I didn’t intend to read book after book in which men fantasize about murdering or torturing women but this is exactly the kind of ride I’ve been on just by undertaking reading some random twentieth century fiction. This month I read four novels that seemed to be connected to each other through the trope of fantastical misogyny. Nabokov’s Lolita, Thompson’s The Nothing Man, Ellis’s American Psycho, and Hamsun’s Hunger(ok, this novel isn’t quite 20th century –1890 — but is considered an important landmark novel that inspired 20th century fiction). In each of the these texts the hero’s actions are propelled forward through his obsessively imagining the physical abuse of the women around him. The thought of brutally murdering these women — anyone from strangers and ex-wives, to wives and mothers — seems, at times, to be the only force pushing him onward through his unique journey.
I can’t help, of course, but to view the murder fantasies of male heroes in male fiction as a continuation of sorts from nineteenth-century sensational fiction (and even, while I think of it, even of amatory fiction of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn come to mind). I find Nabokov’s, Thompson’s, Ellis’s, and Hamsun’s writing of ravaging, segmenting, eating, or stabbing women very “sensational” in just this nineteenth-century sense. Just as Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collins used the sensational genre to expound upon the unique life of women and men in the the domestic sphere, these twentieth-century novelists are also interested in exploring issues of gender and sexuality in their historical moment, and in their modern spaces: particularly that of masculinity.
The texts reveal something about a fear of masculinity unraveling. Thompson’s novel, perhaps, is most clear in presenting this overarching theme. The body of his protagonist, Clinton Brown, paints the entire picture of this fear. Without a penis, Brown will go to great measures to keep his lack a secret. He will take any measures to cultivate a feeling of masculine power. What seems to make him feel most powerful is fantasizing — and perhaps actually performing — the murder his lovers, past and present. Patrick Bateman, too, turns to misogyny in order to hide characteristics of his sexuality that might emasculate him — in this case, his homoerotic desire. The fantasies of both Bateman and Brown are relayed through a baroque style in which every movement is exaggerated in order to emphasize the reality of their dreamworld. By using such a style, Thompson and Ellis conflate reality and fantasy for the reader, making it difficult to determine if their heroes’ violent actions actually take place or if, as we might expect, these men lack the drive to perform their part in their own delusions.
For the unnamed protagonist of Hamsun’s novel and for Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, the line dividing fantasy and reality is a bit more distinct. Humbert, for example, daydreams about killing Charlotte Haze, the mother of his beloved nymphette Lolita, but readers are able to distinguish between his real and make-believe actions, for the most part. When Haze is run over by a car we know that although Humbert would have liked to have been driving that car, he wasn’t. Similarly, Hamsun’s hero stalks a prostitute through the streets of Oslo and imagines inflicting on her all kinds of terrors. It is clear, however, that he does not act on his desires, mostly because he is far too weak from starvation.
In each of these novels, the male protagonists seem generally “too weak” in contrast with the forceful power of their fantasies, to take action. The only character who does eventually move forward is Hamsun’s, who boards a vague ship — to which he makes reference through the novel — that may symbolize death. He goes on to places unknown, but at least he ends the novel in a place different from that in which he began. The same cannot be said for Humbert, Bateman, or Brown. Not really.
Fantasizing about murdering women serves the characters in these twentieth-century novels by allowing them to remain, for the most part, stagnant. Dreaming of violent action pushes them to remain mostly inactive. Imagining their own uber-masculinity highlights their diminutive roles as players in the patriarchal apparatus. It seems to me that the role of misogyny of these texts does not help the male protagonists accomplish anything significant. So what, then, is the function of such murder fantasies? At least the women in Braddon’s novels got something done.