Bret Easton Ellis’ American psycho has been a highly controversial book. Many critics condemned this novel before it had been published so Ellis even had to search for a new publishing company. The indignation at American psycho had been so fierce, it verged on hysteria and some interest groups (feminist and religious groups for instance) agitated against the author and his work. The main reason why critics reacted that outraged was the explicit and detailed description of violence in this book. In this paper I will discuss the appearence of violence in American psycho. But first I want to create a picture of social phenomena in the USA of the 80’s as they are described in the novel, in order to provide the setting, the atmosphere in which the violence takes place. This will help to give an opinion of this violence and to interpret it. Then I will discuss how violence is presented in the text. In the fourth chapter I want to give a short interpretation of American psycho basing on the previous insights.
2. Patrick Bateman’s world – New York’s society of the 80s
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here” is the sentence the novel starts with. It “is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank” (3). This sentence stands above the portals of hell in Dante’s Divina comedia. In the very beginning of American Psycho New York is associated with hell – New York, the new hell. We can suspect after the very first sentence – and the text will proof this suggestion – that New York will be presented in a negative way.
Patrick Bateman, the protagonist, is young, good-looking, well educated and enormously rich. He works at the Wall Street and is a so-called yuppie (y oung u rban p rofessional). He shows his wealth by wearing expensive designer clothes, dining at exclusive restaurants and always having the newest and best objects (video recorder, stereo system). The yuppie-culture rose in the 1980s. During a time of economic recession and general impoverishment of the masses few young people in the USA working mostly in the finance business became extraordinary rich. This social and economic elite attached importance to disassociate themselves from the rest of the population by using their money. Quality and exclusiveness were the two yuppie-standarts – money does not matter. And it also was essential to make the difference obvious, to show everybody that you are rich. And so does Patrick Bateman. He feels superior, actually he despise people who are different from him (not so rich). He and his yuppie-friends fool beggars by playing the so-called “tease-the-bum-with-a-dollar trick” (113, for example): they pretend to give a beggar a dollar bill, put it in again and laugh at him. So to yuppies (as they are described in the text) wealth is a thing that only few people deserve. Bateman once calls a homeless “a member of the genetic underclass” (266).
Bateman lives in a world influenced by mass media, mostly television. He seems to be addicted to a certain talk show, The Patty Winter Show. Over and over again throughout the whole book Bateman (mostly without any context) tells about this show with always the same sentence: The Patty Winter Show today was about xy. The topics of this daily talk show are diverse: Salad Bars (225), Nuclear War (119), Dwarf Tossing (167), an interview with the President (81), Teenage Girls Who Trade Sex for Crack (181), UFOs that kill (115) etc. Different things are presented in the same way in TV. The viewers of mass media (here: Bateman) get used to differences – the differences vanish. Topics are not evaluated, not judged. Everything comes the same to the viewer, everything is entertainment.
The musical essays are very surprising elements in American Psycho. Three times, always after violent and cruel scenes, as a contrast, the narrator, which is Bateman, gives the reader his developed opinion about musicians and their music: Genesis (133), Whitney Houston (252) and Huey Lewis and the News (352). All three musicians can be described as representatives of the pop-culture: conform, harmless, trivial, cheerful – commercial music. It is astonishing that this music is discussed in a very serious way, like an essay in a music magazine. Mainstream culture is the only culture Bateman can identify with. Bateman likes things that are not controversial – he wants to fit in so things that are not conformist, that differ from his yuppie-world (like beggars) could question his way of life – the surface could crack. Another example for mainstream culture is the musical Les Misérable which is mentioned in American psycho a couple of times and which Bateman is fan of. The novel by Victor Hugo is an appeal for a more human world, for social equality and justice, but the musical version of it by Lloyd-Webber eliminated this social-revolutionary content by trivializing it in order to create an easily digestible, bombastic spectacle of pop-culture. Les Misérable loses its meaning, becomes superficial entertainment. So it is no contradiction to torture prostitutes while listening to the Les Misérable soundtrack like Bateman does (172).
 Cp. Ursula Voßmann, Paradise dreamed: Die Hölle der 80er Jahre in Bret Easton Ellis’ Roman ’American psycho’ (Essen: Die blaue Eule Verlag, 2000) 10.
 Cp. Carla Freccero, “Historical violence, censorship, and the serial killer. The case of American Psycho”, Diacritics: A Review of contemporary criticism 27 (1997): 45.
 Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (Baskinstoke and Oxford: Picador, 1991). All page references in the text concern this edition.
 Cp. U. Voßmann, Paradise dreamed, 119.
 Cp. Mike Petry, “Pulling Down the Fun-House of Postmodernism: Forms and Functions of Violence in American ‘Brat Pack’ Fiction of the 1980s and 90s”, The aesthetics and pragmatics of violence (Passau: Verlag Karl Stutz, 2001) 163.
 I use the word pop-culture in its very sense: popular culture.
 Cp. Martin Büsser, Lustmord – Mordlust. Das Sexualverbrechen als ästhetisches Sujet im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (Mainz: Ventil Verlag, 2000) 76.
- Quote paper
- Florian Burkhardt (Author), 2005, Consuming and Consumed People. Violence in American Psycho, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/46344