The author’s note for the travel essay/biography Into the Wild begins with the following passage: “In April 1992, a young man [Chris McCandless] from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.” Similarly, the book jacket for Bret Easton Ellis’s fictional work American Psycho reads that “Patrick Bateman is handsome, well educated, and intelligent,” working by day on Wall Street while his nights are spent “in ways we cannot begin to fathom.” Although one text centered on a fictional character and the other on a real person, both books present the same social criticism. Each of these high-achieving, intelligent, and charming men sought escape—through an alter ego – from mainstream society because they had difficulty forging a satisfying sense of self in modern America. However, neither could form a genuine identity due to the lingering influence of capitalist society. Thus, these texts criticize American society for disenchanting its most promising individuals and stifling the establishment of “identity." [note]Note that the way the author’s thesis is stated provides the reader with a sort of “map” of how the paper will be organized.
Both “protagonists” of these works began their journeys as promisingly handsome, athletic, and intelligent young men. Chris McCandless had “grown up in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where he’d excelled academically and had been an elite athlete” (A1). He was a college graduate of a school where he had been editor of the student newspaper and achieved a 3.72 grade-point average. Furthermore, Chris had inherited his mother’s “angelic features, most notably her eyes, the black depths of which betrayed his every emotion” (110). In sum, McCandless was by all appearances the quintessential American youth. [note]This paragraph is a good example of how summary can be used in a paper as long as it is tied to an analytical argument. In this case, the author summarizes McCandless’s character in order to make the argument contained the paragraph’s last sentence: McCandless is a typical American male.
Ellis’s fictional protagonist Patrick Bateman had much in common with McCandless. [note]This sentence allows the reader to transition easily between the two paragraphs because it makes the logical relationship between the two clear. Bateman was a graduate of an Ivy League school and was a privileged twenty-six year old working in his father’s Wall Street business that he would one day inherit. Furthermore, men and women alike were attracted to Bateman, and he was constantly being asked if he was a model: “What in god’s name are you dong with a stud like Bateman?” (26). His fiancé summarized his seeming normality as she frequently referred to him as “the boy next door” (11). Bateman was like McCandless in his well-adjusted appearance.
However, Bateman and McCandless wanted to be anything but “the boy next door.” [note]Note that the use of the transition word “however” makes it immediately clear to the reader that the author is moving on to an argument that somewhat contradicts his last one. McCandless displayed a “fervent condemnation of capitalist society” (44). His friends and acquaintances recalled that he would grow angry whenever discussing politicians or mainstream American life. According to his mother, Chris “believed that wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil” (115). [note]This is an example of an effective use of quotation. The quote is strongly worded and captures the intensity of McCandless’s contempt better than a paraphrase could. These beliefs stemmed from intensive readings of wilderness authors such as Thoreau and London who believed that man was most himself when battling the wild. Furthermore, [note]This is a good use of a transition. The relationship between McCandless’s fondness for Whitman and his disdain for his father is not immediately apparent. In fact, had the author not used “furthermore,” the statement about his father would have seemed random and out of place. The transition makes it clear to the reader that the statements are related to each other in the sense that they advance the same argument. Chris’s disheartening experience with his successful capitalist father further discouraged him from accepting mainstream society. Walt McCandless had fathered a child by his former wife while still with Chris’s mother, and Chris only stumbled upon the truth when he was in his early twenties. Thus, McCandless’s entrepreneurial father who epitomized capitalism had deceived Chris while the wild, on the other hand, beckoned him.
Meanwhile, Ellis’s protagonist Patrick Bateman was a perfect example of what Chris despised. Bateman was well-educated, handsome, increasingly rich, and devoid of feeling. Bateman had been raised in the yuppie image and had become so engrossed in his pursuit of the American Dream that he had no moral grounding or sense of self. Furthermore, his yuppie role only reinforced his emptiness. Bateman perfected the yuppie façade so well that he was constantly mistaken for his interchangeable peers. “Paul Owen has called me Marcus four times….Anyway, no one has corrected Owen and it’s unlikely anyone will” (143). Furthermore, the only names Bateman and his friends did remember were the brand names they wore. Consequently, Bateman found that “everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other” (282). In brief, Bateman could not erect an identity under the upper class conditions he was born into. In his boredom Bateman was as disengaged with middle/upper class life as McCandless and also sought an alternative. [note]This is a helpful reminder to readers that the author is pointing out the similarities between these two ostensibly dissimilar (at least in personality) characters.
Of interesting contrast were the two men’s views on the homeless and lower-class citizens of capitalist America; both took an abnormal interest in this demographic of the American population. During the opening chapter of American Psycho, Bateman’s companion eloquently discussed the confusion felt by an educated man when looking upon a homeless person. Bateman’s companion was intrigued by the homeless, and “his eyes fixed on a beggar at the corner of Second and Fifth,’ that’s the twenty-fourth one I’ve seen today. I’ve kept count” (4). He elaborated on his feelings about the homeless in-between nonchalant rants about bars, socialites, disease, sex and blue blazers:
When you’ve just come to the point when your reaction to the times is one of total and sheer acceptance, when your body has become somehow tuned into the insanity and you reach that point where it all makes sense, when it clicks, we get some crazy fucking homeless nigger who actually wants those streets…and we have a mayor who won’t let the bitch have her way-Holy Christ-let the fucking bitch freeze to death, put her out of her own goddamn self-made misery, and look, you’re back where you started, confused, fucked (6). [note]This is an effective use of quotation. The language used in the quote is much more extreme than anything that would have been used in a paraphrase, and it highlights the contrast between the attitudes of people like Bateman and those of McCandless.
Clearly, it is difficult to understand such a dramatically varying lifestyle from one’s own, or to know how to address such persons.
Patrick Bateman also had a strange fascination with the homeless who bombarded the Manhattan streets. “I wave to a beggar on the corner of Forty-ninth and Eighth, then give him the finger” (94). Bateman frequently engaged in such antisocial behavior with the homeless. In another instance, Bateman brushed past a crying homeless man of middle age. “He’s blind and I step on his foot, which is actually a stump, causing him to drop his cup, scattering change all over the sidewalk. Did I do this on purpose? What do you think? Or did I do this accidentally?” (82). Throughout the text Bateman mocks, physically assaults and verbally taunts the homeless.
Meanwhile, Chris McCandless had an utterly divergent response to the homeless. While other high school students were attending keggers, McCandless chose a different pastime. He would instead “wander the seedier quarters of Washington, chatting with prostitutes and homeless people, buying them meals, earnestly suggesting ways they might improve their lives” (113). Chris’s admiration for this existence was apparent when he abandoned all of his belongings and wandered the United States as a vagabond with next to nothing. Chris found the less fortunate compelling and wanted to explore their lifestyle before becoming locked in the ennui of middle class existence.
One can speculate that the generous upbringings of these young men fostered these unusually strong reactions to the homeless. As mentioned earlier, McCandless and Bateman were both highly educated, successful youths whose boredom with the norm reflected a high level of intelligence. This combination left these men with ambiguous feelings about their own upbringings and consequently that of others. The homeless population represented for both McCandless and Bateman the unexplored components of their own personalities. Both men had been raised under capitalist expectations to win at the expense of others, and seek wealth, fame and stability etc. However, these values had left Bateman and McCandless unsatisfied. The homeless meanwhile, took little part in climbing the American ladder to success or pulling themselves up-by-their bootstraps. Thus, their lifestyle was so contradictory to that of Bateman and McCandless that it was a source of confusion. McCandless on the one hand, embraced the lifestyle of the homeless; while Bateman was enraged and revolted by it. Thus the immense disparity between “the haves” and “the have-nots” of America contributed to Bateman and McCandless’s confusion and their ensuing inability to find peace of mind in mainstream American life. [note]This paragraph is helpful because it makes it clear how the sections on the homeless relate to the larger argument of the paper.
Bateman and McCandless viewed the world through the same opposing lenses that each saw the homeless. On the one hand, McCandless believed that his small contributions to the world and interactions with others were worthwhile even if they didn’t change everything at once. Many of the people who encountered McCandless were struck by his convictions and were persuaded to change their lives. Of prime example was Ron Franz, who had been living a secluded retirement in his trailer. McCandless encouraged him to “move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon” (57). Franz did indeed move, and was among a number of people deeply devastated by Chris’s death. Although Chris was on a personal, spiritual quest, he nonetheless managed to touch the lives of countless people along his journey through his concern for the welfare of others. Chris saw the world in the same way that he saw the homeless: all could be changed for the better, even if only one at a time.
Conversely, Bateman knew that the world was plagued with problems and felt uncompelled to act. He rambled on for an awkwardly long time at a dinner party about the “pressing problems at hand. Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger” (15). His diatribe further included domestic problems, care for the elderly, a cure for AIDS, environmental protection, and education standards to name a few. His final statement was the most ironic considering the level of personal hypocrisy: “Most importantly we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people” (16). Bateman’s intent in this passage is unclear; it is easy to assume he was being humorous, but he spoke of these problems with an obvious understanding of them, leaving his irony to be questioned. Bateman was painfully aware of the ills of the world, and was so overwhelmed by them that he was rendered incompetent to address them. Bateman was the epitome of capitalist values: consumed in his quest to become as rich, handsome and well-known as possible with complete disregard to the welfare of others. This lifestyle however, did not succeed in subduing his angst, just as it hadn’t satisfied McCandless. [note]Note that this last sentence works to tie the arguments about McCandless and Bateman together. The paragraph begins with “conversely,” which indicates that Bateman is different than McCandless. It is helpful to have a sentence that points out that, though the two might differ in their attitudes, they share their common dissatisfaction.
Bateman and McCandless sought escape from the society that bred their confusion by building a new identity. “To symbolize the complete severance from his previous life, [McCandless] adopted a new name, Alexander Supertramp and was now 'master of his own destiny'"(23). McCandless shed his former identity by abandoning his beloved Dotson in the Mojave Desert along with other belongings of “Chris McCandless,” such as a much-played guitar and other personal items. However, McCandless’s attempted escape from the suffocating mainstream American life was ineffective. Nick Jans, a former DC resident who lives in the Arctic Circle wrote the following about McCandless:
McCandless’s contrived asceticism and a pseudo literary stance…postcards, notes and journals…read like the work of an above average, somewhat histrionic high school kid (72).
Jans eloquently noted the trite escapism and lack of novelty that was McCandless’s attempt at being original. McCandless was just one of innumerable men seduced by writings that glorified man battling nature. McCandless “escaped” American society by diving head first into a classic and trite form of American escapism.
Patrick Bateman also tried a different persona in the hopes that it could lead to a more satisfying existence. After his yuppie identity failed to fulfill him, Bateman created an identity as a serial killer in an attempt to connect with something beyond brand names. This extreme choice in character was useful for fictional writing choices. Under Bateman’s yuppie persona, he was a charming and empathetic youth and the most dramatic opposite of this was a killer. Bateman simply could not stand the ennui of his yuppie status: “”Patrick…He’s the boy next door, aren’t you honey?’ ‘No I’m not,’ I whisper to myself. ‘I’m a fucking evil psychopath’” (20). However, Bateman again only reinforced the emptiness he sought exodus from. The violence Bateman committed was cliché and reminiscent of porn and horror films. In one scene entitled “Texas Chainsaw Massacre II” Bateman committed a murder identical to those of its namesake. Bateman, in fact, recognized his inclination to viewing life through a Hollywood lens:
I am so used to imagining everything happening the way it occurs in movies, visualizing it somehow into the shape of events on a screen…hallucinate the camera panning low around us…the 70 mm image of her lips parting and the subsequent murmur of ‘I want you’ in Dolby sound (265). [note]This in another case in which is quotation is more appropriate to support the author’s argument than a paraphrase would have been.
Bateman’s perception and interaction with the world in his new serial persona was still a mere manifestation of pop-culture consumerism. Bateman, like McCandless, was still heavily influenced by American culture despite his attempt to build something apart from it.
A comment of Professor Anderson’s about McCandless applied equally well to Bateman and McCandless. Both were trying to address “a tension between the ego and the urge for anonymity.” Although McCandless made himself unfamiliar with those who had known him as Chris McCandless, he nonetheless wanted recognition under his assumed name. Alexander Supertramp was not exactly a humble name. Furthermore, “Alex” frequently left brief messages indicating his presence. Thus McCandless was clearly unsure as to what level of obscurity or distinction he wanted. Bateman’s behavior also reflected uncertainty. Bateman was trying to separate himself from his equally boring and rich peers by becoming a serial killer. However, his lack of effort in setting himself apart under normal circumstances indicated a level of ambivalence toward establishing a sense of self apart from the majority. In fact, in some instances, Bateman appreciated such anonymity. For example, Bateman used the fact that people often mistook him for someone else to abuse their privileges i.e. leaving a party in someone else’s limo) [note]This is an example of a correct use of “i.e.” and behave badly (i.e. renting prostitutes and abusing them under the names of friends). Both McCandless and Bateman were not only having difficulty understanding their role in American society and thus their identities, but also in deciding how unique and renown an identity to forge.
Chris McCandless and Patrick Bateman both represented America’s increasing fascination with the horror of the normal. Bateman’s yuppie self was the personification of the evil of banality: the insidiously insipid and indistinctive countenance of capitalist consumer culture. Bateman and McCandless attempted to escape this horrific existence by adopting new identities: one as a serial killer, and the other as a vagabond. Both however, failed to develop a satisfying sense of self independent of mainstream America’s influence. According to American Psycho and Into the Wild, American values and society are not conducive to intelligent people seeking self-exploration and understanding of the world, in sum people seeking an identity. [note]This a good conclusion because it makes it clear why the author’s argument matters in a larger context by suggesting that McCandless and Bateman’s inability to escape from their dissatisfaction is symptomatic of a larger trend in American society.
Ellis, Bret E. American Psycho. New York: Vintage Books of Random House, 1991.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Random House Books, 1996.