Patricia Highsmith Critical Essays

Patricia Highsmith American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Highsmith considered herself a suspense writer. Throughout her career, she wrote about the complex workings of the mind and how fear, desire, and power shape people. In her “how-to” book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith carefully distinguishes suspense from conventional murder mysteries:mysteries begin with a murder, but suspense relies upon the threat of violence to move the plot; mysteries leave the reader in the dark, but suspense reveals all and invites the reader into the mind of the killer; mysteries ask readers to produce the killer, but suspense asks readers to understand what psychological and social factors create a killer.

As such, Highsmith’s suspense creates an amoral world where murderers do not kill because they enjoy it but because they have no choice. Good and evil are uncertain in an amoral world, and because the story is told from the murderer’s point of view, the reader is forced to identify and grapple with the social uncertainties driving Highsmith’s protagonists. Highsmith’s work avoids immoral protagonists who murder out of enjoyment because such killers alienate readers and stall discussions about social and psychological politics. Amoral fiction allows Highsmith to examine what makes America and Americans tick.

Highsmith’s amoral world is better understood in its postwar context. After World War II, American politics were marked by great uncertainty. The United States’ new enemy, Communism, differed from its Axis enemies because Communists were not easily identified by geography, race, or language. The “enemy” could be anyone—friends, neighbors, or family. Postwar uncertainty also affected social and cultural spheres. Changing gender roles, racial codes, class boundaries, and assumptions about sexuality challenged what had been accepted as “normal” for Americans. In response, new social codes demanded conformity in efforts to stabilize the home front.

A key theme in Highsmith’s work is performativity, or acting in response to behavioral codes constructed to stabilize race, gender, class, or sexuality. Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is the ultimate performer, whose ability to imitate and adapt is the means to his survival. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom is excluded from “good” American society. After befriending socialite Dickie Greenleaf, however, Ripley learns how one must perform to be accepted by the cultural elite. Tom murders Dickie and assumes his name, persona, and possessions. In fact, Tom begins to see himself as “Dickie” and is chagrined when he must play “Tom” again to avoid arrest. Tom continues to play various roles as the series continues, demonstrating the dangerous implications of America’s “self-made man” who strives to be like everyone else.

Duality also plays a significant role in Highsmith’s fiction. Doubles can be found in many of Highsmith’s texts, most notably Strangers on a Train. The two protagonists are seeming opposites: Bruno is loud, vulgar, and psychologically troubled, whereas Guy is pensive, intellectual, and emotionally sound. Bruno proposes a double murder—Guy would kill Bruno’s father, and Bruno would kill Guy’s unfaithful wife. Guy laughs off the proposition, but Bruno performs the murder and terrorizes Guy until he has no choice but to “keep up” his end of the imagined bargain. Over the course of the novel, it becomes increasingly clear that Guy sees himself in Bruno and vice versa. Similar doubles are seen in The Two Faces of January (1964) and The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980). Highsmith’s use of doubles suggests two things: All persons contain the potential for good and bad, and one can never know for certain who may be friend or foe.

Known for her fascination with “deviants,” Highsmith examines how society both produces and punishes psychosis in novels like Strangers on a Train, Deep Water, The Cry of the Owl (1962), and the Ripley series. Highsmith’s deviants are average, middle-class men struggling with society’s demands for economic success, social acceptance, and the perfect family. In Deep Water, for example, Vic is a faithful husband whose wife’s affairs drive him to murder, not out of jealousy but because he must publicly perform the role of the “good husband” while dealing with her lovers. Vic is neither a hardened criminal nor a lower-class thug but a suburban man trapped in postwar codes of domestic conformity. Similarly, deviants in The Cry of the Owl and Strangers on a Train are middle-class men forced to navigate social land mines. In Highsmith’s fiction, deviance is determined not by one’s social status but by one’s response to the social codes defining one’s status. These middle-class protagonists warn that demands to maintain the status quo can catalyze danger.

Noticeably, Highsmith’s protagonists are primarily men. Some critics have charged Highsmith with misogyny—a charge she took in stride and used for her short-story collection Little Tales of Misogyny (1977). There is some merit to this criticism, however, for Highsmith’s women characters often represent the worst of postwar society: cheaters (Melinda in Deep Water), manipulators (Miriam in Strangers on a Train), and emotional weaklings (Marge in The Talented Mr. Ripley). One reason for Highsmith’s problematic characterizations could be her own struggle with gender and sexuality. Both her critiques and sympathetic portrayals of women (in The Price of Salt and the 1995 novel Small g: A Summer Idyll) can be read as public stagings of Highsmith’s private struggles.

Highsmith’s fiction investigates the forces driving postwar Americans: money, power, lust, fear, and alienation. Significantly, her work suggests that criminality is not necessarily the breaking of social codes but, rather, the codes themselves. Her work criticizes consumer culture, fear of difference, and conformity, arguing...

(The entire section is 2474 words.)