Murder Fantasies in 20th-Century Male Fiction

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.

God’s Plot and Thomas Shepard’s Schizophrenia

Thomas Shepard’s autobiography in God’s Plot reveals his personal struggle with cognition in a world in which positive/negative, good/evil can not peaceably coexist.  As an authority figure for Puritan doctrine Shepard  purposefully constructs his autobiography to reflect the enlightened path of the ecclesiastically elite; it speaks to divine transformation and serves as a testament of conversion from heathen to visible saint.  Similar to most stories of religious conversion, there are many examples of blind faith and testimonies of covert presence and miraculous intervention.  However, while Shepard’s texts undeniably reveal his piety, his zealous religious fanaticism suggests an unstable state of mind that I couldn’t easily dismiss.  I found tracing the markers of  schizophrenic behavior throughout Shepard’s works fascinating.

Before analyzing Shepard’s mentality the general psychosis that accompanies any religious belief must be considered. One foundation of patriarchal religion is an emphasis on the extrinsic by removing all association with power from the earth and visible life and transferring the power to something outside of the body.  Conversely, matriarchal religions often seem more earth-centered, based upon the power of intrinsic creation; power nests within usable and visible nature.  The distinction between the two is crucial in understanding the religious state of mind; the critical factor is tangibility.  When looking at religious fervor as mental illness, symptoms are perhaps most apparent in the patriarchal prototype — praying to invisible beings, looking for help from an unseen idol, believing that voices are speaking in your head.  These characteristics (and more) would perhaps indicate mental illness through psychoanalysis if they weren’t self-identified as faith.

Shepard, as shown by his own proclamations, extends beyond the usual boundaries of religious conversion.  He believes he has been saved and hand-selected by “God” to do “God’s” will.  But, in a world where there is no common ground for polarities, he remains tormented by his faith.  Throughout his narrative Shepard identifies an intense inner battle between two personalities: one is a firm atheist, the other a modern-day prophet.  His “wound of secret atheism” becomes a facet of the preacher’s personality that he admittedly hides from his peers.  Like a schizophrenic, Shepard harbors an alter-ego which he beats down and fears and, most importantly, covets for times of especial hardship.  The suppressed personality is left to ripen and ferment within him, becoming more beastly and even less acknowledged.

Like some suppressed feelings can, Shepard’s alter-ego shows itself in a negative way.  He is overcome by hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.  For a person who “questioned whether there were a God,” Shepard submits himself wholeheartedly to “God’s” path where thoughts of death and sin pervade his sensibilities until he wishes that his own child would die rather “than let it live a blind and a miserable life.”  There are even suggestions that Shepard and his wife have, within his own delusional state of mind, sacrificed their children: one sick child does not die until “its mother has given it up to the Lord,” and another when Shepard provokes “the Lord to strike at my innocent children for my sake.”  Although he may direct his death wishes to his children at times, Shepard feels inclined to kill himself; “I had some strong temptations to run my head against walls and brain and kill myself.”  He follows this suicide dream with the birth of yet another persona as he imagines that he is Christ.  For a schizophrenic, traumatic experience will create a persona to take over in times of fear.  Shepard’s comment that “it came to my mind that I should do as Christ” is a signifier that he is attempting to exchange one persona for another.

His hallucinations consist of many incidents of seeing “Christ” before him.  “Christ” appears to him in times of trial, teaching him lessons, trying to persuade him to do particular deeds.  Like a true schizophrenic persona, “Christ” has the power to dictate action, inspire words, give peace and fear, provide and deplete.  “Christ” has so much power as Shepard’s persona he believes the voice of “Christ,” which he hears in his head in the fashion of a usual schizophrenic delusion, has power over other people.  “Christ” even directs “one man to cut some cable of rope in the ship.”  This persona “provided for me of all things of the best,” but also “began to rage” when Shepard does not do as the voice says.  “Christ” can be very threatening when Shepard strays from his intended path.

Shepard’s paranoia is most indicative of schizophrenia.  His comments throughout the autobiography show that at every turn he believes someone is out to get him.  He is always pursued, always watched; the pursuant is always hot on his track.  Shepard’s mind is consumed with severe anxiety and intense feelings that he is the focal point of everything.  “Christ” is present most strongly during the times when Shepard believes he is being pursued, threatened, or chased.  For example, when the “malicious” Bishop Laud threatens him if he preaches anywhere, “Christ” appears physically before Shepard to follow into “a remote and strange place.”  When Shepard is “so smitten with fear” and “dizzied” by a friend nearly drowning, “Christ” immediately “upheld me and my horse also…[‘Christ’] was strong in my weakness.”   This, and many other examples, serve to show the ways Shepard surrenders himself to a different persona in times of trial and fear, as protection.

 In addition to the alter-ego and “Christ” personification, Shepard suffers other symptoms of schizophrenia which I will graze over briefly.  His anhedonia (inability of experience joy or pleasure) permeates every experience; he fears happiness, striving to appear without desire.  Sudden resentment accompanies each act which he soon comes to view as sin.  Shepard places himself in a constant state of regret.  His documentation of other people’s religious experiences in The Confessions speaks to the schizophrenic tendency to replay conversation continuously and reveals his own intense and excessive preoccupation with religion.  Confessions like that of John Still who admits that sometimes “they heard a voice” seems to reflect Shepard’s own experience of religion.   And lastly, of course, there is family history.  Shepard admits his mother “was a woman much afflicted in conscience, sometimes even unto to distraction of mind,” suggesting there is a history of mental illness in the family.

Perhaps Elizabeth Olbon states the case most clearly in her confession where she professes that the “hiding place was Christ.”  For Thomas Shepard, at least, it seems that “Christ” has certainly become a hiding place, deep within his subconscious.  Shepard’s many layers of persona indicate a deeper mental affliction than typically associated with religion.  When in his journal he admits, “I saw Christ’s frowns would damp all joys,” he struggles to keep the smile always on “Christ’s” face.  This is the battle that Shepard fights as he attempts to sate the Christic persona and find inner peace in a world where opposites cannot coexist.

The Best Wound in Trollope’s Lady Anna

When I was an undergraduate with an interest in studying Victorian literature, a professor once asked me how much Trollope I had read.  I scratched my head: Trollope?  Never heard of him.

The professor explained that Anthony Trollope used to be the backbone of nineteenth-century literature courses, so I, of course, made Trollope the focus of my summer reading, the summer of 1999.

I began with the Barchester Towers series and eventually came around to one of my all time favorite Trollope novels, the very ambitious He Knew He Was Right.  I could see why readers have long found his works so captivating and even why they have been — and remain — a reference point in Victorian studies.

My thirst for Trollope carried me to some of his lesser-known works, such as Lady Anna, which some critics have boasted rivals He Knew He Was Right in its display of insanity.  Well, that would be a pretty huge undertaking and I couldn’t wait to read it.

Lady Anna is a story about an ambitious but poor young woman — Josephine Murray — who is courted by a sleazy but very rich gentleman — Lord Lovel — whom she marries.  When she becomes pregnant with  her daughter Anna, Lovel insists that their marriage has been a hoax and goes abroad, leaving Murray to defend herself against the wagging tongues of England.  For twenty years, Murray has only one aim and that is to reestablish herself among high society as a truthful yet victimized woman whose daughter deserves the title “Lady” and the monumental inheritance and distinction that comes with it.

During these twenty years of long suffering the Murrays are taken in by the liberal Twaites, a father and son duo hell-bent on helping to call out the aristocracy on their indecency.  While the elder Twaite, a tailor, spares no expense to help Murray (despite his poverty), his son Daniel makes love behind the scenes to Anna, who promises him her hand.

Nothing seems very awry in the courtship between Daniel and Anna until the Murrays’ case in court — in which Murray pleads that she is the lawful wife of the late Lovel and that Anna deserves a proper title and Lovel’s money — actually becomes credible.  The law increasingly is made to believe that Murray is entitled to her share, despite her rival’s claim.  Her rival — the young Lord Lovel — is bankrupt and made to court Anna in order to secure the money if, in fact, the jury sides with her.

Murray is absolutely convinced that Anna should marry Lovel because then she will have the title that she deserves.  When Anna visits the Lovels for an extended stay she even believes that Lovel is charming enough to earn her love (despite his pink silk gowns).  But then, she is determined to remain true to her vows to the “foul, sweltering tailor” Daniel Thwaite.  This decision propels the novel.

Murray sinks, incrementally, into a dark abyss of insanity as Anna continues to insist that she will, despite her new inheritance (which she eventually wins), marry Thwaite. The marriage is looked down upon by everyone because suddenly Thwaite is “below” the kind of man that a Lady should marry due to his working class status.  Murray descends: “Then there came upon her a mad idea — and idea which was itself evidence of insanity — of the glory which would be hers if by any means she could prevent the marriage.”

Her strategy?  Kill Thwaite.

In what are some of the most lukewarm descriptions of an insane woman on the verge of murder I have ever read in a Victorian novel, Trollope describes Murray’s descent into madness like a stroll through the park. Even when she does shoot a bullet through Daniel’s shoulder it seems like a domestic shot.  She closes her eyes, mews like a kitten, and then, after the fact, becomes a shadow of her former self.

If Murray’s madness is anticlimactic, what is most compelling about Lady Anna is Trollope’s use of Daniel’s body wound from the shot.  In many — even most — Victorian novels the female body functions as a site for redemption.  It suffers, it wears the markings of that suffering for all to see.  But  here, Thwaite’s body must be sacrificed for happiness to ensue.

Really?  This is so rare!

After Thwaite is shot by his fiance’s mother, he decides to…be silent about it.  He explains: “It will be a lesson to her, and if so it may be good for us.” His body is made to absorb the anxieties of Murray, to be a walking articulation of her failed hopes and deepest fears, and he emerges on the other end wounded and silent.  A classic feminine Victorian prototype, no?

Yet, Daniel is one of the more “manly” Victorian heroes: what Trollope describes as “a very man.”  He is held as the opposite to Lord Lovel, who is a “butterfly.”  Daniel insists that “a woman should not be a butterfly — not altogether a butterfly, but for a man it is surely a contemptible part.”

This manly man, then, has his body ravaged and uses his silence to attain the ends that he desires. A very Pamela to the end!  During this period, Daniel “declared very often this this was the happiest period of his existence. Of all the good turns ever done to him, he said, the wound in his back had been the best.”

Amidst all the unnecessary recapitulation of a simple plot and the disappointing descent of Murry into “madness,” I was pleased to see that Trollope was still pushing boundaries by offering this twist to body politics. The best wound in Lady Anna is, surprisingly, the male wound, which makes it all possible…if not somewhat readable.

The Nameless Dread, for Psychos

If Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho doesn’t actually sadistically kill numerous women,  children, and maybe a few men, then this novel is possibly the saddest story ever told.

Many years ago I watched Christian Bale play Bateman in the film American Pscyho but for some reason while I do remember the INXS and the murder scenes, I do not remember the abundant fascination with AIDS, Bateman’s barely concealed homoerotic desires, nor the very important role of the homeless (and dominating theme of homelessness).  These three aspects of the novel — AIDS (and disease), homosexuality, and homelessness — seemed to be what the novel is ABOUT: much more so than it is about a rich, bored, and crazed trust-fund kid who goes on a murder spree.

The most repeated phrase in the book is “a nameless dread,” which Bateman uses over and again to describe his feelings.  Other than this phrase, the second most repeated word was “sad.”  Then, maybe “red.”

Bateman’s fantasy of brutally raping, torturing, and killing women — especially — is interesting.  It, of course, suggests that he is not only misogynistic but repressing his own sexuality.  The first murder scene “fails” but is telling of the nature of Bateman’s grotesque fantasies.  Wanting to kill Luis he corners him in a bathroom stall.  I think that he is strangling Luis.  So does he.  Come to find out, he’s actually kissing Luis, stroking his cheek.  Loving him.  Luis tells Bateman that he loves him and Bateman, flabbergasted, realizes for the first time what he tries to cover up throughout the rest of the novel: that he loves Luis.

His latent desire morphs into a fun-land fantasy of killing women — and their children.  However, I am never really sure if his murders are “real.”  In the film, I remember that they are made, in the end, to be pure fantasy.

In the novel, too, I get the sense that at least his murders of men are not real: Owen and Luis are still alive.  The women, might be real.  But if none of them are real, then American Psycho is the saddest story I’ve ever read.  It captures a man’s longing to scapegoat women due to his own feelings of inadequacy.  He can’t feel how he wants to feel.  Love whom he wants to love.  And he blames women.  He wants to kill them all in the most brutal way.

I felt bad for Bateman to a certain extent.

For me, the book was, of course, about gender roles.  The “nameless dread” I attribute to a kind of masculine ideal.  His fantasies of harming women were so pathetic.  So sad.

Bateman is really homeless.  Literally.  He is unheimlich.  Uncanny.  Away from the mother’s genitals.  Trying to get back in.