Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel and established the themes, characters, and major concerns for her twenty-two novels and eight collections of stories. Never one to cater to public taste, Highsmith was the survivor of a troubled childhood, a lesbian, and an alcoholic. She wrote out of her own early preoccupations with the idea that murderers lurk behind the masks of normalcy and routine. Making no concessions to traditional character or narrative development, Highsmith frequently concluded works with more questions than answers. As with Strangers on a Train, her books, written in matter-of-fact, conventional prose in an inverted crime genre, center on the interiority of her characters, and they have been more popular in Europe than in the United States. Following her death in Switzerland in 1995, however, her writings have experienced a sort of literary revival with American readers.
At age thirteen, Highsmith read Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). The novel affected her profoundly and shaped, to some degree, everything she wrote. Dostoevsky favors psychological realism and places great emphasis upon the mind and consciousness of his characters, as opposed to the natural circumstances emphasized in most realist novels. Dostoevsky stresses the duality of individuals, including contradictions and ambiguities sometimes viewed as paradoxical aspects of consciousness. The motivation behind his characters’ actions are complex and uncertain. Some critics see Dostoevsky’s writing and, by extension, Highsmith’s as fantastic realism, in which the boundaries between external reality and internal consciousness become blurred or the two realms become interpenetrable. Other important influences on Highsmith’s thought and writing include Edgar Allan Poe, whose writings ponder the relationship between realism and fantasy, and post-World War II French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose works stress the absurdity of existence and the necessity, however dismal, of choice.
Highsmith distorts the traditional crime genre in Strangers on a Train. By telling the story from Haines’s point of view, she incorporates aspects of the thriller, but those elements in her novel apply not to the crime itself or the need to see justice done, but rather to the experience of the perpetrator. In a formula that would become typical of her work, Highsmith’s novel develops around the attraction-repulsion relationship of two male characters. The men, meeting accidentally, seem at first to be opposites. Haines is concerned with order, design, Plato, and traditional values. He is appalled by Bruno’s bizarre offer to...
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