38 pages 1 hour read

Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide


American Psycho is a 1991 novel by American author Bret Easton Ellis. Set in 1980s New York, the novel follows the life of a wealthy young stockbroker, the novel’s narrator, Patrick Bateman. Surrounded by a world of vapid commercialism and empty excess, Bateman begins acting on his psychopathic thoughts and impulses. His disturbance begins in his imagination. However, it quickly bleeds over into reality with Bateman committing more and more horrific murders, fueled by drug consumption. Bateman experiences a progression of mental illness. By the novel’s end, he has delusions that cash machines are talking to him. The novel was turned into a film starring Christian Bale in 2000. This guide uses the 1991 Picador edition.

Since the novel’s publication, many critics and scientists have noted its stigmatizing portrayal of mental illness. For example, the author employs sensationalist stereotypes that equate mental illness with violence, and the novel is never specific about Bateman’s psychiatric conditions, instead lumping together many unrelated symptoms under the eponymous, derogatory term “psycho.” The novel is, in this sense, more symbolic than realistic; it uses Bateman’s psychological state to represent what the author sees as society’s pathological tendencies.

Be advised that the novel includes offensive language, including anti-gay slurs (which this study guide quotes but obscures). The novel also includes instances of rape, torture, and other graphic violence.

Plot Summary

American Psycho takes place during the 1980s. It is divided into 60 short chapters. At the novel’s start, the narrator and protagonist, New York stockbroker Patrick Bateman, attends a dinner party hosted by his fiancée, Evelyn. He suspects that she is cheating on him with a work colleague, Timothy Price. Bateman’s relationship with Evelyn is vacuous and defined by appearances. The next day Price and two other acquaintances go to a bar and an expensive restaurant, where they discuss fashion and women. They head to a club where they take cocaine. Bateman goes on a date with a woman who is not his fiancée and starts to have increasingly violent, compulsive thoughts.

In Chapters 9-20, Bateman’s violent thoughts increasingly spill over into real life. He returns some blood-spattered clothes to a drycleaner. This is clearly the result of a murder he has committed. He goes on to brutally assault a homeless man, stabbing him in the stomach and eyes. Bateman tells his colleagues and various women he sees, including Evelyn, about his psychopathic desires and fantasies, and even how he has murdered people. But none of them listen. On top of this, and influenced by his massive drug consumption, he starts to lose his grip on reality. He has blackouts and wakes up not knowing where he is. He also has out of body experiences, where time and the external world become transformed or distorted. In Chapters 21-28, Bateman tries to kill Luis, the boyfriend of a woman he is having an affair with, Courtney. However, Luis mistakes Bateman’s attempt to strangle him as a sexual come-on and reveals that he has desires for Bateman, to the latter’s horror. When Luis confesses his love for Bateman in a shop, Bateman threatens him with a knife. Meanwhile, Bateman’s acts of violence escalate. He kills a gay man and his dog, and assaults and abuses two sex workers. Bateman lures a drunk colleague, Paul Owen, back to his apartment. He then murders him with an ax, before disposing of the body with lime. Bateman breaks into Owen’s apartment to change the message on his answering machine and create the false impression that Owen is going to London.

In Chapters 29-40, the frequency and brutality of Bateman’s violence intensifies. He meets an ex-girlfriend from university, Bethany, for lunch and knocks her unconscious when she goes back to his apartment. He nails her hands to a wooden plank with a nail gun and kills her by sawing off her arm. He kills another woman by electrocuting her and murders a five-year-old child at the zoo by stabbing his neck. In addition, he murders two sex workers in his apartment using acid and a drill. These murders leave Bateman with an ever-increasing sense of despair and emptiness.

A private investigator, Donald Kimball, shows up at Bateman’s office. He asks Bateman questions regarding Paul Owen’s disappearance and suspects that something is awry. In Chapters 41-60, Bateman’s psychosis accelerates. He finally breaks up with Evelyn and sends her a box with flies in it for Valentine’s Day. He claims to have killed a woman using a rat and to have tried eating her body, as well as having concealed a machine gun in the locker at his gym. However, the veracity of many of these stories is called into doubt when a colleague at a party reveals that he had lunch with Paul Owen, the man Bateman supposedly murdered, in London 10 days ago. The extent of Bateman’s psychosis is evident at the novel’s end. This is when he admits that cash machines have been talking to him.