American Psycho | Study Guide

Bret Easton Ellis

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American Psycho | Themes

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Appearance versus Reality

Throughout the novel, appearances are at odds with reality. This sets up conflict within the main character, Patrick Bateman, as he obsesses over his appearance to such a degree that he loses his grip on reality. Bateman and his social circle spend most of their time thinking about, working on, and talking about their appearance. This means not only their personal physical appearance but also their lifestyle appearance. They take pains to drink and dine at the trendiest clubs and restaurants. They always notice who is at a certain club or restaurant, and they know they are being noticed. They wear the trendiest and most expensive clothing and carry the most luxurious wallets and business cards. Instead of talking about topics of substance, they frequently discuss fashion, working out, and which of their acquaintances they ran into at such-and-such expensive restaurant. Gossiping about and critiquing the personal appearances of others in their peer group is also fodder for conversation.

However, the novel is not just about a bunch of shallow characters leading their shallow lives. The extreme emphasis on outward appearance covers up a darker reality. This is true for Bateman, whose private life is consumed by pornography and violence, and for his entire social circle. These characters fill their bodies regularly with drugs of various kinds, such as steroids, cocaine, Xanax, and Halcion. They are unfaithful and unhappy in their relationships. Even though Bateman is the titular "American psycho," readers only know this because he is the first-person narrator. Little can be known about the private lives of the other characters. Which of them also have a dark side? What secrets does their polished appearance cover?

This theme is also developed by Bateman's increasing inability to distinguish his hallucinations from reality. He is an unreliable narrator, not because he is lying to the reader but because he is himself unclear what reality is. He believes many of his own hallucinations, so the reader is left uncertain as to what really happened. For the reader, then, appearance becomes reality. This became an issue when the novel was made into a film. Ellis has noted that in the novel, the reader is left to wonder which, if any, murders really took place and which, if any, were Bateman's imagination or hallucination only. He believes that after seeing the violent scenes, the audience believes in their reality more than if they only read about them: "Regardless of how [director] Mary Harron wants to shoot that ending, we've already seen him kill people ..."

Violence and Dehumanization

Violence in the novel is directed, in many cases, toward people that Bateman already sees as less than human. Extreme sexual violence is directed at women, who are objectified throughout the novel. Beautiful women are called "hardbodies," and their body parts and clothing are described in detail though their faces are not. The men in the novel share the opinion that personality or brains in a woman is not desirable or even possible. In the tenth chapter, "Harry's," they agree on the sentiments "If they have a good personality then ... something is very wrong" and "There are no girls with good personalities." Prostitutes are given aliases by Bateman, suggesting that their individual identities do not matter in the least. Violence is also directed toward the homeless, who are ridiculed and mocked by Bateman and his friends throughout the novel and are seen as less than human.

The theme is also more subtly developed by the emphasis on characters' outward appearances over their inner thoughts and feelings. There is a suggestion that the obsession with appearance is already a deeply flawed way to live. Perhaps it is this outward-focused lifestyle that leads to Bateman's break with reality. In an unusually self-aware moment, he notes in "Summer" that his "depersonalization was so intense, ... so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated." He says he is "simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being." Thus, dehumanization and violence are linked both ways. Dehumanizing the self leads to a lack of empathy and violent tendencies. Dehumanizing others makes violence toward them more palatable or desirable.

Consumerism

Along with sex and violence, consumerism is the most noticeable feature of the novel. Nearly every page is peppered with brand names of products and designer clothing. The characters are continually spending large amounts of money on meals, tanning beds, and fitness clubs and flaunting their luxury-priced accessories and electronics. Bateman's materialistic circle of young, wealthy friends and acquaintances is well-off enough to indulge this name brand–driven lifestyle, but their focus seems to leave little time or energy for other aspects of life. Their consumerism is, in fact, all-consuming.

The toxic effects of extreme consumerism are well illustrated in the chapters that take place at Christmastime. In "Shopping" Bateman lists all the people he has to buy presents for, and the list is long. He also sends 300 designer Christmas cards. As he shops, he is overwhelmed by the products in the stores, listing them in a manic fashion: "sterling silver monogrammed golf tees and charcoal-filter smoke trappers and desk lamps and ..." He spirals into "some kind of existential chasm" at Bloomingdale's, after which he has to take three Halcion to "ward off madness."

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