Fictional portrayals of psychopaths in literature  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search
 This page Fictional portrayals of psychopaths in literature is part of Psychopathy and psychopathology series. Illustrated by the head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome
This page Fictional portrayals of psychopaths in literature is part of Psychopathy and psychopathology series.
Illustrated by the head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome
Sweeney Todd (1846) is a fictional psychopath/cannibal/pulp fiction anti-hero.
Sweeney Todd (1846) is a fictional psychopath/cannibal/pulp fiction anti-hero.

Related e



Psychopathic characters in literature are characters whose behavior, belief system, and general demeanor show signs of a fictionalized personality disorder. The fictional disorder has a number of traits, which are not necessarily as common among clinically diagnosed psychopaths or those in wards for the criminally insane. As a result, critical thinking and discretion is required for exploring and interpreting the writer's purpose in offering a simplified or ambiguous portrayal of psychopathy within a literary fiction.


Literary horror, abjection, and the "invention" of the fictional psychopath

According to Julia Kristeva, one of the "powers of horror" is the freedom to explore an abject humanity that appears completely other. In her book, The Powers of Horror - An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva describes abjection as "immoral, sinister, scheming and shady, a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles...the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes its subject...the criminal with a good conscience, the killer who claims he is a savior". These fictional characters display more than mere madness or malevolence, and today they might be described as "psychopathic personalities", using a contemporary diagnostic category.

Fictional psychopathic characters first appeared in European literature in the fourteenth century as a negative example (or perversion) of Renaissance humanism. This was a European worldview which sought to break with the traditions of the Middle Ages by giving priority to individual human dignity, experience, and creative potential.

Even the characterization of certain historical persons in antiquity as "psychopaths" — for example, the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome: Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, and Elagabalus — is in fact a retroactive speculation premised on a decidedly modern view of human nature and individual psychology. This modern view did not start to develop until the Late Middle Ages, reaching full fruition in the Enlightenment and Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Our contemporary understanding of the psychopathic personality (in both life and fiction) has also been richly informed by the trend toward existentialism in European philosophy and the human sciences from the nineteenth century into the first half of the twentieth — specifically, the examination of the moral and psychological vicissitudes of individual human experience within an environment that is perceived as utterly threatening and hostile or absurd and unfathomable.

Ancient Persian literature

In the collection of stories called The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, King Shahryar discovers his wife's infidelity and has her executed, without conscience or recognizing any defect in his own psyche, declaring all women to be unfaithful. He marries a succession of virgins only to have Scheherazade's father, the vizier, execute each one the next morning until finally he comes to Scheherazade herself, after three years of ordering the death of his brides after each wedding night. Scheherazade survives because she tells the king a story on each of the 1001 nights, which end in a cliffhanger at dawn. Shahryar's brother had earlier discovered his own first wife in bed with a cook and he butchers them both and then continued a pattern of marriage and murder like Shahryar.

The stories in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights likely began in the oral tradition before the fifth century AD. Though Shahrya was not then a stock psychopathic character the Book and its many characters, has had wide influence on writers, not only in the sex and serial murder genre. Edgar Allan Poe, for example wrote "A Thousand and Second Night", where in the story of Sinbad, Poe's king kills Scheherazade in disgust at the story she tells him.

Late Medieval and Early Renaissance literature

Chaucer's Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales

Perhaps the earliest example of a psychopathic character in English literature is the remorselessly deceitful, parasitic, venal Pardoner from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written during the last two decades of the fourteenth century:

What, do you suppose, that while I can preach,
And win gold and silver because I teach,
That I will live in poverty voluntarily?
Nay, nay, I never thought it, truly!
For I will preach and beg in various lands;
I will not do any labor with my hands,
Nor make baskets and live thereby,
Because I will not beg idly.
I will imitate none of the apostles;
I will have money, wool, cheese, and wheat,
Although it were given by the poorest servant boy,
Or by the poorest widow in a village,
Even though her children should die of hunger.
Nay, I will drink liquor of the vine
And have a pretty wench in every town.
But listen, gentlemen, in conclusion:
Your desire is that I shall tell a tale.
Now I have drunk a draft of strong ale,
By God, I hope I shall tell you a thing
That shall, for good reason, be to your liking.
For though myself be a very vicious man,
Yet I can tell you a moral tale,
Which I am accustomed to preach in order to profit.
Now hold your peace! My tale I will begin.

(lines 439-462 from "The Prologue to the Pardoner's Tale", modern verse translation from The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson)

A likely precursor to Chaucer's Pardoner is a character called "False-Seeming", a hypocrite described in the thirteenth-century French chivalric romance, Le Roman de la Rose, a poem which Chaucer himself had translated into English as The Romaunt of the Rose.

To a lesser extent, the Pardoner's assistant — a brutish and morally bankrupt blackmailer called the Summoner — might also qualify as a kind of early fictional psychopath, albeit one lacking the Pardoner's keen intelligence and unerring powers of perception and deception. As the Pardoner's rather less clever enabler and right-hand man, the Summoner bears a similar relationship to the Pardoner as the fatally misguided Guido da Montefeltro does to the consummately wicked Pope Boniface VIII in Dante's Inferno.

Historical and mythic malefactors in Dante's Inferno

Chaucer probably conceived his supreme villain — who is given the bitterly ironic appellation, "the gentle Pardoner" — as his own composite version of the treacherous civic and ecclesiastic malefactors, who surely existed in the Late Middle Ages and even earlier, and were first identified and fashioned into literary characters by Dante in the Inferno (c. 1308-1321). Such malefactors include Ciampolo, Pope Nicholas III, and Guido da Montefeltro, all of whom Dante describes as being condemned to the Malebolge, the ditches of the fraudulent in the Eighth Circle of Hell.

However, unlike the damned spirits in Dante's poem, who have reached their eternal stasis in Hell, Chaucer's Pardoner and Summoner are still mutable personalities residing in the mortal realm — i.e., they are both still very much alive and in business. In this sense, the Pardoner and the Summoner resemble Dante's most hated enemy, Pope Boniface VIII, who is likewise still alive and still occupying the episcopal seat of St. Peter as of Good Friday, 1300 — the date that the first cantica of the poem takes place. But according to Dante the poet, Boniface — who will eventually die in 1303 — does indeed have an appropriate spot reserved for him in the Malebolge, right next to Nicholas III; and Dante the pilgrim takes a measure of consolation, as well as a certain vengeful satisfaction, in the living pope's prophesied damnation.

Chaucer differs from Dante in that the former does not, either as the fictional Canterbury pilgrim or as authorial poet, openly condemn the Pardoner. Indeed, Chaucer the pilgrim seems to reserve a faint admiration for the Pardoner's wit and cleverness, which Chaucer the poet has, of course, created — hence, Chaucer pays himself a compliment within his own text.

On the other hand, Dante, both the supernatural pilgrim and the Florentine poet of the eternal, most certainly condemns his very personal enemies — whether they are already receiving their just reward in Hell, or are still alive on Earth and yet to arrive in Hell — with an unequivocal and unsparing vehemence. Dante had previously reserved his praise — i.e., his compliments to his own powers of poetic invention — for the redemptive figure of Beatrice, who will take over from Virgil as the pilgrim's guide toward the end of the second catica, Purgatorio, and into the third, Paradiso.

Interestingly enough, the only damned spirit in the lower reaches of hell whom Dante the pilgrim professes a certain fascination with, and a kind of abiding admiration for, is Ulysses, who is encountered in the seventh bolgia of the Eighth Circle, in Canto XXVI of the Inferno. Dante's Ulysses is a crosser of boundaries, a hero who boldly ventures into realms of the unknown, much like Dante himself. Nevertheless, the wanderer from Ithaca is ostensibly condemned, according to the account of him provided by Virgil in The Aeneid — i.e., Ulysses is portrayed as a fraudulent counsellor for stealing the sacred Palladium from Troy (with the help of Diomedes, who is also condemned to burn within a single tongue of flame alongside Ulysses), and then devising the stratagem of the Trojan Horse to invade and sack the city, which has been rendered vulnerable to attack without the talismanic protection of the image of Pallas.

Dante defers to Virgil's judgment on Ulysses, originally the Homeric Odysseus, while making an exception for himself — Dante the pilgrim is a kind of Ulysses (and a kind of Aeneas) who passes through Hell unscathed, and who will scale the mountainous ziggurat of Purgatory to reach the terrestrial and celestial realms of Paradise, with both poetic and divine sanction. Dante also differs from Ulysses in that the only stratagems required of the Florentine are those of his own poetic imagination — which absorb and transcend those of his great predecessor and initial guide, Virgil. Thus, questing classical heroism gives way to the questing, heroic Renaissance imagination.

All of the supernatural encounters described in all three cantiche of Dante's Divine Comedy are a poetic commentary on history, classical mythology, and Biblical scripture, which chart and dramatize the decline of the traditional ideals of classical heroism and medieval chivalry, and the rise of Renaissance humanism, by the turn of the fourteenth century. As the supreme and most influential literary work of the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, The Divine Comedy — particularly Inferno — serves as a necessary prelude to, and template for, the invention of the fictional psychopath that effectively occurs with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at the end of the fourteenth century.

The notion of the fictional psychopath (or malefactor, villain, Machiavel, nihilist) as a kind of negative or inverted humanist or "Renaissance man" — i.e., one whose personality and identity is "self-invented" through his own will to act and learn and create (or destroy) — seems to originate with Dante, and carries through to Chaucer and Marlowe and Shakespeare and beyond.

Elizabethan-Jacobean drama

Marlovian tragedy

In Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II (c. 1587), the merciless, power-hungry tyrant of the play's title — who arrogates to himself the appellation "the Scourge of God" — demonstrates vicious, bloodthirsty traits that we would well identify with a psychopathic personality.

However, Marlowe's most notable creation — and possibly the first significant, and fairly unambiguous, full-fledged fictional psychopath in English drama — is Barabas in The Jew of Malta (c. 1589). In the play, the villain Barabas is presented as a rather curious combination of the "morbid" and the "comedic" psychopath (see "Fictional portrayals of psychopaths in film" for definitions of these types). Barabas also presents as a kind of psychopath whose personality style is quite susceptible to the influence of external pressures and circumstances.

Shakespearean tragedy

Literary critic Harold Bloom has argued that Marlowe's Barabas had served as the prototype for Shakespeare's early villains like Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King of England) in Richard III (c. 1591) and Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus (c. 1594), both of whom are indubitably psychopathic characters. Bloom goes on to suggest that Shakespeare eventually overcame this Marlovian influence with the morally ambiguous character of Shylock — the vengeful Jewish moneylender who, in the end, undergoes a forced conversion — in The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1598).

After this point, thr great villains of the high tragedies, like Iago in Othello (c. 1603) and Edmund in King Lear (c. 1603-1606), are wholly original "Shakespearean" creations in the truest and strongest sense. The destruction that these characters inflict on those around them is vast and profound. Their mysterious motivations manifest an intellectualized and self-dramatizing moral corruption that is practiced with shrewdly considered subtlety and calculation, uncanny psychological acuity, and a fanatic single-mindedness of purpose.

The "honest Iago" is a frustrated, hotheaded schemer driven by the very same suspicion and jealousy with which he infects and inflames his master, Othello. On the other hand, Edmund — the bastard son of Gloucester and younger brother of Edgar — is pragmatic and emotionally frigid; he is an amoral intellectual devoid of all feeling or compassion. Edmund's corrupt rationality freezes all scruple and pity within himself and Lear's two eldest sisters, the treacherous Goneril and Regan.

Indeed, Bloom sees Shakespeare's two supreme "Machiavels", Iago and Edmund, along with Chaucer's wicked Pardoner, as prefigurations of corrupt, exploitative Dostoyevskian nihilists (and uncanny proto-Freudian depth psychologists) like Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment and Stavrogin in The Possessed. William R. Elton has argued that Edmund's atheism and materialist sensualism can be seen as precursor to the Don Juan tradition of the later seventeenth century. See below: The legend of Don Juan and the early libertine psychopath.

The Jacobean revenge tragedy

In the Jacobean revenge tragedies of the early seventeeth century, there appear a number of misanthropic and psychopathic characters. One prime example is the Duke in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1614), who devolves into lycanthropy. Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy (1606) — a play variously attributed to either Cyril Tourneur or Thomas Middleton — also stands as another formidable fictional psychopath of Jacobean drama.

European fairy tales

Children's fairy tales — some of which date as far back as the High and Late Middle Ages in Europe — also feature psychopathic characters, such as the eponymous villain of Charles Perrault's "Bluebeard" (inspired by the notorious 15th century child murderer Gilles de Rais and published in 1697) and the wicked, infanticidal stepmother in the Grimm brothers' "Hansel and Gretel".

The legend of Don Juan and the early libertine psychopath

One of the earliest types of "psychopathic" characters in literature is the debauched libertine — a character who lives only for his own personal sensory gratification and material wealth at the expense of all other values. This fictional type starts to gain prominence in the literature of the early seventeenth century.

Tirso de Molina's El Burlador de Sevilla

In the Golden Age ("Siglo de Oro") of Spanish literature, the figure of Don Juan is introduced. Tirso de Molina's morality play, El Burlador de Sevilla (c. 1630), first depicts the character as a morally and socially abject, conscienceless debauchee and sexual predator.

Molina's play is set in the fourteenth century and its protagonist, the titular El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra — a.k.a., Don Juan — may have been modeled on characters in the earlier Golden Age plays, such as Leucino in Juan de la Cueva's Infamador (1581) and Leonido in Lope de Vega's Fianza Satisfecha (1612).

Molina's original Don Juan has more in common with our contemporary understanding of the fictional psychopath, as the character is guiltless, loveless, impulsive, and altogether lacking insight and judgment into his own actions and those of others. At the end of El Burlador de Sevilla, Don Juan is dragged down into hell by the ghost of the father of his first conquest (whom he had killed), while maintaining a consistent lack of remorse or regret for his wrong doing. Indeed, so self-absorbed that he was proud of the perverse depravity that marked his life.

Over time, via the subsequent works of Molière and Mozart, the legendary figure of Don Juan gradually lost his abject — or "psychopathic" like — qualities and became the archetype of a charming and manipulative womanizer. As a seductive and heroic transgressor who craves worldly experience and ultimately meets with his damnation, Don Juan has come to resemble Dante's Ulysses. In some later versions of the story — like Molière's (from 1665) — Don Juan repents.

The real-life exploits and writings of eighteenth-century figures like Giacomo Casanova and the Marquis de Sade can be seen as a revival of the Don Juan myth. In particular, Sade's writings seem to explode the Don Juan archetype and alter it beyond regonition by endowing it with extravagantly perverse psychopathic traits and behaviors.

Ximen Qing in Jin Ping Mei

In the seventeenth-century Chinese epic, Jin Ping Mei (literally "The Plum in the Golden Vase", also translated as The Golden Lotus) — a semi-pornographic saga of human corruption, detailing the rise and fall of the Ximen household — the central character of Ximen Qing also presents as a kind of psychopathic libertine. The original Chinese text of Jin Ping Mei was first printed in the early seventeenth century and existed in hand written scrolls during the late Ming Dynasty.

In the story, Ximen Qing is a corrupt drug store/pharmacy owner and a debauched social climber. One day, as Pan Jinlian attempts to shut the windows on her home's second floor using a bamboo rod, the rod slips and falls into the street hitting Qing. When Qing looks up and realizes that Jinlian is in fact a pretty woman, his anger quickly turned to lust. He goes into the teahouse next door and bribes the owner to arrange a meeting with Jinlian and later seduces her.

Some time later, as Qing and Jinlian are in the heat of their affair and are about to be discovered by her husband, Wu Dalang, Qing attempts to kill him. But the husband survives and is bedridden as a result of his injuries. Qing then provides Jinlian with a dose of arsenic from his pharmacopea in order to finally murder Wu Dalang. Jianlin administers the poison but ends up having to suffocate her husband in order to ensure his end. Upon the husband's death Qing marries Jinlian, and thus begins his ill-starred rise and fall.

The Libertine novel

The libertine novel was especially known for emphasis on human vices, debaucheries, and anti-social behavior. This scandalous literary genre first appeared shortly after the English Restoration in 1660 and existed until the time of the French Revolution. The authors of libertine novels typically sought to expose the alleged moral hypocrisy, sexual corruption, and material decadence of the feudal nobility and clergy.

In the quintessential French libertine novel of the eighteenth century, the epistolary Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the dominating figure of the Marquise de Merteuil, the cold-blooded aristocratic manipulatrix, presents as a female psychopath.

The Marquis de Sade

Sade and psychopathology

Sade's influence on Surrealism in the twentieth century

Sade's influence on Surrealism

Sade's influence can be most keenly perceived and felt in the works of the Surrealists of the 1920s and '30s, which — post-Freud and post-Marx — sought to liberate and give expression to the mysterious and aggressive drives lurking within the unconscious mind. Surrealist artists and scenarists like Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel had all made use of ideas, themes, and scenarios based on Sade's writings. In the fictive realm of art, they attempted to emulate Sade — as well as other, later écrivains maudits of the nineteenth century like Lautréamont and Rimbaud — by giving free rein of expression to all manner of psychopathological impulses and wanton paraphilias, including rape, murder, sodomy, coprophilia, and religious blasphemy.

Buñuel was arguably the most pessimistic and nihilistic (as well as the most vociferously anti-clerical) of Sade's Surrealist legatees, as he did not see the liberation of the unconscious mind and its repressed impulses as a guaranteed route to human freedom and (perceived) utopian happiness — or even a satisfactory deliverance or diversion from the banal frustrations of bourgeois life. This negative position stood in stark contrast to the more hopeful attitudes taken by the progressive-minded followers of the French poet and principal theoretician of the Surrealist movement, André Breton.

Victorian literature and lore

Charles Dickens

Psychopathic characters in Victorian fiction include Bill Sykes in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838) and Monseigneur Marquis St. Evrémonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1850) is another Dickens character who presents some psychopathic traits, such as extreme selfishness, manipulative insincerity and a notable absence of remorse for his antisocial behavior.

Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"

The main character of Robert Browning's poem, "My Last Duchess" (1842) — perhaps the most famous of all Victorian dramatic monologues — is a fictional psychopath par excellence. Indeed, Browning's duke is probably the most formidable psychopathic character in English poetry since Shakespeare's Iago and Edmund.

Browning's duke is a villain who has murdered his wife and is planning on taking another. In the context of the poem, the duke is speaking casually to a messenger, discussing arrangements for a wedding to his new bride (a "new" duchess), whilst hinting at — with grim irony and chilling narcissistic relish — the demise of his previous wife (his "last duchess"). The duke's acute lack of remorse, his superficial charm and narcissistic shamelessness are all classic traits of a psychopathic personality. However, his calm and controlling style, as well as the culture and sophistication that goes with his aristocratic breeding, are qualities more common to the later "smooth" Hollywood psychopath.

The tale recounted by Browning's murderous duke — and the type of scheming, predatory, coldblooded character presented in the telling — recalls the legendary uxoricides ordered by such historical figures as Nero and Henry VIII, as well as the story of "Bluebeard".

Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Anactoria"

Alegernon Charles Swinburne's dramatic monologue, "Anactoria" (1866) characterizes the speaker — the seventh-century BCE Aeolic Greek poetess Sappho — as a kind of lesbian vampire who entertains sadistic fantasies of cannibalizing her lover, Anactoria, while immortalizing her death in poetry. "Anactoria", which is clearly influenced by the writings of Sade (particularly L'Histoire de Juliette) and Baudelaire (the poem "Femmes damnées"), also has the distinction of being the only dramatic monologue in Victorian poetry which assumes the voice of a woman.

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Edward Hyde, the monstrous alter ego of the gentle, respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll, in Robert Louis Stevenson's story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), is yet another prime example of a psychopathic character in Victorian fiction. Stevenson's cautionary medical fable about the perils of isolating and unleashing the proverbial forces of good and evil — or order and chaos, passivity and aggression — within the individual personality seems to anticipate Freud's theories about the unconscious battle that goes on between the superego and the id.

Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the legend of Sweeney Todd

It has been suggested that Bram Stoker based the descriptive details and characterization of his Count Dracula in his 1897 novel, Dracula, on the style and mannerisms of a real person — actor manager Henry Irving — and, in so doing, may well have created one of the first detailed, fictionalized pen portraits of a contemporary psychopath. Likewise, in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories (56 of them in all, written from the 1880s to the 1920s), the master criminal Professor Moriarty, called "the Napoleon of crime" — a character believed to have been based on legendary London criminals like Jonathan Wild and Adam Worth — is a precursor to the contemporary psychopath as supervillain.

The nineteenth-century legend of Sweeney Todd, a fictional London barber in Fleet Street who murders unsuspecting victims with a straight razor — later made famous in a 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim — similarly anticipates the modern criminal psychopath.

Nineteenth-century American literature

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"

In nineteenth-century American literature, the remorseless, calculating Italian aristocrat Montresor in Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), thinks and behaves very much like a psychopathic personality. Montresor's aristocratic pride and bearing, as well as his concern for preserving and vindicating his reputation, are reminiscent of the duke in Browning's poem, "My Last Duchess".

Herman Melville's Billy Budd

Another example of a possible psychopathic character occurs in Herman Melville's novella, Billy Budd (1886), the envious, vengeful Master-at-Arms of the HMS Bellipotent, John Claggart, is described by the author as being possessed by "a depravity according to nature". Claggart's neurotic hatred and fear of the enigmatic Billy Budd invites comparison with Iago's irrational motivation to arouse Othello's jealousy in order to destroy him. In this manner, Claggart presents some of the antisocial personality traits common to psychopaths.

Existentialist and social realist fiction

Psychopathic characters also appear prominently in modern existentialist and social realist fiction (in addition to the expected crime and horror genres).

Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Possessed

The murderer Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov — the main character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous novel, Crime and Punishment (1866) — would not qualify as a psychopath in the accepted sense of the word. Indeed, after having committed a murder to help finance his career, Raskolnikov is gradually eaten away by remorse until he ultimately abjures all of his dilettante intellectual rationalizations for his crime. He redeems himself by confessing and accepting just punishment in exchange for the unconditional love of a destitute but pious woman and the eternal reward of Christian salvation.

However, the character of Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov may indeed be a psychopath, as he is a depraved and sensual nihilist and a suspected multiple murderer. Svidrigailov's failed attempt at blackmailing Raskolnikov's sister into marrying him, as well as the burden of his own crimes, weigh heavily upon him and force him into an untenable position, eventually driving him to suicide. Unlike Raskolnikov, he is finally consumed by his own corruption and dies unredeemed.

In Dostoevsky's The Possessed (1872), the power-hungry revolutionaries, Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin and Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, are both violent psychopaths who will manipulate and destroy anyone in pursuit of their radical political program as well as their own personal ends.

Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera

Bertolt Brecht's libretto for The Threepenny Opera (1928) opens with "Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer" ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife"), which introduces the gangster-protagonist Macheath as a psychopathic murderer, robber, arsonist and rapist. However, in the subsequent drama, Macheath is ironically portrayed as a rather sympathetic and even heroic figure. Despite being a vicious and violent criminal, he sees himself as a businessman of the underworld and a romantic free spirit who simply reacts against the legalized injustices and inequities of private property.

Graham Greene's Brighton Rock

The boy gangster, Pinkie Brown, in Graham Greene's contemporary theological allegory, Brighton Rock (1938), is a classic example of a criminal psychopath. Pinkie takes sadistic pleasure in brutalizing and murdering people and even kills one of his own henchmen, Fred Hale, for perceived disloyalty.

Pinkie also suffers from a variety of neuroses as a consequence of his Catholic upbringing. He is disgusted by sex and has an irrational hatred of women, seeing them as the embodiment of weakness, but is nevertheless preoccupied with losing his virginity. Pinkie is morbidly obsessed with the Catholic notion of original sin to the point that he believes himself to be purely evil and beyond redemption, although he would still like to know the experience of being loved. He later marries a young waitress named Rose in order to keep her from talking to the police about Fred Hale's murder. Despite the fact that Rose sincerely loves him, Pinkie degrades and abuses her constantly, and she sees her suffering at his hands as holy penance for engaging in sex. In the allegorical design of the story, Rose serves as a symbol of pure Christian goodness wedded to, and struggling against, Pinkie's evil.

Jean Genet and Querelle de Brest

In the confessional, semi-autobiographical novels of Jean Genet, such as Our Lady of the Flowers (1944) and The Thief's Journal (1949), the author promulgates the Dostoyevskian immoralist philosophy and inverted value system of hardened criminals, con men, and homosexual drifters, a few of whom appear to be bona fide psychopaths. The most notorious of Genet's nihilists is the sailor Georges Querelle in his novel Querelle de Brest (1947). Querelle is a homosexual serial killer with sadomasochistic tastes who betrays and murders several lovers and acquaintances while on shore leave in the city of Brest.

Alan Sillitoe's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Alan Sillitoe's short story, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1958), is told in the first person from the point of view of a young delinquent protagonist, a conscienceless petty thief who expresses his consuming hatred of rules and authority — personified by the headmaster of the Borstal school where he has been sent for rehabilitation — with all the venomous antisocial ferocity of a true psychopath.

Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess' dystopian-satirical novel, A Clockwork Orange (1962), also adopts the first-person perspective of a juvenile delinquent — an incorrigible fifteen-year-old hoodlum named Alex DeLarge, who steals, rapes and eventually kills with wild, conscience-free abandon. Alex is accompanied in his "ultraviolent" pursuits by his equally brutish "droogs". He is eventually arrested and imprisoned when his criminal activities escalate to manslaughter and his companions betray him to the police.

Alex later volunteers himself as a guinea pig for an experimental form of aversion therapy called "the Ludovico Treatment" in exchange for an early discharge from the state's custody. However, the treatment has a strange and crippling effect on him. After his rehabilitation, every time Alex attempts to act on a violent impulse or assert himself physically — even in threatening situations which call for pragmatic self-defense — he suddenly feels helpless and paralyzed with nausea.

Despite his unnatural and coercive reprogramming by the state, Alex remains in essence a psychopathic personality — that is, he refrains from violence not because he wants to, but because he is forced to by artificial inducement. When the treatment unexpectedly wears off at the end of the novel, he reverts back to his amoral, "ultraviolent" self. Although some editions of the book contain an even more peculiar and ironic final chapter, in which Alex decides to reform and become a responsible, law-abiding citizen of his own free will.

Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho

Bret Easton Ellis' grimly parodic novel, American Psycho (1991), tells the story of a yuppie serial killer named Patrick Bateman, who is an aggressive, disaffected psychopath by his own admission: "I am without a single, identifiable human emotion, except for greed and disgust... I am simply not there."

Like "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and A Clockwork Orange, American Psycho is a mordant social commentary written in the first-person, which adopts (albeit ironically) the skewed point-of-view and corrupt belief system of its anti-hero protagonist. As such, the reader is given a first-hand account of Bateman's psychopathology, which, by extension, becomes a murderous, hyperbolic parody of the corporate consumer (i.e., "yuppie") culture of urban America at the end of the twentieth century. Bateman's obsessive materialism is revealed as a compensation for his basic emotional emptiness and vapid social life. Although he initially derives a measure of satisfaction from his secret life as a brutal sadist and murderer, by the end of the novel not even sadistic sex and killing can arouse any kind of feeling in him.

See also

See also Fictional portrayals of psychopaths in film

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Fictional portrayals of psychopaths in literature" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools