Author Archive

Villainy and Society in American Psycho

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is perhaps renown for its brutal and gruesome discourse. Patrick Bateman is the psychopathic, or schizophrenic protagonist who narrates to us his life working on Wall Street during the financial boom of the 80’s.

Bateman is a violent schizophrenic sociopath who sadistically murders friends, prostitutes and lovers in the most horrific ways possible. His acts of villainy truly disgust us, (I remember having to stop reading it because I felt rather nauseous) but he embodies something that we all recognise – he embodies the greed and ego of the modern day consumer- something we all can perhaps empathise with. He embodies the need to spend money and the need to be successful in a Capitalist Consumerist society.

Ellis constantly reminds us of Patrick’s obsession with materialism and success through using obsessive listing of his designer belongings, ‘I’m wearing a double-breasted suit, a silk shirt with woven stripes, a patterned silk tie and leather slip-ons, all by Gianni Versace,’ which occurs every time Patrick changes clothes or notices what somebody else is wearing (which, as you would imagine, is rather often). This almost incessant attention to detail not only pinpoints Patrick’s mental illness, but the materialist weakness of judging others by their possessions, ergo their financial situation.

Ellis also uses listing when Patrick is committing murder, ‘I take out the axe that I stashed in the shower, pop two five-milligram Valium, washing them down with a tumbler full of Plax, and then I move into the foyer, where I put on a cheap raincoat I picked up at Brooks Brothers…’ Linking ferocious murder and consumerism through use of the same stylistic technique parallels the ideas of brutality and greed. Is Materialist greed as vulgar as murder? Is there perhaps something rather psychotic about the need to spend money for an ego boost?

Is Patrick a villain? Even though he is incredibly affluent, the majority of people from all social classes spend money on things they don’t perhaps need in order to be appreciated by other people, for example, many young people may own an iPhone rather than a brand of phone that is cheaper and not so popular. Why? Because, in a materialist society there is a need to be seen as affluent, or more affluent than you actually are. Patrick embodies this very common personality trait, one perhaps of greed. Is he a villain, then? Or is there something villainous within us all, within this need for the material?

If you consider serial murder to be ethically wrong then yes, in a pragmatic sense Patrick is a villain.  However at the end of the novel we are introduced to the mind-boggling twist that brings ambiguity to the entire plot. We are left wondering if Patrick ever committed any of the acts at all, or if society overlooks such acts of villainy to maintain equilibrium so that we can all go about with our lovely lives and buy more stuff. Either way, Ellis’s satire of modern Capitalist consumerist society is comedic (black comedy to say the least) but powerful. It forces us to look critically at society, and inevitably, ourselves.


Feminism and the Villains of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy

Spoiler Alert – if you are intending to read any of the books, there are references to major plot lines throughout.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) has recently gained widespread attention mainly due to the release of David Fincher’s critically acclaimed 2011 film adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Being quite a feminist myself, I have always read the books as being, well… feminist. Stieg Larsson pays close and focused attention upon violence against women, from the sexual exploitation of the female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, to the trafficking of women all over Europe. The villains in the novel are perhaps the key medium in the trilogy that allow we, the readers, to interpret Larsson’s novels as a voice for women who have faced sexual violence or exploitation.

Advokat Bjurman- Salander’s guardian from the first novel of the trilogy- sexually blackmails Lisbeth. After the second blackmail, she gains her revenge by threatening to hand out a recording of the abuse she was victim of ‘to every newsroom in Stockholm,’ and tattoos various profanities over his body. While her revenge is perhaps unrealistic, (it is a crime fiction novel, we expect the hero to embody almost superhuman or exaggerated qualities) the character of Bjurman, a rapist who has access to many vulnerable young women, commits the violence that Larsson wants us to pay attention to. By creating disgusting villains like Bjurman, the subject of sexual violence is kept, quite brutally, alive.

Perhaps the archetypal villain of the trilogy is Lisbeth’s own father, Alexander Zalachenko (whom dominates the plot of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). He abused Lisbeth and her twin sister as children, and beat their mother so horrifically she was left in a care home with severe brain damage. As the final installment of the trilogy continues, we eventually learn that Zalachenko controls a massive criminal empire that specialises in the trafficking of women throughout Europe at a huge profit. Zalachenko is not only an embodiment of domestic abuse and sexual violence, but sexual exploitation on a massive scale.

The Millennium Trilogy is crime fiction. Hyperbolic characterisation is perhaps expected, like Lisbeth Salander, who becomes a kind of feminist superhero. Zalachenko, however, is not a hyperbolic villain. His criminal empire is highly realistic. Statistics taken from the International Justice Mission show that 32million dollars are made annually as a result of trafficking, and 80% of the victims are women. As hyperbolic a character as Zalachenko may seem, he represents a reality. Sexual trafficking is the most profitable criminal empire in the world- not the drug trade and not the arms trade.

Stieg Larsson keeps the need for the abolition of sexual exploitation of women alive through the villains in the Millennium Trilogy, and also includes chapters full of feminist statistics. The third novel of the series, for example, begins:

“It is estimated that some six hundred women fought during the American Civil War. They had signed up disguised as men. Hollywood has missed a significant chapter of cultural history here – or is this history ideologically too difficult to deal with? Historians have often struggled to deal with women who do not respect gender distinctions…”

Through this use of statistics and misogynistic villains, Larsson has created perhaps one of the most important pieces of feminist literature in recent years, so that a contemporary audience can be aware of the misogyny and violence against women that still diseases culture today.

To view the International Justice Mission Statistics and the rest of the site, click here.

Questioning the villain in Mother Night.

Mother Night, written by Kurt Vonnegut, is a novel perhaps entirely centred on the concept of the ‘villain,’ and perhaps morality as a whole.

The novel is a piece of meta-fiction claiming to be the edited autobiography of Howard W. Campbell Jnr, a fictional American playwright who lived in Germany and continued living there during WWII, when he then became a Nazi Propagandist.

After beginning to read the novel, it became clear that this apparent straightforward telling of causes and events leading to Howard W. Campbell Jnr’s arrest was not quite so simple at all. In fact, it left me questioning my entire understanding of ethics.

Vonnegut gives us a foreshadowing of what is to come- that is to say that he will entirely change the way we look at and judge everyone around us, from Nazi war criminals to our closest friends- in the introduction, with the line ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’(Mother Night, vii).

Not so far into the novel we learn that Howard W. Campbell Jnr is in fact politically apathetic and all he wants to do with his life is write plays, poems, and novels, and be with his German wife, Helga. Vonnegut places we, the readers, in a position to empathise with the character of Campbell. Isn’t he just a victim of circumstance? Is it his fault he ended up writing Nazi propaganda because his audience were powerful Nazi figureheads? He is, after all, just doing what he was told. And we like him, don’t we?

After the war while Campbell is hiding alone in an attic apartment in Greenwich, New York, he befriends a Russian man, named Kraft, in his building who later turns out to be a spy who wants to take him back to Russia and try him for his crimes. Even after finding this out for himself, Campbell still refers to Kraft as his ‘best friend.’ Does it matter that his friendship was perhaps faked in order to secure his arrest?

Along with the Russian, Campbell also attracts the attention of a group of American racists who want to praise him ‘for having courage to tell the truth during the war…when everybody else was telling lies’ (pg. 70). Vonnegut gives us no indication throughout the novel if Campbell is ashamed of the atrocities he encouraged, and gives no clue as to whether he appreciates or loathes the attention given to him by the group of racists. Does it matter? We like him, don’t we?

Vonnegut is exposing the human weakness for labels. We must inevitably label Campbell a criminal, or a villain, for his crimes against humanity. But this by no means makes him an entirely bad person. All he wanted to do was love his wife and write his plays. Is Campbell a villain, or is he a writer? Is Kraft a villain, or is he, as he claims to be a painter? Is anyone a villain? Are we forced to take on a Machiavellian view of morality; that is to say we should only be moral if the time calls for it? But then, we are reminded of Vonnegut’s introduction, ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’ So Campbell is the villain then, but Vonnegut certainly made us think about it.