Themes

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Rejection of Societal Morality and Values

Both Victor and Melinda display behaviors that are incompatible with the social norms of their small-town, New England society. Victor is proud of being odd or iconoclastic, and he considers that similar qualities he detected in the rebellious young Melinda were part of what drew them together. She had been expelled from five schools when they met. Victor’s odd behavior includes, in the eyes of the other townspeople, his extremely tolerant attitude toward his wife’s affairs. 

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Although he is a responsible business owner and designer at the press, Vic also has primary responsibility for their daughter, Trixie. Melinda’s headstrong personality has manifested itself in extreme independence. She deliberately brings her lovers to social functions, determined to shock their friends and neighbors. As the novel progresses, they gradually change places. Victor’s detached exterior starts to crumble as his jealousy eats away at him. He rejects conventional morality so completely that he justifies committing homicide—not once, but three times. Melinda, while clinging to her right to sexual independence, decries her husband’s suspected homicidal behavior.

Melinda’s lovers also show a mix of conventional and rebellious behavior. While the men do not hesitate to embark on sexual relationships with married women or to impose on the hospitality of those women’s  husbands, they criticize Vic for having poor taste in making jokes about murder. Mary Meller, whose husband vocally criticizes Melinda’s behavior, flirts with Vic at every opportunity.

The Impact of Selfishness on Marriage

The novel is, in many regards, the chronicle of a single failed experiment in marriage, but the author considers the institution more broadly as well. Victor and Melinda are locked in a contest of wills. This struggle is a result of their clashing personalities and their inability to successfully negotiate a marriage that satisfies both of them, meets their needs, and allows them a comfortable spot in their social circle. Because the novel is written from Victor’s perspective, the reader does not learn what expectations Melinda had when she entered the marriage. She seems to be a selfish person who has not grown into the kinds of responsibilities that marriage customarily entails. In fact, her childishness is often contrasted to her daughter’s precocious behavior. 

Melinda apparently believes herself to be entitled to the comforts of married life, such as a nice home and good food, as well as to indulgence in unlimited quantities of alcohol. She expects her husband to support every choice she makes. Each time he attempts to assert control, she counters with her fervent expectation to make her own decisions. However, the reader is not encouraged to see Melinda as making a feminist statement, for she clearly enjoys emotionally abusing her husband. Victor remains faithful to Melinda in terms of sexual behavior, but his reasons for faithfulness are based in lack of desire for other women. He also rejoices in his attitudes of superiority, priding himself in every aspect of his life, from his intellect to his parenting. 

The Corrosive Effects of Mistrust and Resentment

Throughout the novel, Highsmith repeatedly draws a marked contrast between honest and dishonest characters. While the differences between appearances and reality are important, the author implies that the trusting nature of many individuals contributes to the situation which ultimately costs two more people their lives. After Charles De Lisle drowns, as there is initially no evidence against Victor, his friends tend to believe him over Melinda. Her dishonest behavior in almost every aspect of life has created a situation in which others will discount her opinions in this crucial matter. Because Victor is skilled at concealing his feelings and deflecting criticism of Melinda and because he is not known to have committed any serious social transgressions, his word is accepted over hers.

The Mellers and Cowans function as a sort of Greek chorus. Their behavior is almost beyond reproach, as they are models of fidelity (aside from Mary’s flirtations). They assume that Victor is one of them and see Melinda as the odd person out. This assumption creates a blindness that forces them to disregard all the signs and to speak up for Victor and against Melinda.

The sole voice of reason is Don Wilson, apparently a scrupulously honest man who has no skill in getting his point across. When Don speaks out against his “bad joke” about killing McRae, Vic notes that the others in their set are likely to discount him because of his humorless affect. After Charley’s drowning, Don’s opinion is discounted because of his style of interaction and the fact that he is siding with an unpopular, often drunk, and frequently hysterical woman.

The role of jealousy in influencing Vic’s behavior connects to the larger issue of trust. Although Vic assumes an intellectually and morally superior attitude toward his wife, he remains passive in his attitude toward her affairs until she demonstrates her disregard for his calculated ploys. Vic’s jealousy increases because his trust has been violated at a deeper level. Melinda’s disregard for his stronger intellectual prowess disturbs him more than her sexual infidelities.

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