Patricia Highsmith Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3752

Patricia Highsmith is certainly better known for her novels, especially the Ripley series, than for her short stories. Nevertheless, her work in the demanding shorter medium was diverse and of very high literary quality. She was praised by no less a master of the well-told tale than Graham Greene, who...

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Patricia Highsmith is certainly better known for her novels, especially the Ripley series, than for her short stories. Nevertheless, her work in the demanding shorter medium was diverse and of very high literary quality. She was praised by no less a master of the well-told tale than Graham Greene, who in his foreword to The Snail-Watcher, and Other Stories calls her “a writer who has created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.” Highsmith is not simply a teller of interesting stories but also a master of the intellectually unsettling, a goad and a gadfly who clearly means to upset readers’ smug comfort with the everyday world that they take for granted. Greene’s word “danger” is precise: Highsmith in a sense threatens the reader with a world in which everything seems normal until a sudden off-kilter event puts all in doubt. Her stories focus on the abnormal psychology of seemingly conventional people, on bizarre natural and supranatural events, and on the animal world upsetting the “natural” superiority of humans.

Highsmith’s contribution to the short-story genre has been in a number of very different areas. Her control of the very short, very mordant, and very elegant tale is complete and puts her in the ranks of the French masters of such forms. Not a word is wasted; not a sentence departs from the general train of thought. Her pieces about animals open readers’ anthropocentric minds to other possibilities, just as the first-person (using “person” loosely) narration by animals allows readers to see their world afresh. Animal matters aside, Highsmith’s territory is also human psychology, particularly the aberrant and the marginal. She is very skilled at tying the particular psychological quirk to what might be called the psychosocial, the point at which individuals affect the group around them and begin to suffer repercussions because of the complex of reactions of others.

The Snail-Watcher, and Other Stories

The Snail-Watcher, and Other Stories features some of Highsmith’s sharpest psychological studies. The oft-reprinted title tale is one of several in which a character’s neuroses and repressed emotions are reflected grotesquely in the behavior of animals. Peter Knoppert, a proper middle-aged broker with a secure if sexless marriage, develops a passion for keeping snails. The energy he devotes to breeding them as pets provides him with relaxation that has a beneficial effect on his performance at work. As his work becomes more challenging Knoppert neglects to keep an eye on the snails’ reproduction, and they quickly overrun the study where he keeps them, setting up a spectacularly loathsome finale in which he is literally consumed by his hobby.

A similar fate befalls the protagonist of “The Quest for Blank Claveringi.” Egotistical biologist Avery Clavering is so zealous in his determination to discover and name for himself an appropriately gigantic species of snail reputed to inhabit a remote Pacific island that he fatally miscalculates their predatory behavior. Whereas both these stories reveal Highsmith’s underappreciated talent for black comedy, others are deadly earnest in their use of human-animal relationships to explore aspects of failed human intimacy. In “The Terrapin,” a young, friendless boy briefly makes a pet from a live turtle his mother has brought home for a stew. The mother’s casual indifference toward the animal’s fate—she throws it live into a pot of boiling water, then chops it apart—mirrors her domination and emotional brutalizing of her son. In “The Empty Birdhouse,” a childless couple approaching middle age (common character types in Highsmith’s work) go to increasingly greater extremes to exterminate an unidentifiable animal that has taken up residence in their house, which proves by its indestructibility to be a symbol for the couple’s unhappiness and lack of fulfillment.

The Snail-Watcher, and Other Stories also includes some of Highsmith’s finest tales about obsessed, perhaps mentally disturbed individuals, conditions she describes with great precision. “When the Fleet Was in at Mobile” tells the story of Geraldine, a country girl from Alabama who is rescued from a Mobile brothel by a Louisiana farmer. When the farmer becomes abusive because of jealousy about her past, she sees no solution except murder, and the description of Geraldine’s actions and attempted escape has a dreamlike quality suggestive of a tenuous grasp on reality. Only at the end of the story, however, do readers appreciate how unreliable a source of information Geraldine has been. Highsmith gives an unsentimental picture of the making of a prostitute out of a simple young woman and of her subsequent mental disarray, but in such a way that readers can feel only empathy, in spite of her murderous intentions.

Another fine portrait of a marginally competent young woman pushed over the edge is in “The Heroine.” Lucille goes to work for the wealthy and happy Christiansen family as a nurse to the two children. Her pyromaniacal background—she likes to start fires with pieces of paper in ashtrays—is never revealed to the family, and Lucille’s subsequent fanatical devotion to the Christiansen children requires, in her own simplistic terms, a heroic act of unselfish devotion. She therefore torches the house with gasoline, before charging in with the intention of saving the children. The story taps the very human fantasy of acting heroically before admiring loved ones but shows a diseased mind blurring the fantasy into reality in a way that can only make readers nervous about the quiet intense strangers who surround them.

“Another Bridge to Cross” focuses on Merrick, a successful businessman who has lost his wife and son in a car accident. Merrick travels to Italy to try to regain some purpose to his life but witnesses the suicide of a poverty-stricken Italian worker. He befriends a street urchin (a theme in Highsmith short stories) who then robs a woman in Merrick’s hotel. Merrick next learns that the suicide’s wife has killed their children and herself in grief. Like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1856) in a parallel that must be intentional, Merrick remains in a garden at his hotel paraphrasing one of Bartleby’s lines (“I prefer not to”): “I prefer the garden.” Highsmith’s story, however, ends more naturalistically than Melville’s, for when the hotel staff calls a doctor to examine Merrick, clearly meaning to have him removed and institutionalized, Merrick continues his journey, but no more relieved of his despair than when he arrived. Highsmith’s version of “Bartleby” is “modern” in that it does not resolve in a neat literary fashion; Merrick must simply carry on, as usually happens in real life.

Little Tales of Misogyny

Little Tales of Misogyny is accurately named: The longest is nine pages, most are three or four pages, and all are about the downfall of women and girls. Highsmith does not see women as victims of men or even of other women but rather as—mostly—subject to willful obsessions and compulsions. Flirtatious sexuality (“The Coquette,” “The Dancer,” “The Victim”), an inexorable drive to procreate (“The Breeder”), a lazy desire to be taken care of by men (“The Invalid: Or, The Bed-Ridden,” “The Mobile Bed-Object,” “The Fully-Licensed Whore: Or, The Wife”)—all familiar but potentially destructive responses by women to the roles they play in society—overcome the individual characters, dominating, controlling, and ultimately destroying the role-players themselves. These reactions include jealousy over imagined betrayal by lovers (“The Female Novelist”); over being the perfect little girl (“The Perfect Little Lady”), the perfect mother-in-law (“The Silent Mother-in-Law”), the perfect mother (“The Prude”), the perfect religionist (“The Evangelist”); or over simply being perfect. A few women in the stories are victims of their own beauty or of their own circumstances or of the equally driven men around them (“The Hand,” “Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman”), but most choose their fate, if choice is even possible for people who are virtually humorous characters. The relationship of these women to men, their “meal-tickets,” often arises as a theme, yet Highsmith clearly means only to observe, not to analyze causes. All the tales read like sardonic, modern allegories yet with no moral lesson intended beyond the mordant observation of the stubborn foolishness of (female) human nature. The effect has the oddness of medieval misogynist tracts told by a modernist sensibility: There is no comfort here for anyone.

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder

The title of The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder puns on British tabloid headlines: Here the murder is by (and occasionally of) beasts. Each story covers the experience of a different animal, some in first-person narration. Highsmith’s daring in attempting to show the world from inside the brain of elephant and cockroach, cat and camel is admirable for its high credibility and lack of sentimentality. While not all the stories are equally successful, some are among Highsmith’s best.

“Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance” contrasts the title’s elephant character as a cheerful youngster working for a kind trainer and, thirty years later, as a grumpy oldster under a cruel elephant wrangler. The first-person narration captures a ponderous heaviness to Chorus Girl’s thought and “language” that is highly persuasive. “Djemal’s Revenge” follows a working camel in an Arab country as he is abused by his master and then as he gets even with a violence most satisfying and quite in accord with his environment. “There I Was, Stuck with Busby” is about The Baron, a large old dog whose master dies, leaving him with an uncaring and nasty new owner. The Baron finally gets to live with Marion, his old master’s adored girlfriend, but not until he takes things into his own hands, so to speak.

“In the Dead of Truffle Season” stars Samson the pig, whose greed for truffles overcomes the tenuous control that his master Emile has over him. Pigs are as unsentimental about farmers, readers learn, as farmers are about pigs, and Samson is quite happy to change his loyalties. “The Bravest Rat in Venice,” one of the best stories in the book, manages to create sympathy even for a rat that gnaws off a baby’s nose—no mean feat. The rat’s-eye view of Venice is as precise and as visual as a motion-picture camera. “Engine Horse” traces the revenge of a horse whose pet kitten is carelessly killed by a loutish young man and whose act saves a decent old woman in the bargain. In the other stories, which feature chickens, monkeys, hamsters, and ferrets as their protagonists, Highsmith draws similarly perceptive and provocative parallels between animal and human experience.

Slowly Slowly in the Wind

Slowly Slowly in the Wind is hard to categorize. Some stories, notably the title story, continue Highsmith’s examination of disturbed characters. Edward “Skip” Skipperton is a highly successful businessman who can barely keep his anger and aggression under control. When poor health puts him into semiretirement as a gentleman farmer, he turns his energy and his fury on a neighbor, losing his daughter, and ultimately his freedom, in the process. While Skipperton’s revenge on his neighbor is spectacularly horrible, his motives and uncontrolled emotions are immediately recognizable as very human and thus distressingly familiar: Unable to tolerate the frustration of his wishes, Skipperton responds childishly with simple and overwhelming force. A less common phenomenon, though by no means rare in modern society, is handled in “Woodrow Wilson’s Neck-Tie.” Serial murderer Clive Wilkes kills to become known, to lift himself out of his banal and mediocre life. He has no emotion, handling his victims like effigies to be posed for comic effect. The result is chilling, evoking newspaper stories of real-life killers of similar coldness. The murderer in “The Baby Spoon” at least has an understandable, if twisted, motive: revenge on a manipulative former professor who has used him and embarrassed him.

Highsmith often writes about New York City, having grown up there, and two works in this collection are in what might be called her New York story mode. “The Network” traces a group of friends who help one another survive the competition and depredations of violence in the city. A young newcomer at first rejects the group’s smothering attentions in order to assert his independence but soon changes his mind after a mugging and a robbery. In “Broken Glass,” an octogenarian widower is mugged by a teenage thug but responds with unexpected violence that at least gives him the satisfaction of striking back. In the typical Highsmith New York story, there is an “us against them” theme in which a civilized protagonist attempts to ward off the barbarians who run unchecked in the city. Two anomalous stories in this collection are “One for the Islands,” an allegory about death and the hereafter expressed in terms of a cruise ship and island destinations, and “Please Don’t Shoot the Trees,” a futuristic fantasy in which pollution-beset trees grow breastlike protuberances that shoot burning poison at passersby. Highsmith’s territory includes the bizarre, the inexplicable, and the satiric, but the usual setting for the aberration is a highly realistic and normal world, not a milieu already topsy-turvy as in these two stories.

The Black House

Highsmith’s juxtapositions of human and animal behavior, most notable in the collections The Snail-Watcher, and Other Stories and The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, are a subtle means of addressing the bestial side of human nature. Animals are less in evidence in The Black House, but the book’s eleven stories can be read as interpretations of a theme first articulated by Peter Knoppert, the ill-fated pet owner in “The Snail Watcher,” who proclaims, “’You can’t stop nature.’” Repeatedly in these tales, intelligent and respectable people find themselves in unusual situations that provoke them to irrational, beastly behavior. “The Dream of the Emma C” tells of a fishing smack that rescues an exhausted young woman swimming in the waters two miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Immediately, the crew of six men, who hitherto have gotten along on the ship, begin squabbling among themselves. The men are attracted almost instinctively to the woman, and as each tries to ingratiate himself with her fights break out, leading to the accidental bludgeoning death of one by the story’s end.

Sexuality and violence are similarly conjoined in the title story, about an abandoned house in a small working-class town in upstate New York. The house is reputedly haunted, and many of the older men in town boast of enjoying their first sexual conquests there. Timothy Porter, a young educated man, decides to explore the house and finds it completely empty, making it unlikely to have played a role in any of the tales told about it in the local bar. When Tim mentions this at the bar, the previously friendly patrons take it as a challenge to the personal and social mythology they have constructed about the house. Tim is called outside to fight and is beaten to death.

There is no brutality in “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” only the disturbing expression of an inexplicable, seemingly innate talent. While scavenging on the beach one day, a sophisticated modern woman finds an old wicker basket with a hole in it and repairs it without thinking. She is so unnerved by her near-instinctive grasp of the primitive craft of basket-weaving that she can only reclaim peace of mind by destroying the basket.

Responsibility and guilt—feelings that separate the civilized from the savage—are constantly complicated and compromised in Highsmith’s stories. In “Something the Cat Dragged In,” a perfectly ordinary afternoon tea is interrupted when the house cat pulls a severed human hand through the cat door. The guests’ immediate feelings of shock and disgust are mitigated when it is discovered the hand belonged to an unscrupulous man who was murdered and dismembered with just cause by a local farmer. The guests decide not to report the murder, concluding that any guilt over its concealment is the farmer’s to feel.

In “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye,” a man discovers that his family’s insurance agent has swindled him out of money under the pretense that it went to the care of his mother in a nursing home. His mother actually died five years earlier, and the money was diverted to the care of the agent’s dissolute son. Shortly afterward, the agent’s son dies in a car wreck, and the agent and nursing-home manager who conspired with him commit suicide. The man interprets events as a working out of the biblical axiom “an eye for an eye” and assuages feelings of guilt he felt for his own vengeful thoughts by burning his copy of the Old Testament. In “Not One of Us,” a clique of successful and fashionable people ostracize one of their own and, through devious acts of seeming friendship, drive him to suicide. At his funeral, when it is discovered that each member of the group did something secretly to ruin the man, the ringleader thinks, “Anyone might have said ‘We killed him, you know’ but no one did.” Typical of Highsmith’s characters, women express mild surprise but virtually no remorse at their personal capacity for evil.

Mermaids on the Golf Course, and Other Stories

Mermaids on the Golf Course, and Other Stories, like Slowly Slowly in the Wind, is a set of disparate tales rather than a medley with coherent themes. “The Romantic” is a New York story about a young secretary who discovers that she would rather live a safe fantasy life of romance fiction and imaginary dates than take her chances on the singles scene. Another such tale depicts the private emotions of the father of a child with Down syndrome. Tortured by the unfairness of the child’s suffering from Down syndrome and driven to fury by the effects the condition has had on the street for no visible reason. The murder is cathartic, somehow balancing with his son’s bad luck and giving Roland a sense of control that he lacked before. “Where the Action Is” is an ironic look at fate and fame. A young, barely professional news photographer in a small Wyoming town misses the climax of a bus hijacking because he has to visit the restroom but casually takes a grab shot of one of the victims, a young woman who may or may not have been raped. His chance photograph captures the poignancy of the victim and also fits in with various “crime in the streets” themes being exploited in the press, and his photograph wins the notice of The New York Times, then a Pulitzer Prize. Craig, the photographer, finds his career is made, as he parlays his lucky break into a lecture series and then an apologetic book about the invasion of his subject’s privacy, though she too seems to have a private agenda. The story neatly depicts how fame can feed on itself, “creating facts” out of chance events.

“Not in This Life, Maybe the Next” presents another situation in which a woman suffering psychic pain begins to notice a small creature around the house, in this case a very stocky, two-foot-tall “man” of enormous strength. As in the other stories of this type, no rational explanation is offered for this manifestation of emotional states. “The Stuff of Madness” is wonderfully mordant, as Christopher and Penny clash over publicity about her hobby of stuffing her dead pets and installing them in the garden, where they rot and mold. Before the news photographers come, Christopher rigs a department store mannequin in the garden to look like one of his past mistresses, triggering a heart attack in Penny and a fitting end for himself. Perhaps the most haunting story is “A Shot from Nowhere,” a situation like that of Julio Cortázar’s “Blow-Up,” in which Andrew, a young painter, witnesses a murder in a small Mexican town. No one is willing to pursue the crime or the criminals, and Andrew himself is blamed. The story ends with Andrew free but the situation unresolved.

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophe

Highsmith’s collection Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophe is among her best, with lively stories mostly taking a definite turn toward political and social satire. “Operation Balsam: Or, Touch-Me-Not” is a scathing indictment of the morality of nuclear regulators, in this case of a bureaucrat who finds a suitably secret storage place for deadly waste under a football stadium on a university campus and who sacrifices a friend and colleague to a horrible end in order to maintain this secrecy. “Nabuti: Warm Welcome to a UN Committee” is a devastating send-up of a newly independent African country, corrupt and incompetent, attempting to cover up its malfeasance with United Nations money and instead covering up the investigating committee itself. “Sweet Freedom! And a Picnic on the White House Lawn” addresses the policies that have spilled the lunatic, but supposedly benign, out onto the streets of the United States; in this version, the homeless wreak their revenge in a variety of fashions.

“Rent-a-Womb vs. the Mighty Right” satirizes conservative attacks on the surrogate mother phenomenon, while “Sixtus VI, Pope of the Red Slipper” postulates a pope who publicly reverses all significant Vatican policies toward women and procreation. “President Buck Jones Rallies and Waves the Flag” is a heavy-handed satire in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (1964), amusing for its outrageousness. Four stories return to traditional Highsmith concerns. “Moby Dick II: Or, The Missile Whale” is told from the whale’s point of view, as in the stories in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder; like the great white whale, this cetacean does not take kindly to being hunted but has a modern weapon. “Trouble at the Jade Towers” is not an animal revenge story in the earlier pattern but does feature a cockroach occupation of a prestigious Manhattan address. “No End in Sight” and “The Mysterious Cemetery” invoke again the mood and tone of earlier Highsmith, the first about an old lady in a nursing home who refuses to die decently and save everyone a lot of trouble, the second a spooky tale of human cancer experiments which, when buried in the graveyard, grow enormous, mushroomlike simulacrums of human bodies. Thus, Highsmith, late in her career, moved into more political and satiric writing but also kept her touch for her traditional approaches.

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