Form and Content
Edith’s Diary covers a twenty-year span (1955-1975) in the life of a typical American family as it discovers (as Edith writes in her diary) that the “difference between dream and reality is the true hell.” The novel opens with the Howland family in search of an idyllic existence. Brett and Edith decide to move from New York City to a small town in Pennsylvania in order to provide Cliffie, their emotionally disturbed son, with an environment more conducive to a healthy childhood. In addition, Brett and Edith plan to start a small liberal newspaper, the Brunswick Corner Bugle, in the tradition of Thomas Paine’s journalism. Edith decides to name the new house “Peace” and writes about the move and its consequences in her diary.
Edith’s diary, as the novel’s title suggests, serves as the governing metaphor of the work as it chronicles both the dream and the reality of her life. Rather than the first-person narrative that a diary suggests, however, the novel is told primarily through Edith’s and Cliffie’s points of view. The family’s idyllic dream begins to crumble soon after the move when Cliffie is accused of stealing a football from school. In addition, Brett’s invalid uncle George intrudes when he comes to live with the Howlands and becomes a growing burden as he becomes increasingly enfeebled. Not long after the move, the Brunswick Corner Bugle fails for lack of support. When Cliffie is nineteen, he is caught cheating on his college entrance exams. It becomes clear to Brett and Edith that their son is a failure—unambitious, amoral, and content to lounge around the house as long as his parents will allow. The event marks the first time that Edith falsifies an entry and begins the fantasy life that she builds for Cliffie in her diary.
The dream disintegrates further when Brett leaves Edith for Carol Junkin, his secretary. In doing so, he leaves Edith with both Uncle George and Cliffie, who now drinks excessively, contributes little to the household (financially or otherwise), and idolizes Mel Linnell, a local hood. As a result of the divorce, Edith takes a part-time job as a sales clerk at the Thatchery, a local shop. She continues her work on the newspaper, which she and her friend Gert Johnson revive but constantly battles Gert, who thinks that Edith’s editorials are too radical. As the stress builds, Edith spends more and more of her time fantasizing in her diary. She provides Cliffie with a successful career, the perfect wife, and two adorable children. She also takes up sculpting, creating a bust of Cliffie.
As the final blow, Edith discovers that Cliffie has murdered George by giving him an overdose of codeine. She finds herself in the morally ambiguous position of defending her son, especially against Brett, who suspects Cliffie’s involvement in George’s death. As the stress mounts, Edith’s behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable. She alienates friends and loses her job at the Thatchery. Brett tries to force her to see a psychiatrist, enlisting the help of Dr. Carstairs, George’s doctor. Dr. Carstairs brings Dr. Philip McElroy, a psychiatrist, to see her. Edith refuses to cooperate, but as a compliance gesture she promises to show him her bust of Cliffie. On the way down the stairs Edith trips, still clutching the bust, and dies in the fall.
In one sense, Edith’s Diary is a radical departure from Highsmith’s typical genre. Highsmith is most well known as a mystery writer and has published numerous mystery novels. In fact, Alfred A. Knopf refused to publish Edith’s Diary because it was so unlike Highsmith’s other work. Because she has been categorized as a mystery writer, she has received little critical attention. Edith’s Diary, with its female protagonist, differs only superficially from Highsmith’s focus in her mystery novels on amorality, social ills, and insanity.
As a domestic drama, Edith’s Diary belongs in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
(The entire section is 1,178 words.)