Question: To what extent is Patrick Bateman’s psychology presented as the result of materialism and consumer culture in Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’?
The presentation of Patrick Bateman’s psychology as the result of materialism and consumer culture in Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’.
As “one of the most banned and challenged books out there” (El), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was also widely impactful, being “a highly influential and seminal piece of literature…[and] intrigues and repulses many readers” (El) with its twisted black comedy and shocking violent descriptions, transforming the glamour of the American Dream into a bleak nightmare.
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The protagonist Patrick Bateman is a caricature of the classic 80s yuppie, stereotyped for being undeservedly rich and being arrogant with their considerable affluence in a time where there was a large wealth disparity. He is presented as the “extreme end of consumer culture and liberal capitalism” (Schaffer) in the novel. The characters in the novel all reflect this, presenting to the reader a highly materialistic world with the general necessity to fit in with the associated crowd. This need involves maintaining the appearance of wearing luxury brands, going to the most exclusive clubs and restaurants, dating attractive women (“hardbodies” (Ellis)) and even down to completely trivial details such as the design of a business card. This routine life of materialism and consumption leads to a general feeling of monotony, which drives Bateman towards seeking thrills such as taking drugs and committing acts of violence and torture, and the almost ritualistic way these occur makes him desensitized. There is a lack of emotional connection between the characters with the emphasis of their worth being placed on shallow appearances which isolates the individuals. In this world of shallow focuses on material and status presented by the novel, the protagonist seems to rebel against these customs by his private activities of violence and torture whilst maintaining an appearance of innocence and normality when being with others of his status. The novel is written in a hyper realistic style, which makes the reader question the validity of the events depicted: whether the events are real and Bateman is a murderous Psychopath, or Bateman is an unreliable narrator who hallucinates or invents all his acts of violence.
I want to explore this further in looking at whether it is this life of materialism and consumer culture that shapes Bateman’s feelings of lack of self and cruel hunger for others to feel his pain, in both interpretations of Bateman actually committing the savagery or hallucinating the events. By “psychology” I mean the analysis of his behavior given through the context of the novel, focusing on examination by psychoanalytic theory. As he is a fictional character, the novel’s descriptions only present a limited amount of evidence, so the basis for psychology analysis is very restrained. In addition to this, “Ellis’s narrative neither provides the reader with any reason for the atrocities committed by Bateman, nor with any psychological insight into Bateman’s character to justify his actions” (Weinreich), which means that any psychology analysis can only be determined from his narrative voice the given descriptions of his behaviour.
In the midst of all the glamour and luxury in the lifestyle typical of Bateman’s social class, there exists, as presented by the novel, the depressing fundamental truth: all of these characters have everything, and yet have nothing at all. In fact, it is this life of extravagance that drives these characters towards a fixation with material and away from human connection, thus demonstrating the extreme consumer culture following economic success.
Patrick Bateman’s life is of a high quality, but this is exactly what makes him lack and unable to develop basic emotional connections with other characters, including his own family. This inability to connect isolates Bateman, and in place of this, he strives towards material and appearances to allow him to fit in, creating a cycle towards further isolation. Bateman is unable to produce any form of sentiment and thus does not have any care for the other characters. However, there is the one exception of his secretary Jean, whom he comes close to caring for but still finds himself incapable of returning her feelings for him:
“I find myself almost dazzled and moved that I might have the capacity to accept, though not return, her love. I wonder if even now, right here in Nowheres, she can see the darkening clouds behind my eyes lifting. And though the coldness I have always felt leaves me, the numbness doesn’t and probably never will. This relationship will probably lead to nothing… this didn’t change anything.” (Ellis)
The juxtaposition of “coldness” and “numbness” clarifies the distinction between the two; “coldness” connotes being cold blooded, symbolizing his appeal for violence, and “numbness” indicates his emotional detachment and inability to feel. The definitive “never” signifies his complete incapability of emotional response, and this is enforced by the negatives “doesn’t” and “didn’t”.
Bateman’s surprise at his ability to accept another’s feelings for him suggests his rooted disbelief in another person having genuine affection for him. This implies his deep-rooted self-hatred that creates his perception of himself as not deserving of affection. It also reveals his awareness of his own incapability to love. This is presented as a special and unusual moment for Bateman, shown by the long descriptive sentences that differ and contrast with the rest of the novel, which is written in a more factual and direct style, with an emotionless tone. The comparisons between the narrative styles also reflect Bateman’s emotional capability, where throughout the novel he is detached and aloof, and here he is portrayed as almost able to feel.
The reader sees for the first time Bateman wondering about another person in a non-violent way, which reinforces the fact that this is a unique moment for him. His curiosity is representative of his acknowledgement of another human being, in that he recognizes here there is another person that is able to think and feel and has a mind of their own, which makes him almost able to accept the existence of her emotions. Jean is special to him since she is the only character that seems to genuinely care for and listen to him, in contrast to the rest of the characters who have no emotional attachment to Bateman, but only have a relationship with him based entirely on the physical, or built on the maintenance of surface appearances and status, which explains his differing attitude towards her which almost contains some sense of care.
Bateman’s speech is often interrupted, ignored or misheard completely, just as Bateman often shuts out the speech of others, signaling a lack of proper communication between the characters. A clear example of this is laundry at the Chinese cleaners where the comical scene of the cleaner and Bateman shouting at each other takes place:
“But she’s not listening; she keeps blabbering something in the same spastic, foreign tongue. I have never firebombed anything and I start wondering how one goes about it – what materials are involved, gasoline, matches… or would it be lighter fluid?
I’m laughing, appalled at how ridiculous this situation is, and slapping a hand on the counter look around the shop for someone else to talk to, but it’s empty, and I mutter, “This is crazy.” I sigh, rubbing a hand over my face, and then abruptly stop laughing, suddenly furious. I snarl at her, “You’re a fool. I can’t cope with this.”” (Ellis)
The statement “she’s not listening” has an accusatory tone, and this is enforced by the use of the word “keeps”, suggesting Bateman’s irritation with the cleaner in not being able to understand her continuous discourse. The accusation is childlike, with the semi-colon separating the clauses making them short and abrupt, highlighting his childlike frustration and directing all of the blame of the miscommunication towards the cleaner, even though he is also guilty of not listening to her in return. Bateman mind drifts away from the present situation in a stream of consciousness and starts “wondering”. The narrative drifting off into his irrelevant thoughts highlights his lack of care for what she has to say and his lack of engagement with the other person and his boredom with the conversation.
An image of dysfunction and animalistic chaos is created through the use of verbs such as “blabbering” and “snarl”, as well as the adjective “spastic”, which stresses the madness of the situation where Bateman and the cleaner are both shouting at each other and neither is listening or able to understand. The Chinese cleaner is associated with words that present her as incompetent, whereas “snarl” connotes more predatory animals, signifying the difference in their power dynamic, where Bateman views the cleaner as lesser than he is due to their difference in wealth, her ethnicity and perhaps sees her as less valuable to society in this way.
The sudden dramatic change in tone is illustrated by the adverbs “abruptly” and suddenly”, and his unexpected change in attitude from “laughing” to “furious” suggests his crazed mental state due to his disbelief and irritation at their inability to communicate to each other and convey what is needed to be said.
Their lack of an attempt to communicate with each other in not listening to one another due to an inability to understand reflects the same dynamic of relationship between Bateman and the other characters of his social class. In the same way, other characters do not care or listen to what Bateman has to say, just as he often ignores other characters and instead entertains himself with his own, usually violent, thoughts. The lack of effort put in to communicate with another person reveals the tragic nature of his relationships with other characters, which exist only on the surface with no deeper personal connections. This isolation makes him incapable of establishing proper human connections and leads to further desensitization and monotony of his life and relationships.
In the world of American Psycho, the focus material consumption and appearance as a measure of status and value to society is central to Patrick Bateman in his desire to fit in: “I…want…to…fit…in”. His constant need to purchase goods of the highest quality with the most prestigious branded names and the maintenance of a perfect appearance are obsessed over to an extreme level of detail and make up every aspect of his daily life, from his lengthy morning wake up routine filled with skincare and exercise, to his almost performative night life in the hottest clubs with other members of his social class. With all this lifestyle of luxury, “pleasure is found and lost in every new good and service acquired” (Saraiva), and this creates a feeling of monotony in his very much repetitive daily life.
Noticeable from the beginning is the monotonous matter of fact tone that is used to describe the events in the novel. Julian Murphet states that the novel contains “Some of the emptiest dialogue ever committed to print; ghastly, endless descriptions…and a central narrating voice which seems unable and unwilling to raise itself above the literary distinction of an inflight magazine”. The descriptions mirror the style of a newspaper or catalogue, listing the information in a structured and chronological way. This is depicted clearly in Bateman’s description of his morning routine:
“Once out of the shower and toweled dry I put the Ralph Lauren boxers back on and before applying the Mousse A Raiser, a shaving cream by Pour Hommes, I press a hot towel against my face for two minutes to soften abrasive beard hair. Then I always slather on a moisturizer (to my taste, Clinique) and let it soak in for a minute.” (Ellis)
The way he describes his actions is systematic and has the same level of emotional content as an instructions manual. This is shown through the chronological order indicated by the transition words beginning each sentence, and the specificities of the timings on each task: “two minutes”, “a minute”, which adds an extreme level of precision to the language, making it mathematical, structured and informative, which then takes away any form of emotional engagement in the passage. The syntax of each sentence is similar in the use of a verb following the subject “I”: “I put”, “I press”, which makes the description repetitive and further removes any emotion from the methodical description.
There is also a clear emphasis on appearance throughout his whole morning ritual, obsessing over the details of his multiple step facial, hair and body care in maintaining the perfect appearance. “Bateman’s narrative is a repetition of behavior patterns, situations and reckless consumption of products that leaves the reader with an impression that Bateman’s world is small and futile.” (Saraiva)
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There is a detailed focus on the specific luxury brand such as “Ralph Lauren” and “Pour Hommes” used or worn throughout his descriptions, and this is also consistent throughout his observation of other people, listing in the same systematic way their choice of clothing and accessories:
“There are four women at the table opposite ours, all great-looking – blond, big tits: one is wearing a chemise dress in double-faced wool by Calvin Klein, another is wearing a wool knit dress and jacket with silk faille bonding by Geoffrey Beene, another is wearing a symmetrical skirt of pleated tulle and an embroidered velvet bustier by, I think, Christian Lacroix plus high-heeled shoes by Sidonie Larizzi, and the last one is wearing a black strapless sequined gown under a wool crepe tailored jacket by Bill Blass.” (Ellis)
The women are initially judged based on their body, with a focus on them being blond as stereotypically attractive. The four women are identified based on what they are wearing rather than any other observable traits, suggesting their attractiveness and value are based on the price of their outfits as an indication of their wealth. The focus on material wealth reflects the nature the standard behaviour within his social class, whereby status is associated with the usage and acquisition of branded goods, and this is what determines the value of another person. Having this mindset and “Bateman’s anxiety for being loved, leads him to give disproportionate importance to clothing, which is, along with the body, a means for exercising his luxury.” (Saraiva) This brings monotony and desensitization into his lifestyle, leaving him in a state of isolation, boredom and emotionless pain.
Throughout the novel, there are allusions to hell which enforce this, comparing Bateman’s lifestyle of affluence to hell. The novel begins with a quotation from Dante’s Inferno written in blood on a wall: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” (Ellis). The fact that these words are written in blood foreshadows the murders that will be committed as Bateman’s life is unfolded and told to the reader. The allusions to hell highlight Bateman’s entrapment in this vicious cycle of monotony and isolation, and signify his ceaseless pain and suffering in the world of extreme materialism and consumption in comparing his life to hell.
Monotony and isolation within Bateman’s life creates a structured cycle of boredom, which Bateman attempts to escape from through his private thoughts and activities of violence and torture. He inflicts pain on others as a way of making others feel his pain of his isolated and emotionless life:
“My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape.” (Ellis)
Bateman’s victims are not chosen at random, but are specific victims that he views as non-valuable to the capitalist society, such as homeless beggars and prostitutes, which stresses the significant influence of the capitalist mindset on his private activities as well. The murders and torture initiate in the novel as thoughts or fantasies that Bateman entertains himself with, then these transform into full-scale violence as the true alternate personality of Patrick Bateman is gradually revealed to the reader, highlighting the immense possibility of similar violent behaviour happening behind any façade of normalcy, implying the susceptibility of anyone being disposed to similar torturous violent longings.
As the novel progresses the lines between sex and violence become more vague, initially separated by a period of time between the two activities, then becomes indistinguishable as they happen at the same time, associating the two in Bateman’s mind:
“I’m biting hard, gnawing at Tiffany’s cunt, and she starts tensing up. “Relax,” I say soothingly. She starts squealing, trying to pull away, and finally she screams as my teeth rip into her flesh.”
Animalistic imagery is created through the use of verbs: “biting”, “gnawing”, “rip”, and this is compared with the verb “squealing”, which connotes the sound of a pig, comparing Tiffany to a weak animal whose flesh is popularly used for consumption, linking in to the cannibalism. This portrays Bateman as the predator in comparison to Tiffany, depicted as prey, highlighting the difference in power dynamic between the two.
Cannibalism in the novel is a metaphor for the insatiable hunger of consumption, where “luxury places the characters in a vicious circle where they find pleasure in objects and feel hungry for more of the same objects” (Saraiva). The increasing animalistic behavior as novel progresses reflects the further deterioration in Bateman’s behaviour in his lack of control and mental clarity, as well as his further downfall into the monotonous, insensitive and isolated world of extreme consumer culture.
Bateman’s loss of control and deterioration into further violence can also be seen from his speech. His words are often misused and misheard, creating satirical scenes of dramatic irony in the other characters’ oblivion to his shockingly violent statements. He often mixes up words such as “murders and executions” with “mergers and acquisitions”, creating a typical Freudian slip, revealing his state of mind of constant thoughts of violence. Misinterpretation of Bateman’s speech by other characters is also a reflection of the innocent appearance that Bateman presents himself with, highlighting the distinction between the surface appearances the materialistic world and the drastically different reality underneath, that people are either unwilling or just not interested enough to discover, displaying the emotionless nature of his relationships with other characters.
On the contrary, Schoene presents a different interpretation of the causes of “Patrick’s ultraviolent outbursts, or fantasizing about such outbursts, as acts of manly self-assertion compensating for a perceived in masculine stature” (Schoene). This can be seen in others’ perceptions of him as weak, thus justifying his need to assert his own masculinity, such as when Carnes stated, “Bateman’s such a bloody ass-kisser, such a brown-nosing goody-goody” (Ellis), presenting Bateman as a rule-following spineless character, which distinctly contrasts with the personality that the reader has been presented with, who is aloof and capable of murder. This suggests two possibilities: either the other characters have been fooled by Bateman’s presentation of a timid, weak and innocent appearance, or Bateman has been imagining and portraying a different image of himself to the reader, which depicts what he sees as stereotypically masculine, and implies that the female characters that all seem to fawn over him conveyed through the narrative are just exaggerations presented to the reader or hallucinations used by Bateman to convince himself of his own masculine strength.
In this interpretation, Bateman’s justification of his own masculinity can be evidenced by the explanation of the inconsistencies between the other characters’ descriptions of him and the way that he is presented to the reader. However, it is this monotonous, desensitized and isolated life of striving to fit in with society that drives Bateman towards feeling the necessity to assert his masculinity, as another guideline of fitting in, which highlights this as the primary reason for his behaviour.
The novel is written in a hyper realistic style, where Bateman constantly undermines his own words and leads the reader into questioning the validity of the events being described in the novel, especially the acts of violence that Bateman supposedly have committed.
The major question of truth in the novel is whether or not Bateman really killed Paul Owen, whom he is jealous of, for managing the “Fisher Account” which Bateman is keenly curious for. This leads on to the climax of the novel, when Bateman’s lawyer Carnes claims to be Owen’s alibi that he is still alive: “Because… I had… dinner… with Paul Owen… twice… in London… just ten days ago.” Carnes’ hesitation, shown by the ellipses, enforces the ambiguity of the question of truth and his statement highlights two interpretations of the event: either Bateman was hallucinating the even of the murder, or Carnes had dinner with another man whom he had mistaken for Owen, which was not uncommon in novel where multiple characters were often confused for each other. This ambiguity is further explored as the “veracity of these crimes remains doubtable since even Bateman seems to disbelieve in his own sanity” (Saraiva) in his reply: “No, you… didn’t.”
With each interpretation is a different analysis of his psychology. As he is a fictional character, the evidence for analysis is limited and based entirely on the presentation of his character in the novel. According to Schaffer, Bateman depicts characteristics of both borderline personality disorder (BPD) and schizophrenia. BPD is evidenced by Bateman’s feelings of lack of self: “I simply don’t exist”, and schizophrenia is demonstrated by his jumbled word use.
However, this analysis is taken based entirely on the assumption that Bateman is an unreliable narrator and has hallucinated all the murders in the novel. In another interpretation of all the violent passages as actually occurring, Bateman would instead have anti-social personality disorder (ASPD) evidenced by his lack of emotional attachments, inability to form emotional connections and lack of empathy.
Hallucinations or reality, regardless of whether Bateman actually committed the crimes that he described to the reader, both interpretations signify the extreme extent of violence and cruelty to which a person like Bateman is capable of, and this stresses the susceptibility of any person in falling into the same cycle of pain and violence if placed under the same circumstances of monotony, desensitization and isolation in the extremes of the capitalist world.
The novel presents to the reader the extremities of the capitalist system in the representation of the character Patrick Bateman, whom epitomizes having excessive affluence in a world of severe materialism and consumer culture. Within this prosperous lifestyle of extravagance, it is this exact luxury that isolates the individuals, placing the emphasis of human relationships on material and status instead of genuine emotional connection. The constant need to upkeep this presentation of wealth ad status creates monotony and makes Bateman desensitized to everything, rendering him emotionless and incapable of human connection, thus creating a cycle further isolating him. This pushes him towards violence as a release for his pain by inflicting it on others, whether hallucinated or literal, and is also a way for him to defy the rules of society and escape the social guidelines that he is bound to. Although it could be argued that his violent behaviour was instead a result of his assertion of his own masculinity, this need is enforced upon him by his desire to fit in with society, which is a construct of the culture of materialism and consumption, which means that his psychology is a result of this to a large extent.
- El, Hanaa. “Was Bateman Actually a Psycho?” 31 October 2017. The Literati. <https://literatimag.com/articles/was-patrick-bateman-actually-a-psycho-part-one>.
- Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. 1991.
- LitCharts. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. 2019 <https://www.litcharts.com/lit/american-psycho>.
- Murphet, Julian. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho: a reader’s guide. Continuum, 2002.
- Saraiva, Jefferson Moura. “PAINFUL LUST: STATUS AND CONSUMERISM IN AMERICAN PSYCHO .” (2018).
- Schaffer, Christopher. “Examining the Personality of Patrick Bateman of American Psycho .” (n.d.).
- Schoene, Berthold. “SERIAL MASCULINITY: PSYCHOPATHOLOGY AND OEDIPAL VIOLENCE IN BRET EASTON ELLIS’S “AMERICAN PSYCHO” .” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2008): 378-397.
- Storr, Anthony. Freud: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford, 2001.
- Weinreich, Martin. “”Into the Void”: The Hyperrealism of Simulation in Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” .” Amerikastudien / American Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1, Neorealism – Between Innovation and Continuation (2004): 65-78 .