Narcissism in Fiction
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
Seeing as a certain defamation trial has thrust the subject of narcissistic personalities onto a trending trajectory, I took a look at how we depict personality disordered characters in fiction. This will likely cover several posts as the subject is particularly personal for me. I am neuro-divergent and a survivor of narcissistic abuse. The experience affected me deeply. I created a narcissistic character in my debut novel in order to work through some of the trauma. He is a boundary-breaker and this is important to keep in mind when discussing narcissists.
I'll start, as I often do, with that queen of Regency fiction: Jane Austen. I attended a talk some years ago about heroes and anti-heroes in Austen. The question came up as to whether any of her anti-heroes are narcissists. The speaker replied 'yes, I think they all are.' I do not agree with this at all so let me break it down.
I'm using the Hare's Psychopathy Checklist, which I've reproduced here. I'm focusing on the top 10 traits because the last two are difficult to do with 'paper people' (ie, fictional characters) as we're unable to see them in settings outside their pages, though fanfic sure helps.
The myth of Narcissus has been around since Ancient Greece so such personality types aren't new. While NPD is not something Austen could have known about, she clearly had a sharp eye and instinctive revelatory insights. I want to be clear here that there is a vast difference between a self-centred personality, and a narcissistic one. Fictional characters are not unlike real people in this respect and it's why I disagree with that all Austen's anti-heroes are narcissists. Let's get into it:
Frank Churchill (Emma)
Mr Churchill is an excellent example of a self-centred character who I do not think can be classified as a narcissist. He's not devoid of empathy or accountability. He is careless and rather thoughtless, especially in his behaviour towards Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax (not to mention his father), but he does apologise and seems genuinely intent on making Miss Fairfax happy. He aspires to be a better man in the future and while his success may be doubted, this indicates he sees himself as needing improvement as a person. This is not a narcissistic trait.
John Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)
This anti-hero behaves appallingly. His delusions of grandeur make it easy to see why he might be a grandiose narcissist, but does he meet any other markers of NPD? He seems little interested in his sisters and mama and shows himself to be extremely manipulative when it comes to gaining his own ends. However, he lacks charm and subtlety. There is no sign of him love bombing Catherine, though he's attentive. It seems rather that he finds her attractive and naive enough to be impressionable. An easy conquest, rather than a truly desired one. His behaviour is immature rather than malicious.
I'm tempted to look more closely at his sister's personality than his own, but wanting to marry a wealthier man than her betrothed cannot be considered a bad thing in 1800s England. Captain Tilney, on the other hand, may well be a narcissist. Possibly the General as well.
John Willoughby (Sense & Sensibility)
I have to admit that Willoughby is my favourite Austenite rakehell. This has a lot to do with the scene where he shows up drunk at the Palmers' home because he's heard Marianne might die. This is very relatable and very human (at least to me).
That said, John Willoughby often behaves in selfish and careless ways. Our sense of him comes mostly via Elinor and her depictions of Marianne's responses to Willoughby. We gain more information from Colonel Brandon later on that shows a darker side to his character.
Willoughby's behaviour towards Eliza Williams lacks empathy, propriety (obviously), and any measure of human kindness. It's cowardly and cruel and, sadly, not at all uncommon - but is he narcissistic? Does he display remorse and empathy? I believe he does. It's rather tied up with his too-large ego and poor decision making, but it's there. So I don't believe Austen drew us a portrait of a narcissist in this novel. At least, not a male one. (I could write a paper on the NPD traits displayed by Fanny Dashwood!)
Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park)
Ah, now we're getting closer. Henry Crawford is vain and clever, which tracks with the Hare list of NPD traits. He is certainly deceitful and takes no accountability for his actions. He even demonstrates some Regency-era lovebombing (though it wasn't called that in 1814).
Henry can be charming and superficially kind, but his assistance with Fanny's brother's career is entirely in Crawford's own interest. Can we give him the credit of it, if his endgame is seduction of William Price's sister? (Henry only comes to believe he loves Fanny afterwards - initially his interest in her is purely for the amusement of making 'a small hole in Fanny Price's heart'.) This is certainly narcissistic personality disorder territory. He meets all the markers on Hare's list and his own sister finds his interest in Fanny self-serving.
I am not a fan of Edmund Bertram at all (never mind the cousins-in-love trope), but he is a far better fate for the empathic Fanny Price, than the wealthier Henry Crawford.
William Elliott (Persuasion)
This anti-hero is more nuanced and this isn't surprising as he appears in Austen's most mature work. Most of what we learn from this character is told us by the heroine at first. Later on, we hear more details from an older acquaintance and find the fellow has been concealing much of his past from his relations. This meets some of the definitions of the narcissist.
Does he meet them all though? Could Mr Elliott merely be an ambitious man with an eye for status that he did not possess in his youth? Given the filial expectation that shipped him with his eldest cousin (ie, Elizabeth) when he was younger, I'm inclined in his favour. He clearly did not like Elizabeth and years later, once widowered, preferred our heroine.
His duplicitous behaviour with Mrs Clay could be seen as dastardly - or as an heir-apparent to a title that he does not wish to pass out of his hands. In Regency England, I doubt this was uncommon. After all, Anne Elliott has similar concerns regarding Mrs Clay. William is vain, selfish, and dishonest, yes, but he is cunning rather than impulsive. Instead of exhibiting a lack of behavioural controls, he curates himself for any acquaintance who serves his ends. An opportunist, certainly, but not quite a narcissist.
George Wickham (Pride & Prejudice)
I've saved Wickham for last because of course he meets the markers (excepting 11 and 12 and even then, racking up unpaid gambling debts could be considered anti-social; running away with fifteen year old virgins certainly is). Every one of his behaviours, from the lies he tells to the empaths he attracts (Elizabeth Bennett seems empathic to me), to his impulsive decision to seduce Lydia Bennett, signals a character who knows no boundaries and takes no accountability. His red flags fly brighter than any scarlet regimentals.
One of the novel's most intensely heroic moments is when Darcy holds Wickham to account in a way neither his own father, nor (presumably) Wickham's, ever managed to do. Before anyone suggests Henry Crawford performs a similar service to impress Fanny Price, remember that Darcy never intends Elizabeth to know of his involvement in salvaging her sister's marriage. Henry Crawford on the other hand, parades his influence over William Price's career in front of Fanny and her family precisely to gain the woman he desires.
Crawford demonstrates his power over others; Darcy shows his sense of justice (and possibly compassion - Lydia isn't an easy character to pity but she is just fifteen years old). Motivation matters, and the hero's must always be quite different to the villain's.
If Elizabeth Bennett had refused Darcy a second time, he'd have left her sight 'forever', as he expresses it. He'd not have mentioned the patched-up marriage with Lydia at all - because he is the hero and George Wickham is possibly one of the best drawn narcissists ever to appear in literary fiction.
What do you think of Austen's anti-heroes? Did I get it right, or horribly wrong? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, or find me on Twitter, IG, Facebook or via email.