The next day, Ana boards her return flight to Seattle. After reflection, she realizes that unless she feels sure that Christian loves her, she will never be entirely satisfied with their relationship. At the same time, she is apprehensive because whatever situation required Christian to return to Seattle seems to be making him distant and preoccupied. In Seattle, Taylor meets Ana at the airport and drives her back to Christian's apartment. Reunited, Christian is passionate, but still insists on maintaining some distance. That night, Christian takes Ana into his playroom and they experiment with the dominant sex he enjoys. Ana finds herself experiencing a lot of pleasure as well.
Ana wakes up very early to find Christian playing the piano. They return to the rules of the contract, and seem to be making progress on reaching an agreement that will work for both of them. However, Ana casually compares her feelings about punishment to Christian's feelings about having his torso touched. Christian is shocked and horrified: it had never occurred to him that Ana might truly feel afraid and violated by him punishing her. However, he insists that he needs this type of experience, and also refuses to tell Ana why.
Frustrated and unsure how to move forward, Ana asks Christian to show her the worst he can do. She hopes that in exchange for this vulnerability, he will allow her to touch him. He hopes that if Ana sees the worst possibility, she'll be able to be more trusting and at ease.
Christian takes Ana back into the playroom and hits her with his belt. When he finishes, she feels degraded, and is furious with him. Afterwards, she and Christian sadly admit that they are probably wrong for each other. Still, Ana admits that she has fallen in love with him. Christian is horrified by this admission, and Ana tells him that she is leaving. She packs her things and returns his gifts, asking for the money Taylor got when he sold her old car. Devastated, Ana lets Taylor drive her back to her apartment alone.
In the final section of the novel, the arc of the developing relationship between Christian and Ana reaches its peak, only to crumble almost immediately. The climax and ending of the novel undermines the expectations established by centuries of comic and romantic plot lines, showing how James is actively using a new medium where cliffhangers and trilogy formats can be used to structure plots and drive readers' suspense.
Ana's retreat to Georgia has worked, even though it didn't end up giving her distance from Christian. Through her time with her family, she has reconnected with her values and sense of self. She returns to Seattle knowing that she has non-negotiable needs in the relationship, and she feels a sense of courage in being willing to stand up for them. At the same time, the clarity around her needs and desires also liberates Ana to push her boundaries. Her sex life with Christian is growing kinkier and kinkier, and she finds herself enjoying these encounters as well as their more conventional lovemaking. Readers can discern something that might unlock the key to happiness for both Christian and Ana: dominant sexuality and emotional intimacy are not mutually exclusive for her. In fact, feeling secure and loved within the relationship is what will allow her to let go and explore all sorts of sexual experience.
Although Ana has tried many times to explain her feelings to Christian and tell him why she is ambivalent about being physically punished, he's never been able to understand. It is a casual, throwaway comment which finally unlocks clarity for him. Significantly, when Ana draws an analogy between her own experience (disliking punishment) and his (disliking being touched in certain areas of his body), Christian is finally able to understand. He seems to have difficulty with empathy, but when he can work from the frame of his own experience, he can truly relate to Ana's feelings for the first time. However, this clarity also fills him with self-loathing. Once Christian truly understands the emotional impact he has carelessly been subjecting Ana to, he also has to reckon with his own culpability.
Perhaps because her confidence has been increasing, Ana overplays her hand. She is tired of threats and mystery hanging over their relationship, and she believes that if she and Christian can truly show their rawest and most vulnerable selves, they might finally be able to move forward. By asking Christian to show her the worst he can do, she unites the powerful and the submissive parts of her role: she can freely ask and choose the type of surrender she wants to offer to Christian. However, Ana has known from the beginning that she doesn't enjoy physical pain, and being beaten with a belt pushes her too far past her limits. There is no sexual enjoyment here for her, and she recoils. Although it is heartbreaking for her to face this inevitability, Ana shows a surprising strength of will and firmness of conviction in telling Christian that the relationship cannot continue. By the time she returns to her apartment alone, Ana is experiencing pangs of doubt, but she does assert her own needs in ending the relationship.
Traditionally, a comic or romantic plot ends with the marriage of the lovers. Ana and Christian have come together, only to be torn apart. Readers, however, can feel confident that their story is going to continue, so this delay only heightens the anticipation of finally seeing them reunite. The trilogy structure mirrors the more traditional three-volume ("triple decker") format of 18th- and 19th-century novels. For example, the ending of Fifty Shades more closely aligns with the moment when Jane Eyre leaves Rochester after finding out about his first wife, or Lizzie Bennett rejects Darcy's first proposal in Pride and Prejudice. Part of the pleasure of a romance plot is watching the obstacles unfold while also knowing that the protagonists will eventually find their way to each other. By drawing out that process, James heightens the narrative anticipation for her readers. The apparent subversion of a romance ending with the protagonists separate from one another reflects the apparent subversion of the transgressive sexuality depicted in the novel. Both exist only to ultimately further a highly conventional outcome normalizing and valorizing a committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. As Lisa Downing clarifies, Fifty Shades "appears to deliver something ‘transgressive’... namely BDSM sex, within a conservative literary generic form, the romance, thereby delivering a comfortable and traditional social narrative culminating in marriage and reproduction" (pg. 96).