Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

Patricia Highsmith intends the novel to work on three levels. First, Edith’s Diary presents a domestic drama that chronicles one woman’s descent into insanity as the dream of her life collides with the reality of it. Edith must come to terms with the anarchy that family life threatened to become in America between 1955 and 1975, including such elements as rebellious children, betrayal, divorce, the economic necessity of working women, and the failure to meet the expectations of domestic tranquility of the older generation. Edith is constantly torn between her desire to find something—anything—admirable in Cliffie and her distaste for the drunken deadbeat he successfully aspires to be. She understands George’s assessment of Cliffie as a product of the television age, an age characterized by passivity, cynicism, and powerlessness. It is not, as George explains, an age for heroes.

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Edith must also contend with a marriage that dies less of neglect than of her husband’s failure to fulfill his commitment to the duties that her dream of marriage entails. Brett openly despises Cliffie and, as Edith realizes, simply writes him off as a “bad job.” In addition, Brett allows George to move in with the family but then leaves his care almost exclusively to Edith, finally abandoning his uncle entirely when he moves to New York with Carol. His inability to persuade George to move to a nursing home indirectly sets up Cliffie’s murder of the “Old Vegetable.” Edith excuses Brett as long as possible, believing that his affair with Carol is only a phase. The divorce and the birth of his daughter with his new wife, however, make the betrayal tangible for Edith, who can only counter with Cliffie’s imagined success in the diary. The divorce also forces Edith into the workforce and prompts her to bastardize her articles and stories in order to sell them.

Melanie, Edith’s great-aunt, serves as her touchstone throughout the novel and provides her with the support and perspective that Edith needs to cope with life. Melanie represents a set of values that Edith admires but which she seems unable to apply to her increasingly morally ambiguous situation. Melanie sees the situation for what it is and suggests specific action. She urges Edith to fight for Brett before the divorce becomes final. Melanie’s death shortly after George’s provides Edith with a brief opportunity to relive the peace of her childhood, but it also isolates Edith so that she no longer has someone against whom to check the appropriateness of her actions.

The novel also functions as social criticism. What happens to Edith on the individual level is mirrored on the social level. The amorality, distrust, and betrayal that Edith sees in her own life are reflected in the social backdrop of the novel, particularly the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam, student unrest, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, and the fall of Saigon. Edith writes increasingly radical editorials for the Brunswick Corner Bugle and articles for left-wing publications. Highsmith establishes the social and domestic parallels when, at the end of the novel, Edith equates the injustice that she has suffered with the injustice inflicted on the South Vietnamese when the United States betrays its commitment by withdrawing.

Finally, the novel explores the philosophic questions of meaning and Edith’s use of art to impose meaning on her life. Highsmith sets up the question of meaning early in the novel in a diary entry in which Edith asks, “Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?” Edith continually belies this attitude, however, as she uses art—the diary, short stories, and sculpting—to transform the reality that makes up her life. Edith realizes that her diary helps her “organize and analyze her life-in-progress.” Specifically, her diary helps her cope with her disappointment in Cliffie. In her diary, Cliffie becomes a successful engineer, a Princeton University graduate who marries the perfect wife and fathers beautiful, talented children. In her short stories, Edith satirizes the social and political institutions that she feels collapsing around her. Her sculpture allows her to idealize the people who matter most to her. She fashions a bust of Cliffie that makes him look like a young god, an idea so preposterous to Brett that he laughs at the image of it. She also sculpts busts of Cliffie’s two imaginary children. It is telling that when Edith trips as she carries Cliffie’s bust down a flight of stairs to appease the visiting psychiatrist, she refuses to let go of the bust—Cliffie transformed by art into an ideal—in order to catch herself, thus dying in the fall.

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