In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman and his band of incredibly wealthy Wall Street colleagues live lives of utter excess, purchasing nothing but the finest things, wearing only the finest clothes, eating at only the chicest restaurants, and looking down on any who fall short of their standard. These characters are exaggerated stereotypes of the 1980s Wall Street “yuppie” class that Ellis means to critique – often to the point of satire – in his novel. Ellis engages in this critique not through any attempt at realism, but rather by amplifying the characters’ obsession with materiality and abandonment of all values other than wealth to extreme degrees.
Every time Bateman encounters another person, he describes in detail what they are wearing and the high-end designer labels of their clothes. His meticulous descriptions and severe judgments reveal a character who calculates a person’s worth based entirely on their wealth and outward appearance. Bateman and his friends’ obsessions with their own images – being seen in the right places, with the right people, looking the right way – displays a hollowness of self, suggesting that the shallowness of this “yuppie” class may be connected to feelings that they exist within a culture that says the only way for them to attain self-esteem, value, and place in society is to buy it. Bateman and his associates also have a practice of ridiculing homeless people and beggars. Bateman, for instance, describes one homeless woman as “ugly” and “old,” and makes a practice of dangling money in front of beggars’ faces, only to gleefully snatch it away and enjoy their anguish and tears. Bateman and his Wall Street friends are model citizens in a capitalist society: they work, make money, and spend it. Because beggars and the homeless do not have the wealth and possessions that they do, they are seen as devoid of value and humanity, not worthy of respect or care.
But Ellis pushes even further (the novel isn’t called American Jerk after all; it’s American Psycho). Bateman’s hatred and mistreatment of the homeless turns violent when he first interrogates and then attacks a homeless man, Al, and his dog. After telling him to “get a job” and ridiculing him for “reek[ing] of… shit,” Bateman slowly and meticulously drives a blade into the man’s eyes and stomps on his dog’s legs. He goes on to kill a number of other homeless people, including Al. These attacks indicate, obviously, that not only does Bateman believe that the homeless are beneath his care, but that they are undeserving even to live. They also suggest a kind of desperation on Bateman’s part, however: he kills the homeless not just because he can, but because his worldview means he must. A homeless person being allowed to live suggests that people have inherent worth that has nothing to do with their wealth. By this logic, only by murdering and torturing the homeless – only by asserting that they have no worth – can Bateman fully believe that his wealth and possessions and status give him worth.
The novel, then, pushes Bateman and his friends’ ideas about homeless people to their furthest logical extensions until the result reveals the insanity – the psychotic-ness – of the original belief. The novel does the same with the idea of “consumption.” Bateman and his wealth- and possession-obsessed friends believe that consumption, the purchase of material goods, is all that matters. As it progresses, the novel graphically relates Bateman’s consumption of material goods – the best clothes, electronics, fine dining – to a cannibalistic consumption, as he starts eating the remains of his victims and consuming their own flesh in front of them. At one point, for instance, the novel describes “the fresh smell of blood cooking” and a pair of cooked breasts lying, “rather delicately, on a china plate I bought at the Pottery Barn.” Here, Ellis compares the insanity of Bateman’s meticulous materialism to the methodical consumption of human flesh. As cannibalism is a human eating the flesh of another human, the novel suggests that materialism is eating away at Bateman’s own humanity and his ability to value others as anything other than flesh to be used. Bateman’s sociopathic appetite for violence and disregard for others’ humanity, the novel insists, is just the ultimate end point for a capitalist, consumer culture that values only wealth and materialism and sees no inherent value in anything else.
Materialism and Consumption ThemeTracker
Materialism and Consumption Quotes in American Psycho
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view…
“I’m resourceful,” Price is saying, “I’m creative, I’m young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I’m saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I’m an asset.”
All of the men outside Tunnel tonight are for some reason wearing tuxedos, except for a middle-aged homeless bum who sits by a Dumpster, only a few feet away from the ropes, holding out to anyone who pays attention a Styrofoam coffee cup, begging for change, and as Price leads us around the crowd up to the ropes, motioning to one of the doormen, Van Patten waves a crisp one-dollar bill in front of the homeless bum’s face, which momentarily lights up, then Van Patten pockets it as we’re whisked into the club, handed a dozen drink tickets and two VIP Basement passes.
“Don’t wear that outfit again,” I say, looking her over quickly… “do not wear that outfit again. Wear a dress. A skirt or something… You’re prettier than that… And high heels,” I mention. “I like high heels.”
She shakes her head good-naturedly as she exits…
“Why don’t you get another one?” I ask. “Why don’t you get another job?”
“I’m not…” He coughs, holding himself, shaking miserably, violently, unable to finish the sentence.
“You’re not what?” I ask softly. “Qualified for anything else?”
“Listen, do you think it’s fair to take money from people who do have jobs? Who do work?”
His face crumples and he gasps, his voice raspy, “What am I gonna do?”
“My life is a living hell,” I mention off the cuff, while casually moving leeks around on my plate, which by the way is a porcelain triangle. “And there are many more people I, uh, want to… want to, well, I guess murder.” I say emphasizing this last word, staring straight into Armstrong’s face.
…I’m sweaty and a pounding migraine thumps dull in my head and I’m experiencing a major-league anxiety attack, searching my pockets for Valium, Xanax, a leftover Halcion, anything… I’ve forgotten who I had lunch with earlier, and even more important, where.
My priorities before Christmas include the following: (1) to get an eight o’clock reservation on a Friday night at Dorsia with Courtney, (2) to get myself invited to the Trump Christmas Party aboard their yacht, (3) to find out as much as humanly possible about Paul Owen’s mysterious Fisher account, (4) to saw a hardbody’s head off and Federal Express it to Robin Barker – the dumb bastard – over at Solomon Brothers and (5) to apologize to Evelyn without making it look like an apology.
I feel empty, hardly here at all, but even the arrival of the police seems insufficient reason to move and I stand with the crowd outside the penguin habitat… until finally I’m walking down Fifth Avenue, surprised by how little blood has stained my jacket, and I stop in a bookstore and buy a book and then at a Dove Bar stand on the corner of Fifty-sixth Street, where I buy a Dove bar – a coconut one – and I imagine a hole, widening in the sun…
…while I grind the bone and fat and flesh into patties, and though it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit, and along with a Xanax (which I’m now taking half-hourly) this thought momentarily calms me and then I’m humming…
“Please do not sit in the same row in court with Janet. When I look over toward you there she sits contemplating me with her mad eyes like a deranged seagull studying a clam… I can feel her spreading hot sauce on me already…”
…it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world can be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason?... Evil is its only purpose. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in.. this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…
While walking back to the highway, I stop, choke back a sob, my throat tightens. “I just want to…” Facing the skyline, through all the baby talk, I murmur, “keep the game going.” As I stand, frozen in my position, an old woman emerges behind a Threepenny Opera poster at a deserted bus stop and she’s homeless and begging, hobbling over, her face covered with sores that look like bugs, holding out a shaking red hand. “Oh will you please go away?” I sigh. She tells me to get a haircut.
“Well, though I know I should have done that instead of not doing it, I’m twenty-seven for Christ sakes and this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave, and this is what being Patrick means to me, I guess, so, well, yup, uh…” and this is followed by a sigh, then a slight shrug and another sigh, and above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes’ color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.