her curiosity. That night, Kate, Ana, and José go out to celebrate, and Ana drinks more than usual. Impulsively, she phones Christian, who is alarmed by hearing that she is drunk. She hangs up without telling him where she is, and a few minutes later she finds herself in an awkward situation when José tries to kiss her. She tries to resist, and suddenly Christian is there. However, by this point, Ana is so drunk that she ends up vomiting.
Christian takes charge of the situation, and takes care of Ana. He is accompanied by his brother Elliott, who strikes up a flirtation with Kate. Ana and Christian even dance for a while, but due to the alcohol, she abruptly collapses.
The action of the novel begins just as Ana is transitioning from one life stage to another. After happy years as a college student, she is about to graduate. Even before she meets Christian, Ana is standing on the precipice of establishing a new identity for herself and making a new path in the world. Her current vision of herself is comfortable, but perhaps a bit stifling. Ana sees herself as unremarkable: especially in comparison to Kate, she is not striking or charismatic. Ana mainly lives in her head, in a dreamy world driven by the fantasies built on years of reading novels. She has never met anyone who can live up to her fantasies, and turns down any man who shows interest in her. Ana simply doesn't think of herself as a particularly romantic or sexual person, but all of that changes the moment she meets Christian Grey. As some critics have noted, Ana's role as a reader who lives primarily in her fantasies makes her a surrogate for the actual reader who is likely seeking the same sense of larger-than-life romance by turning to Fifty Shades in the first place. As Salam Al-Mahadin argues, "In fact, the trilogy's improbable elements (Christian's obsession with Ana for no apparent reason, the endless series of holidays and luxuries, the non-stop lovemaking, Christian as a multi-billionaire at the young age of twenty-six) fit neatly if the novels are taken as an embodiment of a fantasy that draws upon the surreal, irrational, and the unrealistic, because it is not in the nature of any fantasy to follow the set rules of ideologically-laden realities" (pg. 568).
Ana is overwhelmed and intimidated by everything about her first encounter with Christian. He possesses the confidence and self-assured elegance that she always feels that she lacks. It is clear that Christian is accustomed to always getting his way, and never has to second guess himself. Ana's frankness and authenticity is what triggers the attraction between the two of them. She is not trying to pretend or flatter Christian, which is what he is used to. She is also feisty, which triggers Christian's interest in what it would be like to assert control over her. Ana assumes that Christian couldn't possibly be intrigued by her, but his curiosity suggests otherwise. Kate, who is more worldly and experienced with men, can more quickly pick up on the fact that Christian's interest has been piqued by Ana.
The chemistry between Ana and Christian reflects a dynamic which has a long precedent in cultural and literary representations. Although he is not that much older than her (Christian is in his late twenties when they meet), Christian's power, wealth, and life experience make him seem much older and more knowledgeable than Ana. Ana is only beginning to understand herself and what she truly wants, whereas Christian knows himself and the specificity of his desires extremely well. While Christian represents a worldliness and access to wealth that Ana could never have dreamed of for herself, Ana represents a sort of untarnished innocence, and a refusal to conform to conventions. In classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre, a wealthy, brooding, and cynical man is often drawn to a young woman who stands out because she marches to the beat of her own drum, and refuses to fawn over him. Much like Lizzie Bennett or Jane Eyre, Ana is not afraid to be critical and even defiant towards Christian. For a man who is used to absolute deference, her willfulness acts as the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Ana is an avid reader, and whether she admits or not, she is drawn to Christian because of the way he reflects her fantasies of a mysterious and powerful man. However, Ana is also a failed reader who lets her innocence distract her from the blatant warnings Christian offers. She can see that Christian desires her, but that he is also trying to restrain himself. He explicitly tells her that he is not the right man for her, but Ana disagrees. Christian's choice of gift reflects his conflict between trying to establish boundaries, and seducing Ana into coming closer. Rather than one of the more traditional love stories where a seemingly cold and distant man ends up becoming a loving partner, he gives her a copy of Hardy's tragic story. The protagonist, Tess, falls prey to a wealthy and powerful man (Alec D'Urberville) who exploits her innocence in order to seduce and/or rape her. The quotation on the card refers to a conversation Tess has with her mother after she is betrayed and discarded: Tess laments that, because she hadn't read novels, she didn't know to be suspicious of men, and ended up violated as a result. Ana is a young woman who has read many novels, but this knowledge has not made her any more discerning about where danger lies.
Because he is used to getting what he wants, Christian immediately begins to pursue Ana assertively, and even aggressively. She is equally blind to the potential warning signs here. At first, Ana simply can't believe that a man like Christian could be interested in her. She disregards his tendency to keep mysteriously turning up places and his invasive questions about her life. What marks out the way that Christian gets to know Ana is that he seeks out many details about her life while revealing almost nothing about his own. This imbalanced power dynamic foreshadows the kind of relationship Christian will desire them to have. While Ana occasionally verges on alarm over realizations like the fact that Christian has tracked her location, she also feels protected by him. Although he exploits his wealth and power to begin exerting control over Ana, he shows up in the more traditional guise of the "white knight," coming to rescue Ana at a moment when she feels vulnerable and in need of help.