Alienation and Loss of Identity in ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J. D. Salinger ‘A modern world based on pure individual self-interest, ironically leaves the individual in a chronically weak condition. Without a binding collective culture, without solidarity, the individual – isolated, adrift on tides of momentary desires – is open to manipulation and the most subtle forms of freedom. ’1 Slater’s words fully encapsulate the grasping feelings of alienation that continuously mark the lives of both the protagonists in BRET E.
ELLIS’ American Psycho and J. D. SALLINGER’S The Catcher in The Rye. He deems that in a money-driven society where everyone stands only for himself, the individual remains isolated in his attempts to find a sense of belonging. Born in the postmodern society of the 20th century, after the second World War was finished, these modern generations so accurately represented by Patrick Bateman and Holden Caulfield no longer have to fight in wars, they do not have to stand up and fight for causes and beliefs – shortly, they do not have to struggle as most generations before them had to.
Instead, they live in a world in which everything seems to be at the ready for them. However, they experience a spiritual crisis. In such a world, marked by America’s launch into economical prosperity and the emerging of consumer society, the individual finds himself deprived of any real freedom when following the many rules that society imposes and thus lost with no identity, he can only desperately attempt to break free and be different.
While in The Catcher in the Rye the hero has this constant (apparently innocent) inner struggle in the search of a place to fit in, in American Psycho, this idea is truly carried to an extreme: Patrick Bateman lives in a world which presents itself as the embodiment of the American Dream. On a closer look, though, we can see just how much of it is fake, and the ‘dream’ rapidly switches into a sheer nightmare. Right from the very beginning of the novel, we find ourselves warned: ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’.
The message is clear and resonates deeply: we enter hell. Dreadful things are bound to happen to us and we continue at our own risk. Set in 1980’s Manhattan, coinciding with the rebirth of Wall Street and the city reclaiming its role at the centre of the worldwide financial industry, this black comedy gives us an entirely realistic insight into the lives of the rich and powerful. A good example of that is the book’s narrator, 26 year old Partick Bateman, young and influential American banker and the typical eighties yuppie.
Flawless in every way on the outside, Bateman appears to be perfect or at least as perfect as the people surrounding him can see him: he is on various occasions described by his girlfriend, Evelyn as ‘The boy next door’, a symbol of kindness and innocence. We soon learn that he is in fact the opposite: a perfect specimen of an amoral society, embodying all the worst qualities like greed, excess and vanity. Creating a direct contrast, in The Catcher in the Rye Salinger manages to successfully tackle a different, somewhat controversial stage of youth – adolescence.
Taking place in 1950s closely following the Second World War in a prosper Manhattan, this timeless novel traces the protagonist’s quest to initiation, finding an identity and a respective place in society while still trying to preserve his childish innocence at the age of 16. Loss of identity is possibly one of the most important themes in the two novels. The protagonists succeed in turn to become the person that the society they live in knows and accepts but they fail miserably in preserving their own identity, thus resorting to the use of alienation.
Both authors successfully illustrate that each of the antiheroes they’ve portrayed appear to be ‘suffocated’ by the American society of that time ‘In New York, boy, money really talks – I’m not kidding’ in a way this leading to their apparent depersonalisation and eventually psychosis: while this is obvious for Bateman, in the case of Holden Caulfield we only find out at the end that he narrates the story in retrospective from a mental institution.
All throughout the narrative, Bateman is often mistaken for other people, and other people are mistaken for Bateman or for other people because they all look indistinguishable from one another from the way they dress to the way they behave: ‘Owen has mistaken me for Marcus Halbersham [… ] but for some reason it doesn’t really matter [… ] since he works at P&P, does the same exact thing that I do, has a penchant for Valentino suits and clear prescription glasses and we share the same barber, so it seems understandable’.
Here Ellis is clearly satirising the fact that young Wall Street upper society’s characters of the 80s looked and sounded the same – they all aspired to the Gordon Gecko ‘Wall Street’ look. As with every satire, in American Psycho there are no individuals, only types. Therefore, this uniformity leads to an inability to make out the individual, leaving Bateman in a morally weak state: ‘If I were to disappear into that crack, say somehow miniaturize and slip into it, the odds are good that no one would notice I was gone. No …
one… would… care. ’ He frantically craves the merest thing others take for granted: he wants to fit in and find love and belonging. We learn that Bateman is engaged to an equally rich and shallow woman – Evelyn Williams but whom he doesn’t love – ultimately it is implied that they can’t stand each other, but remain together just for the sake of their social lives. He also has a mistress and numerous encounters with prostitutes but none of these women can make him feel joy or pleasure or any feeling for that matter.
But although Bateman claims at times that he is devoid of any emotion, he often describes experiencing moments of extreme rage, panic or grief – being on the “verge of tears” and always over trivial inconveniences such as not remembering to return videotapes or trying to obtain reservations at some fancy restaurant or the realisation that someone else is better and somehow ‘more perfect’ than him.
This realisation forces him to become aggressive as a means of alienation and he claims to have killed people sadistically, describing it in excruciating detail to shock the reader; however his blunt confessions are met by people’s complete indifference or are taken as a joke because people are not really listening but they’re rather waiting for their turn to speak: ‘”My life is a living hell […] and there are many people I want to, uh, want to, well, I guess murder” I say this emphasizing the last word, straight into Armstrong’s face.
“Service has improved to the […]” comes Armstrong’s uncaring reply. No one seems to care or even notice Bateman’s slips of straightforward honesty, moreover people tell Patrick they have seen his “victims” alive and well at restaurants after their supposed deaths which suggests that even if they are really dead, they will never be missed because they never were identifiable or memorable individually anyway. In this consumerist society lives are as interchangeable as material things.
However one could question the realism of his actions. As Elizabeth Young herself deems, Patrick Bateman is ‘so awesomely unreliable that the fact that anyone took him seriously stands as a monumental tribute to careless reading’2. His confessions cannot be taken seriously as he also claims that an ATM is speaking to him, a park bench followed him around etc. Bateman himself questions his sanity at times, and has periodic attacks of psychosis, during which he hallucinates.
Soon he is completely disintegrating, his monologue breaks into fragments and different voices, and his descend into madness leaves him striped of any feeling and any shred of identity: ‘I have all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense […] that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated. […] I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance to a human being’.
The seemingly endless passages describing meticulously all sorts of trivial thoughts that run through the protagonist’s head are part of a clever device used by Ellis to help define Bateman’s shallow persona. He judges people by what they wear and how they look because he “understands” them in terms of labels and stereotypes and not based on their own personal identity. To him, nothing is more important than appearance, in every aspect: ‘”She’s got a lousy personality.
” […] “So what? It’s all looks. ’ Bateman’s relentless observation and obedience to a strict dress code and a perfect body shape, also his obsession with having the latest equipment and reservations at the most expensive restaurants highlight further the superficiality that characterized the decade and also his desperate attempt to overcome his insecurities that he might not fit with the others.
American Psycho is all about skilfully employed repetition – it is merely a sequence of restaurant meals, clubs, and parties – seemingly interrupted with no warning by these cruel episodes of violence. The present tense narration amplifies Bateman’s dedication to this unsatisfying lifestyle that relies on repetitive self-indulgence. The characters are ‘trapped’ in this ‘modern hell’, unable to escape the pattern because, as Salinger asserts in The Catcher in the Rye with the experienced voice of a mentor, ‘Life is a game, boy.
Life is a game that one plays according to the rules. ’ and there is no exit. He tackles the same ideas about loss of identity in his novel of adolescence through a teenage icon of rebellion almost anyone can relate to- Holden Caulfield. A decade younger than Patrick Bateman, Holden is also in the pursuit of individuality and ultimately an identity, his short but meaningful journey being riddled with initiating experiences. His struggle to find purpose and meaning in an increasingly isolating world represents a key theme of the novel.
Alike Bateman, Holden Caulfield treats the whole world surrounding him in a callous manner, often judging and criticizing people without trying to know them, labelling them ‘phonies’ – a term overused to the extent where it stops meaning ‘superficial’ but it addresses to people who are too conventional or typical, for instance teachers who “act like” teachers by assuming a different demeanour in class than they do outside of class, or people who dress and act like the other members of their social group in order to fit in.
Holden despises ‘phonies’ without realising that his definition of phoniness relies mostly on his own self-deception – he hates people he thinks are trying to appear something they are not or who refuse to acknowledge their own weaknesses which is exactly what he is doing. Lying to others is also a form of phoniness, a type of deception that indicates insensitivity, callousness, or even cruelty. Holden himself is guilty of both these crimes: ‘When I’m with somebody corny, I always act corny too. ’ He even shamelessly admits that: ‘I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.
It’s awful. ’ His random and repeated lying about his persona highlights his insecurities as he refuses to acknowledge his own flaws. Through his lying and deception, Holden proves that he is just as guilty of phoniness as the people he criticizes. Christopher Gohn asserts: ‘Holden changes his clothes several times throughout the plot and he also assumes a number of false names in the course of the novel. These instances emphasize Holden’s development and the gradual abandonment of his old identity.
’4 He deems that in his process of initiation, in order to reach maturity, Holden has to completely leave his old self behind, yet he refuses to do so, fearing adulthood like death. Another key device Salinger uses to show alienation is Holden’s loose, rambling way of speaking which reflects his own inner confusion – his saying ‘if you want to know the truth’ over and over throughout the novel thus trying to engage the reader into his one-sided conversation. He cannot seem to emotionally connect to other people, although he attempts to many times.
His predilection towards isolation could be a direct consequence of the fact that he is forced into going to a boarding school after he has already been expelled from three others. Here, the boarding school is “a wonderful metaphor for the adult trappings of corporations and clubs […] Holden is put into a boarding school to be warehoused until ready for shipping out into the world. ”3 He is merely the ‘product’ shaped by a social culture and as he realises this he tries to escape by quitting: ‘One of the biggest reasons I left [.. ] was because I was surrounded by phonies.
’ We can also see just how alienated he feels, and how his alienation in in fact a form of self-protection. He desperately needs human contact and love, resembling Patrick Bateman here he just wants to talk, to be listened to. Alienation is both the source of Holden’s strength and the source of his problems. For example, his loneliness forces him into his date with Sally Hayes, but his need for isolation causes him to insult her and drive her away. Similarly, he longs for the meaningful connection he once had with Jane Gallagher, but he is too frightened to make any real effort to contact her.
Holden’s loneliness, the most concrete manifestation of his alienation, is a driving force throughout the book. Most of the novel describes his almost manic quest for companionship as he flies from one meaningless encounter to another. Unable to relate to those around him, he soon learns just how little he cares for this material world and as a result how little this material world cares for him. Just like American Psycho, The Catcher in the Rye’s narrative is pervaded by the idea that ‘In New York, boy, money really talks.
’ Holden apparently comes from a wealthy family that can afford sending him to private schools, and so money doesn’t represent a real problem to him but living in a consumerist society has left its mark on his live, just like in Bateman’s case. Holden picks up on the usual critique of consumerism and greed: money corrupts and does not in itself buy happiness: ‘Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell’. His own experience confirms this, a good example being the way he renounces his brother as a sell-out to Hollywood consumerism.
His detachment from his family goes as far as his parents, who seem to be emotionally absent from the book. Holden doesn’t introduce them at all or give out any pertinent information, saying it’s because ‘they’re quite touchy about anything like that’. This lack of solidarity from a parental figure leads to his silent contempt towards adults in general, evidenced by the silent cursing of Spencer that Holden hides so well beneath nodding and agreeing with him. Inevitably Holden loses touch with his identity, torn between fitting in and displaying his rebellion.
His psychological breakdown reaches climax at the end and forces him to go to seek help. Creating a parallel to American Psycho, The Catcher in the Rye ends with the implication of a never ending cycle the protagonist cannot escape – this loss of identity cannot therefore be ‘cured’. Holden’s defensively cynical tone continues still and even though he plans to apply himself the next year and fulfil the promise of recovery, it is unclear whether it will happen. After getting expelled from Pencey Prep at the beginning of the novel, he is now to continue the cycle with another school.
There is no resolution to the heroes’ problems because the end doesn’t represent their escape: ‘This is not an exit. ’ Bibliography: Easton Ellis, B: American Psycho, Picador, 2006 Salinger, J: The Catcher in the Rye, Penguin Books, 2010 Text based sources: Young, E, 2001. Pandora’s Handbag. 1st ed. London: Serpent’s Tail. Young, E (1992). “The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet,” in Shopping in Space. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. p85-129. Slater, D (1997). Consumer culture and modernity . Cambridge: Polity Press.
p11-30 Murphet, J, 2002. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho: a reader’s guide. 1st ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Gehrmann, G. Parallelism of Character and Concept in American Psycho and Cosmopolis. Scholarly Paper. Schiel, S. “Abandon All Hope” – Consumerism and Loss of Identity in Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” as an example of blank fiction. Thesis (M. A. ) Gohn, G. “American Adolescence: J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less than Zero”. Bachelor Thesis (B. A. ). Millard, K.
(2007) Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction. Great Britain: Edinburgh University Press LTD. Scarbrough, A. L. , 2002. What You Need to Read to Know Just about Everything. 1st ed. USA: iUniverse. Web-based sources: www. wikipedia. com www. sparknotes. com Mullan, J. (2010) American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis – Week one: the running joke. The Guardian, [online] July 2010. Available at: http://www. guardian. co. uk/books/2010/jul/03/book-club-american-psycho-ellis [Accessed: December 2011]. Moving Image sources: American Psycho – Mary Harron (dir) 2000
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