Patricia Highsmith American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2474

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...

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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 that these social codes make both individuals and groups sick. Ultimately, Highsmith demands her readers examine what they value, what they fear, and why.

Strangers on a Train

First published: 1950

Type of work: Novel

A chance meeting on a train connects two men in a web of murder and terror which reveals the tumult lurking beneath the placid surface of postwar America.

Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first published work, written primarily while living at the Yaddo Artists’ Colony. This novel introduces key themes in Highsmith’s canon: duality, performativity, and alienation in postwar America.

The novel opens with Guy Haines traveling by train to grant his unfaithful wife, Miriam, a divorce. Guy sits near Charles Bruno, a wealthy and crass man who strikes up a conversation and invites Guy to dine in his private car. Guy is unsettled by Bruno, who manages to draw out both the story of Miriam’s betrayals and Guy’s reason for traveling. Bruno likens Guy’s wife to his father, arguing that both typify the corruption of America. After so doing, Bruno proposes they swap murders—Bruno could murder Miriam, and then Guy could murder Bruno’s father. Guy, ever socially conscious, thinks Bruno is joking, laughs, and leaves, assuming the two of them will never meet again. The conversation characterizes Guy and Bruno as seeming opposites: whereas Guy is refined, soft-spoken, intellectual, and industrious, Bruno is coarse, verbally explosive, juvenile, and lazy.

Guy fails to get the divorce because Miriam decides she would rather benefit from his new financial and social success as an architect. Bruno learns of Miriam’s newest betrayal and decides to act, feeling he has a “purpose” for the first time in his life. In a plan ripped from a pulp-fiction plot, Bruno travels to Texas, follows Miriam, and strangles her. Pleased with his perfect execution, he returns home and waits for the right time to contact Guy for phase two.

Guy’s reaction to Miriam’s murder illustrates the alienation caused by postwar codes dictating how one must perform in order to be socially acceptable. Guy convinces himself that Miriam’s murder was a random act of violence, yet part of him knows Bruno committed the crime, and Guy drifts through the subsequent months in a daze, forcing himself to perform the roles of fiancé, son, and architect as expected. Just as Guy starts to feel “normal” again, Bruno calls, claims responsibility for the crime, and demands that Guy keep up his end of the bargain. Bruno haunts Guy, constantly following, writing, and calling him, threatening to frame him for Miriam’s murder. As a result, Guy cannot keep up his performance and loses business, lies to friends, and emotionally withdraws from his fiancé. Ultimately, Guy isolates himself from all others, even the “good” part of himself.

Guy feels trapped: The only way he can keep his “successful” life is to kill Bruno’s father. A zombie-like Guy commits the murder and escapes, only to prosecute himself. Guy’s guilt, unlike Bruno’s self-congratulation, further distinguishes the two men. More important, Guy’s guilt forces him to further withdraw from his old self and merely play the part of “Guy.” Despite Guy’s fulfillment of the bargain, Bruno continues to haunt him, threatening to destroy Guy’s professional, social, and personal success.

The importance of doubles surfaces when, while sailing together off of Long Island, Bruno accidentally drowns, despite Guy’s rescue efforts. Even though he hates Bruno, Guy has come to depend upon his double to help define who he is: Guy and Bruno are two halves of a whole. More significantly, however, Guy learns that he has a bit of Bruno in him and vice versa. Guy was able to commit murder—an act he never thought possible. He was no better than Bruno, and with Bruno’s death, part of Guy dies. Highsmith’s use of doubles argues that all persons contain the potential for good and bad—that individuals cannot be neatly labeled.

At the novel’s close, Guy’s guilt defeats him. Unable to embrace his dark side, he returns to Texas, where he seeks out Miriam’s lover and confesses the whole scheme. A private eye overhears his confession, and the novel ends with Guy embracing his fate, accepting his guilt, and giving himself up to the laws that govern postwar America. Ultimately, Strangers on a Train reveals the hidden danger in postwar demands for “success”—alienation, desperation, and in this case, death.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

First published: 1955

Type of work: Novel

Social outsider and master mimic Tom Ripley murders, steals, and lies in order to attain the American Dream.

Highsmith’s most famous work, The Talented Mr. Ripley, bears resemblance to Strangers on a Train. Tom Ripley’s world is marked by alienation and oppressive social rules. Tom does not fit into “good” society, and consequently he “performs” various roles, mimicking not only conventions he sees as key to social acceptance but ultimately imitating his double, Dickie Greenleaf—the ultimate social “insider”—in order to gain access to the American Dream.

The novel opens with Tom Ripley being followed. Eventually, it is revealed that Tom’s pursuer is not the law but an acquaintance’s father, who offers to pay the impoverished Tom to bring his son, Dickie Greenleaf, back from an extended holiday in Italy. Tom accepts the task, and as he prepares to leave, the reader gets a glimpse of his life. Unlike the Greenleafs, who are part of the Manhattan establishment, Tom is a drifter with neither close friends nor immediate family. He moves from job to job, too smart and too bored to stay in the same place for long and lacking the connections necessary to succeed in postwar America. Socially, professionally, and personally, Tom just does not “fit.” As a result, he is guarded, distrusting, and self-loathing. Tom is trapped: He wishes to embrace the “American Dream” but feels it perpetually pushing him away.

Mr. Greenleaf’s offer gives Tom hope. With his travel allowance Tom buys new clothes, new luggage, and first-class passage to Europe. In a sense, Tom buys a new self and a fresh start. Happy and optimistic for the first time in many years, Tom feels reborn and celebrates the blank slate he has been given. Indeed, Highsmith’s Ripley is a postwar Jay Gatsby who believes money is the tool to create a new, socially acceptable self.

Tom arrives in Italy committed to performing his duty and performing his new self. However, one meeting with Dickie and Dickie’s friend Marge reminds Tom just what a poseur he himself is. Tom takes mental notes on his performance and makes the proper adjustments. As a result, Tom is embraced by Dickie and they become fast friends, traveling, living, and socializing together. Tom and Dickie are doubles: Tom sees all that he is not in Dickie and is drawn to Dickie’s charm, sophistication, and confidence, not to mention the trappings of his wealthy, leisured self. In fact, Tom’s fascination leads him to imitate Dickie’s way of talking, acting, and even dressing.

Eventually, Dickie grows tired and wary of Tom, ending their friendship. Tom believes Dickie’s rejection is class-motivated and “sees” Dickie for the shallow person he is. While traveling together one final time, a frustrated Tom kills Dickie and adopts his name, personality, possessions, and money. Tom becomes so good at being “Dickie” that “Tom” disappears. “Dickie” becomes Tom’s new “blank slate” upon which Tom is finally free to develop his intellect and engage with the world.

Tom, as Dickie, moves to Rome, where he is almost exposed by Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles, the quintessential “ugly American.” Freddie is loud, obnoxious, and elitist—characteristics Tom despises. Freddie’s suspicions about Tom’s role in Dickie’s life force Tom’s hand: Tom does not want to kill Freddie, but has to in order to protect himself. Once Freddie’s murder is discovered, “Dickie” comes under suspicion not only for Freddie’s death but also for the disappearance of “Tom Ripley.” Tom must do fancy footwork to avoid implication in both deaths. Trapped, Tom must become “Tom” once again. “Dickie” disappears, both literally and figuratively, and Tom returns to his rumpled, displaced, and devalued life in order to save it.

Unlike Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley’s amoral protagonist does not feel guilt, nor is he caught in the end. At the novel’s close, Dickie’s friends and family are convinced that Dickie has killed himself, and Tom, a skilled forger, concocts a codicil to Dickie’s will that bequeaths to Tom Dickie’s trust fund. Tom, though still “Tom,” now has Dickie’s wealth and opportunity. Possessing the freedom for which he has hoped, Tom begins a new life in Europe as a cultured American of means.

The Talented Mr. Ripley’s conclusion not only allows Highsmith to save her favorite protagonist (she would write four additional Ripley novels) but also reinforces her critique of American consumer culture. If Tom were caught or expressed remorse for his actions, the true crimes of the novel—the alienation, mechanization, and conformity wrought by postwar American culture—would go unpunished.

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