The Psychology of Narcissism

Gray Magee

Chapter 1: The Psychology of Narcissism

Throughout the course of human history, writers and poets alike have told stories of individuals who demonstrate excessive pride and narcissism. These characters intrigue us with their sense of entitlement, excessive boasting, and lack of empathy. Upon first glance, these characters seem to have nothing in common with us. However, after further analysis, these characters are more like us than we may want to believe. Therefore, the fascination with these characters begs the question: Why does the archetypal narcissist intrigue us so much? Do we identify with the character? Do we see our friends and loved ones in the character? Is it simply because we love to hate the prideful individual? In order to properly answer the question, we must first examine what exactly pride is and where/how it originates.

The story of Adam and Eve is known by many: Eve was tempted by Satan in the Garden of Eden, she ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, she gave the fruit to Adam, he ate the fruit, and God banished them from the Garden of Eden. However, in order to truly understand the motive behind this sin, we must unravel the complex mystery that is pride, and we must understand what exactly was the fall of man. This idea is developed in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost – specifically in Book IX. In Book IX, according to Swaim, Satan is able to successfully tempt Eve into eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge by appealing “not just to her personal vanity, but to her pride (with emphasis on potential godlikeness and aspiration) and appetite and profit or avarice” (Swaim P11). Not only is this sense of vanity displayed in this iconic scene, but is also clearly evident when she catches a glimpse of herself in the water. After catching this glance, Eve would look at her image forever were it not for Adam telling her that it is herself she is seeing and this is because “naturally, she admires a thing that seems to answer her love and sympathy with sympathy and love” (Bowers P20). Satan uses this vanity and pride to his advantage because he knows what pride and vanity feel like; he knows what pride and vanity can do to a person because he experienced the punishment of such vices first hand when he was banished from heaven. In Milton’s epic, Satan convinces Eve to eat the fruit by assuring her that she can be just as magnificent as God, and he is able to do so because he is aware of how powerful that thought is for someone who is prideful and vain.

That ye should be as gods, since I as man,/ Internal man, is but proportional meet,/ I of brute human, ye of human gods./ So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off/ Human, to put on gods, death to be wished,/ Though threatened, which no worse than this can bring./ And what are gods that man may not become/ As they, participating godlike food? (Book IX 710-717)

Eve and Satan are not the only characters who are guilty of this terrible vice; Adam is as well. Adam is prideful enough to believe Eve and eat the fruit, and he is prideful enough to believe that he can deceive God. Therefore, what we as human beings must take from this story and Milton’s epic is that all humans are capable of pride, a trait which could (and most often does) lead to our downfall.

C. S. Lewis describes pride in his book Mere Christianity as the “one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves” (Lewis 121). He further asserts that “pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (122). Therefore, it is clear that pride is the worst sin of all when viewed from a Christian perspective. Pride is the reason for Satan’s fall from heaven, the catalyst for Eve’s temptation, the reason for Adam’s fall. Pride is also the only vice is what Lewis calls “essentially competitive” (122). In other words, it is competitive by nature, meaning that each person’s pride competes with another’s pride. Prideful individuals get pleasure from having more of something than another, which could be money, talent, good looks, etc (122). Therefore, it can easily be argued that pride is the catalyst for every other sin. Pride leads to greed in that it causes the individual to get pleasure from having more money than another. It leads to envy in that prideful individuals aspire to have another’s possessions. It leads to a lust for power in that the individual gets satisfaction from being superior. Pride, in C.S. Lewis’ opinion, can lead to a great schism between an individual and God because “a proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as [one is] looking down, [one] cannot see something that is above [him/her]” (124). However, not only is pride a danger to one spiritually, but one can view pride as a danger from a non-religious view. Pride can cause humans to tear down any person who becomes an interference. This is idea is where the true danger of pride lies and is commonly seen in individuals known as narcissists.

Pride is like a disease or “spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense” (125). If one lets it, pride can rule one’s life and feed off him/her like a parasite. It can cause one to make decisions one would not make under normal circumstances. It can cause one to ruin relationships with insignificant quarrels. When one allows pride to control his/her life in this way, one is said to be a narcissist as can easily be seen in several characters in literature, characters such as Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein; Herman Melville’s John Claggart; Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray; and Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Iago. These iconic characters are known for their narcissism which results in their fall. Frequently, this narcissism is the catalyst for desires of power, as evident in Kurtz, Doctor Faustus, and Macbeth. With Kurtz, his desire for power corrupts his mind and causes him to become just as savage as the African tribes he forces to work for him. Faustus, on the other hand, believes that power will make him invulnerable. Macbeth fails to realize that in gaining power, he also gains more enemies. In addition, narcissism leads to an overestimation of one’s abilities. Faustus believes he cannot die, even after selling his soul to Lucifer. Frankenstein believes he can become a God-substitute by creating life. Macbeth believes that he cannot be vanquished because of the witches prophesy. Narcissism can result in vanity with Dorian Gray, Eve, and Doctor Faustus as common examples. Dorian Gray is unwilling to lose his youthful image. Eve is able to be tempted by Satan because of what she will become if she eats the fruit. Similarly, Faustus is willing to sell his soul because of what he can accomplish by doing so. Finally, narcissism can result in envy for another’s possessions or personal qualities, as seen in Othello, Iago, and John Claggart. Othello is envious of Cassio’s alleged affair with Othello’s wife, Desdemona, and is able to be convinced of such by Iago appealing to his narcissism. Iago, on the other hand, is envious that Cassio became the moor’s lieutenant instead of himself. Claggart is envious of how well-liked Billy Budd is by the rest of the sailors.

It is clear that the origins of pride and the definition of pride have been established. What we now must explore are the effects that extreme pride, known as narcissism, has on an individual and the others around him/her. We have only been able to scratch the surface of the complexities of narcissism. The common man may never be able to fully understand the mind of the archetypal narcissist. However, scholars and philosophers such as C.S. Lewis, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Jacques Lacan are able to give us insight and help us decode the mystery that is narcissism.

Chapter 2: Narcissism

Narcissistic personality disorder is defined by Jerome Kegan and Susan B. Gall as “the personality trait that features an exaggerated sense of the person’s own importance and abilities.” Narcissists typically believe “themselves to be uniquely gifted and commonly engage in fantasies of fabulous success, power, or fame” (Kegan P1). Ironically, these individuals often have issues with self-esteem, typically resulting from lack of compliments and encouragement as children. They over-compensate for their lack of compliments in the past by giving themselves compliments in the present and expecting their peers to do so as well. They refuse to believe the possibility that they are fallible and typically blame others when they make irreversible mistakes. In addition, narcissists often are unable to accurately assess their abilities and will commonly dream of becoming powerful, without realizing the consequences. Frankenstein, Doctor Faustus, Macbeth, and Kurtz, archetypal narcissists, all exhibit some of these characteristics. Therefore, the next logical step in the analysis of narcissism is to examine what it is about narcissism that leads to the downfall of these characters. The first step in this examination is to fully understand the psychology of the archetypal narcissist.

To some extent, all human beings display some form of narcissism. The difference between being a little narcissistic and being a narcissist is the extent to which the narcissism of an individual controls the day to day decisions of his or her life and how much an individual’s narcissism affects the lives of others. According to Sigmund Freud in his essay “On Narcissism,” Narcissism begins with primary narcissism which typically is a survival instinct in young children. This level of narcissism is very connected with Freud’s Id, where young children are only consumed with their own desires and needs. Ultimately, this narcissism comes from the need to preserve the development of the individual self. The level of narcissism that the ordinary individual displays later in life is known as secondary narcissism, where individuals seek personal gratification for their achievements. This secondary narcissism can develop into two sub-categories: cerebral and somatic narcissism. Cerebral narcissism involves having a deep satisfaction and adoration for one’s own intellectual capabilities and achievements. Somatic narcissism, on the other hand, involves becoming obsessed with one’s physique and sexual conquests (“On Narcissism”). However, an individual exhibiting these four levels of narcissism are not classified as the archetypal narcissist. The archetypal narcissist not only displays these characteristics, but also manipulates others to do his/her bidding as well. This characteristic, alone, makes narcissists a danger to others and to themselves. Since narcissists display an intense sense of self-worth, they often believe themselves to be capable of feats that, in reality, they are not. It is evident that the next step in the analysis of archetypal narcissists is to see how the overestimation of the powers they possess lead to their downfall as seen in Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, and Macbeth.

The fable of Icarus is a commonly told story in Greek mythology. The story consists of a boy, Icarus, and his craftsman father, Daedalus. Both of them are imprisoned in a tower on the island of Crete until, one day, Daedalus constructs two pairs of wings using bird feathers – patiently plucked over time – and wax. Both Daedalus and Icarus escape the tower, and Daedalus advises his headstrong son not to fly too close to the sun or the wax on his wings will melt and his wings will fall apart. Icarus, overestimating the power of flight bestowed upon him, flies too close to the sun and he falls to his death (“Icarus”). This myth serves as a lesson to be humble and not overestimate one’s abilities. It is easy to follow in the footsteps of Icarus. Individuals, especially those who have immature thought processes, often have a feeling of invulnerability. These individuals engage in activities that others would consider quite dangerous and, tragically, the story of these individuals may be somewhat reminiscent of the myth. Obviously, the lesson of this myth can be applied to Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, and Macbeth in that they all overestimate what they are capable of accomplishing, and they do not seem to take the advice of others.

Doctor Faustus believes he can escape death by selling his soul to Mephistopheles to gain great magical powers. Faustus is given the opportunity, time and time again, to repent. It is not until the end of his life, when he sees the gates of hell opening before him, that he decides to feel shame for his sin.

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike:/ The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned!/ O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?/ See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!/ One drop of blood will save me. O my Christ! –/ Rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!/ Yet will I call on Him! O spare me, Lucifer! (Marlowe V.ii.150-156)

This inability to admit that one has made an irreversible mistake is very characteristic of the archetypal narcissist. In addition, this plea for forgiveness once doom is imminent is also very characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder, particularly because Faustus believes he deserves said forgiveness. Similarly, Frankenstein, after creating his terrible monster, is unable to grasp the gravity of his mistake until it becomes too late. This specifically occurs when he witnesses the destruction that his creation is capable of causing. Frankenstein is unwilling to take blame for a crime that his creation was directly responsible for – killing William. Justine is given a guilty sentence instead of Victor. Frankenstein explains his blame by saying that “Justine also was a girl of merit and possessed qualities which promised to render her life happy; now all was to be obliterated in an ignominious grave and [he] the cause” (64). However, he justifies not confessing with the following quote:

A thousand times rather would [he] have confessed [himself] guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine, but [he] was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman and would not have exculpated her who suffered through [him]. (64)

A typical characteristic of narcissists is that they constantly fantasize about fame and power. This fantasy is why Frankenstein creates his monster. Victor advises Walton against this pursuit of fame and knowledge by telling him of his regret in pursuing such an endeavor. He says to Walton, “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (Shelley 14). It is Frankenstein’s desire for fame that cause his monster to be a reflection of the dark monstrosity within him. However, his desire for fame blinds him to the inevitability that he is incapable of producing a perfect life form from nothing more that spare body parts. Therefore, Frankenstein, like Faustus, overestimates his power due to his narcissism.

Similarly, Macbeth discovers that high expectations of one’s own abilities with a desire to achieve vast power and wealth leads to nothing but turmoil. Macbeth believes he is powerful enough to never be killed due to the witches’ prophecy that “none of woman born/ shall harm Macbeth” (Macbeth. IV. i. 80-81). He is too prideful and foolish to realize that Macduff, being born by Caesarian section, is fully capable of slaying Macbeth and returning peace to Scotland even though he was told to be wary of Macduff by the three witches. In an attempt to preserve his reign as king, he has his friend Banquo murdered due to the witches’ prophecy that Banquo will father a king. Macbeth’s narcissism and quest for power leads to him to being willing to murder his long time friend and comrade, in addition to woman and children, and he is willing to do so because turning back would be too tedious. “For mine own good/All causes shall give way. I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er.” (Macbeth. III. iv. 135-138). It becomes easy to conclude that Macbeth’s overestimation of his power as a soldier and as a king is paradoxically both directly and indirectly the cause of his downfall. It has become established that aspirations of great wealth, power, and fame in conjunction with an overestimation of one’s abilities can lead to the demise of the archetypal narcissist. The inability of Faustus, Frankenstein, and Macbeth to accurately estimate the powers they possess leads to their downfall because they ultimately believe that they are capable of being as powerful as God. It is clear that the next logical step in the analysis of the archetypal narcissist and his downfall is to examine another aspect of narcissism that leads to the ruin of an individual: a desire to achieve God-like power.

Faustus believes that, with enough power, he can escape death and require no repentance for the sins has committed. Unfortunately, Faustus’ thought process is highly immature because in exchange for this power, he must sell his soul to Mephistopheles. This is a degree of narcissism that begins with the story of Adam, Eve, and Satan as seen in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Frankenstein also displays this level of narcissism. Frankenstein believes he can serve as a substitute for God by being capable of creating life, a power reserved for God. He, like Faustus, shrouds his desire to achieve God-like powers in justification. He justifies his attempt to and success of creating life by arguing that he wants to better the world through science, which he later advises Walton against by telling him to “seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (193). An individual with non-narcissistic qualities would genuinely take the opportunity to spread knowledge to the world without any sort of gain or reward for doing so.

Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, on the other hand, desires to become a God-like figure not through achieving powers normally reserved for God but rather through being worshipped as if he were God.

Seventeen pages of close writing before his – let us say – nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which – as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times – were offered up to him – do you understand? – to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings – we must approach them with the might as of a deity.’ (Conrad 117)

According to John Tessitore, Kurtz sees work as “not the means of sublimation but the very means by which he exercises his narcissism and aggression” (P13). In other words, he is able to fuel his ego by forcing the natives of the Congo to do work for him and make him feel as if he is a god. The irony of his desire to be a god-like figure lies in the fact that Marlow views Kurtz as an entity shrouded in mystery, similar to a God-like figure. Conrad describes this God-like mysteriousness in the following exchange between Kurtz and Marlow:

One evening coming in with a candle I was started to hear him say a little tremulously, ‘I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.’ The light was within a foot of his eyes . . . and stood over him as if transfixed. Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. (144)

However, he soon finds that Kurtz is nothing more than a megalomaniac, always talking about “his ivory” and finding it necessary to “Exterminate all the brutes!” (117). This egotistical behavior makes sense for someone suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. It is logical that an individual who puts himself above others in his mind would derive satisfaction in being a tyrannical leader who forces others to work for him. Nevertheless, Kurtz is obviously driven to the point of insanity by his megalomania because he, along with Faustus and Frankenstein, fails to recognize that the quest to reach a God-like state will always be unsuccessful. It is clear that the common thread between these three narcissists is an obvious need for gratification. This gratification is one of extreme magnitude, where they feel as if they must be praised as gods or god-like entities.

With the help of these four iconic, literary characters and Freud’s theory of narcissism, one is able to properly view not only how narcissists develop a sense of an overestimation of their abilities and their yearning to be god-like figures but why they develop these characteristics. What we, as human beings, must learn from the analysis of these characters is to be wary of overestimating our abilities and not to strive to be gods. What we can also learn from the archetypal narcissist is not to exhibit the characteristic most often found in individuals in today’s society. It is the characteristic from which the idea of narcissism originated. It is the characteristic that is strongly associated with Eve and the original sin committed by her in the Garden of Eden. It is the characteristic that can potentially be the most dangerous characteristic of narcissism: vanity. Our sense of vanity in today’s world is quite similar to the sense of vanity possessed by Eve. Vanity is the main characteristic with which narcissism is associated and is the next logical step in the examination of not only narcissism but also pride in general.

Chapter 3: Vanity

Pride has been considered by Christians to be the catalyst for the fall of man in that Adam and Eve were both coaxed into eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden because of it. However, it is important to unravel the complexities of pride and narcissism in order to truly understand why Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Underneath all these complexities lies vanity. Vanity is a vice with which many humans struggle. The direction society in which is moving has encouraged us to become consumed with our own self images because we have become a society in which success is directly proportional to image - as our image goes down, so does our success. Some people who exhibit vanity enjoy displaying their “perfect” image for all to see. Some look at others and believe their own image is superior to the images of others. Some use their image to influence others into doing their bidding. In order to overcome this vanity that we display, it is important we look at not only how we display vanity but also why we display it and how vanity can be dangerous. To fully answer these questions, archetypal narcissists from literature such as Eve, Dorian Gray, and Doctor Faustus can be examined in order to illuminate our minds on the dangers of vanity.

The term “narcissism” is derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus is a hunter who possesses immeasurable beauty and charm. Echo, once shunned by Narcissus in her attempt to attract him, prays to the goddess Nemesis that Narcissus will one day fall in love with another who will not reciprocate the love. One day, after many hours of hunting, Narcissus stumbles upon a fountain where he sees his own reflection. He immediately falls in love with it and reaches out for an embrace, only to see his reflection escape from his grasp. However, his fascination quickly resumes, and he loses all thoughts of basic human needs such as food and rest. He soon discovers that his reflection, like himself with the maiden, shuns him. He calls out to his reflection and begins crying – his tears disrupting his love before him where it retreats. He flees to the forest where he later dies (Echo and Narcissus). The story of Narcissus is later alluded to in Book IV of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

That day I oft remember when from sleep/ I first awaked, and found myself reposed/ Under a shade on flowers, much wondering where/ And what I was, whence thither brought, and how/ Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound/ Of waters issued from a cave, and spread/ Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved/ Pure as the expanse of heaven; I thither went/ With unexperienced thought, and laid me down/ On the green bank, to look into the clear/ Smooth lake that to me seemed another sky./ As I bent down to look, just opposite/ A shape within the watery gleam appeared,/ Bending to look on me. I started back;/ It started back; but pleased I soon returned,/ Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks/ Of sympathy and love. There had I fixed/ Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,/ Had not a voice thus warned me: What thou seest,/ What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself.’ (Book IV 449-467)

This myth, and the subsequent allusion in Paradise Lost, teaches us not to become consumed with our own appearances and ourselves. In order to grasp the psychology of the vain narcissist, as evidenced by Eve, it is important to look to Freud and his essay “On Narcissism.”

According to Freud, all narcissists possess somatic narcissism and have no shame about displaying it as well. In many cases of narcissism, it is not uncommon for narcissists to boast of their sexual conquests or want to display their physique. Ironically, this boasting and self-infatuation comes from a compulsive need to be praised due to low self-esteem, probably resulting from a childhood where the said narcissist was not given enough constructive praise from his/her parents. The narcissist tries to fulfill this void by improving his/her image to the point where others give compliments to him/her. These compliments boost the narcissist’s ego, therefore, resulting in a desire to receive more praise – thereby creating a never-ending cycle (“On Narcissism”). Satan was able to use this knowledge to his advantage by giving Eve compliments on her beauty: “Who sees thee? (and what is one?) who shouldst be seen/ A goddess among gods, adored and served by angels numberless, thy daily train” (Book IV 546-548). Satan is actually very clever in exploiting her in this way because, due to their psychology, narcissists are easily influenced by those who appease their need to be praised. Vain individuals tend to want to keep people who praise them in their life and will typically do any task in order to maintain the steady stream of compliments, which is ironic chiefly because narcissists are constantly exploiting others due to a sense of entitlement.

According to C.S. Lewis, “It is the comparison [of good looks] that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest” (122). By calling Eve “a goddess among gods,” Satan gives her the satisfaction of believing she is the most beautiful being in existence – both living and nonliving. In this way, “Eve’s conversation with [Satan] draws her consent to approach the fateful tree” (Swaim P11). Following in Eve’s path, Dorian Gray’s vanity leads to a great error in judgment in the same manner. Dorian wishes his painting would grow old instead of himself – a wish that would become reality. The wish later haunts him when he notices that the portrait is a reflection of the heart within him. Wilde says of him,

He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and that the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins; that the painted image might be seared with the lines of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all the delicate bloom and loveliness of his then just conscious boyhood. (91)

Dorian’s error is obvious, but it is important to realize exactly why he does so. He loves the way he looks in the portrait so much that he is afraid of letting go of that image. Narcissists, above all else, are afraid of losing any form of advantage or power over individuals. In the case of Dorian, this advantage happens to be his appearance. The reason for this fear is that he fails to realize that just because he is one-dimensional toward looks, others are also. Doctor Faustus selling his soul to Mephistopheles is very similar to the mistake Dorian makes in that he sells his soul and freedom in exchange for magnificence in order to, in the words of Mephistopheles, “overreach the devil; but all in vain” (Marlowe, V, ii, 15). C.S. Lewis’ description of pride as “essentially competitive” (Lewis 122) could not be more accurate in this situation. Faustus’ vanity actually leads him to believe he can become more powerful than Lucifer, much like how Eve believes she can become a goddess. However, not only does he truly believe he can overcome Lucifer, but he also derives satisfaction from this belief, just as Eve derives satisfaction from becoming a Goddess.

C.S. Lewis believes this feeling of superiority is a direct contradiction to Christian beliefs and God’s commandments:

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God at all. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. (124)

These points raised by Lewis beg the following question: is the feeling of superiority that is the result of pride in so many individuals only a danger to an individual’s faith? The short answer to this question is no: it is dangerous not only to the faith of an individual, but it is dangerous also to the health of the individual and others in his/her life. As long as Narcissists believe that are superior to others, they are superior and this is where their satisfaction begins to fester like a disease.

In the case of Dorian, this disease is the decrepit painting that is the reflection of what Dorian’s vanity has done to his heart. The point at which this superiority and disease have taken its toll is the point where any compliment is deserved and any insult is merely ignored or simply wrong. It is impossible for Faustus to be told that he made a mistake because he believes himself to be incapable of being wrong and, instead, believes that others are unintelligent for believing in Hell. “Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine/ That after this life there is any pain?/ Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales” (Marlowe II.i.137-140). It is at this instant where vanity can be most dangerous to the narcissist and others around him/her. It is important to explore this danger that vanity can cause to see the hazards associated with being a narcissist or associated with knowing a narcissist.

Narcissists put themselves above every other human being in terms of need. Many psychologists, including Freud, believe that this is an evolutionary defense mechanism in order to ensure the survival of the individual, which means that the individual reverts to the Id state of the unconscious. This survival mechanism actually stems from low self-esteem. According to Andrew Brown,

Central to the theory of narcissism outlined here is the idea that individuals have a need to maintain a positive sense of self, and they engage in ego-defensive behavior in order to preserve self-esteem A ‘need’ may be defined as ‘an internal state of disequilibrium or deficiency which has the capacity to trigger a behavioral response.’ ‘Self-esteem’ is defined here ‘as the degree of correspondence between an individual's ideal and actual concepts of him[her]self.’ Self-esteem, thus, is tied intimately to an individual's self-representation-to one's opinion of and respect for one-self. A separate motivation for self-knowledge also has been identified. Although the need for self-esteem largely is uncontested, it is important to note that there are considerable differences in the degree to which individuals exhibit self-esteem and that these can have important implications for behavior. For example, high esteem is associated with a preference for ego defenses that repress, deny, or ignore challenges, whereas low-esteem individuals are more open to social influence. (4)

The narcissist subconsciously believes that he/she will be incapable of finding a mate and producing offspring. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the vain individual to ensure his/her survival so eventually he/she can produce offspring and allow his/her genes to pass on to the next generation. Destructive criticism only manages to reinforce this idea that his/her efforts in reproduction are futile. Therefore, vain individuals tend to lash out with narcissistic rage upon hearing an insult or criticism in general. This is the point where narcissism becomes dangerous to the individual and others around him/her. The narcissist can begin to act with self-destructive behavior such as alcohol/drug abuse, self-inflicted injury, and a malicious disposition in general.

According to Lacan, this self-destructive behavior results from realizing that the “perfect” image that the individual conceptualized in the mirror stage has not come to fruition for him/her. As a result, an obsession with not exemplifying the perfect image begins to take over the mind. Any and all people standing in the way of the narcissist’s journey to become the perfect individual is considered to be a threat and, as a result, subject to violence – both verbal and corporal. This violence, again, is attributed to the evolutionary desire for humans to reproduce and deliver genes to the next generation. It is easy to see this desire in the case of Dorian. Dorian kills Basil because Basil directly stands between Dorian and his desire to maintain the “perfect” image. Basil begs Dorian to repent, but Dorian lashes out in narcissistic rage instead. Wilde describes this narcissistic rage just before Dorian kills Basil in the following quote:

Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips. The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything. (157)

It is clear that the complexities around vanity have been unraveled and untangled.

The origins of vanity are clear with the Greek myth of Narcissus and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The dangers of vanity are easily grasped with the analysis of archetypal narcissists Dorian Gray and Doctor Faustus. Therefore, it is clear that the next rational step in understanding narcissism is to examine the final aspect of narcissism that makes it so dangerous. It is the aspect which bubbles to the surface when the prideful individual does not feel superior to those around him/her: Envy.

Chapter 4: Envy and Jealousy

Envy is the vice that most people struggle to resist in their lives and is a common thread in many pieces of literature. Of course, envy is an instinctive response to our need to survive. It is only logical that we would desire to have others’ belongings or traits if those belongings or traits would be conducive to our survival and reproduction. In other words, humans are jealous of what other individuals possess because humans believe that if they possess those traits and belongings, then they will be happier and feel better. However, not only do people feel envy toward other people, but also they derive satisfaction from knowing that other people are envious of what they have as well. This observation leads to the following question: How much envy is dangerous? The answer to this question is quite obvious upon analyzing the archetypal narcissist. Envy is dangerous when it usurps instinct and natural feelings and instead becomes the consequence of an individual’s narcissism. The dangers associated with this are easily seen in John Claggart of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Othello and Iago of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Envy and jealousy have roots in Greek mythology. In one of the more common stories that exhibit these is the story of Hera and Dionysus. Dionysus, the God of fertility and wine, is the son of Zeus and Semele, a mortal woman. When Hera hears that a woman is to bear a child of Zeus, she plots to kill Semele. To accomplish this, she has Zeus reveal his true form to Semele, who is then burned at the sight of his true form. However, Zeus manages to save Dionysus and bear the child himself, therefore, bestowing godhood and immortality upon him. Nevertheless, Hera still has a hatred for Dionysus. She decides to send the Titans, who managed to rip him apart until nothing but his heart remains. However, Zeus is able to save him by sending his lightning bolts at the Titans and allowing the mountain nymphs to save him and care for him (“Dionysus”). This myth serves as a clear representation of the dangers jealousy can cause for other people and why individuals should control envy and jealousy.

Master-of-arms John Claggart is the quintessential envious antagonist in literature who, according to Matthew Bruccoli, “takes an immediate dislike to Billy [Budd]” (Par. 1). Clearly, Claggart’s dislike for Billy comes from Billy being well-liked by the other sailors. Of course, it is normal and instinctual for humans to be envious of others who receive much praise from superiors such as, in Claggart’s case, Lieutenant Ratcliffe and Captain Vere of the H.M.S. Belipotent. However, Claggart’s envy sets a sinister plot in motion that involves Billy being accused of mutiny and leads to, ironically, Claggart’s own death at the hands of Billy, himself, and Billy’s execution. Claggart has no choice but to be evil. To attempt to explain Claggarts nature, Melville says of him in Billy Budd,

…with no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart's, surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and, like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it. (45)

It is only reasonable to recognize that Claggart has a psychological disorder because not many individuals would instinctively hate another human being for being well-liked to the point of not only plotting to have him killed, but to ruin his reputation as well. Unmistakably, that psychological disorder would have to be narcissism because it is evident that Claggart feels as if he is entitled to having a good reputation, or he would not try to destroy Billy’s. Iago has a similar plot to ruin Othello’s reputation because “[He] hate[s] the moor” (Othello. I. iii. 379). Iago, however, takes his plot one step further because he not only wants Othello dead, but he wants to corrupt his heart as well. “The thought whereof/ Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;/ And nothing can or shall content my soul/ Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife,/ Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor/At least into a jealousy so strong/ That judgment cannot cure” (II. i. 286-291). In other words, the hatred that Iago feels toward Othello produces a desire in him for Othello to be sent to Hell. This hatred for Othello lies in the fact the once the moor was appointed to General, he passed over Iago for a promotion and he appointed Cassio, his friend, to the position, even though Iago had more experience. However, Iago is not the only character who is guilty of envy or jealousy in Othello; the moor, himself, is as well. Othello displays sexual jealousy when he believes his beautiful wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with the newly promoted Cassio. According to A.C. Bradley, “There is no subject more exciting than sexual jealousy rising to the pitch of passion” and this sexual jealousy converts “human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man; and it does this in relation to one of the most intense and also the most ideal of human feelings” (Bradley Par. 4). Ultimately, Iago is able to corrupt the moor through his sexual jealousy and, according to John Hughes, is able to make Othello think “he had abused [Iago] for his fidelity to him” (Hughes Par. 9).

It is important to note that there is a clear difference between jealousy and envy. Jealousy stems from a desire not to lose something of value that one possesses. A classic example is a woman displaying jealousy that her husband is spending time with a female friend, which comes from a desire not to lose her husband to the other woman. Envy, on the other hand, is a desire to possess an object or trait that someone else possesses. Although jealousy and envy are two different emotions, both can be indicators and results of narcissism. An individual is typically a narcissist because he, ironically, lacks self-worth and, therefore, feels the need to display an “exaggerated sense of the person’s own importance and abilities” (Kegan P1). If an individual has this exaggerated sense of his own importance and abilities, then it only follows that this individual would feel entitled to another’s traits or possessions if they were desirable, and it follows that a narcissist would be reluctant to lose objects of value in his/her life. The difference, however, between an ordinary, psychologically healthy individual displaying envy/jealousy and a narcissist displaying envy/jealousy is the degree to which the individual ensures that he/she either gains what he/she desires or does not lose what he/she desires not to lose. The works of Rousseau and Kant provide a further understanding of how envy and jealousy arise out of narcissism.

In his work “Emile,” Rousseau shares his thoughts on Envy, and its relation to pride:

If our common needs unite us by interest, our common miseries unite us by affection. The sight of a happy man inspires in others less love than envy. They would gladly accuse him of usurping a right he cannot have in giving himself an exclusive happiness; and amour-propre suffers, too in making us feel that this man has no need of us. But who does not pity the unhappy man whom he sees suffering? …Imagination puts us in the place of the miserable man rather than in that of the happy man. We feel that one of these conditions touches us more closely than the other. Pity is sweet because in putting ourselves in the place of one who suffers, we nevertheless feel the pleasure of not suffering as he does. Envy is bitter because the sight a happy man, far from putting the envious man in his place, makes the envious man regret not being there. It seems that the one exempts us from the ills he suffers, and the other takes from us the good he enjoys…Do not put the seeds of pride, vanity, and envy in him by the deceptive image of the happiness of men. (221)

The argument that Rousseau is developing here is that human beings tend to feel pity for other humans when they encounter struggle. However, instead of reacting with joy when others find good fortune, we tend to react with envy. This begs the question: Why do humans behave in such a way? The answer, of course, is that we behave in this way because of our narcissism. Instead of feeling joy that Billy is well-liked, Claggart decides, instead, to feel hatred. Similarly, Iago plans to destroy Othello merely because he is jealous that Othello gives the promotion to Cassio. When our peers find fortune, whether good or bad, we find ourselves substituting our fortune for our peers’ fortune. Unmistakably, when humans place themselves in a role of bad fortune, they feel compassion for the reason that they do not want to be in that position themselves while at the same time they experience joy that they have not been met with said misfortune. Conversely, when individuals place themselves in the position of their peers’ lucky fortune, they cannot help but become envious as they want to have said fortune because of their narcissism. Kant offers us another view of envy as well in his work “The Metaphysics of Morals:”

Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one's own… [It is] a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another's because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others… [Envy] aims, at least in terms of one's wishes, at destroying others' good fortune (206).

Kant’s philosophy raises an interesting question: Why are we distressed with the well-being of others, if their well-being does not take away from our enjoyment and good fortune? According to Kant, we do not see our own good fortune when it is “overshadowed” by others’ because humans only look at their success in relation to others’. If we are to judge C.S. Lewis’ assessment of pride as being “essentially competitive” valid, then it can be deduced that envy has to be the end product of pride and narcissism. According to Lewis, Pride gets “no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man” (122). It is clear from Kant and Lewis that envy results from not having more of this “something” of which Lewis describes and, in this manner, occurs when our pride is not nurtured.

John Claggart, Iago, and Othello all leave a path of destruction in their wake as they quest to satisfy their need to feel superior. There is a common thread beneath envy and jealousy, and that thread is that needing to satisfy one’s ego damages not only the archetypal narcissist but also those who surround him. Claggart manages to ruin Billy’s good reputation as well as cause the death of Billy and himself. Iago single-handedly manages to corrupt Othello’s heart and cause him to become jealous which results in the obliteration of Othello’s reputation and, upon this corruption, Othello causes the death of himself, Desdemona, and eventually Iago as well.

What is important is that our minds become illuminated by Kant, Rousseau, and Lewis and we learn from the missteps of Claggart, Iago, and Othello so that we may control our envy. While it is impossible to completely eradicate feelings of envy and jealousy because it is an instinctual response to our need to survive, it is important that we disconnect our envy and our instinctive narcissism because, together, these two vices can annihilate those who stand in our way.

Chapter 5: Conclusion

Narcissism, at its roots, is extreme pride. Pride is a disease that, if one lets it, consumes the soul, twists it, and yields an end result that is narcissism. Of course, every human, at its core, is a narcissist. Narcissism becomes most dangerous to us when it becomes dangerous to others. It becomes dangerous when we let it ruin our friendships. It becomes detrimental when we let it cause pain in other people. It becomes hazardous when others lose their careers because of it. Therefore, in order to learn how to tame our narcissism, we must fully understand why narcissism’s rival, Humility, leads to happiness in our own lives and in the lives of those who know and care about us. We can learn to be humble, much like how Zeus learns humility when he first begins to rule Mt. Olympia

Zeus father, Cronos, is told by an oracle that one of his children will one day overthrow him as leader of the Gods. Every time one of his children is born, he eats the child until his sixth son Zeus is born. Cronos’ wife, Rhea, disguises a boulder as Zeus and Cronos eats the rock. Zeus is raised by forest nymphs until he is called upon by Rhea to overthrow Cronos. Zeus and Rhea trick Cronos into drinking a potion that makes him regurgitate the other five siblings. Then, the Gods defeat Cronos in battle and make Zeus their leader instead of the oldest sibling, Poseidon. Zeus begins to become arrogant, gives his siblings orders, and insists they call him “father.” Then, the other Gods decide to tie him up in one hundred knots to show him he is not as powerful as he thinks. Once he is set free, he is humbled by his siblings’ mutiny against him and becomes a better Greek ruler afterwards (“ZEUS”). This myth serves as an example to not let power and wealth boost one’s ego and not to become arrogant. Kant offers an explanation of why humility contributes to becoming a morally successful individual.

Kant had an interesting theory as to why people should follow organized religion. He believed that believing in God is a necessity in developing a firm moral basis for human beings. Part of this necessity is that in almost all major religions, there is a push for the followers to be humble. In Christianity, this virtue is personified in the life of Jesus Christ. Hinduism preaches to lose the ahamkara, which literally translates to “Sound of I,” in order to become closer to Brahman. Islam is best translated to mean “surrender” or even “humility.” Hence, Kant has a strong argument for the morality of believing in God. Jeanine Grenberg helps us to understand just what Kant means by this in her book, Kant and the Ethics of Humility: A Story of Dependence, Corruption, and Virtue and Stephen Miles is able to further explain Grenberg’s work in his review of the book. Grenberg proposes “that humility is an essential virtue precisely because of the kind of beings we are – dependent and corrupt, yet dignified and rational, and therefore capable of moral progress – a reading consistent with Kant’s claims about the fragility of human happiness and our propensity to evil” (Miles Par. 2). From this, we can conclude that “humility…emerges as a necessary perspective from which to interpret and engage life as a whole.” In other words, humility is virtuous because we are not naturally humble, but we are capable of being humble, and we can “engage life as a whole” by doing so. It is only logical to strive to achieve humility when looking with Kant’s view of morality. If we make decisions using reason and not because of our own personal gain, we are able to objectively become a better guide for others to follow and it is our duty as rational beings to do so. In the case of Billy Budd, we can view him as allegorical Christ figure. While he does brutally murder John Claggart with a single punch, the reader still admires him because of “His simple nature [that] remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities which are not in every case incompatible with that manufacturable thing known as respectability” (Melville 14). In other words, we respect him because he sets a good example for us by being simple and untouched by vices such as pride. It is for this reason that we feel compassion for Billy when he is sentenced to death. Billy shows us that humility leads to becoming a happy and respectable individual and that staying away from pride leads to being a morally successful human being.

“[Pride] is the one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people…ever imagine that they are guilty of themselves” (Lewis 121). According to Lewis, every human being is subject to being prideful. Having a troubled past in addition to this pride leads to narcissism. Of course, with the help of Freud, it is established that all humans are subject to some form of narcissism such as somatic and cerebral narcissism. However, a true “narcissist” is someone whose own personal gain is so important to him or her, that he or she is willing to harm others to facilitate his or her success. According to Freud, these individuals typically remain in the Id state of mind and feel compelled by nature to preserve their individual self. This type of narcissist typically results in an overestimation of one’s abilities as in the case of Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, and Macbeth and/or results in a feeling of entitlement to power as in the case of Kurtz, Macbeth, and Doctor Faustus. The obstacle standing in the way of both of these qualities is that overestimating one’s abilities and feeling entitled to power usually results in being blind to the possibility that these individuals can be defeated, ironically, leading to their defeat.

Narcissists tend to display vanity as well, as in the case of Dorian Gray, Eve, and Doctor Faustus. Vanity usually comes from a not-fully-realized mirror stage according to Lacan. Since the child develops the ideal of the “perfect” human in early development, not becoming said “perfect” human image results in taking all measures to become the “perfect” image and narcissistic rage if the image is still not realized.

Finally, the most dangerous quality that narcissists possess is a strong feeling of envy and jealousy. The dangers of envy and jealousy lie in the connection that they have with other people. An archetypal narcissist will stop at nothing to ensure that no other individual has more of “something” than he due to the “essential competive[ness]” of pride.

What we must become aware of using the failures of narcissists such as Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, Macbeth, Dorian Gray, Eve, Satan, Kurtz, Iago, John Claggart, and Othello are the dangers of exhibiting our narcissism. Every single one of these characters dies in his respective story because of their narcissism. Even worse, every one of these characters leaves a wake of destruction behind as well. Frankenstein is inadvertently the cause of the death of Elizabeth, William, and Henry. Macbeth leaves behind a war-torn Scotland. Dorian Gray is responsible for the death of Basil and Sibyl. Kurtz leaves behind a corrupted tribe of African slaves and a disillusioned Marlow. Iago and Othello are responsible for their own deaths as well as the “pure” Desdemona’s. What we must study from philosophers such as Freud, Lewis, Rousseau, Kant, Lacan is the underlying causes of our narcissism, and what derivatives are produced when we allow said narcissism to run its course. After this analysis, we must finally ask ourselves the question: What is the point of learning the dangers of narcissism, if all humans are instinctively narcissistic? While there is validity to this question, there is still a reason to study narcissism. We can learn to control it, so that it does not have an effect on the lives of others around us, because that, in and of itself, is the heart of narcissism.

Works Cited

Bradley, A. C. "Othello's Distinguishing Characteristics." Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File News Services. Web. 7 Mar. 2011.

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Judith S. Baugman. "John Claggart." Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File News Services. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

Bowers, Fredson. "Adam, Eve, and the Fall in "Paradise Lost"" Modern Language Association. JSTOR. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. (

Brown, Andrew. "Narcissism, Identity, Legitimacy." JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 10 Jan. 2012. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Signet Classic, 1997. Print.

"Dionysus." Greek Mythology. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. (

"Echo and Narcissus." Web. 10 Feb. 2012. (

Freud, Sigmund. "On Narcissism." Print. Rpt. in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XIV. 67-102. Print.

Hughes, John. "On the Tragedy of Othello." Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File News Services. Web. 4 Mar. 2011.

"Icarus." Encyclopedia Mythica: Mythology, Folklore, and Religion. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. (

Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J. Gregor. The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Kegan, Jerome, and Susan B. Gall, eds. "Narcissism." Health & Wellness Resource Center. Gale. Web. 7 Mar. 2011.

Lewis, C. S,. Mere Christianity. San Francisco, Calif: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print. Marlowe, Christopher, and Sylvan Barnet. Doctor Faustus. New York: Signet Classic, 2001. Print.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. New York: Signet Classics, 2009. Print.

Miles, Stephen D. "Kant and the Ethics of Humility: A Story of Dependence, Corruption, and Virtue. (Book Review)." General OneFile. Gale, Dec. 2006. Web. 7 Mar. 2011.

Milton, John, William Kerrigan, John Peter Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. "Book IX." Paradise Lost. New York: Modern Library, 2008. Print.

Milton, John, William Kerrigan, John Peter Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. "Book IV." Paradise Lost. New York: Modern Library, 2008. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile: Or, On Education. New York: Basic, 1979. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Elements of Literature. Orlando: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1993. 254-329. Print. Sixth Course.

Shakespeare, William, Burton Raffel, and Harold Bloom. Othello. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Signet Classic, 2000. Print.

Swaim, Kathleen M. "The Art of the Maze in Book IX of Paradise Lost." Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File News Services, Winter 1972. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.

Tessitore, John. "Freud, Conrad, and "Heart of Darkness"" Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File News Services. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray and Three Stories. New York: Signet Classic, 2007. Print.

"ZEUS : Greek King of the Gods, God of Sky & Weather | Mythology, W/ Pictures | Roman Jupiter." THEOI GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Exploring Mythology & the Greek Gods in Classical Literature & Art. Web. 01 Apr. 2012. (