Nero Wolfe: A Character Study

Rex Stout created an enduring and intriguing central character for his mystery novels, to be sure. From our first encounter with Nero Wolfe to our last, we most likely were both impressed with the detective extraordinaire and at the same time struck by his quirky eccentricities. If Wolfe’s personality can be fathomed more fully, his psychological character type defined, we may then understand how having a live-in chef, a rigid daily schedule, reclusive bouts when he takes to his bed, and a live-in sleuthhound to do his leg work, are all related. These, we shall see, are but tips of the iceberg which is called character structure.

In the parlance of psychoanalysis, personality may be classified as to character structure or character type and understood in terms of corresponding character dynamics. Bear with me while I put some ideas in place that will be necessary for this study of Nero Wolfe. Going back to a 1908 paper titled “Character and Anal Eroticism,” Sigmund Freud noted clinically that three tendencies seemed to be found together: orderliness, obstinacy, and parsimony. He explained the connection of these traits by means of his theory of psychosexual stages of development. Freud postulated five stages of normal human development based on the bodily zone that is the primary locus of pleasure for the child, that is, erogenous zones. The stages are, as most readers will recognize, oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. The latency stage, however, refers to a time when the child’s focus becomes more outward toward same sex friendships and the acquiring of social skills (Smith, 1985).

In 1921, Karl Abraham extended Freud’s theory in a paper relating anal character structure and childhood experiences around toilet training. Then in 1924 and 1925, he offered his theoretical treatments of oral and genital character structures. Over the following years other clinicians expanded and refined the character types (Smith, 1985).

There are two processes which bridge the connection between a psychosexual stage of development and the establishment of the corresponding character type. First if a child is either overindulged or deprived of the optimal level of pleasure at a particular stage, he or she may become unconsciously fixated or stuck at that stage of development. Regardless of age, the fixated person is believed to continue to indulge the pleasures of the stage at which he or she is fixated. The second process is that of regression whereby a person under stress, again regardless of age, and regardless of developmental level reached, reverts temporarily to an earlier psychosexual stage of development to find the solace of the pleasures of that stage.

An important advance in the understanding of character development was offered by Elsworth F. Baker (1967). Based on Freud’s suggestion that fixation stems from either deprivation or overindulgence, Baker wrote, “Emotional trauma may produce one of two results at any stage: 1) repression or 2) lasting unsatisfaction (sic). In the former the individual never develops pleasurable functioning at that stage, largely through deprivation; and in the latter he constantly tries to obtain a once-known satisfaction” (p. 17). In the case of oral character structure, for example, we can then recognize two forms, the oral repressed and the oral unsatisfied. Given that this particular character structure is defined by a focus on the oral apparatus as the primary, primitive source of pleasure, we would expect eating and drinking to be given special attention. Oral dynamics may vary from mild to severe, of course. At the severe pole of oral dynamics, we would expect to encounter eating disorders. In the case of the orally repressed there is anorexia (undereating) and with the orally unsatisfied there is bulimia (overeating).

By now you may have recognized Wolfe’s character type. If obesity is the most obvious symptom of an underlying oral-unsatisfied character structure, then Nero Wolfe certainly qualifies. Carolyn G. Hart (2009), in her introduction to The Red Box, referred to his “monumental girth” and noted that he “packed a seventh of a ton into a stocky five foot eleven inches” (no page). Archie, time and again makes reference to Wolfe’s corpulence with phrases such as “Wolfe’s enormous bulk,” “his rotundity,” “big fat face,” and “that enormous lump of flesh and folds.” Watching him pull himself up in his chair, Archie once remarked, “It was like seeing a hippopotamus in the zoo get up for a feed” (Stout, 1992, p. 21).

Stout’s mysteries are absolutely replete with references to Wolfe’s overeating and his inclination to drink large quantities of beer. Dramatic enough is Archie’s report that Wolfe “ate a whole half a sheep . . . in two days once” (Stout, 1992, p. 76). As for beer, “he had also decided, he said, that six quarts a day was unnecessary and took too much time and thereafter he would limit himself to five” (p. 3).

Evidence of Wolfe’s character structure is found not only in his penchant for over-eating and drinking, but also in the central place that these occupy in his life. His daily schedule is built around two major activities, namely meals and time in his plant room nurturing (!) his orchids. Meal times are strictly set from his breakfast in bed to his evening dinner. The importance of these two activities is only underscored by the rigidity with which Wolfe maintains his schedule and by the irritation he shows when anyone attempts to intrude upon it. Archie referred to Wolfe’s “inclination to eat when the time came in spite of hell and homicide” (Stout, 2009a, p. 109).

His prodigious appetite is matched only by the refinement of his palate, both of which can be satisfied only by keeping a live-in gourmet chef, Fritz Brenner. The following is but one example of Wolfe’s concern.

“We cannot get good peafowl. Archie could try that place on Long Island, but it is probably hopeless. A peafowl’s breast flesh will not be sweet and tender and properly developed unless it is well protected from all alarms, especially from the air, to prevent nervousness, and Long Island is full of airplanes. The goose for this evening, with the

stuffing as arranged, will be quite satisfactory. The kid will be ideal for tomorrow” (Stout, 2009a, p. 66).

And perhaps as a typical lunch for Wolfe, we find he had “rice fritters with black current jam, and endive with tarragon” (Stout, 2009a, p. 72). Then there is the matter of “the brandy labeled Remisier . . . that brandy of which there are only nineteen bottles in the United States and they’re all in [Wolfe’s] cellar” (Stout, 1994, p. 160-161). After carefully sampling several bottled beers, Wolfe chose Remmers beer, having given up the bootleg beer that he had previously bought by the barrel for years!

True to his character type, Wolfe eschews physical exertion. It is not just that he uses an elevator when negotiating the levels of his house. Once, when not standing up to greet a woman in his office, he explained, “You must pardon me; for engineering reasons I arise only for emergencies” (Stout, 1992, p. 85). Again, speaking to a man, “You will forgive me for not rising; I am not rude, merely unwieldy” (p. 217). Upon the occasion of deciding that he weighed too much, Wolfe committed to take up exercise. So, he set aside 3:45 to 4:00 P. M. to throw darts! But, “he hated to stoop,” so upon dropping a dart one time he waited for Archie to pick it up for him. Based on many such incidents, Archie summarized Wolfe’s activity level by saying poignantly that the man “was rarely guilty of movement” (Stout, 2009b, p. 5). As Wolfe himself explained, “I am not immovable, but my flesh has a constitutional reluctance to sudden, violent or sustained displacement” (Stout, 2009a, p. 3). Wolfe is devoted to thinking, Archie to action. And together they solve the mysteries brought to Wolfe’s door.

This combination of over-indulgence in food and drink and avoidance of unnecessary physical activity understandably leads to a recognizable body type. In the 1940s and 1950s William Sheldon termed this body type endomorphic. Sheldon suggested that a person with a predominately high level of endomorphy is characterized by softness and a spherical appearance with an underdevelopment of muscle. Among other things, Sheldon listed a general love of comfort, gluttony for food, and conservation of energy as primary features. Particularly to the point, “this person depends on the digestive organ system in dealing with the world” (Smith, 1985, p. 82).

Further suggestion of oral character structure, subtle though it may be, is Wolfe’s habit of pursing his lips while concentrating. As Archie told us, “his big thick lips pushed out a little, tight together, just a small movement, and back again, and then out and back again” (Stout, 1992, p. 4). Further, Archie noted, “Wolfe was whistling; that is, his lips were rounded into the proper position and air was going in and out, but there was no sound . . . He told me once that it meant he was surrendering to his emotions” (p. 266).

Finally, it is noteworthy that Wolfe seems disinclined to take care of himself, requiring considerable external support. Already mentioned are Archie, his action-oriented live-in assistant, and Fritz, his live-in chef. Wolfe additionally retains a live-in plant man to help with his orchids, and keeps a number of other private detectives at his beck and call. Such need for environmental support, upper crust though this is, is none-the-less consistent with oral character structure.

Over the years, as thinking concerning character structure continued to evolve, there was a shift in emphasis away from the more benign oral signs to the more serious but related symptoms of depression. These symptoms can become blatantly manifest, especially during times of stress. “It was noted that depressive people were often overweight, that they usually liked eating, smoking, drinking, talking, . . . and other oral gratifications, and that they tended to describe their emotional experience in analogies about food and hunger” (McWilliams, 2011, p. 238). This refers, of course, to orally unsatisfied dynamics, not to those of the orally repressed.

Archie referred to Wolfe’s “relapses” which could last “anywhere from one afternoon up to a couple of weeks” (Stout, 1992, p. 75). Beyond “ordinary discouragement and funk,” Wolfe “went to bed and stayed there, living on bread and onion soup, refusing to see anyone but me” (p. 76). In Wolfe’s words, “with only myself to consider I would have remained in bed to await disintegration . . . I arose to resume my burden” (p. 83). No great psychological acumen is required in order to recognize this as depression!

Thus I have made my case. Nero Wolfe’s character dynamics are those of a fixated, orally unsatisfied person. Or to resurrect my earlier metaphor, Wolfe’s quirky ways can be understood as tips of the iceberg of oral character structure.


Baker, E. F. (1967). Man in the trap. New York: Collier.

Hart, C. G. (2009). Introduction. In Rex Stout, The red box (no page). New York: Bantam.

McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis. New York: Guilford.

Smith, E. W. L. (1985). The body in psychotherapy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Stout, R. (1992). Fer-de-lance. 1934. New York: Bantam Crime Line.

Stout, R. (1994). And be a villain. 1948. New York: Bantam Crime Line.

Stout, R. (2009a). The red box. 1936. New York: Bantam.

Stout, R. (2009b). The rubber band. 1936. New York: Bantam.

Answering the call of multiple muses, Edward W. L. Smith has published nine non-fiction books, more than fifty essays, multiple magazine articles, some short stories, and a good bit of poetry. His work has appeared in diverse publications including Energy and Character, Flash Bang Mysteries, The Haunted Traveler, Parabola, Pilgrimage, Poetry Haiku, The Stray Branch, Vagabonds, and Voices. His latest book is The Psychology of Artists and the Arts. Edward is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Georgia Southern University. He lives part-time on a small barrier island off the coast of Georgia.

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