American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis is a masterfully crafted satire that immerses its reader into the disgustingly immoral lifestyle of 1980s Wall Street men. Its clever criticisms of capitalism is one of the reasons it has earned much acclaim throughout the years. In this essay I will be using Psychoanalytic and Marxist perspectives in order to explore how the character of Patrick Bateman perfectly encapsulates how capitalism negatively affects a human being and causes his unbalanced id, ego and superego and his various defense mechanisms to run wild, which in turn morphs him into a narcissistic, deviant psychopath.
Although the early 1980s was home to one of the largest recessions the United States has ever seen, “The nation endured a deep recession throughout 1982”(Conte, 2001), by the mid-end of the decade the economy was back on the rise: “By 1983, inflation had eased, the economy had rebounded, and the United States began a sustained period of economic growth” (Conte, 2001), with this, consumerist culture was bigger than ever. Songs like Material Girl by Madonna “You know that we are living in a material world and I am a material girl” summarize the feelings a lot of Americans had towards material goods and how important it was to buy luxury or non-essential items. Capitalist consumer culture was so heavily emphasized in this period of time that the growing economies of Asian countries, predominantly Japan, caused fear among American people: “Rapidly growing economies in Asia appeared to be challenging America as economic powerhouses; Japan in particular”(Conte, 2001) The fear stemmed from The United States losing its powerful economic status to another country, and therefore being seen as weaker. The Wall Street boom that occurred in the 1980s also helped a lot of upper middle class Americans to make their own mini fortunes, by taking advantage of the system and successfully
exploiting poor and working class Americans. All of this information is imperative when analyzing and understanding the world of American Psycho. The novel functions as a satire with the goal to point out the depravity and shallowness of the American consumerist culture and the evil that arises when humans are told that money rules absolutely everything. Patrick does not have an actual identity outside of his materialism, and it is not his fault that he was wired to embrace the revolting norms of his capitalist world. All he can do is feed into the system in which he has always been trapped in. The most depressing revelation is the fact that he is well aware of his lack of identity and real purpose “there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.” (Ellis 376). Capitalism takes humanity away from the human and leaves them without a real sense of self or purpose.
Commodity fetishism is a recurring theme throughout the entirety of American Psycho. Its function is to show how intertwined material goods are with the emotional states of the characters, particularly Patrick Bateman. Commodity fetishism is a term coined by Karl Marx which has to do with attributing a false value to objects through the idea that it is providing you with success, luxury and wealth. A notable example of this is when Patrick goes to an upscale restaurant and fears he will not be able to get a table, “I’m on the verge of tears by the time we arrive at Pastels since i’m positive we won’t get seated but the table is good, and relief that is almost tidal in scope washes over me in an awesome wave”(Ellis 39). Patrick’s identity is so directly tied with being able to be associated with the finest restaurants and bars that even the thought of not being able to be seated drives him into an emotional turmoil. There are countless
examples of Patrick being upset because he cannot always have the best of the best, and therefore cannot be at the level of social dominance he wants to have over his colleagues. He physically cannot enjoy and be happy for other people because of his constant need to be in power. Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in American Psycho is in the chapter “Pastels” in which Patrick and his associates are comparing business cards. They all are so desperate to have the best business card, and therefore domination over one another, that it drives Patrick into a panic attack. This perfectly displays the constant swimming-to-the-surface-of-the-pool-esque competition that circulates in a capitalist society. When all of your value is placed on your material goods, once the importance of those material goods are compromised your entire identity is compromised. It does not matter how badly Patrick or his friends try, someone will always have the better business card and therefore someone will always be on top. There are countless examples of the importance of having expensive and quality material items and food present throughout the novel. In the chapter “Morning” the reader gets to see directly into Patrick’s way of thinking. “The painting overlooks a long white down-filled sofa and a thirty-inch digital TV set from Tobisha; it’s a high-contrast highly defined model plus it has a four-corner video stand with a high-tech tube combination from NEC” (Ellis 25), “Then I squeeze Rembrandt onto a faux-tortoise-shell toothbrush.”(Ellis 26). This chapter is not the only instance of the vast amount of social/ personal value placed on having luxury items, the price of objects and foods are constantly stated in order to reaffirm his high status through the arbitrary measurements of success and societal value created by the bourgeois elite.
The bourgeoisie versus proletariat distinction in American Psycho is marked right at the commencement of the novel. Timothy Price sets the tone of how him, Patrick Bateman, and the
rest of their social circle view themselves versus the working/ lower classes. “I’m resourceful, I’m creative, I’m young… in essence what I’m saying is society cannot afford to lose me. I’m an asset.” (Ellis 3). He believes that because he is an affluent wall street man that he is above people who do not live the same luxurious lifestyles and is implying that he, as an asset, is more worthy than people who society would not view as assets. The picking on the proletariat from the bourgeoisie does not stop there, in fact that was one of the tamest examples in the novel. “His voice stops, he takes in a breath and then quietly says, his eyes fixed on a beggar at the corner of second and fifth, “That’s the twenty-forth one I’ve seen today. I’ve kept count.” (Ellis 4). He is treating homeless people as if they are a game, they are so unhuman to him that they can be considered simply another number in his mind. Another instance that can solidify the sense of supremacy the bourgeoisie believes they have is Patrick’s interaction at a dry cleaners. He is arguing with the couple that speaks very little english and owns the business. He is exceedingly verbally abusive towards the couple throughout the interaction “But she’s still talking and I’m nodding as if I understand her gibberish, then I break into a smile and lean right into her face. “If-you-don’t-shut-your-fucking-mouth-I-will-kill-you-are-you-understanding-me?” (Ellis 82). He believes he can say whatever he wants to working class people because he believes he is superior to them. “You’re a fool. I can’t cope with this.” (Ellis 83) The capitalist lifestyle does this to people, it makes them think they are better than others because of their financial status. “Each individual becomes defined by their economic value, which is calculated in their ability to produce, sell, market, and invest” (Nguyen, 2020). Because of this, individuals who are considered to be less economically valuable are treated horribly. Capitalism has utterly corrupted numerous people and has greatly harmed even more.
There is a lot to say about the way growing up in a capitalist and competitive environment negatively affects an individual’s mental state, even if the individual benefits from the system. “The proletariat lives a truly inhuman life, while the bourgeoisie lives a falsely human life. And this is why the proletariat desires to be truly human and the bourgeoisie does not.” (Cohen, 1968) Although it is easy to have disgust towards the bourgeoisie, it is worth noting that they are all only people who often cannot think outside of their privilege because of the way they were raised and the people who surrounded them their entire lives. Patrick’s lifestyle essentially molded his non-existent ego, deviant superego and uncontrollable id. Patrick’s superego is completely and utterly immoral. He has fantasies about murder, rape, torture, and just about every vile act a human can commit towards another human. Of course, it is up to interpretation whether he does any of the acts that he describes but he still thinks about them, and that is enough to prove how utterly sadistic he is as a character. “In psychoanalytic terms, the sadist identifies so exclusively with the superego that his ego no longer exists except as it is externalized onto the other.” (Freccero, 1997) His powerful superego and id work in tandem against his ego so there is nothing stopping Patrick from doing whatever he wants to do, and what he wants to do is commit atrocities. Although he often has malicious and perverted thoughts: “I think about Courtney’s legs, spread and wrapped around my face” (Ellis 108), he also begins to commit villainous and gory acts towards others. One of the most disturbing scenes in the novel, which exhibits the extent of how twisted Patrick’s superego is, is when he antagonizes a homeless man. He begins the interaction positively, giving the homeless man five dollars, he continues to talk to the man and slowly begins insulting him about the fact that he is begging for money: “Do you think it’s fair to take money from people who do have jobs? Who do work?”(Ellis 130) and then starts insulting his lack of personal hygiene and alcoholism “Do you know how bad you smell?”(130). Then, in a non-surprising turn of events, he begins to torture the man “I pull out a long, thin knife with a serrated edge and, being very careful not to kill him, push maybe half an inch of the blade into his right eye” (Ellis 131). Capitalism has so entirely affected Patrick’s Id and superego that he can simply insult and torture a human being who is less fortunate than him, and not give it a second thought. He believes because this man does not contribute to the economy, that his life is not valuable. This is what happens when humans are told their entire value is dependent on financial status and can clearly be seen through Patrick’s violence towards lower class people.
Patricks entire lifestyle and upbringing is exactly what causes his constant neurosis and eventual psychopathic behavior. “We use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety or guilt, which arise because we feel threatened, or because our id or superego becomes too demanding.” (McLeod, 2019) He develops copious amounts of defense mechanisms which quickly get completely out of hand and causes a myriad of problems. “Ego-defense mechanisms are natural and normal. When they get out of proportion (i.e., used with frequency), neuroses develop, such as anxiety states, phobias, obsessions, or hysteria.” (McLeod, 2019) Patrick exhibits a wide variety of defense mechanisms including; projection when he preaches to his friends: “We have to return to traditional moral values and curb graphic violence on TV, in movies, in popular music, everywhere. Most importantly we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.”(Ellis 16), despite his entire life being based around being violent and a materialistic lifestyle. Repression in the form of his homophobia, stemming from his possible closeted homosexuality: “When I stopped on the
corner of Sixteenth Street and made a closer inspection it turned out to be something called a “Gay Pride Parade, which made my stomach turn.”(Ellis 139). He experiences Denial in the form of the countless steps he takes in order to slow down his aging process, because of his deep rooted fear of becoming old and eventually unattractive. “Never use cologne on your face, since the high alcohol content dries your face out and makes you look older… If the face seems dry and flaky—which makes it look dull and olde”(Ellis 27). Perhaps his fear of aging also stems from the fear of uselessness that capitalism instils into people. Once you are old you are no longer useful in a capitalist society, because you cannot contribute by working and making money. Reaction formation is also present in the form of his constant fatphobic comments, because of his fear of being overweight, corroborated by the fact that he is constantly on a diet “Cheryl, this dumpy chick who is in love with me” (Ellis 68). And lastly Identification through his obsessions with both albums/ musicians and serial killers, most notably Ted Bundy, “Did you know that Ted Bundy’s first dog, a collie, was named Lassie?”(Ellis 374). These all eventually lead to his complete loss of self and constant paranoia and of course his rampant narcissism. The lack of empathy in his world causes him to so deeply fall into his own imagination that by the end of the novel the reader has no idea what exactly is real and what was imagined by Patrick.
This quote by the late theorist Mark Fisher perfectly summarizes the hopelessness of change felt by many for our future. “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Patrick Bateman is both a victim and a warning sign of what can happen to a human under the conditions of a capitalist society. He tries his hardest to find meaning in a flawed system which in turn ends in tragedy. When a human is told a life can be valued in relation to material goods their sense of empathy is greatly diminished and what is left is a shell of a person who finds that they cannot relate or care about things outside of the materialistic realm. Narcissism, neurosis, and psychopathy are all explainable when you deeply analyze the world presented to the reader in American Psycho and forced onto the character of Patrick Bateman. The sad truth of the matter is that the horrible effect a capitalist system has on human beings’ lives and mental states is never going to convince the tackless millionaires and billionaires, who hold the grand majority of power, to put their money bags aside and think about the working class people who they constantly exploit.
Brown, Peter H. Material Girl. www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/madonna/materialgirl.html.
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Nguyen, Cara. “The Relationship Between White Supremacy and Capitalism: A Socioeconomic Study on Embeddedness in the Market and Society.” Vol. 4, no. 6, 2020.